Nikhil dreamed a dream.
Nikhil opened his eyes. He was sitting cross-legged in a corner of the room reserved for death row convicts. This room, unlike the others in the jail, had a fan. It seemed like a cruel joke to Nikhil on the part of the jail authorities to give him such privileges just as he was to be executed in a few minutes time. His other cell, the one he had called “home” for the six months that he was in jail, did not even have a window. And in the heat of the capital, the stay was unbearable.
From the jail, he could not even make a petition for bail; he was a “threat to the society and the general public”: the words of the judge as she had given her judgment. And then had come the final crushing blow: he was told yesterday evening that the President had decided that he had no more than a few hours to live. He was to be executed at dawn. The talks doing the rounds at the cell (and you could be sure that most of them were true), was that the news of his execution was being kept a secret. He must be an important man after all.
He looked around him. In the ten feet by ten feet room were a few other convicts, all of them living life a bit more comfortably than he had. Some of them would be released in a few months, some in a few years. But only he would be released tomorrow. From his body.
From the corner of the cell, Nathuram smiled at him, looking at his discomfort. ‘Don’t worry, it will be quick. You won’t even notice when life has left you.’ And then he laughed. A laugh that sent a shiver down the spine of the other prisoners in the cell, most of them young and scared. Nikhil had not liked the man from the first minute he had laid eyes on him when he was brought to this cell. There was something sinister about that smile, as if he had gotten away with something. Plus, he felt as if he had seen that smile before.
During his stay in the prison, Nikhil had come to know that there are three kinds of people in jail: the real culprits, who commit crimes of murder and rape in full consciousness and who enjoy the moments when they do it. These people have no remorse nor regret about it anytime later and the moment they are released, you could be sure that they would go back to their old ways. Then there were the ones who had committed a crime in a fit of rage. Nikhil looked up at Ramesh, who had killed the man who had raped his wife a few years ago. Even now you could see the remorse in his eyes. He used to work in a reputed software company, but now was going to spend his time in jail. What a waste of a good life, Nikhil thought. And then there were the ones who had been wrongly convicted. These were the ones who fought, who cried for some time, pleading with the authorities that some mistake had been committed. But no one listened, not in this country. Not when you were kept in Tihar Jail. Here you were considered the worst of the worst, all but guaranteed never to see the outside of the prison again.
There was a sound as the door of the cell was opened. The warden entered with a local priest carrying the holy book. The priest was an old man, and Nikhil had grown to like him during his short stay in the prison. Having never been a religious man, he did not go to the sermons given by the man every Friday, but today he felt glad that the old man had come. It felt kind of assuring. ‘Don’t worry my child, your sins will be forgiven in your next life,’ the priest said, touching his forehead. As if, thought Nikhil. Only if it was that easy. He would have been granted bail then and would have been outside this madhole for atleast some time.
He was handcuffed and let down the cell. Among the other cell members, some of them stood up and bade him goodbye. Some hugged him, some patted his back and said small words of encouragement. The people of the third category all stood at the corner, not willing to come near him for the fear that they themselves might be the next ones to be executed. You could not be sure of anything when you were in Tihar.
‘See you soon’, Nathuram said, laughing again.
The “death zone” as the other inmates called the corridor leading to the room where the execution was going to take place, was in an area a couple of hundred meters outside the cells. Nikhil had heard tales of the grandeur of the place (heard from second hand sources, since first hand account in this case was not possible, with the person already dead, and you dare not believe the guards when they told you anything). But when he entered the room, he was more than disappointed. Other than a couple of chairs for the priest, the warden and another man (probably from the Home Ministry), there was no other furniture. Yes, of course there was a chair in the center of the room but above it hung the noose, and you did not want to be sitting in that chair.
A couple of hours after he was read the presidential order of his execution, he had requested the warden to let him see his family one last time. But the man had respectfully declined. ‘Your family lives far away, Nikhil’, he had said. ‘It is 10 pm already. There is no flight now from there to Delhi. And we cannot fly them here in an official plane since we don’t want anyone to get a wind that you are going to be…’, he paused while saying it. Nikhil had not spoken a word since then.
In the execution chamber, the person in charge of the hanging was busy making final inspections of the rope to see that it was fit to bear the weight of a full-grown man. He did not want to be the person responsible if the rope broke before the man died. No, because then according to the law, Nikhil would have to be allowed to go free, but life would not be so free for the man in charge of the execution. He shuddered at the thought and tried to get it out of his mind. Having checked the rope, he called for the warden to inspect it. Once the head of the jail was satisfied, he spoke quietly to the third man, who nodded.
Nikhil was then brought to the chair and made to stand over it. Once the noose height was adjusted, the jailor put the piece of cloth over his head. The priest stepped forward, muttered a prayer and asked him if he wanted to stay something. Nikhil looked at him and said, ‘Give me five minutes’. ‘You have three’, the warden said, who was a strict time follower. And he did not want to be seen looking weak in front of the Ministry man.
Nikhil closed his eyes.
He was in front of his house. The last few months had been horrifying. He had been convicted of murdering a family and spent nearly six months in jail. He was almost about to be hanged. But at the last moment he had seen his daughters face, and the face of his wife. He had realized just how beautiful they were and how lucky he was to have them. He felt protective and caring towards them and could not fathom committing a crime such as rape. It was a mistake. Yes, it was. He had explained it to the jailor, the man closest to him. The jailor had not understood at first, but when he heard it, Nikhil could see through the cloth that there was shock on his face. But even then he had hesitated to do anything. He did not want to embarrass himself and his boss in front of THAT man. But Nikhil had pleaded and the jailor had called the warden in the nick of time. Nikhil told the warden everything. He had remembered it all just as he was about to be hanged. He was not one who had raped the girl. It was Nathuram. He could not place the smile at first, but from the first time he laid his eyes on the man, Nikhil had felt that there was something familiar about him. That smile, yes. That smile was the key to everything. And now Nikhil knew; he had remembered. There was another person there that night. Near the bushes. He had heard scuffling and some muffled voices but had given no thought to the matter. It must be another couple having a bit of fun, he had thought then. Then suddenly, the movement had stopped and a man had emerged and walked away from the bushes. The man had seen him, and had smiled. Nikhil could not remember whether he had smiled back. Must have gone to get a condom, he had thought. Nikhil had left soon after to his shop nearby. But curiosity brought him again to the spot when he saw from his shop that the man had not returned. That was when he had discovered the body. Or what was left of it. The woman was dead, there was no question about it. Her body was half naked. But that was not what repulsed Nikhil. He saw that her entrails were hanging out from a deep cut to her lower abdomen. He could bear it no longer. He vomited and panicking that the body was found so near his shop and fearing that he would get arrested, he ran. Alas, luck failed him. Another person had seen Nikhil fleeing the scene and alerted the police. Seeing that the man who owned the nearby shop had fled, the police put two and two together and had soon arrested him. There was a farce of a trail, since after the Nirbhaya case, all rape culprits were invariable being jailed. Then had come the torture. The brutal beatings. He tried to tell that he was not the one to commit such crimes, that he was innocent. But to no avail. Finally to escape the beatings, he had confessed. But he had never forgotten the smile of the killer. Now he had remembered.
The warden listened to him in amazement, unsure whether to believe him. But Nikhil pleaded, and asked the warden to question Nathuram one last time. After all, if Nikhil was wrong, he was going to be executed none the same. But if he was right, there was a chance that he might be released, having already served some time in jail.
The next few minutes had passed in a blur. The Ministry man lay forgotten and Nathuram was soon interrogated, and beaten and beaten more. Finally he had confessed to the murder and Nikhil was released. There was even an apology from the Ministry man and the order signed that he was to be immediately released and sent to his family.
So here he was, hugging his beautiful daughter and kissing his wife. Everything was all right, just as he had dreamed about.
‘It is time’, he heard a familiar voice say. He felt the chair being moved under him and suddenly felt a choking weight on his neck.
He had dreamed the wrong dream.