From the bottom of the stairs, Pradhan saw Maithili’s dupatta disappearing inside the attic. He ran upstairs after her, desperate to hide the secret. The diary was in Maithili’s hand. The folds on her forehead were increasing as she went down the last written page. That must be the entry of 14th September, 1941. It could not happen. She could not have read it.
Maithili looked up. Her eyes wondered around and then rested on his face, her eyebrows furrowed. Her lips were vibrating. Uh-oh. “Please,” Pradhan made an attempt. “Let me”
“Haven’t you explained enough? Haven’t you DONE ENOUGH?!”
The matter was slipping away like sand. “I did not”
“YES, you did NOT think of the risks, did you? Did you even once consider my danger? That restaurant is in my name. I am the owner.”
“We are its owners. And I was just trying to”
“SHUT UP!” The stairs down the attic were just strong enough to hold Maithili’s anger.
Maithili didn’t understand the importance. She did not remember Prakash’s death. Pradhan did.
He belonged to a rich, modern and open-minded family. There were not many women in India like Maithili who had the privilege of shouting at the “man of the house”, even if they were a younger brother. They were three childrenPrakash who had been the eldest, then Maithili and Pradhan with a two-year gap. Their parents had given them equal doses of the Indian culture and of modern mindsets.
Maithili had been one of the few smart and independent females who opposed the British rule. Her grit was rare though it was getting common. Prakash had been somewhat similar though his enthusiasm wasn’t a rarity in his gender. It was 1939, after all. Pradhan however had been more of a pacifist. He let things be. He was a rarity.
One day, while returning home from work (he was a translator in a British complaint centre and he had had outrageous fights with his siblings because of this), he saw a procession of men carrying a body on their shoulders and shouting chants of independence and freedom.
“Another attains martyrdom,” he murmured. More and more were frequenting that place over countless shoulders as the independence movement spread. Pradhan didn’t feel much though.
But when the procession stopped at their house, so did Pradhan’s heart. Both Maithili and Prakash had been out to protest. However much they fought with Pradhan, they were his siblings and he loved them. And he did feel it.
Etched in his heart still was that sight Prakash’s handsome, blue eyes void of feeling and depth, open but unseeing, his arms limp at his sides, two bullet wounds on his chest, his white khadi kurta dyed red.
After that, Pradhan’s anger and grief made him leave his job. But the very next day of Pradhan’s resignation, a British official proposed a deal. He said that the British government had decided to give them a restaurant of their own as “compensation” for Prakash’s death. They would be one of the first Indians to have a formal restaurant, that too in Bombay, a major province. In return, they would have to promise that no “rebellious activity” should be indulged in by the remaining members of the family.
Loud words of insult were on the air through his lips when Maithili entered the room and said, “We accept your offer.”
“You were eavesdropping?” Pradhan had said.
But Maithili had ignored him and concluded the deal. Pradhan had problem believing it. Maithili, who had always been such an active and animated rebel against the British rule, marching in processions with a zeal seldom seen among the females, couldn’t have suddenly become docile. But she had. For the next two years till present, she had not once hinted that she was against the British rule. It couldn’t be the restaurant ownership, could it?
Pradhan had also transformed though. He became a protestor of the British rule but kept silent when in public. Then, last year, he had heard about the “Mook Vidrohi” group. Maithili was helping the British to track them down as the British investigators (who came every month to check their restaurant for any sign of rebellious activity) had found a pamphlet of the group.
It had been hard to convince them that neither Maithili nor Pradhan had been involved in anything of the sort. Ultimately, an old, Indian man had come up to the British and confessed that it was he who had left that pamphlet published by the group. It had quotes from the speeches of various Indian leaders.
When they asked him his reason for confession, he said boldly (and rather stupidly, Pradhan thought), “I am no longer a Mook Vidrohi (silent rebel). I am an independent human by birth and it is my right to speak my mind. The British are no one to stop me.”
He had been arrested and a week later, proclaimed dead. Rumours went that the British had tried to coerce him into telling about the “Mook Vidrohi” group. But he suicided and a gash made by some sharp object was seen on his forehead. One day soon after that, when Maithili had gone out for interrogation with the British, a knock came at the door. A woman entered; a black veil wrapped around the lower part of her face.
“Mook Vidrohi invites you at 10 tonight to the library at the corner of your lane,” and she went away, just like that. No name, no identity. But then, she was a silent rebel. It could be a trap. But after thinking a lot, Pradhan had decided to take the chance. If it is not a trap, he will be paying a sort of tribute to Prakash by doing what Prakash had tried to do. If it was a trap, then…maybe, Maithili might change back to normal and renounce that stupid restaurant.
He made up his mind. The night had an early cold. The stars woven in the night sky gave out a faint glow, the kind you get from a low watt LED. There was a wind coming from the East. A breeze. The night looked good.
But when Pradhan was grabbed and pulled inside a black car and then blindfolded, the good night failed to cheer him. He thought he had made up his mind but no. He wanted to live , with his head high. His heart was drowning deep down in his stomach at the thought of death. How singular humans are! “Death”, Pradhan pronounced on his mouth. The word itself wasn’t scary. Perhaps neither was the sensation. No living human knew and the dead won’t say a thing. But its anticipation was, especially at someone else’s hands.
Thus occupied with his thoughts, with hope almost lost, Pradhan spent the rest of his journey. Once the car stopped, his blindfold was opened. Blinking twice, he found himself in a mellow light. Perhaps, an interrogation awaited him.
The man, an Indian it seemed from his accent, asked him, “You! Why were you going against us!? Do you want us to take over your restaurant? And arrest you and your sister? DO YOU?!’
“Not my sister please, she is not a part of it,” Pradhan replied. “Arrest me if you want.”
“Good”, the man replied, in a much gentler tone. Pradhan found that it was a sort of double check to make sure that the person was not involved with the British. Pradhan had to sit down and think to realise what had happened with him.
Since then, he was a mook Vidrohi, taking part in processions and rallies with a white mask on his face. He himself went to invite new people into the group. Soon, there wasn’t enough space in their old meeting room to accommodate all the members.
Everything was going well. No one knew even one person by their face. You didn’t really know who you were marching with. They could be a friend, a neighbour, a colleague, a client, just anyone.
Then, a silent rebel broke their trust and leaked information about their whereabouts. The members had to scatter that day as the British police open fired. Many were wounded even as others ran away saving their lives. They had of course known that they couldn’t carry on forever. So, each one of them had promised that if something like this happened, everyone would save themselves which was only practical. They had a spare meeting place decided as well.
Pradhan ran away out of sight and then, hid by a lane even as footsteps ran down too near for his comfort. Confident footsteps followed which meant the cops were near. Pradhan padded backwards, looking around for any sign of movement like an owl. His mind ran to find an excuse just in case.
But luck or prayers or something, just something, worked. He wasn’t caught. But the next day, the houses of suspected silent rebels were investigated with utmost detail. No nook was left untouched and no item was left upturned. Personal diaries were confiscated.
He was not suspected by the cops. But by someone else. His own sister. Because on that night of chase put up by the British, going as he was, he couldn’t escape the eagle eyes of Maithili. His shirt was torn as if cut from a jagged rock (which might have happened though Pradhan couldn’t remember). He had several scratches down his left arm. But Maithili hadn’t hinted once that she noticed his condition. Pradhan had only seen her peeping through the latticed window.
But in the morning, the present day, when Pradhan came back from a police interrogation, Maithili discovered the secret. Pradhan only hoped that she would not go to the lengths of telling the British of his breach of trust. When Maithili kept her lips pursed and sealed all day, the only option left for Pradhan was to wait. At 2 in the afternoon, they proceeded to the restaurant.
The air tasted of exuberance mingled with garlic and onion. A few British officers and a very few Indians, a couple or so of the usual, had their mouths working in no time after the restaurant opened. Pradhan, although grudgingly, had to admit that the restaurant was working well and earning a lot of not just money, but fame even among some Indian protestors.
The bustle kept Pradhan busy and going. He went from table to table, hearing the customers’ thoughts. He had that job as he had a good reputation with the British in addition to his understanding of the heavy accent. Going about his job, he would hear many things.
That day, he overheard a barbed account of the last night’s adventure told by a British cop, another official saying something about a new law, and a particularly drunk British journalist (who had apparently been handed a termination letter that day) telling to a walrus-moustached man sitting next to him who was not listening, “The power of pen is precarious, my friend,” before the journalist collapsed because of the excess alcohol, his head on the table.
In the evening, when the last of the customers paid for their bloated waists, Pradhan and Maithili closed the restaurant for the day. “I have an interrogation with the British tonight,” Pradhan said, “and they asked me to come as fast as I could to their office.”
Pradhan hadn’t expected her to reply and had already turned left before Maithili said, “I will come too.” Pradhan had been counting on Maithili’s displeasure to escape to the Mook Vidrohi meeting set up for the night, as had been planned earlier. The leader, a lady (probably the lady who had come to invite Pradhan at first because she always wore a black veil on her face) had said that the British won’t be expecting it on the very next night if they ever discovered their meeting place, which the British had last night.
“Um, they asked me to come alone,” Pradhan said.
“Well, I will tell them I insisted,” Maithili answered. They trudged in silence, both of them having done a lot of work. The usual Sunday traffic did tire them out every time and they had still problem getting used to it.
After a few minutes though, Maithili rounded in on him, “You are going to that stupid group, are not you? Are NOT YOU?’ Her lips were vibrating again. That was always a bad sign.
“I am not,” Pradhan said firmly.
“Oh, get off it. I know it. I suspected you all along.”
“And what did you expect me to do? SIT BACK?!” His lips were trembling now. And so were his hands and his tolerance. Why was Maithili doing it? “After WHAT THEY DID? TO PRAKASH?!” It was the very first time they were discussing it. The very first time. At least, he was. But Maithili didn’t look angry. Though her eyes flimsier, glinting in the moonlight. She turned away for a second, and back again, her knuckle wet.
“I am coming with you,” she said. “To this group. And I do NOT spy for the British whatever else I might do.”
Pradhan led the way. After about a half hour walk, hiding in corners and shadows whenever a patrol passed (those were getting more often) or while traversing a wide, open piece of land, they faced a fork in the outskirts of an industrial area.
Pradhan, with his mind working furiously to stop Maithili from reaching the secret meeting place, had in the process, forgotten the path they had to take from here. This was a good excuse but he didn’t want to miss the meeting.
“What is it?” Maithili asked. Pradhan told her.
There was a sound in the distance just then, disturbing the ghost-calm of the area. It was unmistakable the patrols were here. But Pradhan couldn’t remember the way.
“Where do we GO?!” Maithili asked, trying to shout as quietly as possible.
“I don’t know! I have forgotten”, he replied. He could feel a cool drop working its way down his forehead. He had to think hard now. “The way, the way, oh come on!” he mumbled. “Come on quick now. Where to go? Where to?!…”
He was looking on the ground, concentrating hard and he had just recalled that it was the right fork when a hand grabbed his and pulled him towards the right. The patrols sounded dangerously near his place. He didn’t even look up, just stood grounded.
As the sound grew more distant, Pradhan looked up to see who had drawn him to the place and if they had grabbed Maithili as well. There was no one there except Maithili.
“How did you know where to go? A guess?”
Maithili took out something from the pocket of her jacket and wrapped it on the lower part of her face. She then said, “I was the one who decided this meeting place we are going to.” As the moonlight hit it, Pradhan saw that Maithili had on a black veil.
* Prompt: Restaurant owner; Discovers that a loved one is not what they seem; Pre-Independence (India)
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