King of the Desert

King of the Desert

“Rolling Stones gather no moss; they say,
But life kept me rolling till I was taken away,
From a burdensome routine, grit and grime,
Thrown into the unknown, only to shine……”

Life welcomed me in the grim, dusty bylanes of a small town Rajanpur. It is a quaint town oozing imperial charm. Timeworn old folks herald the days of ‘the Raj’ as the lustrous past. The village elders have stories to narrate, proving their connect to the fancy Englishmen. 

Well, I’m definitely not a part of this clan. I’m a mere twelve year old, robbed of a childhood and rebellion crushed like a mutiny. I shoulder the responsibility of a household comprising of an alcoholic father, a withdrawn mother and younger siblings who have only me to look upto. All the worldly wisdom I have managed to acquire, trying to make ends meet, makes money the omnipotent tool that propels prosperity. And so I have no qualms in admitting that I yearn for financial supremacy. 

The eldest of a brood of five, I assume as mother reproduced, father contributed by elevating alcohol consumption with each birth. Whether it was celebratory or an attempt to drown responsibility remains as alien as a crossword puzzle to me. What I remember of my naïve years is tagging alongside mother in her tattered sari begging, borrowing and in the worst scenarios stealing food and living. 

We stay truly indebted to the ancestors who left a house to shield the shattered family. In the early years of gaining consciousness into the world, I often wondered why my house was as barren as the desert that surrounded us. There were no answers. 

What I mostly received in response was, “Go look for some work. We have mouths to feed and not give answers to crazy questions.” Mother always looked hassled, troubled, forlorn and distant. “Is she even my mother?” This question troubled me often.  Being the curious kid, defiantly, I gathered the courage to face Father, “Father, am I born out of this woman, or somebody else.” 

Well, the response, “Slaaaaaap” and I was thrown almost hundred meters away with a bright red hand imprint on the cheek.

After this incident, I lost the yearning for any man to man conversation. 

I hate to talk about Father. I never saw him contribute in any manner to our lives. His presence is an emotional compromise. As I turned five, I too marched off for manual labour for the rich farmers. Nobody ever seemed to care that I hardly compared to the muscular, heavy built men already at work in the fields. I was expected to produce the same results come whatsoever. I never gave up though. 

I drown myself in work in wait for the sparkling ten coins that would jingle in my palm each evening. They meant a hearty meal for the family. I nurture and father continues to gamble away whatever he can lay his hands on. Whether it is the old brass temple bell that is heirloom, or kitchen utensils, anything that buys him liquor or opium in return. 

This reckless behavior often makes me wonder, if he chooses to remain senseless. Probably that translates as an easy excuse for shirking responsibility. 

I remember, Mother announcing that I was eight years old one day. But that changed nothing in life. The stress of a dysfunctional household coupled with the impoverished situation continues its toll on Mother’s mental state. She seems withdrawn and uninterested. Days pass when she prefers not to cook. On all such days I step in as ‘saviour’ to my four younger sisters. Plead, beseech or steal…it has to be some way out for food! Especially on days there is no work.

Life continues to throw offbeat challenges and I stand defeated despite best efforts. Isn’t it too much that life expects from a kid! 

As time passed I started wandering away from home. Delusional, deprived and tired of a destitute life. Unwilling to surrender to the deteriorating situation at home, I am hell bent on getting a good place for myself.   

Being a border town, smuggling is rampant around here. Drug smuggling is most widespread; however some odd package turns up with weapons and inconspicuous stuff like spices. Most of my co-workers at the construction site are shell shocked at the extent of information I have, given my age and size. People at work often gossip of the free flowing money in smuggling. Despite being fairly aware of the hazards that accompany, the money often lures me to give it a try. The childish fears take over and I brush off the thoughts.  

Working my ass of, arranging food out of the meager earning and still treated as the most disregarded entity in the household. I am certain that Father is not there for long if he continues his tryst with alcohol. Mother will have a much better life without him. The sister younger to me is ready to start taking up manual work in and around the village. Time, the great teacher, will teach them survival skills.

As I rest my frail, weary, famished body against the piled up sand, I am pretty much sure that I do not want to die poverty stricken. Nor do I want to inherit the debts of my incorrigible father and gullible mother. With this mental voice over completed, I feel ready to take the plunge. It means running away from home. Strangely the thought of running away from home does not give me cold feet or anxiety. Probably, since I have been emotionally snapped off for long. 

The mind is ready, now is the task of where, when and how? These questions need thought, so after work instead of heading home, I decided to treat myself to a full platter of food at the food shack down the river. How can a hungry stomach fuel thinking? A hearty meal is the immediate need. The answers will spring up unquestionably.  

The aromatic and appetizing colorful platter of food in my lap is comforting…..comforting enough to evoke clarity and strengthen resolve. Surprisingly I feel no remorse for this splurge on myself. After weighing several pros and cons, a fair idea of the path ahead takes shape in my mind. I’m ready! 

What Next………

The following week, I remain more attentive at work, eavesdropping at times. The aim is to catch up gossip on the near bye villages. Fortunately, I notice another youngster probably a few years older often coming to the construction site where I work. He accompanies a truck carrying raw material. I notice him supervising off-loading of the material, obtaining a stamp on the receipt and pushing off. At times, he sits down to relax a bit as the truck driver indulges in a tea or smoke break. 

“The young boy is my target,” I make a mental note and wait for his next trip, which comes after several days. Though disappointed, there is one thing I learn from the daily skirmishes……never to lose hope. 

Next day at work, I continue with the mundane task of loosening the cement and filling the tubs. Suddenly, loud unpleasant blares of an approaching truck strike my ears and my face lights up. As the truck draws close, I catch sight of the boy dangling from the broken door of the driver’s compartment. 

Though both of us have often exchanged occasional smiles but no word had been spoken. His presence enthuses me enough to raise both my hands up in the air, waving. As the truck comes to a halt, he acknowledges the wave with an aerial salute and gets down to finish the routine chores. I donot let him out of sight so as soon as he completes the job, I gesture to him from a distance. He acknowledges and walks towards me. I signal him to an inconspicuous corner and offer him a cup of water.

“Errrrr……..I have seen you here many times,” I mention in a bid to strike a conversation.

He smiles back, “Yes, me too! I’m Akhil. What work do you do here?”

“I’m Rohit.” I too introduced myself without wasting any more time. “I fill up cement into the tubs for the labour to carry up.”

“Listen Akhil, you drive from the town, visiting several villages dropping consignments. You are sure to know of work opportunities elsewhere.” I had a pleading look on my face.

Lowering my voice to a mere whisper I continued, “My parents are no more. I’m at the mercy of relatives.” I pretended to be dejected. 

I think it worked because Akhil’s voice softened. He stepped forward to place his hand on my shoulder.

“Yes! Rohit. There is a village on the opposite side of the canal, Berhampur. They are a filthy rich village with a headwoman. Probably, the only one in this area. The catch is that she is all by herself, no family or friends. The village grapevine has it that the old woman is actually a witch, using mystical powers to eliminate anyone coming in her way.”

“You can try your luck there for that is where all the smuggling money lands. The likelihood of finding employment is very high.”

“Well, thanks for all the information Akhil. I am curious and at the same time excited to find out more about this village headwoman. I can do any work as long as it pays.” Rubbing my forehead in thought, I gave Akhil a sideways glance before speaking.

“Friend, Can I seek another favour from you?”

Akhil’s response was a brazen, “Yes!”

It was outright reassuring, as these are the moments of self-doubt, especially for a kid my age who is driven to take charge of life.

“Well, then, when is it that you can pick me up?” is my unswerving question. It seems audacious, but what’s the point circling around the bush when the goal is known!

Akhil’s answer did not disappoint me. “Okay, two days later, around the same time, meet me on the turn that hits the main road. I will speak to the driver and ready him. You need to be ready with Rs. 50/- as a bribe to the driver else he will rant out to the contractor.”

Though Rs. 50/- is quite a princely sum by my standards but I did not have much of a choice at this juncture. So I just nodded vigorously in response, “Yes! Sure! See you then.”

“Ok,” Akhil replied and walked towards the waiting truck after a taut wave. 

The intervening two days pass by in a flurry of activity as I ready myself. Physically, I am ready but emotionally there are still times when I feel unsure. This fickle mindedness however vanishes the moment I walk through the creaking, loose at the hinge door to my house. The present seems more uncertain and scary than the future. 

I begin gathering my humble luxuries. Two sets of clothes in decent shape which mother mostly keeps hidden at the bottom of the trunk. My savings of Rs. 20/- and a weathered family picture clicked at the time of grandfather’s funeral. The big task of arranging for the bribe money is still pending. But I manage  to get a way out. 

That evening, I overhear Mother telling the younger sisters about an offering of Rs. 100/- she received at the temple since a village merchant was donating. It seems like the perfect answer to my problem. I sneak out the Rs. 100/- crisp note from her sari pallu as she lies in deep slumber. 

Next morning, as the warm dessert sun paints the sky in pastel hues, I am the first one to rise. Without wasting a second, I sprint to the village tuck-shop to ask for smaller denominations against the Rs. 100/- note. 

I retain Rs. 50/-, hiding it in my pocket and return the balance from where I had picked it. 

“It would be needed,” I mumble to myself before returning back to the mat by the door.

The Great Escape………….

All arrangements are complete, now is the time to plan the escape. My absence from home will be realized only when it is time to deposit the day’s earnings with Mother. So I assum that sneaking out will not be much of a problem. I walk towards the ruinous wall, which today is the gateway to a new beginning. With the meager belongings muddled up into an old school bag, I jump over and run. There is not the slightest inkling of remorse or regret on what is happening. Somewhere, there is a feeling of emancipation. 

No sooner do I reached the designated place that the dangling frame of Akhil against the tattered window of the truck comes into sight. It is like the fluttering sails against an overcast skiy. 

“Welcome aboard friend. It is a twenty minute journey. So sit back and relax”, Akhil beams as I slip in the RS. 50/- note into his palm.

“Thank you!” I too respond instantly. 

Well, the twenty minutes seemed to lapse pretty soon. Shortly I stand facing an ornate gate with the name of the village carved in silver stone. Akhil and the truck disappear leaving behind a cloud of dust. As I walk towards the gate, I no longer feel like a 12 year old frail weakling. As the hormones surge, so does my gait, a new found swerve and off I am.

From what Akhil said, this does not quite look like a rich village. The buildings seem as ordinary and worn down as they are in my village. People look as ashen as they do in Rajanpur. There is an eerie silence in the village streets. I walk towards a group of village elders laughing away the years gone by.

“Good Day Elders!” I offer greetings with folded hands and a slight bow of the head.

Suddenly all eyes are transfixed on me, piercing through like the scorching desert sun. It feels like the looks prick. One of them stands up and walks towards me, “Good Day Son” “You don’t seem to belong to Berhampur. So what brings you here?”

“I am here in search of work. My parents are no more and I don’t want to live on the mercy of relatives.”

Hearing this, he looks over his shoulder towards the others sitting in the group and smiles. Facing me again, he continues, “Son, the only work we can offer an ‘outsider’ is the job of an attendant to our Headwoman. She is a wise old woman but all by herself. She needs care and service from a young blood like you.” 

“Wow! That seems easy,” I wonder. Having lived in Rajanpur all these years, I can never imagine that finding work is this simple. “I’m ready for the job Sir”, I answer with excitement. “Please take me to her house.”

Another man from the group leans back saying, “Follow this street into the village. You will see a mansion at the road end. Just walk right in and introduce yourself.”

After thanking them and waving an enthusiastic good bye, I am soon facing the mansion. An ancient, half ruin but boasting of its bygone glory. With all my might, I push open the massive iron gates to be greeted by a flock of roosters, two cows and four goats. There is no one in sight, so I continue walking past the courtyard.

At the far end of the courtyard, I spot the frame of an old woman who exudes the aura of a timeless crystal vase. She is sitting on an ornate chair with her feet royally resting on an embroidered foot stool. This is the first time I sense ‘richness’ around. She looks primeval but quite well kept for her age. The eeriness of the streets seems to have crept into this mansion too.

While I am stuck evaluating pros and cons of coming here, there is a loud thud on the ground. Startled by the heavy pounding, I’m alerted. I look up to see the old lady hammering the floor with a heavy stick. I’m taken aback to see the frail form standing up, that too erect.   

The Rendezvous………………

I quickly bow my head with folded hands. 

“I’m here in search of work and have been told that there is work in the mansion.” 

The old lady touches my head with her massive stick and says, “Yes, there is always work for the willing. You are standing in Chand Bibiji’s mansion. No one goes back empty handed from here. He either takes back the gift of money or the gift of his own head.”  

A hideous laughter rings out, leaving me shaking. She then takes a step forward towards me. The flat bosom reveals a leather handgun holster staring at me. I am dumbfounded. I can never in my wildest dreams expect a woman of this age and stage, custodian of a weapon.

Having broken into a sweat, I am in half a mind to turn around and run. 

“Why did I ever believe Akhil, “I mumble nervously. 

Running back…..to where??……. Back to the hell hole, I had been yearning to breakout from!!

The very thought brings me back to why I stand where I stand.

So composing myself, I look straight at Chand Bibiji and say, “Bibiji, take me in your wings. I will be at your beck and call for any work.”

“I promise not to disappoint you.” 

Saying this I fell at her feet and continued, “I have no one else to care for me. Please!”

On the other hand Bibiji’s grump expression seems to soften as she feels the warmth of two tiny tears falling on her feet.

“Boy! Stand Up”, Bibiji’s voice is soft yet commanding, demanding immediate attention.

I stand up, hands still folded and face; a mess of tears, sweat and grime.

“I do need a chore boy, ready to do anything and everything around here. Always available at my beck and call. I sense you fit the requirement.”

Her response leaves me overwhelmed and I cannot stop thanking her. The risk of leaving home has been worth it.

“Before you cheer, there is a rider to this offer. You don’t get paid in cash till I am certain of your loyalty and efficiency. But all your needs from clothing to food and shelter will be taken care of,” Bibiji remarks.

I have no soaring ambitions.  What seemed unachievable to me has been achieved, a better life. Today I do not want to trade that with anything else, not even money. So I nodded in acceptance to the boss lady.

“One last thing,” her domineering voice pulled me back from the reverie. “You have to call me Chand Bibiji or only Bibiji. Nothing fancy!”

“Yes Bibiji!”

Taking a tour of the massive mansion, I follow the matriarch through the quaint and irregular stairs and dusty corridors. The smoke stained roofs are testimony of generations sown and wiped out! The mansion appears run-down but mysterious. My childlike curiosity is sure going to get the better of me in exploring all corners.

I am shown to a room which is one of the many but big enough to house a complete family. Overcome with gratitude, all this while my hands have stayed folded.

Bibiji turns towards me, her hands resting on the waist in a commanding posture. She says, “Wake up with the rooster’s crowing every morning. Thereafter you have to appear before me, prim and proper. The day should start with cleaning my tobacco pipe followed by cleaning the house.” 

“More chores will be allocated as time goes by.”

My head goes back and forth, up and down like a puppet.

“You settle in and observe everything today,” she ends the conversation as she leaves the room.

Relieved that she has left, I want to celebrate the end to this eventful day by sprawling out on the cot all by myself.

Life Begins Afresh…………………………

As the rosy hues of dusk set in, dim lights appear like starlight in the village. Lost in admiring the beauty of the supposedly ‘richest village’ of the area, I remain oblivious to the increasing commotion in the courtyard. The din of male voices graduating to loud laughter and drunken raucous whining.   

As the childlike curiosity takes over, I dare to sneak down from the room onto the first floor balcony facing the courtyard.

What I encounter is scandalizing. Chand Bibiji’s holster glistens in the bright electric bulbs as she smokes into the Hookah. There is a regal display of arms and ammunition at a secure distance from where she sits. The metallic shine is hard to miss so I’m sure of what is spread out.

 “Oh… my God!” So it is true that they auction arms here. There are at least five to eight people standing in Bibiji’s presence. My ears are pressed against the iron mesh and I can hear the men haggling in an attempt to crack a fair deal. 

“So this is her world…..scary yet adventurous,” much like mine. She is no old mystical witch but a Thug Woman.” A smile escapes at the phrase I just coined. Sounds like a legendary title being conferred on a person of repute.

I sleep well that night, dreaming of Thug wars, Thug escapades and attacks. 

During daytime, the mansion seems to be under the spell of a queer silence. But as dusk paves way for starry nights, it seems like someone blows life into the shaky walls. As a silent spectator, I am privy to the arms deals, drug dealings and slave trade too. The scare of being traded as a slave brings in sleepless nights…..but I cling on to hope and wait for a new dawn.

With time, my responsibilities increase, the prime being involved in the evening hustle bustle. Laying out lavish spreads of drinks and eats, guiding people to the courtyard and introducing them to Bibiji. Seems like she is getting used to me. Many times she leans on my shoulder for support as she walks down to inspect the weapons herself. The metallic shine blinds me and I too feel the urge to hold and caress a pistol at least once. I think I deserve it, but wishful thinking for now! 

Soon, Bibiji starts handing over crisp currency to me off and on. When she is in a jovial mood after the auction has gone well, she tips me. There are occasions when even a silly joke makes her roll into splits, and I get tipped. Yes….I am earning and soon the collection is growing!

Bibiji and me, our relationship is unexplained. We are detached yet dependent partners and one cannot do without the other. The desert winter mornings freeze her spine, she whines in arthritic pain. On these days her voice is reduced to a feeble murmur as she calls out, “Rohit……Rohit…..come here. I need help.” Moments like these kindle the soft spot seeking motherly affection and I reach her room in a split second. Despite the cold, I choose to sleep outside her room. Not that she directs me to do so but I feel a sense of responsibility.

I roll her over, warm a towel on the hearth, and then massage her back with the rolled towel. Feeling instant relief Bibiji exclaims, “Pretty smart, you urchin!” Despite hating the word urchin, I accept it with a smile since I have declared myself an orphan. There is a belief within that for the good things to materialize; some unpleasant ones have to be accepted too!

On one such cold evening, she chooses to narrate her past to me with tears welling. A transformation quite similar to mine. The story of a young widow inheriting the mafia network from her husband. Survival was difficult in this profession which was male dominated. She worked under the shadow of her father-in-law learning the tricks of this trade. She had the traits to succeed-well built, ruthless, unwavering focus. She had learnt to fire a revolver, a gun and even a machine gun from her husband soon after marriage. So she fit into the role with ease. The trusted presence of the patriarch was short lived. Clan animosity took away his life. As is still very predominant in this region, gun battles erupt within seconds. 

“Do you know Rohit, initially these were the nail biting episodes for me. People shot at, dragged around as trophies and then bodies burnt or buried without proper rituals. I have lived through many a terror filled nights overcoming these scenes.” She seemed at peace having poured her heart out.

Five Years Later………………..

I never knew my birth date. However, calculating from when I ran away from home, I should be 16 or 17 years now! 

The past five years are the most eventful in my life. From being a ragged 12 year old weighed down by adult botherations, here I am, a much confident and progressive young adult. I have successfully learnt to rebuild the shattered pieces of the pitcher of my life. The cracks remain but I am learning to be a skilful potter who with the touch of his hand and extra clay smoothens out the cracks diligently. 

My life changed the day I shielded Bibiji from a deadly shootout in the same courtyard where she wielded power as the leader of the pack of wolves trading in arms and drugs illegally.

I shudder remembering that evening last year. 

The howling wind of the harsh sunlit day had settled and now a cool, soothing breeze was blowing. It was like the touch of ice on a burn wound. I was busy preparing the courtyard for the evening extravaganza. Bibiji had mentioned that there were some foreign guests expected as well. So I was taking extra care to add magic to the setting. It was a full moon night, the silver light seemed to filter through the clouds, casting eerie shadows around. I stayed cautious. 

Despite my vehement requests time and again for appointing a body guard, Bibiji had pronounced that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself in every scenario. I was always on alert.

As she had sat enthroned on the rickety yet regal looking chair, foot resting on the footstool, an argument erupted amongst the dealers. And then like most of the times, gun shots did not take long. Empty liquor glasses were thrown around, they shattered, broken fragments strewn around, sparkling in a million effects like a spread of fake diamonds. Gauging the gravity of the situation I had rushed towards Bibiji, body and arms spread out in an eagle like posture in an attempt to shield her from harm. I had helped her onto her feet, literally pulled her to the safety of the barn. I had stayed by her side the whole night, my throat as dry as the desert sand and hunger pangs clawing at my insides. Making sure Bibiji was comfortable, I had  put her to sleep after a shot of brandy and hot water.

The Fateful Day……..  

That night changed our equation forever. Ever since, I am treated as an equal, as her advisor, son, and caretaker. 

Today is an important auction. The police are alerted so there is a major rush. But midway, Bibiji stands up and her deep baritone voice commands,”Everybody, stop the nonsense chatter and listen to me.”

Silence spreads out like a shroud awaiting the moment of reveal.

“My heir is ready.”

Hushed murmurs follow for everyone knows that her husband died long before a child could be born to them. This announcement seems like a mistake. No one heard of any adoption. Infact against this backdrop many had nefarious schemes chalked out to takeover her kinship as the ‘Druglord’ and ‘Arms Hub’. I’m sure several dreams would be shattered tonight. 

“This evening will be game changing for many hopefuls,” I said to myself. I stood, equally curious to know. People turned towards her chair, eager like hungry lions waiting for the prey to be thrown towards them.

“The name I am going to say is someone who has shown to me that it is not ties of blood that elicit selflessness and loyalty. It takes commitment to entrust yourself in the hands of complete strangers. He did it. So he deserves this place and I doubt there is anyone like him in the tribe.” After taking a sip of water, she continued, “The only rightful Heir to me is…….. Rohit.” Her hands pointed in my direction.

What followed was the creepy silence of the desert on a full moon night. I stood stumped. Infact I was sure, it was a mistake and I ducked to hide myself behind a few chairs wishing invisibility. While I continued to hope for the improbable, Bibiji was calling out my name in various tones.

“Rohit come on out from your hiding. Don’t you always crib that you need more money. So come I give you everything!!”

Two bulky men caught me unaware and bundled me up to face her. Once again I stood with folded hands whispering, “I don’t deserve this. I can’t imagine being a king, a leader.”

“You don’t have to imagine,” Bibiji said. “You already are. I will only polish you to reveal the hidden sparkle”.

I stood with my head bowed down, as always in her presence. Whether it bowed down in gratitude or surprise, I cannot categorize. 

The few loyalists of the clan were already raising slogans declaring me heir….

So the heir is born to inherit a fortune. Who could have prophesied that a filthy downtrodden urchin from Rajanpur village would one day be king of the desert……a new future awaited me. 

I walk towards shattering the shackles of the past with every step.

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Saravjot Hansrao
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