Stories that need to be told-8

Treachery begets treachery

Advertisements

Serpent

hallway with window

My name is David Strauss, but I have entered this place under a false identity.  It is all a part of careful planning.

My cell is small and seems smaller thanks to my cell mate, a hulking giant of a man. He seems very much at home, certainly a veteran here in the prison. He continues to sit on the lower bunk and lets me stand with my prison gear in my arms, while he considers which bunk I should occupy.

“Listen punk, I am used to living alone.”

Me too, I thought, but did not dare to speak.

He stood up and nearly touched the ceiling. His massive arms were covered by tattoos, one of which read ‘Mama’s pet.’ I would have laughed but knew that I would certainly lose a few teeth if I did so. Probably matched by a few broken bones chosen at random.

“So, Pukeface, they dumped you on me?”

I said mildly “My name is Robert Bannister. And you are….?”

I was flat on the ground before I realised what had happened. My gear had gone flying all over the place and the bar of soap was in the toilet bowl. My head pained where it had hit the wall.

“You take the lower bunk.” No reason was extended for the slap, but it served its purpose. I was now totally intimidated and under his control. I got up and dusted myself. Gathered my belongings and gingerly sat on the lower bunk.

“Pukeface, pick up your soap too. Else it will clog the drain.”

I nearly justified my new name as I fished out the soap. I swallowed my tears and wondered if I would be able to endure this unforeseen calamity. My plans had not included a giant who would hit me at will.

As I said earlier, my name is David Strauss but I am not telling that to anyone. I was generally called ‘Pencil’ in my organisation because of my tiny frame, as also because I had a pencil always stuck behind my right ear. I kept accounts in a shipping and transport company and needed a pencil always to be handy. The pay was good, very good indeed. That was because I was paid to maintain two sets of books. One for the tax guys and another one for the owners, which was supposed to show the real profits. In fact, for some time now it too was not showing the real picture because of a sweet little scam I was running.

Heck, who am I kidding? I was laundering money for Santino ‘Sharpie’ Rossini, a brutal gangster with his fingers in many pies, both legit and illicit. He was in all kinds of shady dealings like extortion, kidnapping, drugs, slumlord and more, and relied on me to channelize his ill-gotten wealth. But in the process I was able to skim off a healthy little something for me too. That helped in giving Julie, my girlfriend, a life style she always wanted. She was aware of what I did and the private racket I was running. But I was getting worried and sat her down for a talk one night.

“Baby, it is OK to steal from criminals,” she justified.

“Right, but I have drawn up an emergency drill. Just in case they find out.”

She frowned, “How would that happen?”

I gave her a peck and explained,  “Santino gives me bags full of cash, which I carry to a guy with whom I have negotiated a deal. This person has restaurants, casinos, gas stations, dance bars, parking lots and such; places which have mostly cash dealings. He mixes Santino’s cash with his collections and deposits it in banks. Takes a cut of 15% and issues cheques to Santino’s legit businesses for services supposedly rendered based on fake invoices raised by me.”

“I get it. But how do you make something out of it?”

I laughed, “For quite some time, I have been giving less cash to the guy. Santino thinks the cut is still 25%, even though I have brought it down. Bulk discount, you know!”

Julie laughed with me, “Smart! But he doesn’t send anyone with you?”

“He used to. But I fed him a story about the guy becoming nervous when I enter his premises with some of his heavy artillery. He then sent me alone but kept a close watch on the money coming in. Still does. But he does not know that the terms have changed. My fear is that someday he may find out.”

Julie thought it over carefully,  “So, what is the emergency drill?”

“I have worked it out babe. There are two brown suitcases full of cash in the garage. I have also readied fake IDs for you and me.  If you ever receive a text message from me asking if your sister has come home, take these and run. Go to La Paz, Mexico. One year after you reach there, start going to Café Mexicana on every Monday for lunch. I will make my way there as soon as I can, once the heat dies down.”

“Why can’t you come with me?”

I shook my head, “They would have people looking out for me at the airports, bus stands and such. As far as I know, they don’t know about you.”

She looked worried now,  “And where will you hide?”

“That is the beauty of the scheme. Safest place for me will be a prison in some other city on a minor charge. I will be OK for money. Have hidden cash in several places. “

Santino did find out. I overheard him in his office one day talking to another businessman, who offered to launder his money at 13% instead of 15% under the present arrangement. I realised the jig was up and we ran.

The bed creaked as Hulk climbed onto the top bunk. I had to immediately lie very flat on my bunk, as Hulk’s considerable weight created a huge sag on the bunk upstairs and my nose had a leeway of only a couple of inches.  I passed an uneasy first night and the clanging of the guard’s baton on the cell’s bars woke me up just as I was nodding off. I couldn’t believe that it was morning already.

I sighed and slid out sideways from my bunk. Already inmates in many of the cells were standing near the gates, with tin cups in their hands. Hulk tilted slightly and let off a barrage that boomed like a canon and smelled like a garbage truck. A weapon of mass destruction which left me gasping for air. The guard was back after banging on all the cells in his beat and stopped in front of me.

“Prisoner 23245, why is your mate not up yet? Go and shake him up,” he barked.

I looked uneasily over my shoulder and saw that hulk was stirring and a loud yawn escaped his mouth. Having thus greeted the morning from both ends of his body, he smiled and scratched his armpits.

“Prisoner 9754, if you are not out of the bunk in ten seconds, you are looking at time in the solitary,” barked the guard again, as his partner also came and stood next to him. He likes to live alone, I thought, and prayed that Hulk gets hauled off to the solitary. But Hulk knew better than to tangle with the guards and he climbed down, pushed me out of the way and stood in front of me. Soon, the cell doors clanged open and we moved out in a single file. I knew better than to make eye contact with anyone and shuffled along with downcast eyes.

I kept my head down for the next three months and hoped that I will get time off for good behaviour and be out of this place in another six months. I had been sentenced to two years in jail on a breaking and entry charge, to which I had pleaded guilty and saved the Government a lot of expense and time. That was part of the plan too.

I settled down in the routine, got pushed around by the hulk often but managed to survive. That routine was broken today. I was minding my own business and moved along in the line that snaked through a large dining area and made slow progress towards the serving counters. When my turn came, I extended my tin cup and kept my eyes down. Did not feel like picking up the sorry excuse of a biscuit, which had become soggy from the carelessly splashed coffee. I was about to move ahead when I heard my name whispered.

“Pencil!”

I almost dropped my cup in shock and glanced up. The prisoner who had served me was also looking down and whispered from the corner of his mouth, “Exercise yard. Be there.”

I walked in a daze to the farthest row in the dining area and drank the lukewarm brown water that was masquerading as coffee. Raucous conversation flowed around me but I was oblivious to the din. My head was in a whirl and I wondered who had found me here. I glanced at the guy who had served me. His head was shaven and sat on muscular shoulders. Thick eyebrows shielded his mean looking eyes and his thin lips were clenched tight. He looked vaguely familiar, but I could not remember where I had seen him before.  I finished my drink and went with the other prisoners for a shower. Did the tasks assigned to me and then back to my cell.

Another hour passed and it was exercise time. I went along with the masses and entered the exercise yard on the right side of the quadrangle. I had hardly ever come to this side as it was not really my thing. I preferred to spend time playing poker with some similar sized inmates in the other half.

The exercise yard had dumbbells and weights haphazardly littering the ground and I walked over there as I had been bid. It was necessary for me to find out who had identified me and what he wanted. My accoster was straining under a bar of weights, doing bench presses. He got up on seeing me and walked to a corner, followed by me.

“Looksee, looksee what I found here,” he said.

I kept my counsel. He turned and squinted at me.

“Where have you kept the money?”

“Huh, what money?”

“Don’t mess with me. We know you have skimmed close to a million.”

It was actually more than that but I was not going to correct him.

“How did you find me?” I bleated. I could place the man now. He was Carlos, one of Santino’s enforcers.

Carlos stared at me with eyes full of malice.

“You really are smart, ain’t ya? We have all spent the last few months searching for you and getting crap from Santino. And here you are hiding in a prison. I could kill you right now for the grief you have given me.”

I was trembling in shock and fear. Did Santino know I was here?

“Bad luck that I was hauled in for the ruckus I created in a bar near here. Got sixty days in the slammer. But then I get kitchen duty for the first time today, and who do I find? A rat everyone is looking for.”

I bit my lips and suppressed a shiver.

“I am out in another fifteen days. Santino will get the word out to some people in here once I tell him about you. Maybe I too will come and have the pleasure of torturing you.”

I could not say a word as my throat had dried up.

Carlos laid a heavy hand on my shoulder, “Santino has offered ten grand for information on you.  Oh boy, will I have a fling with that moolah!”

I felt like a deer standing in the headlights of an onrushing truck. My mouth opened and shut but no words came. My mind was whirling at top speed trying to find a way out. And it came unexpectedly due to that most basic failure of human beings. Greed.

Carlos looked around and said, “Listen. No one knows I am here. Give me half and my lips are sealed. As far as Santino is concerned, I will still be looking for you in different places.”

He tossed his cigarette and crushed it under his foot.

“As I see it, you will die a slow death and still reveal where the money is hidden. Or give me half and live happily ever after. Make a smart choice. Think it over in the next couple of days.”

He turned on his heels and walked away, leaving me holding on to the wall for support.

The next few days passed in a haze. I was not sure if I could trust Carlos, but could not see any other options. I did my assigned work swabbing the floors of the prison in auto mode as I imagined the worst.

After three days, Carlos was back in the kitchen and looked at me hard as I received my slop from him. I gave a small nod.

“Same place today,” he said.

I joined him in the afternoon in the yard.

“There are two bags buried in the forest. They contain about four hundred grand. This is a map showing the exact location,” I said, showing him a piece of paper. He extended his hand to take it.

“I have your word that nothing will happen to me now?”

He took the paper.

” Yeah. Boy scout’s honour,” and laughed.

“I will tell that you have extorted a million from me if Santino tries to hurt me here.”

Carlos looked hard at me as he computed, “Won’t happen.”

Carlos went away after completing his sentence. One day soon after, I was assigned to work in the library, sorting old newspapers, arranging books left on the table, dusting etc. A carelessly tossed newspaper was open at a page and Santino’s picture on it caught my attention. The news said that Santino had been killed along with many of his gang members in a police encounter. A few had escaped and a massive manhunt was underway to catch them. The news was about two months old.

I realised that Carlos had taken me for a ride.

He is in for a big surprise if he thinks that he will be able to enjoy the easy money he got from me.

The two bags whose location he has are part of a larger stash located at different places on different occassions. These two bags contain my last skimming just before I had to run. They hold ransom money for a kidnapping in which the police had been alerted. Carlos does not know that.

I am pretty sure the bills are marked and can be traced.

If you step on a snake, you will be bitten. It just doesn’t matter if you are bigger than it.

888888888888

 

 

 

 

Stories that need to be told-7

A journey of discovery

The story collector

artistic blossom bright clouds
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The magnificent steed was showing signs of exhaustion, as was its rider. The noble heads were no longer held high but were drooping ever so often. The summer sun had beaten down mercilessly on them before finally admitting defeat and slinking down the horizon.

Prince Samarsen had been travelling for many days now and had left his kingdom far behind. The journey needed to be completed quickly as death hovered over this kingdom. Thirst was a killer.  But he did not know when and where his journey will end or indeed if it ever will.

He patted the neck of his steed, “Old boy, we need to keep going.”

The gallant horse poured its heart out for its master and tried to keep up the pace. But it was faltering and soon a gasp escaped it. The horse and the rider both tumbled to the ground. Samarsen watched helplessly as the horse’s chest heaved to feed air to the starving lungs. Soon the big eyes closed and Samarsen’s faithful companion reached the end of its journey. Samarsen wanted to sit for a while with the dead horse, more a comrade in arms than a beast, but he needed to continue .He moved his fingers through the mane of the horse one last time by way of a farewell and pressed forward.

Samarsen could see a cluster of trees a little ahead, swaying in the gentle breeze. He followed a barely visible trail into the glade and found that he was actually entering into a forest which stretched a fair distance. It was becoming dark and he decided to stop soon. Presently he came to a handsome looking tree and laid his weary body under it. But sleep eluded him. His thoughts turned homeward and he could once again feel the burden of a kingdom’s hopes on his shoulders.

The outcome of this journey would seal the fate of many. His father, the king, wanted to undertake the journey himself, but was too old and frail to do so. His thoughts turned to the fateful chain of events which had torn him away from his comfortable abode, as he drifted off to sleep.

A voice boomed in his head…..

‘Who lies here?Who speaks?’

Samarsen awoke with a start and wondered if he had dreamt the queries. Or had someone heard the unspoken words that were tumbling around in his dream?

He looked up and saw the leaves of the tree glimmering and shining in the moonlight. He noticed that some of them had fallen and covered his body as he slept. He picked one up to examine and stared in amazement as he found it to be made of silver. Samarsen got up abruptly and examined the thick trunk of the tree. His eyes widened in wonder as he found it to be of gold. This was indeed a magical tree which had penetrated his dreams and wanted to know more. Maybe it had the answers he sought.

The prince had been brought up well and the values of respect and supplication to the divine form had been drilled into him by his teachers. He fell to his knees with folded hands and spoke, ”O divine one! It is I, Samarsen, the first born of King Amarsen, who took shelter under you without seeking your permission. Please forgive me. Please also forgive me if my thoughts disturbed your peace.”

Somewhere above in the darkness a few wings fluttered nervously. And then the voice spoke in his head, just as before.

‘Your spoken words cause ripples that disturb others around me. I can hear your thoughts and want to know what brings you here. Be comfortable and tell me your story from the beginning.’

“Indeed, O divine one. May I be bold enough to ask who listens to my tale?”

A moment passed and he heard the voice in his head again.

‘I am the story collector. Many have rested here and narrated their tales. Each story feeds my growth. So it is with genuine interest that I ask you to tell me why you have left the comforts of home to spend the night in my company.’

Samarsen relaxed and recollected the recent events that had caused such an upheaval in his kingdom. It had all begun many moons back when a minister had brought a hunter, trembling in awe, to the royal court and presented him before his father.

The hunter could barely utter what he had seen, “Sire, I had gone to the end of the forest to hunt and saw that our river has changed its course completely. It now does not flow into our territory but bends and moves into King Rudrapratap’s kingdom.”

The king and the entire court were stunned at this news. The river was their only supply of water and Rudrapratap was certainly not going to share this unexpected bounty with his enemy.

The king addressed the army chief, “Send some swift riders to confirm the news.”

After a while, the army chief came to the royal court and said with bowed head,” Sire, the path of the river towards the kingdom now lies dry and it has made a complete turn towards the neighbouring kingdom. The soldiers also confirmed that they could not see any obstruction to the waters which may have caused this catastrophe.”

“It is some magic,” said a wizened old minister.

Amarsen too felt the need for some divine interpretation. “Let us brief Sanghmitra about what has happened and request his presence.”

“That would be wise sire. Our resident seer is knowledgeable and gifted. He would certainly find the cause and cure of this misery that has befallen the kingdom.”

They waited with bated breath for Sanghmitra to arrive. Sanghmitra came to the royal court followed at a respectful distance by his students. He surveyed the anxious congregation but said nothing. The holy fire was lit and mantras resonated in the big hall. Slowly, the smoke began to rise and filled the room with an aroma that was at once sacred and enticing.

“Is that the image of a man I see?” said Amarsen peering into the smoke.

The man in the smoky haze appeared to walk towards the gates of the kingdom in tattered clothes. Sanghmitra’s chants grew in fervour as he put more offerings in the holy fire.

“The man has been stopped at the gate and stands there in thought,” said the minister of revenue to the nearly blind minister of agriculture.

Another trembling voice joined in, “Look he has poured some drops of water into his right hand and seems to be saying something.”

The form in the smoke casually sprinkled the drops in the direction of the walled city. He then turned and walked away.

The smoke cleared and they found Sanghmitra lying in a trance. Sanghmitra spoke gravely when he regained his senses, “I could connect with the man as only pious souls can. I now know him. He has been meditating in the forest on the outskirts of our kingdom for many years now. He is one whose kundalini is fully awake with all seven chakras energised and charged. He has attained several paranormal powers through his intense meditation.”

Sanghmitra shook his head in regret and continued, “He was driven by thirst to our kingdom and was not allowed to enter. It is by his curse that all the water has been withdrawn from our territory. Now we need to find him and beg forgiveness.”

Samarsen frowned in thought and spoke,” I think I am responsible for what has happened. I was afraid of spies entering the kingdom and had directed the guards not to allow anyone in. It is my fault and I should go and find him.”

Several eyes turned towards the king. Amarsen got up from the throne and the frail frame stood tall and erect despite the fever that racked it.

”Be that as it may. You had acted in good faith. But it is the king’s duty to take care of his citizens. I need to go forthwith.”

Samarsen rose quickly on his feet,” And it is the son’s duty to discharge his father’s responsibilities, if he is not in a condition to do so.” He turned to Sanghmitra and asked “Just tell me how I will recognise this saint that we have wronged.”

Sanghmitra smiled. ”O, Prince! You are a noble son and think rightly. Go forth on your journey. Seek and you shall find. But this needs to be your quest alone.”

Samarsen set off on his journey after offering prayers to the presiding deities of the kingdom. He travelled north as bid by Sanghmitra. His horse carried him swiftly and after a few days he reached the walls of a city well beyond the borders of his kingdom.

“May I enter your gates?” he asked the guards.

“Yes stranger, you are welcome. This is the kingdom of Rajah Bhuvaneshwar who welcomes all. Enjoy our hospitality for as long as you wish,” one of the guards said with a warm smile.

The city was abuzz with laughter and cheer. People smiled at him. Children raced to him and hugged him without any reservations, filling him with an infectious delight that washed away his tiredness.

Samarsen tied his horse outside a tavern that was alive with sounds of merriment. Immediately a boy came from inside with water and some hay which he placed near the horse. He was gone by the time Samarsen could take out his purse.

“Never mind, I shall pay the landlord. This looks like a good place to spend the night too,” he said to himself.

The landlord clasped his arms around him as if welcoming a long lost brother, sat him down on a stool by the counter and offered him the local wine and some cheese.

Samarsen took out his purse and laid a few gold coins on the table.

”I wish to spend the night here. Hope this will cover for everything.”

There was a sudden hush as the patrons looked at each other and then the one sitting next to Samarsen slid a coin over to him and smiled.

”And what would we do with this?” he asked, holding aloft the coin.

“It is money. One can use it to buy stuff.”

“What is buying? We don’t have it here,” said the landlord.

“Then how do you get the wine and the food and all this stuff?” Samarsen swept his arm around to indicate all the fixtures.

“We ask each other,” said the landlord.

“I provide the wheat when he wants,” said a man sitting in the shadows.

“And I mill it.”

“I made the stools.”

The landlord leaned his elbows on the counter, “And they can eat and drink here.”

Someone started a song and everyone joined in. Soon the inn was filled with gay laughter and several patrons whirled around in a fast paced dance.

Samarsen excused himself and went to bed. He woke up early the next day and wandered around in the city. People were up and about, greeting each other as they went about their chores. There was so much welcoming cheer in the air that he felt extremely at home and could have stayed there forever. Samarsen had a hearty breakfast at a shop and asked the owner if he could do something in return.

“Not today my friend. But come another day and I may ask you for something.”

Samarsen walked to the inn deep in thought. Everyone was happy here because they had no concept of money. No one was in debt. And everyone gladly helped one another because this society seemed to be based on the concept of mutual trust and helpfulness.

“Maybe, the seer too liked the place and has settled down here.” The thought spurred him and he virtually ran to the inn.

The landlord was cleaning the place along with his family and many others who had turned up to help.

“Yes, a seer did visit here a couple of days back but did not stay.”

“Why? It is a place that any person would love to stay in.”

The landlord shrugged, “We do not ask questions. Questions are the off springs of doubt. And doubt’s sister is unhappiness.”

Samarsen pitched in to help and then bade him goodbye. He turned his horse in the direction where the seer was last seen headed.

“And that is how I come to be here, O divine being. I seek the seer to beg his forgiveness.”

‘Yes, the person you seek had also rested here and told me his tale. I now have the complete story. Rest now and I will point you in his direction in the morning.’

“Do you also know why the seer did not stop at the happy place?”

‘I do. But it is best that you ask him.’

Samarsen passed a restless night and at the crack of dawn begged the tree to tell him the way to the seer.

‘Continue behind me. He meditates a little ahead.’

Thorns ripped at his flesh as Samarsen made his way through dense shrubbery. He parted a particularly large bush and was overjoyed to find that he was finally at the end of his journey. The seer’s eyes were closed as he sat unmoving on a rock, deep in meditation.

Samarsen too sat down cross legged below him. He lost count of how many hours passed like that. But he did not dare to move lest it disturb the seer. At first his mind filled with anxiety about how everyone was faring at home in his long absence. But that disappeared soon and he felt at peace. He too closed his eyes. His mind emptied gradually and his body relaxed.

Several days passed. At last, he sensed the intensity of the seer’s gaze on him and opened his eyes.

The seer was looking at him. ”I know you are here on a mission.”

Samarsen bowed his head before him.

“We have wronged you badly. It was I who was responsible for you being turned away from our gates. Punish me but please spare my people.”

The seer’s eyes seemed to penetrate into Samarsen’s soul, ”And you have some queries?”

“Yes,O wise one! I passed through a kingdom where everyone was so happy. You were there too. I was wondering if it was because of absence of money in their society.”

The seer shook his head, “It is not the absence of money which makes them happy. It is the absence of greed. Greed for possessing more than what others have. They do not lust for more than their basic needs and in the process everyone is satisfied and happy.”

He looked hard at Samarsen,” A different kind of greed has brought this misery on you. The greed to retain what you have and not share it with others.”

Samarsen bowed his head, “I understand. Please tell me also why you walked away from such a happy place?”

The seer’s face softened for the first time, “Happiness also chains you. It stops you from exploring and to experiment lest it change your state. Consequently you stop growing. That society has remained where it was for almost a century. I am on a journey of self-actualisation and stagnancy is alien to my nature.”

Samarsen felt a sense of upliftment at having found this learned seer after an arduous journey. Now if only he can persuade him to forgive.

“O, enlightened one! Please drink from the cup of kindness and lift the curse over my people.  Let the river flow again and quench their thirst.”

“I cannot lift the curse. I can only transfer it elsewhere.”

Samarsen thought for a moment. He could request the curse to be placed on the doorstep of King Rudrapratap. He looked up and saw the seer smiling at him. It hit him that the seer was testing him to see if he had imbibed what had been told to him.

“Please transfer it unto me and let my people be happy.”

The seer poured some water in his palm, “You realise you will never be able to touch water again? And remain thirsty till you die?”

“So be it.”

A few drops of water hit Samarsen.

Samarsen lay down on the ground to await the inevitable. He smiled as an image of happy children frolicking in the new born river crossed his mind.

The seer closed his eyes again and resumed his meditation.

The story collector waited for the next traveller.

********************

 

 

 

Stories that need to be told-6

Love is a many splendored thing

IMG-20180419-WA0001
Illustrated by B.Joshan

Cupids don’t miss

I have a near photographic memory. It is both a gift and a curse.

It was raining that night too. The suppressed memories are flooding back as I sit near the empty hospital bed, listening to the thunder and blinking as powerful lightening streaks across the dark skies and makes crazy patterns on the window of the hospital room.

“She is the reason I get up every morning.” I had said to my father.

My father had refused to acknowledge that what I felt was much more than a crush or simple infatuation as he termed it. The object of my desire was a girl who I had been working with for about six months. I had been lucky enough or maybe bright enough, to crack a tough competitive examination and was now a probationary officer in a prestigious bank. My parents had visited me at the small town I was posted in; my mother bursting with joy at the thought of her son having made good and my father reticent as usual, but with pride and love shining through the glasses of his spectacles. I had slyly invited them to my branch and with apparent casualness introduced Maria as a colleague. They did not have a clue as to what was going on.

Maria was a dusky girl and had a habit of humming the latest English songs under her breath when she was alone. To tell the truth, she was the first girl with whom I interacted with for some length of time. I had always been a shy person and had been brought up in a conservative and orthodox household. I thus hardly had any opportunity to meet anyone of the opposite gender in a social set up. Except for my aunt’s daughter who was almost my age and was always pulling my leg, leaving me absolutely flustered every time I met her, so much so that I had started to avoid her all together. This fear got extended to all girls in my college too. But Maria was different. She made me feel very comfortable in her presence. Her eyes twinkled and she laughed freely whenever I narrated the latest jokes I had read in my favourite magazine. But her own quips were original, spontaneous and wittier. I was terribly attracted by her fun loving spirit and with her devil may care attitude. I realised that I was falling in love. All the signs were there…the day dreaming, the sleepless nights, the sweet pain when she was absent for a few days due to a sickness….

I could not gather courage to propose to her, being mortally afraid of rejection and the awkwardness that would surely ensue thereafter. After much agonising, I had hit upon the perfect plan. Let my mother broach the subject of marriage with her. If her reaction was not positive, I could always say that it was my mother’s idea and I had nothing to do with it. We would then have a hearty laugh and all would be well. God was surely working in my favour as my parents had made their appearance right in time!

That day I had returned home late in the evening after having coffee with Maria after work and happily listening to her commentary about the silliness of banking in general and our branch in particular. I was soaked to the skin by the heavy rains as I had lent my umbrella to Maria, who as usual had pooh poohed the weather forecast earlier.

My parents were creatures of habit and had finished their dinner. Mother warmed up the food for me and I approached my future with a lot of trepidation.

“Mommy, what do you think about Maria?”

She replied noncommittally, “She is nice. Have some more dal.”

My father put down the book he was reading, suddenly attentive. His expression indicated that he was expecting a bombshell.

“I would like to marry her. I love her.”

“So, the first girl who is willing to talk to you gets to be your wife?” asked my father.

“No papa. I am serious. I love her very much.”

“Don’t be silly. She is older than you, not that pretty and you are just attracted to her as she is the only young person in your branch. I understand that.”

“Does she eat meat?” my mother had interjected worriedly.

I had decided to address my dad first and tried to make him understand that my Sun rose and set with her.

“Bah! I get up every morning to go to the toilet. Does it mean I should marry the commode?”

My mouth hung open and I could not think of an adequate response to this convoluted logic.

“She would wear skirts in the house. Even before elders.” said my mother, dabbing her eyes.

I got up angrily and left without finishing my meal. For the first time my mother did not entreat me to finish my food or follow me with the food plate. An uneasy quiet enveloped my modest house and everyone passed a sleepless night. It rained heavily that night as the heavens poured water over my happiness.

The next day I readied for office in silence. My father made the first move.

“You would have to make a choice between her and us. I would never be able to welcome her in my home.”

“You are watching too many Hindi films.” I retorted angrily.

My mother offered a compromise, “Don’t say anything more now. Wait for a year and if you are still keen on her, go ahead and marry in court.”

I had passed the whole day in a mental flux, torn between my filial responsibilities and the tugs of my heart strings. Maria was oblivious of my state and flitted around the branch as she went about doing her work.  When I came back home I found my parents all packed up and ready to go home ahead of schedule. My mother offered a lame explanation about some relative being sick. I was my father’s son…too proud to bend and I saw them off at the station.

That year had progressed very slowly as I kept my feelings to myself. Maria left for her native place on her annual vacation and returned after New Year, positively glowing, very much engaged and in love so transparent that it drove daggers in my heart. She immediately tendered her resignation and talked incessantly about moving to Australia with her fiancé. My world became dark and I rued about missed chances and what could have been.

That was my first love, lost due to timidity. I was sure it will remain as my only one. Then Sharmila came in as my life partner, duly approved and endorsed by my parents. I had surrendered unconditionally to their wishes and married as directed by them. I did not love her.  I had neutral feelings for her, more like a tolerant acceptance. No one told her about my past. My parents mistakenly felt that with time I had outgrown my ‘infatuation’, and I never brought up the subject again.

Sharmila devoted herself to turning my house into a comfortable home. She had a knack for finding inexpensive items and arranging them aesthetically. Potted plants dotted the balcony and gradually I started warming towards her. She was like an innocent waif, traipsing around with nary a care. But Maria was always around as an invisible presence between us. It is true. You cannot forget your first love. But you can live with it even if you did not succeed.

“Sharmila, what is the point of getting this expensive crockery?”

“I do not want you to be embarrassed when we invite your friends for dinner.”

“I do not have friends that I would like to invite for dinner.”

“O.k. Then it is so that you would not be embarrassed in front of my friends and relatives.”

“But we have to live within a budget and save for the future,” I had said eying my two children.

“Oh oh, as if saving on crockery will make us a millionaire. Don’t fret so much. God will provide.” Hard to argue with logic like that.

Years rolled by. My parents passed away and the children started their own families. Sharmila used to open the door and welcome me with a smile as I returned home from work. One day the door was unlocked and I found her at the dining table, slumped with her head on her arms.

“I do not feel well, Feverish.”

I touched her forehead. ”Oh,it is a very light fever. Not to worry. You will be O.K. soon.”

But she was not keeping well and complained about lack of energy. The slow fever did not subside and I was genuinely concerned. She reluctantly accompanied me to consult a doctor, who advised some tests. The results shocked us. It was the big C.  I cannot forget the look on her face as she gazed at me with large round eyes and tried to fathom what was happening to her. In her childlike innocence, she expected my reassurances that all will be well and my children and I fed her positive lies constantly. Her condition continued to deteriorate and soon she was shifted to the hospital. I caught her weeping many times. She even apologised for the trouble she was causing to me. I felt broken, even though I presented a brave front. I took early retirement and accompanied her for her chemo, twice a week. She was suffering silently and I tended to her as best as I could, despite my blood pressure and tricky back. Two years back, she passed away peacefully in her sleep. God had finally taken pity on her and relieved her of her pain.

Looking back, I feel that Sharmila had helped me to come to terms with my lost love but could not replace it. But something has changed now…

I didn’t think I would ever fall in love again.  I felt a gut wrenching emotion, much more potent than anything I had ever experienced. I honestly believed I would never like to go through that experience again.  I was 22 then and life is long. But I’m feeling things right now that I haven’t in a long, long time.

A tap on my shoulder broke my reverie. My daughter was back from the toilet and was asking for her three day old baby back.  My soul melted as I extricated my finger clutched tightly in her tiny fist and handed her over. She looked so much like a little Sharmila.

I am in love again.

*************

 

Stories that need to be told-5

Run,baby,run!

Escape to freedom

suitcaseThe day began like any other, with no hint of the storm it carried in its bosom.  Chitra woke up when the first rays of the sun crept through the window and kissed her cheek tenderly. She stretched languidly and for a moment thought of not getting out of the bed. It was just too cold and the comfort provided by the warmth of the quilt was too hard to resist.  But she could not afford to miss her assignment. After all, reputation was everything in her profession.

“Get up and don’t let up,” she said to herself, just as she had been saying the last five years while she struggled to set up her business. She had bought the unimaginatively named ‘Kapoor’s Photo Studio’ a week after she had arrived in this quaint town. Mr. Kapoor had exited from this world in a tragic accident under unexplained circumstances. His two wheeler was found badly damaged on the wrong side of the road and Mr. Kapoor was found in a nearby ditch, one hundred per cent deceased, having paid the price of going helmet less. All his friends and acquaintances were amazed as to how Mr. Kapoor had gone to the wrong side of the road, as he was a very cautious human being. The hit and run case had not been solved till date. “Destiny cannot be dodged,” was the general consensus. But Chitra was aware that this was not a random accident but a carefully orchestrated event.

Mr. Kapoor was a widower and his only son, having a well paid job in Dubai, had no interest in taking over a debt ridden photo studio. Two days after he posted a ‘For sale or lease’ notice on the shop, Chitra appeared on the scene and made a reasonable offer to buy the place in cash. The deal was quickly struck and Mr. Kapoor’s son paid off the bank’s debt under a compromise formula and then took the first flight back to Dubai. He was relieved, to say the least, and was never heard of again.

A fresh garishly painted signboard went up soon.‘Chitra’s Clicks, Bridal photography our speciality (Mehndi artist also available)’, read the new sign embellished with the pretty face of an actress in her wedding finery. The studio made steady progress and started making a small profit from the third year, mainly because it carried no burden of debt servicing. Also the lovely photography (and the equally lovely photographer) drew in customers. Marriage season was especially busy and today Chitra was to cover a musical function, part of the grand Indian wedding celebrations.

She had a quick bath and made her usual breakfast of two fried eggs and toast. She was 32, happily unmarried, and mistress of her own destiny. She nibbled at her toast as she read the morning paper. The headlines proclaimed that a full-fledged investigation and hunt for the attackers of the air force station in the town was underway and arrests will be made soon. Although this was going on for two days now, it still had not jaded the readers’ interest and newspapers were milking the story.

Chitra slung her camera bag around her neck and started for the wedding venue. Half way through she was stopped at a police picket, on the road leading to the air base.

“Where are you going?” asked a heavily bearded and turbaned police man.

Chitra flashed her brightest smile. ”Brother, I am going to Hall bazaar. I am a photographer and have to cover a wedding there.”

“Show me your I.D.”

Chitra dutifully produced her drivers’ licence and business card and was diverted to a side road and asked to take a longish detour to her destination. She smiled inwardly. Classic case of bolting the stable after the horses have fled!

She arrived at the venue half an hour late and was spared any flak as the would be bride was still not ready. She clicked about a hundred snaps and made her way to the studio after collecting the advance payment, grudgingly paid by the grumpy father of the bride. She arranged her digital camera on the rack and inserted the memory card in her computer as it warmed up. A pop up message announced that she had new mail. Her years of training had drummed it into her head that she should invariably check the emails immediately. More often than not, the mails were harmless solicitations from photographic equipment suppliers but she had to check all mails as soon as they arrived.

She stared at the email message on her computer, just three lines. Although she was mentally prepared for such an eventuality, the shock still left her dazed. She composed herself and read it again. The mail from Sandip (fictitious name) read

“Too much rains here, house is flooded and damaged.

Will have to shift to nani’s place.

Repairing crew on the way.”

Chitra knew what the message really said. It meant that her handler had been exposed, she was supposed to make her way to Nani’s place (Nepal) and the police may be on to her if her handler had cracked under pressure. She knew that she was in grave danger, as she had used her photographer’s cover to snap pictures of the air base and emailed them to headquarters about six months back. The first thing she needed to do was to format her computer to wipe out all data. This would give only temporary relief as the Indian agencies were well capable of restoring and extracting deleted files.

She sent off a reply, “Take care, bring back nani’s laddoos” to show that she had understood the message. The ‘laddoo’ was a code to indicate that the message had not been sent under threat of a gun. She then gave the format disk command.

Chitra locked the door of her studio from inside and glanced out. She could not see anything disturbing or out of the ordinary. She knew she had a crisis at hand and had to move quickly to ensure that she did not get caught. She knew the drill and mentally went through all the steps she needed to take. “Get up and don’t let up,” she said once again.

Zubeida had become Chitra about six years back.  Her home in Doda village was destroyed in a cross fire between the Indian army and militants. Her brother had joined a militant group, fed up with continued unemployment, and was visiting his home when it was surrounded by the police and army personnel. Zubeida had luckily gone out for groceries and became a distant, mute spectator to the destruction of her house and entire family. She had nowhere to go and in short time got recruited by a prominent militant outfit and received extensive indoctrination and training. She was then moved to another town, where she proved her worth through intelligence gathering and photo surveillance leading to a successful attack on a police camp. She made steady progress in the militant hierarchy with access to sensitive information. However, her handler was convinced that she had been seen near the police camp with her camera and moved her to her present location with new identity and sufficient funds. Mr.Kapoor was collateral damage brought about by her team, so that his studio became readily available for purchase and served as a cover.

She used the backdoor to quietly exit from the studio. She had no idea how much of a lead time she had before the sleuths traced her out. It all depended on how long her handler had been able to withstand the sustained questioning. She used the back alleys to reach a small house and knocked twice in short bursts of three. The door opened immediately and she was pulled inside by a well-built matronly woman.

“Salaam, Sandip’s house is flooded,” Zubeida said breathlessly.

The matron nodded and silently took her to an inside room. Her instructors had told her during training that a small suitcase in a designated safe house would always be kept packed and ready for every operative for just such a day. Even the safe house operators had their own safe houses and suitcases. Her’s was a cheap rexine affair, small in size and easy to carry. The matron pointed towards the bathroom and Zubeida changed into a sober sari outfit, discarding her salwar kameez. She put streaks of white in her hair and a brown foundation on her face and hands to tone down her fair skin to a wheatish colour.

The matronly lady handed over a sealed envelope.

“The code to the numbered locks on the suitcase is inside,” she said needlessly. Zubeida had been familiarised with the exit strategy during her training. She was aware that in the suitcase would be a standard package consisting of some clothes, a new passport, money and a book. The book would have to be opened at the same page as the three digit number code and a coded message sent to an email server, attaching the first word on the page to create the mail id, once she reached Nepal.  After that she would have to wait till contacted with further instructions. No gun would be provided to anyone as it would be difficult to explain it in case of a search.

She picked up her suitcase and wordlessly made her way out to catch a rickshaw to the bustling railway station. Her own house was on the way and she glanced wistfully at it, where the morning had begun so innocently. The realisation that she was again homeless and a fugitive hit her hard and she shook her head determinedly to get rid of foolish sentiments.

She reached the station without incident. “One ticket for Mughal Sarai,” she asked.

“The train is late by two hours due to fog,” and a ticket was slid through the counter opening along with change. Zubeida moved over to the crowded ladies waiting room and pondered over her getaway route. She will have to move from Mughal Sarai by bus to Birgunj, the Nepal border, flash her fake Indian passport at the guards and cross over. She could be questioned as to why she was going to Nepal alone. After some thought, she decided that the best answer would be that she is a widow on her way to pay homage to Pashupatinath temple, as that was her late husband’s last wish. She decided that she will procure an urn, fill it with some ash and tie a red cloth around it and carry it in her hand.  She made a mental note to do so after reaching Mughal Sarai. Her sari was already of a sombre hue and would pass muster.

The train chugged in, late by three hours now. She came out cautiously, remaining in the middle of the milling crowd. The usual posse of policemen were around but did not seem to be on alert. She felt relieved and boarded the train after some struggle. It was hopelessly crowded and she did not find any place to sit. It suited her just fine as the crowds will make it difficult for any meaningful search to be undertaken. The journey would last nearly 20 hours which would seem like a lifetime. She sat on her suitcase in the passage near the door and kept a watchful eye on the policemen, till finally the train shuddered and moved after a cheerful whistle. The rocking motion helped her to doze off as her tension melted.

Zubeida woke up near dawn. The train had stopped at some station and a newspaper stall on the platform was right in front of her eyes. “Oh my God,” she hissed under her breath as she stared at her unflattering photograph on the front page of the newspaper hanging on display. “Wanted for questioning,” screamed the headline in boldface. Luckily everyone in the coach was still asleep and she sighed with relief as the train left the station.

Zubeida went into the toilet and stared at her face. She looked quite different from the photograph and should be able to evade pursuit. A sudden thought struck her. Did the new passport mention that she was married and had her husband’s name on the back page? Otherwise her story would fall apart. She decided to check the passport and slit open the envelope. It contained 10,000 rupees and a slip of paper with the numbers 167. Zubeida dialled the numbers on the lock and opened the suitcase.

A blinding flash and an explosion ripped through the confined space of the toilet. Zubeida became another casualty of the ‘jihad’, taking with her all the secrets of the network, and free of all worldly worries.

 

******************

 

 

 

Stories that need to be told-4

Unfulfilled expectations are an unbearable burden

A son’s Life

He was the fourth born, after three sisters. His eldest sister was born three years after his parents got married and her name was chosen with great care and in consultation Image result for sad young man on a trainwith various stakeholders. Finally she was anointed Prajwala, a relatively uncommon name. It meant ‘bright’ in Sanskrit. Two years later another sister made her appearance. This time the celebrations were decidedly muted and she was named Lakshmi without any fanfare. His parents took another three years to gather their courage and tried various pujas but alas, all their efforts were in vain and his third sister was sent into their disbelieving arms. For years she was just called Babli and chose her own name when she was admitted to school. She told the Principal that her name was Ankita and that was it. Ankita was her playmate neighbour.

He was perhaps their last attempt to have a son in the family. He was born another three years after Ankita, due to a forceful intervention by his aunt Sheila, who convinced his parents to visit a seer. A religious ceremony was organised and his parents promised to feed 11 brahmins if they begot a son. Praise be to the lord, it worked!

His grandmother later told him at least a hundred times about the joyous welcome his mother had when she came back from the hospital with him in her arms. His aunt Sheila was also waiting at the door of their house, and beamed with joy when his mother put him in her arms. There is photographic evidence of this occasion. He was then laid into the ‘almost new’ cradle by his aunt who got the privilege of rocking him first, by virtue of being indirectly responsible for bringing him into this world. His three sisters anxiously peered into the cradle. There is photographic evidence of that too. The holy books were consulted, the seer was also consulted, and finally he got a name the world would call him by. He was named Rajeshwar. He hated that name.

Rajeshwar was pampered. He was like a prince and his parents shielded him and protected him from evil eyes. His wish was their command even if they had to stretch the family budget to accommodate it. Meanwhile his sisters were growing up on dresses handed down to Prajwala by Rajeshwar’s relatives and then downwards with timely stitches, nip and tucks at the adroit hands of his mother. Rajeshwar always had new clothes when he overgrew the old ones.

Rajeshwar could do no wrong. His sisters were admonished even if it was he who broke something in the kitchen. They were at fault if he did not eat his meals. Prajwala was supposed to rock him and sing a lullaby if he did not sleep in time. Rajeshwar’s indigestion was because Lakshmi forgot to take him out for a walk in the park.

Time flew. Rajeshwar was admitted into an English medium school by shifting Ankita and Lakshmi into a Government school. Prajwala by that time was in 12th grade and soon moved to a college. Her fees were subsidised by the Government under some scheme to educate girls. Three years later she was married into a middle class family in another city. Rajeshwar’s father encashed some of his fixed deposits to solemnise the event.  Another instalment of fixed deposits was used to marry the second sister and his father had to dip into his provident fund for Ankita’s marriage.

Now Rajeshwar was the anchor of all the hopes harboured by his parents. He struggled through school and his father was beginning to get a little disillusioned. He constantly nagged him to study and get better marks. He was now not so sure that Rajeshwar would become a doctor. The size and cost of his birthday gifts had gradually diminished. Many times his requests for a new item were denied outright or deferred after his mother’s intervention. The stress and pressure to perform was getting on his nerves but he could not share it with anyone. Rajeshwar scored 55 percent in the crucial board exams.  For the first time in his life, he was actually shouted at by both parents. Utensils were banged in the kitchen while his father ranted. When he paused, his mother emerged from the kitchen and started. There would be a small lull when his tears flowed. Mother also joined him in crying and his father would utter some saying to the effect of it being too late and walk out. It would start all over again at the dining table.

This continued for two weeks till they both ran out of steam. But he was denied movies for six months thereafter. Meanwhile, he could secure admission only in the arts stream in the Bhanwaridevi College of Arts and Science, finally putting a question mark on all the dreams his parents had about his bright and illustrious career in medicine or administrative services.

Rajeshwar graduated with 59 percent marks and his parents tried to save face by saying that he had almost got first division. Rajeshwar decided to do post-graduation in Philosophy because a majority of his ‘no good’ friends were doing the same. His father retired as Assistant Postmaster, Jhalawar Head Post Office, the same year. He proudly showed the wristwatch presented to him by his colleagues and left it unsaid that Rajeshwar will maybe not amount to much and would probably never get such a gift.

Rajeshwar’s present was bleak with the constant undercurrents of dead hopes. They were now struggling financially and emotionally. His mother cried often. His father sat in his armchair and gazed vacantly into the horizon. Rajeshwar yearned for the escape offered by college and looked forward to leaving the dreariness of home and spend a few hours of joy with his college mates.  But this was short lived and next year he was sitting at home scanning the newspaper for jobs after completing his studies. His father perked up a little and would circle advertised jobs which he felt were suitable for Rajeshwar. He started out with great hope and wrote several competitive examinations, spending good money on the fees and guide books. His mother proudly told their neighbours that he was applying for this or that vacancy. The whole family anxiously waited for the results and looked out for the postman to bring glad tidings. But that was not to be.

Rajeshwar then scaled down his aspirations from officer level jobs to clerical cadre but that also proved elusive. His father cursed, and became increasingly caustic about Rajeshwar being a burden on the household. His mother intensified her prayers and visited many seers. His sisters offered soothing words but not much else. All the relatives to whom they reached out only gave empty promises. His parents were getting sick of the shallow sympathies extended by their neighbours, especially those whose children had been fortunate enough to secure a job. His father avoided meeting his friends now. Rajeshwar was bewildered as to how he had turned from a hero of his home into a villain, in a span of just a few years.

He wished he could go back in time and bring the wheels of time to a stop. Stop exactly at the point when he was enjoying all the adulation. The exact time when he was carefree and pampered as a child.  But now he carried the weight of years of sacrifices on his shoulders.

“I am not that strong. I did not ask to be made into a star. Then why am I being blamed for failing to please? Are not my parents equally to blame for having unrealistic expectations from me? Did I offer any guarantees that I would be able to encash the cheque of their expectations?”. These were dark thoughts that troubled him.

Rajeshwar saw his parents eagerly waiting for him when he returned home one day, after yet another failed attempt at landing a job. He was astonished to see this pleasant change, the cause of which revealed itself immediately. He was to travel to the city where his maternal uncle lived. He had written to his parents about some jobs in the municipality and was reasonably sure of swinging it his way. As the post had arrived late, he was to proceed without delay and catch the morning train. The interviews were scheduled after two days.

His mother got up early and her prayers that day were longer than usual. Rajeshwar found his father cheerful at breakfast with renewed hope kindling in his heart. Rajeshwar was secretly dreading this unfounded optimism and tried to moderate it by talking about fate and God’s will. His mother would not listen and chirped endlessly about how times were going to change soon, thanks to the many petitions she had filed every day in the court of the almighty. His father beamed as if success was a foregone conclusion. Both agreed that they will not say a word to their neighbours till he came back with the appointment letter. A spoon of sweetened curd was placed in his mouth as he got ready to leave the house and conquer the world. Rajeshwar bent and touched his parents’ feet and boarded the cycle rickshaw waiting outside. His father helped him with the bag containing his one good shirt and trousers and the only pair of formal shoes, recently polished by him while Rajeshwar was having his bath. He insisted on accompanying Rajeshwar to the railway station.

The train was overcrowded but that was no deterrent. Rajeshwar managed to enter a coach and his father handed him the bag over the heads of all the people trying to get in. He kept waving to Rajeshwar as the train chugged away.

Rajeshwar reached his destination late in the evening after a highly uncomfortable journey, standing the whole way near the toilet. His uncle’s son was waiting for him and took him to their home. On the way, he did not fail to mention how he was able to get a job immediately after he completed his studies. His uncle and aunt welcomed him but Rajeshwar did not see any genuineness in their affection. They also narrated with pride their son’s success in life as a clerk with a ”prominent lawyer of the town”. In the process, they questioned Rajeshwar’s choice in academics and everyone concurred that law would have been a better option. After all their son was sitting right there as a shining example.

Next morning Rajeshwar joined a large crowd milling about in the grounds of the recruitment centre. His uncle had a friend who knew someone who knew someone in the municipality. Rajeshwar was thus able to jump the queue over the many others not so fortunate, but still behind many others who had a greater influence. His uncle kept encouraging him. After all, there were quite a few vacancies of peon open here. He patted Rajeshwar and left to open his small grocery shop.

Rajeshwar had his interview towards the end of the day where he was slyly asked how much he could pay for the job. The interview ended abruptly when he started narrating his family’s situation. Rajeshwar was near tears when he came out, in his good shirt and trousers and formal shoes which were scuffed up in the jostling crowd. He reached his uncle’s home and narrated the day’s events. He did not get any sympathy as they lectured him about the ways of the world. Rajeshwar declined dinner and made his lonely way to catch his night train back. He went by foot to save the rickshaw money.

The moon was shining bright as he climbed the stairs of the railway bridge. He did not wish to board the train to home. “I will not be able to face my parents and see their faces fall yet again”, he sobbed.

Rajeshwar paused and looked down. The railway tracks twinkled in the moonlight and he walked down with a heavy tread and a heavier heart. A dozing clerk sat at the ticket counter.

Rajeshwar pushed in a Rs. 100 note through the counter window.

“Where to?”,asked the clerk.

“Anywhere except Jhalawar.”

8888888888888888

 

 

 

Stories that need to be told-3

A game can have three outcomes-Win, Loss or draw

The games we play

As I shifted my body to get rid of the cramps, the chair creaked as it had done so many Image result for image tied handstimes before. I had no idea how long I had been sitting there, alone in the dimly lit room waiting for ‘The guy’ to return. My hands were tied behind my back and a dull ache travelled from my wrists to the shoulders and into my stiff neck. My ankles were also tied making it difficult to relieve the cramps setting in. ‘The guy’, let us call him Gorilla, for that is what he looked like to me when he had removed my blindfold, had listened to my secret incredulously, shoved the rag back in my mouth and stomped out. That was quite some time back. I am sure he would be back. And then perhaps this will be the last day of my 35 years on this earth.

I peered hard at the vague shapes in the shadows to see if I could make something of my surroundings. It was a smallish room, with a bucket in one corner. There were some open crates and a ramshackle looking bench on my right hand side, with some tools hanging on the wall beside it. They glinted dully from the small ray of light coming from the bottom of the heavy curtain covering the only window in the room. I could also barely see the second chair in the deep shadows, the one on which Gorilla had sat and asked me to write a letter to my husband. I had told him why it would be a futile exercise and he slapped me hard, gagged me over my bleeding lips and rushed out of the door..

I wondered how Manish would have coped with this situation. Manish owned a small security firm and I had met him at a party about 6 months back. Rohit, my husband, had dumped me in a corner to get a drink and was back at his flirting game. Manish came over to me and we got talking. I learnt that he was divorced and lived in a small apartment near his office in a shady area of the town. He was witty and his ruggedness attracted me no end. I bumped into him again at the Sai baba temple. He told me that he had become a devotee recently and cheekily mentioned that his faith had increased manifold as he had met me also there which was a bonus! Soon, we were meeting regularly at the temple on Thursdays and I realised I had found love again. My arranged marriage with Rohit had lost its shine when he became very involved in trying to save his struggling small business and became a grouchy, bitter man completely different from the person I had married.

My mind kept jumping between present and past. Perhaps that is the body’s method of coping with the stress I was facing. But what do I know? I am no psychologist, just a housewife trapped in this situation from which I see no escape except for mercy from Gorilla. That seemed highly unlikely as I had seen his face and which, according to all the thrillers I had read, was a point of no return. I replayed the events leading up to the fateful night after which I had found myself tied up here. The dice had rolled about a fortnight back.

“We should get married. Divorce Rohit,” Manish said.

“No, he will never divorce me. He is trying to get a loan from the bank and he needs to mortgage the house. The house is in my name…willed to me by my late father.”

“You were your father’s favourite?”

I had laughed “Ha-ha, more like he had no choice! I was an only child.”

“So there is no way out?” said Manish as he broke the tight embrace to light a cigarette. “What if you refused to sign the papers? Then he would have no excuse to hold you back.”

I immediately felt uneasiness and fear. Manish had no idea of the sleeping tiger in Rohit which woke up every now and then. He flew into rage whenever he did not get his way. His temper had cost him several business opportunities in the past. I conveyed this to Manish.

“Oh don’t worry. I will protect you.” Manish said casually as he flicked the cigarette on to the ground..

That night I broke the news to Rohit and braced myself for the storm that I knew would follow. I was standing just near the balcony entrance and I was visible from the road. Manish was waiting downstairs as per our plan. He would rush in if he saw any violence.

But nothing happened. Rohit just looked at me oddly and said no. He went to the bar and poured himself a drink. Then he switched on the telly and slumped on the sofa. I was puzzled and wondered what to do next.

We met at our prefixed spot near the temple’s wall on Thursday. I told him what had happened and we pondered what to do next.

“Are you sure about us?” he asked moving a stone around with his foot.

“Of course Manish, I can’t think of a life without you now.”

“And you would be OK with a life without Rohit?”

I saw that he was looking at me in a meaningful way. I realised that I was about to cross a bridge.

“Yes” and that was it. There was no turning back now.

We realised that Rohit had to die for us to live happily ever after. Manish said that in such a scenario the finger of suspicion will also be on me. Fortunately we had been very careful and had never called each other on the phone, knowing Rohit’s suspicious nature. So there was no evidence that I knew or was meeting with Manish or had any other romantic entanglements.

At the next meeting I informed Manish that on the following Saturday, Rohit will be going out of town in his car for arranging finance from someone. Manish said that this would be the ideal opportunity. He would get someone to abduct Rohit. The man would be hired in such a way that it could not be traced back to us. That person would call me from a pay phone and I could later tell the police that I had received a ransom call. Meanwhile, Rohit will be killed and his body would be dumped in the dead of the night somewhere at the side of the road that he took on his outstation visit. Someone or the other would find it and inform the police. The police will obviously think that it was a kidnapping gone horribly wrong. We decided that it would be best if we continued not to call each other and exchanged any information only through personal contact with utmost discretion. Manish would come to my place and personally inform me when the deed was done and immediately leave. There was no obvious danger in this, as the apartment in which I lived did not have any CCTV installation and the contract with the security agency had not yet been renewed. The bickering over the increase in rates had led to an acrimonious parting of the agency with the society’s management and the guards had been withdrawn.

On Saturday, Rohit asked me if I was certain that I wanted a divorce.

“Yes, very much so .I don’t need any money from you. Just let me go.”

“Have you met someone else?”

“No” I said too loudly in a surprised reaction. “No”, I said again in a normal voice.

“Have you discussed this with any of your friends? Is someone misguiding you?”

“No.no, I think we are just going through the motions and the marriage is finished.”

Rohit nodded and continued packing. I was surprised that he had taken it so calmly and wondered if he had met someone.

“Let me come back and we will work out the details. Meanwhile, don’t discuss this with anyone.” Rohit picked up his suitcase and went away. He did not know that he will not be back. Never, ever.

I felt my stomach knot up due to the tension. I wandered from room to room imagining Manish to be with me. It was 4.30 in the evening. I did not know how to pass the time. Just a few hours more and I would be free. Only a matter of time now….

I lay down on the bed and tried to read a book but could not concentrate. Don’t know when I fell asleep.

When I woke up, the house was dark. Checked my mobile but there was no missed call. The lights did not come on when I tried the switch. Outside, I could hear the heavy rain. Damn. The power had been switched off by the electricity department as it usually happened in heavy storms. Only the dim street light helped me to find the candles and matches. I went to the balcony and took a deep breath of the rain sodden earthy fragrance wafting up to me as I listened to the pitter patter of the rain.

Waited some more. It was 10.00 p.m. and still Manish had not come.

It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A cool breeze ruffled my hair and I shivered. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back….

When I opened the door, it was dark in the hallway. I barely caught a glimpse of the bulky man standing there before a cloth reeking of a chemical was pressed to my mouth. I lost consciousness and woke up in this hell hole. I don’t know how long I waited before the door creaked open and the man who I now call Gorilla, walked in. He pulled away my blindfold and peered at me.

“You are in deep shit. You have to do exactly as I say or you will not leave this room alive. Understand?”

I nodded my head.

He traced the outline of my face with a heavy knife and I shuddered.

“I will free your right hand now and you have to write a letter to your husband saying you have been kidnapped and he should pay Rs. 1 crore for your release.” I shook my head violently.

He smirked, “Yes, I know you are not worth that much. But I have to do as I have been told by my contractor. He will arrange to deliver the letter to your husband tomorrow.”

I shook my head again and my eyes went wide. “Listen lady you have to do as I say. I have received only 50,000 so far and will get another 50 when I give the letter to my contractor. And the balance……”, he suddenly stopped as if he realised that he had said too much.

I struggled and made unintelligible sounds through the gag. He looked at me quizzically.

“I will take out the gag but promise you will not shout. Not that there is anyone nearby to hear you. It is just that I don’t like loud noises. You live, die all the same to me. Understood?”

I nodded vehemently and gasped as he took out the gag.

“Listen. Your contractor will not be able to hand the letter to my husband tomorrow or any other day.”

“And why is that so?”

“Because he must also have been kidnapped and probably killed by now. I am supposed to have received a ransom call on my phone but it is lying in my house.”

“And how do you know this?” he looked at me incredulously.

“Because I planned this with my partner”, I shouted.

Gorilla slapped me hard and put the gag back in my mouth. “I will go and tell my contractor this and have it checked out. If he can’t get in touch with your husband, you are dead. In any case you had only a few more hours to live.”

I don’t know how long he had been gone now. I understood that I was destined to die and not be kidnapped only. Gorilla had almost said that. I fully realised what was happening. I would laugh if it was not so tragic. What are the odds that Rohit would think of the exact same plan that Manish and I had hatched to get rid of him! Perhaps he had arranged this outstation trip to ensure that he would not be in town when I am killed. And we had thought it to be an opportunity for us! If you think about it, it was a good plan. With me gone, the house will be his as he was the only living relative I had. Also the little jewellery I had in the bank locker. The police would have thought it was a kidnapping gone wrong, just the way we had planned. Except that Rohit would also be dead by now probably.

And maybe I too would be dead in a while. Manish would helplessly search for me on the quiet. He obviously could not approach the police as he was not supposed to know me at all.

What games people play!

Nothing to do now but to await my fate.

*******************

Stories that need to be told-2

Adults too have imaginary friends.

Faces in the mistmisty

The Sun had not yet climbed over the horizon but the sky had lightened up and Jagdish hazarded a guess about the time with a half opened eye. He sat up and the clock showed that he was just five minutes off in his guess. His body clock had not failed him and it was time to get up and go for his walk. He wanted to go back to sleep but forced himself to stand upright, and felt good about the discipline he had enforced on himself. His wife was a law unto herself and no amount of cajoling could get her out of bed to accompany him. She had a childish, obstinate streak which would result only in arguments if he tried to persuade her to do what he wanted, no matter how good or logical it was. This had become more pronounced ever since he had retired about a year back. Sarla, on her part, felt that she deserved more from life than she had received and often took out her sense of injustice on Jagdish.

Jagdish had spent most of his life in small to medium sized towns. His employment years were spent in the hinterlands, mostly due to the postings he had requested or opted for and which no one else really staked a claim for. He was shy by nature and felt quite out of place in erudite company. The small towns and villages were a welcome sanctuary for him and he felt comfortable in the so called ‘punishment postings’. He liked being a big fish in a small pond. As branch manager of a bank in these small places, he enjoyed the attention and respect he got there. Unfortunately, his wife was an avid follower of the high life shown on the daily soaps on TV and felt constantly cheated due the rustic surroundings she kept finding herself in. Over time her resentment kept growing, especially because she found many of her husband’s colleagues getting posted to cities whose names created grand visions for her. She became convinced that the fault lay in her husband and the bank did not consider him worthy of better postings.

Rohit, their only child, turned out to be the surprise package. He absolutely blossomed academically and even the constraints of mediocre teachers and schools could not hold him back. He was brilliant and cracked the tough entrance examination of Indian Institute of Technology without breaking a sweat. After completing his studies he was snapped up by a huge corporation at an annual package which was only slightly less than Jagdish’s provident fund balance. He happily moved to a metro city and enjoyed the lifestyle change. After a while he snagged a job in USA and migrated there with his wife and child. Within 5 years he was able to buy a nice flat in a posh colony in Delhi. It was a gated community with open spaces and walkways, lots of greenery and the usual other trappings of a well-designed project. Rohit had now been away for ten years and had applied for citizenship. On retirement, Jagdish found himself living in a big city in his son’s flat. He continued to feel out of place and felt like an imposter in the midst of his well to do neighbours. He kept to himself and hardly made any friends. Sarla, on the other hand, behaved as if she had always lived the high life and joined several kitty groups and led a busy social life with a vengeance, as if to make up for all the lost time.

Jagdish sighed as he locked the door behind him. He had been looking forward to today’s walk so that he could wear the new track suit sent to him by his son. It was cold and an early morning mist had settled on the surroundings like a grey blanket. Jagdish rubbed his hands together and commenced the first of his two rounds. He knew he will find the usual faces on his perambulations even though he never exchanged a word with any of them. But in his mind, he had made friends with all of them and had given them names and life stories. He would hold imaginary conversations with them as they passed him on their rounds.

‘Shyamala’ was the first person he saw, being dragged by her two huge dogs. She was struggling to hold on to the leashes and carried newspaper portions in her left hand to pick up the pets’ droppings. He had slotted her as a student who had harangued her parents to get her dogs on her birthdays when she was a child. Her parents must have yielded after several tear filled evenings, on the condition that she will have to take care of them. Over time, both the child and the dogs had grown but not at the same pace.

“Hello dear, how are you?”

“Namaste uncle, sorry can’t chat more. These brutes won’t let me stop.” She panted.

Jagdish laughed in his head. ”Well, you should have chosen with greater care. Someone matching your size! At least be careful when you select your husband!”

Jagdish smiled inwardly as they crossed each other. He looked up and saw another shadowy figure in the distance. He knew it was ‘Dev’ by his gait. This person always had a cap on his head, a plastic bag in his hand and walked with a tilt towards the right. Peculiarly, he never completed the full round. He would make a half round up to C block and turn back and go to A block. D and E blocks never figured in his orbit. He would then sit on a bench near the A block and peer into the plastic bag to check how many flowers he had collected so far. One more round on the same trajectory and he would go home by the time Jagdish started his second round. In his make believe world Jagdish had once asked Dev about his unique walking method.

“I meant to ask you why you don’t go all the way round. Is it because I live in E block, heh, heh?”

“No, no” Dev had laughed. “Actually, someone once told me that taking a full round is like completion of life’s cycle. And I want to live some more to outlive my uncle and ensure that he does not get full control of our medicine shop!” Dev had slapped him on his shoulders and continued on his half cycle.

The bench on the left was empty again today. “Ramanujam’ was still absent. Normally he would be found sitting there, eyes closed, breathing deep, and hands closed in the meditation posture, his spine erect and a vermillion smear on his forehead, extending from the middle of his eyebrows to the parting of his hair. Jagdish had never disturbed his peace. He was not to be seen the last few days and Jagdish imagined him to be on a pilgrimage to some temples in southern part of the country.

The old couple, Mr. and Mrs. ‘Chaddha’ came into view. Mr. Chaddha was well protected against the slight chill and walked with slow, careful steps. Mrs. Chaddha lovingly held his elbow and acted as his support and guide. Jagdish imagined them to be living alone, with children in some faraway place. He always felt a twinge of envy whenever he saw such couples taking walks together and showing great affection for each other. They were engrossed in some discussion so Jagdish just nodded at them, in his mind of course, and continued on his way.

He completed his rounds and went back home. Sarla was still asleep. Jagdish made his tea and checked if the newspaper was now lying on the doorstep. No such luck. The boy was late again.

Jagdish moved to his regular spot in the balcony with the cup of tea, when the phone rang. He knew it was Rohit, as hardly anyone else called these days.

After pleasantries and thanks for the track suit, Jagdish asked what he had been thinking of for the last few days. “When are you coming here son?”

Rohit answered in an exasperated tone, ”Papa, how many times I should tell you and mum? As per rules, I cannot leave the country till my citizenship comes through. It is going to take a minimum of six more months.”

Jagdish kept silent but his heart went dark again with loneliness.

“Anything, more I can send? Do you want something?”

Yes. I want you to tell the neighbours to turn down the music at night. I want you to play chess with me in the evening. I want someone to take my side when your mother makes her irrational comments. I want you to sit across from me and persuade me to visit a doctor for my aching back. I want…..

“No,  son. I don’t want anything. You take care. Love to Maya and Chintu”.

“Bye, Papa. I will call again soon.”

“Bye.”

One more face in the mist to have lively conversations with, till the next call.

****************