(Disclaimer: Painting is used from one of the Russian still life painters, sourced from Google).
I have been waiting; waiting for my unknown and mysterious muse, one who has inspired me, ever since I can remember or care to remember or to the extent that my faculties can stretch to!
I have looked into the classics, I have read the banal. In my 6×8 ft study, I have not left any book un-turned, I have ruffled the pages and scanned through each book. The space of my study is constrained, but the books and other objects in the room have enabled me to create a seamless and limitless room of requirements in my mind, where I am only restrained by my own thoughts and gut feelings. I have looked for inspiration through other channels too, all in the vain attempt to find some or the other way to finally find a way to meet her. Well, suffice it to say that my labors have not all been laid to waste, since I feel that I have learnt much and expanded the boundaries of my mind, which exposure to varied works by the masters normally brings in. But then I am digressing!
I have religiously changed the flowers in the vase every single day in my study, when the sky is a bright orange, as if afire or when the sky is an acute reflection of pending doom with lightnings thrown in for good measure. I have not reined in my imagination and tried all the varieties of flowers which I could get hold off in my small town. Now the flowers have wilted and the sky has bid a remorseful goodbye and lent itself to mediocrity devoid of any colors.
All the books have been re-read and then read some more to no effect. The small pints on the windowsill have somehow managed to survive! The tree branch right outside my small window is bereft of any living leaves and to think of it, it is still only late summer! Those few fruits you see on the table, are a result of constant and unerring dedication of my maid, who has made it her mission to nurse my health back to one marked by florid cheeks.
“Hope” being a strong antidote which it is, is nothing short of “holy grail” for souls like me who have managed to wander so far from the path, the path the Lord had ordained for us!
I on my part, sound to be still hopeful, eh? Come now, do not just discount me as a hopeless romantic yet.
Ok wait, I do not see myself in my room, why is the chair empty?
“Surprise me” shouted the Ghoul, spitting mouthfuls through blood stained tooth. Madhav lay prostrate on the ground, seemingly unable to move. Trying to gauge his position, Madhav looked askance at his surroundings. The hard cold ground was not the unassuming concrete floor in any haven; the slightly undulating and uneven ground strewn with stones and steeped in dust, seemed more menacing and held a strange power over him. It was nightfall. The cold night had a mist which hung like a torn, abandoned blanket, heavy for effect yet seemingly frail in that it allowed some moonlight to stream in. The blood curdling yells from the monster reminded Madhav of his precarious position, he struggled to move, yet he failed again. It was as if some invisible chains held him down on the wet earth of the cemetery. Presently he heard a few hyenas in the distance, his visibility rendered poor due to the dark mist which lent a macabre effect to the whole situation. The ghoul was barely a few feet away and was advancing with undisguised hatred in its eyes. Madhav was spellbound; he was unhurt otherwise but was sure his well-being was severely threatened now and his existence in extreme danger. He lost consciousness as the ghoul jumped on him and tore at his heart.
Madhav woke up with a jump! It was pitch dark and he could still hear the jackals calling out in the night. He thrashed around wildly but soon realized that he was back in his bed. Adjusting his pupils to the limited light, he realized that he was covered in his own sweat and his heart was trying to breakout out of his ribcage. He stood up and looked outside the broken window. The distant farms looked dark and dreary, the moonlight unable to illuminate enough to re-assure him of no immediate mortal danger. He tugged at his towel and wiped himself dry. The cold seeped through the many cracks in his ground floor room and the broken window. He checked his clock on the table, it was 4 am. Deciding against trying for another bout of sleep which might be marred by some other imagined monster’s ferocity, Madhav lit a candle. Even though it was mid-winter, load shedding was notorious for its daily certainty in his locality. Sauntering slowly still rattled by his dream, Madhav ventured into the courtyard with the candle in his hand. The backyard bore signs of going to waste on account of negligence of the owner. Having thrashed some cold water onto his face, Madhav walked back into his room.
He lived alone; he had rented this room in the ground floor of a dilapidated building in the outskirts of Kolkata. One reason being that he could not afford much better, the more important fact being that he did not need anything bigger or grander for his daily sustenance. He was 23 years old, 6 feet tall, wheatish and well built, with an innocent face, albeit with creases across his forehead which bore signs of a strenuous and complicated life. He was a man of simple wants; he still used an old Nokia “Non-Smart” phone. Presently he noted the light dark bluish-pink hue in the hitherto black sky; the darkness was over, at least seemingly. He proceeded to cook his lunch in the verandah beside the backyard. He had to catch the 7 am local train to Howrah, part of his daily schedule, to reach his office.
Madhav worked in the accounts department of a local shipping company. He was a bright student in school but had never harbored any grand illusions about his future. His father had died of cancer when he was preparing for the high school exams. He had secured record marks for his district high school and had decided to settle for a degree in commerce in a local college. Most of the insurance corpus had been used up in his mother’s treatment, till her death a few months back.
As Madhav walked up the stairs to the old rickety building, his office, he checked his mobile. He was just in time, as always; there was a very stringent penalty designed by his employer for habitual latecomers. With a downcast glance, he tried to surreptitiously bypass the others and reach his desk at the corner of the seventh floor in the building. As always he failed in his ridiculous endeavor and was met with loud guffaws and snickers coming his way. He mouthed silent hellos to the others and sat down exhausted in his seat. There was a huge pile of files on his desk already, from the corner of his eyes he saw the peon walking up with a snigger and a few more files in his hand. The files were unceremoniously dumped on his table with a loud thud. Even before he could ask for a cup of tea, the peon had already disappeared in one of the innumerable mazes of cubicles on the floor. Madhav knew it was going to be another long day at work, with a quick gulp of water he quickly set to the pending work.
His colleagues had coined a rather rude moniker for him “Laloo”. Laloo in the local dialect symbolized a rather listless, idiotic person, sort of a humorous attempt to lend it some sort of decency by not using the term “mentally challenged”! Madhav was used to it now and it did not hurt as much, or so he liked to believe. With no worthwhile stakes left in his current life, he doubted the veracity of his own doubts about his existence. He assiduously avoided trouble and had long since decided to lead a sedentary existence which verged on non-existence. However despite all his endeavors at making peace with his fate, he failed. Indeed he failed miserably.
Absent mindedly, he turned his head to look at his watch, his only remaining inheritance from his long dead father. The only thing he found was the light skinned outline of the watch on his sun burnt wrist. The watch was so incongruous with everything else attached to his existence that Madhav had needed to explain about it to all and sundry for years. Well the old gold plated Rolex was indeed nothing short of a collector’s item and had belonged to his late father. Madhav did not like to talk about it and tried to avoid thinking about the watch or rather the lack of it now. It created an uncomfortable knot in his throat and a freezing feeling in his gut to even think about it anymore.
His father had belonged to the descendants of an erstwhile Zamindar (local landlord) family in hinterlands of West Bengal. His father was the elder son of the three that his grandfather, a hot tempered man had sired. An ugly family dispute had caused his grandfather to disinherit his eldest son from all existing properties, which included lands et al. Madhav’s father’s crime was to have decided to marry the girl he loved from his college days in Kolkata. Madhav’s father had met his mother during his undergraduate days in the reputed Presidency College back in the 1980s. A whirlwind romance had followed, which was dismissed by Madhav’s family. Ultimately Madhav’s father had set up his marital life in a small two room rented house in the outskirts of Kolkata, while working in a private firm. Madhav’s maternal grandparents belonged to the middle class and they had tried their best to help in the initial set up for their only son-in-law, who had fallen on hard times, being disowned by the family. However the watch was the only remaining item from that legacy. Madhav’s parents had dreamt a lot of dreams, one being a bright future secured by means of their intellect and perseverance; the other being having children who would make them proud. None of the dreams materialized in the end. Madhav’s father had acceded defect to cancer and Madhav’s life, well the less said the better.
Madhav decided to take a small break to sip some hot tea in the narrow street facing his office building. Perched precariously at the end of a narrow wooden bench, his mind wavered again, while he clutched onto the hot steaming tea cup with both hands. Madhav’s father had a close friend from college, who had done well in life. Rathin Mukherjee was a self made man and had established businesses in various parts of Kolkata. Madhav’s father had made but one request of his friend, while he was on his deathbed. He had asked for a reference so that Madhav could get a job, right after college, at that time Madhav was still in high school. The promise from Rathin had endowed a moment of peace on the shrunk, cancer ravaged face of Madhav’s father. The promise was cavernous and it was all sound for the sake of it. Madhav had not disclosed it to his mother, who still thanked Rathin for helping her son start on his career after college. Rathin on his part never set foot in their tiny rented room again. Madhav had forgotten all about him and had learnt to struggle on his own. Well he knew he could very well secure a comfortable life on his own and had begun to tread assiduously on the path.
It had all changed 2 months back. Madhav had already been working for almost 2 years and had decided to move to a more comfortable house, for his ailing mother. One night, she suffered a fatal stroke and Madhav officially became an orphan. Back then he had shifted to his current abode, well suffice it to say he was trying to run from his memories, or so he thought.
Suddenly he started; the hot tea had spilled onto his hands, which were now clasping the tea cup with wrung fingers. Wiping the scorched skin with his handkerchief, Madhav asked for another cup.
That night, Madhav had called on Rathin at his house. He had requested a small loan to help him in completing a decent funeral for his mother. A sum of twenty thousand rupees was too paltry to even deserve a denial. But that is what Rathin had done!
Blowing on his hot tea, Madhav’s mind fast forwarded to last month. Madhav had a talent for writing, he was well known in his school and college literary circles for his hard hitting and practical pieces, both fiction and non-fiction. In what seemed like another lifetime to him now, Madhav had had a passion for writing and he was sure he would excel in it someday. He had finished editing his first work of fiction and had sent the manuscript to a few well known publishers. Surprisingly after few initial encouraging meetings with the editors, last month he had been told that his book could not be published! He had visited all of their offices but to no avail, he had not been able to secure meetings. Just when he was about to give up, one of the personal assistants in those offices had asked him for an audience, someplace else.
The revelation had confounded him and he had literally fainted. It seemed that one of the more influential publishing houses had made it a personal mission to ensure rejection of the manuscript by all parties. The name of the owner was Rathin!
Madhav had made one last attempt. He had visited Rathin’s residence to speak to him. One part of him wanted affirmation that it was all a misunderstanding; the other had wanted to understand the reason behind this heinous back stabbing. Rathin had welcomed him warmly in his house and after a few feigned attempts at displaying generosity and benevolence, with questions about Madhav’s well-being, he had been ready to answer Madhav’s direct question.
Of course he had seen the manuscript, being the most influential and famous publishing house it was an easy task to lay hands on manuscripts from budding authors, he had mentioned. He had liked Madhav’s plot, he had said; all that was needed was a twist. “Surprise me”, Rathin had demanded with a sly, seemingly ingratiating smile on his lips. Madhav had managed to regain his composure and had left promising the next draft in a week’s time.
The same scene was played out 3 weeks back in Rathin’s office. Rathin had made a few more suggestions and remarked that it was all for improving the prospects of publication of the book, after all wasn’t Madhav his dear friend’s son? By now Madhav had an increasing suspicion gnawing inside him and none of the placatory advice from Rathin seemed genuine.
He had had more or less the same experience in the last two weeks for his modified manuscripts. Rathin had bellowed; he handled hundreds of manuscripts a day and wasn’t he supposed to realize if a seemingly great manuscript (all and sundry aspiring authors believe they had submitted a masterpiece) was ready yet or not? The convulsions on Rathin’s enraged and vexed face had imprinted an uneasy image on Madhav’s mind; he had failed to fathom the reason for the outbursts, which had seemingly increased with each passing encounter in his office or home.
“Surprise me or do not bother”, these were Rathin’s exact words from last week, in fact it had become a constant refrain. Madhav was in a fix. The book was his dream, his only passion left in the otherwise suffocating and dreary existence. Hell, he thought, it was also his only reason for existence, for being, he owed his parents at least that much! Nobody was going to miss him if he dropped dead the next instant, his abandoned and unclaimed corpse would be unceremoniously dumped in some electric furnace by the public department workers. The more he thought about it, the more agitated he became, his face twitched and breathing became almost impossible. His confidence had taken a direct hit and he could not help but dwell for a few moments on his growing doubts about the quality of his work. He had worked on the manuscript during dark days, having to deal with his ailing mother and securing his own career prospects. In a way this manuscript was to be a testament to all which he had experienced, it was to be epitome of proof of all sacrifices made and hardships which he had endured, to fulfill his one dream.
“Hey, look Laloo is having a heart attack”, loud sniggers in his office brought him back to reality. Chastising himself for being unable to control his emotions, Madhav went to the washroom to splash some cold water on his face.
That night, Madhav sat in the unkempt courtyard listening to the incessant chirping of the crickets. It was pitch dark and even the stars were hidden by the clouds. Madhav stared ahead blankly, with wet eyes. He was still in a daze and had a distinct vision of being in hell. In his limp hand, he held a yellowish crumpled piece of paper.
With a herculean effort, he forced himself out of the stupor. With his other hand, he wiped away his tears and crushing the paper into a ball with the other, threw it into the courtyard. He realized early dawn was breaking in and shoving out the dark unhappy night. That night he felt something snap inside him, something long repressed burst forth, it was as if a raging forest fire had devoured every shred of green and turned it into grey ashes. His mind drew a complete blank; there was nothing to turn to for steering his path. He knew what he needed to do and to his own dismay he realized, he knew that he would succeed.
Madhav brushed and took a longer bath than was his custom. He ironed new shirt and trousers and wore his new formal shoes. He had a quick but filling breakfast and decided there was no need to cook lunch; he somehow knew that his plan was destined to succeed.
He bowed his head in front of his parents’ faded wedding photo and took one sweeping glance at his room. Whistling between his teeth, he hailed an AC cab from outside his house. He went to the local dockyard where he had a childhood friend, Michael. Having spent an hour there and collected the package and bouquet, Madhav took another taxi and alighted in front of Rathin’s palatial house. He checked his watch, it was around noon. Was his mind playing games already or did the summer sun really shine brighter today?
Striding ahead with purpose, Madhav rang the bell. When the servant answered the door, he was ushered in. Noticing the large bouquet and another gift in a smaller packet in his hands, the servant curtly mentioned that Rathin was in office and he should rather call upon there to meet him. Sitting comfortably in the sofa in the drawing room, Madhav smiled, the servant must be so used to receiving aspiring authors and influential people who offer gratuity to Rathin in exchange for different favors.
Madhav asked for the publisher’s wife. The servant cast a suspicious glance in his direction, before he went about his task. Rathin’s wife entered the drawing room in an elegant sari, with an air of somebody accustomed to moving in the higher echelons of society, she had a bewildered expression on her face.
“Man, they are so vainglorious! She made me wait for 30 minutes again and managed to put on heavy makeup, befitting an evening party. But she does look pretty every time I see her. I wonder how she lives under the same roof as Rathin” thought Madhav.
He stood up to greet her, handing over the bouquet and gave her a charming smile. Rathin’s wife was impressed, again! She was curious, she knew that Madhav was well built and handsome from his earlier visits, however today she was surprised by the well dressed young man in front of her, one who had always claimed to be her husband’s close acquaintance. Her husband was sorely out of shape, she had given up on him now. She had never managed to elicit any details about this melancholic looking mysterious young guy from her husband either.
After convincing him to stay over for lunch (a first for her), she attended to him personally, fussing that he should eat more copious amounts. On his way to the washroom, Rathin commented on the beautiful design of the landline phone handset in the house.
Finally Rathin left an hour later. He turned around to find her smiling and waving from the room upstairs. Madhav nodded and with a conspiratorial look, tapped his wrist to indicate time to which she nodded affirmatively. Madhav strode outside. It was 3 pm; he still had three hours to kill.
Madhav decided to watch a movie in a nearby multiplex; after all the events planned for later today would warrant celebrations, abstaining would simply not do! It had been ages, however he was able to select upon a movie called “Taken 6” at the ticket counter, well Liam Neeson could teach him a trick or two with firearms he guessed and a quick crash course would never hurt.
In a few minutes, he was sound asleep; he needed the rest to focus better he thought. The shrill alarm on his mobile phone two hours later, woke him up groggy eyed. After having freshened in the washroom, he sat in an AC cab with the small packet in his hand. He felt strangely light headed, if only his acquaintances could see him now. Chuckling aloud, he provided directions to the driver to arrive at Rathin’s office. He checked his watch, it was 6 pm and everything had gone to plan so far.
Madhav smiled effervescently at Rathin’s personal assistant and commented on how beautiful the tight figure hugging dress looked on her. When she enquired about the gift wrapped object in his hands, he conspiratorially mentioned that it was a gift for her boss, for the special day and reminded her about 7 pm! He even proffered a few gym tips to her to work on accentuating her curves and a full ten minutes later was ushered into Rathin’s chamber with a paper chit containing the assistant’s name and mobile number in his pocket.
Rathin was seated behind his big mahogany table, working on his laptop. He did not look too happy to see Madhav walking into his office; however he had to admit there was something different about Madhav today. While Rathin appeared in a foul mood and even grumpier upon seeing him, Madhav smiled widely and helped himself to the chair facing Rathin.
“Why do you keep wasting my time”, growled Rathin, without even bothering to look up from his laptop. Madhav did not stir. When no reply was forthcoming, Rathin was forced to look up and he did not like repeating his questions to scum of the earth, a specimen of whom he believed was seated opposite him.
“Did you not hear me?” barked Rathin, barely able to keep his temper in check.
“Shut up you bastard!” said Madhav in a slow menacing tone. There was a manic gleam in his eyes today.
Rathin was too taken aback to respond, what was going on he wondered.
Taking advantage of his opponent’s momentary confusion, Madhav pressed forward his advantage. “Today is the day, I speak and you listen.” Madhav’s face had undergone a complete transformation and his cold piercing look was making Rathin uncomfortable.
Madhav continued with his tirade. “Finally, I know now why you behaved like a scumbag all this time. My parents never mentioned it to me, but I guess they would never have been able to see the real you, a mix between pathogenic bacteria and a life threatening parasite! So you were mean to me, simply because my mom had thwarted off your advances and instead fell in love with my dad in your college. After all these years, you still nurse that hatred for my father inside you. The old letter which I found yesterday explains everything now. So this is why you would make false promise to your best friend on his deathbed, the same friend who had helped you out of all sort of tricky situations in college but had stood firm on the question of his true love. This is why you wanted to ensure that his son fares no better, this is the reason you made it your mission to make sure that my book never gets published. And all this after I had confided in you about the importance of getting this book published! This is the reason why you did not lend me the loan upon my mother’s death and you are the reason I had to pawn my dad’s last memory, his watch.” Madhav said in his cold, measured tones.
Rathin was flabbergasted; he had never expected this dumbass to figure it all out. What in the name of the devil had happened, how did this transformation happen? He felt goose bumps all over. This could not be happening, is it some sort of a nightmare? He decided to slow things down and take charge.
“Madhav, calm down. I am sure you are mistaken about all this, I can explain” was all Rathin could muster in a weak voice.
“Don’t bother lying through your teeth. All this ends here, all this ends today, all this ends now. You had asked me to surprise you, not once, not twice but enough number of times to hammer it into my sub-conscious. So I do have a surprise for you Mr. Rathin, but I am not sure if you would like it. You see earlier today I kidnapped your wife and son.” Madhav was smiling now.
Rathin could take it no longer; his veins were clearly visible in the temple of his head and looked like popping out anytime now. He barked “What nonsense is this?”
Madhav was calm and made himself more comfortable in the chair. “You see earlier today noon I had visited your house” he said.
Rathin vaguely recollected the unexpected phone call earlier in the afternoon from his wife’s mobile, mentioning something about Madhav visiting their house. He was having lunch it seems!
With trembling fingers, he dialed the landline phone number in his house, when nobody answered he called on his wife’s mobile number. It seemed to be out of coverage area. What the heck was going on here?
Madhav seemed to be enjoying this and for some reason was checking his watch often, was he a mad man in a hurry? Rathin wondered if this was Madhav’s alter ego seated in his office today and if so, how had he missed at guessing about it in the past few months.
It was 6:45 pm. Madhav said “It is a pity that you under estimate me so much. As you can see, what often appears to the eye is not what it might really be! You order plain vanilla ice cream but expect a few brownies thrown in for free. Guess what? Today is your lucky day. I am about to fulfill your wildest imaginations today. On one hand I helped you re-enforce your belief about split personalities and you must be wondering how you would report it later, alas it will not come to pass! Again, you demanded surprise and I am about to deliver more than you ever wished for! I have killed your wife and son; you or the police will never be able to guess where the corpses are, so really save your breath, no point in getting all worked up and in trying so hard. This is my surprise for you, but why do I have this vague feeling that you still do not like it?”
Rathin was having palpitations now and he presently stood up.
“Sit down.” ordered Madhav, still maintaining his cool, menacing tone. When Rathin had obeyed him, he said “Now, let us move on to the next surprise, I hope you like this at least!”
Slowly Madhav unwrapped the gift box and then leveled a revolver towards Rathin. He said in an intimidating tone “Now there are ideally two possible outcomes, but I am sorry this is a Zero-Sum game too, what I mean is whatever you choose, I win. Option one being, you apologize and publish my book, so that I do not kill you. But you see your wife and son are dead already and you will never find their severed bodies, so you lose. You don’t even get a chance to bid them farewell and cremate them properly. Option two being, you don’t do option one and I kill you, here and now; I have nothing to lose in my life, so you lose again. So, what will it be?”
Still trying to reach his wife’s and his son’s mobiles, Rathin thundered “You think I will be played by your bluff?”
Madhav had stood up now and had a better aim at Rathin’s temple; strangely his pose looked like an exact replica of James Bond on the kill, just another day’s job.
Calmly he said “Believe what you want to, but you will decide on an option. Now!” His voice made a hissing sound; there was something oddly honest in his tone, undisguised and pure malice which was loud and clear for Rathin to comprehend.
Rathin said unconvincingly “I do not need to select anything, I can call the guards outside and they will be here in a blink.”
Madhav seemed thoughtful. He said “I still get the feeling that even this surprise did not amaze you! Though I am pretty sure from my earlier several recces that your room’s heavily padded walls are soundproof; on my part did I indeed forget to lock the door on my way in? Oh man, it indeed was your beautiful secretary who ushered me in. Man she is so beautiful, she distracted me from my plan. Tell me the truth, are you screwing her?” Saying so, he turned around towards the door.
In an instant, Rathin was on his feet; he grabbed the heavy paperweight from his table and lunged towards Madhav. Before Madhav could react, he hit him on his head, bludgeoning with the improvised weapon repeatedly on the back of his head. The clock struck 7 pm and suddenly his office chamber door was opened loudly.
His wife was wearing a beautiful evening gown; looking resplendent she entered holding a huge cake with candles lit atop. His son was holding balloons and looked oddly boyish for his 10 years of age. There were also many other faces behind them, the various employees from his office, with gifts and cards and balloons in their hands. They all entered the room shouting in unison “Surprise!!”
PS – Madhav died on the spot due to grievous head injuries, before any help could arrive. The police discovered the “revolver” in a cardboard box on the table, which had been unwrapped off the usual gift wrapping papers and a ribbon. They would later find Madhav’s fingerprints on it.
Rathin’s wife’s testimony said that Madhav had visited their house earlier in the day and made her a collaborator in a secret birthday bash planned for her husband, which Madhav had mentioned included several others in the office too; that he had asked them to specifically turn on the flight mode on their phones to lend credibility to a secret birthday treat.
On being prodded further, with tears streaming down her pale but beautiful face, she said that she could not fathom any rational reason for her husband killing Madhav. Madhav had been frequenting their house since the last two months and as far as she knew he was regular visitor to her husband’s office too. Did she know Madhav? Through intermittent sobs, she said that of course she knew Madhav since the last two months and that he was a close acquaintance of her husband through some personal ties about which she did not have any idea whatsoever.
The police later found that the landline phone cord in Rathin’s house was neatly severed; his wife could not explain the same.
The CC TV footage in Rathin’s office chamber was not available, since the feed was not being recorded. It was common knowledge in the office; the apparatus was scheduled for vendor repair the next day.
Rathin’s personal assistant was taken aback by the entire turn of incidents; she could positively remember the jovial handsome young man flirting with her moments before he entered her boss’ room. He had indeed mentioned that the gift wrapped box contained an imported toy revolver, a gift for her boss’ son.
Nobody in the office could provide any insights regarding any untoward incidents in the numerous occasions when the victim had visited their boss in the office; they knew that the victim’s father was a close friend of Mr. Rathin, the victim had said so himself on numerous instances.
On further prodding and assurances about conditions of anonymity, some of the employees mentioned that they had heard “rumors” of an alleged affair between their boss’ wife and the victim. The servants in the house attested to the fact that the victim had frequently visited the house and in most instances they recollected their boss was not present.
Mr. Rathin was booked on homicide charges of wilful manslaughter and remanded to police custody for 14 days while the case was being investigated further.
See it to believe it…. Well we have all seen and mostly comprehended the power of social in our digital lives and in some cases offline avatars as well. With the Digital revolution having encompassed almost all interaction touch points of brands with customers or prospects, we have all seen the all pervasive nature albeit seemingly in compliance with PII regulations across geographies.
So you have the much hyped social media, including platforms like twitter , the mobile channel and the good old re-invented email marketing. While the proliferation of web surfing and purchases on smart phones see an almost exponential growth, demanding new technologies like using beacons and leveraging geo-fencing to personalize offers in real times; the good old email lists still work wonders, with the tweaks incorporated for SEO efforts.
There are hordes of case studies on the internet today and almost everybody has engaged with the brands using these channels for a better UX and conversions. I had an interesting occurrence today. When I ordered a pizza from a well known brand in my locality today, I was flabbergasted. To set the context, one day per week is typically celebrated as “Pizaa Day” in the household and it is always the same brand whose product is ultimately ordered. So today I ordered a little variant from my previous typical orders and paid extra for some toppings which my taste buds demanded today. I was amazed to notice that none of the extra toppings were present when I had taken a few bites of the pizza.
I submitted an online complaint on the brand’s website and also posted about the experience in a neutral manner (no over the top antagonistic user sentiment here!), since this was more of a disappointment from a loyal long time repeat customer. I wanted to see the outcome of this little social experiment, not having had much experience in the past or rather not having had the occasion/social media skills!
So while I got an automated mail (auto-Responders configured in email marketing campaign) in response to my online complaint, mentioning that somebody would look into the matter and revert in XX hours (“hours”! really?); I received a phone call around 10 minutes later having posted on Facebook. An employee from the local franchisee of the renowned brand apologized and in matter-of-the-fact tone mentioned that they would send the same product configuration to me free of cost. I expressed my genuine surprise and mentioned that having had one medium size pizza, I did not think that this was a very responsive corrective action. However the employee was in a hurry (and might have been miffed that I did not even have an appetite to manage a couple of medium size pizzas!). Flustered, I expressed a tired thanks and hung up. I did wonder about the superlative impact of web analytics and the efficiency of “listening posts” in social media. So in the last mile of analysis human element had manually validated the data presented by the analytics for the final action and based on the historical data extrapolation, somebody had decided that the usual placatory offer of a similar product (For Free!!!!) would suffice and result in customer delight.
I was certainly NOT delighted; however the thought did not linger on. 20 minutes later, the door bell chimed and I asked my parents to collect the pizza. In response to my dad calling out to me, I had to discard my lazy posture spread over the chair watching Befikre (hindi movie) trailer and strolled outside to face the pizza delivery guy.
“Rupees 619” he demanded. I thought I had mis-heard and asked him to repeat his question. Then I was sure that I had indeed heard what I had thought I had heard! It took me 4 minutes to explain the entire episode to him and in the end softened by his confused demeanor, I asked him to call the local franchise and confirm. He made a quick mental calculation (I could not help but imagine a SQL query or a web service running in the background to fetch the confirmation data). Suddenly coming out of his momentary trance, he displayed a dazzling white toothed smile and said it was all fine.
In his haste he forgot to wish me a good night and left me holding the warm pizza box in my hand. When my wife asked to open the box and spread some oregano on the slices, I stopped her. I prophesized the need for a 20-30 minutes waiting period (the shop being 5 mins away from my home by bike and I added ample buffer for manual conversations and decision making, in case it needed to be over-turned and I needed to pay the money yet again). With 30 minutes having passed now, I finally gave the go-ahead signal to my family. Yes, of course I got lot of nasty stares for letting the pizza go cold and to micro-wave it again.
Well sure, Digital is path breaking and really a great disruptive phenomenon in the customer focused world. But the last few feets (no longer “miles” in the customer journey I am sure) do need to be validated by a human element.
The cover design of the book (and the ads/promotions in last few months) easily helps reader to derive that the author has tried to re-construct the life of one of the most (in)famous spies of all time “Mata Hari”!
The book is quite fast paced and the pace does not drag even for a minute. The story starts with the ultimate fate of the character (facing firing squad) and then goes into flashback mode. The story is developed through a letter from the lead character, penned while undergoing trial in the court…. the letter is addressed to her lawyer, whom she regards as incapable and a non-fighter. The story in itself is not so much about the spying activities of Mata Hari, rather it highlights the social and political commentary of the era in Europe… the wars and the political maneuvering.
The story briefly touches upon Mata Hari’s early life (childhood and first marriage) and how she managed to flee from an abusive husband and landed in Paris. The book traces her journey of becoming an instant sensation as an exotic dancer in Paris and reaching the heights of fame and riches. The storyline delves into the ambitions of the character and how she managed to manipulate the powerful men of the period for favors in return. For her, dance was the epitome expression of one’s existence and realization of the spiritual purpose of one’s life, others viewed her merely as a mediocre dancer who did not have second thoughts about shedding clothing in public performances.
The reader is led to realize that the only real “Crime” which she committed was to be a path breaker as a woman in that era, of being a truly “independent” woman who lived her life on her own terms and which might have been the main reason for her Ostracism and final punishment. All in all it is a fantastic read and provides insight to help the reader learn more about the real “Mata Hari”…. not the image of the double agent- femme fatale which we have come to assume over the years. It is a breezy read and can be completed in 3 hours or so. Happy reading.
Rating – 3/5.
See reviews on Goodreads – Link
I belong to the Indian populace, whose favorite sport inevitably happens to be cricket. Even in the era of T20s, test cricket (albeit selective tours/opponents/locales) beckons my latent interest and somewhere in my rooted sub-consciousness it still retains that romantic appeal, which the shorter versions are bereft of. So of course it is a given that any form of media publication (including movies) related to cricket would have my instant attention, of course the bounce rate on my part would depend on the content and my level of engagement with it.
While I was on my daily sojourn on the amazon website to scout for some nice books and to add to the shopping cart, I happened to stumble across this particular title. Aravind Adiga being an instant sensation few years back, due to his Man Booker prize on his first publication of course drew my attention. The title and the illustration on the cover page of the book piqued my interest. Well well, a seemingly great book on the pursuit of cricket in India. The synopsis clicked and I completed the check-out process.
The book seemed to be bulky which was ok, as long as it was going to satisfy my reading pleasures. I started on the book on Friday night and was soon immersed in it. It was the tale of the cricketing journey of 2 brothers, who hailed from Kannada belt in Western ghats. The elder brother Radha seemed born for cricketing greatness, with inbuilt talent and single minded dedication. The younger brother was a more recalcitrant version and wanted to pursuit a career in forensics and loved science in school.
The father of the kids played a major role in their lives and being a single father, had a single minded devotion to his kids playing in the Mumbai Ranji team and thereafter Indian squad. He represents the typical parent we see or hear about in our daily lives, whose single goal in life is to push the seemingly talented kids and closely monitor their every single aspect of life so that there is no scope for any distraction which would upset the so well thought out path to cricketing glory and the attached perks which would enhance the financial status of the poor family.
From the notes of the author, it seems it took 5 years worth of detailed research including conversations with Cricket historians like Ramachandra Guha to complete this book. Actually it is very evident throughout the book.
Disclaimer – The book does not cover a movie-esque happy ending of aspiring cricketers, struggling with poverty and the single minded devotion of a dominating father, rather it is a realistic version of the talented cricketers we see or hear of. The book is much much more. It certainly does have a strong dose of cricket in its DNA, but it delves into each and every related aspect, from covering the cricketing season in Mumbai to the various local competitions, down to the pitch preparation cycles and the typical characters which we can never miss…the talent scout, an aging and brusque mentor, several unscrupulous characters looking to make a quick buck and of course the associated super ambitious parents who make the journey onerous and possibly render it a sure recipe ripe for disaster.
All in all it is an interesting story, which takes the not-so-regular path and covers all the related aspects associated with the arduous journey each and every aspiring cricketer from the country’s hinterlands or slums or middle class belt inevitably has to get baptized by. The book is highly recommended for all cricket lovers.
Rating – 3.5/5.
Is there anything such as an overdose of reading? I am not sure if there is or if there isn’t. The sole reason why this weird question popped up in my mind was when I last took stock of my inventory of home library (well a glorified wall cupboard really). I do have a lot of books stored in my current home however I do not need to look at analytics report from a PIM solution to find that my stock of unread books is on the rise over the last few weeks!
I am horrified, really….ever since my Grandfather replenished our home library with engaging books every now and then, I have been an avid reader. My grandfather gifted books ranging from the genius like Ray to Tagore, Bankimchandra, Saratchandra, Sirshendu, Shankar, Shostipodo (who can forget pandob goyenda series based on Famous five) et al.
I used to leverage my modest pocket money and entreating pitiful eyes to influence my mother to buy me abridged versions of the english books, such as Tintin comics, Mark Twain’s classics etc. The other important influence during my school life were my english teachers in junior school. We were supposed to complete at least one book during our summer holidays and submit a short synopsis of our understanding. Much later I completed a sort of similar assignment in my B-School, only this time it was for the business genre, I had read Lee Iacocca turn around Chrysler Corporation.
So I continued on this journey over the years,reading anything and everything that surpassed the minimum threshold of my curiosity or attention span. The reading rate/velocity did fluctuate over time of course with most of the time devoted to increasing workload, family et al. However I did manage to complete previously un-read books in thriller genre and completed Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple series. I re-read the entire Tintin series. I read a few famous contemporary books from new authors or the earlier established ones.
Reading late in the night was becoming more inconvenient and hence I bought the kindle with back lit display.
So, it does hurt to see the amount of un-read books piling up….
The more worrying part is that I actually enjoyed the breather….it sort of managed to de-saturate the clogged mind which had been fed voraciously up to that point in time.
So as I touch the book covers or browse the downloaded titles on my kindle, I do feel the ever gnawing feeling raise its head inside me…the need to learn something new, to get acquainted with a new fine author or to get re-acquainted with a famous writer,through new engaging works. Well there is no limit to learning and the path even if it gets uphill sometimes, is worth the reading crisis that manages to seep in, unwarranted but immensely helpful all the same.
“So what? As per you I need to persevere…endlessly and then maybe someday I will be there?”
“Perseverance is a virtue….you don’t need to inculcate that for posterity you know”
“What kind of a guru are you? Weren’t you suppose to reveal my destiny?”
“I never proclaimed myself a guru…as far as I can remember it was you…and the others.”
“Ok, if that is so, then why do you charade as one? Why this ashram and all these rhetorics?”
“I built the derelict ashram for myself…to meditate….to gauge my presence in the world… not to be the cynosure of each and every eye in the world…why would I? Last I remember I was drawing a take home of 160k USD in 2012”
“You are just shirking your responsibilities….you like being in the thick of things, don’t you? The gifted child for the media…. the shrink who enlightened the likes of Fortune 500 CEOs”
“Well you must know, I never publicised….I never asked these so called superhonchos to visit me…I did not ask for these donations”
“Then what the heck did you want”?
“I….wanted to know my place in this universe….I wanted to know if I really warranted a thought in the larger macro scheme of things….if I was worth it? If I was supposed to help others, by reminding them of what they had forgotten”
“And, how did that pan out for you, Mr. Storyteller?”
“Ridicule me as you may son…..I won’t complain…I do not think I really need to justify myself.”
“And why do you think so?”
“Any explanation from my side would defeat the very purpose of my existence child….you are blinded by your angst and disappointment with the material things in the world…you might have been deceived by the ones whom you considered your true friends….but then who I am I to say how those friendships should have worked out? I see only the benevolence in every action…so I might interpret the actions of your so called close friends as actually beneficial for you…experiences that ought to have enriched you and helped you on in your journey in discovering your true self”
It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was pleasantly cold.
I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend’s wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batch mates. But what I didn’t know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.
I was almost sure it was she. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell.
She was wearing the same perfume, it is odd how the brain forms the memories and then compartmentalizes them for later recollection. It had been so many years already and yet, some part of my brain betrayed my resolution, a resolution we had jointly made in Chennai in the summer of 2011. There was a certain kind of emptiness in the pit of my stomach and a yearning for seeing that smile in person just one more time. My heart was thumping in my rib cage and I could barely breathe. There she was standing barely 5 feet ahead of me, the only girl I had ever loved and hoped to marry.
She was talking on the phone animatedly and her eyes were darting to check what was holding up the queue. She was wearing a jeans and a floral designed kurti, her normal casual attire. She had a purse dangling from one shoulder and a book clutched in her hand. She seemed to be engrossed in her conversation and I was a bit disappointed that she did not notice me yet. As I gazed at her forlornly, I realized that she was looking even more beautiful than I could remember. She was tall for a girl, almost matching my 5’8” height. She seemed to have slimmed down which suited her frame perfectly!
The boarding assistant’s voice brought me back from my reverie, I was already entering the plane. I displayed the boarding pass and smiled customarily at her welcoming me into the flight. I looked up ahead and could not see Jennie. I chided myself for behaving like a love-struck puppy and walked into the plane. I felt angry at David not telling me about Jennie attending his marriage as well. Well David and I were best friends in college and we shared more history than being just batch mates. But of course, David knew that I would have summarily refused to attend his marriage and hence his discretion. Well even though I was mad at him for this, a part of my brain was betraying me and I felt strangely light, as if I was being re-born, experiencing a wave of eager anticipation similar to a blind man being able to see for the first time!
I stowed my laptop and checked the seat numbers. Our eyes met and I simply froze on the spot. It seemed she had the aisle seat in the same row! I could not speak, I just wanted to look at her face even if that was the last thing I did in this life. Those kohl lined eyes and full lips were the same as I had always known. The usual twinkle in her eyes was replaced by a melancholic look, I wondered if it was simply the years which had added up.She seemed to be shaken up too and took a few seconds to regain her poise. Silently she stood up, “Must be the window seat as always”. I could barely nod in affirmation.
I finally managed “Hi Jen…errr. Jennie”. Even before I realized, I had bent forward to hug her, she looked surprised and managed an awkward embrace. I could feel her heartbeats going berserk, her smell and warmth were driving me crazy. She tore away abruptly, it must have been a few seconds too long for somebody who is just a friend or was it merely an acquaintance now? I wondered as I ambled slowly into the window seat.
Jennie had walked over to the washroom. The pilot was announcing over the PA system, I silently wore the seat belt. The seat beside me was still empty and before the plane took off, I prayed to the GOD almighty to keep it that way.
Jennie had returned and had the flight magazine covering her face. While I kept stealing surreptitious glances at her, I noticed that she was not wearing any ring. Why I needed to check that I did not know, we had both stuck to our solemn promises for the last few years and I was sure a chance meeting was not going to change anything. For the rest of the journey Jennie kept to herself and dozed off into a slumber.
Having collected the checked-in baggage, I looked around. Jennie was already trotting of towards the exit. I ran to catch up with her.
“I guess you too are going to David’s marriage.”
Jennie turned her head, “Yes”.
“He has booked me into the hotel close to his place, are you staying in the same? If yes, we could share the same cab.”
After a momentary pause, she replied “Ok, we could do that”.
Once we were seated in the cab, Jennie kept gazing out of the window. She did not encourage my failed attempts at small talk and adopted the demeanor of a tourist visiting the garden city for the first time.
We checked into our respective rooms in the hotel. I poured whiskey from the complimentary bottle and called up David. He heard me out in silence. “Dude, please don’t spoil my wedding. You are my best man and I want my best man to remain sober. So, please enjoy the drinks today but promise me you will be sober tomorrow.”
Having extracted a reluctant promise from me, David said “I am so happy you came.”
The few pegs had done their job and I drifted into a peaceful sleep. David, Jennie and myself had attended the same MBA college in Chennai. Jennie and I liked to spend time with each other. David was a common friend. Jennie was a studious and no nonsense girl back then and a regular church goer. We had a mutual admiration and an easy going friendship. We used to frequent the restaurants in the town together, go for movies and long drives. One of my best memories of a Christmas to date were the ones spent in her company in Chennai from our college days. She used to pull me along and I used to love the experience. I used to love her spontaneous throaty laughter and the affectionin her deep eyes. She used to tease me for constant banter when I was around her, something she used to miss when we used to go home for the vacations.
Post the placements, I asked David for his advice and he encouraged me to go ahead. It was early Feb and we would complete our final semester in 3 months. We were sitting on the sands of the Besant Nagar beach. When the sky was colored a golden hue by the setting sun, I proposed to Jennie. She was aghast and asked me to be realistic. Her parents would never allow her to marry into a non-Christian family and I belonging to a Brahmin family, conversion was out of the question. We argued back and forth, but in the end she did not relent and stormed off.
Alcohol found me, in the last 3 months of my college life. Jennie stopped taking my calls, she did not respond to my alcohol induced ramblings, she stopped messaging me and started avoiding me. David tried his best to perk me up and encouraged to work towards the bright future and a new life. Nothing helped. On the last day of our college, Jennie messaged me. We met on Besant Nagar beach in the evening. She covered her nose from my whiskey laced breaths.
“You need to stop this Jai. It hurts me to see you destroy your life, you are a great guy and have a bright future ahead. I need you to promise me something”.
I clung on to her every word like a man receiving last few drops of water before his death in a parched desert.
“We will never see each other again, we will not keep in touch nor attempt to break this promise.”
I was just taking in her presence, knowing that these were most likely the last moments we shared.
Jennie’s voice brought me back to reality. I said “I promise”.
Hiding her tears, she looked at me with searching eyes and then apparently satisfied she walked off. I watched the sky turn a darkish blue and the lights being switched on in the beach.
It has been 4 years since then. I had kicked off my drinking habit and learnt to live without Jennie. I have had a few girlfriends since then but was never able to find the one to settle down with. Maybe I did not want to. Our common friends avoided mentioning Jennie and I had never heard about her till the meeting today.
The next day I bathed, shaved and tried to look sober. I ordered black coffee to beat the nasty hangover. I wore my best suit and drove to David’s wedding ceremony. Jennie was there too. She looked resplendent in her green gown. I could barely take my eyes off her. She avoided me pretty much throughout the entire festivities.
At the end of the day, David mentioned that they were travelling to Chennai to meet his grandparents and would fly off to their honeymoon from there. He asked me if I wanted to come to Chennai, a change of scene would help me recover from the shock he reckoned. I agreed reluctantly, wondering if Jennie was going to join us too.
It turned out that David’s wife had convinced Jennie to extend her vacation as well. We drove to Chennai the next day and were put up in David’s grandparent’s house.
The next day David planned a road trip to Mahabalipuram since he was due to fly the day after. It was a scenic drive and we reached around noon. After a filling lunch, the group started discussing how they wanted to spend the rest of the day. Most went off to view the sculptures and the giant spherical rock. I decided to take a walk along the beach.
It was a Déjà vu moment, memories of earlier trips with Jennie came rushing back. I tried to block those images and tried to enjoy the soothing breeze and the sense of calm. In the distance I could notice a solitary figure strolling on the beach, the black Stoll fluttering in the breeze. It had to be Jennie. I decided to continue towards the rocks on the beach. As I was removing my shoes, I felt somebody beside me. Jennie had picked up her sandals and was looking to climb up on the rocks. Our eyes met briefly and she smiled. It was a sad despondent smile. She extended her left hand, I grabbed her and climbed up on the rocks.
“Just like the old times, eh?” said Jennie.
I smiled and carefully navigatedthe rocks. She held onto my hand and we walked towards the drop of the rocks into the water and sat down. As we stared towards the vast expanse of the blue water specked with little dots, the fishermen’s boats, Jennie put her head on my shoulder. I was confused and wondered if Jennie too was reliving the old days, the days when both of us were happy. I wrapped my right arm around her and held her close to me. As if on cue Jennie snuggled closer and kept staring ahead. I lost track of time and wanted this moment to last till eternity. I could smell her while her hair strands caressed my cheeks.
“I wonder since when did you lose your banter!” she said smiling wistfully.
I held her closer to me and said “I was never a good speaker, I guess. GOD have I missed you!”
The sun was progressively gliding down onto the water, the last golden rays coloring the waves. Jennie looked like an angel. She leaned in closer to me, her eyes were wet and yet she was smiling, a beatific expression set on her face.
“I have missed you too” and her moist lips were onto mine. She embraced me tightly. After what seemed like an entire lifetime, she broke away from me, that is when I noticed she was sobbing. I placed my hand on her shoulder.
“Can’t we try again? You know I am now a partner in the firm and I quit drinking a long time ago.”
She wiped her face with my handkerchief and tied her hair into a loose bun. She was not sobbing now, but her eyes were still wet.
“I am engaged Joy, my wedding is next month. Even though my parents arranged the match, I do love John.”
I was at a loss for words, she still held my hand.
“You have every right to be mad at me. I am sorry I never had the courage to go against my father’s wishes. I came on this trip since I was sure you would be attending the wedding too. I wanted to apologize Jai. Please try and forgive me.” Saying so, she freed her hands from mine and with a quick peck on my cheeks, she stood up and walked away down the rocks.
Analysis paralysis….an oft repeated jargon from my em-bee- eh days is not one which I like to throw around. Not in my friend circles, not in my family, nor even for the less fortunate who happen to navigate in the common social circles which I broodingly maintain. In general I am averse to using the common and much maligned beat-me-blue jargons, which I feel mostly fail the cause instead of enhancing the experience. Well I do not have a statistically placed hypothesis, so treat this as yet another proven-unless-disproven idea from my rambling monologues.
Suddenly I realized the blood dripping from my hands. It is amazing what you can accomplish even when you are topsy-turvy. I bent down and picked up the rag cloth from the floor and wiped my hands clean. The stained cloth somehow did not look like the ketchup stained ones which we normally find in the movies. But then again, nobody really kicks the shit out of the baddies in the movies, it is all about enacting scenes which even if not far-fetched do lack perspective. For instance when my upper cut broke his jaw, the noise was pure music. Mozart might have been inspired from such incidents in his life, who can tell?The feeling when your knuckles render the crack of bones is surreal. The adrenaline pumps in and there is no holding back. Kicks to the mid-riff, head, well bloody much anything belonging to his frame was so satisfying.
“He looked like a mad man intent on killing me”, he would have whispered through his punctured lungs, spitting blood all over the face of the inspector taking down his evidence. Well not if I could help it. To be honest, there was no longer any mad fury on my part, that was long devoured during the elaborate planning I had done. I felt more like a surgeon, deeply ensconced in the perfunctory job details, only this surgeon wasn’t saving lives, he was killing. The final knife thrust went straight through, well it was a good investment.
I waited a full 5 minutes to make sure he was really dead, kicked his already smashed face, a mixture of blood and tissues, once again just to check. Well he sure wasn’t breathing. I had made sure that it would take days if not weeks to ascertain his identity. This was only the second day of his vacation and nobody would really miss him for the next 2 weeks. Cell phone reception was scraggy here in the mountains, so a switched off mobile would not raise alarms immediately. After all when a “macho” guy goes on a road trip alone, these are just a few known hazards that come with the job.
I collected all his personal belongings and threw them in the garbage bag. I had thrown away his switched-off mobile into a lake a good 40 kms from this jungle. I cleaned his nails, bundled his clothes into the bag and then set to work to clean myself. I had a quick change of clothes, everything including my rain coat, boots, went into another garbage bag.
Having buried him in the wet earth, I poured kerosene over the bags and lit a fire. In the end, I threw my gloves into the rampaging flames. I stood to make sure all the bags were reduced to nothing, it could begin to rain anytime again. The tracks from my boot and car tires would all be washed away in the first 10 minutes of the rains. Even if GOD intervened and preserved them to incarcerate this lunatic, the generic boots used in the mountains would be simply untraceable to me. And I like to believe that used MRF tires, which have seen a lakh kms do not really leave much to read from the tread marks.
In any case the tires would be gone soon and the stolen car would be discarded.
I whistled as I started the car and put it into gear. “Swapnil gone, one left!”
I drove 200 kms through the night and checked into a motel in a non-descript town. It was already morning, I had a cold bath and then plonked onto the creaking bed. I do not forget the sleeping pills, I gulp a few of them down my throat with Carlsberg. As I drifted slowly into what would surely be a short bout of disturbed sleep, I smiled. Well I would not need the sleeping pills much longer.
It was a bright afternoon and we were having a quick lunch before the next lecture. Rhea was merely gobbling the food, with her eyes glued to the sheet of notes beside her plate. I had already finished my food and was playing with her luxuriant hair.
“Stop it na! Do you want me to fail?” Rhea said.
“Well you and I both know very well that you might at most drop a rank and still be in top 5 of the list. So why the false modesty, eh?” I chided her.
“Well it’s all very nice and easy for you, Mr. Topper, but I need to study to get a rank”, Rhea faked a sullen face.
I couldn’t resist the dimples and reached over the table for a quick kiss. She seemed surprised but the moment lingered on.
Seeming flustered, Rhea’s eyes darted around before she remembered to check the time.
“We need to leave, please call the waiter”, Rhea said.
The dream reels fast forwarded to a few months later. We had completed the first year in the hallowed em-bee-eh program and the students had decided to celebrate in a local club. Rhea was looking resplendent in her evening gown and we were dancing on the floor for quite some time. Suddenly I felt a tug from behind. It was Swapnil, already high from the phoren booze. His breath reeked of alcohol, he requested Rhea for a dance. Rhea rolled her eyes but played along.
A few more months down the line. Rhea and I were slowly drifting apart and the funny thing was I did not even know what the reason was. I liked to believe that we were both committed and well Rhea had a part to play in it too. Sure we had not looked at life beyond the college life, having decided to take stock of things when we reached the milestone. But we had been going steady and it was common knowledge in the campus if not in the entire town. We spent lesser and lesser time going out. She insisted she needed more time to devote to the specializations and I acceded to her requests. Then one fine day, one of my friends approached me with a grave face. It seemed Rhea had been sighted around the town on Swapnil’s Honda CBZ, on more occasions than one. Well it certainly was news to me and I decided to check for myself, before paying heed to the rumor mills.
I confronted Rhea trying to gauge the situation, well it resulted in a tear stricken Rhea making a grand exit from the college canteen. I was taken aback, I had not hurled any accusations and surely not acted like the obsessed, control freak partner. I could sense something amiss, however I decided to make peace and sent her numerous sms, with the near certainty that she would relent. I decided to give her some time and did not pester with phone calls that night. The next day in college, she avoided me throughout the breaks.
I finally managed to corner her on the way back from college. She was walking alone and panicked when she saw me approaching resolutely.
“It’s over, please leave me alone”. She somehow blurted out the words which would haunt me forever and turned on her heels and walked away briskly.
I could not understand what went wrong and tried to approach her over the next few days. Three days later I was walking back to the campus in the evening. The serpentine road, a short-cut was normally bereft of much traffic and it was already getting late. I remember seeing headlights, a few of them and then the sound of screeching tires. I could make out Swapnil’s face but lost consciousness before I could make out the other one. I spent the next month in a local hospital. I could understand the motive for the assault, it was the alpha male trying to mark his territory or at least so it seemed. I often wondered about the other masked figure.
Well not any more, I said out aloud as I opened my eyes. The so called “Alpha male” had no qualms about giving me the identity of his co-perpetrator. Well after a severe beating, several knife wounds, severed fingers and a blinded eye, even the alphas become the so called cowards! So, it was Akash who had hit me with the rod and injured my spine. It had taken around 6 years of intensive physiotherapy and exercises to get rid of the pronounced limp. Most people spend their entire lives chasing stuff they do not want in the first place, non-surprisingly they fail to achieve the high they so beseechingly seek. Well, for me it was easy. I had only one goal and plenty of time to feed the hatred inside me. On the outside I was just another ambitious man, for whom climbing up the corporate ladder was akin to un-earthing the Holy Grail. Well I excelled in that. But the real me kept preparing, trying to get rid of the handicap without which I would not be able to fulfill my goals. The task which would require immense amount of ingenuity but strength at the same time.
Before killing Swapnil, I had pondered at length and was increasingly convinced that Swapnil or his friend were not the alphas. An alpha is dormant inside each human being, what matters is when you bring it out. For some it is false bravado or the innate evil inside which is brazenly displayed. For others, it is called upon in moments of distress or acute need. When I spent 2 hours torturing Swapnil, I wondered what a revelation it would have been for Rhea! The ever popular, charming devil with a sculpted body had surrendered to a drunk geek who had got rid of a pronounced limp just a while ago. In hindsight I guess I owed a vote of thanks to Swapnil, for helping me on this journey, a path which I would not have known existed, for helping me instill the belief that it is only the mighty who inherit the earth!
I feasted on a sumptuous lunch in a nearby restaurant and hit the road again. On the way I dumped the car and stole another ride from a parking lot.
The next day I paid a visit to Akash’s apartment. I parked the car far away from the residential complex and waited for the guard to take a loo break. The CC TV cameras were non-functioning, I had checked that during my earlier recce of the housing complex. Later the police and Akash’s family would wonder why the thief killed Akash so gruesomely for a mere 8 lakhs worth of loot. I painted the walls red with Akash’s blood. Of course he deserved special attention and I had the whole night to break him, again and again and again…till he could no longer beg for his limbs, his eyes…and in the end his life.
I wiped the place clean of my presence and made an exit in the early hours of the winter morning.
The next day the news made headlines in almost all the major dailies. Well, the harrowing death of a powerful minister’s son could never go un-noticed. I noticed that they had left out quite a few details, no wonder at the behest of the city police. For example I could not find any mention of the 18 pieces in the news. I let out a sigh and threw the papers aside.
The police would be looking for angles and since Swapnil’s body would not be recovered anytime soon, they would not be able to trace it all back to me. I guessed I had a couple of days to leave town and then fly out. But I had to visit Rhea first and see her reaction first hand. I could not help but chuckle out aloud.
Rhea was shocked to see me. Once she regained her composure she offered me a seat in her plush duplex. After a bit of feigned friendly exchanges, I asked her if she had read the news. She was flustered and looked edgy. I told her about Swapnil. She was shaking now, I guess it must have been a mixture of both shock and fear. Even though I was dressed in business casuals, whom was I kidding? Having spent 7 long years for the final moment of liberation leaves tell-tale marks on your face.
I was studying her face intently. Did she attribute the scrawny, haggard looks to my smoking? Was the realization finally dawning on her? Was she reminiscing the old me who used to be love stricken around her and pamper her all the time? Well I could not leave things to chance.
I told her in details about how I had murdered both of her friends. She was positively shocked now. Or was it fear and guilt juxtaposed together?
As I took out the gloves from my pocket, I told her how I had long known that it was she who had requested Swapnil and Akash to teach me a lesson, strong enough to never bother her again. I told her she should have asked her friends to kill me instead, that it was a major faux pas on her part.
Before she could raise alarm my gloved hands were on her mouth.
Well, did I mention my math was always bad even though I am an em-bee-eh? The count was always three you see……..
Well the header was to catch your attention….Just kidding, while Gustav always maintained anybody can cook, I do not harbor any such illusions when it comes to writing, well the simple matter of the fact being that I struggle when I write, more so when I write something which is beyond my comfort zone.
While I normally finish all my pieces in single sittings, stretching to hours if required (seldom since I only try to write short stories or poems since early schooldays), when I attempt to venture into alien territories, take the romance genre for e.g., my mind wanders, I falter, my pen stutters (figuratively since we all minions use word processors nowadays) and after having tried all avenues of the never arriving inspiration, I mechanically stride on and trash the outcome.
My close friends allude to my non-romantic nature which they proffer is the roadblock for authoring passionate, heart touching stories. Well I always beg to differ, on both the points! Firstly proposing in the backdrop of the grand canyons during the sun rise, while might not be termed as the most romantic act of the century, surely does not qualify as a non-romantic gesture either! And to add more credence to this, certainly not when it is a few years into the marriage…. 😀
So I deal with the handicap in ingenious ways (or so I like to think)….having failed to have divine interventions or creative genius moments, I made a decision. I shall henceforth turn all the romantic stories into thrillers, with my signature (another stuff I like to assume) twists at the end. I take it up as a challenge and love the act.
However it never ceases to amaze me, when I find famous writers tread into totally uncharted territories, quite late in their careers and actually flourish in the same! Detractors’ snide remarks aside, I loved the adult fiction from J.K.Rowling, Casual Vacancy to the Robert Galbraith’s Detective thrillers.
Recently I came to know about Stephen King’s Detective trilogy and just completed the first one, titled “Mr.Mercedes”. I do not possess a sufficiently strong vocabulary which would be able to render justice to the quality of the work and the happiness which I derived from reading the same. For authors like Gillian Flynn, this stuff is just another stroll in the park close to their heart. However for somebody who made a living (and too successfully I might say) authoring horror stuff pretty much throughout the entire active lifetime, plunging into a different genre so late could be suicidal. Well, for one the attempt could backfire and earn the ire of the mass following who would any day clamor for more of the usual stuff, stuff that has enthralled them over decades.
The second book of the series and the third (upcoming) books are on my reading list. But for now, I have jumped onto “After the Crash” by Michel Bussi. The next few books inadvertently happen to be best-sellers and translated works from French authors, for instance Pierre Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy….
Bring them on, I say…..