Madhavan looked up at his tormentor and was not surprised to find that it was the same old man of the night before. Blurry eyes and yellowed teeth stared back at him in the darkness. The man gave a grunt and pulled again at Madhavan’s shoulders.
Madahavan shrank back. He was more angry now than frightened. Hunger can make you behave in funny ways and Madhavan was soon to realize that a brave front was only one of them. Too many struggles, too much pain, the bad odours, the dankness and the ropes that made his limbs ache and his painful sore mouth left him with little patience. With all the strength he could muster, Madhavan doubled up his tied ankles and kicked out viciously at the man.
Caught unawares, the man went sprawling with a surprised yowl. The sudden movement had also made Madhavan roll over and he was now balanced precariously on his knees, his buttocks in the air and his face down rubbing the earth. The man got up quickly and catching hold of a clump of Madhavan’s hair, rubbed his face hard into the ground. With his mouth gagged and his nose flattened against the ground, Madhavan could hardly breathe as he struggled to free himself from the vicious grip.
The man yanked him off the floor after a while and Madhavan found himself staring at the man as he peered hard at Madhavan’s face and snarled ferociously. The sudden assault of bad breath and dank odour so overpowered Madhavan that he almost lost his senses for a while. The man shook him so hard that all his teeth rattled and his stomach felt as if it was going to throw up bile.
“Stop , it will you!” yelled Madhavan to his surprise but to his surprise all that came out was a garbled craok. He had forgotten momentarily about the cloth stuffing in his mouth. The man laughed and dragged Madhavan by his collar to the end of the room. From some place which was too dark for Madhavan to see, he took a knife and swiftly slashed the ropes that bound Madhavan’s wrists and ankles. Then he held Madhavan’s chin and just as swiftly undid the dirty rag that was gagging him.
Free at last, Madhavan flexed his sore and bruised wrists and ankles. His mouth was dry and chapped. The corners of his lips were bleeding and raw. He looked up at the man and motioned for some water.
“Get it yourself, Maharaja!” sneered the man. He had moved away and was now sitting on a ledge swinging his legs and looking at Madhavan. His words took Madhavan by complete surprise.
“ You can speak!” he said aloud incredulously.
“Well, what did you think, you son of a stinking pig.”
“ Who are you?” asked Madhavan, ignoring the rude address.
“None of your business.” snarled the man and jumped down from the ledge. Madhavan watched him reach over to a shelf above the ledge and from there he brought down a lamp. Setting it on the low stool that Madhavan had seen before, the man set about lighting it with unsure, gnarled and dirty fingers. Madhavan could see the grime beneath the fingernails.
Curious and not a little impatient, Madhavan looked around the now dimly lit room. Shapes danced eerily in the flickering light, but as his eyes adjusted, he could make out rows of shelves and upon them he saw the rows and rows of jars which immediately brought back his hunger with a vengeance.
“Will you give something to eat? I am starving,” ventured Madhavan.
“A bit of starving woan do you no harm, boy,” grunted the man
“But I haven’t eaten for god knows how long,” persuaded Madhavan.
“ Okay. Here you are then!” said the man and threw something Madhavan’s way.
Madahavan reached out and caught it expertly in his open palms. Something furry and soft fell in his hands and immediately leapt away. Madhavan squeaked in fright and the man let out a laugh for the first time. It was the strangest laugh Madhavan had ever heard. More like a high pitched whistle, it seemed to go on and on like the diminishing sound of an echo until it finally died away. Disgusted and angry, Madhavan scowled at the man. The furry creature that had leapt off his hands had been a rat, realized Madahavan, as it’s tail brushed against his palms. Not that he was scared of rats- he and Ahmed and Bhairu had themselves caught a few to scare away their more timid classmates.
Suddenly, the man came towards with Madhavan with a jug in his hand and with his free hand clamped down hard on the boy’s jaws, forcing his mouth open. He was about to upturn the jug into Madhavan’s face when his hand was jerked free and water splashed over them both. Madhavan gaining advantage was quick to push the man away.
Screeching in surprised anger, the man lunged but the boy , now free of his bondage, was quicker. He sidestepped swiftly and with a packed punch that landed staright on the man’s stomach sent him sprawling across the edge of the table. Madhavan heard the distinct clatter of teeth as it hit the stone slab of the table and the man slid to the floor screaming in pain.
Now it was Madahavan who was the superior one in this strange battle and like the heroes he had watched in many a movie – in the hot afternoons that the three of them had run away from school- Madhavan now stood with one leg firmly on the man’s chest.