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The Puppet Master: fifth place in The National's 2013 Short Story Competition

The Puppet Master by Mohit Mandal is the fifth place winning story of the 2013 Short Story Competition organised by The National and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

Mohit Mandal, 20, is a student at New York University Abu Dhabi. The Indian national, originally from Mumbai, is in his second year, studying towards a double-major in social research and literature.

"Writing has just been a hobby of mine, and only recently I've also started to think of it as a craft that can be honed," says Mandal. "I've never entered a contest for adults before so I thought I'd enter for the fun of it, and I'm thrilled to taste a little success. Is it bad if I say I have no clue what the future has in store for me? I just hope that I can contribute to the world in some way!"

His story is below:

 

At the end of the railway tracks where the garbage piled up and the beggars wailed for spare change, a gang of thieves came together every Saturday to play cricket.

Played long after the sun disappeared below the dusty stretch of land, the game had quickly become a ritual. The first instance stemmed from nothing more than Jabal's fleeting whim to stretch his legs; many years of clandestine operations left no space for sport in a man's life. Over time, the weekly game not only filled this void but developed into a leisurely pastime of clockwork regularity, matching the smoothly operating machine to which Jabal belonged: the underworld.

Expert crack-peddler and amateur fast-bowler, Jabal was the ringleader of the group. His reputation preceded his bulky frame, as a man known by his pride in his work and his cricketing prowess. Through the course of his dealings on the street, Jabal had assembled a group of players who now frequented these games with unerring constancy: Mitul, the petty thief who pinched purses off foreigners in the shopping districts; Rycon, the ragpicker who made ends meet by knifing the logos off expensive cars and selling them to wiry teenagers; and perpetually red-eyed Ahmed, the small-time marijuana dealer - Jabal found it a mystery that he ever turned a profit because it seemed he consumed the goods all by himself.

Now, sweat dripped from Jabal's eyebrows as he focused his entire six foot frame in hurtling deliveries at Mitul. Ahmed and Rycon stood on either side of the pitch, watching the action unfold in front of them and patiently awaiting their own turns to wield the bat. Just as Jabal arched his back to launch into another of his delivery strides, Ahmed let out a piercing yell that brought him to a screeching halt.

"Amar!"

Another member of their playing group, Amar specialized in breaking into cars. He was usually a picture of poise and self-control, so central to the success of a craft as delicate as his; but now, his hair was disheveled, sweat plastered his whole forehead and he panted as if he had bowled sixty deliveries without relent.

"Does all the blood going to Ahmed's eyes make his vision better?" Rycon said, nudging at Jabal's side.

"Shut up, fool, and listen; I think something's happened."

Amar was before them now, doubled up in an effort to regain his breath.

"What happened, Amar, why are you late?" said Jabal, willing him to speak. "We had to start without you."

"Jabal…sir…there's a problem," he said, pausing to take huge gulps of air between phrases.

"What?" he said. "We're in the middle of a game."

"Sir, this is important! I've just come from the market where I heard that the Railway Minister ordered the Chief Police Inspector to examine the tracks today. He'll be here any moment, we have to clear out before he sees us here!"

Ahmed drew a sharp intake of breath. Rycon immediately moved to pick up the bat and made a gesture to leave, but Jabal stood still, with his right foot atop the bat. He stroked his chin thoughtfully, forgetting that he still held the taped-up ball in a tight grip.

"Let him come."

"I - I'm sorry?"

"I said, let him come! Are you deaf?"

"He'll recognize you, sir!"

"I'm sure he will. But the police are fun to play with. They don't call me the Puppet Master for nothing, now do they?"

"You're unarmed. He'll arrest you."

"With what, his clipboard? By the time he comes - if he comes - and calls for support, we'll have finished our game and cleared off. But I won't have our game interrupted, not for the sake of one inspector, not for anybody."

Jabal took a deep breath, and picked the bat up off the ground.

"Why does he care so much?" Amar whispered to Mitul, picking up the ball as Jabal walked to take his batting stance. "He forgets that we're all on a run from the law."

The truth was, that was exactly how Jabal saw it. To make a living, Jabal solicited money from rich teenagers and millionaire playboys who tired of the monotonous drone of reality and wanted, above all, to experience a whole new side of life. Jabal had a similar philosophy that first drew him to a life of drugs and crime. He saw the drug dealing as a transaction between equals - he knew that, besides the number of zeroes in their bank accounts, not much else set him apart from his higher-class customers. Jabal never felt so alive as when he could escape from the shackles of ordinary life into an alternate plane of existence where mundane worries faded away. Sport and crime offered these moments - those pure, thrilling moments of ecstasy when he'd just made a sale in broad daylight, or when he'd just sent a ball soaring away into the yawning black sky.

Just as Jabal took his position, he saw the Inspector approaching through the corner of his eye. He turned his head, and saw five men - in complete police uniforms - looking him dead-straight in the eye. One man for each of us was the first thought that came to his mind. The second: why do they need so many men for an inspection? Leading the charge was a middle-aged man with a limping walk and a receding hairline, but a broad-shouldered build and an air of foreboding certainty about himself that identified him, without a doubt, as the Chief Inspector.

"You - yeah, you, with the moustache. Do you know who I am?"

"No," Jabal lied.

The Inspector's hand shifted a little in his pocket; his face betrayed no emotion.

Whatever Amar had told them, Jabal suspected that this was no ordinary inspection team. One of those damn beggars must have found out who I was and sold me out for a day's lunch.

"Drop the bat," the Inspector said, and Jabal's heart sank.

So it comes down to this, he thought. My arrogance will be my undoing.

Jabal was used to a life of secrecy, and evading the authorities was second-nature to a man who had gleaned his nickname through an uncanny knack for pulling strings and finding loopholes: indeed, Jabal prided himself on it. The cricket game out in the open was the one and only blemish in an otherwise spotless record stretching over ten years. But taking a pause from the weekly game of cricket was out of the question - even when other players raised their concerns, Jabal was quick to adopt a stubborn tone that brooked no further argument.

Jabal realized now that the inspection team had come prepared for a confrontation - his team, on the other hand, was in sneakers and track pants, prepared for a competition of entirely different sorts. As Jabal's mind now raced with possibilities, he managed to extract a glimmer of hope from the situation. It could be worse, he thought. I'm unarmed, and I have nothing incriminating on me. If I submit without a fight, I can get released on bail without even breaking a sweat.

He dropped the bat, and raised his hands over his head.

The Inspector gave him a quizzical look, and picked the bat up off the ground.

"I didn't mean literally drop it. Let me show you how it's done, you were playing like a real rookie back there. Don't you know that I once played for the national team?"

Jabal stared back at him, uncomprehending.

"Come on, why are you looking at me like that? Let's get a quick game going before I have to move on and finish my inspections."

Standing there, with his mouth slightly open, Jabal did not know what to think anymore.

"Do- don't you know who I am?" Jabal blurted out, in spite of himself.

"Why, I only just met you. What's your name?"

"My name is Jabal…it's not pos… have you not seen me before?!"

"You do seem vaguely familiar, come to think of it. Have you been around the police station before?"

"Once or twice," said Jabal. His anger bubbled; he could feel it rising threateningly to the surface.

"I remember now: you were the one who filed a complaint about the condition of the tracks, weren't you?"

"What are you talking about?" shouted Jabal, his eyes flashing.

The Inspector stared back, shocked by the ferocity of his words.

"Of course you know me, I'm Jabal! The Puppet Master!" The words now gushed out in a furious torrent; they lost all semblance of temperance, and the speaker lost all semblance of control. "I run the underworld, I AM the underworld, how can you not know who I am?"

For a few seconds, the Inspector didn't move. Then, with the hint of a smile, he took a recorder out of his pocket.

"I do know who you are; but thank you for that introduction. The tape will hold up nicely in court, evidence is scarce pickings in a profession such as yours. By the way, you know you're not the only one with the nickname?"

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