Mastering others is strength. Mastering oneself makes you fearless.
- Lao Tzu
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Abdul’s stomach growled with hunger, he has not eaten anything since last night. Only a small pack of mango juice, the 12-year-old could not resist, has found way to his empty stomach. He was so weary that his already dark skin had become even darker, his skinny frame now skinnier and his eyes dry, unable to generate any more tears. He crossed his hands around his stomach and pressed it so tight, as if punishing it for being unfaithful to him. He once again peeped out of the box, where his abductors had kept him, through a small hole.
All he could see was a narrow river, bordered with mud banks held by the roots of small trees it gave birth to, many of those roots were visible well above the mud, forming various shapes. The river was relatively calm and was reflecting the stars twinkling in the clear sky above the vast mangrove; it appeared like a long sheet of a reflecting marble, cutting through the wild without losing its shine, the roots looked like dancing couples ready to take over the aisle from both the sides, and the stars like small twinkling lights illuminating the ball room below. To a newly married couple or a group of teenagers, visiting the place as a tourist, the scenery would have been worth capturing with their cameras. But for Abdul, the placidity of the river was reflecting his misery, the trees were lamenting over his loneliness and the sky was telling him that back at home his mother was looking at the sky too, with eyes full of despair and heart full of hope.
In a locality near the Beliaghata road in Kolkata, Naseema was sitting outside her small house holding a bowl of sewai, her son’s favourite sweet dish, and was staring at the dark gloomy sky when her husband approached. She stood up almost immediately looking behind her husband, searching for her son. She asked him, “where is Abdul?” He did not utter a word; she asked again, “what Tousif? Did you find him?” he stood still. Their neighbour and Tousif’s friend, Mr. Singh arrived.
He said, “The police have no clue of the whereabouts of Abdul yet, but the Children welfare NGO has promised to create pressure on the police to search more intensively.”
“But because tomorrow is Dussehra, police would be very busy and there is little hope that they will do anything before the immersion processions,” he added.
“They say in most cases children of poor people are abducted for trafficking rather than ransom and seeing at the duration for which Abdul has gone missing, it’s difficult to say in which corner of India he is now. They say our son would have been sold till now,” Tousif lamented, “as if our son is a toy that could be sold in a market!”
“No, the police know nothing, our son will be back soon. I’ll pray to Allah day and night, he will have to bring my Abdul back,” Naseema retorted and went inside the house.
“We will find our Abdul, you take care of Bhabhi g,” said Singh, patting on Tousif’s shoulder consolingly, “We will leave tomorrow again to search him, after my morning prayers,” he added.
Tousif turned to his friend and thanked him for his support in that hour of adversity. Singh moved towards his house. Tousif looked up and prayed, “Yah Allah, be merciful.”
Tousif was the sole earner of the house. He was a tailor and has only got this skill and a sewing machine in heritage. After his father’s death, he had migrated to this city with his wife, two bags and a sewing machine, and managed to find a tenement house in that locality for 475 rupees per month. He used to sit just outside the locality with his sewing machine under a lamp post, to which he would chain the machine during night. People called him Master, he earned approximately 200 to 300 rupees per day and when lucky enough, he would get orders for stitching a kurta or pyjama and lungis(a garment wrapped around the waist, worn mainly in South India and by Muslims). He charged 60 rupees for a lungi, though many would pay only 50 or 55. The day he would get a lungi to stitch, he would bring two small packs of mango juice, worth rupees 10 each, for his children.
“What happened?” Mrs. Singh asked her husband. He opened his shirt and while hanging it on the door, asked his wife to serve the dinner. While Singh talked about the developments in Abdul’s case, his wife served out the dinner in the kitchen; the kitchen was divided from the room by a six feet long plywood. A bed and a cupboard with a television kept over it, took more than half of the space in the room, the rest of the space was used to offer prayers and have meals. The bed was big enough to accommodate Mr. and Mrs. Singh and their son, Rajat.
Mrs. Singh served the dinner and went to meet Naseema. They lived on the fourth floor and Naseema’s house was on the third.
Naseema’s house, like rest of the houses in that locality, was a replica of Singh’s house. The locality had 3 residential buildings with similar features, all of them 4 stories tall with 6 to 8 small houses on each floor. One end of those buildings had staircases that led to a long passage on each floor, the length of the passage almost equal to the length of the floor; at the end of the passage were common blocks of bathrooms and latrines, shared by the residents of that floor. These passages were open on one side and had doors of houses on the other side.
Two third of the residents in that locality were Muslims, while the rest were Hindus, still, they lived in peace, their cultural differences mattered less than a cricket match between Canada and Afghanistan. They were more friendly and united then rest of the places in Kolkata and probably India; they celebrated every festival with the same spirit. They hugged each other on EID and lighted the candles on Deewali together. They danced in the immersion procession of Durga and Ganesha idols, side by side. They welcomed New Years like a large family. The Muslims never complained of the smoke coming from a Hindu neighbor’s house during a Hawan. The Hindus never complained of the sound of Morning Prayer, Azaan, coming from the mosque outside the locality.
Tousif left the house again in search of his son, Adiba caught up to him before the staircase, “Abbu please have dinner first, otherwise you’ll get tired soon and would not be able to search Bhaijaan,” she said. He smiled and agreed to have dinner.
Adiba ran back to her house, opened the box in which Mrs. Singh had brought dinner for them, took out 2 chapattis and kept them side by side, she then put the vegetable at the centre of both the chapattis and folded them, making a roll. She went out and handed the chapatti-rolls to her father saying, “Have it while you walk Abbu, it will not consume much time.” Tousif was surprised at the smartness of his child. “Who taught you to eat this way?” He asked.
“Bhaijaan, Abbu, whenever we are late for school he makes a roll which we eat on the way. It saves a lot of time.” She replied.
Tousif went down on his knees and kissed on her forehead.
“I will find him,” He said before leaving.
As he left his locality, loud beats of dhak (a drum like music instrument played with wooden sticks), which he and his family enjoyed every year, now teased his ears. The colour changing lights on the streets, which they loved to watch, now pricked his eyes. He realized that it was the ninth day of Durga Puja. The day, he was supposed to take his son to a fair to celebrate the festival.
The festival during which Kolkata does not sleep, people spend their nights visiting Pandals rather than their dream lands. People dance to the beats of dhak and wear traditional dresses; they reunite with their school and college friends, they get a break from the monotonous life and drown themselves in the spirit of the festival. The city of joy showcases its best artistic talent during this festival, with Pandals made on various themes ranging from women empowerment and climate change to children’s books. Entire city seems to be blanketed in strands of colourful lights, illuminating the metropolitan from dusk to dawn. Even, the darkest streets and abandoned lanes, where drug peddlers generally operate, get’s brightened up to provide the Pandal hoppers a shortcut less used. Every second lane has a Durga idol placed in an artistic Pandal, made by the cash contributions of the residents of that area. Lakhs of people from across the country queue outside Pandals to get a look at the masterpiece. The festival flaunts the most valued assets of the city, its artists.
However, the festival did not appeal to Tousif that day. His face reflected a sad and distraught soul of a father. He went to a local political leader, Hamid. Hamid was in his early fifties; he always wore a taqiyah (a short, rounded skull cap) and a pathani kurta, which outlined his well stuffed fat belly sharply. He was talking to a group of men outside his house, when Tousif reached. “What is the need of playing dhak all the time? These Hindus actually do this intentionally to irritate us.” He said.
“Yes, they want to show that it is their land,” said one of the men, puffing his nostrils in anger.
“Exactly, we must do something,” said Hamid, patting the man’s shoulder.
Tousif hesitatingly interrupted, “Hamid bhai, do u have a minute?”
“Oh Master! I heard about your son, my heart aches for you,” said Hamid, taking Tousif’s hand in his hands consolingly.
Tousif bent his head and kissed Hamid’s hand, “Hamid bhai, I need your help. The police will not do much before the immersion processions.”
“Don’t lose heart, I will ask my men to search for your child.” “Thank you Hamid bhai.”
“By the way master, I’ve learned that your son was with Singh’s son and other Hindu friends when he
“Oh! I think it has something to do with…you know, they say how children of our community are being targeted.”
“What do you mean Hamid bhai?”
“I think, the Hindu organisations have something to do with it.”
Tousif removed his hands from Hamid’s hold at these words, “No No Hamid bhai, It’s impossible.”
“Well, I said what I think is true.” Hamid shrugged. “Anyway, I will help my fellow Muslim as much as I can.”
Hamid went inside his house with the people. Tousif stood still, he pitied Hamid’s mentality.
One day ago:
Abdul and Rajat were playing at Rajat’s house. Mrs. Singh was worshiping the photo of goddess durga, which was hung on the wall beside her cupboard. While chanting a mantra, she came towards Rajat and tied a red and yellow coloured thread on his right wrist. She then asked Abdul if his father was at home. He replied, “No, Abbu out for work.”
“Good then, I will visit your mother,” she said. As She was about to leave, Abdul stopped her. “Aunty, you
forgot to tie the thread on my wrist,” he said. Mrs. Singh smiled and came towards Abdul, she took the
thread and asked him, “Do you know what this is?”
“Oh! Tell me.”
“It saves us from evil.”
“Exactly, who told you this?” She asked, tying the thread on Abdul’s wrist.
“Ammi. She also says Maa Durga and Allah are all same, they have different names but they all want their children to stay safe and happy!” Abdul said, as if he had mugged up the lines like a mathematical table.
The boy’s thought was all that the world needs to stay safe and happy, thought Mrs. Singh.
“She is right Abdul. Allah and Maa Durga are all same” She said.
Mrs. Singh went to Naseema while Abdul and Rajat began planning for visiting Pandals. Naseema was sitting on a mat and performing Namaaz (prayers), while Adiba was sitting in a corner and drawing trees and mountains on the page she was supposed to answer the questions of mathematics on. Mrs. Singh sat on the ground, behind Naseema with folded hands. After the Namaz, Naseema stood up smiling, “You don’t need to sit like that, it’s not a Hawan,” She said.
Naseema and Mrs. Singh talked for hours, about their husband’s busy schedule, the evil characters of daily soaps and the neighbours. At last Mrs. Singh remembered why she went there at first place, “Send Adiba to my house tomorrow morning, I am doing Kumari Poojan tomorrow (a ritual performed on the 8th or 9th day of Durga Puja, where devotees worship and feed nine young girls),” she said.
The same evening, Abdul wore his new kurta-pyjama, stitched by his father and went with his friends to a nearby Pandal.
Rajat, Abdul, Subham and Ankit danced to the beats of dhak in the Pandal, after that tiring dance they had glasses of free lemonade on a stall near the Pandal.
“Let’s go now,” Abdul said.
“Arey! Guys listen, there is a Pandal near Anthony school, they were serving free Khichdi yesterday, it was so yummy, let’s go there” Rajat said, with watery mouth. “But I don’t know the way,” said Abdul.
“We know it, let’s go!” Ankit said, eagerly.
To their surprise, they got Kheer instead of khichdi. They loved it and went to the stall again with smiling faces, hiding their nervousness. The person serving the kheer gave them a strict look but did not say anything. After finishing the second bowl, they did not dare go again.
They went to pray to the goddess inside the Pandal, they closed their eyes and prayed with folded hands. Abdul looked at deity’s idol attentively, she was wearing a red saree and a halo was made behind her head, she was sitting on a tiger which was tearing apart a buffalo. She was holding a Trishul which was thrusted into a devil’s chest.
After coming out of the Pandal, Rajat asked Ankit, “What did you pray for?” “I prayed for one more bowl of kheer,” Ankit replied. Shubham and Rajat shouted in unison, “Me too.”
“What did you pray for?” Rajat asked Abdul.
“I prayed for 3 more bowls of Kheer.”
“HAHAHA!” they laughed instantly.
“You liked it so much that you want to have three more bowls?” Shubham asked.
“No, I want those for Ammi, Abbu and Adiba,” He said.
“Ohh! Let’s wait then for that man to move from the stall,” Ankit suggested.
They stood near the Pandal and played hand cricket, stone-paper-scissor and thumb wrestling while waiting there. After half an hour of wait, they lost hope.
They turned to leave, when suddenly Ankit shouted, “Guys, look look, he is going out!” “Yaay!” they cheered and ran towards the stall.
They shared from one bowl and gave the rest to Abdul; he kept two of the bowls in one hand and one in the other.
As they turned to leave, the man who first served them was standing right before them. His fat belly looked like a water tank to them.
“Ei chele gulo, khub bodmash! (These boys are very wicked!)” He shouted, pointing at them.
They scattered here and there in haste. Rajat went right with Shubham, Ankit ran towards left, while Abdul ran towards the Pandal behind him. He entered a narrow lane behind the Pandal, it was dark; the Puja committee members probably thought it was the most unimportant place to light. Even the yellowish street light was flickering. Abdul was scared, he could not go back towards the Pandal because the man would seize the bowls of kheer. He decided to wait there for sometime under the lamp post, he looked at the bowls in his hands. He imagined the look on Adiba’s face while eating the kheer, he imagined his mother offering the kheer to his father, saying, “Look, our son has brought this kheer for us, all the way from Anthony School.” He imagined himself narrating the story of how he saved the bowls of kheer from the man. He was so happy, he felt like dancing to the beats of dhak that was being played in the Pandal.
All of a sudden, a hand appeared out of the dark from behind and grabbed his mouth, before he could react, another hand grasped his waist. His heart was fluttering, he trembled like a bird in the hold and his eyes seemed popping out. He struggled to free himself from that grip, when suddenly he felt he is being lifted up, he moved his legs frantically. The kheer splattered on the ground.
Tousif and his neighbours searched for Abdul throughout the night, but all they could find was the three bowls of kheer. At dawn, Tousif and Singh went to report the police and spent the whole day searching for Abdul.
A ringing cell phone woke him up, Abdul half opened his eyes; he was lying on the floor in a small room, his hands and legs were tied together, his mouth was taped. He looked around; to his right was a bed, where the phone was kept, to his left a wall and before him was a door. A skinny looking man opened the door and rushed towards the bed.
“Yes dada (brother), hello,” he said, picking up the phone.
“Yes yes Joy here.” he continued.
Abdul thought of escaping through that door.
“10-12 years old dada,” he said while biting his nails. “No no dada...medium complexion…no, not much fair.”
Abdul could not untie the rope and began crawling towards the door.
“How much?” Joy asked hesitantly. “Ok ok. Where dada?”
“Bangladesh?” he confirmed. “Yes yes, everyone is busy celebrating Puja, it would be easy.” Abdul’s heart was pounding as he reached near the door.
“Zakir?” Joy asked. “I will call him before reaching dada…” he paused, “Yes yes I will leave now dada.” Joy disconnected the phone and looked back. Abdul was not in the room, he hurried out and found Abdul crawling towards the street.
Joy held Abdul by his Kurta’s color and dragged him back inside the house.
“Look, don’t repeat this mistake otherwise I will chop you into pieces and throw you into the gutter,” he warned Abdul with red eyes.
Drops of perspiration appeared on Abdul’s forehead, tears rolled down his cheeks as he saw the devil in Joy’s eyes.
Joy left the house and came back after an hour with eggs, bread and a small pack of mango juice. “Now I will open your mouth and hands, if you shout, remember what I will do to you. Finish this bread and juice fast, we need to leave,” he said, opening Abdul’s hands.
Abdul did not eat the bread. “I want to go home,” he demanded, “Let me go home.” “Do you want this?” Joy asked, showing a knife.
Abdul did not dare speak anymore and kept staring at Joy.
Abdul was hungry, he looked at the mango juice and then at Joy, he wanted to have it but did not want his abductor to know that he gave in to hunger. When he was sure that Joy was busy eating and would not look, he took the juice, gulped it in one breathe and threw the empty pack under the bed.
Joy poured some chloroform on a piece of cloth and placed it over Abdul’s mouth, making him unconscious. He untied his legs and took him in his arms.
Joy queued up before the ticket window at Sealdah railway station, with Abdul in his arms. He boarded the local train and laid Abdul on a seat, before dialing a number on his cell phone.
“Hello, Zakir dada? Joy here,” he said, “I will reach Canning in 2 hours.” After disconnecting the phone, he sat down and put Abdul’s head on his lap.
At Canning railway station, Zakir, a child trafficker and a smuggler, was waiting for Joy. Zakir was a well built man; his muscular biceps, unshaven beard and a large forehead made people maintain a safe distance from him.
As the train arrived, Zakir spotted Joy and waved at him, Joy walked towards him.
“How are you?” Joy asked, shaking hands with Zakir.
“Good, go freshen up in the toilet, till then I will check up the boy,” Zakir said, with authority.
When Joy returned, Zakir was done checking Abdul.
“We will leave for Sunderbans in the evening, first we will cross the Ikshamati river in a boat, on the other side a buffalo cart will be waiting for us, that will take us to the next river bank, from where we will cross the borders and enter into Bangladesh,” Zakir said, “Till then you can take rest.” Joy looked apprehensive, but could not dare ask any question.
Tousif’s watch ticked 10, He called up Singh. “Hello!”
“Yes” Singh replied.
“I met Hamid now.”
“Oh! What did he say?”
“I don’t think he will be of any help.”
“Okay, do one thing.”
“I will go meet Pandey, let’s see what he says,” said Singh.
“Okay, meet me outside the police station.”
“It’s useless to go there.”
Singh went to meet Pandey, a Hindu political leader of the area.
Pandey was sitting outside his house with some people when Singh reached.
He was wearing a white kurta-pyjama and an orange waist coat. He was chewing tobacco and while he spoke, the tobacco would fall on his coat and mix with its color.
“Now, you tell me Ghosh babu, what is the need of beating drums in our areas to celebrate your festival?” He said to one of the persons sitting there, “I mean if you want to celebrate Muharram or mourn, do it in your area, why disturb us?”
“We need to show these Muslims their original place,” said another person.
“Exactly!” Pandey said.
Listening to this conversation, Singh understood that Pandey is of no help and left.
He met Tousif outside the police station.
“What did Pandey say, you met him?” Tousif asked.
“To hell with Pandey, he is as useless as Hamid and the police,” Singh said frustratingly. “I met the inspector, he said he is doing what he can.” “Useless.”
“Do not worry. Let’s go home, you need some rest,”
“After Two hours, Dussehra will begin, the day when the good wins over the evil. I am sure we will find our Abdul by tomorrow, Keep faith in Allah,” said Singh. “And in Maa Durga,” replied Tousif, with a faint smile.
Zakir and Joy were unloading the boat; the boatman was handing over the boxes of animal skins and elephant’s tusk to Zakir, who passed them to Joy and Joy passed them to the Cart driver, Naved, who was loading the boxes on the cart. All of them were wearing black clothes, even the boat and the cart were painted in black to escape the eyes of the officers patrolling in the night. Abdul has fallen asleep inside the box.
“Now get on the cart,” said Naved, “We need to cover a long distance.”
They were crossing the forest, the land of Royal Bengal Tigers and home to hundreds of species of birds and animals. The forest that connects Bangladesh and India, intersected everywhere by river channels and creeks, a complex set-up of mangrove forests, marshy lands and streams.
Their cart was heading towards the border, Joy looked at his watch anxiously, it was Midnight. He closed his eyes and prayed, “Oh Goddess Durga lead us out of this jungle safely.” The cart stopped. Zakir asked Naved, “What happened?”
Naved looked at left then right, trying to fathom something. “Listen carefully, footsteps of an animal.”
Joy’s heart began thumping, “Is it a tiger?”
“Shut up you fool,” Zakir hushed.
Naved took out three spears from above the cart and handed two to Zakir and Joy. “Be quite and just try to listen and interpret from which side it is going to attack,” Naved instructed them. They listened alertly, but the sound echoed from all the directions.
Perspiration rolled down Naved’s forehead as he guessed the reason, “It’s not alone.”
“What?” Joy asked frantically.
“It’s an ambush.”
The buffaloes grunted and started behaving strange.
Zakir grasped his spear firmly; he was ready for an assault from any direction.
“Let’s throw the boy outside so that they get distracted and we get a moment to escape,” Joy suggested.
Zakir and Naved nodded at each other, they heard a soft roar from the left direction.
Zakir hurried up, he opened the box and woke Abdul up.
Abdul looked here and there, trying to figure out the place.
“Want to go to your mother?” Zakir asked.
“OK, I will leave you here, run towards the left direction and you will find her.” Abdul’s dull face suddenly brightened up as he heard those words.
“Yes, there you will find your mother, go now, hurry up,” Zakir said, as Naved and Joy kept watch.
Abdul grinned as Zakir helped him get down the cart. “Run run, go fast,” Zakir said.
Abdul began running towards the left, he could not see anything except trees and long bushes.
As soon as he disappeared in the bushes, Zakir, Naved and Joy left the cart and began running frontward. Two tigers from left, leaped over the buffaloes. Joy looked back at the cart while running, he saw the tigers tearing the flesh of the buffaloes, that scene sent chills down his spine. As he turned his head to the front, a tiger attacked on him from his right and mauled him in seconds. Zakir was running as fast as he could, followed by Naved.
“Avoid the bushes,” Naved instructed Zakir.
After a moment, all that Zakir could hear was his footsteps, he stopped and looked back, darkness everywhere, he could not figure out which way to go and before he could make a decision, a deafening roar shattered the silence of the forest, making him tremble in fear. In seconds, he found himself surrounded by three tigers, the tigers attacked him as he vainly waved his spear and feasted over his mutilated body.
Abdul collapsed on the ground. Blood oozed out of his mouth, he was losing consciousness, and everything before his eyes began fading. He heard the tigers roaring, but suddenly a smile appeared on his face, he saw his mother coming towards him. She had an unusual gleam on her face, the moon in the sky appeared like a halo behind her head and unlike always, she was not wearing a burqa but was clad in a red saree. Abdul waved at her, murmuring softly, “Ammi I am here.”
The morning Azaan filled the atmosphere of the locality with serenity, followed by the sound of conch shell, coming from a Pandal beside the mosque. Tousif was already out, searching for his son, when he got a call from the police station.
“Hello!” he said, picking up the call.
“What?” his eyes brightened up.
“Yes Yes I am coming,” he said.
Tousif reached the police station in minutes.
He looked at the inspector with hope, “You have found him?” he asked.
“I think so; the army has found a 12-year-old boy and three dead bodies while patrolling in Sunderbans. He was unconscious and was rushed to hospital, when he woke up, he said his name is Abdul and is from Kolkata.”
“Where is he?” Tousif shouted in excitement.
“Relax, he is on his way.” The inspector calmed Tousif.
Tousif waited in the police station till noon, his anxiety did not allow him to call his wife.
He saw a police jeep arriving, he stood up. Tears of happiness rolled down his cheeks as he saw his child running towards him. He went down on his knees and hugged Abdul. He cried it all out at that moment, all the sadness and anxiety he had buried in the bottom of his heart departed through those tears.
Abdul wiped his father’s tears with his hands and asked, “Where is Ammi?” “She is waiting for you at home.”
“Why did she leave me in the hospital, Abbu?
“She saved me from tigers in the forest and the when I woke up, Ammi was not there.” A bewildered Tousif kept staring at Abdul while he went on narrating the events in detail.
Tousif picked his boy in his arms and headed towards his house, as they crossed the Anthony school, they saw the idol of the Pandal, from where Abdul was kidnapped, was being taken for the immersion. People were bidding farewell to the goddess, while dancing to the beats of dhak and playing with gulaal. Tousif looked at the idol with eyes filled with gratitude, he stroked Abdul’s hairs affectionately and said, “Let’s have a mango juice.”