The Cylinder Thief

Aasshna R Bhatt
7 min readJun 7, 2021

Day 380, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.

The streets presented an eerie desolate feeling. The harsh summer sun was upon the city as Ram, a 16-year old teenager, braved the heat and walked under the shadow presented by the trees. Half his face was covered in dust and sweat, while the other half was protected by the mask. He carried a few pamphlets and a newspaper in a bag along with a small bucket of glue and a brush. He stopped near a wall, which was covered in half-torn leaflets and brochures that carried messages by pseudo-Babaji, part-time work announcements, and a lot of other information, which was at the moment, unhelpful to anyone. He replaced the old posters with the news ones that had a different message for everyone in the city -

See No Evil

Ignore and avoid anyone asking for help

Hear No Evil

Don’t listen to anyone who says there’s a shortage of medical facilities, they’re wrong.

Say No Evil

Don’t speak about people not getting help and shortage of medical facilities.

ANYONE NOT FOLLOWING THE RULES MENTIONED ABOVE, WILL BE JAILED

As Ram proceeded with sticking these posters on the wall, he heard a siren of a police van approaching from afar. He quickly gathered his things and vanished into a small lane, next to the wall and hid there from the police.

The van halted next to the wall and the two inspectors got down from it. Ram, from his hiding place, noticed they were examining the posters. He held his breath as he heard one inspector say, “This is the 4th time, these are up! We need to quickly find who’s behind this before the news reaches the Commissioner and eventually the CM.” The second inspector moved closer to the wall, peeled one poster off and said, “Looks like they have been recently put up. The culprit should be around here somewhere. Do you want to search the area?” “No, let’s not. For now, let’s remove these, burn them and go back to the thaana. A lot of rule-breakers were picked. It’s going to be fun, breaking a few bones. “ They tore down all of them, made a pile, before lighting the posters on fire, one of them spat the tobacco and finally burned them.

The inspectors then quickly sat in the van and drove away. Once Ram was sure they were out of sight, he stepped out from the drum he used to hide and stood there. He blankly stared at the fire. Not a long time ago he too had to light a pyre of an important part of his life. Tears rolled down his cheeks, as he reached his pocket and pulled out a picture of his mother.

A month has passed since the incident, yet Ram recalled every small detail, every single person who’d done him wrong and was responsible for taking a piece of his life away — His mother.

The streets of the town were never this quiet, there was a time when they had an unusual hustle. They were filled with endless queues of people either waiting to get their hands on the vaccines, oxygen cylinders, ICU beds, beds, or for other essential kits to combat the virus. A day had already passed since Ram had found out about his mother’s condition. They were a small family of two, Ram’s father, a labourer, was a train accident victim that took place last year in May 2020. The whole family was migrating from Mumbai to their hometown when the unfortunate incident took place, leaving his son and his wife behind. At the break of dawn, Ram was up and on his way in a quest for an oxygen cylinder, as suggested by one of the local doctors at the hospital he’d managed to find after a search that felt like an eternity.

He left his gasping mother on one of the benches in the hospital and headed out in the unknown. Ram didn’t know where to begin and aimlessly went around asking every person he crossed the path, “Need oxygen cylinder for my mother, sir. Please tell where I can find it.” “My mother is very sick. She cannot breathe properly. It is only me and her. Father was crushed under the train. Please help.” Ram went around, begging people to give any information he could lay his hands on to get the cylinder. He emptied his and his mother’s savings for the necessary treatment. His tattered clothes, ruffled hair, and hollow eyes became his enemies. People either shooed him, slapped him or simply ignored him. With the clock slowly ticking and taking away his mother’s breath, he helplessly approached the police thaana. “Sir, sir please help! My mother is positive and doctor said she needs oxygen cylinder to breathe. I am unable to find anywhere” Ram said pleading to the officer in charge. The officer was plump from the middle and his mouth red in colour, smelled like a paan-bidi shop. He nonchalantly got up from his chair, moved towards Ram, sat on his desk, and looked at him, “Does this place look like a hospital? The government has given 10 metric tonnes of oxygen to private and government-run hospitals. Go and ask them. There is no medical shortage.” “Sir, I am looking for one since 8 hours. Hospitals say they don’t have any stock. Sir pl — “ Ram felt a piercing blow in the stomach. The officer struck him with the stick, “ Go away from here or else I will put you in jail. You won’t get to even see your mother. Go before I put you in jail, go” roared the officer.

Holding his tears and his stomach, Ram ran away from the thaana and didn’t stop till the time he couldn’t catch his breath. He felt he was racing against his fate and the time. He finally stopped, taking deep breaths, saving them. If only he could give away some of his breath to his mother, Ram thought. He examined his surroundings and realised he had entered an old factory and found people lining up, waiting their turn. Ram went a little forward to see what lay ahead for him. There was suddenly a huge smile on his face and a ray of hope glistened in his eyes when he saw tonnes and tonnes of oxygen cylinders.

Ram quickly went back in the line and diligently waited for his turn. After almost 3 hours, around close to midnight he had finally managed to get hold of the only thing that could save his mother. After giving all their savings to the man selling the cylinder, Ram, with the help of a fellow struggler, carried it on his weak shoulder and headed towards the hospital. A new wave of optimism and faith washed over him that gave Ram the power to walk 7Kms. He couldn’t wait to see the look of pride on his mother’s face when she would see what her son had accomplished by himself. Ram kept picturing his proud mother waiting for him, which gave him the strength to keep moving forward.

The hospital was only a couple of kilometres ahead when Ram was suddenly stopped by the same police officer who had left an evident blackish-blue scar on his stomach 4 hours ago. “What happened, sir? Look, I finally managed to get cylinder for my mother and very soon she will be okay. She makes wonderful besan ladoos, I will get some for you once she is home” Ram said, with glee in his voice. “Where did you find it? Who gave it to you? Do you know this is illegal and stolen item of possession? You will have to give it to us right now” the officer said as he progressed to snatch away the cylinder from Ram. “No sir, please. I did not steal it. I have given all the savings I had and paid the full price for this. This is the only thing that will save my mother, ‘’ Ram pleaded. By now, two constables were now holding both his hands behind him as they dragged him away from the cylinder. Ram kept struggling, pleading and trying to free himself with all his might but he was pinned on the ground and the officer walked towards him — “This is a stolen item. You should thank us we are not putting you in jail for theft. Go and be with your mother, boy.” The police put the cylinder in the van and drove away as Ram lay on the ground.

Suddenly he felt like the ground was moving and he knew the results of the race were in. Like a zombie, he entered the hospital, the shimmer of hope in his eyes was replaced by nothingness. Ram, slowly moving towards the bench where he had left his mother. She was there, lying still with a serene, calm look, washed over her face. She wasn’t grappling and panting for breath anymore. She was at peace, finally. Ram quietly went, put her face on his lap with the same nothingness in his eyes and looked down. Being snapped back to reality, his blank face was filled with sorrow. Ram mourned the death of the last member of his family. He cried till his body couldn’t cry anymore. He wiped his tears, gently placed his mother’s head on the cold, wooden bench and arranged transport to help him complete the final rites of his beloved mother.

The siren of the ambulance brought Ram back to the present. He lowered his mask to wipe the tears off his face and quickly put the photograph back in his pocket. A newspaper fell out from his bag and he stared at the headlines that read -

“An Oxygen Cylinder meant to save a 16-Yo boy’s mother, taken away from him, was confiscated in a VIP patient’s room.”

Ram picked up the newspaper, put it in his bag, removed some more pamphlets and started sticking them on the walls, again.

- The End -

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Aasshna R Bhatt
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60-year old woman trapped in a 26-year old girl who shouldn't be allowed to make decisions. Always stuck in an ethical conundrum. Writer |Movies| Bibliophile