He twirled his curled up moustache with his right hand. Without putting down his bag on the ground, he hitched up his slipping panca and tied it firmly. He stretched out his hand to the bus arriving with loud noise. Spattering the water in the puddles the bus came to a side of the road and halted.
The moment the door was opened he got in quickly. The bus started.
There were not more than fifteen passengers inside, each occupying a seat comfortably.
His looks searched for a comfortable place to sit on.
He was drawn to the fourth one behind the conductor.
Not heeding the conductor’s pleas to pay for the ticket, he walked towards it curling up his moustache.
Seated beside the window a girl was enthusiastically watching the world out side. She might be five or six. Fair and attractive. As her disheveled curly hair swayed in the wind, she looked like a red hibiscus flower.
She turned and looked at him feeling someone sitting beside her.
Dark curled up moustache, glittering eyes with red streaks, dense greasy hair touched with caster oil, with a handbag caught between his legs- he appeared different. Watching him with wide-eyed innocence, she moved towards the window.
Holding his bag carefully between his legs, he handed the fare to the conductor who had come to issue him a ticket. Handing him the punched ticket, the conductor cast a smile at the baby and left.
He took a sidelong glance at her.
In the cool fresh morning air the bus was speeding.
After a while the girl again looked outside through the window. He sank back into the seat watching in the driver’s side view mirrors the tar road passing. It was not known whether the landscape caught his attention. But some thoughts swarmed his mind.
Clapping and shouting at some scene outside she yelled joyfully.
She pushed him involuntarily with her elbows.
It interrupted his thoughts. Turning his head he looked sharply at her. Engrossed in her own world she did not notice him. As long as the outside world descended through the window and dangled before her eyes, he could not escape her nudges. Moving slowly and drawing her head back he closed the glass shutters of the window and adjusted himself impatiently.
The girl was surprised.
She stared at him and crouched in her seat.
The bus halted at some road crossing.
Noise broke out at the entrance.
The women rushed into the bus hurriedly even before an old man, who had to alight there, could get down. They laid a pregnant woman experiencing labour pains on a long seat.
Except the girl and he, everyone in the bus cast sympathetic looks at her. The bus started. With the bumps of the bus her labour pains increased.
The womenfolk were restless.
The old man in the front seat started a spiritual discourse in a loud voice.
‘Please drive fast.’ an old woman was urging the driver.
Unable to bear the pains the pregnant woman screamed. Spreading amidst the womenfolk the shriek filled the whole bus.
Startled the girl stood up and tried to take a peek from above the seat. Unable to do so, she was about to come out. She did not know how to cross his legs and stared at him. Lifting his head up he also looked angrily at her. Unable to bear the sharpness of his looks that were more frightening than his curled up moustache, she lowered her eyes. Some weapon with its handle visible, concealed carefully in the bag clasped between his legs, attracted her attention.
‘Sit down Why did you get up?’ he sounded harsh.
The roughness in his voice made her collapse in her seat. But she could not resist looking deep into his eyes for a short while.
He was impatient with her.
He preferred the seat next to her. If it was beside elders he should be careful about his belongings and the things they would reveal about him.
He thought there would be no problem -but he could not bear her interruption so often.
Planning a few strategies to accomplish the task to be done, he slid into thoughts.
After a while hearing some sound from the girl, he stopped thinking and turned to her side.
Sobbing with gasps the girl prattled in the middle, ‘amma...amma!’
Looking a bit strangely at her he frowned.
‘ Do you like to move to the next seat?’ he asked.
She did not reply.
‘ Are there any of your people in the bus?’
She looked at him once and shook her head.
He was surprised. He did not understand the reason for her crying.
Perhaps his closing the window shutters might be the cause.
Stretching his hand he opened the window and patted her on her back saying, ‘Don’t cry.’
He felt it strange. Usually children cried when they were frightened or for a thing that they needed or if they were not pampered. But what was this? Weeping for the wind that blew from outside and for the trees and the like.
Traveling along with thoughts about the girl for a distance, he diverted his attention to the strategies to be adopted to accomplish the task he was about to do.
The task was a petty one.
Even the contract amount he had fixed was not all that big.
It was promised that a vehicle would be arranged to cross the town limits immediately after finishing the task. It was enough at least if a motorcycle was arranged.
For a long time he was absorbed in thoughts.
The bus stopped at every village.
The moans of the pregnant woman inside the bus gradually turned into cries.
The old man lecturing philosophy had turned to singing brmham tatwas.
All these did not disturb him. He closed his eyes and sank back in his seat brooding. Feeling something against his thigh he stopped his thoughts for a minute. After a while the same contact -this time slightly harder…then again…
He opened his eyes and observed.
Leaning against the seat the girl was waving her legs with her half closed eyes and singing to herself.
At once he became irritated.
He did not like such a little girl annoy him again and again. Adjusting his moustache once he shook her.
She opened her eyes.
She realized why he had woken her up.
Adjusting herself she looked into his eyes.
Taking this opportunity he gnashed his teeth and looked angrily at her, as if he was about to burn her with his looks.
Any one would be frightened by his looks leave alone that little girl. She should withdraw her looks adjusting herself in a corner. If she were to be a meek girl, she should have peed with fear.
She did not do any such acts.
She looked intensely at his moustache.
For being incapable of making her at least lower her looks, his determination grew further. Sharpening his looks deeper, he spat fire at her with a glower.
Looking at his moustache, ‘There is a thread in your moustache.’ she said lightly pointing her finger.
He heaved a long sigh and forgot about his moustaches and sharp looks. His efforts became futile like water escaping from a breached tank. A cool breeze seized and choked him.
He withdrew his looks. His hand involuntarily stroked his moustache.
A small piece of thread of his shirt was caught up in his moustaches.
He became embarrassed.
For a few seconds a smile appeared in a flash on his face.
He keenly looked at the girl.
Though she appeared weak with skinny face and parched lips, there was a gleam in her eyes.
‘A clever girl,’ he thought.
‘Which town are you going to?’ he asked.
‘Porumamilla,’ she replied.
‘Porumamilla?’ he looked surprisingly, ‘You have to cross Midukur too, do you know?’
She nodded her head.
‘Do you have any relations there?’
She did not reply. She thrust her looks outside.
She was unable to be free with him. Perhaps it was a fitting rejoinder to the behaviour he had exhibited till then.
Somehow the girl appeared charming / pleasant/ good looking.
‘Is it to Porumamilla or any other near by village?’ he asked pleasingly.
Looking once into his face she replied,’ It will be known only after going to Porumamilla…where to go and all ‘
‘What?’ he did not make out anything. He did not understand any thing.
‘Whether she is in Porumamilla or has gone to any neighboring village…I have to search for her.’ Gloom descended on her face.
‘ My mother.’
‘My mother is not balanced.’
He could not bear it.
‘ You are coming alone?’
‘Yes,’ she said with blinking her eyes.
His harshness towards her had dissolved.
‘ Which is your village?’ he asked her softly.
‘Kondamotupalli.’ She replied.
After hearing the name of the village no more questions came out from his mouth.
The thoughts swarmed his mind. He knew the village. Once he had been there to carry out a job.
There were nearly hundred houses…only two or three were buildings and all the others were huts. He remembered that one or two had even bore pumps. Through out the village it was rain fed agriculture . If it rained they had crops or else drought.
He had spent a few days in that village-the pond, the choultry, the cock fighting…
Indifferent to his thoughts the bus had crossed two more stages.
More people got into the bus overcrowding it.
The speeding bus with one jerk screeched to a halt. Many careless passengers got their foreheads knocked on the bars of the front seats.
The pregnant woman who was lying on the seat was about to slip down but the alert womenfolk rescued her. With that jerk the pains increased and she started crying, ‘Oh my god.’
He deftly held the baby from falling and hurriedly tried to set right the bag that fell from him.
The baby observed it.
Then the cries of pregnant woman reached a climax.
She raised to see but withdrew after looking at him.
He sensed her intention.
‘Do you want to go and see?’ he asked.
She nodded her head. To cross over, she stepped on his bag, lost control while taking back her footstep and fell on him. Her hands on his waist brushed against something hard. For support she grasped the one that had fallen from his waist. When she knew what it was she shuddered and loosened her fist.
She sank back in her seat and stopped moving further.
For a few seconds the feeling, that the secrete had been exposed, appeared on his face.
He consoled himself after a while that it was only a little girl who had known his secret. But he felt embarrassed by her probing looks. She went on piercing him with suspicious looks. For no reason she stared at him.
‘You stab people?’ clearing her throat she asked naively after some time.
‘I?’ he fumbled.
‘You kill people?’ she looked doubtfully.
‘Then what do you have a dagger for? The hunting sickle in the bag?’
‘Those…by the way papa! How do you know that they are used for stabbing?’ he wondered.
‘How did you know?’
‘I have seen.’
‘Seen stabbing someone?’
‘Yes. Even killing … ’
He was astonished. His curiosity increased.
‘On the day of main festival.’
‘Where?’ He was unable to contain his anxiety.
‘In our village…beside the Reddy’s choultry …in the tamarind groove…at the cockfighting’
‘Who was it? Who did they kill?’
He felt as if his breathe stopped and remained in his throat.
Clearing his throat he asked, ‘ was it during the last year’s main festival, papa?’
He felt some dark cloud pass over his mind. Many thoughts from different quarters swarmed his mind like flies.
‘My mother has become mad and she is roaming the villages. Someone said that she was in Porumamilla. So I am going there now, ’ she said looking outside through the window.
‘Do you have any relations in Porumamilla?’
‘No, I have none there.’
‘Then how do you manage food?’ his voice became soft.
Silence was her reply. After sometime she was seen wiping tears with her hands.
‘Are you the only one to your parents, papa?’
‘I have an elder brother.’
‘What does he do? Is he studying?’
‘He left in the tenth class. He was moving around with some people to take revenge against my father’s killer.’
He lost energy to talk to her further.
Closing his eyes he sank in his seat.
He never faced such a situation before.
In his view it was a minor task.
He was an ordinary farmer. But influenced by his people he got involved in politics and became a culprit in president’s view.
For a small amount…mere five thousands…the president gave him the contract.
When he was starving for money…it was an opportunity.
For meager five thousands… he never imagined that five thousands would have such a history. It had killed a person and turned his wife insane, ruined his son’s future, made his daughter roam around like a dry leaf in the whirl wind. The cause of all these was a meagre five thousands. He never understood that the small amount had such a power.
He never recalled and scrutinized his deeds already done and never attempted to know about them even accidentally. But now this problem had sprung up.
Thoughts like a swollen sea surged in his mind.
The baby slipped into sleep.
The bus was racing towards the destination.
The old man in the front seat had not finished singing bramham tatwas.
A drunkard entered in to a quarrel with the conductor and twaddled, ‘I wont pay for the ticket because you’ve asked for it. Hadn’t you insisted on buying it I would have thrown the amount at your face. Do you think that I am such a waste fellow unable to pay for the ticket? You look at me…my dress…my moustache…and you ask me to pay for the ticket?’
The hubbub in the bus did not enter his mind and the cries of the pregnant woman either.
The thoughts of the baby perturbed him.
He chopped off many heads. But none of those haunted him except this one.
Intoxicating himself with arrack and politics this had become his life sustaining profession. They had a glorious life when Narasimhareddy was the Minister. They never missed their targets. If they had aimed at any head, it should roll off. After utilizing his services extensively for advancing his political career, Narasimhareddy had discarded him now. Habituated profession, impatient to do physical labour …his life dragged on…amidst arrack and blood.
With his deft hands he might have slaughtered many- who were not related to him in anyway.
He never knew about them and their family before and also after the completion of the task. He did not heed anyone who had intentionally tried to inform him about them. Such was the arduous training Narasimhareddy had given him while assigning him a task that had become his means of life in the drought.
And now this baby had appeared like a riddle and made him aware of the things that he would never pay attention to.
To get over from this shock he had to be intoxicated.
To finish off his task deal he should booze arrack.
He became confused. He was disturbed. The mind that had been falling apart into pieces would not join without the drop of liquor. It would not wait till the destination. He had to get down to drink. Feeling someone pat on his lap he attempted to turn that side and open his eyes but avoided it. ‘ Perhaps the baby might have touched him while humming a tune.'
After a while the same touch. And a call followed.
He opened his eyes and looked at her.
‘Where do you have to go?’ she asked.
‘Giddalur,’ he replied.
‘Is it beyond Porumamilla?’
A spark appeared in her eyes.
‘I don’t know anyone in Porumamilla. Will you get down with me and take me to my mother,’ she pleaded.
Again he sank back into his seat.
After an hour he would reach Giddalur and then he would need not more than one hour to finish off his task.
‘I ate stale rice yesterday. While going away in a vehicle, my brother gave me ten rupees for my food. Keeping it with me I got into the bus this morning, to see my mother,’ her voice was pathetic.
His heart ached.
Then noise erupted at once from the womenfolk. The saris were tied around as a screen covering the pregnant woman.
After a few minutes the cries of an newborn baby filled the whole bus. The bus reached Porumamilla.
He looked at the girl.
The tears from her eyes traced the wet path on her cheeks.
‘If I meet my brother, he would give me money for food. I’ll give it to you for fares. Come with me anna! Show my mother.’ Getting up she held his finger.
He involuntarily wiped off her tears with his upper cloth. Slowly he moved with her. While getting down he just looked at/ peeped into the seat of pregnant woman.
A red/ pink, charming/ delightful infant.
After getting down from the bus he looked around to buy something for her to eat.
A pushing cart…in front of him…and heaps of plantains on it.
Soon after seeing it an explosion occurred in his mind. The contract he entered into seemed to give him a hard slap on his cheek. The farmer coming on a cart load of plantains appeared before his eyes. His plan to waylay him on the outskirts of the town, drag him down, kill him with one stroke and escape in a vehicle- a truck or a motorcycle arranged before- conjured up before him. Many scenes appeared in his mind one after another- the liquor he boozed for one week, food he had eaten, the school fees he paid for his children, his wife’s dresses-all that he got from the advance he had received.
Interrupting the girl’s attempt to hold his little finger he strode away straight into the liquor shop next to the bus stand.
He was confused. It was strange even for him to neglect his duty. Violating the terms of contract or postponing the task was never done in his life.
Let his prey might be poor or it might be a minor scuffle at the land boundaries that endangered his life, he was not concerned with those facts. He had to kill him because he had been hired to do it. The person who hired him was not his relation. He would not hesitate if some one else came the next day and asked to kill the person who had hired him.
‘ One ready to spend thousands for the boundary and another prepared to lose his life for the same boundary that wont cost more than a few hundreds.’
He took the rum bottle.
While pouring it into a glass after opening it, the baby came and stood before him. Touching him with her hand, ’anna…anna,’ she said anxiously.
Tears filled her eyes.
He looked questioningly at her.
‘ Anna…the police are taking away my brother,’ she said crying.
He stood still with the bent bottle in his hands.
‘ Anna…show me my mother,’ she said gasping.
Closing the bottle with the lid and dropping it into his bag he walked out of the shop.
The bus in which they traveled had not left the stand still.
It might move in a few minutes. It seemed the conductor and the driver who had gone to have refreshments had not returned.
‘ My brother has hurled bombs at someone…they say’
He did not reply.
‘Even my brother might have drunk arrack?’ Lifting her head she asked looking at him.
He looked questioningly into her eyes.
‘To hurl bombs or to stab people, one has to drink arrack, it is said!’
‘Who told you?’
‘My father used to tell me.’
‘No. Its not true…will all those who drink stab people?’
‘But all those who stab people will drink, they say.’
He fumbled for an answer. ‘Taking a few coins from his pocket and stretching them to her he said, ‘ take these…buy some fruits and eat.’
‘I don’t want anything. I have to see my mother. She would bring me food.’
‘All right. Lets look for her. First you eat some fruits.’
She looked hopefully into his eyes and asked, ‘Won’t you go?’
‘I don’t know where you go…to kill someone.’
He looked at her and felt embarrassed, as this orphan girl had become a life size question mark and stood before him. Her brother too joined his path quite unknowingly.
The figure of the farmer he was going to kill appeared before his eyes- a family man with children. ‘ Even the fate of his children would be similar’
‘If it were his children?’
He did not feel like going to the plantain’s cart.
Straight away he walked to the apples, and bought four and also two tender coconuts.
When the shopkeeper was about to chop them he dissuaded him and dropped the coconuts into his bag.
Raising dust all around the bus in which they had come had crossed them leaving the bus stand. He sighed deeply once. Taking her hand into his, he took her into the school ground nearby. They sat in a corner.
With his dagger he sliced the apples and handed them to her. With the hunting sickle he had hid in his bag he broke open the shell of a coconut and offered it to her.
‘Fine. Anna…are they useful for this too!’ the baby wondered with joy.
He remained looking at her in ecstasy.
Translated from Telugu by Dr.T.Sreenivasa Reddy