|© 2002 Indira|
Munna was hopping about merrily, chasing butterflies and playing with his ball. He was a pleasant-faced boy of about four or five. While his mother and grandma were busy with their work, he would slip out to play on the hillside. Their cottage was on the higher plane in the little hill town. He would run down sometimes to play on the lower slopes. His mother was always worried about him, but there was so much work to do at home that he had to be left on his own. Anyway, after a few months he would be admitted to school and that would keep him occupied at least for some time.
Munna was as usual playing on the lower slopes of the hill. Chasing his ball, he was on the edge of an incline and was on the verge of slipping down the slope - when suddenly a pair of strong arms pulled him back. Startled, he saw the face of an old woman bending over him. He could only see her shrewd eyes as her face and head were covered with a scarf. She chided him for being so careless.
"Where are your parents? I would like to have a word with them," she said.
Munna thanked her and started pulling her up the slope to his house. "Do come and meet my mother and dadi (father's mother)."
The old woman, who was short and stocky, was wearing an old saree and a shawl. She shuffled along with Munna. His mother and dadi were surprised to see the old woman. When they heard about his being rescued by the stranger, they were profuse with their thanks. They asked her to sit down on the string cot and offered her tea. They found out that their visitor's name was Ram Pyari and that she was staying alone lower down the hill. She left soon after, promising to visit again.
Days passed by, with Munna spending more time with Ram Pyari whom he started calling nani (mother's mother). Munna's grandma and mother worried about Ram Pyari staying alone. But she assured them that she was quite strong and able to take care of herself.
One day Ram Pyari went with logs of wood to help them. She had started doing odd jobs for Munna's family. She was called in to keep the logs near the fireplace. Seeing a photograph of a man in police uniform, she asked Munna's mother, "Whose photo is that?"
"It is my late father-in-law's. He was a police inspector. He passed away five years ago. After his death, we shifted here as this house belonged to him. My husband is a jawan (soldier), you know."
"I have some work at home. I shall come afterwards," said Ram Pyari when they asked her to stay for tea. She left, muttering something to herself.
A couple of days later, Munna's mother said to Ram Pyari, "I am going to town for some work. Please take care of Munna. I'll be back in the evening."
Ram Pyari thoughtfully watched Munna's mother boarding the bus to the town. Munna trotted away with his friend, nani as he called her. She was brooding over something when Munna said, "Why are you so silent nani? Please tell me a story."
She still did not say anything. When Munna started pestering her, her face became quite grim. "Let us go to my house. I will tell you an interesting story," she said.
Ram Pyari began, "Once there was a thief called Sujan Singh. He used to fool people and take away their money. He also used to steal from people carrying large amounts of money. He was very clever at disguises and changing voices whenever he wanted. One day, a man cleverer than Sujan Singh trapped him and caught him. Sujan Singh was sent to jail to serve a long sentence - that is, he had to spend a long time in jail. Do you know who caught the thief? Well, it was Inspector Ram Singh."
Munna broke in excitedly, "That was my dada's name too!"
Ram Pyari continued, "Yes, it was indeed your dada (grandpa). You see, Sujan Singh had vowed to take revenge on Inspector Ram Singh after coming out of jail. Well, at last his chance came when he came upon Singh's family here. Unfortunately, the Inspector was dead and gone. So the only thing he can do is to take revenge on his family - his grandson is in his hands," said Ram Pyari. She threw off her scarf and saree. Instead of Ram Pyari, there stood Sujan Singh in front of the amazed Munna.
"One day I saved you from falling down the slope. Today, I'm going to push you down the incline," said the angry old thief who had fooled all by pretending to be a woman.
Munna was about to cry when he saw his dadi's face peeping from the door. She had silently come there and had heard the concluding part of the thief's story. Though shaken by the thief's threat, she did not flinch and bravely said, "So you are Sujan Singh come here to take revenge for my husband doing his duty? You were rightly punished for your evil deeds. If it gives you pleasure to kill Munna, kill me too. That way your revenge will be doubly sweeter. It is really unbelievable - your masquerading as a woman. If only you had used your skills in some honest work! What are you waiting for? Finish us off!"
Sujan Singh was taken aback. He hesitated and the reluctantly said, "I have robbed and cheated, but never killed anyone. The thought of wreaking revenge is no longer appealing to me. Munna here has wormed his way into my heart. Your words have opened my eyes, maaji. If you can, please firgive me. You can call the police or you can allow me to make amends for my bad intentions. You can make the decision.
Dadi at once said, "We don't want to punish you again. You have a chance to lead an honest life. Let us forget and forgive. They say that repentance washes away the greatest of sins. You can continue helping us as you have been doing since your arrival here. Munna, come, let us return home. Say goodbye to nani." She lead Munna up the slope to their house, leaving a chastened and repentant Sujan Singh looking gratefully at their retreating backs.