Being one of the ubiquitous, nondescript hamlets scattered all over
the country side, the village’s only claim to fame was a sand
quarry on this bank.
Wrapped in the dark blanket of night, the small village lay submerged in sleep. Not even a dog stirred in its pitch-black alleys on this moonless night. But in one lane, there was movement as Maniya picked his way slowly through the gloom. Stopping in front of a door, he knocked softly. Inside, Pakhar turned over on the bed and glanced at the door.
Coming,” he said, pulling off the blanket and getting up. Putting on his slippers and picking up a shroud, he stepped out. The chill made him shudder. “Must be around two in morning,” he thought.
Here,” said Maniya, offering a smouldering beedi. Placing it between his teeth, Pakhar took a deep drag and looked around. “The cold is killing tonight. Let us postpone this for some other day,” he said, expelling the acrid smoke.
Don’t be foolish. It is a perfect night of frost, and there isn’t a soul stirring. I have brought a couple of boiled eggs and a little desi daaru (country liquor) also. Will keep away the chill,” said Maniya, patting him on the back.
Thieves of the black night,” mumbled Pakhar, wrapping one end of the shroud carefully around his turban, and the rest around his shoulders like a mackintosh.
Both of them started off towards the edge of the village, which touched the eastern bank of a river. Being one of the ubiquitous, nondescript hamlets scattered all over the country side, the village’s only claim to fame was a sand quarry on this bank. Yearly auctions, which were total shams, allowed corrupt cartels rights to it.
“A drink and a couple of eggs between the two of us on a cold night like this? You sure know how to keep a man on the edge,” said Pakhar, as they trudged down the slope towards the bank. A thicket loomed ahead. Slowing down, Maniya lit a matchstick, and approached it slowly. He went on to remove a pile of dried sarkanda grass from its side, revealing a tractor and a trolley. Pakhar took a ferocious pull at the beedi which made it crackle, and then throwing it away, he climbed up on the driving seat. Maniya jumped upon the mudguard behind him. The engine came alive and the tractor lurched down the slope, towards the sarkanda thickets lining the river bank.
“It is better to be on the edge on a night like this, friend. After all, we are thieves, aren’t we?” said Maniya.
“Thieves in the eyes of law or that harami guard of the contractor, who can sell his own father for money?” asked Pakhar, as he pouted to exhale a burst of breath, which scattered the hair of his moustache. “I hid a sword under the trolley. Let the %&@ come. Thief or no thief, I am going to chop off his leg.”
The tractor crawled down the slope, like a prowling predator, and the darkness all around seemed to muffle the growl of its engine. A giant lurch made Maniya almost slide off the mudguard.
“ %&@ ! Enough to make a pregnant woman abort, that one,” cried Maniya, clutching the pipe of the canopy
“Take out that pint of yours and light the lamp while I back up the trolley,” said Pakhar, pressing the pedal right up to the floor to apply the worn-out brakes.
Ahead, the river bank emerged, its surface ravaged by ditches created by relentless quarrying for the dark grey, mudless sand, which sold at a premium in the town.
“It is hardly a pint but you make it sound like a whole big bottle. Let us do something first to earn it,” said Maniya. Climbing into the trolley, he threw a spade and a trough upon the wet sand, and jumped down to light the hurricane lamp.
“Back it up slowly, and keep to the left. There is a ditch on the right,” he said .
Pakhar backed the trolley across the sandy slush, carefully keeping it on the left edge of the ditch.
“The spade is for you, for the first half,” said Maniya, tying the lantern to the low branch of a kikar tree.
“Always cheating; you are no better than that harami,” retorted Pakhar, pulling off his blanket and taking off his slippers. “Sand cuts between the toes like a razor blade. But one cannot buy a new pair every other day and I don’t want to lose these in the sand,” he added, placing the slippers carefully at the edge of a thicket. Then spreading his legs, he dug his feet into the sand, spat between his palms, and picking up the spade, balanced it above his head for a moment.
“Here, take this,” he said, bringing it down in a neat swipe, hewing off a large chunk of wet sand and depositing it into the trough.
Soon, the night was filled with the dull thuds of the spade, heavy breathing, muted curses, and the stench of human sweat, which rose in the air, riding on the droplets of mist rising off the bank. A pile of the wet sand gradually grew in the middle of the trolley, where Maniya threw the contents of the trough with neat, twisting movements of his arms. An odd gust of breeze swayed the lantern, making the shadows dance crazily and the river water throw up a dull shimmer in the inky night.
“Mining officer himself to nab two puny sand thieves?” Pakhar asked.
“Stop,” whispered Maniya suddenly, raising his hand in the air and pointing towards two beams of light—apparently the head lamps oftwo vehicles. Slowly, they inched down the embankment towards the side of the bridge head, crazily flashing up and down, like large flashlights in the hands of a drunk.
“Shhh,” whispered Pakhar, lowering the wick of the lamp and groping under the trolley.
“Are you mad? It is a police raid. You show them sword and they are going to put a bullet through that stupid head of yours,” cried Maniya, jumping forward and pulling him back.
Suddenly the lights stopped and went off. There were loud clops of doors being closed and commotion of human voices, which made the duo withdraw into a sarkanda thicket.
“It is something big, I tell you; may be a mining officer’s raid,” whispered Maniya.
“Mining officer himself to nab two puny sand thieves?” Pakhar asked.
Suddenly, a staccato rat tat tat of gun fire filled the air, punctuated by the pings of bullets, ricocheting off the metal, and the shattering of glass. Simultaneously, screams rose as the blazing barrels of firing guns danced to and fro in the darkness.
And then there was a lull.
“Kill them all,” shouted a voice, and shooting started again till the screams died down.
Flashlights in faceless hands probed the darkness.
“Check for breath and pulse. Spare no one. Check inside also,” shouted someone. Faceless hands yanked open the iron doors again.
“Don’t kill me,” wailed a voice, and there was a muffled sound of something heavy being dragged.
“Spare me in the name of God!” cried the voice again, and then the sound of a couple of shots punctuated the gloomy stillness one last time.
“Let’s go!” Sounds of running feet died down into deathly stillness.
Pakhar peered at Maniya’s face, aghast with terror.
“Lie still,” he whispered, gripping his arm.
Far away, there was sound of an automobile engine starting up, and the vehicle sped away across the bridge.
“Come,” said Pakhar, getting up. Both of them ran towards the kuccha embankment, and suddenly it appeared before them, looming out of the darkness—a passenger bus, tilted towards one side, with tyres half buried in the sand. Both of them stopped and peered, sniffing the air that carried the smell of gunpowder. Holding Maniya’s hand, Pakhar stepped forward, slipped, and fell down. Getting up, he stared at his hands.
“It’s blood,” he whispered and dug his hands into the sand to rub them clean.
Maniya lit a matchstick, and both of them gaped at bodies frozen in grotesque postures of the dance of death. They bent down to pick their way amongst them. Maniya stumbled against something buried in the sand. It was a flashlight.
“Give it to me,” said Pakhar, and switching it on, shone it upon the lifeless bodies scattered around, with blood still oozing from some of the gaping wounds. Tiptoeing towards the door, he stepped inside the bus. The driver lay hunched over the wheel, with two holes in his back.
“They have killed every one, wiped out the whole busload,” he whispered, coming out.
A dull gleam struggled in the night around Maniya’s feet. Taking the torch from Pakhar, he shone it upon the spot. A pair of eyes, frozen in the shock of a sudden, cruel death, stared at him. Slowly, he moved the flashlight in a circle. A fair, young face, with a silky, budding moustache and arms crossed over its chest came into view. Maniya bent down, and held the lifeless hand with a gold ring in its finger. Placing the flashlight carefully on the ground, he tried to pull it off.
“Stop, you %&@! Stop!” yelled Pakhar, jumping forward and giving him a blow, which sent Maniya sprawling upon the sand.“How in the name of God can you think of doing this?” he cried.
“But we are thieves, are we not? How is one theft different from the other?”
“Yes we are thieves, but do we eat carrion left behind by merchants of death?” Pakhar snapped, snatching the flashlight. He once again pointed it at the ring, and bent down. A monogram of two intertwined letters appeared.
“Appears to be newly married. Must be the same age as my son,” he said. Suddenly his legs felt lifeless and he slumped to the ground. “Those devils have massacred the whole bus load of passengers, every single one of them,” he cried, his sobs shaking his frame.
“Someone tell me—why have they done it?” he added, striking the sand with his clenched fist.
Maniya watched the whole scene, rooted to the spot where he had fallen. Suddenly, he got up and took out the ‘tharra’ he was carrying in his pocket.
“Here, take a sip. It will steady your heart,” he said allowing the drink to touch Pakhar’s lips, who gulped the whole thing in a go. The fiery liquid passing his gullet made him wince.
“Yes, we are thieves; we steal sand. But we do not steal people’s lives, their dreams and happiness. We are better than these merchants of death. Thousand times better,” he shouted into the darkness.
“Shhh,” said Maniya, pointing towards the head of the bridge, from where a procession of flickering flashlights approached.
“Let’s go,” he said, trying to pull up Pakhar by his arms; but Pakhar pushed him away and got to his feet, tossing the empty liquor bottle towards the bus, where it shattered against the metal frame.
The two thieves trudged slowly along the undulating path, and were soon gobbled up by the darkness.
Born in Shimla in 1955, Dr. Hemant Chopra studied Veterinary Sciences at Bikaner and joined Punjab services in 1981. After retiring from his job in 2014, he joined the corporate sector, and at present, is running his own consultancy firm. Passionate about writing from his college days, most of his short stories are fictionalised account of his experience as a rural vet. Currently, he is in process of getting a collection of stories published. He is settled in Ambala Cantonment. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.