The biter

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Somewhere underneath the capony of tinroofs Farooq must be sipping his morning tea.

 

Farooq was a normal man. Like so many of us, he too was plagued by the increasing vegetable prices, incessant heat and the havoc caused by Assam’s infamous thundershowers. He stayed three doors away from our house in Jagiroad with his wife and two daughters. His younger brother lived in the same compound but there was hardly any interaction between the two families. The autumn flu troubled Farooq every year and so did the pesky mosquitoes in June. He argued with the ration shop for a little more grain and scolded his cow if it strayed too far from the house. But there was something about him that many would not associate with being ordinary.

It began on our front yard several summers ago. I was barely five at the time. It happened that Farooq was the only neighbour with a car, a purple Maruti Omni. He worked as a driver, ferrying people to Guwahati, Assam’s main city, and back. His elder brother worked as a driver as well, employed under a private taxi contractor. In those days, it was matter of pride to own a car, much less drive one. Most of the people hired Farooq to transport them as he charged far less than his brother. There was a reason.

That August morning I woke up to the sounds of a scuffle outside our window. I saw my mother and father glued to the sill, looking outside. Quietly, I crept out of bed and furrowed between them to take a look. Farooq was fighting a man nearly twice his size. Something about money, my mother explained. It always is, my father added. Farooq was losing now; the man had locked his arms around his neck. The driver’s face was turning a shade of purple and then he did something I would remember for the rest of my life. Farooq wriggled himself an inch from the man’s grip and sank his teeth into his opponent’s arm. The large man let out a treacherous howl and let go, hobbling to a corner holding his arm. Farooq had a mean look on his face now and seemed rather pleased. The man was terrified and ran out of our lawn, throwing abuses on his way.

I was petrified and started crying. My mother was now distracted and pulled me away from the window. Farooq’s action traumatised me for the rest of the week. I rarely drove my bicycle towards their side of the road, scared that he might rush out from his house and attack me. The image frightened me to such an extent that I quit cycling for a good month or so. Meanwhile, the news had spread across our small town. Before long, the stories were being narrated far from the truth. Some said Farooq had a mental condition while others claimed he did it for pleasure. Biting a person was a dog’s job, they added. People were scared to get in an argument with him, fearing he would bite them too. Farooq’s tarnished reputation was hurting his business. Soon he was transporting scrap dealers and coal sellers to make ends meet.

A month later, my grandfather was hospitalised with kidney stones. The operation went well and we had to visit him in Guwahati the next day. It rained a lot that monsoon and the roads were starting to flood. Al the local taxis refused to take us to the city. My father decided to ask Farooq and soon six of us were cramped into the Omni, driving in the rain. I was small and could fit anywhere, but my father insisted that I sit comfortably in the space between the driver’s seat and front passenger’s. My wails fell to deaf ears and I was forced to sit beside Farooq. I was quiet the entire journey, occasionally stealing a glance at Farooq from the corner of my eye. I was trying to look at his teeth; I had heard stories that he was filing and sharpening them in search of a new victim. We reached Guwahati safe and sound. There was no flooding on the highway.

The following summer I went to boarding school in Darjeeling and visited home only during the three-month long winter breaks. I rarely saw Farooq during my holidays; we had our own car now. I always ensured to ask my mother about his well-being. As I grew up I realised how juvenile I was on that trip to Guwahati. For all I knew, Farooq seemed to be a normal person whose one action defined the rest of his life. It was his gruesome adjective forever.

Farooq, now in his late fifties, still lives near our house. Last I heard he was trying to start a small grocery shop but ran into financial troubles. His younger brother runs a small sweet shop and both families live off the sufficient income from the store. Their elder brother was brutally murdered a few years ago by car thieves pretending to be passengers. He left behind some insurance money for the brothers to share. I see Farooq sometimes, smoking his cigarette during his morning walks. He looks seldom looks back, perhaps fearing us as much as we did him.

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