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The Thief

About Ranjan Kaul

Author Intro : Ranjan Kaul is a writer and artist based in Delhi. He is the author of the novel, Through the Forest, Darkly (2010, Hachette) and a collection of stories, Silent Realities (2016, Niyogi Books). He has had a long and exciting career in publishing and retired as the Managing Director of Oxford University Press India.

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It was a bitterly cold January night with the city covered in a shroud of fog. Shivering, in a ragged sweater and thin pajamas, R walked slowly in the feeble light of the obscured night sky. Side-stepping sleeping bodies, he made his way down the pavement, along the bank of the murky slush that was the river Yamuna, the daughter of Surya, the sun god, and the sister of Yama, the god of death. He stopped briefly at the gates of Nigambodh Ghat near the Delhi Inter State Bus terminus; he looked around to see if anyone was watching him. Then, keeping under the dark shadows of the ageless neem trees growing in the cremation compound, he crept inside. Nimble-footedly, he passed by the open door of an outhouse, where the purohit and his assistant were snoring on charpoys in the comforting warmth of a heater and layers of blankets. A mongrel slept curled up on the floor. Soundlessly, R reached the tin-roofed canopy covering the rows of hearths and stopped at the one nearest to him. Picking up a half-burnt stick, he poked and picked at the debris of shattered earthen pots and marigold and bones and ash. Moving from hearth to hearth, he collected pieces of wood that were not fully burned or had fallen away from the pyres.

Every night one of his fellow pavement dwellers would fetch wood. It was his turn tonight. The plan was to salvage the half-burnt wood sticks and carry them to the flyover near the bus terminus where the other dwellers waited. Once he returned, they would light a fire of the salvaged wood, huddle close to each other around it in whatever coverings they possessed, and somehow pass the freezing night.

The burning embers revealed his dark, slender and bent form, orange and red at the edges. Anxious that the snoring purohit or his assistant do not wake up and see him, he worked hurriedly, tucking the gathered wood tightly under his arm. While the two of them slept soundly enough, what R had not bargained for was the mongrel sniffing him out. Spotting his silhouette, the dog began to bark. The purohit, woken rudely from his slumber, prodded his assistant awake and asked him to go outside and check. The assistant bundled himself in a blanket and came out into the compound near the rows of hearths with the dog at his heels. Rattled, R began to slink away from the hearths. But soon the assistant spotted his smoky form and charged at him, yelling, ‘Chor, chor! Stop thief!’

R now began to run, with the assistant and the dog giving him chase. Moving deftly this way and that around the pyres, he managed to escape them and scamper out of the gates of Nigambodh Ghat. Losing sight of R in the dark and foggy night, the assistant soon gave up the chase, but the dog continued the pursuit, rapidly closing up on him. Desperate, R pulled out one of the half-burnt sticks from under his arm and flung it at the dog. For a split second, the dog stopped in its tracks; but soon it was after him again. R flung another stick and then another. Finally, to his huge relief, after R had thrown the last of the sticks, the dog stopped running, though it continued to bark ferociously.

R by now was exhausted and breathing hard, but at the same time he realized that he was no longer feeling cold. All the running had warmed him. His fellow pavement dwellers, who had been waiting for him all this while, shivering in the freezing cold, were disappointed to see him return empty handed. They grumbled and wanted to know what had happened. But R did not respond or utter a word. And while the others continued to murmur, he quietly lay down and slipped under a tattered blanket. Resting his head in the crook of his arm, he soon drifted into sleep.

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