29 August 2019, District Sessions Court
Kshama hesitated on the first step. She had never been to a court before. Her foot faltered and slipped on the bald edge of the step. Thousands of feet, heavy with guilt, seeking redemption and emancipation had chiselled these steps smooth. She composed herself, took a steadying breath, and dragged her worn-out chappals across the next few steps.
She faintly remembered a scene from a long-forgotten movie about a bustling room full of people, lawyers in their solemn black garb, the court herald announcing the arrival of the judge and the boxes for the accused and witnesses. This room was much smaller and stuffy. The dull gray walls with leakage stains and patches of paint crumbling down were liberally sprayed with red leftovers of ruminated betel leaves. The uncanny resemblance to splattered blood jerked her back to reality. She sat straight and paid attention to the proceedings. The steady wave of murmurs ebbed as the judge arrived. It was time. The judgment was to be concluded today. Someone at the front stood up and announced in a booming voice, “State vs. Jeevandas, Santosh Kumar and Satyen Prakash.”
Kshama’s eyes blurred.
“Satyen? Do you like this name Kshama? Satyen Shyam Prakash. It sounds so righteous and upstanding.” Kshama’s husband was over the moon cradling his newborn son. Kshama smiled indulgently. “Nooooo! It’s too old-fashioned. How about Raj or Rahul?”
“You have your heart set on making him an actor.” He covered his eyes in mock dismay.
“Actor or not, one day our son will bring glory to our family. You just wait and watch.” Kshama turned up her nose.
Her deceased husband’s laughter echoed in her ears just as the accused were ushered in to face the judge. Black coverings were ripped off their faces. Young boys, barely out of their teenage years blinked their eyes and stared back. Amongst them was her son, Satyen. When had her little boy, with a dimpled smile and curious blue eyes turned into a hardened criminal? He was accused of a heinous crime that had sent shockwaves across the nation. People had poured into the streets with placards and effigies demanding capital punishment for the three accused. The media hounded their every living moment. How had it all gone so horribly wrong? Where did she fail?
One year ago.
“Sattu! Get up! Don’t you have college to attend? What is so important in your mobile that you are glued to it all day?” Kshama chastised her lazy son while whirling around to sweep under his bed. She was running late for her work. After her husband’s death she had taken up the mantle of running the house and supporting her aging mother-in-law and her teenage son, alone. She juggled multiple jobs just to make ends meet.
“O Maharani! Don’t you dare scold my grandson. Let him rest. There is still time for him to grow up and take care of us. Sattu, sleep as much as you want dear. Skip the college today if you don’t feel like going. You are not going to be a ‘dactar, collector’ by studying. That ship has sailed. Kshama, let him enjoy his youth.” Kshama’s mother-in-law Ashabai sternly admonished her.
Kshama just shook her head in defeat and left for work. Little did she know that day would mark the beginning of their doom. A first in the series of events that would destroy every dream that she held close.
She returned home that day only to be accosted by a hysterical Ashabai. No sooner did she turn around the corner towards her house, she was met with a slap that made her stumble a couple of steps back.
“Where have you been all day? And burn that mobile phone of yours, if you don’t know how to use it.” She gawked at the tear-stained face of her mother-in-law. Ashabai’s face had turned puce with anger as she ground her teeth to spit out a barrage of insults at Kshama. Gathering her senses, Kshama stuttered a response, “Maa ji, what happened? Why are you crying?”
“My poor baby.” Ashabai wailed loudly and collapsed on the ground.
“They dragged him by his collar. He didn’t even finish his lunch.” She supplied between wiping her snot and thwacking her forehead with her palm.
Kshama knelt to console her. She could barely make sense of the garbled words, “Maa ji, who took whom away?”
The wailing suddenly stopped as Ashabai stared daggers at Kshama.
“Police! They took away my Sattu. Go! Get him back or don’t show me your face again.” Ashabai spat out the words before dragging her frail form back home.
Kshama stared at her retreating back trying to wrap her head around what she had just heard. Why would the police take away Sattu? No, it must be a big misunderstanding. She straightened up and traversed the narrow lanes of their basti towards the local police station. ‘Ganga Nagar Police Station’ the board read. She quickened her pace and rushed through the open doorway. Men and women in uniforms ambled around. Kshama timidly approached a lady constable.
“Madam, my son? His name is Sattu, sorry Satyen.. Satyen Prakash. What did he do Madam? Why has he been taken into custody?” Words stumbled from her mouth, tripping over each other. The lady constable gave an impatient sigh and asked her to meet Police Sub-Inspector Mhatre. Kshama struggled to find her way around the bustling crowd but was able to locate the desk of PSI Mhatre. But before she could approach him, she came across a sight she wished she could unsee. Her teenage son, huddled behind the bars, shivering with fear. As soon as their eyes met, he gave out a guttural cry. “Maa! Maa!”
She started towards him but was rudely pulled back by a commanding voice. “Madam, you are not allowed to talk to the detainees yet. Please don’t start with your melodrama here. Now, I assume you are Satyen Prakash’s mother.” He continued talking over her meek mumbling. “This is the FIR filed against him and we are in the process of acquiring the statements and preparing a chargesheet to be filed with the magistrate.”
He might as well be speaking in Latin as Kshama couldn’t comprehend the legalese he was spewing.
“Saheb, I don’t understand. Why have you arrested Sattu? There must be some mistake. He is not a bad kid.” She tried to reason with the police officer.
PSI Mhatre gave a mirthless chuckle.
“This is the problem with mothers like you. You have blinders on your eyes when it comes to your son. This guy…kid that you are vouching for has molested a girl along with his friends. They have been booked under Sec 354 for outraging the modesty of a woman.”
Kshama collapsed on the chair after listening to the accusations. Her eyes widened in shock, as she shook her head, to dispel the appalling statement made by the officer. She had expected to hear something less severe such as minor street fights, damage to a property. But this! Never in her wildest dreams had she expected her Sattu to have stooped so low as to disrespect a woman.
Before she could properly compose herself, the officer went on explaining her the legalities of the FIR and the bail amount required to release her son. She was overwhelmed with emotion and information.
She stood on shaky legs and looked one last time at Sattu. His crumpled face and outstretched arm were imprinted on her mind as she left the police station.
She trudged the streets and gullies aimlessly. How was she supposed to raise such a big amount in a short time? She had to think fast. The office, where she worked as a cleaning staff was already closed. None of her friends would help her out if they knew why she needed the money. She had to wait for tomorrow, hoping her employer would give her an advance on her salary without raising too many questions. She returned home dejected, and heart broken.
Her mother-in-law was fast asleep but sleep evaded Kshama that night. She simply stretched back on the cot staring at the ceiling fan. Its hypnotic rotations steadied her galloping heart. As the blades blurred into one another, blurry memories resurfaced.
A six-year-old Sattu, snuggled in her arms as their bodies heaved with inconsolable sobs. Losing her husband to a freak accident had left them homeless.
An eight-year-old boy, eagerly waiting for her to return home everyday with outstretched arms as she worked tirelessly just to keep them fed and sheltered.
Sattu’s twelfth birthday and their first visit to Juhu Chowpatty. She had never seen him happier than when he ran across the sandy seashore and splashed around the frothy waves. His tanned, sand covered face shone brighter than the sparkling sea.
The day Sattu had treated her and his grandmother to a movie and Pav bhaji at a local joint. As a mother she was filled with pride. She had slowly started dreaming of a future where she could handover the responsibilities of running the household to Sattu.
A sudden power outage caused the whirling of the fan and her wayward mind to come to a standstill; back to the deafening reality that she faced. After staying awake all night she finally managed to sleep for a couple of hours before she had to leave for work.
Ashabai’s indignant shriek managed to shake her grogginess away. “Why are you just sitting here? Don’t you have any responsibility towards your only son? Go get some money. Ask your madam to give you some advance. I want my grandson back home today.”
Luckily, years of loyalty and hard work paid off. Her advance salary and bank savings were just enough to pay the bail amount. She left early that day and rushed to the police station.
“Saheb, I have brought the bail money. Now please release my so…” She stumbled to a halt as she could not find her son in the cell that he was incarcerated in yesterday. “Where is my son?”
“Those boys were released this morning. The girl and her parents took back their complaint and hence the charges were dropped.”
She half tripped; half ran all the way back home. Sattu sat still, hunched over as his grandmother fussed over him. Kshama stopped just inside the doorway and collapsed in relief. Her son was safe.
“Maa! It is okay Maa. It was all a big misunderstanding. My friends were just having some fun.” Sattu tried to explain in a pacifying tone.
Ashabai was not one to remain calm. “It is the girl’s fault, I tell you. They entice young boys like our Sattu and then trap them in such false cases. You should see the way they dress up these days. They are asking for it. How do you expect these hot-blooded youngsters not to fall for their vile charms?”
Kshama looked at her sharply but held her tongue. She didn’t want to argue with her mother-in-law today. She sat beside Sattu and took his hand and placed it on her head. “Sattu, swear on me. Did you disrespect the girl in any way?”
“No Maa. Why would the girl take back her charges if I had done anything untoward?” Sattu countered.
“No more talks of that wicked girl in our house. Kshama, Sattu let us visit our family deity and thank him for his blessings” urged Ashabai.
The matter was put to rest. Sattu mentally patted himself for his ingenuity. His foresight to take objectionable photos of the girl, helped to blackmail her family to drop the charges against them. He whistled a merry tune while browsing through the photos on his phone. Kshama turned back towards him, as a little ball of unrest settled in her heart.
Days, weeks and months passed by. Sattu celebrated his eighteenth birthday with his friends. She had cooked his favourite dishes and dessert, but it remained untouched as Sattu insisted on spending the day, partying with his friends. Kshama sighed, covered the dishes, and went to sleep on an empty stomach. She planned to stay awake until he arrived home. But weary from the day’s work, she fell into a deep slumber.
It was 2 a.m. A sudden banging noise startled Kshama awake. There was an urgency in the impatient knocks, enough to splinter the door open. She scrambled up and opened the door expecting Sattu but instead faced her worst nightmare. A group of uniformed officers barged inside the house and continued to ransack it. “Where is your son? Where are you hiding him?”
She could not think of a quick reply over the sudden onslaught of activity in her house and the high-pitched wailing of her mother-in-law. Covering herself with a shawl, she faced the lady constable. “My son is out with his friends. It is his birthday, so they are having a party. He should be home anytime now.”
The lady constable’s face contorted with rage. She fisted her hands at her sides and gritted her teeth before delivering the news to a clearly oblivious mother, who blindly trusted her son.
“He is never coming back. At least not back home. Madam, brace yourself. Because what I’m going to tell you now will haunt you till your last breath.”
Kshama closed the door behind the police, who left after being satisfied that she did not know of her son’s whereabouts. She slid down the closed door and shook uncontrollably. She was unable to process what she had just heard from the police. She felt nauseated, bile rose up her throat and she ran to the bathroom to expel what little she had in her stomach. How could she be so blind? Or did she simply choose to overlook the subtle hints that were right in front of her eyes?
She remembered that one time when he had tied a string of firecrackers to an innocent puppy’s tail and laughed uproariously as the poor thing ran around in circles, scared to death. Or when he had tickled and pinched his cousin sister, under the pretext of harmless teasing, but the girl ended up with bruises all over her arms. There were many such incidents that poked at her mind now. There was a sadistic side to her son that she had overlooked over the years. If only, she had acted upon it earlier. If only, she had confronted her son over the years and tried to make him understand his folly. But it was too late now.
She approached Ashabai to console the old lady, who was clearly in a shocked state. But just as she knelt beside her, Ashabai grabbed hold of her shoulders and dug her fingers in. “I..want..my..grandson..back. Do whatever you need to do. Sell this house and every belonging to hire a good lawyer. Sattu is just a kid. He cannot go to jail. Think about our family name.”
Kshama lost the grip over her emotions at that. “Shut up! Just shut your mouth for once. HE.IS.NOT.A.KID. This isn’t just a mistake. He and his friends, in their drunken frenzy have mercilessly brutalised, mutilated and murdered an innocent girl. Wrap your mind around this fact if you can.” She didn’t wait to hear Ashabai’s mindless arguments. The most difficult phase of their lives was about to begin.
For days to come, they faced humiliation, ridicule, shunning and even physical assault. Kshama lost her job, friends and neighbours forsook all ties with them. As the press and media hovered around them, her mother-in-law tried a last-ditch effort to save her grandson. She insisted that her grandson was underage. She had somehow managed to procure a fake birth certificate to validate the lie. Kshama stood back in the shadows, weighing it all in.
29 August 2019, District Sessions Court.
As Kshama contemplated the events culminating into this day, Sattu stood in front of the judge, slouching in disregard. He had a smug look on his face as he stood scrubbing the dirt of his shoes on the grimy floor of the court room. The judges were yet to pass their judgment, but it was public knowledge that unlike the other two accused, Sattu would not face capital punishment. He, being underage, would be tried under the Juvenile Justice Act and would be required to serve a much lighter sentence.
Kshama clutched the end of her saree close to her heart. With a thundering heart, she debated about using the object she had hidden between the folds of her saree. At that moment, Sattu turned back and looked straight into her eyes. He held her gaze and gave her a twisted smile. There was no shame or remorse in his vacant eyes. It was time to cut the umbilical cord that fed his darkness. As the court adjourned for lunch, she approached the public prosecutor and dropped a roll of paper at his feet. She gave him a meaningful look and turned to leave the court.
She exited the building with relative obscurity. The media was present in full force, but nobody paid any heed to her. They already had their articles ready. All they needed was photo depicting the misery and tears of the victim’s parents upon hearing the judgment. After all misery sells better than guilt. She left the premises without looking back.
News Anchor: As per the new evidence unearthed, the third accused would now face a trial as an adult and not as a juvenile. The public prosecutor was able to acquire the original birth certificate for Satyen Prakash in the nick of time. Justice would finally be served.
Chappals – footwear
Maharani – Queen (here, in a sarcastic way)
Dactar – Doctor
Basti – settlement
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