March 22, 2011

Chapter One: Smoke And Mirrors

May 13, 2010

I look for him as soon as I climb into the seventh bogie of the daily train into the city. I always choose this one because it is all the way at the back, and doesn’t get too crowded. I am worried for Khan, it has been three days since I saw him. And in the year that I have known him, he hadn’t missed a single day.

“I can’t take time off” he would smile and say, “We are preparing for court day”.
I had moved to this city for work a little over a year ago. When I got on the train, already listening to my iPod, I would sit down and start reading the newspaper. One day, I noticed a man dressed in a faded plaid shirt staring at the Sudoku puzzle in the paper. His face looked familiar. I assumed he took the train frequently. I smiled and offered that section to him; I had no interest in it anyway.

“No thanks, I didn’t mean to stare” he said. I half-expected his reply, in my country, acceptance of a gift is preceded by a million ‘No I couldn’t possibly accept it’ protestations. That can lead to interesting contradictions when a hand reaches to greedily accept the offering while the person is mouthing a ‘No’.

I insisted, so he finally took over the Sudoku with child-like delight. I later learned that he approached learning the same way too. His education was largely self-taught, so whenever I corrected his pronunciation of English words or talked about something, he would accept it with a humble desire to learn. Most of the people I knew would refuse to correct their errors, taking slight at being corrected, their fragile egos preventing them from learning. I suppose I am not immune either, but I try not to be these days. Khan’s voracious appetite for information was refreshing.

He worked for a lawyer in the city doing odd-jobs around the office and the court. He had been working there for nearly fifteen years. He had not held a steady job before that. A friend was falsely accused of murder during a communal riot, and had tried to help him quite unsuccessfully. A young boy had picked him out of a line-up and that’s how Mustafa went to jail accused of a murder he did not commit. It did not matter that the young boy had changed his ‘eye-witness’ account many times, that Mustafa wasn’t even at the wrong place at the wrong time – he was somewhere else entirely with his friends. This version of events was simply disregarded. With the snail pace of justice, Mustafa languished in a jail, growing more bitter as years passed. Khan persisted. Wanting to learn more about the legal system when two appeals were rejected, he responded to a 'help wanted' ad at a lawyer’s office. The lawyer, after hearing Mustafa’s case one late evening, had agreed to help him. That was the beginning. Khan resolved to help others when he could, and was always working on a few cases on his own on the side. He would act as a private eye, while getting pro-bono assistance from the lawyer he worked for after amassing an initial swath of material.

I thought back to the cases that Khan had described to me recently. He had filed some RTI requests from the government. I hoped that had nothing to do with Khan’s no-show. I have always heard whispers of RTI activists being beaten up by politicians’ cronies when the information sought was better kept secret.

I shrugged the nagging feeling away as I turned a page in the newspaper.

I nearly dropped it.

There was a small byline in the ‘Crime’ section: “A 49 year old man, Mr. Akbar Khan, was found hanging in his house. There was a suicide note addressed to his wife who was away visiting her family along with their 18 year old son. No foul play is suspected by the police, even though the neighbour who found him claimed that the house appeared rummaged through and that a few files may have been missing.”

I could hear my heart pounding. I was too shocked to cry, the tears would come later. Right now, there was only anger.

I thought of my four year old daughter, my comfortable apartment in the suburbs, my software job, and my wife. How easy it would be not to do anything.

“Rishab, you have to do something” I told myself, as I thought once again of dear, smiling Khan.

Glossary: RTI - Right To Information

Find Chapter Two here


Anonymous said...

Hey nice start to the story - I am waiting to read more :)


Ramakrishnan said...

inspired by mr.batcha ?

anyways, for a change, no grey shades so far. :)

Rush said...

Thanks Ashwin! I hope to write the next one soon! :)

Ramak - unfortunately there are WAY too many incidents of that sort, I will publish my reference list with the conclusion. I am having a hard time picking what direction to go next, just because there is no dearth of real-life situ's..plenty of grey, no?

Divs said...

:D very very interesting :D Does the motivation last beyond a train journey/day... yet to find out :D

Rush said...

Hehe thanks dodo, I hope it does last him more than the day :) Will let you know when the next post is up!