He was in the middle of public wrath, liberally thrashed and shoved, with a few weaker ones pulling at his already ripped shirt collars. A sort of sadistic catharsis, with people from all directions swarming around him, kicking him in the buttocks, rolling and twisting back and forth his hands, slapping him in his face, spitting, abusing and cursing with all sorts of slurs. All this happening in a public place, at a bus stand, amidst the din of hawkers and tinkers, betwixt beep, horn, flash and glare of shopping complexes at a stone’s throw from the district hospital, to the northwest of the court complex, in the west of the police station that was at 60 degrees south of the mini secretariat under the feet of a famous dargah.
The public is a strange crowd led by instinct, one of the unnatural but ubiquitous instincts to hurt someone not allow anyone to hurt you in turn. Probably bearing the bruises of amputated rights, they had ultimately found something to let loose on: a poor thing, a pick pocket caught like a stag by a pack of hyenas, not even trying to attempt an escapade from their clutches.
He was beaten hard with a collective anguish and angst to satisfy the craving for justice. He had committed an offence and offence demands retribution. It wasn’t a process of going through the drudgery of due course of law, but justice pronounced at the spur of the moment, not delayed and denied.
He had picked his spot well. A timid woman in a brown pheran, the gown that we hug as the last twig of our cultural tree that is said to have flourished in an unrecorded golden age of our nation. He had clinically incised the pocket hanging by the side while timidly sitting beside her in the minibus. He made use of the big bumps on the road as his hand went up and down as the bus almost rolled over the patchy roads. Even if the road were smooth he would not have failed in his task. He was known to have some sort of a black art that would hypnotise a person while he set to work. Ḥe had performed many feats that had earned him a reputation like that of the bad big wolf in American fairy tales.
He was big, Gulliver-like, tall and bony like the great Gul Pahalwan (a man from Hajin Bandipora), yet honest in his dishonest intention. He had learnt the art of reading faces like books. He chose his prey. This time it was the poor woman. Of course, it was an immaculate cut! He would count the booty at his own hiding as the leopard takes its prey at a safer place. Yet he never thought it a freebie but decent money earned in an indecent style while risking his neck, not easy-come easy-go, but with planning and strategy. Nonetheless, even after having done it a score of times, he couldn’t escape unhurt, both in body and soul.
His presence itself had been ominous. With nothing at stake, not even reputation, he stood in a kind of poise. Hands submerged in tight pockets, head watching like a prowling lion, hair hanging like a stag’s, his eyes eager as an eagle’s. No sooner would he enter the bus stand, alarm bells would ring. In drivers and shopkeepers’ dialect, the word of caution would be declared. But he cared a damn so long as things would nicely end up in the proverbial ‘all is well that ends well.’
But this time he was unlucky, caught red-handed while he was going through this misadventure, when he was about to take out his hand. A hawkish eye had picked him up, seated right on the next seat. It was an adult in his middle of life, a stout man with curly fat moustaches. He boxed him all around, and then punched his ear before kicking him out to the mercy of the public who surrounded him as a flood. The victim played her card and lashed at his head with her boot. A jet of pink thick blood oozed out of it and flowed down his mud-tinged face, the ultimate ablution for his sin. Yet they continued beating him black and white until they were exhausted by their own fury and gave up almost shell shocked when he didn’t moan or cry hoarse but bore the brunt of the strokes as mildly and calmly. His eyes beamed in the flash of cameras that captured his crime to sell it as a household item of sadistic pleasure, his name scrolled and trolled in the locality. He looked more horrible with his defiance of his tears and by the nonchalance of his behaviour. Not even the blood that drooled around his dried-up eyes made any difference. And they left him calling him a dog that had become harder with each beating. Surprisingly, two policemen on the beat didn’t bother to interfere.
The crowd having done with him, left to mind its own business. The broken yet defiant pocket thief raised his neck. To me he didn’t look a thief but a crusader, his face radiant. He looked straight into our eyes asking us to confront if we could dare. His eyes defeated any understanding of what he was up to. Eyes that looked like they were holding a stormy sea within. Eventually, he broke the ice as his cold eyes melted and his tongue crackled like a fork in the furnace:
“Why did you stop beating me? You thieves and hypocrites. Haven’t you beaten a pocket thief, a bad guy, a stinky soul? Come, smell me out, my linen is dirty with the thefts I committed, my hands filthy with the dirt of sins committed in broad daylight. Yet my conscience is clean… I allowed the beating until all got their fill. I am an open thief but a respectful one. But you are worse thieves. Why don’t you beat the commissioner who gets thick commission along with the files? That SSP who sells torture in the town? That engineer who sold the college bricks? That chairman who auctioned the employment? That pseudo intellectual who stole my poem and published in his name? Your dignified thief, your intellectual fraud, your public representative who sold you lock, stock and barrel? You can’t, because they are hidden and they thrive, hunting in the sacred offices and ceremonial places. You won’t beat them because you have no courage and you back them. I know a wrong is a wrong and will never make a right… But what are they doing, selling revealed verses as relics? Go and beat them, can you? Can you?”
With this he broke into a stream of tears, which mixed with the blood dripping down his face, all the way to his mouth. He drank the holy water and fell to his right upon his shoulder. Water, water! My wife was holding my head in her soft hands. You had a nightmare, she said, it is all right. I felt my pulse. A pause, then I took a sip or two of water and pulled out a paper and pen from the drawer.
—The writer is assistant professor at Department of Higher Education.