Chapter 1: The eternal wait
Beyond the tottering wooden door, soft city lights glowed through the ragged curtains. A smog of pollution coated the whole area, acting as a milky filter. The fog softened the hard lines of buildings, and diffused the orange glow of sodium-vapour street lamps. It was almost midnight and Lata was waiting eagerly for the familiar knock on the door. But, it didn’t come.
The couple next door was squabbling like every night. The arguing came right through the thin walls as loud as any TV show. Lata got all the details she never wanted to know, who, what and where. In all the commotion her little one woke up and started wailing. In every way her kid was one of those golden babies. She nursed every four hours, never cried and slept all night from right out of the hospital. But, today the disturbance was too much. After much toil she could put her back to sleep. By then the second hand time piece on the crippling two legged but, somehow balancing stool, was announcing 1 am. Her husband Dinu, ran a tea shop at the marketplace. The income was not great, but, enough to survive. He usually returns by eleven. Today he was exceptionally late. Lata was worried. What was Dinu doing so late in the shop? Why wasn’t he home yet? The moments ticked away without any answer.
Chapter 2: The discovery
A new day was knocking. The world was silent as if it ended in the night. The sun was still resolutely below the horizon and though the road still had the black look of night, the sky was already more bluish. Few people were awake at this hour, and fewer people were on the road. The sexagenarian retired police officer, Barun Biswas was one of them. He was off to his routine morning walk. According to him, there is something about walking in the dawn that makes each new day such a gift, eases it in gently, unwrapping the world anew. By contrast walking later in the day feels like a rudeness, the sun already high, bright and hot. Though his detractors never buy this excuse. They would often cite that it is the best bargain from the vegetable vendors early in the morning is the main reason for miser Barun’s morning venture. Now, which shopkeeper would possibly drive away their day’s first customer! But, those sneers hardly bothered Mr. Barun and the routine continued.
So like every day he was jogging towards the park. The monochrome, misty way slowly blossomed into subtle hues, when something in the nearby alley caught his attention. Something, or rather someone was lying on the ground of the lesser ventured route. He decided to take a look.
Under the wintry light of the city, there laid a dead man on his back, slightly frozen, in a pool of blood that had almost dried. He seemed to be dead for some time. At first glance the cause wasn’t apparent, but the chances of it being natural were remote.
The face of the corpse was familiar to him. He ran a tea shop near the marketplace, Barun sometime visited. As a dutiful citizen, he took out his phone to inform the nearby police station.
Chapter 3: Fear
Natasha clenched her fists tightly, her nails dig into the palm of her hand, but she barely noticed. The only thing she was really aware of, was the sound of her heart throbbing against the cage of her chest. She was in for a shock. The recent incident had shaken her to the core. Her face, rigid with tension, belied her youthfulness, she seemed to have aged a decade in the past few hours.
Once reaching the safety of her room, the first thing she had done was breaking her cell phone. Then, with quivering hand, she had deleted all her social media handles, one by one. She needed to disappear and disappear fast. But, those two eyes. They were stopping her. She couldn’t possibly leave without knowing what happened to him.
Pacing up and down as if determined to wear out a thin trail on the carpet, at last, by dawn the decision was made. Putting on her hooded jacket and sneakers, she left the house and rushed towards the marketplace.
Chapter 4: The News
“Lata, o Lata, open the door.”
The loud bang on the door startled Lata.
Aside from a few fit-full minutes of vivid dreams she didn’t sleep a wink whole night. Her brain was constantly searching for any sign that he’s alright. Her Dinu was alright. But, no news came. Now, a throng of people suddenly gathered in front of her door so early in the morning, calling her name. Her heart skipped a beat. Taking a quick glance at her sleeping baby she hurriedly opened the door.
The next few moments were bizarre for her. The people, some of them, she had barely seen before, were informing her that the body of her husband has been found. She needed to come with them. For several minutes none of those words made sense to her. She stood at the door numb, unable to give any reaction. All the neighbours had gathered by then. Few women started consoling her, telling her to be brave, but, nothing was registering with her. Suddenly, her kid woke up and started crying. This jolted her out of the trance. Picking up the crying baby, she rushed towards the market.
Chapter 5: And they all met
Under the morning dew, pale in the watery light, a police car arrived, screeching down the road, its black tires squealing on the grey as it slid to block the street.
The police officer getting down from the van was looking the very epitome of authority in his crisp white uniform and a gun hanging idly at his hip. The street reflected in his over-large sunglasses.
“Who is Barun Biswas?” Pulling out his shades, he asked, his eyes pegging over the spectators who had joined the scene.
Barun stepped forward. He was asked the routine questions, to which he answered dutifully. After noting down, the police sealed the area for further investigation and was arranging to take the victim’s body for post-mortem, when Lata arrived.
Seeing the body for a few moments she was unable to move. But, once the numbness passed, she sank to her knees, not caring for the damp mud that dirtied her dress. Her tears mingled with her sweat and her gasping wails echoed even amidst the cacophony of the bustling crowd.
“This must be his wife. Such a young girl. How will she cope? ” Barun wondered.
Barun looked away to stop his thoughts and shifted his focus on the gathering.
The crowd comprised mostly of the local vendors and the mass from the neighbouring slums. Except for the girl immediately beside him. Her head was covered with a hood, so her face wasn’t visible immediately, but, her clothing and the perfectly manicured, shaking hand showed she was different. Her total concentration was on the grieving woman. It was as if she could feel for her. She almost proceeded to console the mourning wife, but looking at the crowd, again came back.
The police was already pushing back the crowd. A woman constable held back Lata and Dinu’s body was raised to transfer to the van when a strong wind blew away the cover on his face. The hooded girl let out a sharp shriek and her eyes met Barun’s for a brief second. Fear and guilt were painted all over the beautiful teen face. Barun was about to ask something when a loud shout broke their eye contact.
It was the opposition party people.
“This is a political ploy. Dinu was killed because he was our worker. We will not leave the murderers. We want justice.” Was the slogan.
Barun again looked at the girl. All colours drawn out of her face. Her lips were trembling. With a last glance at Lata, she quickly walked away, not turning around for once.
“But, Dinu was completely an apolitical person.” A small voice exclaimed behind Barun. Turning around, he saw the speaker. It was also a known face. He sold newspaper beside Dinu’s tea shop.
“Are you sure?” Barun enquired.
“Of course. His only aim was to save enough money to give his daughter a good life. A hard worker, Dinu belonged to those nonviolent types. He gave contribution to both parties to avoid any confrontation. And then this happens…..” His voice trailed off.
The crowd had started dispersing slowly. One woman was nursing Lata’s clueless crying baby. Two other dragged her somehow homeward. The party people soon followed after them. It was a great opportunity to create a political controversy.
Barun thought for a while, then decided to follow the grieving woman.
Chapter 6: Who is Right
Ten days have passed since that fateful day. Barun was surfing through the evening news on TV when a certain news caught his attention.
A decked up face was stating on the screen.
“The dead body found near Ramlal Bajar has been identified as Dinu, an infamous anti-social of the area. Behind the camouflage of a tea shop he used to carry all kinds of illegal activities. Preliminary investigation has revealed he was killed in some sort of gang war. The police have sealed his shop and is expected to nab a few more miscreants following his trail.”
Barun was stumped for some time. The home he visited last week showed no sign of prosperity. Poverty was stamped on the barely furnished shack. As the party guys were busy assuring the hapless girl of all kind of help since Dinu was one of them, she vehemently shook her head in negation and continuously repeated, “He only wanted to work hard to give our girl a better future. He belonged to no party.”
The conviction in her voice was surpassing her cry and Barun was convinced the girl was speaking nothing but, truth. But, today’s news baffled him. And after such news will the party people help her? He decided to check on that young girl once.
Chapter7: Lata’s story
For the third day in a row Lata was borrowing food from her neighbours. But, for how long this could continue? No one is an affluent family here. But, for the sake of humanity, they are helping.
The naive twenty year old was never very bright about the money things. Dinu used to handle all the accounts related matters. He used to carry a cash box every day to the shop. It went missing after his murder. Now Lata was almost penniless. The party guys promised her that they would help her reopen the shop but, when she visited them yesterday the scene had changed.
“Didn’t you hear what the police said? He was an anti social. We cannot associate ourselves with someone having malign reputation.”
“But, you said he worked for you!”
“He hid the illegal trade from us. Now we cannot help his family. Let the police do their job. Once the investigation is over, you may get back your filthy shop.”
Dejected and lost, she returned back. She knew she could stay without food for some days but, if she goes hungry how will she feed her little one. Looking at her sleeping baby, her heart ached. All of five months, she’d never know her father. But, it was no time to get emotional. Lata’s practical self knew she needed a job desperately. But, will anyone give job to the widow of a gangster? She wondered.
So many questions were bothering her since that day. And no one to clarify. If Dinu was working in illegal trades where did the money go? Are the gossips of Dinu having another family right? No no no, it can never be. Dinu gave her all the love she needed. After losing both the parents at an early age Lata, she had a terrible childhood at her uncle’s place. She was all of seventeen when she met Dinu. And life had never been better. Until he was murdered.
Lata was lost in her thought when a sharp knock at the fragile door brought her back. Who could possibly come now? Anxiously she opened the door.
Chapter 8: The fatal attack
The street was barely wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions and when people parked with wheels up on the ribbon-like strip of pavement, it was an obstacle course for pedestrians and drivers alike. And the freestyle movement of the auto rickshaws made the venture even more difficult. Crossing all those hardships when Barun knocked at Lata’s door, an uncanny feeling overcame him. As if a pair of invisible eyes was observing the movement at this door.
Lata was quite surprised by this visit. She remembered this was the same person who discovered Dinu’s body. He even visited her with those party people and promised her help in future. But, now she knows better about those false promises. Then why he is here? She wondered.
“May I come in?”
Without saying anything she nodded a short yes. Both of them did not notice the hooded figure at a distance, hesitating to approach them.
Once inside, the first thing that caught his attention, was the angelic face of the baby. Sleeping peacefully, unaware of the turmoil in her life.
Unable to understand how to start the conversation, Barun decided to be straight in his approach.
“I saw you haven’t re-opened your shop yet? Is there any problem?” He asked gently.
For a minute Lata couldn’t speak, but, then broke down. The kind words, let her supressed emotions flow freely. Once the sobbing stopped, she narrated her story. Barun listened to her askance. And mentally noted he must arrange something with his contacts in the police department to help this poor girl.
Barun was about to take his leave when a loud commotion outside was heard.
Rushing outside, they found a girl shivering in pain on the road covering her face. Someone had thrown acid on her face and fled. The same hooded girl. In all her agony, the only word that could be deciphered between her burning lips… “Save me.”
Without wasting seconds, Barun rushed her to the hospital
Chapter 9 Barun’s Story
“We need a signature of her guardian to start the operation, sir.” The hospital staff informed Barun.
“Oh, they are arriving soon. I’ve already informed them.”
The id card in her pocket was helpful in tracking her parents. It was not easy to break the news to them. But, his years of experience in police line helped here.
As Barun waited for them, the day’s ordeal refreshed his eight years old wound.
Roopkatha, her teenage daughter had gone to her tuition classes. When she was absurdly late in returning, her mother was worried and called him. Barun, still in duty, started a search party. Her mutilated but still alive body was found near a dumpster. Some guys had left her to die their after raping her brutally and ravaging her body beyond recognition. She was brought to the hospital, but, it was too late.
But, she fought bravely as long as she could. For days she kept their hopes alive. She could recognize none but, Barun, her father, her superhero. Confident that he can do any impossible, she could utter but, one thing, “Save me papa.”
But, no, Barun failed her. Neither he could save her, nor he could bring the culprits to judgement. Some highly influential people guarded the miscreants carefully. His world was lost and the predators left unharmed . The system disgusted the once dutiful officer and he decided to take a voluntary retirement. His colleagues and superiors tried dissuading him several times, but, he never returned to his duty. Now after, so many years another girl, someone’s daughter was fighting the same battle.
And, this time Barun won’t fail, he will help the ailing girl and win, he promised to the unconscious girl on the hospital bed.
Chapter 10: Natasha’s story
Natasha Pakira. The name, her college ID card flashed when Barun tried to search her identity on the day of acid attack. But, as the days went by, she was more than a name to him. The brave fighter she was, convinced others more and more to fight for her justice. It wasn’t before two months that she was able to speak again. Today Barun and Lata was visiting the hospital as Natasha had expressed the desire to speak to both of them. No one had an idea how she knew Lata or why was she visiting her that day. But, she wouldn’t speak about it to anyone but, Lata herself.
Waiting anxiously Lata focussed on the surroundings.
It was a typical hospital. Its walls simply cream, not peeling or dirty, just cream. There was no decoration at all save the limp curtain that separated Natasha’s bed from the three others in there. It was perhaps once the kind of green that reminded people of springtime and hope, but it’s faded so much that the hue was insipid.
With much hesitation in a barely audible voice, Natasha started narrating her tale. The acid had burnt a part of her oesophagus making it difficult to speak properly. But, she was determined to bare it all today.
“I had just started my first year, when we met. Rudra, a senior, he was the most popular guy of the college. Being son of an influential politician may have been the main reason for it, but, I was too naive to understand. Some friends warned me against him, but, I was blinded by his unadulterated attention. Taking pride in my beauty and love, I discarded their well-meaning advices as a sign of jealousy. After few months my parents came to know about the affair. They were worried. They tried to persuade me to move away from him. When I didn’t listen, they scolded me. And I was furious. Blind in love I considered them as my enemy. Oh how stupid I was?”
She started crying. The accident has caused her partial blindness. And it was impossible to read her expressions through the myriads of white gauzes around her face, but, her voice choked and she was unable to speak further.
The doctor had forewarned the visitors not to put any stress on her weak health. So the listeners waited patiently.
After few minutes, she regained her composure and restarted her story.
“My world revolved around Rudra and Rudra only. As my parents started getting strict and kept an eye on my movements, we planned to elope. A detailed plan was chalked and as per plan I had to wait at the not-so-frequented alley beside the marketplace where we will meet before escaping into our own little world. So, as per the arrangement I reached my destination. It was almost eleven at night and most of the local shops have been already close. Darkness was lurking in every corner inside the labyrinth of the narrow passage and dead ends, but, I kept my spirits high. Suddenly, a muffled, indistinct voices was heard from behind. The street lights flicker off and I was left with nothing but the orchestra of the urban night playing its eerie song when the two dark figures appeared from nowhere.
They told me that for some emergency Rudra was unable to come and sent them to fetch me. But, I wasn’t convinced and refused to go with them. So they called up Rudra to persuade, and he as usual in his flattering voice requested me to join the two and reach our new home where he would be waiting. But, that day there was something in his voice that made me awry. I tried to move away from the two goon like figures. And the two lost all their temper. Removing the mask of decent people they grabbed me and dragged me through the rough cobbled road. As they hurled abuses at me calling me bitch and what not and mockingly saying how the brothel will tear away all pretence, I struggled more to free myself. My knees started bleeding. I cried for help. But, there was no one around except for him. I didn’t know him but, like an angel he arrived to save me at the right moment. He tried to hold one of the miscreants as he kicked the other in his groin. He gave me just enough time to flee and I ran towards the main road like I have never ran before. I didn’t know name of my saviour then, but now I know. Dinu”.
Then looking at Lata she tried to reach her hand, “Your husband was no gangster. He was a brave, brave man. One who could risk his life to save an unknown girl.”
Lata started crying. Today she was at peace. Dinu didn’t break her trust. And at last she knew how he died.
“I wanted to leave this place. I was scared. I threw away my phone. But, they started threatening my parents. They black mailed me that if, I reveal the truth they will kill my parents and burn me alive. One ring at our landline and we would be shaken. I was all set to leave for Mumbai that day but the news changed it all.” Natasha continued.
“The brave heart was being falsely accused. His family wrongly harassed. I wanted his wife to know the truth. She deserved it and so I went there to confess. I waited for long trying to prepare myself mentally to face Dinuji’s widow and when at last I approached the door two bike riders knocked me down and threw acid on my face. I never knew they were following me. For a moment everything went blind and the heat, it was unbearable. And after that you all know.”
When Natasha stopped after talking at a stretch, none of the eyes were dry in the room. She was gasping after talking for such a length but she was relieved at last. Her heart felt lighter.
Barun clenched his fist and took a vow to himself, this time these girls won’t fail. They deserve justice and they will have it.
Chapter 11 The aftermath
“Look dadu, it is Natasha aunty’s photo on the paper!”
Eagerly the ten year old brought the day’s newspaper to Barun.
“Natasha Pakira, the first acid attack victim to grace the ramp of the Lakme Fashion week.”
Each word brought pride in the old eyes of Barun Biswas. They are doing it. His girls are conquering the world on their own terms. Happily, he hugged his little munchkin, his lifeline, Roopkatha.
Only last year their decade long legal battle ended. Lata and Natasha, despite severe obstacles, fought for their rights against the political honchos for years, with the able guidance of their uncle Barun. It was a taxing ordeal physically, mentally and economically. But they didn’t leave a single stone unturned in seeking justice. And at last justice was served and how! Rudra and his accomplices were given a life sentence. Decade old woman trafficking gang was busted. And the entire medical expenses of Natasha were ordered to be paid back to her as compensation. Truth was triumphing at last.
Lata on the other hand again opened the tea shop with Barun’s help. At first she was still living in her shack in the slum. But, when Barun started visiting her frequently for the legal case as well as her business, the local people started maligning their father-daughter relationship. Without much ado Barun brought Lata and her daughter to his home. The Biswas family again found life on the arrival of the new guests. Barun’s wife who underwent severe depression after losing her daughter found a new meaning in Lata’s daughter. They named her Roopkatha and both of them started living with the elderly couple as their own.
Today Natasha and Lata both work for an NGO to help other acid attack and hapless victims. And Barun, well he is having the best time of his life playing away with little Roopkatha and rekindling his old passion of writing in a book called “After the acid burn – A story of courage”.