|Word Count: 1800|Estimated time to read blog: 12 minutes|
Mhanthu was the petty thief of the village. Pocketing a cake of soap from the local village store, getting his otherwise bare feet into a pair of slippers at the temple and putting his bony arms into open windows of houses to grab an alarm clock interested him perennially. But luck had finally run out on poor Mhanthu and the village magistrate too was tired of seeing him once very often because Mhanthu single-handedly disrupted most of his scheduled dozing sessions. So this time, instead of the routine ten whacks from the havildar’s bamboo stick, he decided to sentence Mhanthu for a good three months in the district headquarters jail.
Life behind bars was extremely unpleasant for a first-timer like Mhanthu. He was quite used to the havildar’s bamboo by now and sometimes the havildar would let go after eight. And he could resume business immediately after it stopped aching. But now, Mhanthu wondered, as he lay on the straw mattress snuggled inside a ragged blanket –
“WAKE UP YOU NITWIT. Enough of your beauty-sleep. It is your turn to wash all the clothes today”, growled the jail superintendent, throwing Mhanthu out of his reverie.
“What do you mean?” enquired Mhanthu mustering all the gullibility that he possibly could.
“Since you are new here, let me explain once. Each inmate of this jail has a specific task to perform on certain days. Cleaning up, washing clothes and helping the jail cook is all scheduled. So all in all, you will have three or four working days and you better remember that” growled the SI and twirled his mustache.
“Now, get going and do a good job of the washing”, he added. “You don’t want yourself and the rest of the inmates to stink as bad as your prison cell, do you? Hahahahahahahahahaa”. He had unbuttoned his uniform and his enormous pot-belly jiggled under his vest as he laughed.
“I am disgusted with this life here”, murmured Mhanthu to his cell mate and new found jail pal, Bodki. “Captivity notwithstanding, we got to do ridiculous jobs like washing clothes”.
“Hee hee hee” began Bodki and went into a paroxysm of beedi induced cough.
“Wait until you begin cooking or better still, cleaning the toilets”, he managed to mutter after he regained his breath. Bodki had taken to pick-pocketing to sustain his cravings for tobacco. He once tried his luck with a sleeping police officer and he would have been successful had he not got the untimely bout of cough right when he was near the policeman’s ear. He did try making a quick getaway but his tobacco-accustomed lungs weren’t ready for all the unexplained influx of fresh air and even before he could stop panting, he was hand-cuffed, arrested and sentenced. So poor Bodki was imprisoned not so much for pick-pocketing as he was for smoking.
It didn’t take long for Mhanthu to learn that Bodki was right. And three months seemed too long a stretch to endure these domestic tortures and confinement.
“I am planning a getaway”, declared Mhanthu after another round of unsanitary cleaning. “I can’t take it any longer”.
“Hee hee hee…..”, began Bodki and Mhanthu walked away disgusted. He now had more than one reason to expedite his getaway.
Mhanthu had done the necessary homework. During his turns at cleaning and cooking, he had gathered enough knowledge of the premises to see which could be a likely escape spot and he had narrowed down on the short wall behind the lavatory.
Night had fallen and it was pitch dark everywhere. But Mhanthu found it easy to locate the lavatory – using his nose! He had hidden a few street clothes in one of them. After he had changed over, he quickly jumped on to the asbestos ceiling and got on to the adjacent wall. Freedom was just a whisker away!
But what he had not anticipated was the descent at the other end. With the toilet covering most of the ten foot wall, it looked easy from one side but the other side was dangerously void of supporting structures. And the lack of visibility made it all the more difficult because Mhanthu couldn’t guess what awaited him once he dropped off the wall. But there was no going back now and the stench from the toilet was enough encouragement. So he uttered a short prayer and let go.
He landed hard on his feet on a pile of bricks and apart from a sprain in his left foot, was all in one piece. He collided with a tree in the darkness and fell but he didn’t stop. He limped away in the darkness and headed towards the temple that lay at the outskirts.
The temple was an ancient one, mostly in ruins. Apart from a few visitors in the morning, it was mostly deserted. He thought this was an ideal place to hide until his foot healed. Settling down in a not-so-uncomfortable corner, he soon began to snore.
The 8 o’clock sunshine is difficult to sleep under and he woke up to the sweet chirping of the birds and an occasional tingle of the temple bell in the distance. He checked his foot and it felt slightly better. He was hungry and decided to see if some devout person had left behind some offerings in the temple.
As he was about to enter the temple, he saw a demure girl selling flowers on the steps near the entrance. Now Mhanthu had never been fascinated by women but then, there is always a first time. He couldn’t get his eyes off her and his heart ached more than his foot, the more he saw her. The flowers in her supple hands seemed to add more grace to her beauty and he realized that something ought to be done about it soon.
And soon he did. The bud of admiration bloomed into a flower of romance and fructified into marriage. Neither their backgrounds nor any other factors came in their way and luckily, they didn’t have filmy parents to hinder. Mhanthu settled in his wife’s house and life was never better.
1 month later:
“WAKE UP YOU NITWIT”, shouted Mhanthu’s wife Swali. “Enough of your beauty sleep. I’m off to the temple to sell flowers. Wash all the clothes, clean up the house and keep dinner ready when I get back. God knows when you will get a decent job for yourself.” And she was gone.
It was already evening and Mhanthu religiously finished all the assigned chores before sunset. A month into married life had made him an expert dhobi, cook and manservant. He had finished well before she would arrive for dinner so he decided to take a short snooze.
A sharp pain in his back jolted him out of his sleep. It was his wife who was standing perched atop him, broomstick in hand. “You lazy-bones, you deserve this and more and more and more…..” and she went whack-whack-whack.
“Where is the dinner”, she demanded and he meekly pointed in the direction of the vessels containing the victuals. Within no time, she emptied the day’s preparations completely leaving nothing for poor Mhanthu. He had no idea selling flowers by the temple was such a strenuous job but then he didn’t dare to object.
The nights were cold and Swali lay snuggled in the only blanket. Below on the floor, Mhanthu rolled in hunger, exhaustion and lack of warmth. He began to think of the jail days when he had to work for only three or four days, had enough food, no one to bully him and of course warm clothes, a bed and a blanket! And how could one forget the lovable cell-mate Bodki who hardly spoke for the fear of a vicious bout of never-ending cough? Life was so peaceful. Not only had he been foolish to escape from there but he had made a bigger mistake of getting married. What a strange notion of freedom he had!
He wanted to end it all. A sudden brainwave hit him and he made up his mind to execute it the following night.
After meting out her quota of abuses and broomstick blows, Swali had gone to sleep under the warmth of the only blanket. Once her snores became periodic, Mhanthu woke up to carry out his plan. He grabbed the thick rope that he had hidden under the basket and slung it onto his shoulders. He then turned around and took one last look at the house and at Swali but that didn’t dissuade him from what he was going to do.
“Life’s not worth living here”, he made up his mind. “And she shouldn’t even know that I am gone”.
He gently slipped out of the door and into the night. It was a chilly night but he was glad that it was the last night he would feel so cold.
Soon he reached the spot he had chosen. The big tree was right in front of him now and he knew that its strong branches could easily withstand his weight. He made a loop and in a few attempts had it fastened to one of the sturdiest branches. He tugged at it and examined it. It held fast. It was now time to go.
“YOU RASCAL, YOU DARE TO ESCAPE AND THEN COME BACK, HUH?” bellowed the jail superintendent in his ears. Mhanthu woke up from underneath his blanket and stood up with his head bowed in pretentious guilt. When he had escaped from the jail, he had collided against a tree right next to the wall and it had come in very handy last night.
“Wait until I get you before the magistrate this time. Escaping from jail is a crime in itself. I will make sure that you stay locked in here for a good couple of years- mind you if I don’t”, he said and slammed the bars shut as he walked away.
“YIPPPPPPEEEEEEEEE!!!!” shouted Mhanthu and leaped into the air after the superintendent was gone. “I am so glad to be back and I hope the superintendent convinces the magistrate to sentence me for at least 2 years”, he prayed.
“Hee hee hee…” went Bodki and launched himself into another endless bout of chronic cough.
After the excitement had settled down in the cell and Bodki had fairly regained his breath, he managed to ask, “But why did you come back to the jail?”
“Are you married?” enquired Mhanthu.
“No wonder you fail to see the luxury and freedom in this jail. If you really want to know what freedom is, try getting married”, advised Mhanthu and shuddered at the thought of his married life before snuggling under his blanket again and resuming his ‘beauty sleep’ 😉