Fifty-seven. Fifty-eight. Fifty-nine. Sixty!
The belt slips out of Gupte’s hand. His palm is slick with sweat. His heart has raced its way up to his throat. His lungs are whistling. But the naked man sitting cross-legged on the floor, his skin streaked with purple-pink welts, is a portrait of serenity.
Gupte closes the lockup door and drops his twenty-five kilos overweight body on his rusty chair. It squeaks like a culled chick with the sudden impact. He lights a cigarette once he has collected enough breath.
“What are you feeding these bastards, Tambe?” He asks the discreet sub-inspector standing by the window in front of him, keeping an eye on the shit show outside.
He doesn’t expect Tambe to answer. He releases a mushroom cloud of carcinogenic smoke into the room and glances at his detainee. His body, black and hard, is a tense constitution of muscle and sinew. His face is frozen into one nebulous expression. Real Mona Lisa, this one.
‘Pig,’ mutters a familiar voice.
Gupte almost jumps out of his chair. The man in front of him has had his lips pursed tightly since the moment he has stepped into the station.
‘Termites,’ the same voice. This time louder, ‘All of them! Every single one of them!’
Gupte splashes half a glass of water on his face, extinguishing his cigarette. Tambe is still peeking out of the window. Gupte downs the remaining half glass of water and lights another cigarette. Just the sleeplessness, that’s all. Last sleep he’s caught was twenty-three hours ago. For two hours. His eyeballs are red lumps of coal. His head is a furnace.
“Sathe didn’t want me using any of the hard stuff on him. Said he wanted him in his senses when he made that statement to the press,” He clicks his fingers at Tambe, summoning his attention, “This bastard makes me question even the hard stuff now.”
Tambe doesn’t know what to say. He joined the force a month ago. His is to just observe and learn of the bevy of tortures present at the average policeman’s disposal. Gupte knows all of them. Six sets of sixty is the appetizer. Most lowlifes crumble in the first four sets. The other two are just for posterity’s sake. If the hard case in question is anywhere near the league that the one in front of him is in, you can skip some of the following courses. By the time the meal’s done, they end up cracked. They always do. All you really need is time.
A brick comes crashing through the half-open window by Tambe, littering the floor with shards. Time. Tambe’s clammy hand moves towards his pistol.
“Take one shot and they’ll lynch you before you could pull the trigger on your second,” Guptee snorts out smoke, “And you’ll probably miss your first shot too.”
“That’s our way out,” He points at their reticent guest, “Break the leader to break the mob.”
The punishment menu gets harder and harder to swallow as it goes on. Gupte considers some quick options as they cruise through his mind. He can make him vomit his guts out. Then, starve him. It’ll also get out whatever he’s on, if he is on anything, that is. Some bastards just have a tough make. But they can be reached through other channels. He can bring in his wife or his daughter. Have a female constable tug at her hair for a bit. That’s a hundred percent effective way. But this one doesn’t have a wife or a daughter. No pets either. Sathe said he lives in the woods all by himself.‘They say that the forest takes care of him. Dying animals have ways of finding him. The forest doesn’t let him go hungry; they say. They say he’s a god.’
Yeah, sure. All the gods that Gupte knows stay in their garlanded frames on the wall, huffing incense sticks. They don’t sow discord between the villageAdivasisand their fat masters and end up naked on his lockup floor.
“Filthy pig,” Gupte utters, almost at a spinal level.
Pig. That word, this time in his own voice, bounces around his head. But the echo that returns after hitting the inner wall of his mind is in his father’s voice.
‘Filthy pigs! All of them!’
Termites hollowing out this once-great land! Gupte completes his father’s drunken rant of choice.
The pigs are plentiful in his newest posting—this half-eaten, half-regurgitated village in the Satpudas. The greedy poor protesting their wages outside and the greedy rich refusing them, the politician that paid him to kill the protest and their hardcase figurehead sitting naked in his cell. He’s a pig too, a fleeting thought suggests. Sure. Why not? A country of the pigs, for the pigs, by the pigs. He chuckles to himself.
“Go to the nearest police station,” He turns to Tambe, “Don’t come back until you’ve found at least a couple more constables to bring back with you.”
Tambe gulps, nods, salutes and leaves.
Gupte turns to his prisoner and smiles. He knows one way he can crack him, or at least bring him a couple of steps closer to the breaking point. It’s quite foolproof. He can tell from its ability to give him nightmares this late in his career. He had picked it up in Delhi, his last posting. He pulls open his table drawer. One barely filled bottle of whiskey rolls into his sight.
He gets up, putting the bottle to his mouth and swallowing whatever little alcohol that’s in it in one burning swig. Then, he opens the cell door and steps in.
“You’re no god, you tribal piece of shit,” He pushes the cigarette into his right peck. It dies out on his skin with a low hiss.
The bottle almost slips out of Gupte’s grip. A snail-paced trickle of unease scales down his spine. The cigarette butt falls off his prisoner’s skin, exposing a circle of pink peering out of his chest. His face is as calm as ever, his eyes pointed at the station door. His body is as still as a cold marble idol.
Gupte stares at the empty bottle. If it was enough to give him nightmares, it’ll be enough to break him. The nightmare makes a reappearance on his overexposed retinas. He sees himself there, on the lockup floor, lying naked with his hands tied behind his back. Above him, towers his twelve-year old son, wearing his khaki uniform. Somehow it fits his twelve-year old body perfectly. With a vulpine grin carved on his face, he kneels by Gupte’s side, the bottle’s heated neck sticking out of his grip.
Gupte opens his mouth wide and shakes the bottle over his head, catching a few final drops. This has to do the trick. He takes out his lighter and holds it under the bottleneck. Wavy bands of red and orange and green dance upon the flame. Every blink brings back a frame of that nightmare. His son, fitting perfectly in his prodigious uniform. His clammy palms, clasped together behind his back. That pungent floor next to his nose—an olfactory cocktail of sweat, piss and blood. He places the lighter back in his pocket.
“This’ll tell me what you sound like,” He sniggers at his prisoner. Then, kneels down by his side, the heated bottleneck sticking out of his grip, a spitting image of his mean dream-son, when it occurs to him. The reason why this particular technique stood out of the rest. The stretched-out faces swim back into his eyes, cowering, prostate and helpless in those dingy Delhi cells, and then that warm feeling that used to glow in his chest when the bottle slid in. Stuff that really makes your job satisfying.Pig.
“No,” He whispers, stumbling back, almost short of falling on his ass. The bottle slips out of his grip and shatters.
Gupte takes the support of a wall. His prisoner is still frozen in his meditative pose.
No? No to what? No answer. The chanting of the protestors, like a long-held breath, gushes in through the broken window. Its growing louder. The night’s getting shorter. Day will bring more sympathizers to the cause. Hopefully, Tambe will get the backup till then. Because, bottle or no bottle, this stone-skinned bastard is farther from breaking than anyone who has ever spent more than an hour in his custody. So, no to what?
His stare follows his prisoner’s, to the closed station door and a mental circuit is completed. Illumination floods in.
“You don’t have no one,” He walks out of the lockup door, a spring in his step, a glint in his eye, “You have everyone!”
Of course! He was just messing with Tambe earlier, wasn’t he? Of course, he can just go out and pick one wrung-out fella from the crowd, bring him in at gunpoint. What can they do about it? This isn’t Chauri Chaura and that bastard in there is no Gandhi. The bloody page from his primary school history book flutters past his eyes. Unholstering his pistol, he tiptoes towards the door, chanting:
“Break the mob to break the leader to break the mob. The mob. The mob! The leader. The mob!”
Just as he’s about to unlatch the door, something makes him hold his breath. It’s a noise. Periodic and ear-splitting, like the dinning of a colossal hammer. But it’s beating at a familiar rhythm. His heart. It’s louder than everything around him, silencing all the routine sounds that the village makes during the night. No clanking of hooves from passing bullock carts, or car and truck honks from the nearby highway. No whirring of crickets or the occasional howls from packs of dogs and hyenas creeping in those sprawling papaya orchards. He lets out his breath. Air screeches like a wounded banshee in and out of his nostrils. That’s when he understands what’s happened. His heartbeat and breaths are exactly as loud as they’ve ever been. It’s just that everything around him has gone completely silent. One unanimous shut-up.
His fingers contemplate the latch. His heartbeat, hastening, mutes out every protesting thought and allows him to unlatch the door. Absently shivering, Gupte pulls the door open and peeks out. What he sees makes him hold his breath all over again. It’s dark outside, darker than anything he’s ever laid his eyes on. The shadow of a shadow of a shadow. The seventh reincarnation of whatever night is supposed to be. Gasping for air, he shuts the door and draws back. He’s ass down on the floor before he knows it, the pistol lying by his frozen palm.
He shuffles back up. A curtain of unconsciousness falls over his vision and raises immediately. He stumbles, slamming himself against the door. His eyes fall on the pistol lying on the floor. He picks it up and cackles.
“Just sleepy, that’s all. Should’ve taken a nap.”
He drops the pistol twice as he makes his way to the lockup, cackling.
“Break the leader to break the mob, to break the leader, break the mob!” He sings, removing his shirt. A tattered undershirt clings to his torso like an extra layer of skin.
“What do you call a god who cannot dodge bullets?” he slams the lockup door behind him and rests the slim barrel of his pistol on his prisoner’s forehead. He avoids looking into his eyes. It’s as if some primitive response from deep within him is preventing him from doing it.
His finger squeezes the trigger. The pistol utters an impotent clank. He presses the trigger again. Nothing. Again. Nothing again. He inspects the pistol. The empty holes of the cylinder stare back at him. That’s when he looks into his prisoner’s eyes and sees that they are the same ultra-saturated shade of black as the one outside the door.
“Naru,” When his prisoner’s lips finally move, they speak in his father’s voice. Then, they curl into a smile, sending Gupte back on his ass, grasping for the bars of the cell to break his fall. His smile widens and widens to reveal all of his glittering white teeth. Behind them, Gupte sees something shimmer. As he breaks out into a booming laughter, his father’s drunken laughter, the shiny things clink out on the floor.
Bullets. All six of them. Gupte falls down.
“Termites, Naru,” the prisoner continues grinning, “They are everywhere, Naru. Everywhere!”
First, Gupte feels them on his skin. Legions of little brown shells, crawling on his arms, his legs, digging in. Then, he sees them. He starts swatting his arms, gasping, trying to get as much of them off him as he can. He removes his pants, dancing one-legged on the floor. Then, the rest of his clothes.
“Hurry up, old man!” It’s his son, screaming, “Before they hollow out your bones!”
It’s too late. They’ve dug in. The sheet of shells draping his calves, his thighs, dissolves into his leg. He starts scratching his thighs, plowing red rows into them with his nails. But that’s nowhere near enough. He needs something sharper, something faster, a bit more efficient.
His stare falls on the shards of glass from the whiskey bottle. He grabs the sharpest one and gets to digging. Grabbing another shard and stretching out his legs, he carves out twin slits in his thighs. After displacing ribbons upon ribbons of meat around, he feels the shards touch something hard. He tosses them away and digs his fingers into the right slit, prying it open, wide enough to give him a good look at his woodworks. His bone is clean. The crawling had ceased. There are no termites anymore. Triumph washes over him. The pain, having peaked at some point has receded into the background. He traces his index finger up and down that portion of bone, just to make sure. All clean, all clear.
It’s only when he shifts his focus off the bone that he notices the hair. Tufts of it have sprouted all over his thigh. Black, shiny, coarse. Now half an inch long, now three inches long. Both of his thighs disappear beneath that rough pasture. His eyes descend to his foot, but it isn’t there. In its place, is a hard, angular thing, split in the middle. They have a name for it. What is it? His mind, growing sparse, fails him. His thoughts are thinning. The hair conquers his torso. Words have left his tongue forever, which itself grows fat and wet in his mouth. Hair covers even his eyes and nose. He falls on his back, dumbfounded.
Then, the pain. It comes unannounced and thrashing, expressing an unexplained rage. Gurgles bubble out of his body, as countless seizures ripple through him. He vomits and voids his bowels, taking notice of neither. His organs are being squeezed, kneaded. He feels invisible fingers, clinical and methodical, going to work inside him. His bones twist and move beneath his skin, marrow splurging along his plumbing. He feels cut open and boiling hot. Thoughts are a thing of the past. All that remains now, is one immutable desire—to scream. As loud as he can for as long as he can. But when he tries screaming, all that comes out is a squeal.
Tambe zooms into the station. He has spent three hours trying to find the sole police station in the village where he grew up. Three constables accompany him.
“Gupte sir!” He yells.
He follows his clothes to the lockup. Inside, their prisoner sits smiling a placid smile. A pig limps around the cell. It is bleeding in its hind legs.
The prisoner’s eyes raise to meet Tambe’s. Smiling, he asks Tambe in a language he doesn’t understand, “What do you call a pig that cannot squeal?”
Aditya Patil is a Stephen King cultist living in Nashik, India. He has recently finished his undergraduate studies and looks forward to pursuing a graduate degree in the US. He has previously written the sci-fi comedy novel Date for the Late.