EKETI CROUCHED behind a kadam tree and waited for the alarm to ring. The forested area was quiet, but the sound of laughter drifted across the brightly lit lawn. He had no sense of how much time had passed, but he was patient. A lot had happened since he had entered the farmhouse through that rear gate. He had killed a snake and successfully performed a ritual exorcism, something which even the great Nokai would have been proud of. And best of all, now he didn't need to depend on Ashok to return to his island. He had enough money to buy tickets for himself and Champi.
Thinking of Champi brought a smile to his face and an ache to his heart. He was waiting to rush back to her with the sacred rock. Tomorrow they would travel to Kolkata to board the ship for Little Andaman, where they would receive a hero's welcome. He patted the canvas bag by his side. It was his only remaining link to the island. The clay, the bones, the pellets all brought to his mind the scents and sensations of Gaubolambe, which loomed larger in his imagination with every passing day.
Suddenly little beeps began emanating from the canvas bag. Eketi stood up with a start and switched off the alarm. He dusted down his black trousers, slung the bag over his shoulder and set off on his mission.
He reached the cobbled pathway that led to the garages and paused. In the middle of the path a small tent had been erected, inside which an army of cooks was busy frying, peeling and chopping. Large aluminium pots simmered on gas stoves. A perspiring man in a vest was bent over a clay tandoor, spearing freshly made rotis with a long metal skewer.
Eketi skirted the tent from the rear and proceeded down the path. He reached the garages without any difficulty. There was an empty plastic chair and immediately above it, embedded in the wall between the two garages, was a metal cabinet, painted blue. He was about to open the cabinet door when a hand fell on his shoulder. 'Hold it!' a stern voice boomed behind him.
He whirled around to find a dark man dressed in a white shirt and grey trousers glaring at him. There was a hockey stick in his right hand.
'Who are you?' the man demanded brusquely.
'I am Mr Sharma's driver,' he replied, swallowing hard.
'Then what are you doing traipsing around here? All the drivers are supposed to eat in the outside tent. Go over there.' He pointed towards the gate.
'Yes,' he said and half ran, half walked towards the gate. Rounding the corner, he leaned against the wall, his body still limp with shock.
He saw that he had reached the front driveway, where a row of cars was lined up, but none of the drivers was around. They were all having dinner inside a tent erected just behind the left entrance gate. The deathly silence in the portico was a sharp contrast to the music and laughter emanating from the garden at the back.
Hiding behind a marble column, Eketi peeked back at the cobbled pathway. The man in the grey trousers was now sitting on the plastic chair directly below the switchboard, wiping his neck with a handkerchief, the hockey stick leaning against his left leg. He did not appear to be a regular guard, but it was evident that he was stationed there specifically to ensure that no one tampered with the switchboard. Eketi wondered what to do. Should he go back to the Bhole Nath Temple and ask Ashok? Should he just make a dash for the ingetayi, light or no light? A whizzing sound came from above and he looked up to see a great green flower burst in the sky. The fireworks had started on the rear lawn.
He edged inside the portico and came across an open casement window. Peeping in, he saw a large hall full of people talking and drinking. The bass whine of a speaker suddenly split the air and a tall man wearing a dark suit and purple tie walked towards a mike positioned just behind the open window. The man turned to face the crowd, tapped the mike a couple of times and began speaking. 'Friends, we are gathered here today to celebrate my acquittal,' Eketi heard him say. 'All along I maintained my innocence. I am glad the court also recognized it. I am thankful to all of you whose support kept me afloat through those dark days and nights when I didn't know whether I would be spending the rest of my life in a dingy cell. So this is to say thank you. But the person I need to thank the most is my father, the one man responsible for making me what I am today. Dad, can you please come up here and say a few words?'
An older, heavy-set man, wearing white kurta pyjamas, walked up to the mike and embraced the man in the suit, who clung to him as if it was their last meeting. Eketi even detected a tear coursing down the suited man's cheek. Then the older man began speaking.
'It is always a mistake to give a politician a mike,' he said and there was mild tittering. 'But I am standing here today not as the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh but as a father. And nothing gives a father greater happiness than to see his children prosper and flourish. Nothing pains a father more than to see his son being implicated in a totally fabricated case. I am glad that the long dark night is over and my son can now live like a free man. This is a victory for all those who have faith in the judiciary and in justice. To my son I wish a very long life. May Lord Shiva bless all of you.'
There were murmurs of approval from the people in the room. A cracker burst loudly and the sky was lit up by a brilliant orange pumpkin.
Eketi went back to his vantage point against the wall. He peeked at the garages again, hoping that the man in the grey trousers might have gone. But he was still there, except now he was standing up and looking left and right, as if checking that the coast was clear. As Eketi watched, the man turned towards the switchboard, opened the cabinet and fiddled briefly. Instantly, darkness descended over the entire farmhouse.
The tribal quivered with excitement. This was his cue. He raced down the cobbled pathway soundlessly and ran on to the lawn, which was also in pitch darkness. He was halfway across the grounds when his foot struck a wooden table and he went sprawling on to the grass. A loud bang came from inside the house, as though an engine had backfired, and he sensed a dark figure rush out on to the lawn. Eketi's left leg was hurting badly, but ignoring the pain he bounded the last few steps to the temple, his eyes accustomed by now to the darkness. Dropping his canvas bag to the floor, he began feeling his way around the walls, which had recessed alcoves containing idols of various deities. It took him half a minute to locate the one with the ingetayi. He touched it, felt its smooth surface, the markings on top, and his fingers began throbbing on their own. All else became a blur as he picked up the sea-rock. It lifted off its base easily. Slipping it into the canvas bag, he swung the bag across his shoulder and began running down the lawn, his heart singing. He was going home. To Champi. To Gaubolambe.
He had almost reached the edge of the wood when the lights came back on. 'Stop!' someone shouted behind him. He turned around and saw a constable with a raised baton speeding across the lawn towards him.
He tried to make a dash for the safety of the thicket, but at that very moment his injured left leg gave up on him. He fell down in a heap and within seconds the cop was upon him.
'What have you just done, bastard?' the constable wheezed, breathing deeply.
'Nothing,' said Eketi, his face distorted with pain.
'Give me your bag,' the constable said, whacking him on the legs with his lathi.
With a startled cry, Eketi let go of the bag. The constable lifted it and was surprised by its weight. 'What have you got inside? Let's take a look,' he muttered as he unzipped the bag. One by one he started taking out its contents – the small lumps of red and white clay, the pouch of pig fat, the bone necklace, and finally the sacred rock. 'Oh, this looks like a shivling! Where did you steal it from?' Before Eketi could reply, the constable groped in the bag one final time. His fingers touched something hard and metallic and his eyebrows rose as he drew out a silver-coloured gun. It was a locally made improvised revolver, a katta.
'And what is this, motherfucker?'
'I don't know. That is not mine,' Eketi replied, completely taken aback.
'Then how come it is inside your bag?'
'I don't know how it got there.'
'Don't worry, we will find out,' said the constable as he took out a pair of handcuffs. 'Come on, blackie, you are under arrest.'