Translated by Sandeep Kaur
(from Nanak Singh’s original Punjabi, Inaami Kahaan)
Bombay Mail was flying at the rate of 80 miles per hour, but the flight of Pramodji’s imagination was touching the speed of hundred or hundred and fifty miles an hour. He was traveling in the first class.
It might not be impossible to believe that the person traveling in the first class was a writer, but when your stars were favouring you, everything could be possible.
Pramodji was not only known as a fantastic writer, he was a shrewd businessman too. His business was one of those really special kinds. He and his friends had seen a golden opportunity when other people were not even able to earn their daily bread during the Partition. The Partition had come as a blessing in disguise for people like Pramodji and their families. His profession of being a writer had helped his smuggling profession by maintaining contacts and his ‘clean’ image in all the right departments.
Due to the drastic drop in the price of Pakistani currency, smuggling business of silver and gold was thriving. Many Pramodjis were selling the precious metal in the black markets of Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. Amritsar used to be the hot-spot for the black market of gold smuggled in from Pakistan, but customs and the CID had pushed the market as far back as the border of Ambala.
Pramodji was going to Delhi for two purposes. First, to strike a good deal on smuggled gold worth eight to ten thousand, and second, to participate in a literature festival. He had always been a connoisseur of literature meets or festivals, and was proud to be a heart throb of every celebration related to literature. Moreover, this time there was a story competition with a first prize of five hundred, second prize of two hundred, and third prize of hundred rupees. Pramodji was more than confident about winning the first prize.
Not that the amount of the prize money was a big deal for Pramodji, but winning in competition had always been like an addiction.
It even became necessary for Pramodji to travel in a first class coach to ward off any kind of suspicion on his visit, as no one dare to cast an eye on a passenger of such high class.
So now, when the train was at its best speed, he was going through his story, written thrice from beginning to end, to remove any non-existent mistakes and to give it a final look. Every line of the story was raising his spirits and making him confident about the first prize. What a heart-melting social satire! “Who can match its level? No other story can have these high standards. That first prize is mine”, Pramodji was diving in the ocean of self-appraisal.
While editing and improvising, he started enjoying the taste of his story, like a passion fruit that makes you forget the existence of the world around you. He even started reading the passages of his story loudly, as he was all alone in his coach. An army officer, who boarded the train at Amritsar, got down at Jalandhar station. He was supposed to read his story to the audience in the fest, so it became rehearsal before the final show-down.
Pramodji’s reading was in full swing:
‘….. The court-room was jam-packed. The culprit was brought in. A young-man with hand-cuffs, the audience turned to look at him entering the room, as if it were a play. People in court were whispering in each other’s ears, “He looks so innocent… And well-educated, not easy to guess by his dress and personality… But such a cunning-wolf… He cleaned the entire house, and left the whole family sleeping. Nobody suspected anything. Even thieves have started using scientific methods… They use chloroforms to make the victim unconscious.”
The prosecution lawyer started questioning the culprit.
“What? What did you say? You have a B.A. degree?”
“Yes sir, I completed my B.A. six years ago.”
“And when did you start the profession of a thief?”
“I am still an amateur in this profession, sir. I have just started it.”
“Then what were you doing in all these years?”
“Looking for a decent and honorable job.”
“Did you find any?”
“I did, but didn’t like any.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I didn’t want to work for a crook. I just wanted an honest job. If the job is good, you need to pay bribe and use contacts. And if you accept a job under a Sethji, they want you to become part of their corrupt business practices.”
“Corrupt business practices?”
“Yes sir. Like black money, stealing income tax by forging accounts. But I wanted to be an honest hardworking employee.”
The audience were captivated by the thoughts of such an odd thief. The court-room was stunned. The prosecution lawyer proceeded:
“So you finally found the work you were looking for at Seth Bishandas’, from whom you were receiving the amount of ten thousand. Is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right sir. I was working as a sincere employee. You can ask Sethji yourself.”
Listeners turned towards pot-bellied man sitting in a chair in the first row.
“So, Mr. Seth Bishandas,” the lawyer asked him, “would you like to say something?”
“This bastard is lying. He is a thief,” Sethji roared with anger.
The judge and the lawyer, both started back at the criminal. However, the culprit was unperturbed.
“Why are you getting so annoyed, Sethji? When I came to you for the job of a clerk after seeing the job-vacancy advertisements in the newspaper, you took pity on me and made me your munim. But what kind of work was I supposed to do? Forge the financial accounts to steal income tax. Income tax department was keeping track of your all your financial dealings. But when I refused to play any part in this illegal matter, you got mad at me and threw me out of the office. Wasn’t it my duty to drag a crook like you to the court and let the world know your real face? I had no other way but to choose this de-route. In this way, your underground money will come to the surface to face the real world.”
“That’s a lie. That’s a white lie.” Seth jumped up from his chair. “He is a goon.” Then he appealed to the judge, “Sir, I am a law-abiding citizen. He should be punished not only for the robbery, but also for maligning my image in the public. As your highness knows, I pay thousands of money as income tax. I am a respectable man in society.”
The judge gave a stern stare to the young man, so did the lawyer and the prosecutor inspector. But the man in handcuffs was unnerved and started questioning Seth Bishandas, “Thousands? But the money you have earned in the last three years, income tax amount to be returned must have been in lakhs.”
“Silent!” Judge roared at him, “Law does not permit you to accuse anybody without any evidence. Just answer the questions to the point…”’
Pramodji’s eyes started drooping with sleepiness. He was still left with two-three pages, but the drowsiness was making it difficult for him to proceed. He read the remaining pages in silence. And it still didn’t fail to make him proud of his prowess as a writer and his sure-shot winning entry. His self congratulated him and assured him of the first prize.
He started yawning and before taking refuge in the lap of sleep he checked the box in his suitcase and his story, he locked his suitcase placed it under his head and started his journey in the dream-world of his prize winning story.
…And he woke up with a heavy and spinning head. Something was amiss. When he looked at his watch to check the time, it wasn’t there.
“Eh? My watch?”
Then he noticed the disappearance of his suitcase too. His head was still spinning. Not able to understand what to do next, he pulled the chain.
The train stopped and two guards reached Pramodji’s coach. He explained the whole situation to the guard. By the time, some passengers and a police officer also appeared on the scene.
“Did you see any other passenger?” the guard asked him.
“No!” but then he realized that he saw somebody in white clothes in the coach. He was asleep then.
The guard asked him to remember anything about any other passenger.
“Yes… Yes…” Pramodji stammered. “May be… may be there was a commuter, but he was looking like a gentleman—can’t be a thief.”
“Sir,” the police officer interrupted, “These innocent looking people do the heinous robberies nowadays.”
Then one of the passengers spoke, “What can these well-educated do these days. Government is making the whole country civilized and educated, but not able to provide any jobs. All those unemployed become thieves.”
“It seems” the guard concluded. “You were made unconscious by chloroform. I can still smell it in the coach.”
“Yes, I think you are right. My head is aching and throbbing like anything.”
“Why didn’t you lock the door?” the guard complained.
“Actually I slept while reading the story, so forget to lock it.”
“Hmmm… what all was in there in suitcase?”
“It had my winning entry. My story, I was going to present in the literature fest.”
“Anything else?” Pramodji and his likes could never answer this question. He was writhing in pain.
Finally he answered, “and my wrist watch.”
“Oh yes, wrist watch. But I meant to ask if there was something else valuable in the suitcase?” the guard asked.
“Actually… Eh! No, nothing valuable,” Pramodji replied in a defeated voice.
“Strange! So the thief only wanted your watch and story?” the guard was becoming suspicious.
Pramodji was speechless.
“I am sorry sir,” the guard spoke complainingly. “There was no need to pull the chain and stop the train. You could have registered your complaint at the next station. Now we will investigate the case after reaching Ambala.” The guard and the police officer left the coach. So did the other passengers.
Pramodji sat on his seat devastated, his head was still heavy, and he could think of only two things—his prize-winning story and the box in his suitcase. Bombay Mail was still running at the rate of eighty miles an hour.