Everything that occurred on the unfateful night of New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru was frightful, yet the consequence of it is surprisingly more dreadful. From frightful habitual pettiness by the general population in the position to moral policing, the women–the casualties of typification and ambush, rather than support, have been through all things incomprehensible. What’s more, I can’t resist the urge to ponder, Is there truly no place for ladies?
Warm droplets of blood tumbled and splashed onto the ruddy ground, creating a trail as they dragged little Krishna through the dried patches of what were once water holes.
‘Let me go, please!’ she pleaded, as tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, threatening to spill over.
Surrounding her on all sides, the men guffawed as her tiny shoulders shook and her hands hung low, making no attempt to wipe the blood flowing from her open wounds. The men had sinned before, several times, but today was different. The sky above had curdled into a mass of grey clouds, and instead of letting small shafts of light through they emitted a crimson glow. The men jeered at Krishna’s bloody face, but in doing so they had made their biggest mistake. What was to come would change the temple town of Ambavati forever.
Darpad, Kavi, Hari and Kanja are young men from Ambavati, a little town in central India; all four are in the prime of their lives—but have little or no interest in academics and lack a sense of purpose. Hailing from affluent families, they resort to mischief to pass their time—often at the cost of others. The men, all in their mid-twenties, missed classes by the dozen and skipped their exams, too. As a result, they had no option but to lavishly bribe the college authorities in return for good marks. Instead of studying, they spend their days lounging outside the local Ambavati temple, sometimes chasing stray dogs by pelting stones at them, and once even setting fire to the local priest’s scooter. Since Ambavati was a small town, the temple was at its heart and was the centre of activity, which made it a good vantage point for them to pass their time. But their misdemeanours did not end with stray dogs and scooters: On days when they had nothing exciting to do, they harassed the young women who walked in and out of the temple by passing lewd remarks, making the lives of these innocent people a living hell.
As the years passed, the men’s hunger for drama increased, as simple mockery failed to inflate their egos the way it used to. The temple elders turned a blind eye to their misdemeanours, calling them harmless pranksters, even though the authorities knew that their actions routinely went far beyond youthful hijinks. Kavi’s father, Sikander Gagan, was a powerful politician in town, as well as being a trustee of the Ambavati temple. The locals believed that it was Sikandar who got Jayankara, his political rival, murdered in broad daylight a couple of years ago. Although there was no factual proof to support the claims, it was beyond evident that the cold blooded murder that took place right in the middle of town could have only been Sikandar’s doing; and all this just so he could discourage anyone else from running against him. Sikandar was the kind of man who would kill when necessary, and not lose a wink of sleep over it. In fact Kavi would often discuss Baba’s temper with his friends, often recalling that one incident from his childhood when he got slapped so hard for not finishing his meal on time. It had been an open-handed smack, leaving a red welt behind; and just below his eye was a deep cut where Baba’s ring had caught him. Kavi had staggered backwards, clutching his face, eyes watering and nose bleeding. He would never be able to forget that slap or Baba’s stony glare, which carved straight into his moist eyes. The town feared Sikandar and so did the four boys. Well-connected and politically influential, Sikandar donated huge sums of money to the Ambavati temple during the annual festival. The locals were certain that Sikander’s influence, political clout and donations were the reasons why the temple elders hadn’t taken action against the boys, despite the uproar they created outside the temple nearly every day. Why make a scene and risk losing the lakhs of rupees pouring into the temple treasury? They knew the century old temple would be unmanageable without Sikander’s money.
Kavi had been afraid of his father ever since when he was little. And while the entire town of Ambavati addressed Sikandar Gagan as Seth, Kavi fondly called him Baba. Sikandar was constantly traveling, but each time he returned to Ambavati he made sure he gave Kavi plenty of money to splurge and have fun. He didn’t care about what his son did or whom he met or hung out with. All he expected of Kavi was for him to pass all his exams, even if it was by the bare minimum. This was so he could boast about his son and his lineage during his political campaigns leading up to the elections, which were a few months away. The last thing he wanted to hear was that his son had failed college.
However, for over a week now, the four men had been frustrated and restless. They were in trouble due to being denied their hall tickets, which meant that they would be unable to write their college exams. The administration in Ambavati Central College changed every decade, which had occurred in the past week. Little had the men expected that the newly appointed dean, Mr. Pradhan, was not someone who would succumb to monetary pressure. How would they write their exams? When the four men marched into Mr. Pradhan’s office with the intent of offering him a large bribe, he dismissed their offer even before they could make it, “I know why you’re here. You may write your exams next year; please don’t waste my time,” he said, firmly asking them to leave his office at once. Kavi, the most short-tempered amongst the lot, was about to explode when Hari grabbed his arm. “How dare you,” muttered Kavi under his breath as he glared at Mr. Pradhan. Seeing the four men still standing in his office, Mr. Pradhan warned, “Leave my room or I will be forced to expel you from the college for misconduct.” Realizing that the college premises weren’t the ideal place for a confrontation, the four men suppressed their anger and walked out, slamming the door. How dare he speak to them like that? Did he know who they were? However, it didn’t matter to Mr. Pradhan who these kids were. Slightly shaken and angry, the four men stomped out of the college gate in disbelief; nobody had spoken to them like that but for Sikandar. In fact, the last dean even smoked cigarettes with them from time to time; they never had to even walk up to his office. Not that the men cared about writing their exams or even attending college, but Sikandar Gagan did. The Seth, who was out of town, was set to return in two days, which made Kavi both scared and nervous. What would he tell Baba? That he’s not writing any exam this year? No! He wouldn’t let that happen. Seeing Kavi get so nervous made Kanja, Hari and Darpad nervous too. The Seth knew who Kavi’s friends were, which meant he would take each one of them to task if he found out. Failing in an exam was one thing, but not being allowed to write the exam was an even bigger insult. The Seth would never approve of that. This was something the men had to solve themselves, come what may.
It was a quiet morning in the temple town of Ambavati. The early morning sun had already risen well into the sky, and the spring grass shone, as though it glowed from within. Durga, who was dressed in an elegant yellow saree, sat quietly as her husband, Adil, rode the scooter through the quiet roads of the town. Leaves dangled motionless from their branches, as if they had been painted there. Everything was still, utterly still.
Durga was five months pregnant. Durga had married Adil over three years ago, against her parents’ wishes, because she was convinced nobody could love her the way he did. They had met in their final year of college and married a year later in a quiet temple ceremony. The young couple had recently moved to Ambavati after Durga’s miscarriage; they wanted a change of scenery so they could start afresh.
After months of trying to find work, Adil had just received an offer, and today was his first day on the job. Although he wished to be by Durga’s side all the time, the pressure of having a child and being a responsible father had been weighing on him for the last few days, and he was more anxious and restless than usual. He was also aware that there would soon be a third member of the family and that the household expenses would increase. Adil wanted to reach his new workplace ahead of time and not leave anything to chance.
The previous night, Durga had sensed her husband’s anxiety and told him that she wanted to go to the temple before he went to work to pray for him. Therefore, the next morning, she woke up very early to cook a special meal for Adil’s lunch. However, an anxious Adil was ready to leave even earlier than planned. He checked on Durga to see if his lunchbox was ready, but she still hadn’t packed it. Uncharacteristically Adil lost his cool and screamed at Durga that if he lost the job, it would be due to her. Little did he know that it was taking so long because she was preparing his favourite dish—pongal.
The couple immediately left for the temple, and as an irritable Adil sped along the winding road, Durga sat quietly behind him, deeply hurt by Adil’s harsh words. However, Durga couldn’t help but feel guilty too. She wondered if the delay would actually cost Adil his job, and she chastised herself for not waking up earlier. As Durga looked up at leaves, drooping lifelessly above her, she secretly hoped that Adil would accompany her inside the temple to seek the Lord’s blessings, which would help to calm his nerves and allow him to shine at his new job. However, Adil was now extremely anxious about making it to work on time, and there was no way that he was going to accompany Durga inside. As the scooter approached the temple, Adil decided that he would drop Durga off and rush to work; she could pray on his behalf and walk home. He could always seek the Lord’s blessings the following day.
Meanwhile, Darpad, Kavi, Hari and Kanja had been angry and restless ever since they had left Mr. Pradhan’s room the previous afternoon. Not only had Mr. Pradhan humiliated them by asking them to get out, he had also made it extremely clear that he wasn’t going to give them their hall tickets for the exams. Then Hari received a call at 6:00 a.m. the next day from Velu, who informed him that Mr. Pradhan would be visiting the Ambavati temple at 7:30 a.m. Velu, who owned a tea stall outside the temple, was a trusted aide of Hari’s dad and always kept a watch on the boys and helped them in any way he could. The way in which Mr. Pradhan had dismissed the boys was fresh in their minds and had dented their egos. Frustrated and angry, Hari decided to teach Mr. Pradhan a lesson, and he knew that his best chance would be when Mr. Pradhan was visiting the temple alone. After putting the phone down, Hari called Kanja, Darpad and Kavi and told them of his plan.
It was a beautiful morning and the little town was drenched in honeyed tones. As Adil maneuvered the scooter into the temple lane, his feeling of remorse grew. Although Adil was anxious about getting to his new job on time, he regretted having lashed out at Durga at home. Unable to find the right words of apology, he had remained silent throughout their journey. When they reached the temple, Durgaimmediately hopped off the scooter, not wanting to irritate or delay Adil any longer than necessary.
Consumed by guilt, Adil leant forward and gently touched Durga’s face. “I’m sorry…” he whispered.
Durga immediately placed her hand on his, and pressed it to her cheek. She said, “I’m sorry, too…” Her eyes moistened.
Adil continued, “You know I didn’t mean to scold you, right?”
Durga’s lips curved into a small smile as she nodded slightly. “But it still hurt,” she chuckled as she dabbed at her eyes.
Adil heaved a sigh of relief. “I’ll see you this evening then? Maybe we can go out for dinner,” he suggested, as he looked down at his watch.
Durga squeezed his hand. “Why don’t you come inside, Adu? It’ll only take two minutes. We’ll pray quickly!”
Adil tenderly tucked Durga’s hair behind her ear. “Not today sweetie, I don’t want to be late! I will seek the Lord’s blessings tomorrow,” he said.
Durga took a deep breath, “I’ll pray for you; everything will be fine,” assured Durga, as she hugged him tightly.
“Love you, stay safe,” he whispered, looking straight into her eyes before he sped away on his scooter. Durga stood outside the temple, waving her hand until Adil’s scooter disappeared from sight.
On this new day, a fresh, gentle breeze caressed Durga’s skin. As she walked down the steps to enter the century-old Ambavati temple, Durga thought that it seemed even more deserted and lonely than usual at this early hour.
At the same time, in another area of town, Hari, Kanja, Kavi and Darpad were meeting at the edge of their neighbourhood to decide how they were going to confront Pradhan in the temple. The discussion was unproductive, but nonetheless, the boys left for the temple. Kavi had been angry ever since Mr. Pradhan had ordered them out of his office the previous afternoon. His father, Sikandar Gagan was scheduled to return soon and he was worried about how to answer Baba, if and when he questioned him about his exams. Kavi, the most anxious of the lot, took his frustration out on Darpad, accusing him of not trying to help his friends. Darpad’s late father, Mr. Dhindra, had once been the dean of Ambavati College and therefore he felt that if Darpad had really tried, he would have reached out to his father’s former colleagues to help resolve the hall ticket issue.
Kanja and Hari had defended Darpad, saying that there was not much he could have done, particularly as Mr. Dhindra had been such an honest man. They felt that Mr. Dhindra’s friends would have been as honest as he was, and therefore wouldn’t be of much help in this situation. That said, they both understood Kavi’s nervousness and fear, but managed to convince him that it would be best if they focused their energies on threatening Pradhan instead of blaming each other. The four boys were just a couple of miles away from the Ambavati temple and had worked up the worst temper of their lives.
Upset that Adil hadn’t accompanied her into the temple, a strange sense of discomfort engulfed Durga as she walked through its seemingly never-ending hallway.
The temple hallway was broad and straight like the old canal that cut through the town, only instead of watery greens overhung by new foliage, it was covered with intricate carvings and ancient scriptures. The floor shined like the water in early morning, brought to a high polish by the temple caretakers.
Once she reached the main temple, Durga stepped in with a puja thali and bowed her head in prayer. The silence of the temple caressed her skin like a cool summer breeze, smoothing out the jagged edges of her soul. It had been a rough morning; not only had Adil screamed at her, but she was also guilty of delaying him. What bothered her most was that she was unable to bring Adil with her. However, when Durga bowed her head to the Almighty and started praying, she felt a huge sense of relief within.
Tears ran unchecked down her face and wetted the shiny floor as images from her past consumed her heart and mind—her traumatic miscarriage, the faces of her elderly parents, Adil lashing out at her—but the longer she stayed inside the temple, the better she started to feel. Within minutes, positive images started flooding her mind. She remembered the doctor telling her she was pregnant for the second time; she recalled the first time Adil had confessed his love for her. She was even reminded that she would be going home to see her parents at the end of the month.
As Durga opened her eyes after praying, she saw the old temple priest, Bappaji, approaching her with the prasada. The corners of her mouth were gently lifted in a smile.
“Where’s Adil?” Bappaji asked in a gentle tone.
Durga bowed down and accepted the prasada from the priest. “He was late for work Bappa, but he’ll be here tomorrow,” she said in a defensive tone.
The kind old priest had always been fond of Durga and Adil, who were frequent visitors to the temple. Not seeing Adil by Durga’s side today, Bappaji placed his hand on her head: “Bless you my child; may the Lord be with you both!”
Before walking away to offer prasada to other worshippers, Bappaji made sure to give her Adil’s share of the prasada. Feeling grateful for Bappaji’s kindness Durga stepped out of the main temple with the prasada; her steps now felt lighter and for the first time in the morning she tilted her face towards golden sun which had now turned from yellowish brown to golden. It was okay that Adil hadn’t prayed today. She would give him the prasadam, and it would all be fine.
When Durga was preparing to leave, Darpad, Kanja, Hari and Kavi—had just reached the Ambavati temple. Hopping off their bikes hurriedly, Hari and Kanja decided to barge straight into the temple to look for Mr. Pradhan, while Kavi and Darpad stayed outside to keep an eye out for him.
“That son of a bitch,” Kanja muttered under his breath as he started running down the temple steps with Hari.
In the meantime, Darpad pulled out his phone and started calling Velu, while Kavi started walking up and down the street restlessly, looking for Pradhan.
With one hand resting gently on her belly and the other clutching the prasada thali, Durga had just stepped out of the hallway, heading out of the temple. Feeling low on energy from her early start, she was looking forward to getting some rest once she reached home.
As she looked down at the floor and slowly walked towards the exit, Hari and Kanja collided into her with a huge thud. Her body was assaulted with a thunderous jolt, and her prasada thali was flung into the air. Though Durga was still standing, she was stunned from the collision. She saw the prasada thali lying on the floor, its contents strewn across the ground. Annoyed and angry, Hari and Kanja whipped around immediately—only to see Durga glaring at them
Durga had really hoped to give Adil the prasada, but that wasn’t going to happen anymore. The careless men had just collided into her with a thud, strewing the contents of the thali across the floor. Durga’s eyes narrowed as Hari and Kanja stared at her like it was her fault. They were well built and could take her down easily if they wanted to, but that wasn’t going to stop her from speaking her mind.
‘Bloody idiots!’ she screamed as she looked at the fallen prasada on the ground.
A cruel sneer formed on Hari’s smooth face and he stepped forward, his eyes boring straight into hers.
‘What did you just say?’ he asked in a calm tone, the sneer now evaporating from his face.
Durga’s hands twitched and she could feel a vein pulsing in her forehead.
‘Bloody idiots!’ she screamed again defiantly, looking straight into their faces. ‘Are you blind? What if I had fallen and something had happened to my baby?’ she yelled, her eyes now turning red with rage. ‘This is a temple, not your dad’s playground!’ she added angrily, her jaw tightening.
Kanja, who was two steps behind Hari, tried to pull him away but it was too late. Hari was the most short-tempered and impulsive of the four boys, and nobody in Ambavati had spoken to him like that, not even Sikandar Gagan. Durga and Adil were new to Ambavati, and therefore they were unaware of these four boys and their questionable activities. As she looked at Adil’s prasada strewn on the ground, her eyes became moist. Durga was the kind of woman who would often swallow her retort, smile and move on. However, today was different. She hadn’t had the best start to the day because of her fight with Adil, and now it had only gotten worse, with these men colliding into her. What if she had fallen down and something had happened to her baby? Another miscarriage? No! Never! All these disturbing thoughts and the built up rage that came with them consumed all that she was.
She looked up at Hari, her moist eyes now blazing with anger. ‘You’re lucky nothing happened to my baby…’ she warned, her body shaking with rage.
Every word she said only fuelled the fire that now burned inside Hari. Every condescending phrase was like gasoline on that fire, and Hari’s fists began to clench as he stepped closer. Kanja, somewhat irked by the quick turn of events, followed closely behind Hari. However, when Durga raised her finger to warn Hari, it was the last straw.
As the men inched closer, Durga looked around and suddenly realized she was alone in the temple courtyard. Overcome by rage and still upset from the events that had transpired earlier that morning, Durga had just insulted two unknown men, who were now seething with rage and stood only inches away from her. Her deepest fears clawed at the base of her throat and buried themselves in her chest, quickening the gentle thud of her heart. Even if she screamed at the top of her lungs, nobody would hear her. The main temple building was far away.
As Hari closed in on Durga, she stumbled backwards only to collide with Kanja, who had crept up from behind like a serpent and was now wielding a huge knife. ‘How dare you?’ She screamed as she turned to look at Kanja, but before she could even move an inch, a furious Hari had grabbed her face in his strong hand and spun it around, almost dislocating her jaw. ‘Shut your mouth or he’ll stick that knife right through your stomach!’ he threatened, gesturing with his eyebrows to Kanja, who now held the knife inches from Durga’s pregnant belly.
The moment he mentioned her baby, Durga froze and her expression of anger melted away into that of a desperate mother. ‘No! Not my baby! Pl-please don’t do anything to my baby… pl-please!’ she begged. Hari’s grip was stony, sending a bolt of pain through her head like ice-cold metal, but she didn’t stop pleading. ‘I’m sorry, I’m re-really sorry’ she gasped. The sky was darkly foreboding, and there was only one sound to be heard; the sound of her own pulse throbbing in her ears. Her feet soon began to tremble, and her legs twitched, fighting the impulse to whirl around and sprint back into the temple hallway. Sweat now covered her body, and her heart thudded against her chest like a ticking bomb.
Kanja slid the knife across her stomach, gently, almost caressing it. ‘Blind idiots huh?’ he questioned. ‘No! Dad’s playground, remember?’ Hari mocked, as his hand pressed against her stomach and slid upwards, making her want to throw up. ‘Liking it?’ Hari mocked, caressing her body as if he owned it. She tried to shove his hands away, but he was too strong. His fingers dug into her skin mercilessly, leaving bruises on her arms. ‘Pl-please st-stop…’ she cried. But Hari continued, ‘I’d love to, but you see, you’re too pretty to let go that fast’. He smirked.
She tried to push him away, but nothing seemed to work. ‘Ah! She likes to fight!’ He smiled showing his crooked teeth, while Kanja got closer, making sure she had no way to escape. Hari’s searching hands crept up her chest slowly and nipped at her tender skin. Her skin bruised so easily, she knew it would make a mark. It seemed like Hari knew it too. ‘You won’t mess with Hari again, right?’ he said menacingly, as they began taking turns groping her. Durga stood there silently, stifling a million screams in her tiny heart. ‘I didn’t hear you! You won’t mess with Hari again, right?’ he screamed, squeezing her chest with his coarse fingers.
Warm tears dripped down Durga’s face as she nodded quickly, ‘No, no… I wo-won’t…’ she stammered, sucking at the air like it had suddenly become thick and was now almost too difficult to draw in. ‘You’re a woman, stay within your limits!’ Kanja growled, smacking her head from behind. By now Durga had become numb to everything around her, and had completely withdrawn from her previously tough stance—she was now offering them more than they had asked for in the first place.
Had she not been pregnant, she would probably have slit their throats or died trying, but she couldn’t do that now. She was going to be a mother soon, and all she cared about was the safety of her unborn child. She had already lost one baby, and the fear of losing another made her numb. Each passing second seemed to go on forever, as she stood there silently, feeling the hands of two unknown men slide across her skin as if she were a piece of meat waiting to be devoured. Durga’s heart pounded incessantly, but her body wouldn’t move. Once again fear found her. It spoke to her in its crackling voice, ‘You don’t want another miscarriage do you?’ It told her legs to weaken, her stomach to lurch, and her heart to ache, and Durga obliged.
By now Durga was emotionally drained, and all she hoped for was that they wouldn’t hurt her baby. Seeing her beg and weep gave Hari and Kanja the ego boost they needed. They had been irritable for the last couple of days, particularly after Mr. Pradhan had denied them their exam hall tickets. To add fuel to the fire, Durga had called them blind idiots! A woman had insulted them! A stupid pregnantwoman, and they were going to make her pay for it. Hari had always been like a ticking time bomb. Always. Any provocation, no matter how small or insignificant and his temper would flare. This wasn’t the first time he had touched a woman inappropriately. A few months ago he had slapped a woman so hard that her own teeth almost cleaved her tongue in half. Kanja, on the other hand, wasn’t as cold or heartless as Hari but the four boys had done everything together since childhood. So come what may, he would support his friends. That’s what friends were for! As Kanja looked at Durga’s trembling lips, he almost felt guilty for what was happening, but then fear took over his mind and body like a parasite, feeding on his insides. He was afraid that if Durga screamed, he would get into trouble. So, letting his primal instincts take over, he stood there with the knife pointing at Durga’s slender neck, as Hari continued to feel her up to his hearts content. “She’s liking it!” Hari chuckled, as he reached for the top button of her blouse. But before he made any further advances, Kanja heard voices coming from the temple hallway. “People are coming out!” warned the anxious Kanja, but Hari ignored him, and continued to touch Durga’s stomach as though the child inside her was his. When Hari didn’t stop, Kanja appealed to him again. “Hari, let’s go! It could be Pradhan!” When Hari heard the word Pradhan, he turned towards Kanja. “Pradhan! That son of a bitch!” he said in an angry tone, and then looking back at Durga and grabbing her shoulders firmly he asked in a menacing tone, “Did we trouble you?” Kanja inched the knife closer to Durga’s stomach. “Did we trouble you?” Hari asked again grabbing her by the hair, to which Kanja responded, “Of course we didn’t! She’s just tired and hungry… Right?” Durga now understood what the men wanted her to say. “N-nobody troubled me… I wo-won’t tell anyone…” she gasped. “Smart!” quipped Hari, to which Kanja responded, “It won’t take us long to find out where you live… Now get out before I stick this knife in your gut!” Durga stood still, feeling like a worthless piece of meat as tears continued to drip freely from her eyes. “Get out!” Hari said angrily, giving her a forceful push, making her stumble backwards.
As Durga started walking out, Krishna, an 8-year-old girl stood at the far end of the temple courtyard. Krishna was at the temple to seek the Lord’s blessings for her last exam at school that day. Having finished her prayers, she had just stepped out of the temple hallway. She hadn’t seen Durga being hurt or molested, but it was beyond evident that Durga was extremely upset. Little Krishna’s heart ached as she saw Durga’s tears wet the ground. Why was she crying? Was it because of these two men? There were a lot of unanswered questions. Yet, Krishna felt a strange connection with Durga. She wished she could run to her and give her a big hug, but she felt intimidated by the two men who stood in the way.
Kanja glared at Durga as she climbed the temple steps, and stepping forward he placed a finger on his lip. “Ssshhh!” he warned. Durga’s heart cried as she walked away silently. Two unknown men had just molested her, but more than grief, she felt a huge sense of relief… she had succeeded in protecting her baby, and that’s all she cared about. As the men successfully shooed Durga away, Krishna watched helplessly, trying to fix the various pieces of the puzzle together in her head.
***No animals were harmed while making this image***
Relieved that they had spared her baby, Durga left the temple immediately, but not before uttering a quick prayer to the Almighty. As soon as she had left, Hari and Kanja rushed into the temple looking for Mr Pradhan, but he was nowhere to be found. Where was Pradhan? Had Velu lied to them? Irritated and angry, Hari and Kanja stomped out of the temple and joined Darpad and Kavi, who were waiting outside.
‘He’s not inside…try calling Velu!’ screamed Hari, as he looked at a bewildered Kavi and Darpad.
‘Did you check properly? We didn’t see him either…’, Kavi said nervously before turning to Darpad. ‘We didn’t, right?’
‘No, we didn’t see him, and Velu isn’t picking up our calls either! We checked all the streets around the temple… maybe he didn’t even come to the temple today,’ Darpad suggested in a frustrated tone, as he looked back at Hari and Kanja. The two were now seething with anger. They had just confronted Durga, and now not being able to find Pradhan was like adding salt to the wound.
‘Son of a bitch!’ howled Hari, as he kicked the dirt on the road.
‘Dammit! Dad’s returning tomorrow night…no Pradhan means no hall tickets! Baba will kill us all…’ Kavi muttered under his breath.
Kanja put a hand on Kavi’s shoulder. ‘Relax! We still have all day…’.
‘I know, but…’. Kavi quibbled.
‘Hari, why don’t you call Nadir?’ asked Kanja, turning towards him.
‘Nadir? Good idea’, said Hari, and he pulled his phone out of his pocket. Nadir owned a little tea stall close to the Ambavati Temple, and he always seemed to be a wealth of information. The boys often frequented his tea stall in the morning on the way to the temple.
Kavi, Darpad and Kanja stared at Hari’s face as he dialled Nadir’s number.
‘It’s ringing’, Hari said softly.
‘I don’t know why we didn’t think of calling Nadir earlier!’ Kavi said, excitedly.
‘Shh’, Darpad said. ‘He’s our best chance of finding Pradhan’.
On the fourth ring, Nadir answered—but just as Hari was asking him about Pradhan, a little puppy that had run away a nearby house passed by the boys and started whining. The usually quiet Darpad now lost his cool. ‘You smelly piece of shit!’ he screamed, as he cornered the puppy and squatted next to it, grabbing it by the neck. Darpad was the most annoyed of the boys, because that morning, Kavi had accused him of not trying to help with the hall ticket situation. This had bruised his ego, even though he knew Kavi hadn’t really meant it.
Still holding the phone to his ear, Hari screamed, ‘I could barely hear Nadir, and then this annoying puppy started whining! And now his phone is switched off!’
A furious Kavi walked closer to the puppy and pulled out his lighter. ‘All because of this damned puppy! Why don’t we burn your face, little bitch?’ asked Kavi, with a sadistic grin, swinging the lighter wildly near the puppy’s face.
The puppy squealed and started to quiver. Hari and Kanja had cornered the puppy from opposite sides so that it couldn’t run away.
‘Keep calling’, Kanja told Hari, as he kicked the puppy on its face.
The puppy squealed louder, but the heartless Darpad grabbed the puppy by its neck, almost crushing it. ‘Want a nice tattoo on the face?’
‘With my favourite lighter!’ said Kavi in a menacing tone, bending over to look at the puppy’s face.
As Kavi and Darpad squatted on the ground, taunting the puppy with the lighter, Hari stood next to them and incessantly dialled Nadir in an effort to find Mr Pradhan. Kanja, on the other hand, was still somewhat disturbed by the confrontation with Durga. Her silent tears and fierce eyes flashed in his mind as he tried to focus on the current situation.
Surprisingly, despite having seen Durga leave in tears, little Krishna had somehow mustered the courage to stay. Although her exam time was approaching quickly, she was curious about who these men were and what they were doing. Was Durga crying because of these men? Why were they at the temple? There were so many questions in little Krishna’s mind. As the men gathered outside the temple, Krishna finally mustered the courage to step outside; all the while, she had hidden herself behind the huge tree in the temple courtyard with the fear that the men might trouble her, but as soon as Hari and Kanja stepped out, Krishna left the safety of the tree and slowly followed them. The moment she climbed up the temple stairs and stepped outside, she was shocked to see that the four men had ganged up on an innocent puppy, threatening it with a lighter, kicking it and punching it at their mercy. Krishna now had only two options: to run away and attend her exam or to save the puppy’s life.
This wasn’t the first time the boys had been cruel to an innocent animal. In fact, watching an innocent animal squealing and crying for its life was more like a routine ritual to them, and they derived sadistic pleasure from it. They felt powerful as they towered over the little puppy and kicked it, hard. Each time the puppy tried to run, they burst into laughter, sticking the lighter right into its face. The boys saw no difference between the pregnant Durga and the puppy. They had both begged for their lives, and that’s what mattered to them.
As an anxious Hari dialled Nadir’s number, Kanja stood next to him, his eyes transfixed on Hari’s face.
‘Still switched off!’ said Hari with disdain.
‘Keep trying, we have no choice!’ muttered Kanja impatiently.
Meanwhile, Darpad and Kavi were having the time of their lives torturing the little puppy.
‘She loves to party!’ mocked Darpad, as he watched the puppy jump and squeal at the sight of the lighter.
‘We’ll make sure she has a good time!’ growled Kavi, as he crushed its ear with his strong hands.
The men loved seeing the fear in the puppy’s eyes. After all, it had interrupted Hari’s initial call to Nadir. Nobody, human or animal, had the right to mess with the Ambavati boys. Nobody!
However, just as Darpad was about to dig the knife into the puppy’s face, a deafening bang rang out. The boys saw smoke coming from where their bikes were parked, and immediately started running towards it, their hearts now thudding in their chests. Darpad and Kavi were the first ones to start running, quickly forgetting the puppy they had been mercilessly tormenting. Hari and Kanja followed closely behind; Kanja looking straight ahead to see if he could spot any miscreants, and Hari—although somewhat rattled—keeping the phone to his ear in the hope of getting information on Pradhan. Was it a bomb? A firecracker? Where was Krishna? As the four boys rushed towards their bikes more loud bangs ensued, which left them both scared and confused.
The festival season had just come to an end in Ambavati, and Krishna had saved a few firecrackers. She had brought them with her that morning to set off with her school friends after their last exam. However, when she happened to see the boys torturing the puppy, the desperate and quick-witted Krishna decided to use the last of her crackers to distract them. She lit the firecrackers next to the boys’ bikes and then hid behind the temple wall.
Before the boys could fathom what was happening, Krishna rushed over to the puppy, scooped it into her tiny arms, and kissed it on the forehead several times. She grinned as the boys panicked and rushed towards their bikes. All she cared about was saving the little puppy, and that’s exactly what she had done.
‘I’m here now…it’s okay!’ she whispered into the puppy’s ear, hugging it tightly. Krishna’s warm embrace comforted the puppy, which was still trembling and whimpering with fear. ‘Shhh…you’re safe baby… I’m here now’, she cooed, stroking it gently. She couldn’t bear the sight of the boys torturing an innocent animal, and although she was now going to be late for her exam, she couldn’t bring herself to leave the puppy alone. What if they beat it to death, or burnt it alive? These boys were capable of anything!
As the boys reached their bikes and smelt the acrid smoke, they realized that the source of the commotion was only firecrackers that someone had planted next to their bikes while they were busy taunting the puppy and calling Nadir. Even before having the chance to think about what to do next, Kavi and Darpad noticed that nails had been hammered into their tyres.
Little Krishna enjoyed the tense expressions on the boys’ faces as they squatted next to their bikes in disbelief and waved their hands frantically.
‘Let me see how you ride your bikes now’, Krishna chuckled as she clenched the puppy to her bosom.
Durga’s tears and the innocent puppy’s squeals had angered Krishna who couldn’t bear seeing tears in anyone’s eyes. She could not stand to feel powerless and weak just because she was little. She was too kind to torture or taunt anyone, but she had no problem hammering nails to make a point! At first, Krishna hadn’t been sure if the boys were responsible for Durga’s tears, but when she saw them torturing the puppy, she was beyond convinced that it was them. As Krishna watched the boys dancing to her tune, not once did it occur to her that she was standing only a few hundred feet away from them. The men had just been through the worst morning of their lives and they were not going to let this pass—not now, not ever.
‘You messed with the wrong people!’ howled an infuriated Darpad, his face reddening with rage.
Upon closer inspection, Darpad and Kavi had seen multiple nails sticking out of each tyre, realising they could no longer use their bikes.
Darpad’s angry scream tore through Ambavati like a great shard of glass. The blood drained from Krishna’s face, making the hair on the back of her neck strand straight up.
Hari, Kanja and Kavi, who were feeling overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events, jolted to attention at Darpad’s cry. With eyes widened and pulse quickened, they spun around frantically, wondering who could have dared to interfere.
“We’ll get whoever used those firecrackers and nails. This is going to be fun!” Hari jeered, as he scanned the temple courtyard, which now seemed empty.
Darpad, the most furious of the lot, spun around quickly and waved his hands through the smoke, only to see a green skirt in the distance.
‘A little girl?’ he muttered, taking a few steps forward.
As he warded off the thick smoke with his bare hands, he saw little Krishna’s smiling face, the puppy cradled in her arms.
Krishna had failed to realize that the smoke was only temporary. She was too engrossed in cuddling the puppy to remember that she had taken on the most dangerous boys in town, who would soon spot her as soon as the smoke disappeared.
‘You little whore!’ Darpad growled. Gesturing to the other boys to follow, he darted towards Krishna.
‘Bring those nails along. We’ll hammer them into her tiny skull!’ he hissed.
Kavi, Kanja and Hari were equally furious. ‘We’ll parade her naked on the streets of Ambavati!’ Kavi grinned as he ran behind Darpad. Kanja and Hari followed, their faces now as red as tempered iron.
Before Krishna was aware of making a conscious decision, she let the puppy escape into a thicket of bushes and her feet began pounding furiously on the uneven road. Krishna’s breath came in small spurts, hot and nervous. At her sides, her fingers had curled into fists, arms pumping to aid her escape.
Krishna quickened her pace; she could hear Darpad’s heavy steps right behind her. He was so close, she could almost feel his outstretched arms. As the chase ensued, Krishna’s scorched throat stopped her from screaming.
‘At least I sa-saved the pu-puppy!’ she gasped, throwing herself forward with even greater abandon.
Her lungs and heart were pumping, but she couldn’t seem to get enough air as she sprinted forward, trembling with panic.
Krishna’s eyes darted to either side, as she took a steep turn and ran into one of the most desolate gullies of Amabavati; the world passed by in a blur of green and yellow. Krishna wasn’t stopping for anything, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to give up—come what may. The way Darpad, Kavi, Kanja and Hari had looked at Krishna was as if the devil itself had come to the streets; their eyes had shown only hatred, no fear. However, as the chase ensued, it seemed like as if Krishna’s tiny legs were made to run as they sliced through the air gracefully like the paws of a lioness. Now, with her breathing a little steadier and heart strong, Krishna didn’t slow down. She kept looking back, but that didn’t affect her strides, which only got bigger and quicker as she started to calm down. The heat and humidity of Ambavati made her feel sticky and suffocated, but she knew she couldn’t stop. Her clothes and hair, slick with perspiration, clung to her skin. “I’m so sorry!” she gasped as she swatted her way through a cloud of dragonflies, almost wanting to stop and see if she had hurt any. Thick, salty beads of sweat rolled down her skin, and little Krishna didn’t know where she was—nor did she know where she was heading. All she could hear and feel was her tiny heart thudding against her chest.
The boys had chased Krishna for a good ten minutes, and, despite having closed in on her several times, she always seemed to quicken her pace at the right moments, not thinking twice before bolting into the more isolated gullies and lanes of Ambavati. As the men went after her, Krishna covered the uneven road with long quick strides that infuriated Darpad even more. “I’ll skin you alive, you whore!” he shouted as he quickened his pace. She was only a little girl, after all! A girl! Were her ankles made of tightly coiled springs rather than sinew and bone? Nah, it would only be a matter of time before the little whore got exhausted and begged for her life, Darpad assured himself.
However, Darpad was never known to play fair. As Krishna took a steep turn into another long, isolated lane, Darpad grinned, showing his yellowed teeth amongst the stubble; his eyes grew wider than any sane person’s should. Hate and enmity welled up in his heart, fury itself burning him up as he stopped briefly and picked up a jagged stone from the corner of the road and aimed it at Krishna. “Let me see how fast you can run!” he threatened. It had been a while since Krishna had turned around to look at the men, and that had been exactly the moment Darpad was waiting for… for her to turn around, just so he could dent her tiny face with the ragged stone that was waiting to leave his hand.
Kavi, Kanja and Hari surrounded Darpad as he tiptoed on the road, waiting anxiously for little Krishna to turn around. The boys, who had constantly hurled abuse at her until now, had gone quiet all of a sudden. Little did she know that they had done so on purpose, to trick her into turning back to look at them. As she darted ahead, she started to wonder if the boys were actually still following her. Why couldn’t she hear them anymore? Had she evaded them? The sudden silence seemed eerily unnatural to her. Unable to calm her nerves, she spun around quickly to check on the boys. However the moment she turned around, she saw Darpad chucking something towards her. Before she could even react, she felt an intense pain pulsate through her head. ‘Am-Amma!’ she gasped as she dropped to the ground in pain. ‘You filthy whore!’ Darpad said, and he grinned as he saw Krishna fall. The moment she had turned to look back, the huge stone had left Darpad’s hand with extreme force, catching Krishna just above her left eye and making a deep gash. The sharp pain lanced through her head and colourful spots flashed in front of her eyes as her warm blood splattered onto the road. She held her hand to the wound tightly, but no matter how much pressure she applied, the blood still gushed between her fingers and ran down her tiny arm. Despite the excruciating pain, she knew she needed to get out of there… away from these boys. Seeing Krishna lying on the ground helplessly brought big smiles to their faces. ‘Why don’t you get up and run?’ mocked Kavi as he high-fived Darpad, who was now laughing like a child high on candy. When Krishna raised her other eye and peered up at the boys, she realized she didn’t have much time. ‘N-no! No…’ she stammered as the boys started closing in on her. As she tried to rise to her feet the pain amplified, her body quivered and her consciousness ebbed. Black mists swirled at the edges of her mind, but she didn’t want to give up. She couldn’t. She’d rather die fighting than surrender to these dastardly boys!
Krishna wanted to quell the hammering in her chest, but she didn’t know how. Despite her attempts to stop the blood flow with her tiny hands, her blood pressure kept dropping, making her feel nauseated and dizzy. While in her strong mind, she had already started to run away from the boys; physically, she still lay there on the road, helpless, battling the enormity of the pain like an abandoned cub. As the men closed in, the saliva in her mouth thickened to a rancid paste, and her eyes started to tear up. She had to get up and run—NOW! One second more and it would be too late. Even though her brain had shut down, she somehow managed to rise. Her eyes were wide, as if someone was coming to deliver the fatal blow. What she saw, no one else could see. She saw four hungry wolves waiting to devour her; with every drop of blood she lost, the wolves felt more powerful. ‘You have nowhere to go!’ mocked Darpad as he closed in on Krishna. The moment she heard his voice, her watery eyes widened even more, and the hair on the back of her neck bristled. A gaggle of goose pimples laminated her naked skin as she forced her trembling legs to move. ‘She thinks she can escape!’ jeered Kavi as he saw her struggling to move her aching feet and with her hand still pressed against her left eye. Helpless and weak, Krishna tried to scream for help as struggled to stand up, but the inside of her mouth lacked any moisture and a guttural croak was all that was emitted. Starved for air, her heart raced at a tremendous speed and her lungs rose and fell deeply in time. The men looked on in astonishment as little Krishna rose and started to run again! She had no choice. The men who had been mocking her realized that, once again, she had prevailed over them. Their satisfaction and security were distant memories now. As she darted ahead, she felt invisible forces crushing her from every direction. Each second submerged in fear left a permanent mark on her trembling heart, and her vivid imagination often made her wonder whether it was just her mind playing tricks on her or reality. But the constant flow of warm blood from her forehead reminded her that this was far from an imaginary situation—this was real, as real as it could get.
Seeing little Krishna pick up her pace, the boys, who had been complacent, started to get flustered. Darpad turned to the boys and said in an assuring tone, his eyes widening, ‘She won’t be able to run very far…’ Looking at Krishna’s blood on the street, Kavi mocked, ‘Oooo, she bled like a pregnant bitch! I wonder where all that blood came from?’ Hari and Kanja grinned. Kanja added, ‘She’ll collapse any moment!’ ‘Into my loving arms!’ Hari guffawed as the boys quickened their pace and went after her. As Krishna continued to run, a sadness seeped into her eyes, a heaviness, an unyielding sorrow that slowed her mind; yet, she continued to run. The excruciating pain had made her weak, but it had failed to slow her legs. Krishna had stopped trying to make sense of what was happening; desperate and helpless, Krishna darted ahead and ran into a tiny house at the edge of the street whose door was flung open. ‘Help me!’ she screamed as she ran through the dark and unfamiliar door. However, the boys had seen her enter the house, and they weren’t going to stop.
In the house, she straightaway rushed for what seemed like the back entrance. She didn’t want to waste even a single second asking for help or trying to look for people in the house; those few extra seconds lost could cost her, her life and Krishna couldn’t take a chance. Knowing that she didn’t have much time to make her escape, she quickened her pace and bolted towards the back entrance. Meanwhile, the boys had entered through the front door. ‘She’s rushing towards the back door!’ Kavi screamed as he saw Krishna run. Kanja, who was right behind Kavi, turned towards Hari and Darpad, ‘We can stay inside. You both go around to the back!’ They nodded in agreement and started running.
In the meantime, Krishna had kicked open the back door and run into the backyard, but not before latching the door from the outside. Within a few seconds, she heard Hari jeer menacingly, ‘Someone’s going to die soon. I wonder who?’ to which Darpad responded, ‘I can’t wait to hammer the first nail into her skull!’ With one hand pressing against her forehead Krishna tiptoed toward a shed covered in blue tarpaulin and hid behind it. “They’re going to kill me…” she thought as warm tears dripped down her pale cheeks.
Krishna was now breathing hard, but the moment she heard the men she tried to avoid making a single sound. Each second seemed to last forever, but she stood perfectly still in the little shed in the relatively small backyard. As the men got closer, her breathing became erratic, deep, and then shallow; but she fought it. She fought the feeling as her body writhed to be free or shut down entirely. Each time her body moved a part of her got stronger, learning how to cope, and a part of her became weaker.
Despite the ambient temperature, her skin was icy as all her remaining blood was being diverted to her vital organs. That’s when a final burst of adrenaline kicked in, with such force that her legs exploded into violent motion. She couldn’t take a chance! She had to run! She darted across the backyard in the opposite direction from where the men’s voices were coming, jumped over the little compound wall, and slipped into the back lane. On hearing her rapid footsteps, Hari and Darpad spun around quickly and saw Krishna’s green skirt as she disappeared over the wall. ‘There she is.’ Darpad said casually, with the confidence of a king who had won a battle. ‘Let’s get her!’ Hari said excitedly.
In the meantime, Kanja and Kavi had broken the back door of the house, which Krishna had latched from the outside, and now followed Darpad and Hari, who had already started running after her. Krishna couldn’t formulate a thought. So far all of her actions had only led to more pain, and she started to fear that there was no way out of this. She glanced at the houses around her as she rushed ahead down the empty lane, tears running freely from her eyes. No doors were open, and there wasn’t a single person in sight. Helpless and desperate, she screamed at the top of her lungs, as she spun around wildly, ‘Please help… please!’ But not a single door or window opened. She screamed again, ‘Please help me… they want to kill me, please!’ But still nobody responded, and not a single door opened. As she heard the boys’ footsteps closing in, she rushed to the nearest door and started pounding on it with her bare hands. ‘Open the door!’ she cried, but there was no response from the other side. Kanja, Kavi, Darpad, and Hari were now standing only a few feet away from her. They were closing in on Krishna with big grins on their faces.
and politically influential. Taking them on would be asking for trouble. Nobody in Ambavati had won against them before, and it was widely believed that nobody could.
After pounding desperately on four doors, Krishna realized that nobody was going to help her, no matter how many doors she tried or how loudly she begged. With every door she approached, she lost precious time, allowing the men to inch closer to her.
With no options left, she decided to run straight ahead, deeper into the lane. But as she darted forward, an elderly man stopped directly in her way. As she manoeuvred around him, she bumped into him. Blinded for a brief moment, she tripped over a broken glass bottle in the road and crashed to the ground, chin first.
‘I’m sorry!’ she gasped out of concern for the old man.
With her eyes squeezed closed and her face contorted, she immediately pushed against the hard ground with her tiny hands, trying to get to her feet. Never had she experienced so such pain, but she had to keep moving! The partially blind old man failed to see the men approaching and rushed to Krishna’s aid. As the old man moved closer to Krishna, Hari screamed, ‘You old sod, stay away . . . or I’ll enter that house of yours and kill your family!’ The old man was quick to realize that these were the Ambavati boys who were after the little girl. Overcome with panic, the old man crumpled to the ground and started apologizing to the men who were a few hundred feet away.
‘I’m sorry, forgive me’, he cried looking around helplessly.
Krishna was now trembling with weakness and loss of blood. Her head was spinning, and her muscles ached. No matter how she moved them, her arms seemed impossibly weak. With every drop of blood she shed, a part of her lost hope.
Just as her eyes were about to close, she saw a little puppy run across the street. Their eyes locked for a brief moment, and Krishna watched the puppy run into a thicket of bushes. Seeing the puppy immediately triggered images of what had happened that morning. The boys had attacked a puppy outside the Ambavati temple, poking it with sticks, burning its face with a lighter and wounding it with a knife. The more Krishna thought about how they had tortured that innocent animal, the more irate she got. However, the pain from the wound on her head was like an icy wind choking the breath from her lungs and forming a noose around her neck. Its savage, bitter blasts cut right to her bones and gripped her brain with its freezing claws. And yet, she couldn’t get the puppy out of her mind. The more she thought of the events of that morning, the less pain she felt. How could anyone hurt an innocent animal? Or inflict harm on a pregnant woman? These boys were ruthless beasts, and if she gave up now, it would be like surrendering to the devil.
As she looked at the puddle of her blood on the ground and heard the boys’ distant chuckles, a burning rage pulsated through her body igniting a form of wanton violence. She was like a volcano, fury erupting from her in ferocious waves. The wrath within her consumed Krishna, engulfing her morality and destroying the boundaries of her behaviour. She leapt to her feet, picked up the glass bottle that she had tripped on, and flung it at the men with full force.
‘How dare you hurt an innocent animal!’ she screamed, her eyes burning red with rage.
The boys—who had thought that Krishna was almost dead—weren’t at all prepared for what was to come next.
The glass bottle that Krishna threw hit Kanja just above his left eye, cutting his flesh as if it posed no resistance. Immediately a fountain of red erupted from the wound, the ebb and flow in time with his terrified heartbeat. The sharp edge of the broken bottle end had penetrated his forehead with great force, nearly pulling out a vein, and severing it in two. Blood gushed relentlessly from his forehead, as if his own heart sought to pump it from his body. Darpad, Hari and Kavi now stood still, completely taken aback by Krishna’s sudden surge of courage. Seeing the pool of dark red blood on the ground, they briefly lost their train of thought. What had just happened? Somewhat shaken, they stared at little Krishna with wide eyes as she darted ahead, while their friend continued to bleed incessantly from his forehead. The pulsating pain licked up Kanja’s forehead like scorching fire, forcing him to let out a violent scream. ‘Slit her throat!’ he urged. Darpad, Kavi and Hari realerted themselves to the present situation and rushed after Krishna. Not only had she repeatedly damaged their egos, now she had also physically hurt one of them, grievously, almost blinding him. Despite the excruciating pain, Kanja followed behind his friends as they chased after Krishna, jabbing the air repeatedly with a pointed finger, his eyes narrowed and hard set. ‘You filthy whore, you’ll pay for this!’ He howled, swaying forward, clutching his left eye with his palm to stop the blood-flow… Nobody had attacked the Ambavati boys before, but Krishna, an eight-year-old girl had just changed that forever
Krishna had been running for a good twenty minutes now, since striking Kanja’s head with the bottle. With her lungs on fire she darted towards what seemed like the edge of the town, her eyes now wide with fear, and only the rush of adrenaline propelling her forward. With screams locked in her throat, she kept turning back to check on the men, who were now just a few feet away from her. The Ambavati boys were coming, Hari, Darpad, Kavi and the injured Kanja, all four of them… and they were determined to get her, come what may!
She could hear their heavy steps pounding the ground, and their infuriated groans only grew louder with each passing minute. ‘She just passed the last house in town!’ Hari said in a menacing tone as he high-fived Kavi. ‘I want to douse the bitch in kerosene and burn her alive! Let’s see who saves her now!’ growled Kanja, still clutching his injured forehead. Although Krishna was engulfed in a sea of panic, she kept running forward while deliberately turning a deaf ear to their constant threats. She had to, or she could lose her focus and trip! No, she wasn’t going to let that happen!
As the late afternoon sun baked the red Ambavati earth, Krishna bolted ahead, her braid now whipping back and forth behind her like a fiery tail as she flung herself over sharp rocks and former water holes. She didn’t know where she was, or where she was heading. She had no idea what time it was, and she had completely forgotten she had an exam to attend at school. All she knew was that she had to keep running. The path ahead lay like a crumpled ribbon between the farmland for as far as the eye could see, but Krishna was not stopping for anyone, or anything. She knew she couldn’t let them catch her, because that would mean the end of her life.
With every step Krishna took her body became weaker, yet she ploughed through all her fears and kept fighting. She had lost a lot of blood due to the injury on her head, and it felt like every muscle in her body was now limp, and giving in to gravity. Although her mind told her to fight, her legs succumbed to fatigue and slowed down as if they were no longer part of her body. As the men inched closer, sweat trickled down her back, free-flowing like condensation on a windowpane, beading on her forehead and dripping from her chin. ‘Forgive me!’ she pleaded as she looked at Hari, Darpad, Kavi and Kanja, who were now just a few feet away. She couldn’t run any further, and had started to feel dizzy because of the harsh sun that pounded on her skull ruthlessly. Unknowingly, in her state of panic she had crossed the Ambavati border, and now there were no houses in sight and not a single soul she could reach out to for help.
Hari’s lips melted into a wry smile when he saw that Krishna had stopped running. ‘Is anyone around? Please help the little girl, she’s tired!’ he mocked loudly, his lecherous eyes boring straight into Krishna’s blood-soaked face. With his hands on his hips, Hari scanned the surrounding empty wasteland. ‘Is anyone around? Hello?’ he grinned. It was the kind of grin that was so wide that it looked like he couldn’t wait to gnaw on little Krishna’s tender flesh. ‘It’s a pity we don’t have an audience!’ Hari said, throwing his arms up in the air. ‘Right?’ he asked, as he turned to face Kavi, Darpad and Kanja, who were right behind him.
Kavi, Darpad and Kanja now also wore grins that showed almost every tooth. In that moment their motives were laid bare and they exuded pure evil, the kind that enjoyed whatever torment they were about to inflict on Krishna. Kanja, who was right behind Darpad, shaded his eyes and peered at Krishna. ‘Take out that alcohol bottle… It’s time to cleanse the little whore!’ he growled, still clutching his injured forehead. ‘Let the show begin!’ said Darpad, turning towards Kavi. ‘Indeed! Let’s see who rescues this pretty little puppy?’ Kavi jeered as he took another step towards Krishna.
Krishna’s heart now hammered inside her chest like it belonged to a rabbit running to save its skin. As the men inched closer, the world around her spun wildly and she forcefully folded her hands and begged. ‘Please forgive me… Please!’ she gasped, as she tried to make everything slow down to a pace her brain and body could cope with. But it seemed it was too late. The men had made up their minds to burn her alive, and they would, come what may.
The boys surrounded Krishna from all sides, ensuring that there was no way she could escape. Hari pulled the alcohol bottle from this back pocket and Kavi got out his lighter. Kanja gripped Krishna’s face firmly. ‘You almost blinded me, you filthy whore!’ he growled. But Krishna was surprisingly calm. Her tense expression soon melted into that of knowing. Like she knew what was happening all along.
When Krishna had knocked on the doors of several houses and cried for help, nobody had recognized her, which is why they had refused to help. Nobody had seen little Krishna in Ambavati before, not even the boys. Not once had it occurred to them that Ambavati was a small town where everybody knew each other. So how come they didn’t know who this little girl was? The boys had just had a rough couple of days, and were so obsessed with getting hold of Pradhan that they had missed seeing the obvious. Who was Krishna? Why had nobody seen her in Ambavati before?
Despite the constant blood-flow from the wound above her left eye, Krishna’s eyes were now emitting a calm stare that almost froze Kanja’s bones, as if he were nude in the middle of a hailstorm, and every chunk of ice was a frosted dagger cutting into his skin. ‘Keep your eyes down!’ Kanja screamed. But instead of looking down Krishna looked straight into his eyes. ‘Keep your eyes down you whore!’ He warned again, crushing her jaw in his stony hand. Despite the immense pain that Kanja was inflicting on Krishna, she stood calmly amidst the four boys as if she felt no pain at all. Then, looking straight at the wound on Kanja’s head, she said softly ‘I gave you many chances… didn’t I?’
This took the men by surprise. ‘She’s lost her mind!’ guffawed Hari as he opened the alcohol bottle. ‘She needs some cleansing!’ said Kavi as he winked at Darpad, who had grabbed Krishna by the arm. As the boys circled around Krishna, she widened her eyes and turned to look at Darpad, who has digging is fingers into her flesh. ‘I gave you all so many chances, but you never listened…’ she said, her eyes now turning moist.
The men had sinned before, several times, but today was different. The sky above had curdled into a mass of grey clouds, and instead of letting small shafts of light through they emitted a crimson glow. The men jeered at Krishna’s bloody face, but in doing so they had made their biggest mistake. What was to come would change the temple town of Ambavati forever.
‘Stop!’ Krishna hissed, as Hari started pouring the alcohol over her head. However, her words only heightened his primal instincts, and he continued pouring the alcohol. ‘Stop? Oh, maybe you’d prefer it if we got your clothes out of the way instead?’ he jeered, caressing her face with his coarse hand. Darpad immediately plucked the knife from his pocket. ‘Let’s get them out of the way then’ he grinned, as he reached over to cut the buttons from Krishna’s blouse.
Krishna’s blood hummed in her veins as anger overcame her like a bolt of lightning. She clenched both her fists and swung them outward with tremendous force, catching both Hari and Darpad just under their jaws. ‘I warned you!’ she howled as she cast her widened eyes to the ashen sky, her attention held by a golden streak that mirrored her rage. The force of the punch caught Hari and Darpad off guard, and perhaps even dislocated their jaws. Blood pooled in their mouths almost gagging them, as they stumbled about clutching their faces, wailing in pain.
Somewhat overwhelmed by the quick turn of events, Kanja and Kavi tried to grab Krishna by the head but it was too late. The moment she turned to the sky, the wind began to scream and the trees bent and moaned under its wrath. A powerful gust of wind formed icy tentacles as if it had a mind of its own, and literally crushed Kavi and Kanja with its force, while the coarse sand that now danced in the air entered their eyes, almost blinding them. ‘Don’t let her go!’ Kavi cried, struggling to keep his eyes open. ‘Argh! I can’t see anything!’ cried Kanja as he swung his arms wildly, struggling to protect his face from the coarse sand that was now stinging him like a swarm of bees.
As the winds grew more violent, Krishna stood amidst all the chaos, her body trembling with anger. The clouds above her oozed and billowed across the awakening sun, casting a foreboding crimson hue onto the land below. A jagged bolt of lightning ripped the sky in half as Krishna started walking towards a trembling Hari, who continued to hold his injured jaw. ‘Wh-who ar-are?’ he stammered as he struggled to stand, but Krishna marched towards him without remorse, her angry eyes now reflecting the charcoal clouds above. For the first time, Hari was scared. Scared of who Krishna was, or could be.
As the powerful wind circled and howled above, Hari momentarily lost track of where Krishna was. As more sand rose up into the air, the boys stumbled about involuntarily, trying to form a huddle, hoping that it would prevent the raging dust from entering their eyes. But with each passing minute the wind only grew stronger, and more and more dust and sand rose into the air, reducing visibility to almost zero.
Realizing that this was her best opportunity yet, Krishna leapt forward, drew her fist back and ploughed it into Hari’s stomach, smashing his guts together and bursting blood vessels. ‘You fool! Your mother is a woman too!’ she screamed, her blue veins now leading the way to her fiery eyes, which had turned red like the evening sun. As blood continued to flow incessantly from Hari’s wounds, Krishna’s gaze quickly shifted to the other three boys, who were still stumbling about, and then back to Hari. ‘I’m not done with you yet!’ she warned, as Hari crumbled to his knees in extreme pain, his face now locked in a grimace, his skin pale and clammy. Krishna’s punch had been so powerful that Hari now felt like someone was reaching inside him and ripping his guts out with their bare hands. But before he could even scream, Krishna grabbed his injured jaw with extreme force, forcing him to bite his own tongue, almost splitting it into two.
Dark red blood gushed from Hari’s mouth in spurts, and oozed freely into the spaces between Krishna’s fingers. His vision became blurrier as his once blue shirt turned darker, and all he could see was the scarlet blood that had flowed in his veins. With each drop of blood his life was slowly ebbing away, leaving him paler and weaker. ‘But I won’t let you die’ Krishna said firmly, as she looked at the dark stream that dripped from his mouth. ‘Not so easily…’ she added before kicking him squarely in the chest like he was an insignificant piece of muck.
As Hari collapsed on the ground before Krishna, Darpad, Kanja and Kavi staggered about aimlessly, blinded by the coarse sand that continued to sting their eyes. ‘Where is she?’ Kanja gasped covering his face. ‘Argh, I don’t know! I can’t even see!’ Kavi wailed. Little did they know that their friend had just collapsed onto the ground in a bloody mess, but a few feet away from them. In the meantime, Darpad—who was growing more frustrated with each passing minute—growled ‘I’m going to skin you alive you whore!’ as he swung his arms wildly, thinking he may be able to hit Krishna if she was close by.
But little did Darpad know that Krishna was standing right behind him, her eyes now glued to the back of his head. ‘I’m right here’, she said softly as she tapped him on the shoulder.
As Darpad turned around, Krishna’s arm flew towards him as she effectively smashed his face into the earth, shattering his teeth. ‘Skin me alive?’ she screamed as she surveyed his broken teeth scattered on the ground. ‘Do it!’ she challenged as she kicked his bruised face with disdain and marched over to Kanja and Kavi who were struggling to get to their feet. Krishna’s fiery eyes bored into their faces which were now covered in dirt, ‘You don’t deserve to live!’ she howled, grabbing their heads and slamming them together, ripping apart the soft flesh on their foreheads. Scarlet blood surged from their wounds and spilled onto the ground as they collapsed at her feet without resistance.
Hari, Darpad, Kanja and Kavi now lay in pools of their own blood, writhing in pain. Krishna had shown these four their true place within a matter of minutes. As the boys raised their bloody heads to look at Krishna, she gazed straight into their eyes. ‘I have to do this’, she muttered, before starting to walk away.
As the evening sun painted the sky red, the boys crawled through the bloody mess, desperately trying to make sense of what had just happened. They did not yet realize that Krishna had deliberately led them away from Ambavati beyond the edge of the town.
That morning, Krishna had no exam to write or school to attend; she had not been praying at the Ambavati temple either. Instead, every move of hers had been carefully planned just so she could deceive the boys and get them away from town. And while the boys thought that they had already been through the worst, little did they know that this was only the beginning.
But who was Krishna? Why was she walking away?
Although the oppressive heat beat down on the wasteland like the breath of hell, Kavi, who was semi-conscious, was desperate to find out who Krishna was. He wondered how a little girl could possibly have so much strength.
‘Come back you filthy whore!’ he screamed as he touched the many bruises on his face. Kavi was now breathing in shallow rasps, but, despite his excruciating pain, he crawled through his blood, peering ahead, constantly scanning the wasteland in the hope of spotting Krishna.
Krishna had beaten all four boys to a pulp within a matter of minutes and walked away without remorse. And, like millions of red flowers blooming, the blood from the boys’ wounds had created a bloody trail in the middle of the wasteland as Krishna had walked through it. But, despite his severe blood loss, Kavi crawled in the direction in which Krishna had walked away, following the tiny footprints she had left behind. As he fought the pain and fatigue, he noticed that Krishna’s footprints had grown larger within a span of a few feet. ‘Who are you?’ he screamed in bewilderment as he tried to make sense of the increasing size of the footprints, touching them to make sure they were real.
If Krishna was from Ambavati, then why hadn’t the boys seen her earlier? How had she been able to run beyond the edge of the town despite the injury to her head? While these thoughts echoed in Kavi’s head, he screamed, ‘Who sent you? Come back you bitch!’ in desperation, his heart now hammering inside his chest. As a nervous Kavi rubbed his eyes in order to take a closer look at the large footprints, a powerful gust of wind came from the direction of the Ambavati temple, carrying Bappaji’s faint voice: ‘Om krim kalikayai namah . . . Om krim kalikayai namah’.
The chant, although soft, caused Kavi’s mind to involuntarily play back all the heinous acts he and his friends had committed over the last few months. As he continued scanning the footprints, he noticed that, at a certain point, they suddenly disappeared. He rubbed his hands on the ground frantically, his eyes widening.
‘Tell me who you are! Now!’ he howled, fresh blood still oozing from his forehead. As he raised his eyes in panic, he saw the blurry silhouette of a woman in the distance. Before he could even react, he was startled by a blood-curdling scream from behind him.
‘Am-It’s Ammah!’ Kanja cried, raising his hands. When Kavi looked ahead closely, he saw a woman with freely flowing hair, her eyes as red as the setting sun. With each passing minute, the sound of the distant chant grew louder.
‘Om krim kalikayai namah . . . Om krim kalikayai namah’.
While a distant thunder seemed to crack the air, as if the very heavens might split apart, a soft whisper came from the silhouette.
‘Are you looking for me?’
The gentle voice sent a chill down Kavi’s spine, which made him scramble about. As the thunder began to roll overhead like the fury of the gods, the thoughts churning in his mind raced faster and became more disturbing. A realisation had hit Kavi like a bolt of lightning the moment he heard Kanja scream ‘Ammah’. Only one woman was addressed as Ammah in the entire town of Ambavati, and that was the goddess Kali.
Kavi and his friends had offended, tormented and physically injured several people in the temple town of Ambavati. But, more importantly, most of their heinous activities had taken place right outside the Ambavati temple. Little did they know that the century-old Ambavati temple was dedicated to the goddess Kali Maa. And, that morning, when he and Kanja had molested the pregnant Durga inside the temple premises, Durga had looked straight into their eyes and warned, ‘Ammah won’t leave you!’ The men had dismissed her warning and slapped her hard.
‘We know how to take care of your Ammah!’ they had jeered while they continued to feel her up.
‘Ammah?’ Kavi gasped in disbelief as he peered at the silhouette approaching in the distance.
‘She’s n-not . . .’ Kavi stammered again as he turned to look at his friends, who were still writhing on the ground in pain.
‘It was Ammah all along!’ Kanja cried again as he folded his hands in prayer. Darpad and Kavi froze in fear. Kavi now started to crawl backwards with one hand clasped over his mouth, but it was too late. Ammah flung herself over a huge rock and landed right next to him.
‘I’m here,’ she said menacingly as she grabbed Kavi by his neck and flung him over her shoulder, almost breaking his back in two.
‘I’m here!’ she screamed as the men shook with fear at her feet. The winds howled with all the violence and raw power of an angry goddess.
The air was now heavy with the smell of burnt firewood, but Ammah’s eyes were overflowing with rage, locked onto the funeral pyre she had constructed in the distance. ‘Nobody will leave the earth unpardoned!’ she fumed, as she marched towards the pyre, her eyes now mimicking the wrath of the rising flames. While smoke hung in a haze that partially obscured the blood-red sun, Ammah dragged Kanja in one hand, while Kavi hung lifelessly across her powerful shoulders. Darpad and Hari were whipped around violently by the powerful wind, which sought to rip them apart. The louder Darpad and Hari screamed for help, the louder the wind howled. It was as though all the energies in the universe were bowing down to Ammah’s wrath, the powerful wind now her slave, dragging Darpad and Hari to the pyre as she marched ahead with Kavi and Kanja.
The pyre burned furiously, as if the leaping flames bore terrible anger towards the living world. ‘Forgive me Ammah!’ Kanja cried. ‘Forgive you?’ Ammah howled, tightening her grip around his thick skull, her eyes still burning with rage. ‘You shall burn! Burn to dust for your filthy sins!’ she screamed, the unfettered light from the pyre now licking her moist eyes. Ammah’s booming voice reverberated in the heavens above, causing streaks of pure white to crackle against a stormy blanket of crimson, emitting the might of an imminent tempest.
As guilt tore his heart and ripped at his insides, Kanja looked up at Ammah again, this time with moist eyes. It was as if he could read her mind. But with this final glance at her furious eyes he confirmed the inevitable outcome. She was going to kill him
Kanja’s heart froze with panic as Ammah dragged him and his friends closer to the pyre. ‘I don’t want to die’ Kanja cried one final time as he hugged Ammah’s leg. ‘I can’t believe I did those things… I got carried away!’ he pleaded. ‘Carried away?’ Ammah screamed, as she threw Kavi off her shoulder in disgust. As thunder raged from the crimson sky above, a furious Ammah grabbed Kanja’s head firmly. ‘With your death, there will be an awakening. This shall be a lesson for one and all to remember’ she said coldly, locking her molten eyes onto his.
Although Ammah was consumed by rage, she could see in Kanja’s eyes that for the first time, he was broken. He begged, with his arms folded in prayer and gushing tears, which he had not done in over twenty years. He bore the expression of a child who had just been told his mother was gone, which is of course what had happened to him when he was nine. He hadn’t cried back then. Whatever pain it had caused had remained locked tightly inside. He never spoke of his battles, and he had faced many. Losing his mother when he was nine was just one of them. Kanja never hugged or showed love—his ways were always gruff, coarse and unyielding; a true reflection of his traumatic childhood.
As lightning flashed in the heavens above, pushing its inverted limbs below, Kanja’s entire tragic childhood flashed before Ammah’s eyes in an instant. As the tears flowed freely from his eyes, Ammah said gently, ‘You’re not alone Kanja…’. The moment Kanja heard Ammah’s words, he felt like a huge mountain had been lifted off his chest. Until now, only Kanja had known what he had been through as a child, but now he knew that Ammah knew too. But she had always known. She was Ammah, after all. In that brief moment, Kanja felt as if his long lost mother was consoling him. With tears still streaming from his eyes, Kanja held Ammah’s hands, and looking straight into her eyes he whispered ‘Punish me Ammah…’ as the pyre next to him roared violently with all its might