This is a story about a man who is strange to many. For many reasons. But is he so strange after all? Do we really know about the people around us?

 

In the heart of India, Madhya Pradesh was the small town of Durai, where everyone knew each other, at least by the faces. They all celebrated festivals together and even grieved at funerals together. There was one man in particular, Das, who was never seen to be a part of social gatherings. Earlier, he used to be invited but when he refused to socialise, soon he was not amongst the invitees either.

He was not particularly tall, average height with an average built for his golden years. He had acquired a belly though over the years due to excessive drinking and lack of any physical activity after his wife passed away in an accident. He didn’t have any children or so it was assumed as none that were seen visiting him since he moved in this neighbourhood.

With a nearly bald head with white hair, he was seldom seen outside his house, sometimes in his garden. He had a house bigger than everyone in the neighbourhood with a ground and a first floor and a garden overlooking the main road. A servant used to work for him who left within four weeks with bruises over his body but never discussed the incident with anyone.

Das regularly placed orders with the neighbourhood liquor shop and tipped the delivery boy to buy other household items for him after the servant had left. Whenever he was seen, he was always either carrying a book or had reading glasses around his neck.

There were rumours about him too. That his wife had probably left him because he tortured her or perhaps her death wasn’t a result of an accident.

His only regular visitors were birds for the fodder and delivery man for the liquor and supplies.

Then one early morning he was seen leaving his with a bouquet of flowers by the early morning joggers who presumed him to be going to his wife’s grave. When he returned, he saw four young kids from the nearby shanty town where all the maids, milkmen, cobbler and the like lived with their families. Nothing was wrong, except the kids were not on the road, but inside his garden.

“What are you doing here?” he asked the eldest boy from the group. Looking at other kids nervously, the young boy said, “We were hungry. We jumped the fence to get some fruits. We will go.” and signalled the others to leave their food and jump the fence. Before they could turn on their heels to go, two of the kids felt a grip of old wrinkled hands on their either arms, not strong enough for a grown up but strong enough for a child.

“Wait. Don’t move.” said Das firmly. With a strong, hard look, he went inside the house and brought a basket full of fresh fruits. “Here. Take these. These are clean and without any worms too. Share with your families. Now get out of here.” The children were only too happy to receive this little gift and ran away giggling. A few people had gathered around to see what was happening and were a little too surprised by the act of this strange man.

Time passed and a new family, the Shukla moved in to the neighbourhood. It was a young couple, a tall, dark haired husband that worked in bank and a beautiful young wife that taught the children from the slum in a government run school. They were not wealthy but it was seen over the years that they would possibly celebrate everything they could think of, even monthly anniversaries. It was the occasion of their son’s first birthday and despite being aware of Das’s reputation decided to invite him. Expectedly, their doorbell was answered by silence. And a foul smell.

“I think something is wrong in here. We should call the police.” said Mrs. Shukla.

“You’re right. It would be trespassing if nothing is wrong and we break inside the house. I will just call the police. I hope the old man is okay.” responded Mr. Shukla.

In a small town like this where crimes don’t happen often and everyone lives peacefully, the police have rather not a great deal of workload and so the police van reached Das’s residence in about 10 minutes.

“Who called us here? What is the matter?” asked the policeman.

“I did. Me and my wife came here to invite Mr. Das for our son’s birthday party and no one is answering the door. And then there is this foul smell.” replied Mr. Shukla.

The policeman rang the bell a couple of times and then cued his juniors to break the door. The constables started thumping against the door with their bodies and in the fourth try fell on the floor inside the house. Mr. Das had opened the door when they were trying to break it.

“What is wrong with you? Why are you here? Can’t an old man get a decent sleep?”

“This couple right here complained that a foul smell was coming from inside and nobody was answering the door.”

“Right. The Brahmins. Don’t know a thing about alcohol. This is the smell of alcohol Officer. I broke a couple of new bottles in the morning today around here. I expected you to know the difference between smell of alcohol and a dead, stale body.”

“I see. Sorry for the inconvenience. We’ll be on our way.”

“No problem.” Mumbling a curse under his breath, he was about to close the door when Mrs. Shukla put a hand on the door in an attempt to stop it from closing.

“Sorry about the confusion. But we came here to invite you for our son’s birthday.”

“I don’t come to parties. Happy Birthday to your kid. Now get lost.”

“We’d really like you to come. We have heard a lot about you, how good you are with kids. Please.”

“Shut up. I know what people talk about me. You liars.”

“We are new here. We don’t know anybody here. Shiv doesn’t even have grandparents. They all passed away. Please come.”

“I’ll send a toy for a gift. Get out of here now.” said Das and rammed the door shut on their face. However disappointed they were, they returned to invite other guests without another fight.

There were beautiful fireworks lighting up the no moon sky in combinations of various colours and trees covered with small bulbs illuminating the houses of the birds. The air smelled of fresh food and decent quality liquor and there was glitter in the clothes of ladies and the eyes of men looking at women other than their wives. The baby boy was dressed in a black suit and tie held routinely by different guests as he wailed in anyone’s arms except his parents.

The table for the cake was set and just before they were about to cut the cake, there were hushed tones of a man standing in the far corner with a drink in his one hand and a gift in another. Mr. Shukla walked over to him to take his hand and bring him to the table. Mrs. Shukla urged Das to take Shiv who surprisingly didn’t make a sound in his arms.

Before the couple could thank him for coming, Das quietly slipped away after hearing a discussion between two men.

“Why would anyone in their right mind would invite a drunkard?”

“They probably didn’t know. Or just wanted to be nice for the first time.”

“I don’t know. Such people should be kept away from children.”

“Thank god he doesn’t have a child.”

The men continued their discussion and moved on to other topics but Das had already started moving towards his house.

Few months later, a policeman was banging on the Das’s door. Rubbing his groggy eyes and dressed only in a pair of boxers, he opened to door with a welcome of curse words.

“What do you want now?”

“We have come to investigate the missing case of four children. Mrs. Shukla says she saw the kids with you.”

“I don’t what you are ta…”

With the sentence half way, Das fell on the floor leaving his side of the story midway. An ambulance was called but Das was declared dead on arrival by the doctor on duty.

“He seems to have suffered from a stroke. Given his lifestyle, it is not very surprising. But we will do a post mortem and send in the detailed report.” said the doctor.

It all began three days ago, when Mrs. Shukla went to the police station to file a complaint that four of her students were missing. She was asked whether she checked with the parents of the children or not and why hadn’t the parents registered a complaint yet.

“I went to their houses. Nobody was willing to talk to me. I didn’t even see the kids in their house. Something is wrong. It’s been months they haven’t come.”

She also happened to mention that the last time she saw them was inside Das’s garden talking to him and since then hasn’t seen them.

After Das’s sudden demise, the police pulled out the phone records of Das and as expected he had neither made nor received any particular calls. The police searched his house for a possible body or bodies after Mrs. Shukla mentioned the incident of foul smell to the police.

The families of the kids had also moved away and the neighbours had confirmed that the children were not with them when they left. The police slackened over the course of next few months after not getting any lead until they received another complaint.

This time the complainant was not Mrs. Shukla. Instead the complaint was against her. A student of her class along with his parents had come into the police station to file a complaint against the teacher for abuse and harassment. The child was terrified had marks all over his body.

After carrying out all the necessary formalities of medical test, filing an FIR, and arrest, Mrs. Shukla finally admitted to beating the students, including the ones that were missing, making them do her household chores and engage in other brutal activities. However, she refused to admit her role with the missing of the four children.

As the investigation of the missing case reopened, the call records were reviewed again and there were two calls made to Shakti Foundation from Das’s phone. The organisation was in the city of Romera, just few hundred kilometres north of Durai.

“Can you tell us about your conversation with Mr. Das?” asked the police offer to the Foundation’s Head Mrs. Sharma.

“Sure. But can I know what this is about?” replied Mrs. Sharma.

“This is in regards to the missing case of four children. Also, Mr. Das has passed away.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that. He was such a good man.”

“None of the people of that town seem to think so.”

“I wonder why. Probably because of his depression after his wife died. Well, he was professor of English at the University here and also my school friend. He loved his wife very much and refused to leave her even after the doctor told them that can’t conceive. That’s when the drinking began for both of them. One time his wife, under the influence went out to buy some things for the house and crossed the road at the wrong time. She was hit and died instantly.”

“Yeah of course, but can we get to the point quick? What did he contact you for?”

“After her death, he tried living in different places to cope with loneliness. Finally he settled for her hometown. He had kept a servant, he was too old and drunk to function on his own. He had figured the number of bottles were decreasing after the servant came and certainly he was not drinking more. One evening, the wife of servant came cursing the old man.

“You are giving him bottles of alcohol and look what he does after drinking. Look how he is beating me.”

He called his servant and stood back and watched while his wife beat and humiliated him only to ask in the end how does it feel to be at the receiving end of it and asking them to leave saying that do not do to others what would give you pain.”

“The children. What about the children?”

“These children regularly visited him in the day for fruits from his garden. One day he noticed marks over one of the child’s arms and probed them for its cause. They broke down and told about their teacher. Their parents knew but they were afraid to complain and didn’t want to stop their education either. Our foundation takes care of education of underprivileged children and Das had a word with their parents, to send the children here for studies and since we do not have hostel facility, the parents moved nearby so the students could attend school. Meanwhile, Das had been collecting evidence against Mrs. Shukla. She has several complaints against her and has been thrown out of eight schools in the last 5 years.”

With the help of evidence collected by Das and a little more inquiry Mrs. Shukla was arrested and a case was filed against her. The couple was friendly in nature as a disguise for a good character assessment by neighbours.

What meets the eye, is not always true.

Das’s funeral was attended by the entire town.

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