by Meghali Daniel
Sadori shivered as she recalled the events of that evening – events that will forever remain etched in her mind. She had been eleven years old then – an innocent victim, who happened to be in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Nevertheless, it had scarred her for life. She could still feel the panic that had gripped her that night. Now, as an adult, she still feels nervous about walking alone on dark deserted roads. Her childhood trauma has not stopped haunting her and every shadow still appears sinister, as it did on that fateful October evening of 1972……
It was the fourth day of Durga Puja celebrations and Kancha was euphoric at the birth of his son. He needed to shop for clothes for the baby and he had asked a then eleven-year-old Sadori, if she would like to look at the shops in Police Bazaar – the main shopping center in all of Shillong.
The family regarded Kancha more as a member of their household. Ma referred to him as her other son because he was younger than her oldest child. Sadori was just a baby when Kancha came to work for them as a young teenager.
Sadori liked the festive air in the commercial area. The brightly lit shops with their colourful lights, displayed their wares attractively to entice the puja-goers that thronged the street in all their finery. The latest Hindi film songs blared from loudspeakers, adding to the noise and chaos.
They had taken the bus and when they got off at their stop Sadori felt the familiar thrill as she saw the place bustling with activity. Yet, despite the visible normalcy, one could feel an undercurrent of urgency as people hurried with their shopping, unwilling to linger around unnecessarily. The tension between the two groups escalated after the murder of a prominent member of one of the groups.
Ma had given her some money to buy some baby clothes so Sadori made Kancha guide her to Mohini’s Store where she soon selected a baby blue flannel blanket and a sweater with matching booties. The salesman generously added a woollen cap to complete the set – it was the festive season after all.
Sadori thanked him as she accepted the white paper shopping bag with the shop’s name printed in big bold coloured letters. Such bags were rarely given except on festive occasions and were therefore greatly valued for they could be used many times over.
No trip to Police Bazaar was complete without a visit to the famous Indian sweet shop – Delhi Mistan. They were famous for their jalebis, the best in town and Ma had given her some extra money to buy the freshly made hot jalebis.
The place was always packed with people and Sadori joined the queue as she waited to be served.
The four shop assistants served the customers with a speed that came with a lot of practice and Sadori could hear the people in front shout out their orders.
‘300 grams for me!’
‘Half a kilo!’ Sadori joined in.
She watched the twisted circular jalebis sizzle in the hot oil and soon float to the top of the large iron pan of bubbling oil. The big-bellied man skilfully scooped them out with a huge slotted metal spoon, before dropping them into another large pan of sugar syrup. It was then left to the rest to his helpers to take them out of the syrup and place them in the large aluminum trays.
Sadori was mesmerized by his actions.
‘Aapko kitna dena hai baby-ji?’ One of the assistants asked her with an indulgent smile.
‘Aadha kilo,’ and she repeated her order.
The shop assistant offered her a free jalebi to eat as he weighed half a kilo for her. She counted the money carefully before handing it to him.
Kancha took the brown packet with the hot jalebis from her and put it inside the small jute shopping bag that he always carried with him.
It was only 7:30 pm but most of the shopkeepers were getting ready to close their stores- another sign of the changing times in Shillong. No one wanted to be caught in the middle of the two conflicting groups. They overheard some of the passers-by mention trouble in Laban and Sadori was now anxious to get back home as soon as possible.
The two of them walked up to the bus stop but it was already packed with people, everyone desperate to get back to the safety of their homes. It was quite impossible to push their way through.
The next bus was not due for another thirty minutes.
Reluctantly Sadori agreed to walk all the way back home. She had initially refused to take the shorter route as it was a back road and there were no streetlights.
Sadori feared the dark greatly. Even when at home she was too scared to venture into a room if the light was switched off.
She had tried to dissuade him but Kancha was full of cheer and swagger on becoming a first-time father of a son and he had laughed off her fears.
‘No one would dare do anything when I am around,’ he had said.
Her misgivings about walking on the dark and empty street did not go away but she refrained from objecting too much and allowed Kancha to lead the way.
The road was completely deserted and Sadori’s fears increased with every step. Soon they saw lights in the distance. As they neared the place, they saw that it was a CRPF camp, strictly sent to troubled areas to assist in maintaining law and order – and in 1972, Shillong and the whole of Assam, were considered high-risk areas.
She could hear her heart thumping against her chest and her heightened senses made her overly nervous. She imagined danger looming ahead at every step. Frightened by some unnamed fear, she had suggested that they ask for assistance at the camp, but once again, Kancha scorned at her fears.
Their footsteps sounded exceptionally loud to her in the stillness of the place and soon her sharply tuned ears heard the sound of a stream. She let off a small sigh of relief for it meant that the long flight of steps (nicknamed Jacob’s ladder), was not very far. The steps led directly to the Square that was always brightly lit.
It made her impatient and she increased her pace.
Fear had made her tongue-tied but a euphoric Kancha would not stop talking about the grand plans he had for his newborn son.
She urged him to hurry.
‘Sunkaale bola,’ she pleaded in Assamese.
Jacob’s ladder was still some distance away and she was desperate to reach those stairs.
Her nervousness grew when she saw a shadow on the side of the road, a little ahead of them. As they approached, she could make out that it was a man leaning with his back to the wall. He stood casually on one leg while the other rested against the wall. The glow from his cigarette seemed to light up in the dark. The man appeared to be waiting for someone.
Fear had made her notice in detail as they walked past him.
It must have been some premonition that made her turn to look behind once more at the sinister silhouette and that was when she saw the dark figure of a second man coming out from behind a bush. By now the first man had moved away from the wall and was standing on the road a few feet away from them.
She noticed that both the men were wearing black clothes, the two figures blending in the darkness of the night. They now appeared all the more sinister and panic gripped her once gain. Before she could utter any warning, the two men came up from behind and hit Kancha on the head.
Kancha fell to the ground screaming in pain. Just as he fell, he pushed her into the large drain on the side of the road.
The men hit Kancha a second time, probably to stop his screams but his loud cries were already heard by the men in the nearby CRPF camp and their response was immediate.
‘Kaun hai? Kaun hai? They called out, shining their powerful torches towards the source of the screams.
The authoritarian voices from the camp made the muggers run for cover, but they took Kancha’s watch and wallet before disappearing into the darkness of the night.
The concerned voices of the CRPF men encouraged Sadori to crawl out from the drain, crying and shivering with fear.
Surprised by her cries, they hurried to the spot and saw a Kancha lying hurt on the ground.
Two of the men shone their bright torches to look for the attackers but it was too dark and there were plenty of trees and bushes for the attackers to take cover.
Back at the CRPF camp, Sadori was barely coherent as she tried to tell them what had happened. Her teeth chattered and her trembling hands had difficulty holding the cup of hot tea that was placed in her hands by one of the kind men while another tended to Kancha’s wounds. It was a severe head injury and Kancha’s head was soon wrapped in a thick bandage to stop the bleeding.
The one in charge of the camp suggested getting them a taxi but Sadori was too terrified to leave the safety of the camp without some proper escort. She became hysterical and stubbornly refused to leave unless someone accompanied her and Kancha home.
Their leader was then left with no choice but to agree to her tearful pleadings.
About the Author:
Meghali Daniel is a retired English Language Teacher, currently residing in her hometown of Guwahati, Assam. She has written several short stories. At present, she is editing her novel which is largely based on her life, region, and culture.