Fiction: Judgment Day

Jitendra Bhatnagar

- Jitendra Bhatnagar


He shot out of the dark alley, missed hitting Ashutosh by a whisker, stopped in his tracks, his eyes locked with Ashutosh’s for a moment, and he sprinted away like a hare. Aku, as Ashutosh’s friends called him, claimed his car parked near the clock tower a short distance away. He kept reviewing the recent scene as he drove to his home in Dalanwala. The young man, he thought, was probably in his late teens, a boy actually. His fair complexion, finely chiselled features and the confident body language indicated that he was from an affluent, sophisticated family. What intrigued Aku was that the boy was clad only in his undergarments, while clutching under his left arm a bundle which could be his shirt and trousers, and the haste with which he removed himself from the scene of their near collision. Even more intriguing were the red blotches on his vest. Could they be blood marks?
With a start he realised he had reached home. His mind went back to the fateful December night six months ago.
* * * * *
Aku was returning home after a late-night party with friends. The night was thick with fog and near zero visibility. Aku was driving very carefully trying not to hit any chance pedestrian. Nearing Astley Hall, he espied a shadowy figure staggering zig zag on the road. “Must be a drunk”, he thought and would have driven on had he not noticed that the diminutive figure was a woman. He stopped near her and asked her if she needed help. She only looked at him blankly. He asked again. Same response.
“Are you in trouble?” He tried again. Only a blank stare.
“What are you doing alone on Rajpur Road at this late hour?” Still no response.
“Where do you live, Ma’am? Can I drop you home?” Same response.
“Get in, lady. It is too cold to be out in the open.” She remained rooted to the spot.
He opened the door and guided her to the passenger seat. She did not resist. He too got in, gunned the engine and started off. Then it hit him!
What had he gotten himself into? He had a girl in his car he had not even seen two minutes ago, knew nothing about her. Not even her name. What to do with her? Where to take her? To his house? He had no other choice. A bachelor, he lived alone. It would be most improper to take a young girl to a bachelor’s joint. Ah, no. He has Hoshiyara and Dhania, the faithful old couple he had inherited, along with the bungalow, from his late parents who he had lost to a car crash three years ago, when he was still in college studying for his law.
He roused Hoshiyara and Dhania and put the girl in their charge.
Sipping the tea Hoshiyara had brought to his bed the next morning, he suddenly recalled the girl he had brought home last night. He enquired about her and Hoshiyara told him that Dhania had stayed the night with the girl, and was still with her.
He greeted the girl at the breakfast table. She only looked at him through her sad melancholy eyes. He tried to engage her in conversation but failed. She seemed oblivious to what was going on around her. She only pecked at what was served to her. Aku once again asked her name and was met with silence. Her only response to his queries was a glassy glance at him.  Aku gave up and, as was his routine, left for the court.
Aku had obtained his law degree, undergone two years of apprenticeship with a senior lawyer before striking out on his own. He had set up his office at home in what used to be his father’s study. A year on, he was still waiting for his first client. Luckily for him, his father’s legacy was earning him a sizable income.
Dhania was taking good care of the girl. Her ashen face had gradually started recovering some colour and she seemed more aware of her surroundings. But she had still not spoken. Not even her name. He did not know why but Aku started calling her Ananya and, to his surprise, she responded to the name but remained oblivious to all other overtures. Aku’s efforts to find her family remained fruitless.
Gradually, several weeks later, Ananya found her tongue. She started conversing, first with Dhania and, later with Aku too. But she would still not divulge any personal information. She did assure Aku, though, that she was not insane and was in full possession of her senses. By and by Ananya became a member of the household and took over some of Dhania’s duties. She was a natural cook and earned the title of ‘Empress of the Kitchen’ from Aku.
Aku found her intelligent, a good conversationalist and a delightful company. She maintained a mysterious silence about her past which remained a closed book. Now, six months later, there was no change.
* * * *
The narrow alley, through which the boy emerged, was dark even though it was high summer noon. Paltan Bazaar, as usual, was crowded with shoppers. The boy halted at the alley’s mouth waiting for his query who passed within two feet of him. He took a step forward, stabbed his query piercing his heart and, before the stunned onlookers could react, withdrew to the sanctuary of the alley. Midway through, he quickly shuffled out of his blood-soaked shirt and trousers, bundled them under his left arm and shot out of the other end of the alley, missed hitting Ashutosh by a whisker, stopped in his tracks, his eyes locked with Ashutosh’s for a moment, and he sprinted away like a hare.
Aku read about the crime in the local paper next morning and realised that the killer was the boy who had almost collided with him the day before. A law-abiding citizen as he was, he decided that he should go to the police and tell them what he saw. He sought advise from his mentor, the senior lawyer who asked if he could positively identify the boy who he thought was the assailant.
“I am not sure.” Aku told him.
“In that case, do nothing.” Mr. Pathak, his mentor advised him. “You will not be of any help to the police. You will only be made to run between the police station and the court and make a fool of yourself. You cannot afford that as a budding lawyer, can you?”
Aku accepted his senior’s advice. Did Nothing.
* * * *
Hoshiyara and Dhania were happy that Ananya was taking more and more interest in the affairs of Aku’s house. She had almost completely taken over and relieved the couple of most of their duties, leaving them free tend to their ailments, old as they were getting.  Aku was happy too.
Aku spent his mornings and evenings in the office, his table littered with some open law books, a strategically placed open file in front of him, pretending to look busy in the unlikely event of a client walking in on him. Today also he was pondering over the file but in reality, thinking about Ananaya, when Hoshiyara came in and told him that a man was waiting to see him.
Aku recognised the hesitantly entering man immediately. He had seen him making rounds of the court for the last few days, meeting lawyers and pleading with them to represent his young son accused of the Paltan Bazaar murder. All had refused. Some because he could not afford their fees and others because they believed it was not a winnable case. Aku believed that all accused deserved legal assistance even if the case was not winnable. He said he would not mind representing the accused. Mr. Pathak, his mentor, pooh-poohed the idea, telling him that it would be like committing suicide. And now the man was sitting in his office beseeching him to take up his son’s case.
“My son has not committed the murder, vakil sahib.” He said. “We are god fearing, law abiding middle class people. I have worked hard to send my son to college. He wants to be a doctor. He is falsely accused, vakil sahib. Take a look at his photograph, sir. Does he look like a killer?”
Aku looked at the snap. The face smiling up at him was not the one that had nearly collided with him. This boy was innocent. “I will represent your son. Leave the FIR and other papers with me. I will study them and meet your son in police custody.”
“Thank you, vakil sahib. God bless you. What will you charge, sir? I am a poor man but will try and raise money to pay you.”
“There will be no charge. I am accepting the case because I know your son is innocent. But let me warn you. This will be the first case of my career. I will try my best but it may not be good enough.”
“Theek hai, sahib. At least my son will be represented. He is good boy, sahib.”
With an effort Aku shook his mind off Ananya and started thinking about the case, the first case of his nascent career.
* * * *
Aku found Ramesh, the accused, occupying a stool in police custody. An ashen faced Ramesh, a lad not yet twenty, was clearly scared shit. He greeted Aku with folded hands and, begging that he was innocent, pleaded to be saved.
“What were you doing in Paltan Bazaar?” Aku asked him.
“I and my friend were only passing through the bazaar, sir.”
“What is the name of your friend?”
“Surendra, sir?”
“Isn’t he the one who got murdered?”
“Yes, sir. He was my best friend.”
“Then why did you kill him?”
“I did not kill him, sir.”
“Tell me in your own words what happened that day?”
“Yes, sir. Surendra and I were walking from Sindhi Sweet Shop towards the clock tower. Just as we approached the narrow alley, someone jumped out of it, stabbed Surendra twice and ran back to the alley.”
“Did you try to chase him?”
No, sir. I was shocked to see my friend stabbed. He had fallen down and I tried to help him. There were so many people around but nobody came to help us, sir.” Ramesh was weeping.
“Did the passers-by try to chase the assailant?”
“I don’t know. I was trying to stop Surendra’s flow of blood.”
“So, nobody came to your help? You took Surendra to the hospital yourself?”
“No, sir. Two men stopped to help, but the police arrived before the three of us could do anything. They took Surendra to the hospital.”
“Did you go with your friend?”
“Yes, sir.”
“What happened then?”
“Surendra was already dead. The police asked me questions. Then they took me to the Kotwali and locked me up.”
“Why were you carrying a knife?”
“I was not carrying any knife, sir. I did not kill my friend.”
Aku came away in a state of agitation. He knew Ramesh was innocent. How to prove his innocence was the problem. There were many witnesses who saw the crime being committed and all were ready to swear they saw Ramesh stab Surendra. Not a single witness said with certainty that Ramesh had not done it. Aku could not even claim that Ramesh was nowhere near the scene of crime. By his own admission, Ramesh was with Surendra when he was killed. Absence of knife would have been a good defence. But the police claimed that the weapon was recovered from Ramesh. A poor case as far as Ramesh was concerned. All the evidence was against him and nothing pointed to his innocence.
*****
He spent the next few days in meetings with Ramesh and his father. He sought guidance from Mr. Pathak who, at once, advised him to withdraw from the case. That an innocent man was likely to be punished for a crime he had not committed did not seem to bother him. But Aku was too young to be insensitive like Mr. Pathak. he was determined to fight for Ramesh’s acquittal, come what may.
Aku found himself emotionally torn. On the one hand he was determined to fight for Ramesh’s acquittal, come what may. On the other, he felt he was getting increasingly fond of Ananya. Life had taken a new charm since Ananya’s arrival. Hoshiyara and Dhania were taking good care of him. But in Ananya he had found a companion which neither of the old retainers could be. He could spend his life   in company with her.
‘What!!! Did I really think it?’ he asked himself. He was amused with the way his heart appeared to function. ‘But oh! What is wrong with it, anyway?’ he thought. He was genuinely fond of Ananya. Ananya had a charm he felt he could not resist. Was Ananya fond of him too? Both, he and Ananya were alone in the world. Ananya may not be a beauty queen but was he a handsome hero like Devanand?
He thought he should propose to her but decided to wait till he could be sure of Ananya’s feelings towards him. He also had to gather courage too, he admitted to himself.
Time passed. The case was going worse than his mentor had predicted. The public prosecutor was a senior lawyer who had more experience than Aku’s age. He easily circumvented every move Aku made. Aku was no match for the prosecutor who tied Ramesh and a rare defence witness or two in knots. Aku just could not counter his opponent’s courtcraft.
*****
Aku decided he could take it no longer. He called Ananya to his office room, looked at her for a long moment and, collecting his thoughts, spoke.
“Ananya, you have been here for almost a year. Are you quite comfortable? I like to think you are well provided. You only have to tell me or Dhania if you need anything. I do hope she takes good care of you.” Ananya nodded in agreement.
“Ananya, I want to thank you for what you have done for me while living in this house. I no longer feel like a tenant who comes here only to sleep at night. You have made this house a home for me. Now, I look forward to coming home every evening. Thank you Ananya. I thank you from the bottom of heart.”
“Thank you, Aku. May I go now? The kitchen needs my attention?” Ananya spoke without betraying emotions.
“No, Ananya, there is more. Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me?” Ananya stare at him. “Yes Ananya, will you marry me? Say yes and we will get married at once.” Dumbfounded, Ananya could not take her eyes off his face. Then Ananya lowered her eyes and Aku said, “I know Ananya. It is not going to be easy to make up your mind. It is a difficult decision for a girl to make.”
Aku spoke again after some time. “Ananya, today is a big day for me. It is my judgement day. Yes, the court will pronounce the judgement in my case today. You will make me very happy if you decide in my favour and say you will marry me”. Aku saw with consternation the grieved look in Ananya’s eyes. He could not fathom what was passing through her mind, what emotional upheaval she was going through. Both looked at each other in silence.
“Alright, Ananya, think very carefully before you decide. I am now going to hear the court’s judgement. You may deliver yours when I come back in the evening.”
*****
“Ananya, Ananya”, a visibly upset Aku rushed in. “Ananya, please come out of hiding. This is no time for playing games nor being coy. The court’s judgment has gone against me. I lost my case. Come out now and pronounce your judgement in my favour.” Ananya did not respond. Aku rushed from room to room but did not find Ananya. She was nowhere to be seen.

1 comment :

  1. 'That an innocent man was likely to be punished for a crime he had not committed did not seem to bother him. But Aku was too young to be insensitive like Mr. Pathak.' Aku's love for Ananya does not see the light of the day. nice story and its moral too.

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