Category Archives: short story
“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.
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……..
She willed herself to not check her phone to see if he had replied. It had been about three days now. She hated that she was constantly checking his ‘last seen at’ status and yes, he had logged in just five minutes ago. Yet she couldn’t stop herself. This sinking feeling to find absolutely no communication from him was becoming unbearable, almost torturous.
And then, just as she sat down in her chair, her phone vibrated. With her heart thudding in her ear, she unlocked her phone and stared at the screen. Finally! It was his message.
But when she opened it and read it, she nearly stopped breathing. She didn’t know if he was joking or not. What was this?
The two words stared at her from the shiny screen of the iPhone 6S, ‘It is Done.’! Anita was dumbstruck, surely he could have called, if even for a minute or so. He was never the one who would have to fumble for words, in fact he had trouble in containing his loquacious nature and it was Anita’s favorite ploy to mockingly chide him while waiting for his usual rejoinder ‘Ok Ok. I get it, I will not speak anymore’.
Looking askance at the steaming cup of Cappuccino and the barely nibbled strawberry flavored Danishes on her table, Anita put down a 100 Rupee tip beside the plate for Joyeeta, her favorite waitress in Dunkin Donuts. Suddenly she stood up, closed her presentation and packed her laptop. She glanced at the phone once more, but there were no further pings forthcoming.
Brows knitted tightly together and with a scowl on her face, Anita strolled outside to the parking lot in Ambience Mall, Gurgaon. It was 8 am and the persistent honks were already tiring her. With the bag flung over one of her shoulders, she quickly lit her Marlboro and took a deep puff. As she drove hurriedly to her Office, she quickly checked her watch. She still had 2 hours before the presentation to her client. The Director, Corporate Strategy of a pharmaceutical firm is not a man to be disappointed. Any other day and she would have been looking forward to her day, managing clients and deriving satisfaction from closing a deal. However today was different.
A belligerent honk brought her out of her reverie. She suddenly found an Ola Cab in front of her and the driver shaking his fists at her with some choice expletives thrown in for making a point. Anita apologized gruffly with a wave of her hand and stopped at the Security checkpoint in DLF Cyber city. She made a conscious effort to control her mind from wandering. What was more infuriating was the visceral fear which she felt in the pit of her stomach and not knowing why she was over-reacting so much. Her rational mind debated if she had taken the morning dose of Valium. Not able to recollect that either, Anita threw away the cigarette butt out of the window with a vehemence.
It was the hottest day in Kolkata “that” year. The fans and the air conditioners plied all day long. The client office cafeteria was comfortably cool. Anita had barely loaded her food tray with salad and eggs when she almost jumped at somebody exclaiming loudly beside her. Having recovered her poise, she turned around red in face and with a ready rejoinder, when she noticed him, grinning widely from ear to ear with exhilaration writ large on his face. Anita blinked a few times and somehow managed to put on a plastic smile on her still disheveled face, wondering who this guy was, who despite seeming strangely familiar was hard to place in her memory. She did not have to wait long though.
‘Hi, Anita! What a pleasant surprise!’ said the young man in a business suit with impeccably placed tie and cufflinks. He had a faint US accent, which meant either he was here on a business trip or was one of the show-offs whose fake accent persists even long after they are back in India.
Anita replied ‘Sorry, but do I know you?’
‘Of course, Anita. Well it has been a rather long time, 15 years, 220 days to be precise I guess’ said the young man.
Looking at the still bewildered expression on Anita’s face, he sighed and said ‘Well, I am Rakesh, Batch of 2000, Computer Science, JIT Madras’.
With the sudden realization, Anita gasped for breath.
‘Here, let me help you, the temperatures touched 46 degrees today, the last time I heard’, said Rakesh looking intently at Anita whose balance seemed to give away yet again.
Looking sheepish and flustered, Anita mumbled a thank you and sat down with Rakesh at a corner table in the cafeteria.
Once she had managed to rein in the galloping heart beats in her chest, she asked Rakesh if he worked for the client. Rakesh still had the glazed look in his eyes and confirmed that he was indeed working for Deviance Analytics. Anita gobbled her lunch, managed an apology for having a meeting with the client in ten minutes and rushed away after Rakesh had managed to get her phone numbers and a parting promise of meeting the next day for lunch in the cafeteria.
Anita had lied, but she did not have a choice. She walked out to the Smoking Zone and with trembling hands lighted a Marlboro. She could very clearly recollect Rakesh now from her undergraduate days in Chennai. Both of them were in the same class. Looking back now, it was no wonder that she could not recognize him. The man whom she had met just now was athletic, immaculately attired in business formals, with a charming smile and a pleasant and confident demeanor. Anita was surprised that her mind had registered the expensive watch and shoes. Rakesh had done well it seems.
Back in college, Rakesh was a simpleton, who swore by the study material and devoted all his hours to securing the top rank. He was scrawny, with big round spectacles and a sloppy gait which did nothing to improve his defeatist, nerd image amongst the batch mates. However Rakesh did have another passion in his tedious life. He was enamored by Anita’s beauty and intelligence from the first day of college. He nursed a secret ambition of winning Anita from the college loafers by securing the gold medal in the final exams. It was a typical topic in the college canteen and in parties, a fall back option to make fun of for bored minds.
Anita was a free spirited girl, her father was a Colonel in the Army and they had spent many years across North India before her father had decided to settle down in his hometown which was Chennai. Brash that she was, she however did not enjoy discussing Rakesh when the others made fun of him. It was not that she had any empathy towards him, it was just that she did not even want to acknowledge his presence, such an incongruous person in her world.
Days went by, Anita graduated with good marks. Rakesh won the Gold medal, but only in the successive year. Rakesh did not manage to graduate with Anita and her friends. Anita took another puff from her cigarette while she shivered even in the warm afternoon breeze.
Anita remembered only too vividly the honest and naïve proposal by Rakesh just 2 weeks before the final exams. She had not only managed to break his heart but had also made unkind, snide, inopportune remarks which had devastated Rakesh. Mortified, Rakesh could no longer seek refuge in his make believe world where Anita pined for him and was his only true love. Rakesh did the only thing he could, he jumped from the hostel terrace.
Everyone rallied to a general sympathetic wave for him in the college but nobody ever came to know what had instigated the modest kid to attempt something so presumptuous.
Anita remained disturbed throughout the day, with the renewed sense of guilt eating at her conscience after so many years. After reaching the guest house, she clicked on the answering machine. There were the usual calls from her work friends, urging her to join in the weekend fun, there was a call from home, a call from Anish….and a call from Rakesh! Changing her dress in the bedroom, she could clearly hear Rakesh’s rich baritone coming out of the machine. Rakesh had reminded her of their lunch next day.
Soon this became a pattern. Anita worked for an IT vendor in the client office and her project still had 7 odd months to go live. Rakesh or rather this new version of the old loser Rakesh made her life real difficult. He met her daily at the cafeteria, regularly came over to her cubicle much to her chagrin. Anita could already hear the different kind of rumors doing the various rounds. Rakesh was a senior executive in the client organization and Anita was forced to be courteous towards him.
It seemed like Rakesh had undergone a complete overhaul in some fancy medical clinic. It was not only the physicality but the remarkable difference in attitude which frightened Anita. She refused him for dates multiple times. Rakesh continued to be belligerent and plagued her for attention. Anita was forced to change her phone numbers and tried to avoid Rakesh as much as possible. Despite her repeated insistence of having a steady boyfriend, things only got worse. All her objections were met with feral smiles and haughty laughter.
Anita was petrified, her guesthouse security enquired the other day about a non-resident car being noticed almost daily making the rounds. Finding out the guest house address was of course too easy for Rakesh. Anita hung on for the next few months to deliver the critical project and was only too glad when she secured her next project back in Gurgaon. Rakesh however had other ideas; he managed to relocate to the Noida branch of his office and continued his routine of harassment.
Anita finally decided to confide in Anish, her boyfriend. Anish worked for one of the big law firms in Delhi and was a bright, career oriented young man. Anish too was from Chennai and he had been dating Anita for 3 years now. He was a rising star in his law firm, a strongly built, kind, well known and affable soul. Well, it was only a matter of time, before Anish was going to be formally made a partner. Anita was so proud of her fiancé. The one trait she disliked in Anish was his vanity, Anish was known to be ruthless when it came to winning.
Anish took in all the details from Anita over a cup of tea in her apartment near Galleria Market in Gurgaon. He was not his jocular self and was eerily silent, he did not interrupt her narration even once. Anita was unsure if she saw flickers of anger and pain in the deep, dark smoldering eyes. With his jaws tightly set, he asked Anita what she would like to be done in the matter. They could not go to the police, partly because Rakesh seemingly moved in higher echelons of power and had influential friends in the city. Anish could not jeopardize his prospects in the law firm.
When they seemed to be at a loss for ideas, Anita suddenly remembered that Rakesh was going to visit Chennai two weeks later. She thought it might be a good idea to talk to him in the city in which they had all grown up, had bitter sweet memories and families, wherein he might finally be convinced to see sense. Anita knew Rakesh’s family was a well known and widely respected business family with ties to the ruling party. Surely if they could somehow talk to Rakesh’s father, the Industry baron, he might finally be able to rein in the loose cannon, his son.
Anish mulled over the idea and seemed to grudgingly agree. He enquired about Rakesh’s travel plans and opened up the calendar on his phone. He decided to use the Diwali long weekend for a short vacation in Chennai. He said he had some other family matters to tend to anyways and he would also take care of the Rakesh matter in the same trip.
Anish had travelled to Chennai 3 days back and was supposed to be back in Gurgaon tomorrow. Anita had not been able to reach him over the last few days until the message from him today morning. It was already 7 pm when she finally left office. She was feeling sprightly now, the early morning dread had somehow passed over. She made a mental note not to grill Anish about the trip details tomorrow and instead finalize the plans for their impending marriage in a month. On the way home, she bought a few vegetables and fish which Anish loved and planned to look up a few recipes the next day.
She woke up to the alarm early morning next day. Being a Saturday, she did not have office to attend to. Anish’s flight seemed to be on time, so she hurriedly moved out of the comfort of her warm bed and turned off the heater.
An hour later she waited for Anish to show up in the Arrivals section in Indira Gandhi airport. Sipping her favorite coffee, she logged on to the airport wifi network and browsed a Chennai daily’s online version. Suddenly her eyes were glued to a news item in the screen. A dead body had been found in Mahabalipuram beach. The Police was still trying to establish the identity of the badly mutilated body, a male of around 34 years of age, it seemed to be a case of homicide by drowning. Amongst the few details, they had mentioned a mole in the left hand!
The coffee cup smashed to the ground, Anita stood up in a daze to look at the Arrivals section. Rakesh was waltzing over with a trolley and waving his hands. Apparently he had noticed her, standing white faced with a bouquet in her hands……..
It was outright pouring, visibility was down to a few feet. Rakesh was having a hard time managing the misty windshield of his car. With one hand clutching a torn cloth he attempted to clear up the glass vigorously. He clutched the steering with his other hand, deftly managing the water filled potholes on E.M. Bypass. He cursed out aloud at the civic bodies doing a shoddy job at the road mending work, yet again. It was the same each monsoon and it was a major headache for Rakesh who normally plied his fares in and around the Kasba area. His battered Ambassador grunted and labored to maneuver the road. The rain lashed against his car. The archaic wipers emitted more noise than they managed to clear up the raindrops.
There were flashes of lightning with deafening thunders. The traffic was hardly moving. The cacophony of the honks was already turning his headache into a nightmare. Rakesh quickly checked his watch, his wife had called him earlier in the day and he needed to rush back home. As the traffic light turned green, he pushed his old car into first gear and cut off the car in the front with a quick swerve and raced ahead. The ensuing stretch of road was in better condition and he planned to make up for the lost time. While his mood lightened, Rakesh switched on the radio. He often wondered what was wrong with the songs nowadays. He preferred the old melodies even though he was barely 24. His friends had coined a moniker for him. While he hated being called “Daddu”, he took it in his stride and used to mockingly chide his friends for calling him so. The fond memories of his friends brought a smile to his tired face. Humming an old Kishore Kumar number, Rakesh decided to beat the signal. With the light beginning to flicker to yellow, Rakesh’s old ambassador throttled full speed ahead.
He could barely see a small kid standing by the side of the road, beside another car. Rakesh quickly calculated the probability of saving the kid by screeching his brakes to the maximum. With the current speed on the wet road, he was sure to topple over even if he was lucky enough to avoid hitting the other cars. From the corner of his left eye, he could make out the silhouette of a lady shouting and running towards the kid. Even before his mind could register the eventuality, he felt the sideways impact of his car and a loud thump. With a quick glance at the lady who was wailing hysterically by now, Rakesh steamed ahead. He was drenched in cold sweat and his heart was thumping vigorously in his chest. He wondered if the lady had been able to notice the number plate on the car. He checked his speedometer, he must have been driving at around 60Mph. He felt guilty and relieved both at the same time. He was sure the lady or the other pedestrians would not have been able to get a look at his face. Rakesh kept cursing at himself. He always prided on having the best driving record amongst his friends. Of all days, this had to happen today!
Suddenly he realized he was parking the car in the garage. With the adrenaline rush in his blood, Rakesh quickly got down from his car to inspect the damage. There were bloodstains on the side of the car and some organic tissues still clung on. Feeling queasy and resisting a strong urge to vomit, Rakesh quickly got down to work. He brought a bucket filled with water and painstakingly started cleaning the remains. The body of the car did not have much damage from the impact. Thanking his stars, Rakesh made a mental note to get the left headlight fixed in the early morning the next day. He would also have to request Shambhu at the garage for another set of number plates and forged documents. It did not hurt to be cautious reasoned Rakesh.
Feeling calmer, he took one sweeping look at his car before he locked the car. He checked his watch, it was ten to 11 pm. Swati must be still awake. He knocked on his chawl door. He could hear Swati moving across laboriously inside, while he smoked the remains of his bidi. According to the local Doctor, Swati was likely to go into labor pain anytime now. Rakesh adored his wife who was a simpleton and an endearing woman. She looked in considerable discomfort, Rakesh served himself dinner, while listening to admonishments from his wife. Swati asked him if everything was fine and Rakesh quickly realized he was still tightly wound from the mishap. He forced a smile and caressed her face with sweet nothings. Post dinner they quickly went to sleep.
After what seemed barely minutes, Rakesh woke to his wife screaming.It seemed that she was in labor pain. Rakesh checked his watch, it was 4 am. He quickly dialed the local doctor and described the symptoms to him. The Doctor advised immediate hospitalization. Knowing with certainty that they would not get an ambulance anytime soon in the downpour, Rakesh propped his wife into the backseat of his car and stuffed the wad of notes into his purse.
As they drove through the deserted E.M.Bypass, Rakesh could not help but admire the beauty of the breaking dawn. The early light feebly lifted the veil of the darkness and Rakesh’s spirits soared. He quickly sorted the names which they had discussed multiple times earlier in his mind and hoped that they would have a girl. He parked the taxi outside and the attendants wheeled in his wife into the hospital. He spoke with the Doctor who asked him to wait until the initial checkup was completed.
Having heard that there was likely some time for delivery, Rakesh had no option but to linger around. He went down to have a quick tea and smoke. Suddenly he remembered that he had to visit Shambhu’ sgarage to get his car fixed. Dismissing the cigarette with a flicker of his hand, he quickly drove off to the garage. Having briefed Shambhu, Rakesh felt somewhat lighter in his mind. Shambhu assured him that the car or Rakesh were unlikely to be traced and placated him saying accidents are sometimes beyond the control of the mere mortals and souls are at the mercy of the GOD almighty.
While Sambhu was at work, Rakesh could not help but wonder about the kid. The kid was a boy of around 7-8 years he reckoned. The lady must have been his mother. He felt a sudden pang of guilt and again admonished himself for his mistake. He wondered if the kid was somehow alive and the lady had got him to emergency department in the nearby private hospital. Maybe the kid was grievously injured but alive after all. He kept thinking about his car’s speed and angle of impact. Suddenly his mobile rang. Rakesh returned from his trance with a start. It was a Doctor calling from the Hospital, asking him to make haste and fill in the paperwork.
Rakesh retuned to the Hospital and completed the various paperwork and payments required. It was already 2 pm and he was feeling tired from the lack of sleep. Swati was in the Operation Theater and some senior Surgeon was in charge inside. Rakesh quickly grabbed a bite from the hospital canteen and rushed back to the waiting area.
He must have dozed off and awoke with a start to his name being called on the speaker. He ran outside and spoke to the nurse. The baby was brought to him and he was overjoyed to see the angel like boy. The mother was doing fine and was to be shifted to the ward. Rajesh murmured “Hi Ajay, welcome to our world” in his kid’s ears and waited to thank the Surgeon.
The Surgeon walked out of the O.T 15 minutes later and was still dressed in the usual garb covering her head and mouth. Rakesh suddenly shivered in the warm building. He had a strange unpleasant premonition. The Surgeon had stopped in her tracks too. As she stood stupefied and removed her surgeon’s cap, Rakesh could hear the shrill plea for help and agonized screams of a mother who had just lost her son! Multiple thoughts raced across Rakesh’s mind. Evidently the Doctor had recognized him and would report him to the police. Should he make a run for it or plea for forgiveness? As Rakesh stood frozen in his tracks, unable to make a move, slowly the Surgeon walked towards him. She had swollen eyes, evidently from grief rather than a late night. Her face was eerily calm and he could not detect any flickers of anger or accusations in her eyes.
“Congratulations, you are now a father” she said.
With clasped hands, Rakesh pleaded for forgiveness. His voice was hoarse and sounded incoherent over his uncontrolled sobs. The Surgeon placed a hand over his shoulders.
“He was 7 years old you know. I save so many patients a day but could not save my own child! I would like to report you to the police and see you perish in jail for manslaughter.”
Rakesh mumbled apologies and kept pleading.
The Surgeon said “But it would be selfish and devilish of me to punish your newborn for your misdeeds. While I can never forgive you, I will let you off. I will not report you to the police.”
She did not wait for an answer and walked off. Rakesh was still in a stupor. He thanked the GOD almighty for his kindness and swore to drive carefully from now on.
He bought medicines at the pharmacy and bade his wife farewell for the day. Swati looked tired but radiant and could hardly stop smiling. Having promised to visit her the next morning, Rakesh slumbered off into the parking lot. He called up Sambhu and decided to have some desi alcohol to purge himself of his guilt ridden soul.
The rains had stopped and it was a bright clear evening. Rakesh switched on the radio and drove his taxi slowly. The traffic was moving at a snail’s pace as always. He suddenly realized that he was approaching the same ill-fated traffic signal. While he waited for the light to turn green, his palms felt sweaty on the steering.
The persistent honks brought him out of his reverie. He put the car into the first gear and moved ahead. Suddenly a child’s voice hissed in his cars loud and clear “My name was Ajay too!”……..
Rakesh panicked and his car crashed onto the tree beside the road. Bleeding profusely, Rakesh could barely see. He felt cold and could not feel or move his body. He could hear distant cries and heavy footfalls towards the car. He felt calm and uttered one last apology before everything blanked out.
The bystanders to the incident could not recall any cause for the eerie car accident while speaking to the reporters. Some however proffered that they had seen a little boy moments before the car crashed.
“Trust these people to always cook up something fanciful” mused the reporter as he readied his microphone, before going on air.
Josh was perspiring heavily….he was surprised that it was almost Thanksgiving already and as expected there was a definite nip in the air, the usual New Jersey weather. He did not need to swipe on his iPhone 6s (one of his latest prized possessions) to check the weather app forecast. He had been a resident of Princeton for the last 15 odd years and loved the autumns and winters here as against the typical nonchalant weather in San Diego, where he had spent his early years.
Putting the car into auto-cruise mode on US 1 N. highway, he reached out for the tissue box on his Audi A6 dashboard. While mopping his beady forehead with one hand, he held onto the steering expertly with his other. He gave himself a moment to laugh indulgently at his pre-occupation with fancy gadgets, fast cars, guaranteed-age whiskeys and smart good-looking women…well the more the merrier he chuckled. He had done well, oh yes, nobody could debate that. He was born into a small dysfunctional family moving from town to town, a gypsy mother and a drug addict father, well nothing much good ever comes out of that he reasoned. He was average at studies and thanked his stars that he managed to stay focused enough to complete college with reasonable merit. He had started working for a small insurance firm in Santa Ana and quickly learned the ropes of the business. He used to mostly surpass his goals and earn modest commission, which helped him to step into some semblance of a normal adult life. He had rented a small condo nearby and finally had his own place set up, with his dreary past all but forgotten. He had got accustomed to unannounced visits from his father, which inevitably were veiled requests for cash. Well ever since his mother had committed suicide, his father had not bothered to keep up the pretensions of the non-existent family ties anymore. Josh paid him out more from an urge to minimize the interaction and to attempt forgetting the unhappy childhood marred by fights, quarrels and sheer abominable poverty.
Josh was quite a handsome guy (leveraged well in his professional life as well), with an athletic body, square jaw and intelligent blue eyes. He made sure he was always dressed for the part too. People were normally at a loss when they tried to size him up. Here was a guy who seemed earnest, had a boyish charm and a very pleasant demeanor, which would always put one at ease. However during the sales pitch they would soon wonder at what lay behind those deep, calculating and dark eyes and the sudden changes in mood. Josh’s genius ensured that by the end of the meeting, they would have dismissed the dark thoughts or any doubts whatsoever as a mere fragment of imagination of an over cautious mind.
Josh had done well at his work, however his life had changed after that one incident 15 years back…Josh did not often think about it, with all the pleasures money could buy and with the booming business he could hardly afford to spare a moment….and in any case he was not a guy who liked to ponder about the past. He lived in the now, the present and made sure that his future would be well secured. He was already pushing the late 30s and wanted to make enough many times over to plan an early retirement. He loved his job and had a great relationship with his boss, who had mentored him over the years. He was already a part of the elite team which was the “SWAT team” (a moniker coined by his boss) which his boss favored, when the time called for it.
Yes, he was happy but definitely not content, he had lofty goals set for himself which needed to be achieved, time was an element which had been mastered only by the so called gurus, not that he had ever met one. Switching off the cruise mode, he urged the car to accelerate to 110 mph and started weaving in and out of the early morning traffic. Josh was in a hurry, he had a high-profile meeting for sales pitch to one of Presidents of a multi national company. The net worth of the individual had made his head spin.
He was still fuzzy about how the contact had been made and the field visit got assigned to him. He had somehow never heard of this man, for he staked this area alone and knew the details of each person worthy enough to be allotted a slot in his busy schedule. Albert was free today and was in office tallying some reports. Josh wondered how Albert had let go of this opportunity! Josh had returned from the annual conference the night before and still had a bad jet lag. He was curious about how he had landed up into the picture for the meeting with Mr. Nick, yes that was the name mentioned in the file which he had been handed over this morning at the office with details about the address, personal life and financials. Josh always liked to be thorough in his dealings, he would probe into the details to examine the profile of the client before he would create the game plan. For the regulars with probable medium returns, he would be at his best official avatar. But for guys like Nick, well he would have to dig into his other more affable and overtly personal avatar!
He slowed his car as he neared the NJ Convention and Exhibition Center, his GPS had inexplicably switched off! He parked the car slowly and re-booted his brand new Garmin Nuvi model. Sheesh, barely 15 minutes left for the meeting and here he sat in his car trying to fix the GPS which had decided to suddenly take a break! Exasperated he picked up the mobile from the holder next to his seat. As he keyed in the destination address in google map, the app crashed…..swearing loudly Josh re-booted the mobile. This time the app responded, he was barely a mile away from the hotel. It was his first visit to the hotel in Edison. Josh did not have the luxury to thank the almighty, so he just plonked the Garmin down and drove to the hotel. Josh chuckled, for him the brand recall of this hotel chain inevitably centered around a particular femme fatale.
As he drove into the parkway of the Hilton Garden Inn, he noticed he still had 5 minutes. Having parked the car, Josh stashed his purse and phone into the pockets of the suit procured from one of the design houses in Savile Row, London. About to open the door of the Conference room, he had a sudden premonition and a feeling of deja vu. Stopping abruptly in his tracks, he almost collided with another person. He cursed under his breath, this was not the same composed and ever confident Josh about to make another Kill, he ought to have remembered to control the swigs of scotch in the morning! The profuse sweating showed no signs of abating, with the tissue to the rescue yet again, Josh considered the temperature which was somewhere around 31 Deg Fahrenheit. Well, all this was fodder for future circumspection, thought Josh. Having steadied himself Josh opened the door and strode into the large room, his usual swagger somewhat subdued, with a ready confident smile casually hung on his lips and a steady confident gait. What he saw made him gasp aloud….
Ratan was ecstatic…the mango tree was adorned with small white flowers…his mouth watered at the prospect of relishing the ripe mangoes in the next few months…
He still remembered how he had planted the sapling last year…he had worked hard to earn the pocket money which financed that purchase from a well known shop in the city…on the journey back, he had proudly held the pithy sapling in his tiny palms, which according to him looked fragile and susceptible to the winds…
He had then nursed the sapling with utmost care…he had bought old and discarded gardening books and toiled hard to make sure that the sapling lived to become a tree…
As he used to tend to the soil, he used to dream of the tree growing up…spreading nice cool shadow…and bearing ripe fruits in the summers…he could almost feel the sapling, something akin to what J C Bose’s instrument had done…he used to caress the tiny leaves and watch them grow…he used to be cautious and prudent in administering the exact amount of compost and water…he was patient and methodical…and he waited with bated breath for the tree to grow up…
All his labor and love had finally made his dream come true…as he lay sprawling under the tree, he congratulated himself and smiled…the tree’s big branches and thick canopy provided respite from the summer sun…Ratan could feel his eyelids getting heavy and drooping…finally he fell asleep with the book clutched in his hands…
That evening thunderstorms rampaged and wreaked havoc in the locality…Ratan was sad to see the flowers getting detached…as he went to sleep, he was pleased that the storm had subsided and there was still hope…the leftover flowers would bear enough fruits for him and his family…
As he got up in the dawn, he ambled outside…as was his habit, everyday he used to stroll in the garden with the neem stick stuck in his mouth…with sleepy eyes, he relished the cold breeze…as his eyes wandered, he stopped in his tracks…he froze on the spot…he couldn’t believe it…throwing away the neem stick, he ran pell mell…his feet flying over the dew laden grass…finally he stopped…panting he stared at what lay ahead…the mango tree was all but destroyed…it was burnt and charred badly…it seems that the lightning had chosen the tree, the night before…
Tears streaming down his face, he ran back to the house…his grandpa consoled him…after a look at the burnt remnants, he told Ratan that there was a good chance that the tree might survive after all…the trunk didn’t seem to be totally burnt…they would have to wait and see…
As Ratan returned from his village school in the evening, he was surprised to hear high pitched shouts in his courtyard…people barking orders in Hindustani dialect and the sound of saw blades…his worst fears confirmed, Ratan ran like mad…he could see his father talking with a stranger and counting wads of notes…he couldn’t believe it…how was this possible…didn’t his grandpa resist… didn’t his father heed his grandpa’s pleas?
Seeing all his efforts coming to naught, Ratan stopped…with a misty gaze he looked one last time to see the trunk being chopped off into pieces…finally he could bear to look no more…he cried out aloud…but no sound came out…the pain somewhere inside him was excruciating…suffocating…
He got up and walked into the house…later that night, he promised to himself…he would work in Shyam uncle’s store during the summer holidays and buy another sapling…but this time he would not plant it in his courtyard…this time he would choose someplace else, where greedy people like his father wouldn’t be able to stake a claim to…someplace where his dreams will be his alone…to nurture…to realise…