Friday, October 31, 2008

While The Tea Brewed

Another story I had written during my college days. Read this article, and was reminded of the story.

“I will be back in fifteen minutes mum, just checking out if school is closed due to the strike”, Allan called out to his mother. His mother was well aware of the situation in Manipur and had no doubt in her mind about the effects of a strike called by one of the separatist groups.

“No use going out today, you will not even be allowed to cross the Keishing grocery shop. Anyway if you want to then go out on your bike while I am preparing your breakfast”, Mrs. Robinson told her 18-year-old son.

Actually the football season was on and Allan being the school football captain did not want to miss out on any bit of practice before the inter school tournament starting the next week. He saw his mother get into the kitchen with a large loaf of bread and the tealeaves container. His mom always prepared his favourite English breakfast of toast with eggs and ham and bacon with a steaming cup of tea whenever Allan didn’t have school.

The long winding road to St. Thomas School was splattered with poodles of water left behind because of the uncharacteristic winter monsoons to have hit this part of the country. The hills looked even more beautiful through the thick fog and the chill overhanging from the skies made it almost unbearable. But Allan loved winters and more so when others were back home shivering under the covers. He could not understand whether it was the abnormal cold or the strike called that had left the road thoroughly deserted.

The tea continued to brew in the Robinson household.

Mr. Keishing of the local grocery shop too had kept his shop closed. That was sign enough that the school was closed because ‘The Mountain’s Grocer’ was the last establishment to close down irrespective of what was happening across the country. Having just been out for less than five minutes Allan was not yet ready to go back so he took the road towards the other side of the town, not the one that went towards his school, but the one towards the hills.

Mrs. Robinson started buttering the toasts while the kettle let out smoke from its snout.

The scenery was breathtaking. Even after spending all his life in the same area, Allan still found the hills as alluring as he had the first time he saw them. The water flowing gently from the streams along the hill slopes had something about them that was missing in any water he had ever tasted.

He stopped his bike by the roadside and slurped from the free flowing stream. A jackass flew noisily over him. It was then that he realized that there was deathly silence that day. ‘Can’t be due to the strike’, he thought because these were a common occurrence in the strife torn state.

The bacon was being fried while the kitchen was full of the aroma of the tea.

Allan had always been against the violent protests, that Manipur had been infamous for the past many decades. The political parties wanted a separate country to be carved out for them. Their claim was that the entire northeast is meted out step-motherly treatment by the Indian government. Besides as they don’t share much in common with what is generally accepted to be India, so no use continuing the strained relation. All sorts of mainstream Indian entertainment were banned in the state. Cable operators were shot dead if they beamed any channel with Hindi content. Cricket, the sporting religion of the country, was strictly banned in the schools and colleges and none of the kids dared to play it on the streets like in other parts of India. The situation had become very volatile over the past few years and all residents who had come over from other states had gone back or where in the process of going back to their native places.

Allan had grown up with a cosmopolitan mix of friends, but now that most of them had left he felt very lonely. There weren’t enough means of keeping in touch with them. Though they had all given their phone numbers and e-dressess to him, the activists made sure that proper communication channels did not reach the area. Of course the central government was also to be blamed for this problem, but the regional parties just made things that much harder. He thought about the lovely times he had spent with his friends cycling down the hilly roads. Today he was alone.

The breakfast was ready. Mrs. Robinson brought down the kettle from the burner.

The wails of the siren pierced the still winter air. The military jeeps always brought a pall of gloom all over. Allan was a true peace lover and believed listening to one another’s point of view with an open mind could solve all problems. Besides he was a strict advocate of non-violence, earning him the epithet of ‘Gandhiji’ among his friends. Though none of them had a very clear idea about who Gandhiji was. This was because the schoolbooks there were not allowed to have anything to do with the freedom struggle. Allan was as much against the violent separatists as he was against the heartless military that did not think twice about perpetrating the cruelest of actions on the protestors. Thus Allan thought that it would be safer to go back home because everyone out there was wary of the military.

Mrs. Robinson was waiting for his son’s return while sipping from her cup of tea.

The bends and curves of the hilly road flew past him as he pedaled back home. Not for long though. Midway from his home the army jeep screeched to a halt right in front of his bike.

Allan’s mother dropped a couple of sugar cubes in her tea.

“Sergeant, we have got hold of one of those who blew up the town hall”, the man holding Allan by his throat shouted to the waiting jeep. The man addressed to as the sergeant slapped Allan hard on his face. Blood trickled down his nose.

Drops of tea dripped from the biscuit that Mrs. Robinson dipped into her cup.

“We’ll teach you a lesson for the hard time you are giving the country. The town hall was a heritage building and blowing it up for some selfish narrow reasons is abominable. Didn’t the thought of sacrificing so many innocent lives cross your minds even once?” the sergeant thundered.

“But..but…sir I was just checking whether we were having school or not. I don’t even know that there has been some trouble uptown. I just left my home on my bike and was going back home now. See this is my school identity card” Allan told the sergeant producing his St. Thomas identity card. The sergeant simply threw it into one of the poodles of water. “ Bloody fakes”, he muttered under his breath.

The drops of tea had formed poodles on Mrs. Robinson’s saucer.

Allan had held on to his tears for so long, but no more. He started sobbing. Every time he visualized his mother waiting for him with his breakfast he felt that much more terrible. He thought about telling the officers about finding out whether he was telling the truth by taking them to his home. No he wouldn’t do that. He had heard of many incidents where the military picked up members of his friend’s families for no rhyme or reason but on mere suspicion. He could not bear to see these men ransack his home and take his mother and ten-year-old brother away. He thought about facing the situation himself. Allan tightly clutched the cross hanging around his neck.

His mother was getting quite worried by now. She unintentionally held on to her cross.

Mr. Robinson returned at around five in the evening to find his wife and younger son in a hysterical state. He had heard about the bombing of the town hall and so he thought maybe they had become unduly frightened because of it. Somehow his wife narrated the day’s events to him. He at once realized that there was something sinister involved with the entire episode. A quick cup of tea and he was away trying to find out all he could. He returned much later during the evening. The only bit of news was that an army jeep had been heard in the area during the day. Other than that the day had passed peacefully in their locality and the place near his son’s school. The news of the army jeep was exactly what they had feared. The army had become very active and boys of his age were the prime targets. That’s because such boys were the ones who actually were taking part in the anti-social activities and spreading fear by violent acts such as the bombing of the town hall. Allan’s parents were in a state of shock and fear.

“The state-wide strike in Manipur has gone off peacefully with the sole exception of bombing of a town hall in a southern town of the state”, the TV report went on but no one in the Robinson household cared to listen.

The Robinson’s spent a sleepless night without any news of their elder son. Even young George was in no mood for dinner. They just kept praying all through the night between many cups of tea. The tea reminded Mrs. Robinson of the morning when she last saw her son leave on his bike and it just made her worse.

Finally the next morning Allan’s father went to the town police station and lodged a formal complaint about his missing son. The behaviour of the officers was enough for Mr. Robinson to realize the futility of his efforts. He had only one option left to him, but that was one that he fervently hoped he wouldn’t have to resort to. Allan’s mother was dead against it but towards the afternoon she too relented and Mr. Robinson asked their maid servant, Hochi to call her husband.

Hochi was married to Lechhen Tungep, an extremist rebel. They had earlier tried to reason with him to leave his violent ways but to no avail. Today Lechhen was their last hope. His knowledge about the whole area was legendary and many a times the police had arrested him, but he wasn’t such an easy fish to remain in their hands. If there was anything that happened in their town then Lechhen would be the first person to know about it.

Lechhen came to their house at around five in the evening, smelling of the marijuana that he dealt in. Mrs. Robinson never much liked having him around the house but today he was the person she wanted to see the most. She offered Lechhen a steaming cup of tea and called out to Mr. Robinson to come and meet him.

After hearing about the whole incident in silence Lechhen looked up at them. His eyes were blood red, maybe because of the marijuana or Allan’s story, no one could tell for sure.

“ They have not been kind to Master Allan. The officer’s duties are on the line because of the blast at the town hall and so they have stepped up operations across the town. They are picking up our youth without warrants. I have to look into this as quickly as possible”, Lechhen murmured under his breath and left without any further conversation. Mrs. Robinson returned to the drawing room with a cup of tea for Lechhen but found her husband alone, sitting with his hands on his head.

Close to midnight the whole town heard explosive sounds coming from the densely populated areas in the center of the town. The police station went up in smoke and only bits and pieces of the place could be found the next day. The number of policemen on duty that night was unknown but what was certain is that what remained of them was not enough to ascertain their identities. State wide emergency was called and the Robinson’s received a note that all efforts would be made in similar fashion to find out about Master Allan. Signed Lechhen Tungep.

Mr. Robinson could never forgive himself for instigating the mass violence. He went to their bedroom. Knelt down before the framed picture of the Virgin Mary with her son and wept inconsolably. He too was a firm believer in non-violence but the past few days had left him totally shattered. All his beliefs and convictions came crumbling down in front of him. While at other times he thought this was a true test of his beliefs. What one does when faced with a personal loss is how one can be judged. He wanted to get out of the whole situation.

All the major dailies carried pictures of the bombed out police station in their middle pages with short articles about the situation in the state. The Prime Minister expressed grief and prayed for the families of the deceased police officers while announcing relief measures of Rupees five lakh per family. The Manipuri Chief Minister spoke about the matter in harsh tones and promised that the miscreants will be brought to book. In the midst of this one little Allan Robinson’s name was lost in oblivion. The state government in fact invited the home minister over for tea to discuss the issue.

There were many more incidents of violence across the state and Hochi informed the Robinson’s that Lechhen did not return since the day of the police station blast. Unlike the Robinson’s, Hochi still had an air of optimism about her.

Allan looked as if all life had been drawn from him. Lechhen stood by his side smiling and looking at the expression on the faces of the dumbstruck parents. Mrs. Robinson could not speak. She could not move. Mr. Robinson broke down. He couldn’t take it any more. At times pleasure can be painful. To this family of devout Christians Lechhen was the Savior in a human form. Allan slipped down to the floor. He was too tired to be up on his feet. Lechhen had a twinkle in his eyes. He had never felt so happy before. So much so that he did not realize that he had lost his left hand thumb a few hours back.

They all entered the house and Allan was taken to his room. His mother turned on the geyser for the water to warm for Allan’s bath. He put on his favourite night clothes and after having a most refreshing bath he joined his parents and Lechhen in the drawing room. As he was quite shaken by the events of the past few days, Lechhen volunteered with the details of his return.

He told them that the entire plan of blowing up the police station was to divert the attention of the police and army towards fresh incidents and thus the security in the prisons was slackened a bit. As he had source in almost every place where they kept prisoners, he soon found out about Allan’s exact location. Allan had been kept with many of his own men, convicted of various valiant acts of the ‘freedom struggle’. Since bombs were going off all over the town so security was quite slack in the detention camp. The rest was full of the details of the operation.

Mrs. Robinson was all ears while hugging onto her son at the same time. But Allan’s father was in deep thought. He was no longer sure whether violence was all that despicable. He would be lying to himself if he said that he wasn’t happy to see his son again, knowing fully well the methods involved for the reunion to take place. Being fully aware of the number of lives lost in the process and some innocent ones included. He was just ecstatic to have his son back and to him Lechhen was a hero, so what if he took so many lives and spread terror.

Allan went to sleep on the sofa. Lechhen continued giving details of the evening while Mrs. Robinson went into the kitchen to get some refreshments for Lechhen. Mr. Robinson sat there in his drawing room, lost in his thoughts about what’s right and what’s wrong while the tea brewed.


Maverick said...

this story is somewhat similar in style to the movie "In the name of the father". do watch it if u get the time. its a good one!

Suhel Banerjee said...

Wasn't aware of this, thanks for letting me know.

And I take this as a compliment after reading the reviews on the movie;)

Unknown said...

really a wonderful story suhel.

Suhel Banerjee said...

Thanks a lot Projjalda! Maybe will start writing again:)