And then we reached Kalyanpur Police Station.
The daroga (inspector) was a portly old man clad in his lungi and a chaddar. He was holding an object in his hand which he was diligently inspecting. His lackey stared at him admiringly. Our weary bodies were aching to find some place to sleep in when the daroga piped-up: “Kaun ho tum log, kya chahiye?” Our leader thrust the NCC documents under his nose and requested refuge for a night. “Thik hai”, he said, “so jaao”. Before we could figure out where we could sleep, he intoned ominously, thrusting at us the object he held in the dim lantern light. “Pata hai, yeh kya hai?” We stared closer. It was a crescent shaped object wrapped in gunny-bag cloth. “Abhi-abhi mila hai, kisika khoon hua hai issesey. Khoon. Samjhey, khoon. Murder!” Shivers went down my spine, a weapon of murder so close to me! The daroga had been busy sealing the knife for onward transmission. The lackey was nodding in admiration all the time as our group gaped at the murderous package.
There is a Hindi saying:”Raam- raam kartey raat beeti.” That was my fate. As I am sure it was for others too. I am sure we all dreamt of a khooni chaku slitting our throats as we slept in the verandah of the police station between our NCC-issued blankets.
“Jaan bachi toh laakhon paaye”, I thought to myself as I peddled furiously towards our next destination. That was a lot milder one, and a lot more welocming. We were headed to for lunch at one our fellow-cyclist’s home in Kanpur. He had planned his cycle adventure to end there. We reached there just before lunch. We never had a more luxurious hot water bath ever before in our lives and what a sumptuous lunch it was!
Bye-byes done, we were off to our next destination. Sikandara.
It was past 10 at night when we landed at the Sikandara Police Station. A scary, decrepit old building. And we were tired and famished and extremely scared, NCC dress notwithstanding. After the Kalyanpur P.S. welcome we were now expecting the worst. And we were completely taken aback when the daroga welcomed us, albeit sternly. “Aao, aao.” He barked. “Kahan sey aaye ho?” Our leader showed him all the NCC documentation we had. And the daroga’s stern look softened a bit. I wonder whether he understood the documents.
And then dropped a bombshell: “Darr nahin laga, yeh Phoolan Devi ka ilaqa hai.” Phoolan Devi’s infamous Behmai massacare had taken place a few years ago. Here she had avenged her slight in the earlier years by gunning down dozens of innocent inhabitants of Behmai village. We were aware of this one. But none knew that Behmai came under the jurisdiction of Sikandara PS. One of us gathered his wits and said, “No, we were not scared. Phoolan is in jail now.” Indeed she was, taken into custody after much drama only a few months ago.
The daroga now actually smiled and offered: “Sona hai? Toh yahaan so jaao.” And he gestured toward a crummy looking room next to his desk. “bahut achha hai, bahut achha hai.” I was wondering whether he was referring to his own reaction or was referring to the room. He resolved the matter for us very quickly. “Yeh hamaarey thaney ka lock-up hai. Abhi thodi hi der pehley ek kaidi chhoota hai yahaan sey. Puwaal taaza hai bilkul. So jaao aaraam sey.” He was reassuring us that the hay on the floor was fresh and would keep us warm. As an added incentive he told us that the previous occupant of the lock-up had just left and the hay was fresh!
And then in a sudden fit of extra generosity he enquired: “Have you had something to eat?” In the urge to reach our night-halt destination, Sikandara, we had not had the time to eat anything. The evening tea and snack on the highway was the last we had had. We were famished, and we told him as much. The kind soul instructed his assistant to fetch us some aloo sabzi– the left-overs from their dinner. Said the generous daroga: “The sabzi is dry, add some water to it if you wish. And here is some atta, if one of you knows how to make rotis, knead the atta and there is an oven which is still burning. The cookery expert amongst us got down to kneading dough while the rest busied ourselves kneading our muscles with the aid of some Iodex. Some dozed off on the hay bed.
After a satisfying midnight meal, we all crawled onto our thick hay carpet, unrolled our NCC-issue blankets and dozed off to sleep.
(To be continued)