Assassination – Scene 3 (Draft 1)
Rough hands lifted David up and propelled him forward toward the smoking corpse of the immolated man – toward his own fate. He wanted to scream, to fight free, but shock and disbelief kept him mute. A cane struck him across the back and another across his face. Fists beat into his chest and shoes against his legs. His two captors shouted at him to stay silent and then at the crowd of men.
“We are taking this white man to our village,” they announced. “He is an American! CIA!” They spit the words as though something foul were in their mouths. “Our village mourns the death of our Mother Gandhi. We have not had a way to revenge the murder. We will take him to sacrifice there.”
“Where is your village?” challenged the brute who had started the fire.
“Awagarh,” David’s captors answered. “We deserve our own sacrifice, so our village knows we honored the Mother,” he repeated, as though the crowd had not heard him the first time.
Somehow the crowd acquiesced. Their need for revenge had been sated by the horror of their deed. Much later, David would reflect that the ungodly screams and the sickening smell of burning kerosene and flesh brought them out of the collective trance that drives a mob. When the spell is broken, each man then becomes an independent witness to the atrocity of the mob and must carry the cruel act alone in memory. But in the cold emptiness of that night, held rigid by his captors, all David understood was that his fate lay somewhere else.
They walked for miles in the dark. At first the two men struck him viciously with canes and shouted in threatening tones, telling him he would die like the men who had killed their Mother Gandhi. David’s eyes swelled shut, his legs bled from the rake of thorn bushes, and he broke toes on unseen rocks. His lips bled and he vomited bile from the stomach kicks. But miles away from the train tracks, miles from the immolated man and his friend who’d been left behind, alive, when, sobered and perhaps ashamed, the vigilantes had dispersed, David’s two captors grew quiet and gentle. They stopped at a river to rest and to bandage his wounds.
“My name is Suresh,” said the older man in soft, broken English. “What is your name?” David couldn’t answer. Shock, fatigue and pain had reduced him to a shell. “What is your name?” repeated the man. David looked in the man’s face and saw neither anger nor unkindness. “This is Arjun.” Suresh pointed to his partner and David looked into the face of a boy who had yet to reach adulthood. “What is your name?” Suresh insisted.
“David.” The sound was garbled in his broken mouth. “David,” he tried again.
Suresh bound the worst of David’s cuts with a bandana and Arjun picked gaanja along the stream, crushing the leaves into a pulp. “Eat. Eat,” mimed Suresh, as Arjun forced the bitter mash into David’s mouth. Within a few moments, David lay back on the ground to sleep. Dawn was a light streak across the sky, so Suresh and Arjun stripped to their lungis and bathed in the river, quietly invoking the goddess as they watched for danger. When David woke, Suresh and Arjun were squatting silently nearby.
“We had to beat you,” apologized Suresh with a deep sorrow in his voice. “They had to believe…” A long silence followed. “Are you American?” Silence again while David’s fogged brain tried to decide the right answer. “American?” pushed Suresh, and David nodded, no idea what that meant for his future. Nothing more was said so David succumbed again to the pain and gaanja, slipping gratefully back into semi-consciousness.
At dusk they woke him and wrapped his head and face with their dried lungis so he would look like an Indian. Crossing the river, they circumvented the main road of Awagarh and wound through fields to a mud and straw house with open windows, a cow, several chickens and a few stray dogs. David ducked as they pushed him urgently through the small entry and into a storage room on the side of an open courtyard. He heard Suresh silence the alarmed voices of women and then he was alone. The windowless room held pots, bags of grain, and a pile of dried buffalo dung patties for cooking. He fell to the ground in exhaustion and when Suresh came in some hours later, David was asleep on the mud floor.
Suresh carried a bowl of dal, some chapattis, and a lota of water. He sparked a kerosene lamp and squatted near the wall. “Kha,” he grunted. Eat. David painfully curled onto a bruised hip, aware of every wound, and looked warily at Suresh. He took up the lota and drank, but most of the water ran through split lips down his filthy shirt. He soaked the chapattis until they were sodden bites and drank the dal. Then he looked Suresh in the eyes and asked why. Why was he pulled off the train? Why did Suresh beat him and then feed him? Why was he here… in this village…in this storeroom?
“They would have killed you.” Suresh followed the simple statement with a matter-of-fact silence. “They’ll kill you if they find you here.” Then it was David’s turn to be silent. “We’ll guard you, but don’t come out of this room.”
Tension wrote itself across Suresh’s face. David’s own anxiety waned only slightly as he began to understand the risk Suresh was taking on himself and his family. Gangs of men were wandering the roads killing Sikhs and their supposed ally, the American CIA. Suresh and his young brother Arjun had saved him in the only way they could…by convincing the mob at the train that they would show him real punishment when he got to their village. It had been a convincing ruse, and he had the bruises to prove it. But the danger had not passed. Now he would have to protect this family by hiding in silence, as Suresh had protected him by shouting and beating. The very thought was exhausting. Suresh said nothing more as he left and closed the door, plunging the storage room into darkness again. David dropped back to the mud floor, a grain sack for his head. His clothes smelled like burnt flesh, his cuts still bled, and his teeth were loose, but he was alive. As he passed into sleep, he saw the man afire and heard his screams, and he knew that scene had been burnt indelibly into his brain.
Two weeks passed in the darkness of the storage room. Before dawn, Arjun would take him to the field to relieve himself, wrapped always in a lungi to disguise his white skin. Then he’d have a banana, some chai and perhaps a clay bowl of poha mixed with yogurt. By the full light of day, he’d be back in the storage room until nightfall. Occasionally he became restless, but the persistent darkness caused sleep that helped heal his wounds and, except for his broken teeth and toes, he started to feel mostly whole again. In the evening Suresh would bring dal, chapati and more chai. They’d sit in the dimly lit storage room talking about life in America or David’s interest in Hindu philosophy, then Suresh’s work in the jute field and gossip from villagers about the current level of safety. Suresh had a plan to take David across miles of open fields on the next moonless night and put him on the slow cargo train to Calcutta where he could ride 3rd class with the goats, chickens and grains.
David anticipated the escape would be as terrifying as the night he’d been thrown off the Rajdhani. Memories of the burning man had grown and morphed in his dreams until he saw himself alight and more than once woke screaming, to the dismay of Suresh’s household. He imagined himself stumbling through the dark, hiding from mobs of killers, missing the train, or worse, catching it to find the same killing mob in the cargo car. Cowardice bent his mind into perverse anguish, but shame made him humble in front of Suresh, the gentle, simple man who risked everything to save him. When the moonless night finally came, David rallied and accepted whatever fate allotted. Dressed in the ragged clothes of a villager, hiding behind a scruffy beard, uncut hair, and a lungi around his head, David set out with Suresh and Arjun for the long walk.
The cargo train rattled across west India for an interminable two days. David squatted in a benchless 3rd class car crammed full of India’s poorest people, their livestock, and their meager household goods. He looked and smelled like a vagrant, and no one paid attention to him. He was relieved to be unrecognizable, even to himself. Fear and humility had been great teachers over the past weeks, along with the miles walked barefoot in darkness with Suresh and Arjun. They had guided him safely to the train and given him a cloth bag with five rupees and three chapatis. He felt wealthy…full of their kindness and their gifts, full of life as a different person than he’d ever been.
End Assassination – Scene 3 (Draft 1)