The Colors of Time
by Saurbh Katyal
Table of Contents|
Part 1 appeared
in issue 128.
He liked solitude; at least he liked that idea that he liked solitude. He often rationalized that it was in his solitude that his imagination was the most fertile. Today, there was this grave decision looming over his thought process. And to deteriorate matters further, there was not adequate time to think things over. James hated taking hasty decisions. He considered himself a perfectionist, and the shortage of time exacerbated the situation further.
He considered taking the advice of the attendant, but was too much of an egoist for that. He thought how Daisy would react to his daredevil attitude, provided he went for the ponytail, tonight at the party. He seethed when he recalled how Martin had won her attention at the last ball. James had been shocked at the audacity of Martin; imagine turning up in a traditional Indian outfit at a formal function. Daisy had said it broke the monotony and danced with Martin all night. His anger had turned to bewilderment, when Daisy’s father and his commanding officer had been insouciant about the whole matter.
James had almost choked over his drink, when the CO commented that Martin looked quite dashing in the Indian dress. If he had been the commanding officer, he would have sanctioned a court-martial for Martin right away. Tonight, James was intent on making a fashion statement. James believed that God had personally made each living being, with his own divine hands; he also believed that God had given extra attention to the hair while creating James. James had wavy golden hair which he felt sure, were the talk of the town. He rubbed the gel liberally on his hair, and knotted them with a white narrow ribbon. He almost gasped at the effect. Why hadn’t he tried this earlier? He would be the cynosure of all attention at the party tonight.
All of a sudden, the door of his cabin flew open, and the commanding officer came in panting. James was in the process of rubbing some extra gel on his pony tail; the suddenness of the arrival unnerved him so much, that he spilled the coffee on the desk. The commanding officer wasted no time in courtesies, “James, have you seen the pamphlets?”
It took a few seconds before James could regain his composure. He stammered, “Yes sir, no sir. What are you talking about, sir?”
The CO flung the pamphlet at James face, and said in exasperation, “They are addressed to you, and are pasted all over the town.”
James read the pamphlet. He turned ashen. His tongue failed him and he looked pleadingly at the CO, to make sense of it all.
The CO had seen that look of helplessness before, “Now listen, James, you have to understand the magnitude of this problem. I am sure the governor will hear of this soon, and maybe the king, too. This amounts to sacrilege. If we do not free this Scott alive within the next few hours, we can all kiss this sinecure of a job goodbye. We don’t want that, do we?”
James said sincerely, “Oh no Sir.”
The CO looked pleased, “Good. So who is this Gopal you arrested at the rally?”
James replied, “Oh, just some bloke making patriotic statements. I told the crowd to disperse, and he started saying some crap about freedom. So I had to retaliate to protect the honor of the king.”
The CO consoled him, “No one doubts the veracity of your action James. It’s just that this is a tremendous insult to the king. I can’t even imagine those bastards scheming this, let alone executing it. Mother of gods, when news of this leaks out, we will be the laughingstock of England.”
James realized it was incumbent on him to offer words of support to the CO now, “There there Sir, cheer up. I will have the case solved in a jiffy, and we can all enjoy at the party tonight.”
The CO replied in a shocked tone, “James, is this a joke? You don’t suppose that the ball will be held tonight. It has been postponed.”
James tried hard to avoid the disappointment in his voice, “Oh! Of course. I just thought that... never mind, sir.”
The CO caught the dejected look of the young officer, “I am counting on you James. By the way, your hairstyle is very flamboyant.”
James beamed, and said with all the sincerity he could muster, “Thank you, sir. Just a little something I thought of. You have to excuse me now, sir. I will get to the bottom of this and teach the dogs a lesson they will not forget.”
Scott had again been tied to the chair. It had been half an hour since he regained consciousness. Only Sita, her son, and Atul, the third man, remained to keep an eye on him. The boy was staring at Scott stealthily; Sita was reading something, and Atul was keenly inspecting the newly acquired pistol. Scott smiled at the boy and asked slowly in Hindi, “What is your name, son?”
The boy looked shyly at the floor and muttered, “Rohit.”
Scott continued, “Hello Rohit, I am Scott. How old are you, Rohit?”
Rohit looked confused, and opened both his palms to display all his fingers.
The woman intervened, “He’s four.”
Scott made an effort to start a conversation, “He’s an adorable child. Does he go to school?”
The woman said sarcastically, “Not yet. But he will go to one, in a free India, where he does not have to feel like a deprived being.”
Scott replied, “I am sure he will.”
The woman was stultified, “What? Uhm, thanks.”
Scott continued. “So where is his father?
The woman replied impassively, “He died of a head injury two years ago; he was leading a peaceful protest when one of your people mauled him.”
Scott said sincerely, “I am extremely sorry.”
Sita looked at him sympathetically, “You are very humble for a British. Harish should have got one of those arrogant dogs.”
Scott decided to try his luck, “So what does Harish plan to do?”
Sita replied, “James arrested the leader of our group last week. Harish plans to stipulate your freedom with his.”
Scott had studied during the pre-travel preparations, that there existed many formal and informal groups during the freedom struggle. He realized he was the captive of one such group.
James was a puzzled man. He had confirmed that there was no man by the name of Scott Harrington. There had been no news of a missing man either. He was sure that the pamphlet had been a hoax. James was angry now. He was a man who believed what he was told. He had been told, upon his commission in India, that the brown people were an inferior race who had to be trained to submission. He hated such anomalous indigestions in his routine, and he wanted vengeance. In his unsettled state of mind, he sent for Gopal. Gopal was proving a tough nut to crack. James had tried the traditional means of torture on Gopal, but he still refused to disclose where his group operated from. James was not worried. Eventually they all broke down. He ordered the sepoy to bring Gopal to the ice chamber.
Ten minutes later, Gopal lay naked on a block of ice, while James watched the sepoy bludgeon the soles of Gopal’s feet, with a thick bamboo cane. James came out of the chamber after half an hour, satisfied with the outcome.
Atul spat at Scott again. Sita said, “You must ignore him; he hates you.”
Scott replied, “Oh, that’s understandable.”
Rohit was seated on the lap of Scott; Scott was instructing him to build a paper plane.
Sita spoke up, “You are a gentleman, Scott. I hope that everything turns up okay for you.”
Scott blushed at the concern. Sita laughed, “You blush again, Scott.”
It was true. He was always shy around the fairer sex, and had blushed earlier when Sita inquired about his wife. Peter often nagged him on his bachelor status; with Rohit on his lap, he found himself wondering now, what it would be like to have a family? He conveniently attributed these thoughts to the dangerous circumstances he was in.
Harish came running in the room. He motioned to Atul; Rohit was removed from Scott’s lap, and the ropes were cut. He spoke to Sita “James’s jeep has been spotted in the next street. He is heading here. Gopal is sitting in the front seat. Take positions. Atul, give me the pistol. Sita, I don’t trust James. Be prepared to flee if the need arises.”
He turned to Scott, “Scott, you will walk in front of me. If Gopal is leading James to this place, rest assured that Gopal has a contingency plan. Gopal would never betray us. Please do as you are told Scott. Here is your bag. All the contents are intact; but I will keep your pistol.”
James envisaged the reaction of the CO, when he would come to know that the perpetrators had been caught with such promptitude by James. Maybe, he would say a few words of eulogy about James to Daisy too. The sepoy interrupted his thoughts, “Sir, the house is just around the corner.”
James straightened the corpse of Gopal kept on the co-driver seat; it was meant to lure the group members out. He slowed the jeep and took out the loudspeaker. However, the sight which greeted him at the corner shocked him. Harish stood with the pistol pointed at Scott; Abdul stood as a barrier between the hostage and the jeep. James felt a feeling of dread engulfing him; he focused the binoculars and confirmed his worst fear: there actually was a white man held hostage. His mind went blank. His hands started trembling. He made a conscious effort to think. So he had messed up. He had to save his neck and his job. If only the Indian killed the hostage first, then James could argue that he had retaliated when provoked. He could fake an encounter, kill all the group members, arrange a few witnesses. He knew that the Indian had a pistol. All he had to do was ensure that Scott died.
Harish was suspicious as soon as he saw Gopal in a hat. He waved at Gopal. There was no response. He yelled, “Go inside, Abdul. It’s a trap!”
Scott was oblivious of what was happening. He had been brought out in the street. He was solely concentrating on setting the time dial to transport him back to the present. Now all he had to do was highlight the beam on himself, and press the activation button. It was a gunshot which broke his concentration. He saw Abdul’s body falling to the pull of gravity; a white man stood with a gun. It took him nanoseconds to realize that this must be the rescue party. They were the last people he wanted to confront. Harish poked the pistol in Scott’s ribcage and ordered him to go inside. Scott surprised Harish by making a dash for it without resisting at all.
Harish fired two stray shots at James. James ducked. This was all the proof he needed. He ordered the sepoys to stand by while he went inside.
Harish was trembling with rage. He came inside and screamed. “The bastards have tricked us.” He kneeled on the floor and cried shamelessly. “They killed Gopal and Abdul. Everything has been lost.”
Sita picked up Rohit and said in a panicky tone, “Let us escape.”
Harish screamed. “Escape where? They have us surrounded. And I don’t want to escape to a life of sycophancy! Do you think I will bootlick the British?”
Sita was becoming nervous, “No, we run so that we can live in a free India. At least for Rohit’s sake.”
Harish spoke calmly now, “Do you think I care for you or your boy, when everything I have believed in has been annihilated? “
He pointed the pistol at Scott, “Go to hell, bastard.”
Scott saw insanity in Harish’s eyes. Sita screamed, “Don’t kill him, Harish. That will incriminate us to our deaths. They won’t touch Rohit now, even if they hang us. If you kill Scott, they will kill him too.”
Harish turned the pistol towards Sita and yelled, “Atul was right. You have fallen for the white man’s charm. Gopal and Abdul lie dead outside, and you defend this dog!? It is people like you, who are a deterrent to our freedom. You will die first, you shameless whore.”
Scott knew Harish could kill anyone in his manifestation of insanity. He pointed the dial and shot a beam of the infrared light straight at Harish’s face. The momentary distraction was all Scott needed to kick the pistol out of his hand. However, to his dismay, it landed straight at Atul’s feet.
He was struggling with Harish, when a shot was fired. Atul fell with a thud. He saw the white man standing at the door; Scott yelled, “Officer don’t shoot. They are going to surrender.”
James looked at the sanguine pool of blood where Atul lay; he looked at Scott and said, “Yes sir, more bloodshed won’t be necessary; please disarm that man and throw the pistol here.”
Scott detached the pistol from the barely-alive Atul, and threw it over to James. James addressed Scott angrily, “Scott, you are a moron to be caught by these bastards; more so, because you have brought dishonor on us; the death of these people rests on your conscience only. You leave me no choice.”
He fired at Harish. The bullet caught Harish in the eye; he died instantaneously. James came forward and fired again. Sita groaned and fell to the floor. The bullet hit her in the stomach. James had the smile of a maniac, as he proceeded towards Scott. Scott took two steps backwards, and then he screamed.
Atul was in a state of semiconsciousness. He was aware of some commotion around him, but he neither had the energy, nor the spirit to care. He felt very tired, and his eyelids were very heavy. He heard two shots fired far away. He opened his eyes and saw the prostrate body of Harish, and the supine silhouette of Sita. Anger obtruded on his senses; the white man was moving backwards towards him. Atul reached for his knife. He put all the body weight on his left arm, and pounced on Scott with his last reserve of energy.
Scott was stabbed once in the back. He detached himself from Atul and glanced at Sita. Sita folded her palms and pointed at Rahul; he caught the silent movement of her lips “Save him.”
James could not believe his luck. The Indian had really stabbed Scott. He needed to get witnesses. James ran out of the door to fetch the sepoys.
Rohit sat crouched in a corner, with his head between his arms. Scott took out his pen and pocket diary; the diary had been for making observations. Now it would serve as the only vestige of his existence in the present. Scott ignored the heat in his back. He could feel blood gushing out; he jotted something on the pad. He put the dial, and the pad in the bag. He limped towards Rahul; he encountered excruciating pain with each step. The dial had been activated. Scott made a loop and tied the bag around Rahul’s neck.
James rushed in with the sepoys. He was the first one to enter; he was also the first one to rush out screaming. The sepoys watched transfixed, with an amalgam of fascination and horror, as the child disappeared into thin air before their very eyes. Scott crawled slowly towards Sita. She had gratitude and resignation in her eyes. She whispered, “Is he safe?”
She mumbled inaudibly, “What did you write?”
That was the last thing she said. Scott closed her eyelids, and looked at the carpet of red around him. The bodies of Harish and Atul formed an untidy heap on the floor; Sita lay dead on his lap. He saw his white blood ironically mingling with the brown blood of the woman. He thought about James and the note he had written to Peter. He closed his eyes; life was effusing out of him. He thought about Rahul; this was his last thought before he was sucked into a vortex of abysmal darkness.
Peter was sitting in Scott’s rocking chair. The boy was sleeping peacefully in the next room. Peter looked at the bloodstained note again. “Peter, make the boy a good human being, just like you.” He wiped his tears. He smiled as he thought what the professor would have said in a situation like this, “Don’t act like a dandy, Peter. The past is history, the future a mystery and the present a gift. Live in it.”
Peter decided to do just that.
Copyright © 2004 by Saurbh Katyal