• Niteen Hatle

Staring at Corruption

Siddhant stared at the girl with a stern and questioning look, as she walked to the front of the queue. The girl saw him stare and realized her mistake. Siddhant stared at her, without blinking or taking his eyes off her. The girl felt edgy. She felt guilty. She moved her gaze to the queue and saw only seven people behind Siddhant. She looked at him once. He still stared at her. She put her head down and walked to the back of the queue.


Siddhant, all of a sudden, felt the power. The power of being right. The power of self-belief. The power of silence. Because the previous evening he had had an argument with a middle-aged woman when she innocently, or maybe arrogantly, walked and stood at the front of the queue. That argument was fruitless. He changed his approach today and got immediate results. He realized that if he wanted to change things around him, all he had to do was to change his approach. He looked ahead as the bus arrived. He got into the bus wondering if this approach could be used to change something else.


***


"Another round, sir?" asked Shankar.


Siddhant gulped the last 'pani puri' and looked up at Shankar. He shook his head and threw the paper bowl into a dustbin under the 'Jai Ambe Pani Puri' stall. He took out a kerchief to wipe the chutney off his hand, while Shankar began preparing the 'sukha puri'.


Siddhant reached into his pocket for the wallet and a man came out of nowhere and stood next to Shankar. He whispered something to him, brought his right hand up, and tossed some coins.


Siddhant moved his gaze and sized up the man. He was in his late teens. He was shorter than Shankar, about 5ft 2in. His hair was unkempt and he had a rusty face. He wore a yellow t-shirt with dark horizontal stripes and shabby blue shaded jeans. He moved his head left and right. He did that a few times and then looked at Siddhant.


His eyes lit up when he saw the 10-rupee note Siddhant gave to Shankar. His eyes followed Shankar's hand, as he kept the money in a steel box. He was oblivious to the fact that Siddhant had taken the 'sukha puri', put it in his mouth, was chewing it, and staring at him. He whispered something in Shankar's ears again. That got Shankar angry.


Siddhant turned and was about to leave when from the corner of his eyes he saw Shankar pick up a five-rupee coin and put it in that man's outstretched hand. Siddhant stopped and walked back to Shankar. The man said something to Shankar and walked away.


Siddhant went closer to Shankar and asked, "Who is he? From the municipality?"


"No, this one is from the police constable," said Shankar as he saw the man leave.


"What?" Siddhant uttered aloud.


The man heard Siddhant and looked back. He stood there for a couple of seconds giving Siddhant the look. Siddhant too stared back at him, with eyes beginning to go red. He didn't blink. He was not afraid. He knew this was wrong. The man held his gaze until the hair on his arms stood on end and pointed to the sky. He turned and walked away. Siddhant's eyes followed him, as the man moved about the hawkers demanding protection money.


"Does he come every day?" Siddhant asked Shankar, as he saw the man take money from a fruit seller.


"He comes once or twice a week to collect protection money from every hawker," Shankar said. "His name is Munna."


Siddhant turned to Shankar. "So, he collects the money and gives it to some policeman?"


Shankar met his yes and said, "Yes."


Siddhant wanted to ask Shankar more questions, but he was interested to see how Munna went about his job. He walked toward the bus stop at an easy pace, looking for Munna. He found him at the entrance of a subway. Siddhant quickened his pace. He saw Munna taking money from a woman, a bed-sheet seller. Siddhant stopped and watched him. Munna moved on to the next hawker, who sold sapotas. The hawker took out a five-rupee coin and handed it to Munna without a word.


Siddhant reached the end of the bus queue, keeping his eyes on Munna all the time. There were rows of hawkers in front of the subway entrance. Munna moved quickly, picking up money from each one of them. Siddhant stood in the queue and watched him go about his job efficiently. Munna came to a hawker selling cloth dusters next to the bus stand. He made a fuss about giving the money and started yelling. Munna leaned forward and whispered something in his ears. The duster seller swallowed his pride and took out a five-rupee coin and put it in Munna's hand.


"Look at that guy," said Siddhant to no one in particular in the queue.


Munna was close enough to hear the words and looked up at Siddhant.


"He is extorting money from the hawkers," Siddhant said.


Munna could see anger in Siddhant's eyes. They stared at each other for a few seconds.


"He does that every day," cried out an elderly lady in the queue.


Siddhant looked up at the lady. Then he turned to Munna. With him all the ten passengers in the queue turned and glared at Munna. A chill ran up his spine.


Usually, Munna would extort money from the flower sellers in front of the bus stand, but this wasn't a usual day. Ten passengers waiting for their bus stared at him with a questioning look. A couple of them seemed furious. And for the first time in many years he felt fear. He looked away. He retreated and went around the back of the bus stand. He approached a cereal seller and said something to him. The cereal seller fumed, but gave him the money. Munna's eyes moved to the bus passengers. All of them turned and faced him once again. Hawkers and buyers around that bus stand looked at the passengers and then turned to Munna.


Munna was stumped. He saw all those people stare at him and took a couple of steps back. He turned around, skipped the flower sellers in front of him, and moved on to hawkers around the bus stand opposite the police station. He went up to an apple seller and whispered something to him. The apple seller looked up at Munna and then at the people at the other bus stand. Munna turned his head. The bus passengers stared at him. Hawkers, buyers, and every other person on that side turned and looked up at him. Munna began to sweat. He failed to catch the coins he had tossed. He looked at them for a few seconds. He stepped away, stumbled, and ran back to the gates of the police station.


Munna met a constable inside the police station. He told him everything. The constable got furious and walked out on the road. Munna followed him. The constable scanned the area.


Passengers queuing up for the bus, hawkers in front of them, hawkers to the left, and the buyers, all turned and faced the constable and his henchman. People in front of the railway station stopped, turned, and stared at the constable. Hawkers, buyers, bus passengers, and other people to the left became aware of the situation and turned to look at him. There was anger and disgust in every pair of eyes that the constable looked into.


All those people, about 50 of them, took a step toward the constable.

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