The (Not So) Great Escape

When the ticket checker asked me where I was headed, I had no clue.
To say that the day had been eventful would be a huge understatement. I had woke up to a regular morning. Durga Puja was round the corner, our half-yearly exam was already over and it was a matter of days before the autumn breaks began. While our chemistry teacher taught us redox reactions that day, her colleagues just lent us our exam papers with all our answers ticked or crossed and the total awarded marks displayed on the first sheet. After recess, when it was the maths teacher’s turn to share our marks, we were a bit tense. The questions had been tough and I expected a narrow escape. As the teacher distributed the sheets to the other students, I hurled sharp prayers towards whichever God might be kind enough to ensure my safe passage. When the teacher looked at me, frowned and gave me my paper, I took it from him, shut my eyes and shot one last prayer before opening my eyes to check the marks first. It read twenty eight slash one hundred in figures (28/100).
I wiped my eyes and looked at it again. Unfortunately, wiping the eyes didn’t seem to change anything on that wretched paper – it still displayed twenty eight marks for me. With cold sweat dribbling down my forehead as well as my neck, I thought hard for a plan B. It took me a couple of seconds to think one up. I needed to pray hard again, but on different lines this time. God, or whoever listened to my prayer, needed to go back to past to make my teacher careless enough to have clubbed two sheets while turning the pages. This would leave at least five answers unchecked and I would just need to approach him to check them. Shutting my hopeful eyes once again, I threw a sharp prayer at the same authority as earlier.
When, after scrutinising the whole paper, I failed to trace any such sheets but realised instead that the answers were mostly a workout of futility, the cold sweat renewed its post on my forehead and neck. The eighty six at English and eighty nine at Bengali that the respective teachers shared in the next two periods helped nothing. It looked like I had to go back home to a violent burst of curses that my mother was bound to shower on me. I could already hear her saying, “My worthless son is destined to repeat class nine. No matter how big sacrifices I make, the nincompoop is bound to return with marks worth his pea-brain.” She would possibly go on like that all day and a considerable part of the night as well.
They say desperate times call for desperate measures. Towards the end of the Bengali class, when the teacher as well us my fellow-students awaited the bell signifying the end of that period, one such measure occurred to me. What if I didn’t return to my mother’s verbal assaults and ran away instead?
Two hours later, I got off a bus and walked into the Howrah station. Having blown most of my money on the bus ticket, I decided to hitch a free train ride. From amongst the numerous trains waiting at different platforms, I picked what seemed to be the cleanest one. It was somewhat empty as well.
As the train ripped past the sprawling farmlands with green mustard or paddy fields interspersed by steel-coloured ponds, coconut trees or small towns with shabby buildings and unfashionable people on foot or on cycles, I fell asleep.
A tap on my shoulder woke me up. It was close to sunset now. The ticket-checker was towering over me. He demanded my ticket and I offered him a blank face in return. He stared at my cloth and asked, “Why are you in school uniform?”
Another blank stare later, he declared, “You may try to come up with some cockamamie explanation, but I’m sure you ran away from home. What was it, flunked your exam?”
Blank stare.
“Teenage trouble? Your knockout classmate is not interested in dating you and going to watch Pyaar Ka Punchnama with the school bully instead?”
I gave him a disgusted look this time.
“So flunked your exam it is then, huh?”
Blank stare.
He grabbed my arm and commanded, “Come with me now.”
The train had stopped by now. We walked out of it into what seemed to be a busy station – less busy than Howrah, though.
Having walked for a couple of minutes, we reached an office. The signboard atop its doorway read “GRP Durgapur”. We walked through the door and the ticket checker pointed his finger at a wooden bench at a corner. “Sit there,” he said. I obliged.
He talked to a grimly policeman seated at a table in front of us, “I need to deposit this kid with you. He has run away from home.”
The policeman said, “Hmm. Thanks for taking the pain. Let me order a cup of tea.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I would like to decline. Unless it’s necessary for me to sit here for some paperwork regarding the kid, I’d like to go away instead. It’s been a long day.”
“No worries, then. We’ll take over from here.”
Throwing a glance at me, the ticket checker left. Mr. Grimly Policeman asked me, “Where’s your home?”
With blank stare intimidated by his khaki uniform, I opened my mouth, “Rathtala, Howrah.”
“Howrah? And you’ve come all the way to Durgapur?”
I nodded.
“Why on earth do people do such crazy things?”
Blank stare returned, as a plausible answer eluded me. It was dark now. A moderately big clock on the wall behind the policeman showed seven o’ clock.
“I’ll call up borobabu. He will arrange for your return,” saying so, he picked up the receiver of an outdated landline phone and dialled.
After what was evidently a conversation between his borobabu regarding me, he dropped the receiver and told me, “He’ll take an hour to come here. In the meantime, do you want some tea?”
By now, my mind had worked up another escape route. I said, “I’ve been on road for a while. Is there a restroom I can go to?”
He pointed towards a door not too far away.
I meekly walked through the door and shut it behind me. There was a window on the opposite wall, and a set of six opaque glass slats acted as a blind. There was freedom behind it. The geometry box, lying in my shirt pocket so far, came handy. I used the protractor to unplug all the six glasses, jumped past the window and ran across the railway lines that were there.
Two minutes later, I found myself panting inside a dilapidated building in a forlorn part of the railway yard. I was pondering on my next course of action when I heard a commotion outside. There was a good chance that the policemen were in pursuit. I quickly entered the nearest room around.
It was phantom-dark inside it. While that creeped me a little, I also hoped that they would not search for me in that god-forbidden room. That was probably a correct assumption, as the noise outside gradually died. I was suddenly aware of someone else breathing inside the room, and my forehead was moist again with cold sweat while a strip of ice ran down my spine. By now, my eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Before leaving the room in panic, I looked around to see who the other person in the room was. Sitting on a chair at a corner was an old man with a very familiar face. Had it not been for his brilliant eyes, the huge white moustache would make him look like a walrus. I groped in my mind to figure where I knew him from.
Turning those flamboyant eyes at me, he asked, “You’re Arnab Chatterjee, aren’t you?”
I was not scared anymore, and answered, “Yes Sir.”
So he knew me as well. Was he my grandfather’s friend? Or perhaps my mother’s relative? This was more likely, as more than half her folks are railway employees. He must be one of those hardly working government employees who picked this quiet cosy corner to relish an afternoon nap.
He asked, “Running away from low marks?”
Something in my countenance must be a blatant giveaway. I replied, “Yes.”
“Do you know who run away? Cowards.”
I nodded, although I had reason enough to believe that this generalisation didn’t apply to me.
“Sir, where do I know you from?”
Before he could answer, we heard a child wailing near the door.
It was a boy of perhaps eight or nine. Other than during Saraswati Puja, such a little boy roaming around in kurta is a rare sight. He stood at the doorway and wept.
We marched towards him and I asked, “What ails you, kid?”
He took about ten seconds to drain some more tears and then croaked, “My parents – I somehow got separated from them.”
The railway man asked, “Please tell us how it happened.”
“I was walking with my mother across the railway crossing. She held my hand. My father was left behind as he had stopped at the cigarette store to smoke. When he called us from behind, my mother stepped back. A train engine approached us at that instance and separated us. When it passed, I saw no-one at the other end.” He broke into a sob again.
The railway man asked, “Can you take us to that spot please?”
The kid nodded and started walking. We stepped out into a young night.
“What’s your name?” I asked on the way.
“Rahim.”
Having just walked for five minutes along the railway line, we saw a throng of people gathered near the railway crossing around two hundred metres ahead of us. As we got closer, a faint scream, originating from the crossing, unblurred. When we reached its earshot, it manifested as a heartrending cry of a woman who seemed to be at the centre of the crowd. When we got closer yet, we saw, amidst the group of speechless onlookers, this woman scrabbling at a child whose blood-smeared body lay on the ground. Sat beside her was a silent man with the dreariest eyes I had ever seen.
“What’s the matter, sir?” I asked one of the dumbfounded onlookers.
He said, “This woman was crossing the rail-line with her child ten minutes back. That man sitting there is the father. He had stopped to smoke at the cigarette store there. Perhaps because of the loud music played at the store, they didn’t hear the approaching train engine. The father called out to alert them. The mother stepped off the line, but the kid somehow tumbled. Before she could flinch, the engine trampled the child.”
Wasn’t the story somewhat familiar? I looked at the child’s face and, despite the blood screen, recognised him as Rahim. The blood smeared kurta affirmed his identity. All my hairs stood in attention and I became as still as a dripping ice-cube.
It took me immense courage to look around myself for the boy. The only Rahim around was, however, the one lying dead like a sandwich on the ground. The one that walked with us for the last few minutes had vanished.
“It’s ok,” said the railway man. His assurance sounded immensely soothing. “The police will be soon around. You’ll be in trouble if they catch you here. Let’s go.”
He sounded wise now. Leaving Rahim, or whatever was left of him, and his dejected parents behind us, with the dark sky with its pinned stars and a proud half moon above, we approached the station’s din.
I checked the railway man’s face to figure whether he was scared like me. He, however, seemed unfazed. I asked him, “Do you think he was a ghost?”
“Who?” His ignorance surprised me.
“Rahim?”
He cleared his throat and said, “Ghosts don’t exist.”
“But he came and met us while his body lay there at the crossing. What do you think of that?”
He stopped short, forcing me to halt as well. Turning those flamboyant eyes at me, he said, “Human mind is an amazing device. It does some beautiful things. Consciousness itself is a grand gift. What you saw, or for that matter what you see, is a manifestation of your mind, of your consciousness.”
He resumed the walk and I followed.
We reached the bustling station. While ascending the railway platform, he said, “In the exam called life, you flunk when you run away. A tougher exam awaits you when you flunk. Run again and the exam gets tougher yet. The best thing you can do is to face these exams bravely.”
We were close to the RPF office now.
“Rahim will never come back to his mother. He’s dead. You’re still alive. Walk in through that door now and let the RPG folks take you home.”
Perhaps it was his authoritative voice, perhaps it was the fact that I was too scared, after the day’s events, to alienate him, or possibly the fact that his suggestion was sensible beyond doubt that convinced me. I walked through the door again that evening. It took me a moment to notice that I was walking alone. I turned back and he had disappeared.
A shrill cry came from inside the room, “There. Borobabu, the slimy imp is back by himself. Come here, Mr Globetrotter. And don’t dare prank us again.”
Besides Mr Grimly Policeman, the man who was evidently Borobabu was also there. I blurted out, “A train hit a little boy at the crossing.”
“We’re aware of it. Our team must have reached them by now. Now you come and sit here at my desk.”
I obliged.
Borobabu demanded, “What’s your name?”
“Arnab Chatterjee.”
“And your home telephone number?”
I obliged again. He dialled as I dictated the number to him.
“Mr Chatterjee?…This is Amol Prasad from RPF Durgapur. Your son is with us…No, he’s absolutely fine…That’s not necessary as two of our officers are about to leave for Howrah in a bit. They’ll carry the kid for you. Please arrange to pick him up from Howrah station, though…Mentioning that was not necessary, Mr Chatterjee. It’s part of what we do everyday…all right then, bye.”
While he talked, I watched the big framed posters on the wall opposite me. Gandhiji smiled at us. Tagore’s sharp eyes denounced me. The third poster was of an old man. A man with a very familiar face. A man with a white moustache so big that had it not been for his brilliant eyes, he would look like a walrus. A man who had spent a good part of that evening with me. The railway man. And it suddenly fell into place.

9AC364C5-9F32-411E-9F97-0BA8FDADCE08
I asked Mr Grimly Policeman, “Is that ex-chancellor Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee?”
“Need I more proof to conclude that this generation is doomed? He called himself Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay and not Mukherjee.”

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Atonement


On a moonless midnight, with December biting his bare skin, Pankaj skulks along the dark road that branched off the highway towards his home. The gleaming stars watch and a couple of dogs bark from what sounds like a kilometre away. Pankaj looks around, with eyes adjusted to the darkness, to realise that little has changed in the last twelve years.

Unlike the brave man he now is, he was a timid sixteen year old that day. It was a pouring July. Their matriculation exams had been concluded a week back, and he anticipated a disaster one month later when the results were expected. This thought ate him from inside. “Only if I had revised the Byzantines, I might have edged past the history paper. Now I just hope they pass me with some grace marks” he often thought. “For that matter, had I not subtracted where I was supposed to divide in that quadratic equation, I might have fared better in maths,” he thought more often. In fact, he would spend sleepless nights wondering what permutations and combinations might help him pass the exam. Each passing day, his hopes dwindled and a conviction strengthened in his mind – that of an impending failure. His father’s stern words didn’t help him, other than making him gloomier. “Someone from our family can’t set up a roadside tea stall to earn their living. A university degree is essential for you to be counted amongst human beings,” father ordained from behind his huge moustache.

It was a week before the results were expected that he took the extreme step one day. His father had been to work and his mother had been to the market for vegetables when the rain ceased. His brother was reading some novel in their living room. He walked up to the door, put on a pair of sandals that lay beside it and started walking out.

He heard his brother ask, “Where are you going?”

”To buy a kite,” he uttered and rushed out.

Running along the very same road that he’s walking on now, he had taken the highway in a few minutes’ time and boarded a bus that came his way. Seated inside the empty bus, he had realised that he carried no money. Destiny had, however, so designed that the bus conductor, with six days’ worth of stubble, never approached him for the fare. Neither did anyone ask for a ticket when he boarded a random train from Howrah station.

The house towers close to two hundred metres away now. He notices a thin streak of light rippling in one of the bedrooms upstairs. Are they awake? Expecting him?

He has goosebumps when he recalls that he had dreamt this exact scene twelve years back. Having deboarded the train at its last station Dehradun, he had spotted a group of sadhus – long beards with orange attire, and joined them. They had welcomed him in their group, and had shared food and a sleeping space at night. Huddled in one corner, his tired body had broken into sleep while still contemplating going back to the life he had lived for sixteen years. He saw himself walking through the dark road towards the house. A thin streak of light stared from one of the bedrooms. The next moment he saw himself in that bedroom. A rickety man lay in bed. His face, covered by white beard, glimmered in the faint golden light that the bedside lamp sprinkled all around. The man saw him and shouted, “What brings you back, you nincompoop?”

He was jolted off his sleep, and realised that the sadhus’ leader was tugging at his finger. Before he could flinch, the sadhu managed to pluck his gold ring. He then removed Pankaj’s gold chain off his neck. Pankaj gave him a puzzled look and got a death stare in return. The sadhu said, “You’d left home anyway, and these items are of little consequence to you. They should better remain with me or, for that matter, whoever I sell them to.”

Dumbfounded, Pankaj just looked on as the sadhu stood up and fired a kick that thawed his face.

Four hours later, he had picked up some pieces of his rapidly depleting wisdom and started staggering back to the railway station when a voice from behind ordered, “Stop, Pankaj Sanyal.”

He turned. His heart skipped a beat when he saw another sadhu staring at him with cold eyes. He considered turning away to run when the sadhu said, “You need to stop running away from life, Sanyal. Three or four years after their birth, children are thrust into those jail-like school buildings where they drag their poor beings and heavy bags for a quarter of their life. They cringe, cry and somehow manage to pass the supposedly best part of their life in such slavery. Once study is over, they realise that they need to take that act of slavery to the next level and spend close to a lifetime sprinting after what they figure out, at the end, is nothing. That’s the conventional life a child leads today. You’re, however, one of the chosen few who’ll go for the other life. Your sole purpose will be the attainment of moksha. Follow me and I’ll show you how.”

The sadhu turned and marched away. Pankaj quickly followed him. They walked on the road for a few hours. He felt thirsty and hungry, yet didn’t complain. By noon, the road merged into a thin jungle that grew thicker by the mile. The sadhu marched on, and Pankaj dragged his aching legs behind him. They approached a river and trekked upstream for another couple of hours.

When the birds streamed homewards and the sun set after smearing its magnificient colour all across the sky, he thought his legs might burst. It was then that the sadhu spoke to him again, “We need to rest here. I’ll grab some fruits from that tree there. You can use them to kill your hunger for now.”

They spent that night below the sky. When he woke up next day, he was amazed to feel himself rejuvenated for another day’s journey.

It was by noon that they reached what the sadhu said was his ashram. There were a dozen mud huts, spread across a terrain amidst a steep hill overlooking the river which now rushed down like a raging bull. There were eleven other youngsters like him. Unlike the chirpy kids that boys of that age usually are, these men sat with silent somber faces.

DD8F8C4C-E0F7-417F-9536-439521157A0CThat day onwards, the sadhu became his guru. In twelve years, he was taught all the yoga postures. In twelve years, he learnt to develop his soul for attainment of moksha. In twelve years, he managed to lock his erstwhile home in Bengal in a blind corner of his mind and ensured that he never looked at it. The ashram dwellers survived with fruits and roots. The river quenched their thirst all these years.

A couple of days back, though, things took a turn again. His guru ordered, “You’ve to go back to your past life now. They need you.”

The gate is left ajar. He staggers in the darkness and reaches the stairs that he climbs. Upstairs, he walks into the room where the light comes from. A rickety man lay in bed. His face, covered by white beard, glimmers in the faint golden light that the bedside lamp sprinkled all around. Pankaj realises that this man is none other than his father – or what remains of him. There is a faint stir as the man wakes up and opens his eyes. He gazes at Pankaj for a while and asks, “Is that you, Pankaj?”

He’s gobsmacked. Never in his life has he shaved his beard and, twelve years without a haircut, his face resembles an eagle’s nest. Yet his father recognises him.

“Yes, father.” He braces himself anticipating some hostile remarks.

His father croons, “Thank God you’re back, son. I understand why you ran away. I know I dragged you towards that extreme step. I’ve paid now. We lost your brother to cancer two days back.”

Pankaj looks on silently and then said, “Father, I’d left like a loser. I had failed to clear the matriculation exam…”

His father cut him short, “Who says so? You’d cleared it, albeit with some shoddy marks in history and maths.”

Flipped

It has been a while since they dragged Sameer in a stretcher and that huge door shut on our face. When asked how long it would take, the doctor had thrown a vague “Anything between an hour and four.”

It looks so surreal now. Three hours back, we were at the Saltlake Stadium watching the local derby. The country’s most famous foreigner was gearing up for a free-kick amidst a pin-drop silence when we heard a scream. We turned to see Sameer rolling down the gallery. We rushed down to him and shouted, “You okay?”

Sitting in an ambulance half an hour later, Rohit said, “I wonder what’s going on in the match.” Sameer hadn’t so much as moved a finger since that fall. We were thankful to a couple of kind policemen who had helped us in extracting him swiftly into the ambulance which was parked right outside the stadium.

It has been almost two hours now since they’d been swallowed by the operation room. There’s no network coverage here. We’ve been unable to check the match result. The only thing the three of us have been doing so far is to wait silently and step outside to smoke every fifteen minutes.

The huge door opens with a jolt and a male nurse steps out in his white uniform. We pounce on him.

”Hey, how’s our patient?”

”He’ll live. He has just come back to. In fact, he was asking the doctor about the match result a while back.” The man started walking away.

Hang on. What was the doctor’s reply?”

The Footballer’s Wife

The cuckoo is still sleepy. Its song snuggles in the otherwise quiet air. While the sun still hides beyond the horizon, its light seeps in the blue sky and paints it orange. The world is still sleeping. It will take another hour or two to wake up from its slumber. Abid will never wake up, though.
I was twenty two when we first met. It was his twentieth birthday. Midfielder at one of the two biggest clubs in Kolkata, he had made a name of himself by then. Just out of the hotel management school, I was the GRO at the biggest hotel in Bangalore.
They had been to our city to play their away match against our home team. Bred in a non-sportif city where people only recognised cricketers, I was not a big football fan. It was when our manager gave us a heads up regarding their arrival that I realise that footballers do exist outside Europe and Latin America and that there are pockets in West Bengal and Goa where people are crazy about them.
“Sir, welcome to Southern Delight. My name is Sukanya Rajendran. I’m your guest relation officer. We’re here to ensure a comfortable stay for you. Rest assured, we work twenty four seven. So anything you need or any trouble you face while you’re here, we’ll be one call away.” While reciting these practised lines, I was flattered to see the group of sturdy youngsters’, their coach’s and a couple of other middle-aged officials’ eyes adore me. Then I noticed the youngest of the lot staring at something behind me. I turned to see our receptionist Sangeeta seated on a sofa at the end of the lounge after her shift. Her thighs ran generously out of the hint of a black skirt that she was wearing. I turned back to look at the youngster who passed an apologetic smile.
What lies in front of me now is just the remains of that man. He’ll never smile again.
—————————————————————————————————————————
The coach had ordered a surprise birthday party that night. While they mostly drank and created ruckus, the nonchalant birthday boy sat at a corner. Later at night, awaiting my cab at the lobby, I noticed a lone figure strolling in the lawn. It was the footballer who’d peeked up Sangeeta’s legs that morning. I walked outside to the lawn.
He stopped short when he saw me approach him. It was a quiet night with an occasional car or truck swishing past the neighbouring highway to cut the silence.
“Birthday boy likes to spend his time alone, huh?” My question melted in the night as he silently nodded. For some moments our eyes pinned each other. I saw a mild sense of detachment in his. I believe he saw a mild concern in mine.
I asked, “Should we walk?” He nodded affirmative.
The yellow lights at the hotel’s driveway had integrated into the silent night to paint a surreal picture all around us. We spent some ten minutes in silence. Or it might be fifteen. We didn’t feel like strangers to each other. When my cab came and screeched in front of the hotel patio, our eyes locked again. Walking the twenty metres to the cab, I felt his eyes follow me. Once seated inside the car, I looked at him again. He nodded. A faint mark of an attempted smile crossed his face.
I had a strange dream that night. We walked arm in arm. As my cab came and I tried to untag my hand from his, he gripped it firmer. I looked at him. Our eyes locked and we inched closer to each other. We then kissed. A storm heaved in my heart and tingled between my legs. When I woke up, a quaint grief and longing gripped me. I wanted to meet him then and there.
I realise that I’ve the same feeling now. At a far greater magnitude, though. I hold his lifeless hand. It doesn’t feel me. And he doesn’t flinch.
—————————————————————————————————————————
I had watched a football match on television for the second time in my life. They had beaten the home team one – nil. I didn’t understand what was going on, and only watched it to feel the thrill of watching Abid on screen. We had enjoyed a mostly silent walk on the night before. We didn’t proceed any further, though. While fraternising with our guests was not denounced, I didn’t wan’t to raise eyebrows. Neither did he take any step further. I greeted them when the team bus was back from the stadium late in the night. While the rest of them hustled to their rooms, Abid stayed back in the lawn. I joined him soon.
“Did you watch the match?” He asked.
“Yes.”
“Liked my game?”
“I don’t understand football.”
I studied his face to check if my answer hurt him. If it did, he did well to conceal it.
The moon watched us from behind some misty sheets of cloud. We stood silently. When the cab came, he walked me to it and opened its door for me. Looking at his eyes I said, “I’m trying to understand football. Since yesterday.”
I didn’t dream of him that night. Perhaps because I didn’t sleep much. Most of the night was spent grieving about his impending departure.
He surprised me next day. While the rest of his team boarded the team bus to the airport, he stayed back. I asked, “Are you not leaving today?”
“I’ve called a cab to pick me half an hour later. Can we have our last walk?”
I nodded. We hit the lawn. Its green grass smiled at us. The busy highway threw incessant noises of moving vehicles. The sun filled us with warmth. It was our ten minutes of bliss. We would be sent back to our regular monotonous life after that, and we’d most probably not meet each other again.
When his cab came to pick him up, my dismal eyes stared at his for one last time. He asked, “Can we walk sometime again?”
The question caught me on the wrong foot. I took two seconds to answer, “Yes.”
He said, “I’ll be back.” He made it sound like the terminator.
Later that night, gripped by an unusual grief, I realised that he had not even noted my phone number. Hooking up with women was perhaps a hobby for him. I’d be later proved wrong.
He has now left for some place, devoid of a real address, where no phone number connects.
—————————————————————————————————————————
While I made peace with my fate and tried to forget it as a minute fling, he would sometimes haunt my dreams and leave me in the larch once awake. Two months later, I woke up from one such dream to an incessant ring of my doorbell one night. The clock read twelve thirty. Although it was a crazy thought, a part of me wished it was Abid. My heart leapt when I saw him at the other end of the peep-hole.
Five minutes later, seated in the living room, I asked, “How did you get my address?”
“At the hotel.”
“What brings you here?”
“I’d a layover on my way from Goa, and thought I might pay you a visit.”
“That’s it?”
“Also, I’d a question to ask.”
I frowned.
“You said you’d walk with me again. Does that still hold true?”
“Yes.”
That night, he penetrated me to lift me up to seventh heaven. When he left early in the morning, I’d decided to spend the rest of my life with him. Unfortunately, it has worked the other way round. He spent his lifetime mostly with me and left me last night. I don’t know how much of my life I’ve still to go, but he’ll not be beside me anymore.
—————————————————————————————————————————
“What does he do?” My father asked once I broke the news to him two years after our first meeting. The trouble with South Indian families is that it’s not just the bride and groom who marry each other. It’s usually their families who run the show. Marriage without the parents’ approval is almost impossible.
“He’s a footballer.”
Father frowned. “Is he Tamil?”
I gulped before I answered, “No, Bengali.”
“A fish-eating Bengali?” He frowned. “How old is he?”
“Twenty two.”
“What? That makes him two years younger to you?”
“Yes.”
“How educated is he?”
I gulped again. “He’d been mostly busy playing football all across the country and even abroad. He managed to clear his tenth class exam last year.”
Father scowled as I went on, “Rest assured, he’ll pull out some time every now and then to soar till graduation.”
“What’s his name?”
My father and I stood in our living room while we talked. I threw a glance at my brother who was slouched on a sofa. My mother sat erect beside him.
I looked back at my dad’s eyes and said, “Abid Hussain.”
My brother stood up, “Abid Hussain? You mean the Abid Hussain? He wants to marry you? Are you bluffing?”
Father pierced him with a glance and then said, “You’re not joking, are you?”
Being a Messi fan, my brother was also updated about the local footballers. However, the last question from my father instilled a hope in me. Perhaps he was impressed by Abid’s fame. This hope, however, crashed as soon as I replied an affirmative.
“If you want to marry a Muslim guy, just forget you’d a father. And a mother for that matter.” He turned towards my brother, “Listen, if you want to bask in your footballer BIL’s glory, just stay out of my house.”
I knew those were his final words. I wasn’t going back. When I left for Bangalore next day to resume my job, I felt like a chopped branch falling off a tree. I never saw or contacted my parents again. In the last twenty years, my brother has often talked to us on phone. We’ve also met twice. These phone calls or meetings were never disclosed to my father. It were through two such phone calls that I came to know of my parents’ death in a gap of three months.
Decades later, the man who, in my youth, swept me off my feet and tethered our lives together, the one for whom I’d cut all ties with the parents who’d birthed and raised me with utmost love and care, has now left me as a middle-aged widow and moved to places unknown.
—————————————————————————————————————————
It’s raining incessantly since daybreak. Small sharp raindrops are plunging from the sky to keep me company. I’m sitting at the back of a car that precedes the glass van carrying my dead husband. My brother has flown from Jakarta, and will be around by the evening. I find myself alone amidst the huge procession accompanying Abid’s lifeless shrouded body. Fellow footballers and club officials are there. They’re walking silently. A couple of local filmstars are there. Some of them are grumbling at the thoughtlessness of the rain-god. At least a dozen politicians have also joined the procession. They’re also flinched by the downpour. Police have been deployed to keep the thousand odd club supporters at bay. They’re all accompanying the body of a yesteryear sport star – someone who’d bemused them in his youth, and was long past expiry date. Someone whose on-field tricks and antics had later shifted to a less than moderately successful coaching career.
On the other hand, I’m here to bury forty years of laughters, conversations, silences, sex and smiles. Six feet underground.

Turquoise Scarf

Some days you find yourself overtly lucky. So much so you start doubting your fate. While bathing in whatever your sudden fortune showers on you, you squint time and again to determine if it’s a dream. Will reality soon jolt you awake and thrust you back towards your otherwise lacklustre life?
One such morning, I felt elated on receiving a mail that confirmed my promotion. I was now a senior tester. A few hours later, on my way to the New Delhi railway station, I received a message declaring that my seat had been upgraded to a first class coach. I sat calmly in the auto-rickshaw as my heart leapt in joy. Later, when the train arrived and after I boarded it, the abstract art shrouding the train’s body, its quaint floor with the wooden look and the mild fragrance in the coach gripped me with bliss. Besides, I realised that the other seats in my coup lay vacant. I would lock myself in a luxurious train coup for the next fifteen hours. The only person who would ever knock at my door was a waiter supplying moderately tasty food. It was surreal indeed.
Almost an hour through the journey, I woke up from my nap to an almost forgotten sweet scent that was once very familiar. I opened my eyes to another pair of eyes watching me from the opposite seat. A wild pair of light brown eyes they were. Painted on a flawless pale face and beneath a stream of wild black hair.
Her peach-lips parted as she said, “How have you been, Firhad?”
I squinted. Could this be real? My mind was a waterfall of statements and counter-questions. Where have you been all these days? You’ve dwelled in me for ten long years. Did I ever cross your mind? Had I ever mattered to you?
What I could gather to say, however, was, “Do you still play ducks-and-drakes?”
I was thirteen when we met first on a hot Kolkata afternoon. Back from the government school that I went to, I found our door locked. This happened often, whenever my sister was late from her work as a maidservant. Therefore, I decided to drop my satchel at the doorstep and walk up to my parents. I passed a mosque around five minutes later. It was empty at this time in the afternoon. I jumped past a wall behind it to enter a graveyard. There I passed some dozens of sleeping people to ultimately reach my sleeping father. I never knew how he looked when awake. However, with the cool breeze from the adjoining pond caressing his tomb, he looked quite comfortable in his sleep. My mother slept beside him. My two brothers slept beside her. A car accident had rendered them all asleep. I was two then, and had since been raised by my sister Junaida-apa.
I approached the bittersweet smelling pond. The occasional faint noises of buses and trams, bustling not too far away, got buried in its quiet green water. Picking up flat pieces of stone from the ground, I started playing ducks-and-drakes. Engrossed in the game, I hadn’t noticed the figure that sneaked in some ten or fifteen minutes later.
“I guess I can do better,” the words choked my throw. The stone dunked in the water. I looked around and saw a girl of somewhat my age and build.
Embossed on a neat pale face, the wild pair of light brown eyes struck my adolescent mind. Her dress gave away the fact that she was one of the private school girls who lived in big houses with Ambassador or Maruti cars. She picked up a flat piece of stone and hurled it at the water. I counted nine bounces before it dipped near the far bank.
“See? I told you so.” Her eyes reflected the arrogance that spilled from her words.
I picked up a stone in reply. While flinging it, I took pains to ensure my grip swung parallel to the ground. It plopped on the water, bounced up and plopped again. Unfortunately, this happened just eight times.
“You’re no good,” she said and picked up another piece of stone. This time, her throw kissed the water all the way to the other bank.
In contrast, I managed just four bounces when my turn came.
“Ehtesab,” Someone called from near the mosque. It was a woman around my Junaida-apa’s age.
The haughty girl looked at her and then looked at me to say, “That’s my mother. Bye, loser.” She marched off towards the older woman.
I struggled to sleep that night. Not because of the heat emanated from the power-cut, but due to a longing for those wild eyes.
A month later, Junaida-apa told me one morning before school, “My employer Haseeba-baji’s gardener is on sick leave for some days. We’ll make some easy money if you help them trim their lawn.”
“I’ve never done that, Apa?”
“Don’t worry. It’s easy. I’ll teach you.” She went on to explain the way to her Haseeba-baji’s house.
Accordingly, I went straight to the palatial house from school that afternoon. After Apa briefed me on the mechanism and gave me a short demo, it didn’t take me long to grasp the machine. When she felt I was good enough, she left me alone with the mower amidst the sea of green grass. A few minutes later, I was busy dragging it in straight lines across the lawn’s lengths. Profuse perspiration made my clothes stick to me. The midday sun chuckled at my misery. It was then that someone cried out, “Done playing ducks-and-drakes?”
I turned and saw Ehtesab. I stopped mowing the lawn and asked her, “Is this your house?”
“Yes. Are you Junaida-khala’s brother?”
“Yes.”
“Hmm. She looks old enough to be your mother, though. Anyway, finish your work fast. I need to visit the pond.”
Fifteen minutes later, we were at the graveyard. As she carved impossibly brilliant lines across the surface of the pond, I stole some furtive glances at her splendid face and her wild composed eyes. When I hurled my stones to manage my helplessly paltry shots, her eyes scorned me. It was the happiest hour in thirteen years so far.
We met again the next day. We met the day after. We met throughout that summer. Even after the regular gardener was back and I stopped visiting their house, we arranged to meet every day at the pond. She continued to humiliate me at the game. She would often prod about my life – about my sister, my parents’ death and my school. One day I introduced her to my parents – to their tombs, to be more precise. I came to know that Haseeba was her stepmother. Her mother died during her delivery. Like me, she was technically an orphan as her father had also died later. We spent some hours together each afternoon and her eyes, hair and that fragrance would remain in my mind and mesmerise me for the rest of the day. It was a wonderful summer.
One day, around fifteen minutes through our game, we heard a sharp voice from behind us, “Ehtesab!”
We turned and saw Haseeba standing beside the mosque. She wore a white salwar suit and a grim face.
Ehtesab replied, “Yes, Ammi?”
“Follow me now,” and she turned. Ehtesab meekly obeyed.
That evening, Junaida-apa looked worried. “How often do you meet Ehtesab?” She asked.
“Everyday. We’re playmates.”
“Hai Allah! Stop doing it now.”
“Why?
Apa breathed long, cleared her throat and said, “You’re both old enough for this kind of proximity to scorch you. Besides, now that Haseeba-baaji is aware of it and spiteful of your closeness, it can prove harmful to us. After all, she can kick me out of employment any day. Finding such a big paymaster is impossible in this neighbourhood.”
Her words made sense. I avoided the mosque for the next few days. A weird sense of loss and longing gripped me. While I thrust myself into the daily chores to squirm past the days, the nights seemed prolonged and lonely. Staring at the stars through the open window, I realised how deep the night sky was. It was a bottomless pit where all people’s dead aspirations lay buried.
After a week spent without meeting her, the longing got the better of me and I decided to visit our pond after school. I aspired to smell the air we had breathed together. I wanted to see the water her stones had kissed. Besides, there was the tiniest of hopes of finding her there.
Scores of sleeping people smiled as I entered the graveyard. She was there. I carried my leaping heart towards the bittersweet smelling pond and the sweet smelling Ehtesab who faced it.
“I never thought we’d meet here again,” I declared.
She turned those eyes towards me and replied, “Neither did I.”
Thus began what would be our last game.
When it was time to call it quits, she stared at my eyes and said, “I’m being sent off to some boarding school in Darjeeling.”
“You aren’t serious, are you?”
“Ammi decided it.”
“You mean your stepmother.”
“Yes. She’s the only living mother I happen to have. I know you feel kind of shattered. Try not to be. In fact, we’ll meet again someday – perhaps a decade later – to laugh about how sad and stupid you look now.”
After some moments of eyes-locked silence, she turned and started walking away. A turquoise scarf tucked to her waistband loosened and fell. I stood like a felled log. She walked up to the mosque and disappeared behind its walls. What remained were a few speechless people in their tombs, the pond with its bittersweet smell, the sad breeze with occasional faint noise of buses and trams, and the scarf and the sweetest memories that she inadvertently left.
I stood still for an eternity. Then, with a long sigh, I picked up the scarf and walked towards the pond. Extending my arm over the water, I loosened my grip on the scarf. It slid past my palm and floated in the air for a few seconds before landing on the water surface.
Forgetting her would be a colossal task. However, I knew I would get past this obsession, much like the onerous algebraic equations that I used to break. The summer broke into a heavy rainy season which, following a brief autumn, made way for a moderate but long winter. By the time it was summer again, she had considerably faded in my mind’s canvas.
I aced my tenth class board exam next year and opted for science for further studies. Thoughts about Ehtesab was all but buried under the hefty coursework. Her wild eyes and hair would sometimes caress my mind while watching the stars after having studied for a good part of a night. Those nights, for a few idle minutes, I did wish she were beside me. For those idle minutes, I hoped to see her sometime again. Otherwise, I was busy going to the government college I had enrolled in, taking notes, solving equations and memorising theorems.
Two years after my tenth class exam results were out, I cleared the local engineering entrance. The celebration, however, was short-lived when I realised that we were short of funds for admission to software engineering.
I made peace with myself and was ready to enrol to a government college for civil engineering when we lucked out one day. My sister came back from her work that evening and asked, “Have we missed the last date for software engineering?”
“Not yet, but how does it matter?”
“Some benefactor has funded all your semesters.”
“That’s surreal. Allah rehmat. Who’s this benefactor?”
“They prefer to be anonymous.”
Next day, I was waiting for a bus to take me to the engineering college to pay my fees when a white Ambassador halted. Haseeba craned her neck from inside it and asked, “Firhad, you’re on your way to the engineering college, aren’t you?”
I gulped while nodding affirmative.
“I’m going that way. Hop in.”
I hesitantly opened the door and sat on the passenger seat beside the driver.
We rode silently for a few minutes before she said from behind, “So, like your sister told me, you’re the budding software engineer of our locality, huh?”
“Yes.”
The rest was mostly a silent journey during which things suddenly seemed to fall into place. Last evening, my sister worked at her house before she came back with the admission money. Is it possible that she is my unknown benefactor?
After I deboarded in front of the college, she craned her neck out of the window again and said, “Firhad, listen. May Allah bless you with the best life that you deserve, and I hope all your wishes are granted going forward. Khuda hafiz.”
She pulled her head back and the car left. She funded my college admission. She hoped all my wishes were granted going forward. All this pointed at only one thing.
That day, a faded image was recoated in my mind’s canvas. It was a wild pair of light brown eyes embossed on a flawless pale face topped by a stream of wild black hair. I assumed she would be mine one day.
Years rolled. I managed to survive the engineering college and then grabbed the job in Gurgaon. My sister retired from her work since I started sending home a good lot of money each month. It was just a matter of time before Ehtesab would be mine forever. One day, however, the glass sky shattered and fell on me when Apa called me to inform of Ehtesab getting married.
“It’s not possible, Apa. She’s mine.”
“What nonsense? Do you still nurse feelings for her?”
“I do. I always thought this was planned. Why else would your Haseeba-baaji fund my college?”
“She didn’t fund it, Firhad. I’ll let you on the secret now. I was secretly in love with someone. He’s the one who funded your college fees. I refrained from telling you as I was afraid that you might refuse the help considering the associated taboo.”
It took a few seconds to sink in.
“So who’s this benefactor, then?”
“It’s the local gangster Abdul. We were madly in love. However, we skirted marriage as he moved in and out of jail so frequently. Besides, I was your full-time mother, and could not think of a new family.”
I drank like a sponge and smoked like a chimney for the next few days, weeks and months. Nursed in my mind for more than a decade, the longing for her now transformed into a gripping dismay and killed me each moment. Dark days and sleepless nights prevailed.
Time is, however, the best shrink. It helped me gradually pick up the pieces of my life and move on like a defeated soldier.
Almost a year after her marriage came news about her husband’s murder. It was supposedly a sad news. In fact, sad was a supposed understatement. Yet, the only thing I felt was a heedless joy laced with a replenished hope. As if she was back in the market. I felt ashamed to celebrate her loss, yet this hope tagged me that day onwards.
In fact, the hope escalated when I saw her in the train coup.
“Last time I played ducks-and-drakes was with you,” she said.
“How has your life been so far, Ehtesab?”
“I’m a rich widow. That’s how life has been.” She stared out the window.
“Came to know about your loss. Sorry about it. How did he die?”
“His money killed him. It was orchestrated by hired hands. Some of his kins wanted him out of their way in order to bake their bread.” She took a long breath and said, “Anyway, I’ve to leave now. My folks are waiting at the other end.” She rose.
“Wait. I need to talk.”
“Stop there, Firhad. I know what you want to say. You and I were never meant to be together.”
Another eyes-locked silence later, she opened the door and marched out of my life forever.
Next day, I dragged my meagre luggage and a shattered heart to Junaida-apa. She said at once, “Drop your luggage here and run to Haseeba-baji’s right now. Something serious has cropped up.”
A maidservant answered the palatial house’s door ten minutes later. She ushered me upstairs to what I understood was Haseeba’s bedroom. Sprawled on a kind soft bed, she looked worn and woeful.
“Assalamuwalaikum,” I said.
She extended a hand that I touched after a few seconds’ hesitation.
A steady line of tears glid down the sides of her eyes and plunged on her swan-coloured pillow. She screamed, “It’s all my fault.”
She sniffed twice and blubbered, “I wanted to get her married again… to you. But they killed my cursed girl. I’m just a failed stepmother.” She broke into a violent spate of sobs.
I stared in disbelief. “She got killed? When did this happen?”
“Last week. They were after her money. Her husband’s money. They snuffed him first and it was her turn later.”
I gasped. She sobbed.
Almost a minute later, I gathered myself to ask, “Are you sure it was last week?”
“What’s there to doubt? I saw them bury her seven days back.”
I met her less than twelve hours back.
Of course, I didn’t let Haseeba on that meeting. She would take it for a crude joke.
After bidding her farewell, I staggered out of her house and walked straight to the graveyard. My father, mother and numerous other people sighed in their graves. The breeze was sweet yet painful. I approached the bittersweet smelling pond where we once played together. Something floated a stone’s throw away on the water surface. It was a turquoise coloured scarf.

In case you’ve read this far, you already know that this is a compressed version of Great Expectations 🙂

Bad Date

Place: some swanky restaurant, mostly empty
Characters: He, She and Awkward Silence
Awkward Silence steps out as He tries to open a conversation.
He: I’m new to this okshoopid thing. You?
She: It’s been a while (and concentrates on her food)
Awkward Silence returns for two or three minutes and then steps out again.
He: Haven’t you set up an emergency call?
She: What?
He: You know, they say women arrange for some friends to call them up amidst a blind date. If the date goes weird, they just pretend an emergency has come up and leave midway. Haven’t you set up something like that?
She: Why would I?
He: You’re definitely not interested in this date, are you?
She: I don’t know. It’s been a while since I dated last.
He: How long has it been since your last date?
She: Almost fifteen years.
He: If you don’t mind me asking, didn’t you feel the urge to mingle with a man all this while?
She: I did. I had a workable husband all the while.
He: Sorry about being a pest, but your profile does mention you’re single.
She: Hmm.
He: So are you divorced now?
She: No.
He (frowning): Separated?
She: Yes, by death.
He: Oops, sorry about his death.
She (extending her arm to reach the ac switch eight feet away): Don’t be sorry, honey. It’s I who died. He’s doing your wife right now

BAU at Salemo

The baby-faced beast marched out of the bureau office in a kurta, pyjama bottoms and sandals – all white. We pounced on him, like birds at a silverfish, as had been instructed earlier by our top boss Mr Knob Singh.
“Sir, did you kill your wife?” I demanded.
His magnificent eyes pierced me as he stopped short. We anticipated a quick result. However, he started staggering towards his car.
“If I know him well, he’ll bury his rage and try to walk away,” Mr Knob Singh had mentioned. “Don’t be perturbed by his calmness. Rather, pin him with your words. Hog him with your questions. Ask all sorts of stuff – slanderous, intimate questions. Your cameras and microphones should never stop running. Anything he says, any aggression he makes – we’ll edit and broadcast them immediately. He’ll ice the cake all the more if he reacts to one of our female journalists. We’ll charge him for sexual harassment. I want that ass-hole’s reputation frozen in a morgue once he steps out of that bloody bureau office.”
Mr Singh’s fury and demand for a revenge was justified. The baby-faced beast belonged to the political party that stalled our nation’s progress in the last few decades. They are the reason people chose a progressive government now at last. A government that extended its friendship with countries all across the world – our supreme leader would sacrifice his sleep to travel around the world and ensure that the biggest business contracts were bagged by our industrialists. Wretched leftists across the world, however, came up with human rights or environmental theories to thwart their attempts. Leftists, indeed, are a menace. They wail about everything – soaring price of pulses, beef-eaters’ deaths, some black sheep journalists getting killed, their anti-national leftist brothers in some universities being arrested. What they didn’t realise is that it was not cheap pulses or left-inclined journalists that would usher our country forward. Also, beef-eaters had always made a negative impact on our society. They should all be discarded anyway. It’s things like wider roads, super fast trains and big ass monuments that would glorify our nation and make it look great. Besides, our businessmen should climb higher up Forbes’ and other magazines’ lists to make us proud. All that would be possible with higher taxes. Not just pulses, even bread, butter and breathing should be diligently taxed.
Besides, the beast had recently killed his sultry siren wife. Although police had almost written him off the list of suspects by now, and neither did the bureau seem too inclined to hold him, it was clear as daylight to us that he was the one who killed that lady. Fuck the investigators. Fuck the court. We were the ultimate authority on pronouncing a person guilty. The ass-hole, however, went to court against us when our channel called a spade a spade. And the court, in its turn, took him for face value and sided with him. We were now here to exact revenge from this ass-hole.
All fifteen of us encompassed the animal and shelled him with our questions.
“Sir, what did the bureau ask you?”
“Sir, when will they arrest you?”
“Are you a murderer?”
“Did you hate your wife for sleeping with someone else?” Richa Bhanchor’s question elicited a sharp turn from the ass-hole. For a split-second, it looked as if he’d erupt. However, his rage seemed to immediately melt as he gained his composure back and sauntered towards his car. He’d later on post a slanderous twitter comment equating us to dogs. Slimy son of a bitch.
We walked in silence towards the parking lot. I fished my phone out of my pocket to read twelve missed calls. Most of them were from my brother Bhutiya. I rang him back.
“Come to Atmaram hospital emergency if you can.”
“Is everything all right?”
He didn’t answer. I realised he had disconnected the call. I called back and he let it ring and die.
Half an hour later, I rushed into the hospital emergency. Bhutiya, our neighbour Sunil and two unknown men stood silent. They were as calm as someone forced to watch Messenger of God.
I asked, “What’s it?”
Bhutiya stared. The two men asked, “Is this your brother Chutiya?”
Sunil said, “Yes.”
I asked again, “What is it?”
Sunil said, “Bhutiya’s motorcycle was rammed.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yet you look fit as a fiddle, Bhai. Why this fuss of a summon?”
Their gaze reminded me of the slimy bastard’s stare earlier today.
Sunil answered at last, “Your niece Maya was riding pillion.”
“So where’s she?”
“They’ll release her later,” Sunil seemed to chew his words. “Once the doctor signs the death certificate.”
“What death certificate?”
Sunil said, “Maya has been killed.”
“What?” Did he just say my fifteen year old niece, the one who called me by my name instead of Chacha or Chachu, who nagged me for ice-cream whenever I visited them and who had just been called for training for the state volleyball team was now as alive as the slimy beast’s wife?
I believe I also resembled someone coerced into watching Messenger of God.
When I found my voice at last, I asked, “Anyone noticed the registration number?”
Bhutiya spoke at last, “That wasn’t needed. We know the owner.”
“We know the son of a bitch? Who’s he?”
“Khatmal Singh.” Bhutiya’s answer whipped me.
“You mean Sri Khatmal Singh of the Progressive Party? Our province’s guardian angel? Whose name is synonymous with development?”
“Shut the fuck up,” Bhutiya erupted. “It’s tough to believe we share a mother. Singh has been around for the last couple of years and things have been the same if not worsened. No-one other than your joke of a news channel sees any development, ass-hole. Khatmal Singh is the one whose driver rammed my motorcycle and killed my daughter. He’s the one who stepped out of his car, called me a motherchod and slapped me hard on my face. He’s the one who threatened me, stepped back in his car and sped off while my poor daughter lay bleeding.”
A ball had once hit my nether region in a football pitch and I’d writhed like a lamb beheaded by a butcher. Somehow, my brother’s words had the same effect on my mind.
“What did the police say?”
“They said they’d let me go if I didn’t make a hue and cry. Else, they’d bury me under a pile of charges.”
“Fuck! I’ll ensure Salemo News covers it all. I’ll have Mr Knob Singh run it on an evening – most probably tomorrow as today’s will be about whether a film actress should be beheaded or not. I’ll teach them what democracy is about.”
“Thanks, bhai.”
It took me an hour to reach the Salemo News office at Ganja Park. I’d already called my boss to feed him on the incident. I walked straight to his cabin. He looked grim. “Sit,” he pointed towards a chair in front of him.
“Sir, my niece…”
He cut me short, “I’m abreast of the incident. You’ve already briefed me on the phone, right?”
“So Sir, how many minutes do we cover it for?”
“Cover what?”
“My niece’s murder?”
“What murder? By whom?”
“Sir, Khatmal Singh’s car had collided with my brother’s motorcycle and killed my niece. Khatmal Singh had then threatened and assaulted my brother. Police is reluctant to file it.”
“You’ve told me all this, Chutiya. However, what you’re talking about is a mere road accident.” He frowned, “Accidents happen, Chutiya. Accidents, rainfall, lightening, earthquakes, you, they’re all created by God. Mortals like us have no control on it. The only person who can be tried for it is God.”
“Sir, will you let him escape like this?”
“Are you serious, Chutiya? The word Khatmal is synonymous to development. He’s carrying us on his strong right shoulder to the top of the world. Why should we try him for a mere road accident, brother? It’s anyway your brother who’s to blame. He shouldn’t ride in front of Khatmal-ji’s car. And what’s the implication on our nation anyway? Your niece was too dark to be a future Miss Universe, right? Just look at her upbringing. What girl in civilised society plays volleyball?”
I guess I had enough shock for a day. I muttered, “Ok, Sir. I’ll leave now.”
“Yes. Take a few days’ leave and help your brother with the funeral and all.”

My Friend Arundhati

My wife asked yesterday, “Why do you often call me babajana these days? What’s that?”

“It’s an endearment that Kashmiris bestow on their very close and loved ones.”

“Who told you?”

“Arundhati…”

“That’s not a Kashmiri name. When did she tell this to you?”

“6th June this year.”

“Is she your colleague?”

“No.”

“What does she do?”

“She mostly roams around all across India and, to some extent, across the world as well.”

“Where does she live?”

“Chanakya Puri.”

“How old is she?”

“Around Kuttimama’s age.”

“How did she meet you?”

“She never met me.”

“Damn. You talking about Arundhati Roy all this while?”

Till Death Do Us Unite

The following story is my 1266-word entry to a 1200-word short story contest with the Lodhi empire as its theme. The winning entry can be read here

ACP Singh hated peeing in public. He hated killing human beings as well. However, when properly compensated, he would pee without a flinch. And kill.
A rain that subsided just before sunset had left south Delhi’s troughs and contours brimming with mucky water. It was almost an hour past sunset now. Singh, along with inspector Yadav, chose a puddle in front of the Lodhi Garden entrance to splutter their rueful bladders’ contents. The two constables, the driver and Irfan waited inside the Innova.
Irfan, with the numbing succinylcholine forcefully injected earlier, lay like a potato. It was raining when the policemen picked him from Batla House and shoved him in the car. They also looked for his roommate Anwar. The latter’s phone’s GPS traced him to Lodhi Garden and brought the party here. Although Irfan vehemently denied it till the drug rendered him dumb and senile, the policemen were convinced that the two Kashmiri scoundrels were in Delhi to execute some godforsaken separatist mission. Singh’s men were to hurl them to heaven. The plan involved utter secrecy. And a million rupees that had already been transferred to Singh’s account. He had checked the transfer earlier. Sitting beside him, Irfan had watched and noted his bank account password. In fact, the ACP had let him watch. The youngster would die anyway.
The air was tangy yellow wherever the streetlights reached. However, behind the walls or the trees, or far away from the lights’ reach, black trounced yellow. Thus, there were blackish brown tree trunks or blackish green grass where some light seeped in. And pitch black where the light was completely thwarted.
As their tinkles dwindled down and their eyes adjusted to the black zones, Singh and Yadav noticed a minute quiver at one of the black corners not too far inside the garden. They squinted. It was definitely a couple.
Ten minutes later, the car sped past Hauz Khas metro station. Singh sat on the passenger seat, Yadav and the constables were in the backseat. Irfan, a tall guy believed to be Anwar and a girl were huddled in the bench seat in the trunk. The girl was covered head to toe in a turquoise burqa. She was picked from inside Lodhi Garden, along with Anwar, and shoved into the car. Anwar nonchalantly obliged when Ratan craned back and injected him with the drug. They now had to let him talk. His speech would slur in around ten minutes. He would then slabber and go mute in another ten-fifteen minutes’ time.
Ratan attempted to prick the girl and she screamed, “Wadrega.”
Yadav instructed, “Leave the girl alone, smarty-pants. We don’t need drug to use her. Work on the boy.”
Ratan turned towards Anwar, “Anwar, how do you feel?”
“Who’s Anwar? My name is Raoff.”
Ratan chuckled, “Ok, Raoff. Where do you live?”
“Khairpur.”
“In Kashmir?”
“You picked me up from Khairpur.”
Ratan craned back again, “And where’s your Anarkali from? The same place?”
“She’s from Sirhind.”
“Who do you work for?”
“Khan-i-khanan Bahlol Lodhi.”
“Weird name for a terrorist. Where did you meet Anarkali?”
“In Sirhind.”
“Talk about the first meeting.” Tired of asking questions, Ratan hoped for an elaborate answer.
“It was a stormy night. Our army was on the way to Delhi. We were close to the borders of Sirhind when the khan-i-khanan noticed a light from a hut a stone’s throw away. The light glowed unfazed despite the storm. An amazed khan-i-khanan checked in the hut while we waited outside. It belonged to a hermit named Amir Sayyid. I noticed another hut not too far away. A woman stared out its window. Her pale, surreal face smote me. Our eyes locked. We stood like that for close to a minute. I guess she then heard a flutter inside the hut and vanished.”
Singh frowned, “I hope you’re not talking about someone related to Ibrahim Lodhi?”
“I believe Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi was the khan-i-khanan’s grandson.”
The policemen guffawed.
JNU’s long wall ran parallel to the car. Ratan urged, “Carry on. How did you unite?”
“A spate of treachery saw the khan-i-khanan annex the Delhi throne two nights later. This is exactly what Amir Sayyid had prophesied. The khan-i-khanan was elated, and went back to meet the hermit a week later. He carried tons of fruits, flowers and his daughter Taj Murassa to bestow on the saint. The hermit was also conferred the title mir-i-miran. I accompanied the sultan this time as well. While the sultan supervised his daughter’s nikah, I walked up to the other hut hoping to meet the owner of that pale face again. Much to my relief, I didn’t wait too long. She had been out on some errand, and appeared a while later. Our eyes locked again. We stood still for a few noiseless moments. I mastered courage and was about to speak to her when a noise from the hut drew her inside it. Later that night, on my way to Delhi, someone accosted me. Although the stranger was covered head to toe in a burqa, I knew it was she. We shared a horse ride all the way to Delhi.”
The car swished past a roundabout ahead of DLF Promenade.
Singh asked, “Ratan, what’s going on?”
“Sir, it’s all horseshit, but is a good story.”
“I’m not talking about him, idiot. Was it succinylcholine that you inserted or crack? His speech is still intact.”
Ratan frowned, “Raoff, what happened later? Did you get married?”
“We didn’t. We reached Delhi by afternoon. Love was in the air. Her pale velvet skin, that amazing body and a mellifluous voice left me transfixed. We made endless love through the night. The next morning, a relentless knock at my door jolted me off sleep. She clung to me. I carefully unclasped her arms off me and opened the door to a weird rotund man with shoulder-length hair and beard resembling a bird’s nest. I squeezed my groggy eyes and saw him stab me with a knife. He happened to be her husband, and stabbed her as well. We died a blood-red death.”
There was a peal of laughter in the car that now stood beside a jungle.
“Enough of his story,” Singh hissed. “Let’s do Irfan first. We’ll think about Anwar later.”
The driver stepped out to open the back door and folded the left seat. Three policemen effortlessly tugged Irfan out of the car, laid him ten feet away on the road and sat back in the car. Still in the passenger seat, Singh rolled down his window glass and trained a pistol at Irfan. A row of LED bulbs glowed atop a wall not too far away with a signboard on it that read “TERI”. It was otherwise dark and desolate. Irfan shut his limp eyelids. A few raindrops cuffed him. He failed to see the brutal white rope of lightning that cracked the sky, split the air and banged the car. He did open his eyes to a scorched car with five men trembling in agony. A booming thunder rattled the earth. He then saw the couple glide off the car.
The woman removed the burqa to reveal a beguiling oval face and mouthed an electric smile. Raoff said, “Khuda hafiz.” His eyes were calm.
The drizzle gave in to a heavy shower and the duo melted in it.
By morning, media was abuzz with news of ACP Singh and his associates killed by lightning.
A hands-to-mouth fruit-seller returned to the picturesque valley, bought a chain of houseboats in the next few months and mostly led a contented life.