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Three For the Price of One, by Nigel Roth

It was at least one-hundred-and-eight degrees since the last time I’d looked at a temperature gauge that morning. Nothing had cooled me down, it was like being warmed by a microwave, from the inside out.

I ordered a Limca, still around since the nineteen-seventies, when Duke’s Lemonade’s refusal to share its formula, led Ramesh Chauhan to create his own drink to compete and eventually overtake the Pepsi-owned rival.

Three for the price of one,’ asked the waiter.

Yes, for sure,’ I said, sweating into my eyes and recognizing a good deal when I heard one.

I sat down, my soggy shirt meeting the hot plastic of the cafe chair, and looked around. A family was arguing a few tables away. The man was incredibly loud, shooting his arms up into the air and pointing indiscriminately across the cafe each time he raised his voice. The woman was angrily dismissing his outbursts with her own hand-waving and sharp, spitting words, as the argument intensified and everything else seemed to blur for me and the other Limca-sippers on this scorching Indian morning.

They paid no attention to any of the people around them, who all, like me, were transfixed with the ferocity of their increasingly-crazed remonstrations.

They paid no attention to the children either, a girl and a boy, sitting with them, who were maybe used to this cacophony of anger and vitriol, and quietly, dully, played with their napkins, folding them weakly and launching them toward each other in the vain hope of flight.

I sipped my newly-delivered ice-cold Limca and watched the endless line of cars and trucks and livestock that sped and trundled and crawled by on the road in front of me.

The couple's voices were even louder now, and seemed to mirror the diesel-grind of a line of gravel trucks that thundered past a few feet away, agitating the dry roadbed in stone-crushing shudders. Dust clouds sailed towards us and I covered my bottle opening with a thumb.

The argument carried on through the smelly murk, with hands seen vaguely and voices furious, and in the confluence of noise and dust the children wandered away from the table.

When the clouds cleared and the trucks disappeared around the bend ahead, the couple were standing up shouting into each other's mouths, a terrible fright of very red-hot angry faces and very off-white gnashing teeth.

Seeming to anticipate an escalation, a few diners had stood, and had taken a few steps closer to them.

And, then it all happened.

The man lunged for the woman. His chair crashed over, and she kicked it back at him and made for his face with an outstretched claw. Diners sprung up to get between them, but collided with each other in their singular purpose. The man came at her again, and the woman jumped back, knocking over a table and the breakfast that had just been placed there by the waiter, who had now retreated into the cafe.

The diners recovered their footing and came towards the arguers, but didn’t get that far. Because behind us, as we stood on the verge of rescue and the arguers on the edge of madness, there was a terrifying screech of brakes, the dragging of tyres on the gritty gravel, the clutchless engaging of gears, and a dull, deathly thud.

As one, we turned.

There was a small white car at right angles to the road. Its tyres smoked, and the driver and passenger sat perfectly still inside. There were plumes of dust and an intense rubber smell. And finally silence, other than the noise from the brakes of the vehicles slowly coming to a stop behind the scene.

We watched the driver push his door open with a creak, get out unsteadily, stand there in the doorway, and peer over the hood in shattered eyeglasses.

As a group, we all stepped forward, maybe hoping we'd see an injured dog, or a chicken, or even a cow.

That’s not what we saw.

He, the boy, was sitting still in the middle of the road, a napkin in his hand. He looked confused and dusty. He stood shakily, and began walking toward us, a shocked half-dead walk.

His father, instantly forgetting how much he hated their mother, ran to him and gathered him up tightly.

She, the girl, was not sitting. She was lying face up, contorted awkwardly and still.

Her mother, who’d forgotten by now that she detested her husband, ran to her daughter, who lay motionless on the road.

She fell to her knees, pulled the girl to her, cradled her, and picked her up.

All the vehicles had stopped now, and all was deathly quiet. No-one spoke or even breathed, it seemed.

We all watched as she climbed to her feet, and walked, dazed and weeping quietly, back to the table they’d sat the child at for breakfast thirty minutes earlier.

And then we all looked away, none of us quite able to take in what had just happened, so fast, so finally, in front of us.

As we gathered ourselves, we heard a car start up, its engine revving and it’s wheels turning the stones beneath them, and beginning to move away.

The crowd around me murmured, and then began shouting and then running toward the small white car. Men, women, children, and the argumentative father, all dashing towards the car as it tried to turn forward to drive away.

But the crowd got there first.

Bearing down on it, they blocked its path ahead, and a new wave of angry onlookers stopped it reversing, and the car had little chance of making a getaway. It turned left and right and left again, and around in a circle but could find no way out. The crowd got closer, and the car was unable to reverse though it tried, or move forward without hurting more people.

They blocked it in completely, and those not clenching fists and pointing to the sky began rocking it back and forth, the driver and passenger bracing themselves without hope as their bodies collided with each side in turn.

Then the windshield shattered, and the mob dragged the driver from the car through the splintered opening.The passenger door had been forced open and the passenger pulled from his seat, and both he and the driver were now on the gravel road, kneeling.

The noise from the screaming mob was deafening, and, defenceless, they were hit and kicked and spat on, and beaten with sticks that had been found somewhere close by and brought over for the purpose. They tried to cover their faces with bloodied hands, but, unable to run or walk or even crawl away, they were being smashed to death, slowly. Dying in instalments of frenzied punishment, and their shouts and moans and beseeching went unnoticed.

Dayā’, they cried, but the crowd couldn’t hear them, wouldn’t hear them, didn’t want to stop.

Dayā, dayā, dayā!’

But there was no mercy.

It was over in just a few minutes.

Still noisy but with their anger sated, the crowd shuffled back to their businesses, vehicles, shops, games, the edge of the dirt road, and their tables at the cafe. The men lay still in the middle of the road, broken, twisted, their faces bruised and swollen, looking back at us all with dull eyes of regret.

It was at least one-hundred-and-eight degrees, but you got three for the price of one.

photo by Yogendra Singh

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