As is the case with stories, some are bad , some are good but the ones which really touch our heart are the ones which are told through the heart. Such Stories are difficult to find and harder to cherish but the literary team of IMI Bhubaneswar is lucky to find such a story in the short story competition- Kathakaar organised by them.The story by Taha Joher won the competition and more importantly won the heart of the readers.
The story revolves around a man's bad habit of gambling and not revealing any further let me share the story for you.
It was the end of June, and the clouds started to gather in the sky. The depressed beings peering out of their windows could finally feel that the rest of the world was just as unhappy as them. Unbeknownst to them, this was true, but the ‘normal’ people just hid it better.
One person who was not unhappy, at least for now, was Sarthak Bansal. The dreamy and ambitious 23 year old stood in the convocation hall with a law degree in hand from an institution reputed for churning out the most bloodthirsty lawyers in the country. At this moment, he could be forgiven for thinking that he had the world under his feet. After all, where would we be without the reckless innocence of youth?
In India, people are divided into two categories. The first category constitutes of people brought up well by their parents- and the second category is made up of the people who are a disgrace to their family name. Needless to say, the former is overly romanticised, and Sarthak was the embodiment of its perfect specimen. Academically brilliant and athletically gifted, he was the benchmark that his unfortunate peers were often compared to. Above all, it was his incredible confidence that drove him to his legendary status. Some would say that his confidence bordered on arrogance, and they would be right. But in this wonderful world, no one would agree, and our poor friends would be chalked down as yet other victims of jealousy.
‘Beta, I am so proud of you,’ a beaming Mrs. Bansal gushed, rushing to her son as he stepped off the stage. ‘You have toiled for five long years to reach this day.’
Mr. Bansal, much like the average Indian dad, was much restrained in approval.
‘So AMC Associates, huh? I was Googling them last night and they are the second largest firm in the country. You should aim for partner in 5 years.’
Sarthak smiled. He couldn't care less about all that his parents were saying. He was preoccupied with something else entirely.
Remember how I said that the normal people just hide their emotions better? Sarthak was normal. Too normal. I say this because Sarthak wasn't just bluffing about his emotions. He was concealing something far too grave.
Looking around, he mused to himself, ‘What a lame crowd.’ Pulling out his phone he texted his closest friend, Milind Rana.
‘Where are you?’
‘Racecourse at 8. Don’t ditch man’
Sure enough, his phone beeped after a couple of minutes.
‘Sure man. Get enough. It’s gonna be lit.’
For all our surveillance capabilities as a society, it comes across as a surprise when someone manages to find a shred of privacy in their lives, let alone keep such a major part of it as a secret for five years.
Three hours later, just as his parents were starting the dual monologue of Sarthak not spending enough time with them, he left for The Racecourse. Sarthak’s favourite place. It wouldn’t be an underestimation to say that this place had seen more of the young lawyer over the last year or two than his college had. There sure were some memories attached to this place. The first drink, the first hookup and most importantly, the first try at the slot machine.
Like they had been ever since the first time Sarthak came here, Mr. and Mrs. Bansal were under the impression that he was going over to Milind’s house. The excuse would generally be to study, but today Sarthak was feeling a bit rebellious. It was video games today. No wonder he chose law as a profession.
The 18 year old fresher walked into the bar turned casino. He was joking and laughing with his friends but as soon as the group approached the security guard, the young man put on the straightest of faces while fumbling for his fake identification. Thank God for the ubiquity of the roadside photocopy stores. The guard took one look at the ID card, and then glanced back at the boy, who was admirably resolute in his quest to get in. As long as they were not causing any trouble, the instructions were to let these moneybags in. Teenagers pretending to be adults were their main source of income after all.
Sarthak smiled as he saw this scene unfold. It felt like a throwback to those days. Those beautiful days. He was so engrossed that he didn’t even notice his best friend slithering into the seat beside him.
‘ We always got in because of our beards, don’t you think?’
‘Also because of my smooth skills, sliding those 100 rupee notes in the guard’s hands’
‘Always used to be from my wallet though.’
‘Absolutely not. I earned a lot from this place. Enough to afford the bribe every day for the rest of my life.’
The human brain is a magnificent creation. Always in its own delusions, despite staggering evidence otherwise. Can you really blame a person for being happy by simply choosing to believe what they want to believe?
Sarthak had earned a lot from this place, that was true. However, basic accounting knowledge would tell you a high turnover does not necessarily mean a profit.
The ecstatic cheers from the group indicated that someone landed an unexpected windfall. I envy successful gamblers. Earning money for doing virtually nothing. Sarthak went back to his own first win. Rs 20000 on an investment of Rs 500. The slot machine may as well be a money printer.
‘Let’s play?’ A question that these two best friends had asked each other too much for their own good.
‘Sure.’ The same old response.
The Blackjack table was brimming with a cocktail of excitement, disappointment, and speculation. Sarthak joined the table, winking at the lady who had been checking him out, failing miserably at her attempts to be discrete. Eventually, it was Sarthak’s turn. A nine and a King. Sometimes it just seems like even the universe is biased towards certain people. 2000 bucks, easy money.
Winning sounds like such a good thing, right? Another good hand. Another victory, more cash. Milind was beaming. His drinks tonight would be paid for. Or so he hoped.
There is a thing that does not make sense to me about how gamblers, the people who use so much intellect and guile to make bets, cannot see something so obvious. There was no stopping Sarthak once he was in the zone. But that is the thing about gambling. It doesn't matter if one is in the zone. In the end, it is going to be the dealer who has the last laugh. Till the time Sarthak has money, he will gamble. He will risk it all for more. It is a lethal fusion of greed and addiction.
What goes up must come down. An adage that is almost as old as time itself. What followed after the first two turns can be described as nothing but horrendous. Round after round, Sarthak kept hoping, and losing. He raised his bet with every loss, trying to recover it all with that one magical hand. The hand that never came. Out of cash, Sarthak turned to Milind. It was time to drown their sorrows in the healing elixir commonly known as alcohol.
It had been long since the Bansals had sniffed that something was wrong. Mr. Bansal in particular, rich as he was, had humble beginnings himself. The exorbitant amounts his son was spending in a month was not normal for a college student living even the most luxurious of lives. He said nothing initially, as he did not want to upset his only son. But eventually, he reached a breaking point. Both of them did. They knew Sarthak was lying to them, and sure enough, they looked into it. When they found out where the money was actually going, it shook them to their core. If it wasn’t for a desperate child’s teary-eyed plea coupled with a sincere promise of rehabilitation, they would have made him come back home. That was their official statement.
But Sarthak knew. He knew that the actual reason behind his reprieve was fear. Fear of the conversations people would have. Fear of the possibility that their prodigious son would be vilified by all the ‘upper class’ friends of the Bansal family. Fear that their reputation as a family would crash like the stock market that Mr. Bansal made his money from. The existence of these fears made Sarthak fearless.
He was still gambling, but the cash flow had stopped. Sarthak’s personal savings were the first to go. All the money that he had saved up from leftover pocket money, gifts, competition winnings and his internship. This menace was being fed all of his childhood. One fine day, he got rid of his entire book collection, something he had spent his entire life curating. He did manage to win some money a few times in between, but it was reinvested and lost almost immediately.
There’s only so long a fire will burn before you have to throw more gasoline on it. Being the natural charmer he was, the wily lawyer still knew he had options. He turned to his classmates, friends, and acquaintances. He started interacting with people he never bothered to look at before.
After some generic small talk, he would say,
‘Hey man. I’m a little short on cash. Could you lend me some? Thanks, man. You’re a lifesaver. I’ll get you back ASAP.’
It proved to be quite an effective pitch as well. Sarthak’s addiction was well known in his college by now. Many lent him money out of a sense of friendship or pity or both. Some handed over the cash just because they actually believed him when he said he would repay them. Some just took the opportunity to be associated with one of the most popular people in college.
It was the depletion of this source that made Sarthak someone he never thought he would be. His compulsion was almost crippling at this point, and he had nothing to satisfy it with. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
As midnight approached he would put on his hoodie and casually slip out for a stroll. A thing that would be completely normal, if it wasn’t for the shining knife he would brandish at unsuspecting and innocent passersby. Nothing mattered anymore, at least not as much as the dough for the next bet.
When the guilt got too heavy to bear, he confided in his best friend. Even Milind, his partner in crime was horrified and concerned, and understandably so. He was aware that Sarthak would never pay heed to his attempts to persuade him to stop gambling once and for all, but nevertheless, he made Sarthak promise he would stop these muggings temporarily at least, while he figured out what to do.
Three days later, Sarthak was introduced to a certain Mr. Sethi. He was a feeble 55 year old man, with a wide smile on his face. After hearing about Sarthak’s ‘business venture’ that he needed money for, he seemed impressed. To Sarthak’s disbelief, he made him sign a document and wrote him a cheque immediately. In his excitement, Sarthak made what was possibly the biggest mistake of his life.
He did not read the document entirely.
A law student not reading a document before signing it. If someone asked just how powerful a gambling addiction is, this would be a succinct answer.
The truth about the unbelievably generous Mr. Sethi was that this was how he made a living. Quite a great one too. Preying on people desperate for a handout. Instant money without any collateral came at a price. That price was the astronomical interest rates, that would keep climbing every time Sarthak defaulted on a payment. It was a vicious cycle that Sarthak was now unknowingly caught in.
Sure enough, Sarthak defaulted. The calls started coming in. The pleading and the reassurances began. Old Mr. Sethi was all too familiar with this routine. He knew that he was not going to get his money back unless he sent in his cavalry.
Walking home from yet another depressing night of losses, Sarthak felt restless. The streets were much more deserted than they generally were. It was maybe the onset of winter that was keeping people in their homes. Sliding his hands into his pockets, he began whistling.
In the distance, he could hear an engine running. He kept on walking. He could feel it getting closer. He still kept on walking. It was only when the headlights of the car careening towards him nearly blinded him that he stopped.
The doors opened and before Sarthak knew it, he was incapacitated by a pitch black hood covering his head. Despite his heart wrenching pleads and sobs, the car kept moving.
The first thing Sarthak saw after his vision was restored was the grinning Mr. Sethi.
‘Do you plan to repay me by continuing to dodge me? I thought we were better friends than that now, don’t you?’
‘I’m really sorry, Mr. Sethi. I will repay you, I prom-’
‘Promises, promises, and promises,’ said Mr. Sethi, cutting him off. ‘How can one even begin to believe a gambler’s promise? You have no credibility anymore boy.’
‘I don’t want your promises anymore,’he continued, the grin disappearing from his face. ‘I want my money.’
‘Your parents are on their way here. Until then, you will be my guest.’
Mr. Sethi walked out of the room, followed by his henchmen, leaving Sarthak alone to ponder the implications of what had happened and strategise how he would get out of this situation.
The room that was as dark as the hood was illuminated again, with the same people. But this time, there were two additions as well. Sarthak was both relieved and worried by the arrival of his parents. Their faces carried an emotion he could not read at all. No anger, no sorrow, no relief. Both of them had their poker faces on, completely expressionless. Sarthak was just going to be a spectator for now.
‘Mr. and Mrs. Bansal. Your son seems to have landed himself in some trouble here,’ said Mr. Sethi in impeccable English, much like the class teachers that Sarthak had in high school. ‘But there’s no problem. Just repay me the money owed with interest and take your boy home, safe and sound.’
The bland facial expression of the Bansals had still not changed. Both of them looked at their son straight in the eye, and in a complete state of awareness, Mr. Bansal uttered the words, ‘Kill him.’
A funeral-like hush spread across the dilapidated warehouse. Stunned silence. Mr. Sethi was the first to recover.
‘Are you sure, Mr. Bansal?’
No response. Just a subtle nod of the head.
‘Dad, please. Don’t let them do this. Mom, I promise I will change. I will give it all up forever. I will get a job and clean my life up. Please give me one more chan-’
The gunshot cut his final appeal loose.
The couple who had just lost their child stood there with the unwavering stiff upper lip. They had lost their son a long time ago. At this point, they were just glad to be put out of their misery.
All the people cleared out of the room, except the Bansals. They stared at the corpse of their son for a few minutes in utter silence and then started to walk back towards their car. They were going to go back home.