Mr. Ranjan had never stolen a rupee in his life. Not when he was a kid short on pocket money and the latest Amitabh Bachchan movie was playing in the cinema hall. Not when he had a rich college roommate and had an unpaid tab at the campus chaiwala running into months. Not when he got a clerical job at the local water board and was newly married and couldn’t afford to to buy a home or a car or go anyplace nice.
He struggled from day to day, slogging over paperwork that others only unearthed for a hefty price. And for what? his wife asked. A framed photograph on the company wall? They lived like poor while all his colleagues bought cars and fridges and microwaves and grew fatter on meals cooked in pure ghee.
But Mr. Ranjan did not mind. When somebody praised him for his honesty, his heart would swell with pride.
He saved money wherever he could. Walking to office and back home. Only eating the tiffin packed for him by his wife. Making do with the free (heavily watered down) tea served twice a day while others went on lengthy breaks. He would quickly consume the two biscuits served alongside and return to work. The only indulgence he ever allowed himself was the stop over at the ice cream van on his way back from work, to buy a cola bar for his daughter, Nivedita, who was the center of his small, honest universe.
When he reached home, taking care not to crush the ice cream in his haste, he found his daughter standing by the doorsteps, waiting anxiously for his return.
“Papa, let me take your bag,” she said, and she took his bag and set it down on the stool by the door. Then she helped him out of his coat, which she hanged on the lowest peg. And then she rushed to the kitchen to get him a glass of water. Mr. Ranjan took it graciously as he joined his wife at the sofa, the only “real furniture” in their house. His wife continued chopping a cabbage into a utensil in preparation for dinner, paying no need to them both.
The daughter now reemerged from the kitchen with a plate of hot snacks and a cup of steaming tea and refused to sit down and join him. Mr. Ranjan couldn’t fathom what he had done to deserve such special treatment, but was delighted at the sight of freshly fried aloo pakoras.
“Your daughter wants a new cycle for sports day,” said Mrs. Ranjan, not missing a chop. “The old one’s no good, she says. Stalls on her mid-race. If she wins this time, her coach says she can even tryout for nationals. But for that she needs a good race bike. The kind you see in films.”
“Then we must get her one,” he said, sipping the tea satisfactorily and munching on a pakora. “It is not everyday you get a chance like that.”
“I knew you would say that,” said Nivedita with glee. She ran into her room and returned with a pile of brochures which she dropped on the table with an excited thud.
“The coach gave it to her for reference,” said Mrs. Ranjan. “Go on, flip through one.”
Mr. Ranjan took the topmost one and scanned it with some interest.
“I especially like the one on page 6,” said the daughter, settling on the armrest by his side. “It has all the features at half the price.”
Mr. Ranjan’s gaze quickly dropped to the price — 7,575 — and he frowned. “When’s the sports day?” he asked equably. If his mind was busy tabulating all the money in the piggy bank, the loose change in his pocket, the little savings in the bank, and all the coins lost under matrices or in between sofa crevices, he did not let it show.
“Next Sunday,” she said. “Could we please go tomorrow to the cycle shop and buy it, Papa? I saw it in their display window. I asked the shopkeeper uncle and he said they have only one left. In red.”
Mr. Ranjan noticed that his coat pocket was dripping by the door. In all this excitement, he’d forgotten all about the ice cream. And in all her anxiety, his daughter had forgotten to ask him whether he’d got her favorite cola bar today.
“Can we, papa? Please?” she said instead.
Mr. Ranjan collected his thoughts. After all, as his wife would point out later, it was he who’d insisted she must have one. He had to manage somehow.He couldn’t disappoint her, not after saying yes.
“I suppose we could,” he said equably. And then he grabbed the coat off the hook and went into the bathroom. There he washed the pocket under the tap before the stain could set in and ruin his one good coat.
The next day, he pawned his watch, the only item of any value he owned. His wife’s earrings and bangles already gracing the shop window. In return, he got a miserly 75 rupees from Mr. Baweja, who always pleaded hard times, gave the most solemn of looks, all the while fanning himself with a hand fan and chewing on a pan. See, can’t even afford a cold drink or an AC, he seemed to say. Anyone, by his account, was better off than him; even his customers, when in fact he had three bungalows and two office spaces to his name. And farms that kept his kitchen more than well supplied. Mr. Ranjan knew this. But he was the only pawnbroker around.
Even with this stopover, he reached office before everyone else and spent many an anxious moment figuring out ways to approach his boss, Varun babu, for an advance. The boss, when he arrived after a good two hours, lent him a patient ear. The files could wait, he said. Take a seat. So what’s the trouble? Sure, sure, yes, yes. Kids, they are are topmost priority. Anything for them. You are our most valued employee. A bike, you say? Well, you know how it is. I would personally lend you some money myself. You are after all our most trusted employee. But this being month end … Salary advance, you say? Well … it may take weeks for that to come through … Yes, always good to catch up. Thanks for stopping by.
Mr. Ranjan sat unblinking at his seat.
A small amount for his colleagues — Mrs. Goel, who mostly knitted and shelled peanuts in office hours; Venkat, who had a special skill to sniff out the loaded public and did a little snuff on the side, so that it seemed like he had a perpetual cold; and the office peon, Prasad, who for all his courtesies and obeisance, was quite shrewd and always on the lookout for an easy mark. Together, the three had sealed the fates of many a waterline in the district. With no help for him.
No, they wouldn’t help him out now.
He sat rubbing his forehead, leafing through a standard study on water quality in the district that was mundane at the best of times and now held little interest. The afternoon tea growing cold on his desk.
If the others were not out on their extended breaks, perhaps he could have averted what was to transpire. But as fate would have it, he was all alone in the office when a wealthy businessman in a sharp business suit dropped in, looking to fast track the permits for his lavish, four-story mansion in the town outskirts.
“It’s the law, sir,” said Mr. Ranjan at first. “No connection beyond the second floor.”
But the businessman, Mr. Solanki, was not one to be easily deterred by “rules.”
“Laws are for common people who lack imagination. They can’t see that like light, rules can be bent and shaped to suit ones interests. Come, sir,” he said slapping his protruding belly jovially, “what will it take for you to see the light?”
Mr. Ranjan sighed deeply. He had seen his colleagues slip innocent little notes to willing participants in this official charade. If he was shocked at the prospect of what he was about to do, his brain had missed to convey his reservations to his hand.
“That,” said Mr. Solanki unfolding the note, “is very doable. But do tell, why this very specific number? You could have asked for a lot more, though I would have negotiated and brought it down.”
Mr. Ranjan nodded. “It is what I need.” As if by restricting the amount to only 7,500 his corruption was rendered pardonable.
Mr. Solanki shrugged and chuckled at his good fortune as he set aside his sleek briefcase, most likely packed with bundles of cash, and slipped 15 crisp 500 rupee notes from his pocket into his file, after counting them meticulously twice. Then he shook Mr. Ranjan’s clammy hand as if to seal the deal. “Pleasure doing business with you,” he said jovially, though Mr. Ranjan was hardly comprehending anything and was mindlessly nodding along. He was only glad than none of his colleagues were around to watch his fall from grace. Oh how the righteous had stumbled, they’d say. And over what? A pile of loose change?
That Friday evening, the entire Ranjan family went out shopping for a bike. The bike was tested and bought, and the store owner, Mr. Mrinal, a tall, skinny man of 60 or so, pleased with Nivedita’s tale of how a race was won using this very bike and what she intended to do with it, offered to throw in a discount along with a cycle lock. The old cycle fetched another 500. So that when the Ranjan family left the cycle store, they had a few hundreds to spare. Along with a new racing bike.
Mr. Ranjan made a mental note to go and collect his pawned watch the very next day, but before he could steer his family toward their home, Mrs. Ranjan said, “let’s eat out tonight. To celebrate. Chinese or Continental?”
She looked around and spotted a South Indian restaurant nearby, clapped her hands with delight, and walked hurriedly towards it, leaving them both no choice but to follow.
There they ordered dosas the size of ships docked along pools of sambhar and chutney. Three plates of soft and sweet dahi bahla. And three cups of freshly brewed filter coffee.
“A meal fit for kings and queens,” said Mrs. Ranjan, delighted at this rare chance to not cook a meal. But Mr. Ranjan was far from attentive. The cycle was parked outside along the sidewalk, under the street lamp, in full view. The manager, though understanding, could not allow them to bring a “not a toy” cycle inside. Next, customers would want to park their cars indoors, he joked. And then buses and trucks. There would be no end to that. Besides, the sidewalk was a perfectly safe place to park. His own Yamaha was right besides their brand new cycle. Atlas was it?
They could have left it at the cycle store and collected it on their way back. And he was about to suggest the same when he saw Mr. Mrinal close the shop and head home. So that was out of the question.
But now Mr. Ranjan could hardly eat, his eyes darting to her cycle every few seconds. He saw a potential thief in every innocent passerby. He gasped at the sight of any bystander leaning on the lamp post, passing a cursory hand across the handles or seat. Then he spied a silhouetted figure lurking across the street and his chest tightened. The figure seemed to be watching them, him from under a fused street lamp, picking on his teeth with a toothpick.
Nivedita seemed to share his concern, though her fears were more to do with anyone keying her brand new cycle or deflating its tires. Just for fun.
“Stop fretting, you too,” said Mrs. Ranjan, annoyed at their distracted stabs at their dinner. “The sooner you’d finish, the sooner we’d head home and you can stop worrying about that cycle of yours.”
“Elbows off the table,” she said to Nivedita. “And stop kicking the table underneath.”
Mr. Ranjan sighed and looked out the window. The figure was gone.
Mr. Ranjan did not see the man again till he closed the main gate of his home. He had a feeling that he was being followed, but every time he looked back, he saw no one, only his shadow lengthening and shortening under the passing street lights.
Once he unlocked the front door, he insisted on bringing the cycle in as well. And then he quickly double-checked all the locks on the back door and windows. And then the front door again. The man was still there. Outside. Under Mishraji’s big mango tree that stooped over the boundary wall into the street. He thought of alerting the police, but then thought better of it. What would he say when asked why someone was following him? What would be his reply if asked how he got the money to afford the shiny new bike leaning behind the sofa in their living room?
Mr. Ranjan slept fretfully that night. And when he did, he dreamed of being chased by a dark, evil shadow across the town. At first, he tried to dodge this shadow. He ducked behind trees and bushes, slid through narrow alleyways, cut through bustling streets to throw it off. But the shadow was quick on his heels and he found himself running through the marketplace, past his daughter’s school, his home, past his office, into the woods, and out onto the bank of a river that was full yet still. The shadow never left his side. He ran into the water, as fast and as far as he could without sinking, and then laughed like a lunatic when the shadow finally disappeared. “Had enough, have you?” he laughed into the air and then caught a glimpse of his reflection. Saw the crazed look in his eyes. The madness in his face. And knew that he was trapped for life.
He awoke with a start. And quickly hurried to the window, to see if the man was still there. He didn’t part the curtains the entire way, just enough to get a clear view of the street without being spotted. It was broad daylight, but there was no strange, teeth-picking man about. But instead there was a white gypsy parked across from his gate that didn’t belong in a street where people owned scooters and small cars. He thought he saw two people in the front, but he wasn’t sure. Maybe they were known to Mishraji, who every other week had guests over from somewhere or the other. The man lived to entertain.
Mr. Ranjan drew close the curtains and sighed with relief. His wife was already preparing lunch, having failed to wake him up for his morning tea and breakfast. Even his daughter had woken before him today and had gone to school to practice on her new cycle.
He quickly brushed and rinsed and washed his face and had just settled down to read the morning paper when the doorbell rang.
“Mr. Ranjan?” said the man from the night before. Up close, his hard, pitted face was even more intimidating. He was well built and had hard, piercing eyes. Even through his well-worn bush shirt, he could see that his muscles were taut, as if he was readying to pounce, if the need be. He had a colleague with him. A shorter, more compact version of him. In an identical bush shirt, though crisper and well ironed. The businessman from yesterday.
“You?” replied Mr. Ranjan, using the slightly open door as a shield. “What do you want? Your file is under process. And I don’t work on weekends. Please leave.”
“We need to talk,” said the taller, pitted-face man, flashing a CBI ID at him. “Dev Ashish, CBI, special unit. We are looking into corruption at the water board. And we have proof — video evidence — that you accepted a bribe in your official capacity. And we know where it went. Proper, irrefutable evidence. You need to come with us.”
“Wait. Are you arresting me?” he asked. He could read the next day’s headlines, the looks on the faces of all the people he knew, who considered him the most honest man around. The smirks on the faces of his colleagues. Look, the price of being honest, they’d laugh at him. Might as well have done it from the start. His wife, his child, perhaps the only ones who’d think he was above reproach, would slowly start believing it too, the truth slowly chiding away at their closely guarded belief.
Mr. Ranjan didn’t realize how badly he wanted to flee. How he almost slammed the door into their faces. How the shorter, portly man, not so polite or jovial anymore, wedged his foot in the gap, shoved the door aside with his full weight, and grabbed him by collar, looking him squarely in his eyes. “Either you come with us quietly, or we drag you along. Your choice.”
Mr. Ranjan nodded, nonplussed. The officer let go of him and he fell back heavily on the stool, displacing his office bag. “What are you going to do to me?” he asked, his head in his hands.”I swear I have never done this before, or am ever going to do it again. I just needed the money. Mr. Solanki,” he said to the portly officer, “or whoever you are, you know I only took what I needed. Not a rupee more.”
Mr. Solanki, whom he later learned was also named Dev, shrugged. “A crime is still a crime. And all crimes must go punished.” The man did love his epitaphs.
“But if you cooperate,” interjected the taller Dev, playing the good cop in this scenario, “testify against all your colleagues who we know are dirty, perhaps we can persuade the higher-ups to go lenient on you.”
“But … but … everybody would know I did it. And they won’t let me work there anymore.”
“What is the alternative, bhai?” asked the shorter Dev. “After today, when we inform your office, you won’t be able to anyways.”
“Trust me,” said the taller Dev, “you won’t get a better deal than this. At least this way, you have a chance to redeem yourself.”
Mr. Ranjan realized that he was doomed. He asked if he could change first. He couldn’t just leave in his pajamas. His wife would wonder why and worry.
The two men scoffed but allowed it. “Just be quick about it,” said the taller Dev.
He called his wife, who came from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a cloth. “What is it?” she asked, annoyed at being interrupted mid-cook, and then noticed the two men by the door.
“I have to leave for work now,” he said to her. “It’s urgent. Please offer the guests tea and biscuits white they wait.” The officers scoffed yet again, but sat down.
He was not sure what they said to her, but she was all smiles. She must think they were some sahibs from the big office and that her husband was fast rising up the ranks. A gypsy having been specially sent to take him to some place important. Classified.
Little did she know that a few minutes from now her world was about to be turned upside down.
Mr. Ranjan quickly changed into a fresh pair of shirt and trousers, as a matter of habit than for any particular desire to seem presentable. He left a note telling his wife and daughter how much he loved them both. How they had made his life worth living. And how thankful he was to god for blessing him with them both. And then he climbed out the window and was never seen by anyone again.
After the weeks following his disappearance, the paper ran three seemingly unrelated articles.
On the first page was Venkat Desai flanked by the two Devs being escorted into the court, having turned a star witness in the “waterboard” case. He had been setup, shadowed, and trapped just like his former colleague who no longer appeared in the charge sheet. Too small a fish, too much paperwork.
On the sports page was a human interest piece on Nivedita, a girl from the town who, after struggling to win her school championship, against great personal odds, had qualified for the nationals. That too with an old cycle. The new one, her father’s last gift to her, having been stolen from the school fields where she’d left it lying along with the others while taking a break on the bleachers with the team. The same day he vanished from her life.
On the crime page, a man had been found floating face down in the river two towns away. His body bloated and damaged beyond recognition. Caught in driftwood and cycle parts. The police consider it a possible suicide. Or an accident. An astute, perhaps desensitized cop, after years of being on the force, remarks to a fellow cop in a bar, within the earshot of a journalist:”Perhaps that man leaned in too far. Perhaps he took a hard look at himself. Didn’t like what he saw and decided to call it a day. Lord knows, I’ve been on the brink of falling over quite a number of times myself.”