INSIDE MY HEAD
It was a cold January evening, and Ramu had been without a passenger since sunset. It was chilly, and fog that prevailed in the cold air, much like in those winter evenings he used to spend in front of the fire when he was a child, created an illusion of utter confinement. Ramu lay in his rickshaw with his head covered with a rugged piece of cloth that might have been a mop, but its stink he seemed immune to. He lay still, oblivious to the uncalled silence, or even the irking sounds of passing rickshaws impeding it. However, once every now and then, a gust of cold wind would blow that would rattle him to the bones, and remind him that he was not dead.
It was a terrible thing at his age to be stuck riding a rickshaw in a night as cold as that. The street was deserted, if not for him and a few stray dogs, which crossed him at times looking for shelter. Ramu shut closed, an effort it seemed to block off the disappointments that the scene spoke of; yet the lights in the homes of comfortably asleep people sarcastically casted a faint smile upon the old man, as if mocking the impossibility for his chance to conquer where they resided.
In this air of disappointments, a soft voice rose.
“To the hospital.”
Soaring, Ramu lifted his eyes slowly from his slumber and sat up. A man stood shuffling on his feet, huffing clouds of smoke. His face was small, studded with pimples, and his hair looked too thin in presence of his enormous body. But the enormity of his size was overshadowed by his eyes, which beseeched for innocence. He had a big suitcase in one hand. Ramu got to the seat in the front as the man took the one behind, and slowly the pedals creaked against the strain.
“Ride faster, faster, and maybe I will give you an extra ten.”
Ramu didn’t look back. He pedaled harder. The man said nothing. The night was cold indeed, but nothing should have elicited a desertion of the street as that. Ramu had seen it all. He had been in that little place all his life. He had ridden that thing in storms, when tin roofs flew off of huts, threatening decapitation; when people ran in search of shelters, fearing they would fly away with the wind too; but even in those sinister days, there would be passengers. People were always too busy to care for a calamity. But today was different.
It was in the evening that a rumour had started about the elections. Nobody knew for sure, but people were afraid, locked inside.
“Faster, fellow! Faster! Remember the ten?”
Ramu grunted at another burst of energy.
“Why the hospital, sir?”
“Ah, not the hospital exactly. A little ahead of that.”
“But it’s barren ahead of it for ten miles. Except for a graveyard.”
Ramu looked back at the man, who seemed unperturbed, gazing at the streets as if his words conveyed no meaning at all.
“A friend is waiting for me to leave for the railway station,” he added finally.
“In the graveyard?”
“Yes, yes,” a little impatiently. “A distant friend of mine.”
Disturbed from their induced hibernation by the creaks of wheels, a few dogs barked at the rickshaw, but as if fearing where they were headed, they stayed back. Ramu looked back at the man’s face again, and saw nothing.
“What is it, sir? Why on a night as this, and to a graveyard? Do you not fear the rumours?”
“Fear the rumours… why? I have a child to reach in another city. Fear is only there till you have got two roads to take. I have just the one.”
Ramu said nothing, concentrating only on the sordid street ahead of him. He pedaled harder as another grunt came out. Cold sweat had started to slide down his cheeks by the time they made it to the main square. In the distance, a huge building came steadily into sight. If not for the sign board on top surrounded by white fog, despite his familiarity, Ramu might have mistaken it for a mausoleum.
“Do not stop there. Do not stop there.”
He pedaled toward the hospital. In anticipation, he didn’t even glance at the place, which rather than the usual quietness at this hour, witnessed a flurry of activity around it. The whole place reeked of urgency. The smoke in the fog became denser in front of the big man as the hospital drew closer. And past.
“What is it, sir? Have you done something?”
“No, it is my daughter. I am not sure if I will be able to get to her.”
“Have you not heard the news?” asked the man, who looked back again at the hospital.
“Yes, yes, I have heard about a rumour.”
“That is no rumour. The minister has gone mad, and no one seems to have the power to stop him. He has closed the markets.”
“But, how could it stop you from…”
“Because the minister is furious. He threatens to stop the railways, the roads. Nobody gets out, he says.”
The fog veiled perfectly the road in front of him as the rickshaw wobbled to the left and right. If not for the candle fitted in a box on the handle, he might not have been able to see his own nose. Questions rose in this uncertainty.
“And my daughter is ill in another town. I must get to her.”
“Who is it that you are meeting at the graveyard?”
“A friend of mine. He says he can get me out of here. The odds are against me, but I have to try. I swear to you, if I ever get out, I will never come to this God forsaken place again.”
Denser fog… candlelight cowered against darkness… Ramu looked back and for a moment, it appeared the man’s innocent face would break into a sob. He turned his head again at the road, which seemed now almost to have disappeared in the fog. But he concentrated on whatever was discernible, unsure what to think of it. The road was too unobvious for him to decide where to go, just as the dilemma he had found himself in.
“Okay sir, I will help you get to the graveyard. But from there on, you are on your own.”
“Kind fellow. I have never met a man kinder than you, my friend.”
The man seemed to suddenly look at the sky, as if to thank the stars, but it was engulfed in darkness. The candlelight flickered for a moment.
Ramu smiled. “Thank me later. Let me get you safe first.”
The man nodded furiously. “Yes, yes.”
“Bonjo, I was afraid you lost your way,” a frail man said as a greeting when the rickshaw stopped in front of the graveyard. He had a face similar to the other one, but his provoked an anticipation that the sturdiness of the features might melt any moment and an angelic smile would be unveiled. He was sharply dressed than the other, hair combed neatly, clean shirt that clung to the body in the perfect amount. The two men hugged each other and mumbled something inconspicuous to Ramu.
The frailer one came forward now and shook Ramu’s hand. “Thank you for your help. Here, a hundred.”
Ramu smiled. “But…”
“Come on in, you must be cold. I have built a fire inside,” said the man as if it was his home, leaving the hundred rupees in Ramu’s hand.
He led them both past graves, to the other side, where beside a shed a small fire was breathing. The three of them sat around it in a circle. Bonjo put two more logs in the fire, trembling in cold.
“The train is in half an hour. You should reach there in the morning.”
Bonjo nodded. “How is she?”
“Good. She misses you.”
Once again to Ramu, it seemed Bonjo’s innocent face would break into a cry, but just that moment, the animation died. The graveyard fell silent, but fire crackled, protesting against the silence, urging to hear something that must be told of the night.
Ramu obeyed a while later. “Oh, but what is the rumour? There seems no one of whom I could ask about it?”
The frail man seemed surprised. “Bonjo? He doesn’t know?”
Bonjo shook his head. “He is an old man. How could I tell him?”
“Tell him what?” Ramu asked.
“The rumour is true. The minister’s son was killed this evening. He is in the hospital now. That is why the minister is furious. He thinks some politician killed him. And the way things look, it might be true.”
The frail man started, “He doesn’t care anymore about the elections. He will block every way out of this town.”
“Ah lord! What about my daughter?”
“We will figure something out, Bonjo. This train is your hope.”
They sat around the fire. The conversation went back and forth between the two men about what should be done. In the distance, they heard angry shouts around the hospital. Something must have come up about the body.
Brutal death, was it? Ramu thought.
A thick flame burst into the sky from the fire, licking the blackness above before settling down. The shouts were getting louder in the distance. A tearing roar from the crowd was heard, followed by an announcement about the death.
The two men looked at each other.
“What time is it?” Bonjo asked.
He nodded, deep in contemplation. “A terrible night to make a journey as important as this. I leave you to enjoy the fire, my friend!” Bonjo said, smiling an eerie smile at him.
The two men got up and hugged each other. “Bonjo, give my love to her.”
Ramu watched them in amusement. They were like brothers.
“I will, I will,” he said.
They mumbled something to each other. Bonjo hugged the man again before turning away. The fog wasn’t dense near the shed anymore, Ramu noticed. A flame of red burst high into the blackness, casting a shadow of Bonjo, a figure that didn’t seem so innocent anymore. It followed him out of the graveyard, till the two mingled into the night.