Literature

The vengeance

Print edition : January 05, 2018

VILAS SINGH stood dazzled for a moment. A hundred fingers of fire rent asunder the huge dome of darkness above. He felt a yard or two of the lightning creeping into his veins, sparking off a double-edged sensation. Among the fiery designs that flashed along the horizon he saw Bahadur’s face. And, the suddenness and the sharpness of the blaze reminded him of his own dagger. Surely, he could be equally sudden in handling it, in driving it across Bahadur’s breast—he assured himself.

He could not sleep a wink. Despite his vigorous attempts at dispelling it, his mind remained filled with the ominous presence of that hated enemy. Even the memory of the sweet little face peeping out of his home in the faraway village failed to make a little room for it.

He left the mat and began strolling along the narrow verandah of the inn. His legs were tired. But he could not afford to rest—not until he had wreaked his vengeance on Bahadur. On the verge of weeping, he repeated his oath. He must finish Bahadur off. If he had ever had one mission in life, it was this.

There was yet another flare along the horizon. Vilas Singh shut his eyes. Lightning was a disturbing reminder. It flashes and disappears. One cannot catch it. So was Bahadur who had, time and again, given him the slip. But Vilas Singh had not given up. Defeats had only made him tougher. Morning was still a couple of hours away when he resumed walking. And it was just at the crack of dawn that he reached Shashikala’s hut.

“Did you get him? Are you avenged and satisfied?” asked Shashikala while handing out a mugful of tea.

“No.” Vilas Singh’s reply sounded like an explosion. He was sprawling on the verandah. The jerk wrought by his own roar made him sit up stiff.

“I had always a feeling that one day you will happen to pass this way and I shall avail of the opportunity to cajole you to give up your crazy pursuit. You are yet to cross your youth. The whole life is before you. Just as the war is nothing more than a memory, you ought to also allow all that went with it to be buried in the past. Besides, it is hardly a year since you got married. Is it sensible for you to leave your sweet home behind and pursue an unfortunate wretch?” Shashikala’s voice was soaked in conscience and compassion.

Vilas Singh reacted like a tickled serpent. He was ready to splash Shashikala’s face with his hot tea, but checked himself and gasped.

“A brazen face like mine does not get scorched easily,” Shashikala croodled and then burst into a sonorous laughter.

The meadow before the hut was marked by hedges and bushes. They had just begun recovering their individual forms out of the dusk. Against the sky over the eastern horizon could be made out the flight of the first covey of early birds.

“Listen, Singh, pay heed to my appeal. Look how the night is nearing end. View those past two years in the frontier as a night that was over. Take note of the fresh dawn. Begin a new life, as fresh as the dawn.” Shashikala had placed her hand on Vilas Singh’s shoulder. But Vilas Singh flung it aside and stood up.

“Please finish your tea,” pleaded Shashikala. Vilas Singh laughed. The laughter combined, in a dramatic fashion, abhorrence and sarcasm. “Shashi!” he groaned, “Such sage advice is not expected from the character that you are! Hadn’t it been your dharma, throughout, to lift a cup right to one’s lips only to take it away? It is you who had led me to Sumati. Then, just when I had become entirely possessed by her, you introduced her to Bahadur. And the scoundrel bewitched her.”

Smile, like a flitting butterfly, had suddenly left Vilas Singh’s lips and alighted on Shashikala’s, where it looked much more natural and purposeful.

“Singh, while complaining, you seem to forget all about my occupation during those evil days. I used to bestow my attention equally on all. It was not with any greater affection that I had led Bahadur to Sumati. Needless to say, others had preceded you just as you preceded Bahadur. Sumati too was expected to be impartial in doling out her favours. But the poor girl miserably deviated. She fell for Bahadur. She did not realise how dangerous it was to fall for anyone in the pattern of life into which destiny had pushed her. To fall once meant to fall again. The poor creature had to pay dearly for her error. You know about that, don’t you?” Shashikala looked askance.

“I know. In fact, I came to know about it the very day Bahadur murdered her.”

Shashikala had come closer to Vilas Singh. Stroking his back, she whispered, “Let me tell you what you do not know. If you are seeking to kill Bahadur, it is not because he took Sumati away from you, but because he killed Sumati and thereby asserted his ultimate right on her—something that you failed to do.’

“Never. I would have been the last man to murmur even if Sumati were to be shredded by a dozen hounds,” shouted Vilas Singh. “How do you forget that Bahadur snatched not only Sumati away from me, but also my savings of a decade?” Vilas Singh motioned as if he was protecting himself from some invisible enemy.

“I'm no child, Singh, to accept your explanation. However, let me tell you that it is just impossible to claim the ultimate victory on one by killing the person. Bahadur killed Sumati spurred by a mad desire to possess her fully. But one that is dead had already given you the slip. You cannot have the satisfaction of exercising your authority on one who is not there to revolt against it. And, how on earth can you possess one who was dead? Is it not rather the privilege of the dead to possess you? I know for certain that Bahadur, after killing Sumati, had not passed a moment without longing for her. He lives in a hell of anguish.”

“I don’t care. I told you, didn’t I? That Bahadur’s crime against me was not limited to his eloping with Sumati!” groaned Vilas Singh.

“I insist, Singh, that the loss of money cannot be the inspiration behind your mission. If it were so, you would have gone satisfied a year ago when you wounded him on the forehead,” asserted Shashikala.

Vilas Singh laughed gleefully. “Shashi! Have you ever met him after my inflicting that wound on him? Do you think that the scar might heal up in his lifetime?” Vilas Singh betrayed his ardent eagerness for an answer.

“I don’t think so.”

“Thanks!” Vilas Singh burst into a fresh peal of laughter, more lusty than ever and, from the fold of his clothes, flashed out a dagger. He raised it for Shashikala to see it fully. Against the silent and serene dawn, the dagger looked grisly. Shashikala was beset with melancholy.

***

Evening had just set in when Vilas Singh stood on the outskirts of the bazaar. He straightened his limbs. He knew that he was on the verge of success, at the end of a continuous chase for five months. His effort, of course, went back to five years—years of anguish, wandering and frustrations, interrupted only by a brief though dreamy period at home during which he got married.

Time and again, when he was almost sure that his net was closing in on the enemy, the latter had escaped. But, something like intuition informed Vilas Singh, there was no getting away for the fellow this time. Bahadur was under the impression that Vilas Singh once married and declared heir to an unexpected estate in the village, had given up the chase. In fact, Vilas Singh himself had arranged to foster this impression in him. The fellow must be caught absolutely unawares.

By the time Vilas Singh strolled into the tavern at the far end of the sleepy little town, it was past first quarter of the night. The tavern was Bahadur’s haunt. He and his gang visited it regularly. Vilas Singh’s disguise was perfect. He easily mingled with the few other customers, but occupied a seat right at the entrance. He must do his job as soon as Bahadur steps in. Not a second, not a word was to be wasted. Behind the tavern stretched a valley with dark ravines. There should be no difficulty in his making off. It was not likely that Bahadur’s comrades would raise a hue and cry or launch a hunt for him. For, an investigation would only disclose the victim’s identity, inevitably leading to the members of the gang.

But the only ritual Vilas Singh proposed to perform was to let the dying enemy have a glimpse of his true face. The beard he wore was easily detachable.

Those in the tavern were drinking. Vilas Singh only pretended to drink. His look was glued to the door. But he knew that two or three fellows inside the tavern had begun casting suspicious glances at him. He was growing impatient.

An hour passed. Suddenly the doors of the tavern left ajar till then flung open. Vilas Singh stood up hurriedly. But none of the two visitors was Bahadur, though one was his closest collaborator. It was for this one that Bahadur had narrowly escaped death in the hands of Vilas Singh on the last occasion.

The cluster of drinkers looked at the door. Even the dim light revealed their anxiety, and the two visitors looked distressed.

“So?” asked one from the cluster.

“Finished!” the two replied.

From the reaction of the listeners it was evident that the news was not unexpected. Even then some of them sighed and everybody stood up. Vilas Singh followed them.

A vague fear was overtaking him. The road was uneven and rocky. He stumbled over several boulders as he walked behind the silent gang, shadow-like. They climbed a hillock and entered the small house atop it.

The dead body lay on an old rope-cot. There were a number of medicine bottles and glasses around. The fellow must have suffered for long. He had been reduced to a wreck.

Someone raised a lantern.

And at once the deep scar on the corpse’s forehead glimmered in the light.

There was a shriek. It was from Vilas Singh, the architect of that wound. He fumbled out into the open. He sat down and cried, looking helplessly at the darkness and the forest around. He rolled on the ground, seething with frustration, muttering curses.

If one cared one could make out the theme of his blabbering: The rascal Bahadur had given him the final slip, suddenly rendering his five-year-old enterprise futile. What was he to do? How to satisfy his smouldering wrath?

Those who heard him hardly understood the significance of his outburst.

Vilas Singh had kept on sitting on the hillock for the whole night. Neither the mist soaked in the peace of the stars nor the breeze conveying the calm of the forest could cool down the burning within him.

It was a little before sunrise, while his eyes were still fixed on the forest, that he remembered Hidamba Baba. The Baba’s abode in the forest, at the foot of mount Luvurva, was not far.

***

Vilas Singh felt the weight of the accumulated sleep he had managed to keep at bay, as soon as he had reached the periphery of his village. Two months of stay with Hidamba Baba had diminished his inner burning, although his urge for vengeance had not been rooted out.

And he did not wish it to be rooted out. The opportunity for taking revenge on Bahadur, despite his death, was still open. Hidamba Baba alone could have given such an assurance.

Of course, he must wait.

“Vilas! Back at last!” He was warmly greeted by the villagers.

“There is hardly anything left of your mother, continuously weeping on your account.”

“And what about that unlucky girl your mother brought home? How could you afford to disappear without even notifying that sweet, sweet wife within months of the marriage? What was her fault? What had she done to deserve this?”

Vilas Singh pushed forward, head hung, through a shower of comments at once pleasant and bitter. He alone knew what his newly wed wife’s fault was. She was gradually casting a spell on him. Had he submitted himself to her enchantment for a little while more, he would have forgotten his mission. He had to flee suddenly.

“Welcome home now—home with a difference. You have proved yourself sneaky and treacherous. But come and see the surprise we have in store for you,” said an elderly lady.

At last he realised, while climbing the steps, that he had become a father since a month. He was being led to have the first glimpse of his son.

He was thrilled. Instantly he took a decision to do his best to sustain that sensation as long he could—forever if possible. For that it was necessary to drive all the corroding impulses out of his heart.

He was willing to do that.

A number of women were there to welcome him into the inner quarter. His wife stood up, pulling down her veil to cover her face.

The child lay asleep in a swing.

His heart throbbing in excitement, Vilas Singh cast his first ever look on the child.

Suddenly he felt like a dozen thunderbolts blasting his head. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. No, his eyes had not deceived him.

Still he made a desperate attempt at appearing composed, and brooded upon the geographical situation of his village. Was it really in the northeastern direction when viewed from Luvurva? Alas, it was.

Hidamba Baba, the tantrik clairvoyant, had assured him that Bahadur’s soul would creep into an infant that was about to be born in a village situated to the northeast of the forest. Further, with a meaningful snicker he had whispered to him that it should not be difficult for him to recognise Bahadur in that infant, for, the new born soul would reveal its identity by sporting a mark which Vilas Singh cannot fail to identify.

Vilas Singh looked at the infant’s forehead for the third time. The mark was a delicate miniature of the wound he had once inflicted on Bahadur.

He tried to retreat into a room, but could not. He collapsed, while the women were tickling the infant to make it smile.

Originally titled “Shatru” , the story was included in Manojdasanka Katha O Kahani , the first ever collection of short stories in Odia literature to receive the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1972. The English version was first included in Vengeance and Other Stories (National Book Trust, 1980).

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

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