The irony was so stark that it could not be missed. That is, only if you had the courage to step out of the sanctuary of home while the old city was burning in the throes of a communal riot.
Hyderabad had got so used to thinking of him as a good-for-nothing goon but, today, he was now showing a heart; he wasn’t doing it to please anyone but because his conscience led him to do what he was doing. For years, he would not bat an eyelid when faced with blood. But today, his conscience made him stop and step out of his car – he just had to help the little boy, bleeding to certain death.
The city was burning – and he himself had a role in fanning the flames. The political warlords, their seats of power shaking, had ordained that some disharmony was in order. For him and his cronies, it was easy money. They were unfamiliar with anything that would pain their souls as they had sold their souls cheap more than a decade earlier.
But today was different. Something in him had snapped at the sight of the lad – Was he seven years old? Or would he be eight? – and he stopped his car stop next to the bleeding body, lying by the footpath near the State Central Library in Afzalganj. He cradled the boy up in his arms and drove to the Osmania General Hospital as his rattling Hindustan Ambassador could.
The doctor in the emergency room was truly terrified. The fear in his eyes was not caused by the sight of blood or the thought of the daunting task that he would face in saving the boy’s life but by the realisation that he had come face to face one of the most dreaded gangsters. For five years, he had seen the same grainy photograph of this dreadful man but the doctor had not reckoned with meeting him ever.
“Dekh doctor, iski jaan bacha le.. yeh bachcha mera kuch bhi nai lagta, magar isko kuch hua na, to mai tereko nahi chodunga (Look doctor, save his life… I don’t know him but if something happens to hi, I won’t spare you,” he said, walking away from the emergency room. The doctor’s face had confirmed that he would do his best to save the lad’s life.
It was twilight and he didn’t feel like going home. Well, he had no place that he could really call home. Come to think of it, the maze of lanes and bylanes near the Charminar were his home. But now, he decided he would go and sit on Tank Bund, venturing across the Musi after a long time – it was not always a drain and had once been such a charming river.
Then again, he hadn’t always been a goon. As he sat by Hussain Sagar lake to rest his tired limbs and weary mind, he wanted to pray for the little boy but realised he had not uttered a prayer in many moons. In fact, he had all but forgotten how to pray. He gazed in the distance, his eyes were unfocussing and his mind playing back images from a checkered past.
In a way, by forgetting that he was supposed to be a man that the Hyderabad denizen detested and by getting off his car to help the lad, he was only revisiting his childhood. In the still of the evening, he could hear the echoes from 1948. “Maaro, maaro! (Kill, kill!)”. Far too much property had been damaged, far too many lives lost in the Police Action that ended the Razakar’s movement.
He too would have been a part of statistics of those killed in 1948 before Hyderabad became a part of India had a good Samaritan not taken him away from the clutches of the mob and admitted him in hospital. He would surely have bled to death. The rest of his childhood was a blur – he did try his hand at studying but could get past the Higher Secondary School examination.
The best part of the convent schooling was not the curriculum but his discovering the joys of playing football. For two years, the Rector of his school re-admitted him despite failing the examination because he was the football team’s goal-scorer and had ensured that the school would win the inter-school tournament each time. The Rector had been transferred and his successor just didn’t like sport too much.
Yet, his football career had found the perfect launching pad. He could see that he had been the best in the business. The legendary Rahim saab had picked him up for special attention and he was a part of the crack combination that made the Hyderabad City Police team. His creativity in front of rival goals had reached such heights that the Big Three from Calcutta had all chased him down and he finally signed up with Mohun Bagan.
The sun had gone down behind the rocks of Banjara Hills and a silvery moon was just about coming up behind him. He was oblivious of the occasional Fiat and Ambassador or the Lambretta and Vespa scooters passing by. His reverie continued, unwilling and unable to click himself to the present.
Yes, the five years with Mohun Bagan were bliss, his magical feet mesmerising soccer devotees at the Maidan. It was the prime of his life. And yet he had been such a poor human being, demanding huge sums of money to make an appearance at a charity match in aid of the Bangladesh refugees. His closest friends – rats, they left him – had all seen the contrast but he hadn’t recognised the warning signs.
Bad company and bad ways quickly engulfed him and the magic in his feet seemed to desert him too. Life came unhinged without notice and before he knew it, he was back in Hyderabad and took to crime to make ends meet. Initially, his old friends had some sympathy but when they discovered he had spent several nights in the lock-up at the Chaderghat Police Station for beating up a policeman, they made themselves scarce.
Finally, after all those years, he now felt good and enjoyed a sense of freedom. Suddenly, he could hear the police sirens close in from the distance but he was not going to allow anything to interrupt his freedom now. He did not challenge his arrest. They handcuffed him and drove him away. There was none to shed even a tear.
The cops who led him away did not see much more than a criminal. For them, it was the end of a long quest for one of Hyderabad’s most wanted men. A couple of reporters and a photographer, clearly tipped off by their friends in the police, could see nothing but a sensational story that would dominate the front pages of their newspapers the next morning.
Yet, some miles away, the woman, whose son was now under medical supervision, saw him as the unknown angel with the power to gift life. Little did she realise that it needed her wounded son to help someone discover the freedom of life. As he sat silently in the police jeep that droned towards the Control Room near Public Garden, he realised that beneath all those layers of his life was the child – innocent and uninitiated in the ways of the world.
Layers, did you say? Or, merely, adjectives that summed up others’ perspectives? On second thoughts, he didn’t really know which was deeper and which was superficial. He didn’t care either. For he knew that, at the bottom of it all, he had a simple heart, a ticking mind and a healthy body. It was time for him to re-discover his soul.