Continued from  The Driver- Part II

“What happened to the bag carrying the drugs and gold…?” the man asked again.

Amrit stared at the man confused. While recounting the story, he had only said the bag carried gold. He hadn’t mentioned the drugs at all. Then how did this man know…?

In his agitation, Amrit shot to his feet. He stared down at the man sitting quietly, looking up at him with an untroubled, open gaze. All of Amrit’s doubts and his accusations blazed out of his eyes. His heart began to beat wildly. He was too overcome to speak but his whole being screamed. How..? How else BUT…? Every fibre of his being believed that the man was involved with the accident. There could be no other explanation. Who knows, Amrit thought in wild panic, that he had deliberately stalked him tonight. Was this his boss’s henchman…? Amrit cursed himself for leaving himself so vulnerably open. The muscular torso of the other became an active danger. Maybe he even has a knife under that dhoti of his. Amrit jumped away to be out of reach.

The man did not move a muscle.

Amrit had already accused the man and pronounced judgment on him. The accused just kept looking at Amrit, offering no explanation. That open look filled Amrit with fear and rage. He felt as if there was molten lava sloshing in his head. He wanted to kill the guy before the guy could. As was usual with him in moments of stress, his chest, jaw and temples began throbbing in sync. His eyes could no longer focus properly and he blinked furiously.

The river flowed on in the midst of this silent battle between the two men. She gurgled softly, her tiny waves making a soft wet plop-plop sound as they hit the steps. In that charged stillness of the night, she spoke to Amrit. At first, the mad buzz in his head did not let him hear anything. Yet, he was born by her banks, there was no way he would not heed the gentle voice of the mother. He became quiet; his eyes regained their focus, his breathing slowed. The band of pain around his temple loosened. His murderous rage cooled down to suspicious anger.

Those mesmerizing eyes had looked compassionate even when looking in the face of hatred. His eyes had shown Amrit clearly that though he was aware of Amrit’s murderous rage, he was not upset or afraid. Now, he looked at Amrit openly, still saying nothing. With his eyes alone, the man drove a wedge into Amrit’s angry suspicions and broke it open. The lava within cooled. The eyes stopped blazing out the message of hatred. Amrit sat down again, shaken. He was trembling.

The man spoke quietly. “My name is Prasad. I know your name is Amrit. I know you have questions you want me to answer. And I will. I promise you, I will not leave you tonight until I have answered each of your questions. Do you believe me…?”

With a shock Amrit realized that he did. Prasad had listened to Amrit’s story silently. He did not listen as others did, interrupting and exclaiming constantly.  He listened with his heart and soul standing witness in those odd-shaped eyes. In his young life, Amrit had never experienced a shred of human concern. To be the focus of somebody’s compassionate, complete attention was an unbelievable experience for him.  Amrit realized that while he had been recounting his tale, delicate strands of trust had woven themselves around his heart. The trust was a gossamer thin virginal web, woven for the first time in Amrit’s life. With eyes beseeching Prasad not to betray his pristine fragile trust, Amrit nodded.

“Then tell me, what happened to the bag carrying the drugs and the gold..? It wasn’t found in the car was it…?”

“No, but how did you…? “ Amrit’s voice trailed off. Prasad held up his hand to indicate he will answer the question later.

“Why was your master arrested…? With the bag gone, there couldn’t have been much to incriminate him”, he said.

“Oh, that was because they found three gold bars among the debris of broken glass. There was also a torn packet of the narcotic; the rest of it had spilled all over the car and me.”

“Oh..!” Prasad said. “Then what happened…?”

“While I was lying unconscious in hospital, my master tried to accuse me of using his car without his permission. He denied all knowledge of the gold and the packet of drugs. The police did not believe him, they had been collecting evidence against him for two years. When I regained consciousness, two policemen came to interview me. They assured me I had nothing to fear. The officer in-charge of the case was an honest man who was sure I was guilty of nothing worse than choosing the wrong man to work for.

“In my statement, I told them everything that had had happened from the time I took the bag in my hand. I confessed my momentary feelings of greed. By Ma Narbada’s grace, they believed me. Yet I was afraid. We know how easily money can change hands and an innocent man be hung out to dry.”

Prasad nodded and asked, “What happened to your master..? And you have not mentioned his right-hand man. What happened to him…? Was he not arrested…?”

“He was arrested at the same time as my master”, said Amrit answering the last question first. “They were both accused of smuggling and drug dealing. Without the bag however, the case weakened.  It looked like they might be released soon. I really got worried. Any day, I expected someone to get in touch with me. I even imagined they would kill me. I think”, he grinned impishly, “I have seen too many gangster movies.”

“Well”, said Prasad quietly, “you were right to get scared. Anything could have happened.”

“Yes it could have but for an unexpected miracle. My master and his right-hand man were killed from ambush when they were taken to court for the first hearing. The police never found out who shot the two men. After that, all my master’s henchmen disappeared into thin air. I was released from the hospital a month later. The police advised me to leave town for some time to be on the safe side. Ma Narbada heard that also I think. Out of the blue, I got an offer to work as a driver with a business owner in Bangalore. He told me I had been highly recommended though I never found out who recommended me. I joined the job and stayed there for two years. Four years ago I returned because my father passed away.”

“But why didn’t you stay at Bangalore…? Didn’t you like your new boss…?” Prasad asked.

“No no”, immediately replied Amrit. “My new boss and his family were very nice people. They treated me well too. I was paid a decent salary from which I was able to send money home.”

“Then why didn’t you stay..?” asked Prasad.

“Even after all this happened, my father and brothers didn’t change. When I called home, I tried to tell my brothers to continue their studies but they never listened. Two of my sisters studied hard. The oldest was due to get married. She stayed at home to lend a hand with household chores and also made agarbattis. The money I sent was used to pay back the loan my mother had taken. Sometimes she was not able to pay the instalment if my father got his hands on it. The amount began to multiply. It was like a big hole in a bucket which drained faster than we filled it. Then my father died.” Amrit stopped; Prasad could see tears glistening in his eyes.

“You were attached to your father..?” Prasad asked gently.

“NO..!!!”, burst out Amrit angrily. “He was no father, only a drunk. Before he died he told my mother that he had taken an additional twenty five thousand from another money lender and had gambled it all away. Then he died, unrepentant to the last.” Amrit’s eyes were smouldering.

“You should have stayed in Bangalore and kept sending money home. Why did you leave…?” Prasad’s voice was insistent.

“Well”, Amrit said with his head lowered, “My mother told me I was responsible for my brothers after my father. She felt that if I returned, they would mend their ways. I also had to get my eldest sister married. We needed money for that also.”

“Where did you get the money to do that…?”

Amrit sat silent while Prasad waited. When Amrit spoke his voice was thick with the shame of the words he spoke.

“I told my boss that I needed an advance for my sister’s marriage. They gave me twenty thousand rupees and a beautiful sari as a wedding gift for my sister. I never went back. I know they must think me a thief. Yet, not a day goes by that I don’t hate myself for what I did. I know Ma Narbada will never forgive me.

“I drive a taxi now and have been trying to pay back the two loans as well as feed my family. There seems no end in sight. My brothers live a wasteful life. When I tell them they should help me to pay back, they say the money was spent on MY treatment and I should pay it. For my father’s loan, they say I am the eldest son, so that too is my sole responsibility. I am trapped and have nobody to turn to. Death seems the only alternative to me.” He broke down completely and his chest heaved with suppressed sobs.

Prasad let him cry. He knew the healing of the spirit when a living being lets his pain flow out in the presence of someone who cares. He placed a hand on Amrit’s shoulder. The shudder of the storm that broke loose within Amrit, shook Prasad with jolts equally powerful. Silently, Prasad shared the pain of the lost soul that Amrit was… his heart praying to Ma Narbada asking for her grace.

At last, Amrit was quiet. The two men sat together bound together by a shared pain that belonged to them both now.  They sat silent, listening to the eternal songs of the river as she bubbled on untouched by the violence she had witnesses… denying it acknowledgement. Not because she didn’t care, but because for her pain was neither new nor relevant in the timelessness of her journey.

“You promised to answer all my questions”, said Amrit finally. Prasad nodded.

“Tell me who you are and how you are involved with my life…?” Amrit demanded.

“Oh… it was I who called the police and the ambulance and paid for your treatment”, he said casually, smiling.

… to be continued…

The Driver- Part III