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Mainak Dhar

Heroes R Us

AUTHOR'S NOTE

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer. Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is a novel about heroes, or more accurately about the true nature of heroism in our modern world. So its perhaps appropriate to dedicate this book to the heroes in my life, and what they have taught me about how to find within myself the reserves to become a better person for those five minutes every day, which while certainly not making me a hero, help me keep going and keep hoping that in real life too, the good guys will prevail.

My wonderful wife, Puja, who I have no shame in calling my personal hero, for showing me every single day how a positive outlook and the willingness to put others before oneself can transform the lives of those around you. Also being the first to read my drafts and put up with my incessant pestering for feedback on plot lines and names requires truly heroic levels of patience!

Our little son, Aaditya, through whose eyes I am seeing the world in a new light, and learning that the most heroic thing a father can do is sometimes just sit with his son and read the Nemo or Cars comics five times in a row and mean it when he says he wouldn't mind reading it again!

My late mother, Sunanda, for teaching me that sometimes the most heroic thing a person can do is to keep smiling and help others smile when the going gets tough. I know she's smiling up there as she sees another book of mine see the light of day.

My father, Maloy, for showing that true heroes need not be infallible, and heroism sometimes lies in learning to pick up the pieces.

— Mainak Dhar

ONE

Arnab Bannerjee wondered if Tolstoy would ever be found guilty of causing his death.

It may seem like a strange thing to worry about when you're lying bleeding to death from a severe beating to the head, but all Arnab could think about at that moment was to grab the copy of War and Peace lying just out of his reach and to return it to its place on the library's bookshelves. For Arnab it had been nothing short of a coup to track down the only leather-bound copy of the book in the library after it had gone missing two months ago. He was so looking forward to wiping the smirk off his boss's face by showing him that the book had not gone missing due to any negligence on his part, but had in fact been lost by some idiotic student who had left it under a chair in the college Cafe.

But for now, moving his hands was an effort that seemed totally beyond him. He had read that when people died, their lives flashed before their eyes, or that they saw a bright light beckoning to them. However, all Arnab could think of, Tolstoy aside, was the sheer stupidity of his imminent death. It had seemed like any other Monday afternoon-check the catalogues; see if any outstanding fines needed following up, and then lock the doors to the dusty shelves and corridors that had been his workplace for the last one year. Being the Assistant Librarian at a small college was hardly something he had planned on, but a poor Second Class degree had left him with few short-term career options in the uber-competitive environment that was today's Indian job market. So he had applied for the job, and made the shift from his home in Kolkata to Delhi, the land of hot summers, cold winters and the unpredictable moods of Jayanta Sen aka Jayantada, the Head Librarian at the Balwant Singh College of Arts. The only positive was that the routine was predictable to the point of being mind-numbingly boring to anyone else, but Arnab thrived on order, loved being around books and the decent work hours suited him fine, as they gave him time to prepare for the gaggle of competitive exams he was planning to write that year. He wasn't very clear what he wanted to do, but any of the options he was considering-the state government services for example-seemed to be a far sight better than what he was doing now. He had never considered himself exceptionally bright, but believed that hard work and preparation must count for something. That was precisely what he had planned to do that day, just as he did every day after work-go to the Cafe, buy a cup of tea and then sit and go through the test material.

That was till he found Tolstoy lying under his chair. His first thought was that he could finally shut Jayantada up. True to form, Jayantada had said nothing directly about the missing book, but would lose no opportunity to pass comments dripping in sarcasm, like the previous day when Arnab had overheard him muttering something about how nowadays the young had worse eyesight than the old, and how in his twenty years as a librarian he had never lost a book. So Arnab had rushed to the Staff Office to announce his discovery to Jayantada, but found that he had gone to the nearby Bank of India branch inside the campus.

And that was how Tolstoy lured Arnab to what seemed to be a sure death.

When Arnab reached the bank, he expected to see Pandey, the security guard, sitting outside, smoking a cigarette and scratching his amble belly. Pandey did strike a fierce figure from afar with his ancient double-bore gun, but once he had confessed to Arnab that he hadn't loaded his gun for years. At the time, Arnab had shared in his laughter, the thought of crime touching their sleepy campus seeming so far-fetched a prospect.

Arnab peered into the bank through the grills on the door, and couldn't see Jayantada anywhere. He decided that since he was there, he might as well withdraw some cash. When he entered the bank, the first thing that struck him was just how unnaturally quiet it was. There was none of the usual gossiping among the tellers, none of the off-key singing of the urchin who ferried around cups of over-sweet tea, and no shouting by an irate customer. Instead, everyone seemed to be frozen in place. Arnab wondered what to do, and then walked up to the nearest teller, a plump lady who seemed to be sweating profusely in spite of the air conditioning. With only a handful of staff at the small branch, he had come to know most of them on a first name basis, and he walked up to her with a cheery smile.

'Excuse me, Uma, I'd like to withdraw some cash.'

No response. In fact, she didn't even look up at Arnab.

Arnab cleared his throat to get her attention, and was beginning to get irritated at what he saw as another example of slovenly service at a public sector bank. He was about to ask her if she had had a bad day when a loud voice shattered the silence in the room.

'Which one of you idiots forgot to lock the door? Do you want the cops to just walk in?'

Arnab turned around to see a big man swagger out from the bank's vault, carrying a revolver in one hand and a large canvas bag in the other. Two smaller men who seemed to be the target of his abuses followed him. Out of the corner of his eye, Arnab could see the teller trying to tell him something, but before he could turn to face her, the large man had bumped into him, sending him staggering back, his glasses flying into the distance. Arnab had won few awards in school, but one dubious distinction he had earned was being voted 'Most Likely to go Blind' due to his love of reading and the fact that by the time he passed out of school, the power of his glasses was nearly at double digits. Without his glasses, he was as blind as a bat, and in trying to steady himself, Arnab lost his grasp on the heavy book he was carrying.

Arnab would later reflect that it was the single most irrational act of his life, but a reflex action made him reach out for the book. He didn't quite manage to grab it, but his right hand struck the edge of the book, sending the bulky volume crashing into the bank robber's face.

The next thing Arnab knew, he was lying flat on the ground, the wind totally knocked out of him. The robber

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