Sunny Singh cycled back to his village with a smile on his face. He had kept his promise to his father that he will graduate with 60% marks that year and till then, he would not touch football. His side of the bargain – that he would be allowed to represent the State of Bihar in the 1995 edition of the Durand Cup Football Tournament. He was the topper that year and had received a medal of honour from the university chancellor. Hoshiyar Singh hugged his son tight with tears welling up his eyes, not only because he was proud of Sunny, but because now, he would have to keep his part of the bargain. This was the first time anyone had left Pandhar, and that too, for football.
“Chacha, your son is one in a million.” Sunny’s coach Deepak Kumar, had told Hoshiyar Singh. “Very few people can dribble and score a goal like him. You just wait and watch, he will bring glory to Bihar.” He was the one who brokered the deal between father and son. “Don’t worry”, he had consoled Sunny as he left for Calcutta. “Boys like you don’t need practise. We will win for sure. Call and tell me which bus you will take and I will pick you up from the bus terminus.”
The next day, which was two days before their team’s first match against Goa, Sunny was to board the Calcutta-bound BSTC bus from Mithapur Bus Terminus. Before boarding, he called his coach from a nearby pay-phone and gave him the details. “Deepak Sir, my bus will start from Mithapur by 6pm. I will reach tomorrow early morning.” Deepak Kumar wished him a safe journey and chanted a silent prayer. He depended heavily on Sunny. What else could he do? His own promotion to the post of national coach was on the line.
Sunny was woken up when his head hit the iron grilling of the seat in front. His luggage, as well as those of others, fell down from the overhead storage. Before anyone could understand what happened, twenty masked men entered the bus and pointed their weapons at the passengers. Shouting and screaming ensued while Sunny ducked under the seat, nursing his forehead.
“Silence everyone! We will shoot anyone who utters another word!” one of the masked men thundered, and immediately, everyone became silent. “All of you, get down and stand in a line. Hand over all your valuables and we will not kill you. Satyender, check all bags for any valuables, quickly.”
It was pitch dark as all the passengers climbed down and huddled in front of the bus. Sunny also came down, but suddenly slipped away and started running.
“Arey, someone is running away. Banke, go after him and kill him”, ordered the leader. As he fired in the air and warned others to remain where they were, Banke got onto his horse and started to chase Sunny.
Under the cover of darkness, Sunny hid behind the dense trees staring at the pursuer. Banke scanned the wilderness for a few seconds and then shouted. “Wherever you are, I know you can hear me. This is a jungle, there are ferocious animals all around and they are hungry. Come to me, I will not hurt you I will let you can go wherever you want. We are dacoits, we don’t kill without reason.”
Suddenly, continuous rounds of bullets being fired and screams of people were heard from the road. Banke immediately turned his horse around and fled, leaving a dazed Sunny behind the tree. What happened? Have they killed all the passengers? How will I go to Calcutta? How will I go home? As he was contemplating what to do, he saw his bus explode in a huge ball of fire. This can’t be happening. Bajrangbali save me, he prayed for strength as the bus was consumed in flames in a short while.
Sunny ran like his life depended on it. I have to live – that was the only thought running in his mind. It started raining. He stumbled on pebbles, fell on mud, but he continued running. A well-trained athlete that he was, he would have run for the next one hour. Where am I? Somehow, I need to reach some village or town so that I can contact Deepak Sir. He didn’t even know what time it was as his watch was taken by one of the dacoits in the bus. As he stopped for breath, he scanned the expanse of jungle. In the distance, he could see a light source. Is that a fire burning? Someone must be there who can help me. I must have left the dacoits far away. But I must be careful. I don’t know who these people are.
From a distance, he could make out four men sitting around the fire. Let me hear what they are talking about. Then I can decide whether they can help me. He hid behind a tree and tried to concentrate.
“Arey dhoor! Why should we be made to sit on guard always? I cannot stand these mosquitoes!” One man was talking in Bengali. Another man patted him and teased, “Orey Shonkho, you are here because you get free meat and liquor every night. Don’t try to fool us.” And all of them erupted in laughter.
Bengalis! I am inside Bengal now. But will they know Hindi? I have to try and make them understand. With slow steps, Sunny came out into the clearing. “Who is there?” shouted one of the men and all of them stood up with their lathis. Frightened to the bone, Sunny stammered in part Bhojpuri and Hindi, “My name is Sunny Singh I was going to Calcutta by bus from Patna. Suddenly, we were attacked by dacoits and they killed everyone and burnt the bus. I managed to give the slip and run away.”
“Hey, what is he saying?” asked one man.
“I think he said something about dacoits burning a bus and he ran away. How do we know he is not one of them?” remarked another.
“Ask him to show his ticket.” Suggested the third man.
The fourth man stepped forward with his lathi. Extending his hand, he growled, “Bus ticket!”
Sunny again stammered and joined his hands into a namaste. “Those dacoits took everything away from me. I have three hundred rupees.” He showed them the money. “Please help me to go to Calcutta.”
“He says he has three hundred rupees and he wants to go to Calcutta.” The fourth person translated to the others. The four then huddled into a discussion and then the fourth person called Sunny over. “Do you eat meat?” offering a piece of meat. As Sunny hesitated, the man continued, “Don’t be afraid. I am Nitai, this is Gobindo, Jhilik and Shonkho. We are good people. We will take you to our village sarpanch and he will decide how you can go to Calcutta. Ok?
Sunny accepted the food, but in a few minutes, he felt drowsy and fell asleep.
When he woke up, he found himself on a charpoy inside a room with a thatched roof. Sitting in front of him was a frail, young kid wearing just a half-pant. Seeing Sunny wake up, the kid got up and ran outside shouting, “he has woken up.”
Five men entered the room. Sunny recognised four of them as the ones whom he met the previous night. Nitai spoke first. “Hello, how are you today? You fell asleep after you ate the meat last night. We carried you here. This is our sarpanch. You can tell him everything. He will help you.”
Sunny broke down and laid bare everything to the sarpanch. After hearing the whole story, the sarpanch asked him “Did you see their faces?”
Sunny looked up with a start, but dropped his eyes immediately and replied, “No, it was too dark and I was too terrified.”
“All right then. I will have to report the matter to the inspector-in-charge of Kulti Police Station. You freshen up and come with me.” He got up and took the four men with him outside.
Sunny got tensed up. That voice – isn’t that the same voice as the leader of dacoits? Or is it my imagination? I have to be careful. I have to run away somehow. He felt his pockets and smiled weakly. His three hundred rupees were safe.
The kid, who had run away earlier, came in with fresh clothes and towel. “Come with me, you can take bath and change clothes. After that you can eat. My mother will have food ready.”
Sunny could not eat properly since the vegetables were cooked in mustard oil. He ate the rotis with watery dal. He consumed the full cup of curd and thanked the lady. Outside, the sarpanch was waiting in his jeep.
“The clothes fit you properly, eh?” smiled the sarpanch. Sunny just nodded, still frightened.
“Ok, take rest now. I will go to the police station and bring the inspector here. Meanwhile, Appu will be your company.” He turned to the small kid, “Appu, take care of our guest here. And don’t run away.” His last words sounded as if it was directed not at Appu but at Sunny.
“Where are my old clothes?” Sunny immediately turned to Appu after the sarpanch left.
“My mother has washed them and put them for drying behind the house.” Appu replied pointing to the left.
He felt Appu was watching him intently and decided to be careful. Suddenly looking up, Sunny pointed to a kite. “Arey, who is flying that kite?”
As Appu turned his attention to the kite, Sunny got enough time to feel his pockets. His money was safe. “That kite is flown by Krishanu da. He is our champion. He cuts all other kites of our village.” Appu replied smiling.
Somehow, I have to get information from this kid as to where I am so that I can plan my escape.
“Appu, do you play football?” he asked.
“I like to”, he replied with a sad look. “But the dadas don’t let me play. They say I am too small.”
“If you have a ball, can we play? I will show you some good moves.” This is the only chance I have to divert his attention.
During the next half an hour, Appu enjoyed himself. He looked with rapt attention as Sunny taught him to dribble, kick and chest-trap the ball. As the sun reached its peak, Appu’s mother brought some chaanch for the two. It was soothing to drink. But Sunny had other worries. When will I get my chance to run away? I think I should ask him now.
“Appu, is that man your father, that sarpanch?”
Appu’s answer was earth-shattering. “No, no. He is not my father. He paid me hundred rupees to sit by you and paid my mother two hundred to cook for you. He is not the sarpanch. I don’t know who he is.”
Sunny barely managed to hide his shock. With his heart beating rapidly, he looked around and asked again, “Appu, that man mentioned Kulti police station. Is that the name of your village? How far is it from Calcutta?”
“No, my village name is Hasanpur”, Appu replied. There is a railway line nearby by which you can go to Asansol and then take another train to Calcutta.”
Sunny made a mental note. I can get an unreserved ticket from the station counter at Asansol. But I have to escape from here somehow. Appu is innocent. I cannot endanger him in any way.
Before he could ask the way to the railway line, the sound of an approaching jeep alerted Appu who immediately, grabbed the ball and took it inside the house. The man had brought Nitai and Shonkho with him.
“Where is the inspector? You said he will come.”
“You know the police these days. He had gone for his rounds. But he will be back by 11am. I will take you there. You tell him everything and we can be back for lunch. Then we will see about your Calcutta trip. Come, let’s go.”
While Sunny and the man got up in front, Nitai and Shonkho got up at the back.
As the jeep wobbled along the uneven road, the man spoke. “So, you recognised me, didn’t you?”
Sunny kept his face down and didn’t say anything. Bajrangbali, save me from this situation.
“Your eyes gave you away, young man. When I spoke to you in the morning, I realised that you recognised my voice. You looked up startled and then your eyes went down. That’s the sign I needed to realise that you had to be taken care of. Too bad, you did not run away when you had a chance. You might have given Nitai here, a good moving target for practise. Eh, Nitai? Am I right?” he asked as he turned back.
“Ji huzoor”, replied Nitai with a wicked laugh showing off his rifle.
Suddenly, Nitai gave Sunny a punch on his ears and grabbed him round his neck. “One smart move and I will break your neck. Sit tight and do what we tell you to do. Understand?”
Sunny only managed a grunt under pressure from Nitai’s grip.
After a while, the man stopped the jeep. Nitai and Shonkho dragged Sunny out of the jeep. “Is the train coming?” growled the man to his henchmen.
“Ji huzoor, I can see it”, Nitai replied.
The man pointed his rifle at Sunny. “So, you die under the train. Go and stand on the tracks.” As the train approached, Sunny did what he was told.
As the train came near, Sunny tried to back off, but the man threatened him. “Stand right there or I will shoot.”
“Huzoor, don’t shoot. This is military area. They will hear you”, shouted Shonkho.
Everything happened in a matter of seconds. Sunny swirled around and got off the tracks on the opposite side, just as the train was five feet away from him. The man gave Shonkho a tight slap and screamed, “Idiot, look what you have done. Now see where he has gone. He cannot be allowed to escape. Find him!”
They bent down to see the other side between the thundering wheels, but could not see anything. The train was a long superfast express. As the last of the bogies passed, the three men ran over to the other side and scanned the area. Nothing! Suddenly, Nitai shouted “Huzoor, there he is. He has climbed onto the train.”
The three watched in horror as Sunny waved at them clinging on to the railings of one of the compartments. Thank you Bajrangbali. You saved my life.
Sunny got down, as the train slowed down just before Asansol railway station. Keeping a close watch around him, he walked up to the pay-phone and dialled the number which Deepak Sir had given him. With the money stuffed in the secret pocket of his underwear, he bought a ticket to Howrah and boarded the train which started in the next five minutes.
Sunny was the hero of the match against Goa the next day. His skills were lauded by everyone and he was approached by none other than the legendary PK Banerjee, who wanted him to join his club. But Sunny declined. He expressed his desire to improve the game in his home State for which he asked Mr. Banerjee for help and, the legend that he was, PK Banerjee immediately agreed.
Sunny never reported the events of that day to the police. Deepak Sir also did not encourage it. But whenever he passed Kulti by train to Calcutta for football matches in the coming years, the memories of that day would come back to him and made him shudder.
- Pandhar – A village in Shekhpura district near Patna, Bihar
- Hasanpur – A village in Kulti municipality near Asansol, West Bengal
* Prompt: Footballer; Gets trapped; Village
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