It felt like a blind chase through the dark, a chase in which the good was losing to the evil and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Not even god. Not that the man sitting next to the window in that night train was seeking god to save him from the raging storm outside. But he vaguely recalled that divine intervention was expected in hopeless cases to help the good triumph.
He was an honest man, at least when confessing to himself, and he had to admit he could never qualify for god’s protection on those grounds. Despite the insulation of the compartment, he could hear the wind howling outside and the brutal force of the rain. The train was losing speed, battling the elements. Lightning slashed purple across the skies, revealing for a moment the desolate countryside the south-central zone train was traversing. It made him look out of the window. But the darkness that followed the light was deeper and darker than before, and Falak stared at the black granite world outside. The glass reflected the brightly lit cabin behind him and his face with the look of helplessness on it. It was uncharacteristic, he knew, and also uncomplimentary. He needed to calm his nerves, he realized.
After a brief effort, he checked again. He found resignation instead and gave up, smiling to himself. The large brown eyes sparkled back at him, sharing the irony of the moment. He did not care, he never had. And now, god did not seem to care either.
At the newspaper where he worked, Falak had a reputation for being always composed even in the most trying circumstances. His unfailing ability to retain the sense of news in all situations was proved repeatedly on tough assignments.
When he joined the profession, and the present job, four years back, this nonchalance gave rise to disbelief among his seniors. They could not conceive how a 25-year-old, fresh out of university, could return untouched from upsetting scenes of accidents, riots and murders, with coldly balanced stories. If there were things that penetrated Falak’s armour of indifference, they were not known to others, like the little fact he could not stand the sight of his own blood.
Soon, he became an indispensable member of the reporting team in Delhi, the man sent to the worst and best news spots of the country. If time was generous with opportunity, he wasted none of it in proving his other qualities. Of them was an extreme tenacity for pursuing story leads and an intuition for sniffing out news from information haystacks.
Few knew, though some suspected, that this unrelenting deliberation of purpose was based on a well-calculated timetable for success and progress in the profession. He left nothing that happened to his life and career to chance. After a degree in mass communication, Falak chose this newspaper for his first job following a careful comparison of career prospects in four different organizations where he had found placements. From the moment he was recruited as a trainee, his obsession was to reach the next level. He learnt fast, and learnt the right things.
Keen observation taught him what the university could not. He discovered while it was motivation that got journalists out of bed early and running against time, gathering news every day, it was motivation itself that was in short supply always. So, he never turned down an assignment, pushing to score every time in a contest, even at the cost of personal comfort. This brought him quickly to the notice of the bosses.
The regularity of the out-of-turn promotions he received made him speed past his colleagues in the race to the head of the team. The last promotion, which made him deputy chief reporter, was very special to him because it finally reconciled his parents to his choice of profession. Both lawyers, they had wanted Falak to follow in their footsteps, marry and settle down to a predictable life. Their doubts about his decision had left him alone on the new course, with no one to turn to in crises. At first he panicked and, to survive, withdrew himself from exposure to emotion and pain. Later, it became a habit. Now, he laughed to himself when sometimes people attributed his success to his enigmatic indifference. Falak frowned thoughtfully at his reflection in the train window. He wondered if the thick glass pane was making up the dark circles under his eyes. But he knew nothing could exaggerate those thin cheeks and gaunt look, or the way the shirt hung loosely from his shoulders. He was too overworked, taking up one assignment after another in the last few weeks, disregarding the need for rest, which he was feeling increasingly.
But the dark circles seemed to have a silver lining. Past experience proved the haggard look was an asset. It made him look older. That was important to him, because he was a man who had no patience with ageing.
People seemed to confide more easily in a man who appeared older and worn by vagaries of life. His typical silence appeared like the patience of someone who knew failure. His conceit appeared like the cynicism of the common man. People expected nothing extraordinary from him; they retold their stories for sympathy and got it. They never even noticed that he took away parts of their lives that were never meant for sharing. As another flash of lightning streaked the skies, highlighting the rain that fell in sheets, Falak closed his tired eyes and stretched his legs under the opposite berth.
He knew why he was so unusually restive tonight. He had barely returned to Delhi from an assignment the day before on Sunday when he was sent on this one. The last assignment still stayed with him, as it usually did, till it was replaced with the next one. Falak grimly recalled the twisted bodies caught in metal torn by the hands of destiny and death. The last assignment was the derailment of a train in a storm.
On Monday morning at office he was assigned the crime story in Bapat village. He was on this train a few hours later travelling to Kharanji, the station nearest to Bapat. It was an elementary story. According to local newspaper reports he found on the internet, on Saturday last a moneylender was hung from a lamppost in front of his house by angry farmers in a village that had long suffered his anarchic methods. The local press quoted the police on the cursory details of the investigation which had not yet led to any arrests.
The storyline he was given was most uninspiring. However, Falak felt it might have had something to do with the person who had given him the storyline. 'It shows, Falak, that the farmers are preparing for a revolt. Their troubles are making them resort to desperate measures. We have heard of farmers committing suicide till now. But this is different. This is the first murder of a moneylender. Do you understand the importance?
Seth, one of the three assistant editors of the newspaper, looked at him with a piercing glance. Having been at its receiving end before, Falak took it in his stride calmly. ‘I do. Suicides usually are not dangerous to the health of other people,’ Falak had said trying not to sound sarcastic, ‘but I am sorry, I am not abreast with the problems caused by agricultural distress.’ ‘Evidently,’ Seth said stiffly. ‘Please read up on your way to Bapat. I expect you would be leaving today.’ Falak promised to try to be on his way. Then he asked, ‘Have there been other instances of such murders or is it a single case?
’ ‘No, there have been no other instances. But you are missing the point,’ Seth was now getting restless. ‘If today they kill the moneylenders, tomorrow who will be next?
’ Falak decided here was a chance to find out whose brief Seth was holding. ‘The district collector?
’ Seth was thrown off his path a little. ‘More likely, the member of the legislative assembly from the area,’ he said and looked significantly at Falak.
'So our story is this. Go to Bapat. Get as many quotes as possible from the villagers about the moneylender and his misdeeds. You must talk to those who have defaulted on loans for a few years or more. Ask them about the methods employed by the moneylender to recover loans,' Seth paused dramatically. 'I have heard stories that cannot be related in mixed company. It is said the moneylenders can forcefully take away anything from the defaulting farmers' homes, from cattle, valuables, jewellery, to even women.' Falak had nodded in silence. He hated this talk on 'how to get the story', especially such a soft story. Falak already knew how to go about it, how long it would take, how much money he ought to carry, when to travel, when to file the story…