Firefighting

Back from work, Sahil finds a big crowd spread in small groups across their basement. He notices that he knows most of them. They all peek at him frequently as he parks his car. His neighbour Varun splits from one of the groups and approaches him. He presses the lift button and throws a questioning glance at Varun. Varun averts his eyes and halts beside him to wait for the lift door to open.

Varun talks for the first time once they’re inside the lift. He says, “We’d tried to call you, Sahil. You never picked up the phone.”

Sahil sighs. It has been a terrible day. They were on fire since early morning. Some glitch in the client’s securities had depleted most of their CRM database. With a seasonal promotion around the corner, the potential dent would be worth a few million dollars. It was almost at six in the evening when, thanks to a tremendous effort from him and his boss Gautam, the hole was plugged and the old files retrieved. The services delivery manager had commended them both.

Inside the ascending lift, Sahil suddenly feels weak and famished. He hasn’t had anything since morning. The cafeteria was closed for the day before they could manage to wrap up their work and leave their cubicles. In fact, Gautam’s urgent call summoned him to work when he was about to fix breakfast in the morning. He recalls the time now. Drooping out of bed, he had stared at Snigdha for a second. She had piled herself somewhat like a turtle and, with the mess of hair blurring her pale face, looked miles apart from the ravishing beauty that she otherwise was.

He staggered to the kitchen and fumbled with the matchbox as he turned the oven on with his left hand. This was the moment when the phone buzzed. He quickly switched the oven back off and rushed to pick up the call… his recollection stumbled upon a roadblock. Had he switched off the oven? Or was it on when he talked to Gautam and then, flinging on his clothes, rushed out to work?

He asks aloud, “Varun, do you know if Snigdha is all right? I can’t recall whether I’d switched off the gas oven this morning. I’d almost started fixing our breakfast when an emergency call dragged me to work.”

Varun opens his mouth to say something as the lift door opens. There’s a huge crowd on the corridor as well. An alarm rings in his heart as he steps out of the lift. Has he killed her? Inadvertently?

The alarm in his heart suddenly breaks and he lets out a big sigh when he spots Snigdha chatting with someone in the crowd.

 

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The Omen

The ghastly winter and a toothless sun hidden behind a thin grey cloud had turned the city into a cold storage. I had blown my cigarette in record time and started retreating towards the office building when the haggard appeared from nowhere and demanded, “Lend me a cigarette, will you?”

It was perhaps the cold weather that numbed me. Instead of dismissing him with a frown or curse, I saw myself retrieve the cigarette pack and offer it to him.

He extracted a cigarette off it with a frown. When I turned to leave, he scowled and demanded again, “I haven’t got no pumice stone, cowboy.”

I offered him a lighter which he snapped to light the cigarette. When I started leaving at last, he demanded again, “Listen, thank me later.”

I gave him a burtstare and marched away. My ears felt hot in that freezing cold.

Inside the building, I reached the lift enclosure just in time to see the lift door shut. With the other lift being repaired, it would now be at least five or six minutes before this one would be back to pick me, and another two or three minutes before I could finally get back to work. Thanks to the haggard, I’d be exposed to my boss’ famous frown yet again.

There was a sudden metallic clatter inside the lift enclosure  which went on for a good three or four seconds and was followed by a loud bang that made way for a shriek from inside the lift. It had apparently plunged into the ground, with all its boarders.

A miraculous escape indeed. A voice echoed inside me, “Thank me later.”

December

As a teenager, Sahil had read about light pollution. It’s the supposed encroachment of the night sky by artificial light. On his way back from work now, he looks at the sky after the cab drops him near his lane. The meagre space, that the tall buildings in his neighbourhood left the poor sky with, has a kind of lemon colour, thanks to the street lights.

There’s a short buzz on his phone. He decides to ignore it for now as he enters his building. The cold button bites his finger when he presses it to open the lift door. It’s chilling inside the lift as well. Reaching their flat, he presses the doorbell and waits for Meera to open the door. When retrieved from  his pocket, the phone shows eleven twenty nine pm on Monday, eighteenth December. When he unlocks the screen, it gives the temperature as 7 degree Centigrade. No wonder the air feels like the freezer compartment of his refrigerator. There’s also an unread Watsapp message that he decides to dodge for the time being.

He presses  the doorbell again and waits for a couple of minutes. Meera must be asleep. He fumbles inside his briefcase and extracts the house key at last.

Once inside their flat, the warmth reposes him. He picks up a bottle from the centre-table and sips some water from it before he notices the note nestled beneath a salt shaker that doubles up as a paperweight now. It reads, “Please check your phone.”

He pops out the phone again. It’s time to open the unread message. It’s from Meera and reads, “I’ll be at Leyla’s for now. I’ve carried my immediate needs here. My brother will pick up the rest next weekend. Thanks for the amazing 12 years and I won’t hate you for the last 7 or 8 months. Not any more. It’s time to part now, though.”

He strolls to the balcony. The cold air cuffs him again. A large part of the sky is visible here. Part of it is coloured like the whiskey he’d shared with Meera on their second date. The centre of the dome is, however, unaffected by the city lights and it looks so deep and distant. There are no stars around. A lonely moon frowns at the sleeping planet.

He pulls a pack of cigarettes, extracts a white stick off it and dunks the pack back in his pocket. He then pulls his lighter out. With Meera gone, smoking is no more denounced inside the house. His blissfull throat drags the first puff and, letting it burn inside him for a while, he blows the warm smoke at the cold world.

The End Result

It’s a few minutes past five. The sun creeps from the horizon. It looks like a red cannon-ball. The ever so restless crows are cawing across the sky. The neighbourhood is otherwise asleep. The guava and jackfruit trees are also sleeping at the moment. Robin remembers they were rendered restless by the wind last evening.

He had been back from work early. That’s what he had been ordered by his boss. While running through their overheads file on Monday, Mr Sharma had hovered on the “Transport” tab. Robin had never anticipated this. In fact, it had been almost a quarter since he had pushed the double-counting through. Technically, it was triple-counting, as he had used the same expense thrice. However, once his boss traced it, a Pandora’s box was opened. He had sneaked in through all other files where Robin had made such “errors”.

When he entered Mr Sharma’s cabin on being summoned, the boss pointed a silent finger at the computer screen. Looking at it, he felt his forehead moisten while his mouth went dry. After a humiliating five minutes where his boss took him through all his roguery, he was ordered to take leave immediately and not to return until summoned.

“In the meantime, we’ll decide whether to make a police report of it or not,” his boss said as his eyes pierced Robin’s.

His neighbour’s steel door clatters open. They leave their house with a can to collect their milk from the nearby dairy. The place is now waking up. He needs to act fast. Now that he has done what he always intended to do, Robin is in theory an accountant who can afford a senior manager’s lifestyle. In practice, however, he’s a man who’s about to plunge from his rooftop and drop with a thud somewhere near the guava tree’s base, whose wife and teenage son will weep till a few days later and, for the next few years, reap the benefits of his evil deeds and a spate of fat life insurance policies that he has also subscribed to.

Secret (?) Santa

He was the jolly good fellow of the neighbourhood. He’d spend a fortune each winter distributing blankets amongst destitutes and he’d shower candies at the neighbourhood children on Christmas. It had happened more than once that someone from the neighbouring village had asked him for a favour – child’s admission to engineering college, wife’s treatment at some private hospital, daughter’s delivery – he would oblige everyone. Never having married, he had no children of his own, and considered the whole neighbourhood his family.

The neighbourhood was, thus, only a little surprised when, a fortnight after a short bout of heart block saw him off to the pearly gates, his will revealed that he had left all his possessions for the housemaid from the slum nearby. For a will doesn’t reveal how drunk he was on a specific afternoon twelve years back, it doesn’t demonstrate the strength with which he had restrained her on his bed that day. Neither does it gauge the amount of blood she had let flow down the drain following the abortion medicines she took.

Reminiscence

The hills crouched to listen to the babbling river. Mute little clouds waded along the sky. He saw himself in her eyes. She grabbed his left hand when he turned to leave. That’s when he lost himself in her. As the sun dipped near the horizon, weaving an orange and blue carpet along the west, his love channelled through her. She lost herself for the first time in her life. For the first time in her sixteen years did her whole being twinge with pleasure. Lying quiet long after he was gone, she resolved to never forget him.

She stood firm with this resolution years after he disappeared from the valley. However, like everything else, her determination probably had its expiry date. He grew pale and paler in her mind and, one day, all but vanished.

Almost a decade later, sitting alone in their apartment in Dubai, she opened a news portal. The headline read, “Indian army makes major breakthrough with dreaded terrorist Bilal killed”. Was that his picture? She did a double take.

Her husband would never know why she looked so restless that evening. He would never notice that tears streaming down her cheeks that night had made the pillow wet.

The Hermit

Ella would hold his hand and they’d walk till the world’s end – that’s what he believed. That’s what she’d made him believe. Till that November morning when he woke up and strolled to an empty living room where the ceiling fan hummed. A note left on the dining table pronounced him single again.
The four walls, some furniture, the jackfruit tree in his garden and the cricket that cried the night away were mostly his world since then. And the wide sky – it was his corpulent big brother. He’d often spend silent nights staring at it. Clouds would swim across its dome carrying solera of rain to quench the world’s thirst. Stars would attest to him that loners existed all across the universe. On full moon nights, the moon resembled a lady with some face mask on. He wondered how it would look with the mask peeled off.
It was almost twenty years since she’d left him when she met him again one day. She hadn’t aged at all. Her face beamed like a brass plate when he approached her.
He asked, “Why do we meet again?”
“This is how it was meant to be. We were born apart and life brought us together before we parted. Now we meet again, at the world’s end, and will be fused forever.”
The four walls grieved, the furniture didn’t flinch, the jackfruit tree sighed and the cricket stopped crying at night. The sky went restless, the clouds burst into a soulful rain that lasted one full day. The moon felt relieved, now that no-one demanded it remove its mask.

Next day, the neighbourhood was abuzz with news about the saintly man’s death.

The River Bank

I’m used to the humidity by now. In fact, it’s the dry winter that bites me these days. On such winter evenings, when no-one is around, I stroll past the tombs to the river-bank to feel the moist breeze. There, I watch the languid boats that float against current and carry people, that are devoid of fat or frills, to their homes at the countryside. There they congregate at the local tea store each evening to discuss politics, cricket or the latest marriage or death in the neighbourhood. As their discussions get hot, their tea gets cold and their bidis burn to ashes.

As the night shrouds its dark mesh on the world, the bank gets quieter, but for the chirps of crickets and some infrequent trills of night-birds. At such times, I do see my neighbours. Creeping out from the confines of their patinated tombs, they float around in the air that they had once breathed to look at the world where they once lived and to meet the people they’d once loved. Their loved ones either forget these meetings or take them for mere dejecting dreams.

Day Start

This morning I woke up to someone singing a loud disharmonious song in our building. I stepped into the balcony and realised it was actually someone wailing. An openly wailing adult is one of the most dreaded incidents you may come by in life. It moves a sea in your mind. Your heart resonates with each note of grief that escapes the victim’s mouth.

There was a flutter and I looked at the bedroom. My wife had woke up and her eyes bore a question. “Let me check,” she said before rushing out.

A couple of other voices joined in chorus. I stepped back into the bedroom and shut the door. Oblivious to the world, my son slept in peace.

My wife returned ten minutes later. Her eyes were now damp with information she regretted. Information on a guy upstairs who gave in to brain haemorrhage minutes before sunrise. He was a guy in his late forties.

That’s the snippet of a rough day wherein I’d some tumultuous exchanges at work and a verbal spat with a cab driver. Fortunately, the tiff took a surprising turn and we exchanged a few good words and a smile before the journey ended in a peaceful note and the night brought hope for a better day tomorrow.

Parenthood

I was buried under my work when she called. The plastic strip, that I’d bought her that morning, had slipped my mind. The strip on which she’d carefully placed a couple of pee-drops.

Lying in bed on a sizzling evening a fortnight back, we’d found ourselves panting from the love we’d just shared. Looking at the white ceiling, feeling her satin skin, I’d suddenly realised that this day would come. Somehow, also did I know that the same realisation  streamed along her mind as well.

“Hey, what’s up?” I asked.
“The pink lines are there. It’s positive. It’s one way now, no going back.”