Outwitting The Shadow.....
But he still used to go to the chowkey and sit sipping the oversweet syrupy tea and smoke endlessly. He’d listen to the gossip and make guesses, offer hints and clues. The perennial cop that he was, he could never switch off. Other younger officers not only tolerated him, they even sent messengers home to ensure he was all right, if he didn’t show up for two-three days. He remained a cop under all situations, at all times and on a twenty-four hour basis.
The other day, months before he retired, he had been sent to some remote corner of Easter tribal belt in Gujarat, where the Adivasis [primitive tribes e.g. Bhils] live with their unshackled ways. They have never respected the law right from the colonial era. He had been warned not to venture out at night, not to leave the Rest House without his service pistol that could fell an elephant at close range and most of all not to sleep outside in the open. For an ordinary mortal being this would be tantamount to a warning that one should not frolic in the snow, when one was profusely sweating... a fully useless piece of advice.
He was an adventurous soul who slept under trees, on the rocks, on river banks, at even weirder places.... so for him sleeping indoors was more like a prison sentence.
“ I must sleep under the starlight…” was his constant refrain. He believed the cosmic rays made him strong and invincible. His rough and calloused hands were so powerful that once he had dislocated the jaw of a constable, merely by slapping him. After that he completely stopped hitting people.
Tonight, he sat up reading the reports and underscoring the incompetence of the local cops, sometimes inking comments if they had taken short-cuts or bypassed his standing instructions. He hit the bed past midnight, forgetting to take out his service pistol from the holster hanging on the wall with his cop's uniform. This was a serious mistake, indeed. One that almost cost him his life, as he learned later.
He had always been a light sleeper. Used to tell us the British trained him to sleep like a cat, several times in short spurts. Deep sleep could cost him his life. He very strongly believed in this warning... and hence a slightest movement in the corridor of this ghostly Rest House built 150 years ago, woke him up. He was aware that he was the single occupant. Yes, there was someone, trying to enter his room on cat-feet. His front door was locked, but the person had entered the room from the bathroom, which had another connecting door leading to the adjoining room –one which he had overlooked whilst checking door.
Obviously someone had been sent in, to attack him. Suddenly he became as alert as a tiger having sensed danger. He pretended to be snoring softly and the movements he had perceived, covert and shy became bolder. Someone banged a toe against a solid table, shuffled his feet, even coughed lightly. Later the intruder made the mistake of showing his outline against the faint light seeping in from the huge windows with thick glass panes. There was a huge chopper, shining and menacingly real in his hand. The tribals behead their enemies, they do not plunge the sword or the chopper into the chest or the stomach, they just chop the head off.
Abbajan knew all their habits, their methodology of killing. Bows and arrows were their main weapons, and they had terrific knowledge of the herbs, applying a little paste on the tip of the arrow made it carry a potent poison. They could shoot a man down from 500 metres with a single shot. For close encounters they used the chopper, usually big enough to fell a buffalo in a single stroke. The intruder, the slithering shadow would surely come to the head of the bed, he inferred.
The slowly breathing shadow crept closer, and yet closer. Abbajan went on mimicking a thunderous snore, and at the same time, made sure that indeed the pistol was not where it should have been, right under his pillow. He made his own fingers creep towards the headside and pried loose the mosquito net from under the mattress. Now the figure was standing right behind him, trying to figure out which angle would be best to strike the chopper so hard that the sleeping officer would lose his head in a second, body sleeping and the head lolling on the ground.
The frozen shadow slowly lifted the chopper, its glint once again flashed ominously. And then… he screamed out in sheer agony, the chopper swiftly falling from his hands, as he tried to grapple with a steely strong hand that had shot out from under the pillow and gripped his balls. These guys, ‘taskars’ , come naked, with well-oiled bodies, so that you can never catch them. Not even a langoti, which can also be caught… It had never occurred to the killer that his member and the testicles could be so easily caught. Abbajan squeezed with all his might, for a second or two longer than necessary -by now the neighbourhood lights were on. The paid killer’s brouhaha shook up the entire area. Finally the servants downstairs sleepily got into their own pyjamas and ran up.
” You think I’ve castrated the sneaky son of a bitch?” he growled at the cook who was the first to materialize.
“You probably killed him, sir ! “ said the shuddering cook.
“Yeah someone should have told him I tear up telephone directories with these hands….” he chuckled, and promptly went back to sleep, the right fist still closed.
They found the taskar unconscious, with Abbajan still holding onto the bounty, coolly smoking a cigarette that he had managed to light with the other free hand. Another catnap was over. The servants produced thick rope to tie the killer up and led him away, babbling incoherently.
(c) Max Babi 2005
I had read out this short story at the New Bombay read-meet yesterday [20th Feb. 2005].