Kalyani stared hard at the envelope she was clutching in her hands. Her legs were going to give up soon, she knew. She was running as fast as she could. The Postmaster’s house seemed light years away, though she had been running only for the past five minutes. Her mother, Bhairavi, had instructed her to get the contents of the letter read. The Postmaster had come by when her mother was bathing at the ghat. Kalyani had gleefully received the letter, forgetting to get it read. Bhairavi, on her return, had slapped Kalyani on her back chiding her for this miss.

So, it was more like a penance for her slip. Kalyan, her brother older by a few years, had watched all this silently, munching on his akki roti, a glee pasted on his cherubic face. Little Kalyani, all of six, ran like the wind. After covering a few hundred metres, she realized the futility of her exercise. The lure of the jaggery-dipped sweet had pushed her into agreeing for this errand. If only she could turn back the clock, she thought ruefully.
Now, now, she chided herself. A few more kilometres and she would reach the thatched roof building with the red bricks. Then, she could return and have sweets! Aah!

That fatty Kalyan, she thought, with fury. Couldn’t he have volunteered to go? Her little feet were aching now. Her heart beat like the drum they played during the festival for the Goddess with thousand arms. Would mother keep some sweets for her? She wondered. Mentally kicking herself for the stupidity, Kalyani ran faster. Kalyani had never ventured into the main village by herself. She watched in awe as she crossed the school and the temple.

Finally, when Kalyani reached the Postmaster’s house, she collapsed on his steps. She was exhausted. She was thirsty and sweaty. On top of the physical exertion, the Gods seemed to be teasing her. The door was locked indicating that the Postmaster had stepped out for his late afternoon rounds. She decided to wait for a few minutes before making the twenty minute trip back home.

'How long have you been walking?' asked a booming voice, making Kalyani jump out of her skin. She turned to face a fair-skinned man wearing a red coat staring down at her. She stared at his coat. In this region, nobody wore a coat. Moreover, nobody wore a red coat. She stared at him defiantly and remained mum. Her mother had taught her not to talk to strangers.
This one was surely a stranger.

He repeated his question after lowering his tall and well-built frame down on the steps near her. Kalyani turned to look at the man’s face. She bent her head and stared at the envelope in her hand. 'The Postmaster won’t return for the next half an hour, he went out just now', the man informed without waiting for Kalyani’s response. A startled Kalyani stared at the man’s face, wild thoughts churning in her young brain. Half an hour! That gundu Kalyan will eat her share. She could not wait that long, she had to do something!
'Do you know how to read?' she asked. This was the first time she had spoken to a stranger. And, if he was at the Postmaster’s house, he must be from the village. Maybe he was the new husband of Gauri Akka, her portly neighbour. Gauri had re-married and had introduced her new husband to Bhairavi and shared delicious sweets. Kalyani was asleep then and had missed meeting them.
She had heard that Gauri’s husband was tall.
'I can, what do you want me to read?' The man asked, looking pointedly at the letter in her hand. Before Kalyani could make up her mind whether she could trust the contents of the letter from her father with a stranger, the man took the envelope and opened it. With his slim fingers, he slid the letter out. It was a neatly folded white sheet with a few dried rose petals tucked inside. The man carefully dropped the petals into the envelope and handed it back to Kalyani.
He then started reading the letter aloud without waiting for Kalyani’s approval. She immediately felt offended, but the urgent nature of the situation demanded that she take on a broader view and allow the man to take liberties. And if he was actually Gauri Akka’s new husband, he was family and mother had said one could trust family members. Her mind put to rest; Kalyani slid closer to the man and peered at the letter. She also rewarded him with a dimpled smile. He was family, she was safe. Maybe he would drop her back home.

The letter was from her father, Arun Kumar, who worked in Madurai at a printing press and visited regularly. Arun knew that Bhairavi would get his letter read by the Postmaster. Kalyan was yet to master the Alphabet and hence couldn’t read Arun’s weekly letters. The man read out Arun’s letter slowly to an attentive Kalyani. The letter was addressed to Bhairavi. At one point where Arun enquired about her health and asked if she had any pain after the surgery, the man stopped and asked Kalyani if she knew anything about it. Kalyani shook her head. She had never seen her mother cry. So she didn’t have any pain. For Kalyani, crying was directly proportional to being in pain. If you were in more pain, you had to cry loudly. Kalyani knew pain. No, her mother did not have any pain.

The man continued reading. Kalyani asked the man if Arun had mentioned anything about his arrival to which the man replied in the negative. Folding the letter neatly, he handed it back to Kalyani, who immediately double folded it and stuffed it into the folds of her pavadai. After thanking him, she paused and wondered if she should ask the man to drop her home. It was tiring to even think of walking all the way back home.

'Will you drop me home?' she blurted, waiting for a refusal. The man smiled and held out his hand. Kalyani hesitantly placed her small hand in his, which he held firmly but not tightly. Kalyani immediately felt safe.
He was no stranger.

Kalyani and the man made an odd pair, walking hand in hand through the partly deserted yet inhabited streets of the small village. It was yet another typical village where everyone knew everyone. Kalyani walked without complaining of leg pain till they were intercepted by the grocer, Murugan, who wanted to know where Kalyani was headed to with a stranger.

Kalyani immediately jumped to answer and introduced the man as Gauri Akka’s husband. In her innocence, Kalyani failed to notice that the man looked distinctively uncomfortable when stopped by Murugan. The grocer left and the pair continued. After a few steps, Kalyani enquired about the mode of transport, which she was sure the man possessed. He smiled gently and told her that they had to walk to a friend’s shop from where they would pick up the man’s cycle and then they could be on their way home.

The village had a typical layout. It had a chowk with vendors of all sorts selling their ware, a small clinic, a temple, a police station, a post office, and a small school. The houses were scattered around the chowk in a radius of 50-100 metres. It was set like concentric circles, owing to which it was called Uranda Puram. Kalyani’s house was located away from the main village, where people from her community lived in forced seclusion, and followed their inherent rules and rituals. Kalyani was yet to understand these social divisions and largely remained immune to these sentiments.

They got the cycle. The man pedalled hard, unlike Arun, Kalyani’s father, who would pedal slowly and always ensured Kalyani wasn’t feeling scared. The man was sweating, which Arun never did. Kalyani had a thing for bad odours, she felt suffocated. Bhairavi called her a princess because of this. Kalyani gripped the sides of the wildly swaying cycle with both hands and closed her eyes tightly. She was very scared she would fall and break her teeth. Bhairavi had told her that if she lost her teeth no man would marry her. Kalyani didn’t want to lose her teeth. Another worry now niggled at Kalyani. She had begun to forget the contents of the letter. She would ask the man once they reached home, she decided.

It was already dusk and the wind was carrying slight traces of moisture indicating a shower in the night. Kalyani smelled the wind the way her brother had taught her to but could go no further because he hadn’t told her what she could surmise from the smell. The list of questions she had for different people kept growing in her head. She held onto the bar with all her life. The cycle was now going on a dusty road and she was feeling very scared. Kalyani slightly opened her eyes and was taken aback to find herself on a deserted dark road. The road to her house was well lit. Now, she was feeling nauseated with the sweat smell from the man. He had his arms around her, gripping the cycle handle, which were brushing her roughly and the wind was making her pavadai fly in all directions.

Kalyani wondered if this was a shortcut and demanded to know. The man remained silent and answered with a curt, we will reach soon. The road curved.
After some time, they stopped. There was nothing in sight, only the light from the cycle throwing a dim halo on the dark road. Kalyani slipped down apprehensively looking up at the man. Had the tyre burst? What happened and why had they not reached home yet.

Come on, we have reached our destination the man said and roughly lifted her. A loud scream left her parched throat, surprising Kalyani. She struggled against the strong grip but to no avail. The man held on and carried her towards what seemed like a shack. Kalyani had never come to this area. She had no idea where she was. Weird thoughts clouded her mind.
Her doll was lying near the cot, outside, in the verandah. If she was not rescued on time, she might get drenched.
Her mother would be worrying about her.
Kalyan would have gobbled up all the sweets.
She wanted her Appa!

They reached the shack and the man opened the lock on the door with a key tied to a rope around his waist and took Kalyani inside. She struggled against his tight hold and tried to bite him like how Bhairavi had taught her. The man took no notice of her struggle and continued to pull her. Inside, it was well lit and Kalyani noticed that there was a cot, a small chair, a stove, and a pot for water. There was another door at the far corner, which also had a padlock. The man pulled Kalyani towards the second door and opened it with a similarly placed key.

Kalyani was now petrified and had no energy left to even shout. Her throat was dry and her tears were refusing to fall from her already puffy eyes. She had started crying aloud somewhere outside and had not stopped yet. The man seemed to know exactly what he was doing and calmly continued with his activities ignoring her cries. Kalyani realized with horror that he was indeed a stranger and was certainly not Gauri Akka’s new husband. She wanted to go home now and cling to her mother’s bosom. 

Never talk to a stranger, her mother had said. Kalyani looked around the room, petrified. The man left after tying her hands and mouth with a cloth. Kalyani could hear him outside. After what seemed like eternity, he returned, closed the door, and undressed. She watched horror-struck as he stepped closer and made Kalyani smell a handkerchief. She blacked out.

Bhairavi was going mad with worry. Her little girl had not returned home. It was almost four hours since she had gone to the Postmaster’s house, just outside their settlement. Kalyan had been dispatched to the Postmaster’s house to look for his sister. He had returned and reported that the Postmaster had not seen Kalyani. He had met the school teacher though who had informed Kalyan about the gang who kidnapped little girls and sold them. Kalyan had rushed home to inform his mother about a possible kidnapping. Though he was unsure why anyone would kidnap his irritating little sister.

Bhairavi rushed to her neighbour Gauri’s house to make a telephone call to Arun at the press. He was on a night shift most days and would be available. She recounted with horror and rising fury at her stupidity for sending the little girl on an errand. Arun calmly listened to her and offered several suggestions. Maybe she would have stopped somewhere and gone off to sleep. She might have stopped at some friend’s place, did you search in her friends’ place. Yes, replied Bhairavi, her worry mounting with each passing second. She knew in her heart that her child was in immense danger and was calling out to her. She had to look for her. She made her husband promise that he would catch the early morning bus and come to the village, which he did. He was also worried, far removed from the situation that he was. Where could she have gone, he wondered. Theirs was a small settlement and everyone would know by now that Kalyani was missing. He disconnected the call after promising his wife to come as soon as possible and went to inform his superior about the emergency and that he would have to rush home. After taking two days off, he set off for the bus stand to catch a late night bus to his village.

The burly policeman twirled his thick black moustache and glared at the man and his wife sitting on their haunches in front of him. They had been going on and on about how someone had kidnapped their daughter and how they wanted him to help them. The policeman had been informed by his deputy that there certainly were several reports of kidnappings of young girls in and around the area. His peer from another town had faxed him the picture of a possible suspect. The man seemed more like a drug addict than a kidnapper. The policeman could not be sure though. Maybe the girl would return. He wanted to wait.

The District Magistrate stared at the handwritten letter on his table. The handwriting was more than a scribble and was in Tamil. He was having difficulty reading the script though he was from this region. After giving a cursory glance because he knew the contents of the letter, he glared at the three men squatting in front of him. The burly policeman standing erect in front of him made him imagine a stiff mannequin in front of a lingerie shop.
One of the three men, as if on cue, started speaking and explained how they had been looking for his daughter and how they wanted him, the DM, to give orders to the DSP to arrest a possible suspect, the village tantric. The problem here was that the arrest could spark a caste issue as the suspect was from a higher caste.

The DM stared at the man, clad in a white-with-brown-splotches dhoti and a cheap polyster shirt. Why could the police not handle this by themselves? Now, on top of his existing troubles, he had to deal with a serial kidnapper. He had got himself transferred to this place to live a peaceful life with his new bride.

His mind was elsewhere, but he had to focus on this kidnapping. Of late, there had been a spurt in kidnappings and murders. There were surely some rumours about this tantric who carried out devil worship on full moon nights. The villagers believed that several children had been kidnapped to be sacrificed to appease the goddess. There was no proof of any such incidents and the police had not found any clues either.

The DM signed the orders asking the DSP to take necessary precaution and immediately lost interest in the missing girl and surmised that she must have ran away from home, like how the kids in these areas were prone to. He had little or no interest in delving too deep into these regional issues. He was a devout man and wanted to somehow get through the day and go back to his new bride, Jessica. He was so obsessed with the woman that all he did the whole day was to fantasize about her and then rush home as soon as the clock struck five. It was already half past four and his mind was on overdrive thinking about the positions he would try with Jessica. He could feel an erection at the mere thought of his wife’s nubile body in his arms.
When they did not get an appropriate response from the DM, the three villagers looked at the policeman still holding his erect position. He gently cleared his throat to get the attention of the DM. Shaken out of his reverie, the DM completed signing the order and gave the paper to the policeman who saluted smartly before herding the dhoti-clad group out of the room. They had a long way to go. The arrest could happen only tomorrow now.

Bhairavi was still sitting at the door when she saw Arun walking in, his head hung low, his shoulders slouched. It was more than 12 hours since Kalyani was missing and no one knew anything about her. Except the grocer who had seen her with a stranger, no one had seen the girl in the village. Bhairavi’s tears had dried up. She had cried till she could cry no more. Even Kalyan was getting worried now. Whatever said and done, his sister was an irritatingly adorable thing and he was fond of her.

Did the police find the man in the red coat? Bhairavi asked battling another spate of fresh tears. Shaking his head, Arun replied in the negative.
They can do it only tomorrow. Bhairavi did not understand these rules these officers had. They could not do this, they could not do that. But, someone could just pluck a little girl from the streets and nobody could do anything. Why didn’t the thugs follow any rules? Maybe they should have a rule that they could not kidnap little girls.

Arun looked up sharply at his wife. He decided that she had lost her mind due to the loss and was blabbering. The man in the red coat was now an enigma and anyone who might have any idea, however vague it might be, was being celebrated. As is the custom during such incidents, people and their creativities unfurl and are used fully. Many stories surfaced. In almost all stories, the man in the red coat was the villain and Murugan the grocer, a hero, owing to the one-minute conversation he had had with the duo.

In one version, Murugan claimed that he had tried to pull Kalyani to safety and the man in the red coat had given him a black eye and ran off with the screaming Kalyani. Some versions had the tantric wearing the red coat and carrying a drugged Kalyani on his shoulder with Murugan trying to save her.
Bhairavi had heard almost all the versions carefully to ensure she had not missed any information about her missing child. She had made at least hundred trips till now to the Postmaster’s house to ensure Kalyani was not playing a game with her, teasing her. Only when the Postmaster yelled at her saying he was an adult and would not encourage such an act did Bhairavi believe that her child had indeed been snatched by someone. 

Three days later, almost everyone in the village had done their bit to search for the missing girl. In many houses in the main village and the outer settlement, there was a picture of a missing child adorned with flowers, and these mothers could relate to the sorrow Bhairavi was going through.
Even the priest’s wife had enquired if Kalyani had been found. Bhairavi could not believe her eyes when the stately woman called for her from the other side of the road while Bhairavi was returning from her hundredth trip to the Postmaster’s house.

Arun had called up his boss and got his leave extended till his daughter was found. The boss explained that Arun could of course take leave and could also draw some amount from his pension to help him tide over this difficult phase. The boss also reached out to his well-heeled friends in the ministry to find out if any known offender had been spotted in these areas. None, they confirmed. The needle of suspicion now pointed only at the village tantric who had been hauled up to the local police station at least four times to be questioned. Only he seemed to have a direct motive as the full moon day was fast approaching. There was another thread connecting the tantric to the kidnapping. The local village tailor had confirmed to anybody who cared to listen, that the tantric had recently ordered for and received a well-stitched coat. A red coat.

That was enough for indicting the tantric although Murugan was adamant that he had not seen the tantric with Kalyani on the day she went missing. Another important point most people missed was the height of the kidnapper. The man in the red coat was a tall and well-built man, but the tantric was short and portly. Murugan had helped paint a picture of the man to the glee of the fawning policemen. They huddled around the grocer while he helped the police artist paint a picture, which sadly looked like a cross between Vijaykanth and Sarath Kumar, both actors in the Tamil film industry.
Though the police ransacked the tantric’s small hut, they did not find even a red thread, leave alone a red coat. Frustrated, the policemen picked up the bumbling tantric and booked him, aiming to see some kind of closure and not because they had found the real culprit. Murugan kept harping about the futility of the exercise but was generally ignored.

Five days later, early in the morning, the priest’s wife gave a shrill cry, waking the neighbours from their deep slumbers. A body lay on her doorstep. The wife shrieked till she got the attention of the husband and the neighbours. A brave neighbour turned the body and screamed out in horror. It was a girl child. The face had been mutilated and deep gashes ran across her body and private parts. The chest heaved softly indicating the life left in the child. The priest’s wife got a saree and wrapped the child up before taking her inside the house, something unheard of the village.

Arun and Bhairavi were summoned who identified that indeed it was Kalyani. The priest grumbled a bit about how his house was impure now but shut up after receiving a glare from his wife. Such was the intensity and publicity of the case that the DM had been pulled out from his warm bed, hurried through the dawn hours and into the narrow roads leading to the priest’s doorstep. A question hung in the air: why was Kalyani returned in such a state and why was she left lying here? 

Bhairavi collapsed seeing her precious child in such a ghastly form. The priest’s wife stepped up and engulfed the toilet cleaner’s wife in recognition of the sorrow the latter was feeling. A collective gasp from the crowd made them spring apart and the priest’s wife stepped aside leaving Bhairavi to mourn the fate her child had been meted out. A region where the twice borns bathed in holy water if even the shadow of a low life fell on them, the priest’s wife had touched a low life and hugged her showing solidarity. The priest mentally calculated the hours of penance required for purification, but kept quiet. The dastardly act had shaken him.

Such was the intensity of the situation and such was the grief that each man and each woman gathered at that spot wanted to hold the child and rock her to assure her that they were there for her. Kalyani was rushed to the village clinic. The DM followed the group to the clinic in his government-sanctioned car in a slow march. The villagers gathered around the clinic and allowed Arun and his wife to enter the clinic with the newly appointed head doctor, a handsome Delhi-boy with a freshly minted medicine degree hanging in his small cabin. He smiled warmly at the group and ordered his nurse to prepare the child for examination. 

When Arun stepped forward to accompany him, the doctor instead motioned for Bhairavi to come forward. Kalyani was unconscious and still covered in the saree shared by the priest’s wife. Bhairavi had accepted a cotton dress given by one of the village women and dressed her daughter up. She folded the saree carefully. The doctor nodded each time he made an observation and spoke in hushed tones to the nurse who made a note. After their examination, the doctor asked Bhairavi to step aside and updated her of the gravity of the situation. Bhairavi knew in her heart that her child had suffered much but collapsed once she heard of the brutality meted out to the little girl by the man in the red coat.

Kalyani needed immediate surgery to ensure her complete and normal recovery, the doctor urged. At this point, the DM stepped in and urged the doctor to do whatever was possible to help the child. The administration will bear the cost, he announced, albeit a bit grandly. The head doctor nodded and asked Arun to fill up a form and submit it with his assistant. The younger doctor, he was told, could be found in a cabin next to the pantry. Arun found the other man easily and handed over the form to begin the process of Kalyani’s surgery. When Arun was stepping out of the younger doctor’s cabin, he stopped and stared at something hanging on the door making his blood boil. A red coat hung there.

He turned to look at the doctor and asked him to stand up. The doctor stood up, looking perplexed. Arun reached for his throat. The crowd stayed put. None of them had eaten or had a sip for more than fourteen hours now. They stood there, braving the wind and the hailstorm, staring defiantly at the policemen who had been brought in to control the situation. They were protesting peacefully and had not created any ruckus. The police were positioned just in case. The DM was back after taking a break.

Arun, Bhairavi, the priest, his wife, Murugan the grocer, and the Postmaster sat in the front. The other villagers stood behind them in a semi circle, totally surrounding the clinic. When night fell, they were still there. Kalyani was long dead, even before the surgery. Her cold body lay inside the clinic on a stretcher. The DM tried again to pacify the villagers, but to no avail. They were baying for the young doctor’s blood. They were simply standing there, holding hands, in a tight circle, not allowing anyone from the clinic to leave or enter. There were no in-patients in the clinic and the doctors worked till 5 pm. The head doctor and the nurse were allowed to leave. The young doctor was stripped naked and he now sat in the middle, shivering in the cold.
He had screamed and shouted when Arun had dragged him outside. That was when Kalyani breathed her last during the examination. The head doctor had tried resuscitating her. He was horrified to learn about his assistant’s unproven deed.

When Arun punched his face, the young doctor had blurted an apology but changed his statement when the police questioned him. The policemen refused to book the young doctor. They said it was purely circumstantial evidence and just possessing a red coat didn’t make him a killer, the policeman said. What he didn’t mention is that the doctor’s daddy was a rich man and had just promised a medical seat for the policeman’s son. In response, the villagers did what they felt was right, they gheraoed the doctor after stripping him naked.

The media appeared on day twenty and Kalyani’s fate became a national news item. Kalyani’s face and the doctor’s nude butt became national news.
The villagers did not give in to anything: apologies, tear gas, lathicharge, threats. Old, young, infirm, they all stood there, like silent breathing rocks. They took turns to keep it going. The media was having a field day, highlighting the administration’s failure gleefully.

On day thirty five, the DM reacting to the intense push from the ministry (due to the upcoming elections) pleaded with Arun. The doctor was lying semi-conscious inside the circle, maggots crawling on his flesh. Silent eyes watched him suffer. Silence hung like a shroud. On day forty five, other villagers joined the protest demanding justice. The Home ministry got involved and ordered the DM to control the situation.

On day sixty, the administration buckled, smelling huge political ramifications and ordered the police to arrest the doctor under a non-bailable section.
Life limped back to normalcy. Arun and Bhairavi returned with Kalyan to an empty house and later shifted to the city. The clinic reopened and female doctors were appointed. Grocer Murugan lived long enough to recount the horror story of Kalyani and the man in the red coat.

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