#Mycousinslastwork

Dev stood still for a whole 10 minutes in front of the gate to the Trivandrum museum and zoo complex, unable to decide where to go next.

It was a pleasant evening- the sun being not so hot and acool wind blowing. This made him think he should go for a walk. But in fact, that wasn’t entirely the reason he stepped out of home in the first place.

The thing was, he was feeling frustrated. Terribly so. He hasn’t painted anything in five whole days- which is about 18 years in dog years as far as he was concerned.

When he was starting out as a painter, many of his seniors told him that once you passed a certain age, your passion for painting ebbed and you would no more feel uncomfortable when days have gone by without you having painted anything. At 39 years of age, he was finding that the age limit that his seniors once alluded to hasn’t come to pass yet for him.

It wasn’t that he lacked ideas/ inspiration to paint. On the contrary, as an artist who has relied on his painting to take care of his material needs(at least as much as he could) all his adult life, he has long developed a knack for coming up with ideas with or without the assistance of inspiration. But to be honest, even staying inspired was no big deal for him anymore, especially given how he didn’t have much else in life other than painting to distract him. The last of his friends had turned him away when he went and asked for a loan a couple of weeks ago- he was down on the rent to his apartment by two months and his landlord wasn’t the most amicable person in existence.

Dev was also someone who decided early on in his life to never have a family of his own and instead dedicate his life to art- a move he never once regretted(well, except for the odd times when his eyes fell on a passing couple on the street with a kid. He has a weakness for kids). The lack of family meant that colours, and the subjects that he painted were the closest thing he had to one.

And when one is devoid of all such distractions, one is in a constant flux of inspiration- finding it in everything- in the clouds in the sky(which Dev would gaze out of his window for hours on end in a lazy afternoon), the flowers in a park, the chatter of people in a restaurant, the roar of the lion in the zoo(though a grown up, Dev was still fascinated by the zoo), the roar of the ocean waves(he knew a couple of people living near the Shanghumukham beach who might take him to the ocean in the boat for a fee) and just about anything and everything.

No, inspiration wasn’t his problem.

The problem that Dev faced was the same one which millions around the world faced- lack of enough money. In Dev’s case, literally all he had left was the loose change in his back pocket-which amounted to some fifteen rupees.

“But that doesn’t mean I could just stand here like an electric pole!” Dev muttered. He didn’t realize that spoke out loud until he saw a few people around him raising their heads.

Not that he cared one way or the other.

Muttering some more, he proceeded towards the only place he went to these days: the University College Hostel.

**

When Dev used to be a student at the Govt. Arts College two decades ago, it was at the University college hostel where he stayed. He has a lot of great memories about the place- ranging from holding impromptu ‘comedy skits’ in the corridors with his friends to having his first LSD experience(at the end of which he found himself outside the hostel, near the Palayam Connemara market, but that’s another tale).

But it wasn’t to soak in the memories that he visited the place. At least, not anymore.

Dev has had a few successful exhibitions as an artist, but all of them were long in his past. He has been what the media and society at large liked to term as a ‘struggling artist’- for a long time now. Too long a time for comfort.

In the meantime, his bank balance has depleted to the point of being non-existent and the fat and muscle content of his body too have abated. Whether you’re aware of it or not, when such crucial factors retreat from one’s life, things like memories of hostel life tend to mean less. Sometimes, the sound of your tummy rumbling, angrily(and sometimes pathetically) asking for food could drown out the sounds of laughter you recollect from memory.

No, it wasn’t for the memories that he went to the hostel.

Even as he walked towards the hostel, Dev kept thinking how nice it would have been if he had some place other than the hostel to go to. Someplace preferably further than this. His apartment was in Nanthancode and the distance from home to the hostel was just over two kilometers.

Dev hasn’t had lunch and his breakfast constituted just a boiled egg and a glass of lime juice(the latter was bitter. The lemon was two days old). This meant he wouldn’t have been able to walk for long distances in his weak condition. But still, no harm in wishing, right?

Upon reaching the hostel, he found the gate wide open. It was a welcome sign, he thought.

He entered the compound and took a seat on a low wall to diagonally beneath a big tree, the canopy of which provided shade during hot days.

This evening wasn’t hot but still Dev felt grateful for the tree branches for providing the extra-cool. He watched the colours in the sky arching above the Chnadrashekhar Nair stadium on the opposite side of the road. It was beautiful to watch the hues changing from blue to dark blue, with the interleaving spectrum lying in the golden end. It was as though nature was experimenting with colours, throwing a left hook by adding reddish hues into a predominantly blue tint. No matter how many times he watched the display, he couldn’t help but smile.

Directly outside the wall, on the sidewalk by the road was a makeshift dhaba, one run by an elderly man who sold piping hot tea and vadas. Presently, Dev heard the sound of a young man asking in an authoritative tone for “one tea and two vadas!” The young man’s stern voice sounded downright aspirational to Dev in his pitiful condition.

The smell of the doughnut shaped vadas being fried in oil wafted up and Dev cursed the scientific principle by which such smell could travel easily through the air, to penetrate the nostrils of such hungry souls as Dev who sat scratching his balls on a wall nearby, making him salivate and his throat to itch.

He felt the coins in his backpocket, grinding between his ass and the concrete of the wall.

He was tempted to buy a tea and vada(or at least a tea). However, the comfortable thoughts of smoking beedis in his backyard in the night made him restrain. Smoking, watching the moon in the sky has of late become one of his favourite activities, right next to waking up in the morning and going right back to sleep after realizing how he didn’t have anything to do today.

“It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?”

The voice came from his left and sure enough, even as he turned to look, a young man- not more than 20 years old, in a T shirt and shorts was climbing on to the wall, getting himself as comfortable as he could on the small width.

Dev assumed that the young guy was talking about the colours in the sky. At last, someone with an artistic heart!

But no sooner had he thought about it than the guy gestured with his eyes towards the roadside dhaba where the elderly man was busy making vadas.

“Oh, that, yes!” said Dev, giving a sheepish smile. He turned his head away, he didn’t want to be reminded of the vadas right now.

“One of the things I love about Trivamndrum is the number of such street vendors of food!” the guy was saying. “You cannot help but fall in love with it. I myself am from Vithura. Not that there aren’t street vendors out there, but not as many as you find here!”

Dev nodded half-heartedly. He would have left it at that had he not seen the dude pull a cigarette from out of a pack and light it, clamping it between his lips and taking deep satisfactory drags.

“Do you have a cigarette to spare?” Dev asked.

“Sure!” the young dude said cheerfully, offering him a cigarette. It was a Gold Filter. Dev couldn’t remember when was the last time he had one of those.

The dude lit the cigarette for him. Dev was amazed at his compassion. Yes, compassion, that was the word, he thought. For this wasn’t the first time that he asked a stranger for a cigarette. But it was the first time in a long time that someone has given him one in response.

And to think that it was such a young person! Dev’s eyes almost filled with tears. Like the majority of adults, Dev too was skeptical of the new generation . They were always absorbed in themselves, taking selfies and scrolling through mindless chatter when they could be doing a whole lot of good things with their time-like, like, well…like making art!

But this dude was different, he decided, taking a drag from the cigarette.

“Thanks!” Dev said once again.

The dude nodded casually as though saying it’s no big deal, asked where Dev was from.

They got into a conversation.

Dev was delighted to learn that the dude was a final year art student- that too studying in the same college where he was an alma mater(not that many people among his faculty and once-class mates would be proud of it).

Their conversation deepened(in more ways than one) once Dev learned that he was talking with a fellow artist. In fact, he was so excited with the cigarette and the chance for a conversation that it became the lengthiest he has spoken with anyone in a long time. After a while, Dev even forgot that they just met. He began telling the dude how hard it was sometimes to be an artist in this world that doesn’t appreciate artists.

“Frustrated with being unable to make a breakthrough, I thought I would join as a faculty in an arts college,” Dev was saying with evident pain in his voice. “But to my dismay, I found that to get to there, what you need more than skill in painting is connections, which I certainly didn’t have. So, I did the next best thing: I joined a private music and arts institute that taught kids piano and painting on the weekends. Sadly enough, that too didn’t work out as I planned. They kept defaulting on pay and the pay on offer was measly to begin with. By the third month, I was fed up and I quit.”

Then began an extended period of borrowing money from friends and utilizing most of the money to buy painting utilities, organize exhibitions by paying out of his own pocket etc. And when his paintings still didn’t sell, the cycle repeated, over and over until no one would lend him money anymore.

But such a poor experience hasn’t diminished his spirit or his belief in painting to take care of his material needs. The way he saw it, this was but a temporary glitch- though the lack of success has been plaguing his career for at least 8 years now.

He didn’t mention any of these details to the young dude. Such details, he thought were just too personal to be told to someone whom he met just half an hour ago- even if that someone gave him his first proper cigarette in a long time.

Instead, he concluded with a weary sigh, saying, “It’s tough being an artist!”

The young dude nodded. Though his head was lowered, he gave every indication that he was listening closely to what the older man said. More importantly, the expression on his face indicated that he empathized – a fact which didn’t miss Dev’s attention, and one which pushed the new generation up  by a few points on his ‘Most likeable personalities list’ (though he felt one more cigarette wouldn’t be such a bad idea).

After a few brief moments of silence, the young dude said, “Yes, I imagine that the life of an artist would he hard. Just think about Van Gogh, right? Such a great artist and people just treated him like a dog! Even Caravaggio for that matter. Yes, his was a violent personality, but still…Yes, life as an artist is always hard..” It looked to Dev as though the young chap was slipping into a vortex of gloom and he admonished himself for doing that to the chap who gave him a Gold Filter cigarette.

But the young dude’s face lit up soon after. He looked at Dev and smiled. “I have something that might alleviate the pain of an artist though. At least for one evening.” The dude’s smile deepened.

Yes!, thought Dev,the young man is going to buy him a drink!

Dev was no alcoholic but whenever he drank, he loved it. He thought of alcohol’s ability to make everything- and literally everything feel better to be nothing short of miraculous.

But as it turned out, what the young dude offered was far better than alcohol.

**

Dev was amazed at the casual manner in which the dude handed him the pill.

Sure, by this time the sun has set and dark has descended on god’s earth. But that didn’t mean that such things as street lights didn’t exist. And in the light of the nearest light post- which stood right next to the street food vendor’s, Dev observed the pill- a white oval capsule that looked just like a regular capsule- the kind which you may get for fever or an upset stomach.

But the dude assured him that it was nothing of the sort. “You would be in paradise for a few hours!” he was assured.

Wondering if the dude was a part time drug peddler, he said, “I don’t have any money.”

“I know that,” the dude said. He, it turned out, had a knack for saying such things without giving offence to the other person. “Just take it. Consider it a gift- from one artist to another!”

That did it for Dev. He couldn’t remember when was the last time someone acknowledged him as an artist. It was all he could do to keep the tears which threatened to pop out and ruin the scene.

Silently, he took the pill, and following the dude’s direction, popped it in his mouth right then and there. “It will dissolve in your tongue. So, you don’t need water or anything like that,” the dude said. “Isn’t that amazing!”

Dev said that it was indeed amazing, though he was yet to feel the effects of the drug. He watched as the dude popped a pill into his own mouth.

Some ten minutes later, the effects kicked in.

It kicked in for both of them at around the same time. Ten minutes after that, seeing how Dev’s uncontrollable giggling was making people around to look at him with raised eyebrows(‘What right has a grown man to be giggling like that! It’s the exclusive domain of teenaged girls!’ they seem to be asking), the dude took him to the hostel where they rested on the verandah.

Well, rested might be too fine a word, for Dev was still giggling and found it really hard to keep his ass planted on the ground. He kept getting up and sitting down and getting up again, muttering behind the cupped palm of a hand, ‘What a world! What a wonderful world!’

It wasn’t much later before he began planting kisses on the dude’s face. “Thank you, my dear boy! You are an angel! A god-send! You make everything grand and wonderful!” He kept repeting such things whenever he came up for air from the incessant kisses that he planted on his face. The kisses were planted on the dude’s forehead, cheeks, chin and one even on his lips.

Fearing that he was being attacked by a sex-crazed homosexual maniac, the dude ran away, making a lame excuse about having to go meet someone soon.

Not that Dev heard the excuse. He was too preoccupied with the terrific flow of happiness that made a whole interstate highway of joy inside his body to bother about such things as the person who gave him the pill running away.

He has certainly enjoyed the dude’s company. But even his running away from him- like a deer from a lion wasn’t enough to bring down the highest elation he has ever known in his life. In fact, as he walked out of the hostel gate, his strides confident, he was sure that nothing- and absolutely nothing could get his spirits down. Ever again.

He whistled all the way back to his home. He didn’t feel even marginally tired once he reached home- forget the fact that almost 12 hours have passed since his last proper meal. In fact, he was brimming with energy.

**

Water is made of hydrogen and water with a excellent masseur thrown into the mix-this was one of the first thoughts that occurred to Dev once he got back home.

Usually, after coming back from a walk, it was his habit to take a bath more or less immediately. Particularly true if the evening has been hot.

This evening wasn’t hot but he certainly felt like taking a shower. In fact, what with the overwhelmingly high tide of happiness that he was riding, he felt positive that taking a bath would be the height of experiences of this evening that has already given him so much, which has already made him feel like a god.

“The drops of cool water sliding down the surface of my skin would be like a thousand masseurs giving me the most soothing massage you could ever envision in the entire universe!” he said aloud as he took off his clothes and walked into the bathroom.

The bathroom, as could be expected in a single bedroom apartment wasn’t exactly large. It was a space in which if two people stood side by side with their arms extended to either side, the tips of their fingers would touch the two walls.

But for some reason, the space didn’t feel all that confining to Dev on this particular night. In fact, it felt like he has entered the bath space of a hotel’s royal suite.

And when he opened the shower and the water hit his body, the sensation was so brilliant that he literally uttered “Oh, heaven!Oh, heaven!”

The house behind Dev’s belonged to an old Christian couple. They usually watched a Christian channel on the television together once the sun went down and everything became so much darker inside and out.

They heard Dev uttering loudly “Heaven!” – a sound that floated out of his bathroom door with the efficacy of a thief entering a door left open. And the moment they heard it coincided with a goateed priest with a thin smile on his face, saying on the screen that “Heaven shall be yours, all you have to do is believe!”

Both the husband and the wife were in their eighties and had seen their fair share of troubles and tribulations. In fact, in their life they had seen more of these than anything else, which led them both to question the existence of god on multiple occasions. Of course, they have never told this openly to anyone, not even to each other, putting on a brave face for Christianity’s sake.

So, when a disembodied voice came at what they would in hindsight take to be the most pivotal moment in the religious show, they took it as validation for the existence of god. “God has finally spoken to us!” they said simultaneously. They looked at each other and shed tears of joy.

They tried to get down on their knees in front of the television and pray, as a way of showing their thanks. But age had rendered their knees less than what they used to be once. Far less. So they gave up on that attempt and said Hallelujah! repeatedly, sitting on the sofa.

Dev meanwhile, lathered his entire body with soap, which felt like a delightfully child-like activity . He stayed in the shower a full half an hour uttering such things as “Oh, what a wonderful world!” and “Heaven on earth!” and “Water is the best thing that nature created since the dinosaurs!”. The last thing didn’t make much sense but uttering such nonsensical things was one of the side effects of taking the pill.

He stepped out of the bathroom, dripping water throughout the path he took from the bathroom door to his bedroom where he found a towel draped on the headrest of the bed. While drying himself with the towel, he felt that the birds on the towel- the towel had the images to two giant parrots printed on it-were kissing him.

Of course, in real life, if parrots were to kiss you, regardless of how romantic a notion that is, it would still be a painful experience. Particularly true if the parrots were as overgrown as the ones depicted in Dev’s towel. But in the imaginary scenario that Dev’s mind conjured up, the sensation of the kisses was nothing short of extra-ordinary.

To put things in perspective, if the sensation were a movie, it would have earned such reviews as “Incredible!” and “A staggering triumph!” And if it were a painting, critics would have said such things as “A generational leap in modern art!” and “The world has never seen anything like this before!”

It was when he gazed at the parrots- they were looking at each other, a somewhat bored expression on both their faces- when Dev imagined how wonderful it would be to be painting when he felt this high! ‘Why, that would be even better than getting the service of a thousand water droplet masseurs!’, he thought.

In fact, it would be so heavenly that he would have to redefine the concept of heaven itself!

Hurriedly getting dressed in a T-shirt(with a couple of age-related holes in it) and an old pair of fading shorts, he began frantically looking for a canvas to paint . No one in their right mind would paint in the night, that too under the artificial light of a fluorescent lamp. But he didn’t care about such conventions at this moment. All Dev wanted was to get immersed in the world of colours.

But no matter how much he looked, or where he looked- including under the bed and behind the wooden almara, he was unable to find a canvas. Eventually, he remembered why this was so- because he hasn’t brought one in a long time for lack of funds!

The realization struck like a spear plunging into his heart.

But the disheartenment didn’t last long. After all, he was still high. And he soon began looking for the best alternative-which was a sketch pad he knew was lying around in the room somewhere.

He had to wade through quite a bit of laundry and junk to get to it, but he finally found the object he was looking for lying on the floor between the bed and the wall with the window. It was dusty as hell and most of the pages were filled. And of these filled pages, almost all of them contained sketches of sunflowers.

Like Van Gogh, he too went through a sunflower phase, and also like the Dutch master, he too didn’t meet much success when he presented them to the discerning public. Maybe like the dead master, his sunflowers too might find success one day posthumously, and the paintings may hang in such super-reputed galleries like the Louvre or the MoMA.

But Dev had no interest in posthumous reputation. All he wanted was money during his lifetime.

But right this moment, what he wanted more than anything else was the satisfaction of doing work.

So, finding a blank page between studies of two sunflowers, he began to draw furiously. Some five minutes into the effort, he realized that it wasn’t working.

The glorious sensation that he was looking for was simply not manifesting. In fact, the more he drew, the more frustrated he became. And he knew the reason why: he needed a bigger…canvas.

Grunting, he threw the sketch book to the ground. It slid back to the space between the bed and the wall where Dev  found it before, as though the book knew its way back home.

Rising with frustration, Dev began walking to and fro. But even as he was feeling the incessant itch of frustration gnawing within his heart, there was also the  rhythm of elation which the pill has gifted. This was the sole reason why he didn’t get out of the house and went up to the terrace where he would stand under the sky and gaze at the stars-which was what he usually did in such situations.

Instead, he toed and froed inside the 8 by 6 feet bedroom and thought about where he could borrow some money from. He thought of one friend and acquaintance after another. Along with every face that popped in his mind also came a reason that made borrowing from that person impractical. More often than not, this reason was the same: he has already borrowed money from that person and has yet to give them the money back. On rare occasions, the reason was different- maybe he didn’t have any means to get in touch with the person, not knowing his number or address. Or the person in question was dead.

With each rendering of such reasons, Dev grew steadily frustrated, and he began shaking his head furiously.

It was while he was doing so that his eyes fell on the canvas. Or what could be used as a canvas.

**

The wall opposite to the bed was painted yellow and was devoid of a window or a cupboard or a shelf or anything of that sort. There was just a round thick iron nail that was hammered in to it at the height of an average man. Dev sometimes hung a piece of cloth, or the parrot towel on it. But he was sure that the nail was not that big a deal in relation to what he intended to do. Notwithstanding the nail, the wall had enough blank space on it for him to paint to his mind’s content.

Without losing time, he amassed the paints and associated utilities required for such a feat. And in the five minutes or so that took him to do that, an idea came to him as to what to paint. Or at least, the style he could adopt.

At first, he had thought that he would paint an abstraction of a scene that you might see in a beautiful garden- with flowers and birds and bees that buzzed around. He even thought of writing in the word ‘Buzzzzzz’ alongside a bumblebee so that the whole thing would have a pop culture feel.

But then, it occurred to him that, this being a wall he could paint something in the style of ancient cave paintings. For one thing, his bedroom was somewhat cave-like in that the air circulation was low- only two windows and the light too would be minimal if not for the fluorescent bulb.

He couldn’t help but smile at the thought of how funny it would be to paint in that ancient style some contemporary subjects.

And so Dev began his latest project- one that he knew he would have incredible fun doing, and one which made him stop and laugh even as he was painting.

The subjects he rendered on the wall  included such contemporary motifs, like: people standing at the queue at a check-out counter in the supermarket, a man putting on a condom while a woman lied with legs spread in front of him, a bunch of people- or rather their heads visible as silhouettes against a giant screen in a theater, a family of four in a motorbike, schoolchildren in an over-crowded auto rickshaw, Superman flying towards a burning skyscraper with a worried expression on his face, a young dude chatting on a cell phone with a blank look in his eyes as he walks towards the edge of a canyon, a police patrol jeep parked on the side of the highway with one of the cops taking a leak at a bush nearby, a bride and groom in a Christian wedding, lollipops, Shah Rukh Khan dancing alone in the rain and a bowl of bananas.

It took him more than two hours to finish the work, though he used only a single coating of pale brown paint to do it.

Once he was done, he felt exhausted, so much so that he didn’t even bother washing the residual paint on his hands, knowing fully well that the next morning, it would be so much harder to clear his hands of the paint.

But he didn’t care. He was just too exhausted to move. So he simply plunged back into his bed.

His heart hammered like a machine gun with hormonal imbalance. Even though that made breathing itself a chore of sorts, he didn’t mind. In fact, he smiled. He couldn’t remember the last time he has felt this elated at a work.

Lying on the bed, beholding his latest work with a glint in his eyes, he thought how wonderful it looked. He acknowledged that part of the reason for feeling so great about the cave painting might be the pill. But he also felt that there was something more to this. In fact, the more he beheld his recent creation, the more assured he felt that this was his masterpiece.

The cave painting would be to Dev what Guernica was to Picasso(minus the political links) and the Mona Lisa to Da Vinci.

It would bring him money and glory-which meant a few villas in France and Vienna and international stardom.

He felt his heart beating even faster at the thought of partaking in orgies with super-models and Hollywood actresses. He found the palms of his hand sweating at the idea of flying to his island-home in Hawaii.

He would have liked to remain awake imagining more such delightful scenarios. But it was late- much later than when he usually went to sleep(which was late to begin with).

Despite his wishes to stay awake and imagine waxed butts belonging to super-models, Dev found himself slipping into a dark, deep sleep.

**

The world is a funny place- many people say so.

Even more number of people say this: life is funny.

In the latter instance, more often than not, what they mean by ‘funny’ is ‘ironic.’ Irony, even the tragic variety, could make one smile.

In the case of Dev, the funny thing was that just when he thought that he has created a masterpiece that could finally bring him the material joys he has been denied for a very long time, life decided that he has been given enough of a run. It was as though life put him on the earth precisely so that he could produce a tongue-in-cheek version of  a cave painting. Now that it was done, he could rest in peace forever.

Those who knew Dev closely during his life would have found this sad. For they knew only too well the different phases that Dev went through in search of success.

There was the time when Dev thought that maybe he needed to get more relevant in his subjects. MNybe the lack of relatable subjects was what was stopping people from buying his paintings, he had thought. So, foregoing his notion of painting clouds and rain and such, he began depicting such things as smart phones and laptops in his works. In one of them, he even included the Apple logo, which he felt would help sell the painting for a large sum. The painting did sell but not for a large sum. Not nearly so.

Seeing how relevancy was not the issue, he then switched to abstracts. Mostly inspired by such painters as Kandinsky and Picasso. This meant that this new phase saw him painting one rectangle after the other, sometimes one within another.

And the audience also saw in them nothing but rectangles. Which was still fine. But the audience apparently wondered why they should invest money in Dev’s rectangles which were boring compared to other rectangles that they could obtain from shops- like smart phone sand flat screen televisions.

Cursing Kandinsky, Dev moved on and tried out different things like cubism, modernism, realism, hyper-realism, comic-pastiche and various other styles and modes before failure in each of them forced him to resort to his original style, and the one which was always closest to his heart- naturalism. That was when the sunflower phase started and his funds began to take a serious dip.

Those who have been following Dev’s career would have been sad to see the artist dying just when he has created something magical after going through these many artistic iterations. But there weren’t many- in fact, there was not even a single person who ever followed Dev’s career(unless you counted Dev himself).

But the absence of such people in Dev’s life didn’t mean that Dev’s death wasn’t tragic. Ironic even, considering the fact that the same object that presented him the greatest elation he has ever known in his life was the cause of death.

For the pill the young art student presented to Dev was not just potent, it was also spurious- one of the many that flooded the Kerala market in the aftermath of the hard liquor ban. The tiny state of Kerala was not as evolved a drug market as, say San Francisco or Amsterdam. This meant that the consumers were still not equipped to discern spurious drugs from the good ones- not until it was too late.

Some two kilometers from where Dev lied dead, the young chap who took a pill with him also shuddered to his death in his hostel room. His room mate, a Post Grad literature student, did hear Dev grunting in his sleep but he just thought that he was having a nightmare.

Not that he could have done anything meaningful even if he had known what exactly was going on. For the chemicals in the drug- aside from making you feel like heaven’s closer to you than the earth, also makes the blood in your veins coagulate at different points. It’s only a matter of time before the blockage this causes leads to a rupture and the heart to stop.

Given such a situation, the best the literature student could have done, had he known that his room-mate was dying was hold his hand and recite one of Allan Poe’s poems.

Both the art student and Dev died at around the same time- a fate that some people think in association with a deep love that exists between two people.

But of course, in this instance nothing of the sort existed. One could say that both of the dead did love deeply- but it wasn’t each other, it was a love for getting a high-whether it be from art or pill.

**

Dev’s landlord was an elderly man with a head of curly gray hair and a  thick moustache.

He was 57 years old and he wore a pair of round brown  spectacles even though there was nothing wrong with his eyesight. He brought the glasses when he brought a computer last year- his first. And someone suggested that he buy a pair of anti-glare glasses. His 53 year old, when she saw her husband wearing glasses for the first time thought that he looked smart in it, and bemoaned the fact that they had never thought of buying him a pair when he was younger-when they used to go out a lot.

Since he got his wife’s vote of confidence, the landlord wore the pair of glasses almost always, whether he was looking at a computer screen or not.

He had the glasses on when he came down to Dev’s apartment on the very next morning after Dev’s death. Of course, he didn’t at this point know that his tenant of two years was dead, or he would have freaked out right then and there-he was owed three months’ rent.

The landlord lived just two doors away from Dev, in a two storied house which he  built more than thirty years ago.

In the intervening years he has built three smaller apartments in different places in Trivandrum-one of which was where Dev lived. They were all rented out, the money from which helped him and his wife to live in relative comfort. They rarely went out as they thought the television and the internet have made going out a moot point. All their children were married off and they didn’t have any distractions to take their attention away from whatever entertainment was on in one screen or the other.

In other words, the landlord led a rather contended life. The only disgruntlement he had, you might say was regarding his tenant who kept defaulting on his rent.

The landlord was usually astute when it came to choosing his tenants. When Dev first came to him looking for a place to stay, he was a little apprehensive about the fact that the man was a professional painter. The landlord wasn’t acquainted with the world of painting. In fact, it was practically hearsay for him. And the idea of a grown man making a living painting pictures like children had struck him as a tad silly.

But then, he has seen enough television to know that the arts are kind of a cool thing, and artists, if not to be revered, should be at least given a space to live, as long as they made the rent payment on time.

And he hasn’t regretted his decision, until Jason began defaulting on the rent, that is.

Yesterday was the deadline the tenant himself gave him to make the payment. “I would bring you the three months’ worth of rent together. I promise!” The artist’s words, spoken a couple of weeks ago still rang in his ears with an undeniable clarit. (It was as though there was a recording device in his ear which absorbed the words and played it back to him in Dolby Atmos-a technology that was also embedded in the television in his home).

It was just past seven in the morning. When he stepped out of his home, his wife said that it might be too early-that the tenant might still be asleep. He told her that he didn’t want to give Dev the time to get out of home and get away.

So, here he was, at Dev’s doorstep, feeling somewhat angry. He would have liked to feel even angrier. The problem was that he has just come out of sleep himself and parts of his brain were still only in the process of whirring awake. It was just too hard to work up a lot of anger when the brain wasn’t fully awake.

Hoping that the anger he currently felt would be enough to speak in a tone that stung the tenant, the landlord knocked on the door. There was a calling bell switch but the landlord knew it to be defunct for a long time.

After a couple of times knocking on the door, he called out the tenant’s name. “Dev, oh, Dev!” He was gladdened by the fact that his voice sounded stern, none of the sleepiness he still felt evident in it. But he wasn’t all that pleased by the fact that even after repeatedly knocking and calling his name, Dev didn’t come open the door.

“Dev, I know you are in there!” he said, “I saw you last night coming back here. You were whistling and looked the happiest in a long time. In fact, I have never seen you happier! I know that only one thing could make a person as happy as that. In fact, two things- one is if a beautiful girl has agreed to your proposal for marriage, and another is if you have come by some cash. It could be either in your case, but if I were asked, I would say it was the latter. So, what do you say, are you ready to spare some of that cash and we can negate the defaulted rents?”

The landlord said most of this in a jovial tone, to communicate the fact that most of the things that he said- like happiness coming with a girl accepting your hand was a half-joke. It was only when he added the last bit-about negating the rent payments that he let his tone switch to his typical authoritarian mode.

He knew Dev to be a man with a humour sense.

But even his humorous tone didn’t help. The door remained shut and there came no sound from within to suggest that Dev was walking towards the door.

Cursing the painter under his breath, the landlord was about to retreat. That was when he saw the open windows to the bedroom. The bedroom was more or less adjacent to the front door- the entire apartment was that tiny. And from where he stood on the porch, he could see that the two windows were open.

Being not uncultured, the landlord knew as well as the next person that it’s impolite to peer into another person’s bedroom. But Dev hasn’t paid his rent for three weeks and so, he reasoned, the house was not technically Dev’s in any legal sense for the time being. He- the landlord, the actual owner of the house had more claim on it than Dev.

But even so, before he shuffled towards the window, he looked around to see if any of the neighbors happened to be watching his movements- houses were divided by mere inches in the neighborhood and many people in the neighborhood, his wife including, found observing their neighbors a pleasurable pastime for some reason.

To his relief, the landlord found that no one was observing him. Maybe because an old man’s movements were not all that fun to watch, or maybe simply because it was early and people were yet to wake up.

Coming to the window, before pushing the curtain aside, the landlord mock-coughed, hoping that the sound would wake Dev up-assuming he was still asleep. All said and done, he was still feeling a bit uncomfortable about peering into his tenant’s bedroom. But when he repeated coughing failed to produce any desirable result, the sense of shame fell off him like the old skin of a snake and he pushed aside the curtain on the window.

Now, the landlord has lived long enough on the earth to have seen dead bodies before- both his parents died in his own home and so did a pet dog-an Alsatian which he once owned. But none of those dead bodies had the expression he now saw on Dev’s face.

The man’s lips were drooped at one end while at the other they were tilted upwards. His eyes were wide open in an expression of either an amused delight or shock. It was as though in his final moments, Dev was undecided as to whether he should laugh or cry.

Once the initial shock of seeing the dead body passed, the landlord began looking at the areas around the bed. He was looking for prospective objects that one might use to commit suicide- maybe a bottle or poison or maybe a knife with which he might have slashed his wrist. There was no blood to be seen anywhere except for a trickle that has come out of his nostril and which seemed to have dried. Also, there was no bottle to be seen except for the few bottles of paints that were haphazardly arranged on the floor by the bed.

Notwithstanding the absence of any potential objects of death, the landlord felt sure that it was a suicide. The logical leap from ‘a man who couldn’t even afford the rent for a single bedroom apartment’ to ‘a man on the fringe of doing himself in’ was not that big to make.

But when the old man’s eyes fell on the wall- or more precisely, the painting on the wall, he gasped. He involuntarily called out Dev’s name, as though wishing to bring the dead man awake and ask him, ‘Dev, what in the name of the devil have you done to my wall!’

He walked back to his own home and without offering any explanation to his wife, took the key to Dev’s apartment and walked out again.

The first thing he noticed after entering Dev’s apartment was how dusty everything was. Not just the floor, but the plastic chairs and the coffee table and the show case-which was largely empty-were all smeared with dust, as evenly as though the painter had smeared a coating himself over the objects.

The landlord felt frustrated at being incapable to vent his frustration at the house being so dusty at the tenant. There was no point arguing with a dead body over such points.

Upon entering the dead man’s bedroom, the first thing the landlord did was look around the room-within the wooden alamara and underneath the pillow among other places for possible wads of cash which the dead man may have sequestered before passing on to the after-life: possibly with a note that said ‘To my dear landlord, take this money. Sorry for all the trouble.’

But alas, nothing of that sort was found! And when he found dirty underwear inside a drawer in the almara, he gave up looking.

**

The emergency contact number that Dev had given the landlord when he took up the apartment belonged to a cousin of. The landlord has had never the occasion to call the number and so had a bit of talking to do on the phone to establish who he was and what he was calling about.

The cousin, it turned out was a 40 plus year old man who was getting ready to go to the Secretariat where he worked as a senior clerk, when the call came.

The landlord heard a distinct sigh from the other end when he told that someone would have to make the funeral arrangements. For a second, he thought that the cousin may say that he wasn’t interested- the man sounded that disinterested about the whole affair.

But after a theatrical sigh, the man said he would be coming soon.

The ‘soon’ turned out to be some two hours later, which the landlord felt was too long a time to cover the distance from Pulimoodu which was where Dev’s cousin brother lived. But the man explained to the landlord that before coming over he has made the arrangements with the government crematorium in Jagathy- the Shantikavadam.

“It looks like he has had a heart attack,” the cousin said soon as he saw Dev’s body. He closed Dev’s eyes and re-arranged the body to assume the posture expected of a dead body-which was stiff.

When the landlord made the suggestion that maybe they should have a doctor or a coroner examine the body to ascertain the cause of death(he still thought it might be suicide) the cousin waved the idea away, saying they “shouldn’t take on undue hassles where it’s not necessary.”

The landlord, not a stickler for details, didn’t push it any further.

By the time the ambulance from the Shantikavadam arrived, the body was given a good bath and was wrapped in a plain white clothing- the standard attire in which most Hindu bodies entered the after-life.

The whole thing was over faster than the landlord  thought would be possible.

Indeed, he found himself back home in time for lunch. Dev’s cousin brother also came back with him from the crematorium. After having lunch at the landlord’s home-upon the latter’s insistence, he went to Dev’s home.

The landlord requested him to clear Dev’s clothes and other belongings. The cousin brother took a few of his clothes- the ones with the least number of holes in them. “I have a servant at home who might benefit from these,” he explained.

The only other item of Dev’s which he took from the house was an oil painting that he found under the bed. It was laden with dust. It was a painting of a sunflower and possessed a simple beauty the kind of which only the picture of a flower could possess.

“I reckon the wife would like to have this hanging from the wall.” A smile bloomed on the cousin’s face as he said this, the first time that the landlord saw him looking anything other than irritated at the idea of making funeral arrangements for a cousin he evidently wasn’t close with.

The sudden burst of smile on the man’s face apparently made the landlord look surprised, for seeing the latter’s expression, the cousin added, “We used to be very close when we were young. We were both painters in the family, both of us aspired to become professional painters. Sometimes he came over to my home and we would paint together-those were amazing times…” The wistfulness in his voice was something that the landlord hadn’t expected. “But then, when we became older and it came time for us to choose our college degree courses, he was the one who still went on to pursue his dream while I became more pragmatic and chose commerce.”

“Good thing!” the landlord said immediately. He hoped that such a proclamation would endear him to the cousin brother. He immediately began making allusions to the fact that Dev hasn’t paid the last three months’ rent. When it became embarrassingly clear what the landlord was driving at, the cousin turned towards him and spoke in a soft yet steady tone.

“That’s not something I cannot help you with. Once he saw that I ran away from my dreams to what he considered as a life of mundane existence, Dev grew apart from me. From thereon, whenever we met, it was at a social occasion- a wedding in the family or something. And then too, we spoke very little with each other.”

“And yet, it was your contact number that he gave to reach out in case of emergency,” the landlord made a last desperate attempt to make the man see the righteousness in paying the rent that his cousin defaulted.

“Who else’s would he have given?” the cousin said pragmatically. “Both his parents are dead and he doesn’t have any siblings.”

The landlord nodded, even as he thought of something else to say which might change the cousin’s mind. Drawing blanks, he sighed and accepted the fate that the last few months of Dev’s residence on the earth was his due to pay to the cosmos, for some reason.

Thanking the landlord for all that he has done for Dev(which wasn’t much but no one would know that now, would they?) the cousin was to exit the house when turning around, his eyes fell on the wall behind him.

“My God, was this here all this time!” the exclamation was followed by a short amused laughter.

‘Of course it was here all this time! What else did you expect- that I hired someone to vandalize my own wall while your cousin was getting burned in the incinerator, to commemorate his passing?’ That’s what the landlord felt like saying but seeing how nothing useful- like the defaulted rent-would come out of such a statement, he settled for a simple, “Yes.”

The cousin, without taking his eyes from the wall laughed again- the note of amusement unmistakable this time. “I have never seen anything like it,” he muttered.

“Neither have I.” If the cousin registered the note of sarcasm in the landlord’s words, he didn’t let it show. Instead he kept on gazing at the painting, taking in the distinct elements, and when his eyes fell on the picture of the man putting a condom to cover his erect penis, he burst out laughing, as if he just saw a young boy’s delightfully mischievous prank-which was more or less what it was.

“It wasn’t here when I came over a couple of weeks ago,” the landlord was saying. “So I think it might be the last painting your cousin ever did.”

He was hoping that the cousin would appreciate Dev using the wall for a canvas and pay at least the going rate for a canvas these days.

The cousin didn’t give a sign of doing anything like that. Instead, he took out his phone from his pocket and clicked a few photographs.

Later that night, he would post the pictures on his Facebook account with the tag #Mycousinslastwork.

**

No one would expect a photo album of paintings done in the way of cave paintings by a clerk in the Secretariat who has just under 40 followers on Facebook to go viral. But stranger things happen in this world.

Dev’s cousin was quite fascinated by this development. Initially, he even read through all the comments that he received about the paintings from strangers. But when the number of comments became too much and he found that he couldn’t possibly read them all, unless he didn’t wish to retain his job, he gave up on that endeavor.

Nonetheless, he was glad for Dev. He hoped that the painter’s soul would be joyful knowing how much people appreciated his work (Though it did look to the cousin as though most of the people who commented, commented about that particular depiction of the man putting on condom, making him question whether it was the quality of the art or just the amusement factor which made people like the picture).

Following the piece going viral, local media houses covered the story which made the pictures even more popular. The media people reached out to Dev’s cousin, asking him all sorts of questions. “Who the hell was Dev?” “What the hell kind of a person was he?” “Did he have a wife?” “Did he have a lot of fans?” Of course, the questions weren’t necessarily phrased in the manner mentioned here, but the gist remains the same.

Dev’s cousin wasn’t someone you might call as a born celebrity. In fact, the man was quite shy and reserved who liked to keep things about himself and his family as private as possible. But when the media spotlight fell on him (for about 20 minutes of his life) he felt that he has been missing out a lot.

He imagined how different a life his would have been had he (like Dev) pursued his dream and (unlike Dev) became successful in the endeavor during his lifetime. He could then have enjoyed this revered attention from the media which would have made his life all the more interesting. Later that night, after the media people had left, lying on his bed, he even thought that the life of a man who isn’t a celebrity is akin to a dog without a bone. A dog may have many other things in its life- including great grooming service and boneless meat to eat frequently, and the most delectable biscuits to drool over.

But if it’s lacking a bone, it’s lacking a crucial aspect in its life.

But the next morning, when it was time for him to go to work, he’s forgotten all about it and began to think about nothing but how to take care of the next thing that has to be taken care of in life, like any normal working person.

The media also interviewed Dev’s landlord. They visited the house where the artist used to live. They took the photographs of the painting on the wall, tut-tutted sadly when the landlord informed them that he intended to paint over the painting the next day, as though what they would miss in the process was a national treasure.

Dev’s landlord, unlike Dev’s cousin, wasn’t all that taken in by the few minutes of attention that he received from the media. The way he saw it, media or no media, the fact was that he still hasn’t received the rent that was due him from Dev. So, what difference did it make if the photo of him and his wife sitting side by side on a sofa would be printed on the page of a newspaper or a website?

But the landlord was certainly amused the next day when he found people coming to his home, asking if they could see the dead artist’s home. The media people had printed the address of where Dev used to live in the news pages.

At first, the landlord thought that it was an isolated event, but by 11:30 in the morning, more than a dozen people were assembled at his front yard, all of them there to see the famous cave painting with their own eyes.

The landlord was on the phone, talking to a young painter he knew(not the artistic kind but the more functional kind who paints houses and stuff). The painter had told him that he would come down to paint over the cave painting by 11. It was past eleven and still he hasn’t come down. “You are going to come, aren’t you?” the landlord asked him. The house painter assured him that he would- he was caught in traffic, so he get delayed. The landlord assumed that the bit about the traffic was probably a lie, but he let it go.

When he got off the phone, he heard a murmur spreading through the people who were waiting outside.

He had told them that the house where Dev lived was a private apartment and so they couldn’t enter and watch the painting, so they should please leave. He was surprised to learn that they were still in his front yard. Perhaps, the stern voice in which he spoke to them wasn’t stern enough?

He walked out to the porch, ready to ask them once again to please leave when he discovered the reason for the murmuring from the crowd.

A foreigner had come. A white woman to be precise. A young white woman with flawless skin and whose attire revealed more than just a teaser for that said skin.

She smiled at the landlord. The landlord could well see that the woman would be only as old(or young) as his daughter. Maybe younger. But still, there was something in that beautiful smile which sent a shiver down his spine. Right then, he knew that he was going to have sex with his wife later that night, their first sex in God only knew how long.

The white woman stated the purpose of her visit. The landlord wasn’t surprised to learn what it was. He made a quick mental calculation. “The entry fee to the artist’s home is Rs.500 for foreign nationals and Rs.100 for Indians.” He said it as though the fee was something he has decided long ago, foreseeing that people would be queuing up to see the cave painting.

Seeing how readily the white woman handed him a 500 rupee note, he  wondered if he should have charged 1000 rupees. The Indians looked disgruntled though about parting with the hundred rupees, especially given how the landlord had earlier told them that they should all leave without making the incorrigible demand to get into a private residence to see a painting on the wall which its creator obviously didn’t want anyone to see(Otherwise, why would be paint it in the wall of his home?” )

He led the people to the house, opened the front door and let them in, turning on all the lights as though he just ushered them into a museum.

He was delighted to see that more people were coming. And they kept coming- people from different walks of life- teachers, electricians, accountants, lawyers, graphic designers, more graphic designers, writers, students, more students, veterinarians, doctors, news people, government employees, politicians. There was even an ‘Aquarium attendant’ who visited that day. After viewing the painting, he – a short man with a stout frame asked the landlord about Dev-what kind of a person he was and how long had he lived there, that sort of things. The landlord was happy to answer- after all, the man did pay him entry fee. That was when the landlord asked him what he did for a living. Until the man told him, the landlord wasn’t even  aware that there existed a job called ‘Aquarium attendant.’

Come night, when the landlord was walking back towards his home after having closed the house(which in his mind had become Dev’s Museum) he was laughing inside.

He made a decent sum that day, and if things kept on like this, he knew it would only be a matter of a few days before he would be able to recover the lost rent payments.

**

The next morning, early in the day arrived the dude who was supposed to paint over the painting. “I am sorry, sir. I couldn’t come yesterday. I was caught up in an urgent work..” he explained sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. He was scrawny and tall. You would be excused if the angularity of his face puts in your mind thoughts of a geometric box.

He stood outside the gate while apologizing to the landlord.

The landlord, to his surprise didn’t appear angry. In fact, the elderly man was smiling, saying, “It’s not at all a problem. In fact, I would say that we should do it another day..” He added with a wave of his hand.

“Oh, sir, I am sorry that I couldn’t come yesterday. What I said is the truth- there was some urgent work yesterday..” the painter said again, a note of forced earnestness in his voice.

The landlord waved his hand again, as though warding off imaginary flies. “It’s alright. I have to go somewhere today. So, we will do it another day.”

“Oh.” That was all the painter could say to that.

**

Dev’s museum attracted a more or less steady flow of visitors in the subsequent days. The landlord had a maid clean up the apartment, so it was no more dusty. He asked her to be especially careful when she cleaned the painting on the wall. “We don’t want to kill the goose that lay the golden eggs!” he exclaimed.

The maid- an illiterate elderly woman wasn’t sure what the landlord was talking about. She looked at the curious looking painting on the wall, seeing if a goose was depicted there. Although she did find one, she also saw a depiction of a man with an erect penis and thought that was funny

**

The landlord has long crossed the point when he has earned the lost rent payments by way of entry fee to the Dev museum. But he kept at it- for hey, who wouldn’t like to earn some cash doing nothing? Especially when he could earn more money this way than by giving the house on rent.

Sure, the museum didn’t attract anymore as many visitors as it once did but still it was good traffic, the landlord felt.

**

The intelligentsia and art critics had many theories on why Dev’s cave painting(it was now officially called so) became such a hit among people. Many cultural critics pointed out(rightly) how Dev’s cave painting was probably the first time in the history of painting in the subcontinent that an artist’s work was being appreciated by the common man in such a scale.

The reason for this, they speculated was that more and more people were realizing how barbarous modern life was. And the parallelism between people living inside homes in urban centers and ancient men living inside caves struck a chord with the modern man.

The landlord would see bearded men and women with spectacles discuss such matters in a television studio. For the most part he wouldn’t understand what they spoke about. But he was nonetheless glad that they were talking about Dev’s work on a public platform. The more they kept the artwork in public discourse, the more money he could make.

With such delightful thoughts in his mind, the landlord would go to sleep in the nights.

But all good things must come to an end, they say. Though the people called ‘they’ are by no means always right, unfortunately for the landlord, they did turn out to be right with regard to Dev’s museum.

For one morning, when the landlord went to the museum/apartment with the maid (since the ‘museum’opened, she cleaned the place every morning) he found the front door open. Dismissing the errant notion that he might have left the door open after he left last night, he entered the house and went straight to the room with the painting on the wall.

He gasped seeing what the vandal had done.

From top to bottom and left to right on the wall, the vandal had graffitied the word ‘It’s shit!’ over and over again. The graffiti was in brown colour making the landlord wonder for one ghastly moment if the vandal had actually used excreta to get his point across. But the lack of smell and closer inspection revealed that it was just good old paint.

‘Thank god for small miracles!’ thought the landlord, even though he was utterly flabbergasted by what he saw. Who would do something like this?

He soon had the answer as he saw a piece of paper at the foot of the wall, with a can of paint keeping it in place.

Bending slowly (he had backache) the landlord picked the paper up and read its contents. It was a note left by the vandal. “As a professional painter, I am ashamed by the work of Mr. Dev,” it said. “Painting is a powerful tool which should be progressive and nourishing to the society. And reverting to a cave painting style is hardly progressive. I have been watching with disgust the proceedings surrounding Mr.Dev’s cave painting ever since it began getting featured in the media. I thought that someone- one of the erudite members among painters would come out and say what I believe many feel- that this cave painting is a sham. But no one did, and there was only so long that I could wait until the injustice of it all compelled me to do something.’ The printed letter was signed in the name of “Artist” though the landlord could see nothing much artistic about the scribblings the vandal had left behind on the wall.

With the aid of the maid, the landlord made a concoction which the maid swore would remove even the toughest of stains- involving vinegar, lemon and other things. But when he applied it with the tip of a towel on the wall, he found that along with the vandal’s handiwork, the original painting under it also began to peel.

So, giving up the idea of cleaning up the vandal’s act, the landlord left the house, but not before pasting a notice on the wall outside that said “Museum closed until further notice.”

**

On the following days, the landlord found his spirit sinking. So much so that, one night he didn’t even feel like having food.

It wasn’t just the fact that he was no more making money from the museum (though that was the biggest reason he felt so sad). The thing was, what with showing people around the museum(which basically involved pointing them to the room with the cave painting or the bathroom for those who so desired) and answering questions of visitors and collecting money from them and everything, the landlord was feeling a little bit more alive, he felt like a participant in the goings on in the world for once.

And now, that phase was over. That too, abruptly.

“Maybe it was for the best,” his wife said seeing how glum he looked. He sat with his shoulders drooped, staring at the floor at the porch. “You know, we are old. And we would benefit from a quiet life,” she continued. “All those people coming and going, and you being away all the time…You leave home in the morning, leaving me on my own, and you would be back only by night, after the museum is closed. Some days, you didn’t even have lunch. Do you know how worried I was about you?”

The landlord didn’t tell her that part of the attraction of the museum was that he could spend the day away from her, among strangers. After more than 30 years of marriage, one might imagine that one would know that the spouse may want to spend some time apart, but apparently, that’s not how it worked. The landlord nodded, knowing not what else to do.

Letting out a long sigh, he decided that it’s time he put out an ad looking for the next lodger. But before that he needed to get that wall painted over. No lodger would like to have a room with a wall full of ‘It’s shit!’ written over it.

The very next morning the landlord called the scrawny painter to come and paint the wall. The latter said he was busy for the next few days, away at a work site. He would come paint the wall the first day after he was back. The landlord asked him if he could arrange another painter. The painter said he didn’t know another other painter-which sounded extremely suspect to the landlord.

After getting off the phone, the landlord thought about getting some other painter. He was sure that he could procure one with the aid of one of the neighbors. But that’s when the calling bell rang.

He opened the door to find media people. They had come to find out what’s up with the “Museum closed until further notice” sign. “I got a reliable source who said he saw the sign with his own eyes,” an interviewer- a lady with a round red bindi on her forehead which looked like a miniature sun said.

Realizing that this might be the last chance for him to make money out of the late Dev, the landlord said, “I would like to show you something. But I reckon since I am under no obligation to do so, it might as well be worth my time…You understand?,” he added when none of the media people let on that they knew what he was talking about.

Eventually, when they realized that their collective gaze on his face wouldn’t make the old man budge, the media people relented. They agreed upon a price(the negotiation took a whole fifteen minutes) after which he led them to the late artist’s apartment. The media people filmed the wall, took a lot of snaps=- one of them even took a selfie standing in front of the vandalized art work.

The landlord explained that he was going to get the wall painted over in one of the coming days. “I am an old man,” he said, as though this wasn’t self-explanatory. “And it would be asking too much of me to defend Dev’s artwork from vandals- it’s such dark times that we live in,” he added, as though someone just asked him to defend Dev’s artwork.

The media people nodded understandably. There were three of them- from two different television channels, and they all seemed to understand the plight of the poor old man. The landlord found it amusing that people from two competing businesses found a common ground on anything.

After the media people left, the landlord had a sumptuous breakfast. He had the lock changed on the other apartment’s front door. He asked the locksmith whether he knew any painters. The latter shook his head no.

The landlord said that didn’t matter. In another half an hour, he was back in his home, in his bed, lying asleep, snoring loudly- since the museum was no more, he didn’t have anything to do and so followed the lead of boredom into sleep.

**

The next day, at around 11 in the morning, four people- three men and a woman came to the landlord’s home. The landlord was sitting in the porch reading the day’s newspaper when they pushed open the gate and entered.

The four of them had an artistic air about them- a sort of lethargy mixed with weariness with an underlining of beatification: one WTF expression if ever there was. In the few weeks that the Dev museum was functional, the landlord has had many an occasion to interact with visiting artists, and no matter from which part of the country, or even the world they came from, one thing he found common in all of them was this WTF. In fact, the more he interacted with artists, the more it seemed to the landlord that artists- and that included writers, were the people who understood the least about what’s going on in the world.

He remembered the time his second daughter attracted a proposal from an artist once.

They came this close to arranging the marriage. In hindsight, the landlord was glad that it didn’t happen- he certainly didn’t wish his daughter to be married off to a person with very tenuous link to reality, which was what an artist was.

“The museum is closed. I am sorry,” the landlord said to the visitors in English, seeing how the woman among them was white.

“We know that,” said one of the men with a smile. The kind of self-satisfied smile which the landlord has seen on an artist’s face. The kind of smile which said, ‘I know things better than you but now, what can I do but indulge you in your ignorance!’

The man who spoke to the landlord was dark skinned and wore a pair of round glasses. His beard, which flowed down past his chin looked so unkempt that it gave the appearance of being ready to mutiny his body. His attire was a long brown jubba and a pair of blue denim- in other words, the classic artist.

“We actually came because we would like to discuss with you about the possibility of restoring Dev’s painting,” the man continued. Seeing the look on the landlord’s face, he said, “Yes, we know that the artwork has been vandalized. But we…oh, I forgot, what a fool I am!”

‘Of course, you are,’ thought the landlord, though he kept the thought to himself.

“I forgot to introduce ourselves,” the man said. He then went on and introduced each of them, speaking each name so slowly it made him sound like a sloth and made the landlord look retarded. The woman was Norwegian and her name didn’t make any sense at all to the landlord, even though the man said it in the slowest drawl.

It sounded just like an amalgamation of sounds that were not meant to be put next to each other- mmghrdaborgdfmrkha! Or at least, that’s how it sounded like to the landlord.

Not that he particularly cared. Even the names of the three men-which were all proper Malayalam names, like Sarath and Chandrashekhar, he forgot five minutes later.

The details that stuck with him were three: one, the four of them were from different art organizations- both governmental and private. Two, they were at his home because they wanted to see if they could apply their expertise to restoring Dev’s artwork. Three, the man who said all these things had teeth the colour of dung, making the landlord reaffirm his idea that all artists were addicted to tobacco, among other things.

**

Dev’s museum reopened to the public just five days after the contingent of four people arrived at the landlord’s home.

The landlord was as surprised by this development as anyone.

If he were to be candid, he never believed that the four arty people would be able to restore a grime encrusted vessel to its pristine condition, let alone an artwork that has been heavily vandalized. But the landlord- like any sensible grown up didn’t get candid unless it was absolutely necessary. So he thanked the four “with all my heart.”

Prior to the opening, the landlord hired a security guard to man the museum in the nights. The sturdy looking young man started his duty the night before the opening day.

The opening day brought in more number of people than the landlord had hoped for- for some reason, the news of the artwork getting vandalized and subsequently getting restored made the work seem even more precious in the public’s eyes.

But the landlord didn’t raise the entry fee- not even for foreign nationals. He found this a very gentlemanly act on his own part.

At about noon on the opening day, the painter- the one who was supposed to paint over Dev’s painting arrived on his scooter. “I just got back from a work in Kochi this morning! Soon as I reached home, I had breakfast and took a bath and immediately left so that I could come here. I know how you wanted to get that painting job done!” the man said all this in a single breath, making him pant like a dog as he stopped to catch his breath.

The landlord patiently told him that they would do the painting some other day.

The painter’s eyes widened, a look of surprise mixed with sadness in them. The landlord felt that he was over-doing it. But, what with a higher number of people turning up for the museum e-opening he was in a generous mood. So, he gave the painter a few hundreds for taking the effort to come down. This considerably brightened the painter’s face. “I must now get back home and get some sleep,” he said.

The landlord knew it was said to remind him that not only had he come all the way down from his home more than 4 kilometers away to the landlord’s place, he also came at the expense of much needed sleep.

But the landlord was determined not to pay him for his lack of sleep.

“I would call you when we need to paint it over,” he said. And as the painter hopped on to his scooter, he added, “You said you ate breakfast and then took a bath before leaving home earlier this morning. Don’t do that. One must always take a bath before having food- that’s the godly sequence!” the landlord grinned.

The painter nodded his thanks and moved away, riding the scooter up the small bylane, wondering what in the name of god a “godly sequence” meant.

**

The joy of re-opening the museum lasted but just two days for the landlord.

For on the second night since the re-opening, the vandal attacked again. A letter was found at the scene of crime this time as well. It said that the perpetrator was not the same as the previous time. The landlord thought that that was bullshit- there was just one loony person and he just wanted to give the impression that he wasn’t alone in his madness.

But loony though he may be, he was certainly efficient. This the landlord surmised from the CCTV footage.

Before the re-opening the landlord had installed one CCTV camera at the front of the house. He found it a reasonable investment to have just one camera and not any more. He had to do a lot of thinking to decide whether he should install it out front or in the room with the painting. What eventually decided him to opt for the outside was the fact that the camera covered a wide berth-encompassing the width of street in front of the house that stretched up to his own house two doosr away. So, if any nefarious agent were to walk around in the night outside his home, the camera would capture that too.

The camera footage showed a lean and sprightly man, clad all in black, wearing a black nylon mask, jumping over the wall near the gate. Red digits at the bottom right hand side of the screen showed the time as 12:31 AM.

The security guard had just a minute ago gone to the bathroom outside the house to take a leak.

The intruder stood behind a pillar on the porch, waiting for the security guard to return. And once he did, he pounced on the man with a piece of cloth which was presumably soaked in  chloroform. The landlord, despite himself, was impressed by the clean efficiency with which the intruder moved out from behind the pillar and pressed the white cloth to the security guard’s nose.(The guard was yawning at that point, so there was a good chance that some of the chemical fumes got into his mouth as well). The movement was so swift that in just four seconds the security guard lied unconscious on the ground, sprawled like an eagle struck by an arrow.

“And this guy is young!” the landlord muttered as he watched the scene on his cell phone. His wife too gasped.

She commented how the intruder moved swiftly given how he had a backpack. The landlord thought that was a stupid comment given that the backpack was evidently not a sack of cement. They watched as the intruder brought out of the backpack utilities with which he could pry open the door, which he did in under ten seconds.

The vandalism was, if anything worse than the last time- in addition to words like ‘Shit” and “It sucks!” there were also random images scrawled over the painting- like a person puking and another person pissing. Rather limited in imagination but still very effective when it came to ruining the original painting.

The landlord decided that this time he should shut down Dev’s museum for good.

He released to the media pictures of the latest vandalism- by this point, he was tech savvy enough to do that. He also mentioned that he was going to shut the Dev museum.

As he expected there was a bit of an outcry. But no one actually came forward with help- by providing the money for restoring the painting or to for improved security for the building.

After a couple of weeks, the hue and cry died down. People seemed to have forgotten all about Dev. A recent scandal about a money laundering expose involving senior members of the government helped take people’s minds off such silly things as art.

The landlord called the painter. “Are you sure you want to do it this time?” the painter asked. The landlord said he was. “Are you sure about it?” the painter said. The landlord said ‘of course.’

“Okay, I would be down there later in the day,” said the painter.

He came down the next day. It took him just an hour to cover Dev’s masterpiece for good.

**

Once the cave painting was painted over, it was like a major psychological breakthrough for the landlord. He found that the instance helped him put things in the past and move on-. And he moved fast, by putting an ad in the newspapers the very next day, seeking a lodger for the apartment.

He thought he would mention in the ad that the apartment was where the legendary cave painter, Dev used to live-maybe he could get some extra rent leaning on the celebrity that Dev enjoyed post death. But at the last moment, he retracted, thinking how such a move might attract some other artist to take up the apartment. And by experience he knew that an artist lodger could be pressed for funds at any time. No, he didn’t want to take that risk.

The very day the ad appeared on the newspaper, the landlord started receiving calls.

Prospective lodgers included a teacher who has just joined an institution in Trivandrum(he found the rent too high), a tailor who said he would need the place for just two months as he was down in the city for some business(something about the man’s voice struck the landlord as extremely fishy) and a young couple who were ready to move in to their first independent home(the landlord suspected that the young couple were actually not married- or at least not married to each other). The person whom the landlord eventually settled on was a young man in his early twenties who worked as a software developer in a company in Technopark.

The young man could have settled somewhere closer to Technopark which was in Kazhakoottam. But then, he was someone who loved to read(so much so that he even had a book themed backcover for his iphone). He has been to Nanthancode before to visit a friend once and was quite surprised by the quaint silence that enveloped the place. The silence was largely due to the lack of many commercial establishments in the area and also because it wasn’t a bus-route: at least not the part where the apartment to let was in.

So, when he saw the ad, he answered , came to check it out and loved the tranquil environs which would be the ideal setting for him to read in the evenings(and the mornings and whenever he could get time to read). Bargaining with the landlord, he settled on just 500 rupees lesser than the asking rate.

The landlord found this okay since he has put a 1000 rupee margin on the asking rate to begin with. He asked, just out of curiosity whether he wouldn’t find the commute to and work a bit tedious? Why didn’t he look for a place closer to work?

“I have a bike. So, it won’t be a problem,” said the young man. He refrained from adding the real reason- the tranquil atmosphere he wanted for binge reading.

Somehow, the landlord didn’t strike him as someone who appreciated the arts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tujhe Dekha…And She Started Crying!

Arun Kumar- that’s a generic name, thought Arun Kumar.

The kind of name that might be given to the lead character of a soap opera about a young man caught in the wrong marriage or about an innocent young man who gets killed when he accidentally gets caught up in gang warfare.

Arun Kumar was writing his name on an assignment he had to submit the next day at the college when these thoughts passed through his brain. Not that this was the first time that such thoughts happened to him. Many were the times when he wished his parents had named him differently, if for nothing else, at least so that he could introduce himself to some chick with more gusto. Somehow “Hi, I’m Arun” never struck him as as cool as “Hi, I’m Niranjan” or even “Hi, I’m Adarsh.”

“Arun, there’s call for you!”

It was his mother calling from his parents’ bedroom. The only land phone in the house was in that room. People rarely called in that number anymore, what with the cell phones making lying down almost anywhere and talking extremely practical. And when humans are given a chance between lying down and sitting up, no prizes for guessing which one they would opt.

Wondering who it could be who might be calling him on the land phone, he walked to the other room, not before slipping the stack of assignment papers into the blue file which he kept on the table, right beside the Bluetooth speaker which his dad brought for him when he cleared the exams last semester.

“It’s Kalpana! She said she has been calling your number for a while!” his mother said before handing the phone to him. Kalpana was his mother’s younger sister who lived just four doors away from them.

“My phone is in silent mode, I suppose,” he mumbled before taking the phone from his mother. “What’s it about?” he asked his mother even though he would soon find out from his aunt.

His mother shrugged but said, “She said something about a snake.”

Snake. The word sent an immediate shiver down Arun’s spine.

Though he would never admit this to any of the chicks he tried to bring into his ambit, the fact was that he was rather afraid of snakes. There was no particular reason for this- he has never had a nasty encounter with one of them creepers as a child. He was just afraid of them. He has noticed that the people who share this apprehension of snakes usually belonged to the oppsoite sex. Not wanting to come across as weak in any way, he has kept his fear of snakes to himself.

At least, ever since he has been old enough to enjoy the pleasures of masturbation.

But there was once, before that, when he was just 10 years old, when one night he had a pretty nasty dream involving him being chased down by a snake the size of a two storied building. The next morning, he had a slight fever. It wasn’t unusual for him to have dreams featuring snakes slithering after him, but it was the first time that a dream had put so much fear in his heart that it gave him a fever.

His parents asked him whether he had sneaked out to play with his friends in the harsh sun. Was that how he got the fever?

He told them about the dream. They didn’t have any reason not to believe him. They knew only too well how much he feared snakes. Parents always know the things that their kids fear the most and love the most. It’s just that there’s a whole spectrum of things in between which makes the kids develop tastes vastly different from their parents’- making them drift apart as they grow up.

To ‘remedy’ the ‘snake-fever’ as they called it, his parents sought the service of a Hindu priest who claimed he knew the secrets of the universe that you wouldn’t even begin to imagine.

The priest, after consulting with the boy for about a minute- looking closely into his eyes and listening very closely to the answers to his question- “How often do you have snake-related dreams?”, “Do you fear them when you see them in television?”- proclaimed the reason for the boy’s fear of snake with as much confidence as a late night telesalesman ssuriung you about the usability of a vibrating couch.

“Snakes are the only creatures that Brahman has made which could exist in multiple frequencies.” These words of the priest, spoken in a heavy yet subdued tone didn’t make much sense to neither of Arun’s parents. They didn’t pull themselves back from showing the bafflement either.

Frowns and creases appeared on their face soon enough. Seeing this, the priest added, “There are different frequencies of existence. Our plane is just one. The waking plane. Then, there is the plane of sleep that comes with dreams and also the plane of dreamless sleep. There is one more plane which is not necessary for you to know for the present purpose. Suffice to say that in all the planes that I just mentioned, the snake could easily move from one to the next.”

Even though Arun’s parents nodded, they weren’t sure if they understood what the priest said. Not completely anyway. But still they were satisfied that there existed an explanation for their son’s fear of snakes, even if the explanation wasn’t as crisp as the reasons for photosynthesis.

As for Arun, seeing how his parents got confident after their visit to the priest, he too assumed an aura of confidence- at least, outwardly. “See what the good priest said? There’s nothing to worry about having snakes show up in one’s dream. It’s only natural!,” his mother told him that same night as she had the boy sit on her lap.

Then why is it that not many people get snakes in their dreams as frequently as I do? was one obvious question which happened to Arun. But he didn’t raise it, not least because he was busy feeding on the yummy ice cream he enjoyed sitting on his mother’s lap.

As he grew up, such questions progressively abated from his mind.

But as he presently brought the land phone to his ear and uttered “Hello” he felt the questions surface in his mind again.

“Hello, how long have I been calling you!” his aunty began screaming into his ear immediately. Kalpana was his favourite aunt- the one who took him to the circus and the movies when he was young, the one who used to try out her hair styling skills on him- something which stopped once her divorce proceedings started.

“My phone was in silent mode,” he explained though he had a feeling that she may not be listening to him.  She was never one for listening to explanations. She just wanted to let others know what’s on her mind- that’s all.

“There’s a snake in my backyard!” she said immediately. “At least, it was some ten minutes ago when I saw it peeking out from one of the water vents. I think it’s a baby snake but I couldn’t be sure.”

“Baby snake? Are you sure it wasn’t a chameleon or something?” Arun said hopefully.

“No, no, I am sure that it was a baby snake. At least, I think so…” It sounded as though she wasn’t as sure of it now as before. “All the same, I would like you to come and check it out. If it is a snake, just kill it!”

Just kill it! That made him almost laugh.

Not the words themselves but the way in which they said it. As though she wasn’t asking him to confront one of his worst fears in her backyard.

He gulped(making sure that he held the phone a little away from his face so as to ensure that aunt Kalpana didn’t hear it).

His father wasn’t around. He didn’t know where he went- probably to one of his friend’s places to drink- he did that sometimes when domesticity became too much for him to bear.

He wished he were around- that way, he could causally inform him about the snake problem at Kalpana’s place. He wouldn’t ask him to come along- that would be unmanly but once he told him about it, he would surely come along.

Sighing, bringing the phone back to his ear, Arun said, “Okay.”

**

Though Kalpana’s home was close by, Arun took his time walking over there.

He looked more like he was going over for lunch than with the intent to kill a snake. In fact, if it were lunch, he might have walked faster.

But there’s only so much time you could take in covering a distance of 200 meters.

Thazhuthala wasn’t the most developed place in all of Kollam-which in itself was among the least developed districts in Kerala. But one thing that has to be said about the sleepy village was that the roads were pretty decent. This made it even harder for Arun to slow his pace as his feet were carried easily over the well paved surface on the edge of the road.

Why don’t they make roads filled with more holes than road so that I could trip and fall over? I could then claim that I twisted my ankles! he thought angrily as he pushed open the gate to Kalpana’s home.

Kalpana’s was one of the most luxurious houses in the entire village. Three storied and having enough marble to make one wonder if the occupants had a marble fetish, the house’s front yard had a fountain, a statue of a dancing girl and a small lotus pool(which was devoid of any lotuse at the moment). Usually, there’s a sense of entering another part of existence which Arun got whenever he went there- entering a world that was filled with luxury and ease as opposed to his own home which, even though wasn’t exactly poor was nonetheless modest.

Nothing of that sense came to him now as he moved closer to the porch. In fact, the closer he came to the house, the more a sense of dread spread through his body. Before he reached the front steps, the door opened and Kalpana came out.

He was relieved to see that she didn’t look too disturbed or worried. At least, one of them should have the presence of mind in front of the snake, he thought.

“You took your time!” Kalpana said even though she was smiling. “Come on. Let’s go to the backyard. I just can’t sit peacefully in the house when I know that that thing is back there!”

Beckoning him with her hand, she walked towards the back door which was directly in the line of the front door. They were passing by the kitchen when she said, “Do you need anything?”

Arun thought she was referring to coffee or something. He was beginning to shake his head no when she added, “Maybe a knife?”

That’s when he realized that she meant a weapon that could be used against the snake.

Though a long and sturdy stick would be better than a kitchen knife, he thought a knife would still come in handy. He nodded and moved towards one of the drawers where he knew she kept the knives. Pulling open the drawer, he picked one of the biggest and the sharpest knives he could find. The knife probably hasn’t cut through anything more dangerous than a rotten avocado but  it felt good to be holding it in his hand.

“Is there a stick of a wooden pole or something like that?” he asked.

Kalpana, business-like, nodded. “There’s one stick that I use to drive away stray dogs. I keep it in the backyard. You would find it right around the right corner,” she said, pointing in the general direction.

She didn’t move to open the back door. Instead, she took a step back, giving Arun the space to do that.

Though Arun liked the idea of having a stick to fight the snake with, he wasn’t too keen on stepping out into the backyard to get one. To do that, he would have to step over the water vent which Kalpana had mentioned on the phone, the one out of which the snake had peeked.

“Are you sure it wasn’t a chameleon?” he said, smiling as though saying he would totally understand if she had over-reacted. After all her nerves must be fraught- God only knew she had a lot to think about. A lot of emotions to tackle.

Kalpana, still business-like nodded her head. “Yes, I think so.”

Seeing that there’s no more stalling methods left at his disposal, he took a deep breath and opened the back door.

Three (marble paved) steps led down to the backyard. From where he stood above the first step he could see the water vent in question. It was just beside the steps with just a thumb’s width of distance between the side of the steps and the vent. The iron grill that covered the vent had panels with not even half a centimeter of distance between them. This gave him hope- surely, no big snake could come out of such tiny spaces?

As he moved his right foot over the vent, he had a sudden vision of a giant snake, springing up from the vent like a jack in the box, hissing violently and getting him on his foot with its giant fangs. Though the vision made his heart beat faster, thankfully enough, it didn’t manifest in reality.

Reaching the corner that Kalpana had mentioned soon enough, he found the stick which was more a wooden pole than a stick. With the stick in one hand and the knife in the other, Arun didn’t feel any more confident than before.

Gulping again, he reached back at the backdoor. Kalpana held the door as though she was ready to close it at the slightest sign of disturbance. Arun thought it would be a good idea too- if she closed the door, it would prevent her from seeing how scared he got when he actually came face to face with the snake.

“You can close the door. Stay in until I knock,” he said, trying to sound brave.

Though Kalpana nodded, she didn’t do anything of the kind. Instead, she just looked at the vent, as though directing Arun towards it, as if he has forgotten the sole reason for which he came over on a Monday afternoon when he was getting ready for lunch and  siesta.

Knowing that the moment of reckoning had arrived, Arun bent and using the knife, prodded the iron grill open. He moved the grill further away from the vent with the knife’s edge.

Nothing happened yet. He could discern no movement within the vent.

A couple of moments passed without incident. He feared that the sound of his heart beating insanely might be heard outside his body. He looked at Kalpana but she didn’t give any indication of having heard anything, keeping her wide open eyes steadily on the vent, expecting the creeper to come out any moment.

And when Arun looked down at the vent again, the snake did come out.

It was, as Kalpana had said, a baby snake- hardly longer than the length of Arun’s palm. It was blacker than any snake that Arun had ever seen- including in his dreams and there appeared to be small grey lines that crisscrossed its body. The greyness of the lines wasn’t pronounced enough yet-he assumed that it would stand out in sharp relief once the snake was grown enough.

He remembered that his mission here was to ensure that the snake never grew any longer.

He felt a rush of adrenaline come with the thought and immediately brought the knife down. For a snake, the tiny thing was moving rather slowly. Its body had barely come out of the vent completely, the tip of its tail still coming up from the lightless black of the vent.

To his surprise, Arun found the knife slashing right across the snake’s body, slashing it in half. An even more surprise for him was how excited he felt about it. Instead of the paralyzing fear that he feared would overtake him once he confronted the snake, what he felt was a strange elation, a thrill at the idea of killing something potentially dangerous, something that may even kill him.

He wasn’t sure if this particular species was poisonous and if it was, whether a baby snake would have enough poison to injure him fatally. But it certainly looked dangerous as it swiveled its head and hissing furiously- too furiously for such a small thing, bit on the knife, which was in its baby eyes, the attacker.

At that moment, Arun felt both amazement and sadness in equal measure. Amazement at how furious the little thing looked as it fought for its life, sadness at how helpless it looked, clamping its under-developed jaws around the knife.

The mouth came detached from the knife soon after. And not much later after that, the upper half of the snake fell to the ground, where it lied like a strange shriveled vegetable stalk.

Its lower half lied a few feet away, closer to the vent. Spasmodic movements animated the lifeless piece, making it pounce from one position to another, as though it was trying to make its way back into the water vent.

To prevent just such an eventuality, Arun hastily covered the vent with the iron grill.

He watched fascinatedly until the spams died and both the pieces of the snake’s body lied still, ready to be burned.

**

Though he has scrubbed his hands thoroughly for about five minutes after burning the snake and burying what’s left of it, he still couldn’t help but feel a little yucky whenever he saw his fingers clasped around the coffee mug.

To prevent this feeling from ruining the drink, he concentrated on the content of the mug rather than his fingers whenever he brought the mug up to his lips.

It wasn’t coffee that was in the coffee mug. Instead, it was hot chocolate.

Hot chocolate was Arun’s favourite when he was a little kid- much to the chagrin of his mother who wanted him to have such nutrient-rich drinks as Boost or Moltova. But Arun wouldn’t hear anything of it, even crying if that’s what it took to get the hot chocolate when he reached home from school.

His mother blamed his father for the boy’s habit. It was Arun’s father who one day when the family visited the supermarket thought they would buy a box of hot chocolate powder, just to see how it tasted like. He had never tasted host chocolate until then and so got curious.

Upon reaching home, he fixed hot chocolate for the entire family. After just two sips, Arun’s father concluded that hot chocolate is a global conspiracy for it tastes just like shit. As for Arun’s mother, she wasn’t as severe in her judgment about the drink, she only said that “There are far better drink powders to be had from the supermarket.”

It was Arun who was flabbergasted by the taste- in a good way.

He too had his first drink of hot chocolate that day. He was expecting it to taste like chocolate, because it’s called hot chocolate, duh. But when the frothy liquid hit his tongue for the first time in his life, he found that it did taste like chocolate, but it was more than that. At the time, he was just 8 years old and therefore lacked the sufficient vocabulary to explain how it felt like. All he could articulate was that it tasted nothing like anything he has ever tasted before.

And from that first cup itself, he knew that it was a drink he was going to enjoy until the end of his life.

That particular realization turned out to be wrong. For he did get over his intense affection for the drink- when he was about 17, right around the time when he discovered another drink which was way more fun and which he discovered along with his other friends- beer.

But aunt Kalpana apparently didn’t know that he got over hot chocolate years ago.

She kept on making him hot chocolate whenever he came over to her home. Even now, when he was a 21 year old sexually experienced dude with a moustache that was his pride, she still made him the drink.

Not that he was complaining. For one thing, aunt Kalpana made the best hot chocolate that he could get around these parts. Not because of any particular skill on her part but because she brought imported hot chocolate powder, the really expensive kind.(what his parents brought him when he was younger was the Cadbury one which, while it’s not bad, couldn’t compete with the imported variants).

Arun let himself sink into the plush cushion of the sofa as he enjoyed the drink. Kalpana turned on the radio in the kitchen- when she cooked, it was her habit to cook to the soundtrack of the music from the radio. She wasn’t going to cook now. She was done cooking, she has told him.

Now, the music was to serve as the BGM for their conversation. Aunt kalpana loved to talk. Especially with Arun who was her favourite nephew.

She walked from the kitchen to the living room with a broad grin on her face. Notwithstanding her age, Arun often saw how she could look so much like a little girl when she smiled.

“Now that that snake is gone, I am feeling so peaceful!,” she exclaimed as she took a seat on the sofa opposite to Arun. She moved the magazines(an issue each of Vanitha and Grihalakshmi) on the coffee table as if to arrange them more neatly even though her re-arrangement didn’t make much of a difference. In fact, if anything, they looked even more haphazardly arranged now.

This was something that Arun has noticed in her since the divorce- she would rarely keep still. She would always be pre-occupied with something or the other. Even when they talked, she would sometimes be doing something with her hands, like knitting.

“I hope that the mother snake is not also around,” she said with a smile, as though it were utterly funny to think about a full-grown snake hanging around in her backyard.

“I don’t think it would be. Were it there, we would have seen it by now,” Arun was surprised by the confidence in his own voice. Not that he was sure about the veracity of his proclamation. But it did sound logically right.

Kalpana nodded. Arun wondered whether it was a response to his statement or was she keeping time with the new song that came on in the radio.

A Malayalam film music program was on. The RJ mentioned the names of the song and the film before the tune came on. Arun recognized neither the song nor the name of the film- he wasn’t much into Malayalam film or music, his taste veering more towards the American hip-hop music.

“You will leave only after lunch, right?” Kalpana suddenly said.

This was one other thing that Arun has noticed in her since the divorce- her proclivity to make statements unrelated to what she said just before.

There was a certain earnestness in her question, even a tone of pleading in her voice, which made Arun almost say yes. Almost.

But he refrained at the last moment and shook his head. “Mommy has already prepared lunch. I couldn’t possibly let it go to waste.”

Kalpana nodded understandingly. She lowered her head and continued nodding. This time, Arun was sure that she was keeping time to the music. The song had a rhythmic beat to it which was just a notch lower from a dance rhythm.

The fact that his mother had made lunch was not that big a deal. She would surely understand if she skipped lunch at home to have it at aunt Kalpana’s. But he was pretty bad when it came to dealing with people who were having emotional issues. And he knew that staying with aunt Kalpana for long would be asking for it.

“Would you like some more hot chocolate?” she said, seeing how his mug was almost empty.

“No, I would need space in my stomach for lunch,” he said with a smile.

Kalpana smiled back though the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

They made small talk for a while. Mostly about Kalpana’s kids. She had three girls, ranging in ages from 6 to 13. Once they all went to school in the morning, Kalpana didn’t have much to do at home, until the evening when she would begin to prepare some snacks for when the kids returned.

“Some days I would sit and watch the cartoon shows all day long. The ones that are Apurva’s favourites,” she said with a sad twinkle in her eyes.Apurva was her youngest child. “You know, the cartoons are way better than anything for adults. I used to watch the news but then it’s all so depressing. Cartoons- they are colourful, filled with joy. After a while, you could forget all the worries in the world and begin to just enjoy yourself, laughing at the ridiculous antics of a deer with an underwear caught in its horns or skateboarding giraffe.” She laughed, but the laughter was a couple of notches higher than was natural. As though she were laughing in a dance bar when she was tipsy and the song too loud.

The sound of the laugh made a bell ring in Arun’s head- one that said: Dude, it’s probably best that you leave now! There’s a good chance that things are gonna get even more emotionally weird from now on!

Arun acknowledged the wisdom in the bell. And he was ready to act on it immediately. Only, Kalpana began relating to him about the tribulations of having to bring up three girls on her own- Not the sort of monologue which he could break easily, saying, ‘Oh, that’s all good and well. But if you’ll excuse me now, I shall run home as there’s lunch waiting for me there!’

So he listened- somewhat. He has heard different variations on the theme multiple times before.He  nodded at the appropriate places in the narrative, or at least, what he assumed to be the right places.

He was nodding when she abruptly broke her narrative mid-way through a sentence.

For a second, Arun wondered if it was something that he did which made her do this. Did something in his expression give away the fact that he was giving only partial attention to what she said? Did he nod at an inappropriate place? Maybe she said, ‘You are not really listening, are you?’ and he nodded immediately? He looked up to see tears forming in her eyes, making him believe that that was indeed what happened.

But she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking towards the kitchen. He followed her gaze to see nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary, that is.

From where they sat, they had a clear view of the back of a counter chair in the kitchen.

Sure, the chair’s backside was peeling paint and it didn’t look the most polished. But that was hardly reason to cry.

But then, Arun became aware of something else- a change that has happened recently: A new program has come on the radio. This one featured old Hindi film songs. And the first song of the program was the very famous ‘Thujhe dekha to..’ from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. It was while the first verse of the song came on the radio that Kalpana’s eyes brimmed with tears. Arun wasn’t aware of this but once he became conscious of Kumar Sanu’s sonorous voice filling the space, he had a feeling that aunt Kalpana’s sudden emotional dip had something to do with it.

He looked at her to have his suspicion confirmed. For the more the song progressed and the more Kumar and Lata breached into an emotional soundscape, the more she cried. So much so that there came a point when her entire body began shaking with the violence of her crying.

Arun was petrified, unsure what to do. He felt like an oaf just sitting there watching his dearest aunty break down like this in front of him. But then, neither did he feel comfortable moving to her side and patting her on the shoulder.Or something.

As an only child born and brought up in a micro-family, he has never in his entire life had to console a woman in times of her emotional distress. No sister whose husband scooted with another woman. And his father has been always loyal to his mother(except for the times when he drank a couple of shots more than  he promised her).

He thought of calling his mother and asking her to come over. But then he remembered that he left his cell phone back home. He did the next best thing: he prayed to god for the goddamn song to end.

Thankfully for him, by the time the song was half-way over, Kalpana started getting herself under control.

Her convulsions subsided and even though the tear drops kept coming, she kept rubbing them off with the back of her hand, as though determined to show them a fight. She snorted a couple of times but she never audibly cried again.

And once the song came to an end, the last note merging with the voice of the RJ, even the tears ceased completely.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to have lunch?” she said. The new song on the radio was a really old one: ‘Roop thera mastana.”

Apparently, the track didn’t affect Kalpana the way the previous song did. Arun wondered why that was. After all,  this latter song too was a romantic number. More so than the first, you might say.

As though reading his mind, she said, “That song used to be our favourite. When the movie came out, we used to play the song at least five or six times a day, every day. And when we went for a drive or something, we would play the song in a loop. It took five or six months for us to finally get weary of it.” She smiled as she spoke. And this time around, Arun could see that the smile did reach her eyes, making them sparkle with memories of love-soaked moments from a life she would never have again.

It was the first time this day when he saw a genuine(read non-paranoid) smile on her face.

Looking at him, she asked again, “Are you sure you wouldn’t stay for lunch?”

Arun nodded in the affirmative.

**

Reaching home, the first thing he did was take a bath, though given the afternoon bath, it wasn’t probably the best time for a bath.

The thing was he still felt a little ‘dirty’ from the snake-killing that he did.

His father was home by the time he reached home. He looked positively proud of the fact that his son single-handedly murdered a snake. “Oh, it was just a baby snake!” Arun tried to downplay the case.

“But baby snakes could be dangerous too,“ his father said.

Arun nodded gravely, as though thinking, Oh, how absolutely reckless I was! He wondered if his father would give him some cash to reward the manly thing that he accomplished. He would like to have a whiskey party with his friends.

His father didn’t give him money. Instead, he said, “Come, let’s have lunch!”

The family sat together in front of the television for lunch. His father has spent the preceding couple of hours at a friend’s place drinking. So, his appetite was ferocious. Meaning, he ate a lot and ate fast. Understandably enough, after lunch he went straight to the bed to sleep.

After lunch, once the dishes were cleared away, his mother came back to watch some more television. A reality show was on. Arun’s mother was a sucker for reality shows. This one was a contest to pick the coolest singer. In fact, it was a re-run. The original show, his mother has seen the previous night. But you wouldn’t know that from watching here expression. Not only did she look happy, there was a look of anticipation on her face as though she didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Arun hated reality shows-whether they included songs or not. The way he saw it, such shows existed purely because reality- the real reality- became too much for the people to bear.

But having nothing better to do, he took a seat beside his mother and sat watching the show, letting it numb his mind.

He didn’t feel like going to sleep yet. His mind kept whirring- thinking about how easily Kalpana broke down and cried, thinking how fragile she was.

He wished he hadn’t bunked classes today. He did so because he wanted to finish an urgent  assignment. On hindsight, he saw how he could have done that even if he were in class. (He was a backbencher and the teachers rarely walked down all the way to the back bench. He could have written an entire epic porno poem if he so wished without being disturbed).

But then again, if he weren’t home today, he couldn’t have killed the snake. Thazhuthala being a village with paddy farms and all, it wasn’t that unusual for someone to have to send a snake to the afterlife once in a life. But this was the first time that Arun has had the honor!

But though he was pleased for helping Kalpana out with the snake, he didn’t feel all that pleased about it now. In fact, he hardly thought of it anymore- as though the episode happened a couple of years ago instead of a couple of hours.

Instead, the memory that kept coming to his mind was of Kalpana breaking down at the sound of a song. And his subsequent inability to do anything about it.

He could still feel the sofa’s armest under his fingers as he had sat their petrified.

Arun Kumar- you’re useless! he admonished himself silently. He thought how silly it was that, earlier in the day he thought his name as the silliest name in the world. There was no reason to worry over a name- no matter how silly it was, well not unless it was as silly as Dick-chick Coc-klazer or something, which his name certainly wasn’t.

Really, there was no reason to worry over such simple things, not when life could make you cry by just popping a song on the radio.

Along with his mother, he sat watching the reality TV show for the next hour. And another one after that.

Agnes Lives. Well, Sort Of.

Agnes Chapman’s hands were overtaken by age, which is to say they were overtaken by wrinkles. But they were steady when she turned the pages of the newspaper.

As was her routine every morning, on this day too she ignored the leading pages and swifted straight to the obituary page- which was page number 14 on the Malayala Manorma.

The leading front page news piece for the day was about the latest minister who has been mired in a sex scandal. The scandal was so blown out of proportion that it could potentially topple the government- and if something affects the government, by default it affects the people too. And if something affects the ordinary people, it’s a noteworthy piece of news. But such logic was lost on Agnes.

The way she saw it, at 98 years of age, she felt much closer to the angel of death than anyone living, whether they had a sex scandal attached to their name or not.

The habit of checking the obituary pages daily began some 6 years ago when she took a fall down the flight of stairs from the first floor of his daughter’s house where she lived.

Many people started believing in miracles since that day.

There were some 10 odd stairs in the flight, each made with marble brought from Bangalore. Beautiful to behold but tough as hell. Definitely not the kind of surface which a 90+ woman should use to roll on. Heck, 90+ people are not even supposed to roll on the lushest grass in the hills of Manali!

But to everyone’s surprise, not only did Agnes survive the fall, she came out relatively unscathed. The only visible signs that something other than an eat-sit still-watch TV-sleep routine happened to heron  that day were a split lip and a scratch on her right upper elbow.

Though she was told repeatedly by her doctor that she was fine (and she herself felt so) from that day on, Agnes felt closer to death. Much much closer, taking the fall down the stairs as a sign of even worse things to come.

Not that anything even remotely bad like that happened to her ever since.

The closest she came to an accident after that was when she tried to shoo away a stray cat from the compound and almost lost her balance and fell.

But Agnes still continued the tradition which she started on the day next to when she fell down the stairs- of checking the obit pages, to see if someone she knew has passed away.

**

Agnes lived with her daughter Dorothy who herself was a good 62 years old. Dorothy moved to Trivandrum more than a decade ago when she had to sell her home in Puthukuruchy to raise the dowry for the last of her three daughter’s wedding.

There was no point in staying in her home town after that, she felt.

If she stayed back, she would have to move to a rented apartment which would be smaller than the home that she used to own and where she had lived for decades. That would attract snickers from her enemies(or ‘non-well wishers’ might be an apt term) in town.

Another reason was that the printing press where she worked as a secretary shut down around that time. This meant she had to find a new job. And jobs were comparatively plentiful in Trivandrum than in the small coastal town of Puthukutichy which lied some 30 kilometers northeast of the Trivandrum city.

So she moved. And along with her came her mother, Agnes, who didn’t want her daughter to be all alone in the city. That, and the fact that none of her other children expressed interest in taking care of an old mother.

**

Dorothy was in the kitchen, making dosas for breakfast while Agnes was siting on a chair in the porch, going through the faces in the obituary pages with the diligence of a computer programmer picking through lines of code to find out where an error occurred.

Despite her age, Agnes’ eyesight was still strong- something she attributed to years of breathing fresh oceanic breeze while she lived in Puthukurichy. And her memory, though it has seen better days, hasn’t deteriorated to the point where she mistook a talcum powder tin for an umbrella. So, if ever there was someone who could identify someone she has known for years from a blurry picture on an obit page, it was her.

And she did find one familiar face.

And when she did so, an involuntary gasp escaped her.

She took a closer look at the man’s face. The last time she saw him, he was younger by decades. Age had made the skin on his face sag and one of his eyes looked smaller than the other- maybe he had a stroke or something, but there was no mistaking the fact that it was the picture of Ronald Gomez .

A quick glance through the small column of words by the picture confirmed this. Ronald Gomez. Age 95. Died the previous day. A special memorial service was to be held this coming Sunday(Agnes was reading this on a Monday).

All those details didn’t mean anything to Agnes except for the fact that he was dead. To her surprise, she felt a twinge of sadness tweak her heart like a pincer.

Not wishing to give into the sadness, she quickly turned the pages to the entertainment section where they always had some beautiful looking actress flaunting her curvatures in a body-hugging piece.

Agnes has always been an admirer of women who knew how to keep their curves in shape, especially since the first ever television was brought to her household in 1993. She herself had become sloppy in keeping in shape around her middle ages- her middle began to widen after her second birth and picking up on the exercises from where she dropped them more than ten months ago proved to be hard.

She found just the picture she was looking for. A golden haired Hollywood actress standing in profile looking at the camera. She had a body that men would die for and a smile that would kill them.

Some ten minutes later, as she was reading the fashion secrets as told by the beautiful actress in the picture, she has all but forgotten about the death of Ronald Gomez.

**

She was reminded of the death again the next Monday. When she saw the obituary repeated on that day’s paper.

The same picture with similar information- passed away yesterday, a special memorial to be held this Sunday. But of course, the dates were different.

In all her years of diligent obituary combing, Agnes has never come across such a mistake before. Her first reaction was amusement, thinking how curiously brutal fate would be if someone were to suffer death repeatedly.

But the amusement soon changed to a strange sense of sorrow as she began to think that the repeated announcement of the same death was somehow meant to remind her what happened all those years ago.

**

They were lovers. And they were young.

Puthukuruchy wasn’t exactly the most liberal of places. But Agnes didn’t care. She just wanted to roam around the town with her lover- the blue eyed chap who runs the ration shop in town, who was 3 years younger to her and whose smile could make you feel like the last column of air has been sucked from your body.

In fact, it was Ronald who expressed his concern at being “chided by the people” for them being so…loose.

And one day, or night to be precise, when Agnes offered herself to him behind a blue boat on the beach, he declined the offer, gently yet firmly, saying how he believed they should wait until after the wedding before he deflowered her. “Because I love you and would love you to marry me,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. The first time someone proposed to her.

Of course, Agnes had no issues with marrying him. She knew that her parents wouldn’t be glad about her marrying the guy who runs a ration shop. They were supposedly better than his family-both socially and financially. But she was sure that if she insisted, she could bring them around to her point of view.

But before she could inform her parents about Ronald’s proposal the next day, they told her something. About this ‘nice young chap’ whom her father met. The chap worked in Ceylon for a big company. He was from the next town and they knew his family. Great family. The chap was handsome as well. They showed her a photograph. Usually, her parents were poor judges of such things as handsomeness but in this case, she found that they got their judgement right. With a long forehead and seductive eyes, not to mention the oval shape of the face, the man looked as delectable as a puppy.

If he were to marry her, he would bring her to Ceylone where they would live for many years.

She did live in Ceylone. Not for many years but for the first two years of their marriage, after which they returned as the man wanted to run a business of his own- a stationery shop that sold everything from sarees to writing board for children who went to school- the first of its kind in the history of Puthukurichy.

With the sizeable amount of money that he had amassed from his short yet productive working life in Ceylone, he built a beautiful, not to mention huge house in Puthukurichy.

He made four healthy children in Agnes. All in all, it was a successful relationship. The only glitch was that the man died of a heart attack at the comparatively younger age of 52. But even that was not a disaster- he did leave behind a reasonably good sum of money for Agnes. That Agnes’ children(other than Dorothy) managed to squeeze that money dry of her before she could say ‘Jesus!’ or even ‘Lord!’ was because of her own lack of foresight and her overt belief in the ideal that ‘blood never betrays blood.’

Anyway, when her father first talked to her about the ‘nice young chap’ who worked in Ceylone, all of this was still in the future. Before any of it could come true, she still had to inform a certain blue eyed Ronald Gomez something- that she realized what she mistook for true love was just an infatuation, and so their relationship was off.

You can bet Ronald didn’t take this particular bit of information too well.

Couple of years later, when Agnes returned with her husband from Ceylone to settle in Puthukurichy, she found that Ronald was still a bachelor. Decades later, when she left her home town for good with Dorothy, he was still a bachelor. Of course, by that time he was kind of on the wrong side of the wrinkle count to be considered wedding-worthy.

And his obituary mentioned that he was survived by his sister. A man who died a bachelor, it seems.

Agnes wondered if she was to blame for it.

She also wondered if someone was poking fun of her for having so mercilessly walked out of a relationship by putting out his obituary twice, knowing fully well she would see them.

A thought that didn’t make any sense. But at her age, thoughts that didn’t make sense were not as rare as an Olympics for elephants.

**

 

 

 

 

 

Her vague yet illogical idea that someone was playing with her emotions by the repeated obits of Ronald Gomez gave way to full pledged panic at the thought that she was going mad when the obit appeared the third consecutive Monday. This time too, they got the dates screwed up- mentioning he died just the previous day and that the special memorial was to happen on the coming Sunday.

“Ammachi, are you okay?” Dorothy asked when she came with a glass of lemon tea for her mother. Agnes was breathing heavily and her eyes looked like they were ready to pop out of the head.

“I am fine. I just need that lemon tea to relax!”

Agnes said hastily. One of her greatest worries in life was getting confined in a home for senile old people where she might rot into oblivion, away from the eyes of all loved one, taken care of(somewhat) by a  nurse who couldn’t even look after her own body shape. So Agnes was extra-cautious about not giving any sign of senility.

Dorothy eyed her mother with a suspicious look, as though wondering if the older woman was hiding something from her. But she didn’t say anything.

“Where is Alan?” Agnes said.

“Asleep,” Dorothy said, even as she turned and started walking to the kitchen.

“Doesn’t he have school today?” Agnes called after her.

“You mean college. No, he said he’s taking a day off!” Dorothy called back without stopping.

“You can do that?” said Agnes, surprise in her voice.

“Apparently, you can,” Dorothy said before disappearing into the kitchen.

Holding the folded newspaper in her hand, Agnes knocked on Alan’s bedroom door.

**

On the first knock, the door wasn’t opened. On the second knock, the same.

Without bothering to knock a third time, Agnes pushed the door open and entered the room.

The room was small but cozy, with a bed and a table lamp and a wardrobe the prominent pieces of furniture. The windows were curtained over, so it was rather dark even though by now the sun has risen enough to show that it meant business.

Alan was lying in the bed, a fist resting on his forehead as though he were thinking in his sleep. He was clad in a pair of boxer shorts and the blanket looked like it was pushed off his body sometime during the night. Agnes did notice the erection that bulged within the blue boxer shorts of her great grandson(though old, her eyesight’s still pretty sharp). But she decided to ignore it and tapped Alan on the shoulder with the folded newspaper.

Alan came out of his sleep slowly. But once his eyes fell on his great grandma’s face, he came fully awake, his eyes suddenly filled with concern. “Ammachi, is anything wrong?”

Alan called his own mother mommy. His grandmother- his mother’s mother, ie Dorothy, he called Amma. And he called his great-grandmother ammachi. All the three designations meant the same thing: mother.

“No, no, nothing is wrong,” Agnes said hurriedly. “Except that something may be. I would like you to come help me with something.”

Baffled by what Agnes said, Alan followed her out after putting on a T-shirt.

“What are you two up to?” Dorothy asked when she saw the both of them walking into the store-room adjacent to the kitchen where she was working.

“Ammachi needs to find an old newspaper,” called out Alan.

The newspaper that she needed- or rather the papers, for she needed them for two dates were soon found from the pile of old newspapers kept in the store-room. Agnes led Alan to the porch where she showed him the curious case of the repeated obits.

“Wow, that is strange!” muttered Alan as soon as he saw them. “So, you knew this person?”

Agnes just nodded, and as though she wanted to change the topic, added, “What do you think happened?”

Alan was in his third semester at the engineering college. His stream was computer engineering which he hated absolutely. He was staying with his grandmother in Trivandrum because his own home was in Kollam and the college where he got the admission was in Nedumangad- some 20 kilometers from his grandmother’s home in Trivandrum.

He dreamed of becoming a writer one day. A published writer who earned his keep from his craft. Though he did express his wish to join journalism after finishing plus two, he was discouraged by his parents. “Computer engineering could help you reach America!” said his father who was a huge fan of that nation, though he has never been there himself. “Besides, you know that we would need some good money in a few years’ time!” added his mother.

His mother’s remark was in relation to the financial turmoil that the family was going through at the time. His father-who ran a bicycle shop had incurred serious loss in business for reasons that were not his fault. Well, at least, not completely. And to recover completely from that set-back they would need a few years of steady pay-offs being made to those to whom they were indebted. A computer engineering degree would help Alan get a high paying job early on in his career, so that he could help his parents pay off all the debt.

Of course, Alan didn’t have anything to counter such a logical piece of argument. So, reminding himself that most of his writer heroes, from Dostoesvsky to Ramsey Campbell didn’t have an educational background in the writing, he attended the engineering entrance, and later got admission to a college in Trivandrum.

It was while he was in the fifth semester at the college that his father won the lottery.

Alan’s father has been buying one lottery ticket per month consistently for the last twenty years- and who has never won even once, not even a 10 rupee. Until he won the third prize of Rs.20 lakhs this time around. The amount was more than enough to cover the debts he had to pay.

He was overjoyed. His wife was overjoyed. But his only son Alan-he didn’t derive too much happiness from it.

Or rather, he did, only that happiness was so mingled with a sadness that you could hardly tell one from the other. He was sad thinking how if the lottery had happened earlier, he may not have had to join the engineering course. He could have pursued his passion for writing by taking up a course related to it.

He was sad because now that he was already in the fifth semester, and had just three more to go, his parents urged him to continue and not do anything drastic like drop out and join a journalism program.

The thing was, the art of coding- though it had a puzzle solving quality wasn’t quite as enthralling as reading The telltale heart, or The wind in the willows, for that matter.

But he did find solace in the city of Trivandrum. The capital of Kerala was also culturally vibrant- if you liked books and were okay with reading subtitles on foreign language movies. Film screenings and book festivals were not rare, if not frequent, and these were venues that offered Alan the chance to meet people who shared his own interests- in the arts and writing.

He met many interesting people this way. And a small percentage of them became his good friends. A good percentage of these friends happened to work in the media, surprisingly or not.

“I know a guy- a journalist who works in the Malayla Manorama,” he said to Agnes. “I will ask him to check this out for us. I’m rather sure that this must be some mistake that the paper made..” he added, eyeing the three obituaries.

Agnes nodded. She asked him not to tell Dorothy about it. “At least not yet.”

“Why is that?” said Alan.

She told him it’d be better if they waited until they learned what this was all about. “After all, we don’t want Dorothy to worry, do we?”

What his great-grandma was saying didn’t make any sense to Alan. But he nodded and agreed to her request. He knew that the old woman (“the ancient one” which was the nickname he and his cousins had given her)is given to certain idiosyncrasies at times.

He also knew that she loved her daughter like she were still a small child- though Dorothy had crossed the 60 age mark.

**

The enquiry at the newspaper turned up nothing much.

Except that it was the first time that something like that happened in the newspaper. Also that the obit was a paid insertion all the three times. The same person had apparently made the payment on all the occasions.

When Agnes was told the name of the person who made the payment, it didn’t ring a bell. Not even after drinking lemon tea which usually helps her focus her mind.

“Maybe it’s one of his relatives whom I don’t know, “ she said.

Alan nodded. The two of them were seated  on the porch. It was night and a cool wind was blowing. Alan was lost in thought. Being an avid reader of fiction, he liked a mystery more than the next guy. And he was transfixed by the mystery of the person who would run the same person’s obit thrice mentioning three separate dates of death.

**

Even more fixated on the mystery than Alan was Agnes in the ensuing days.

The thought of someone playing a prank on her kept nagging her mind. Someone who knew how she betrayed Ronald’s love. Someone who knew she read the Malayala Manorama every day. Someone who knew she was an avid reader of obits in the daily.

She thought, day in and out, about the possible people in her life who would know all these things- so that she could make a shortlist of the suspects.

But she couldn’t think of a single person like that. If someone knew her obsession with reading the obits, they didn’t know of the episode between her and Ronald from decades back. And if they knew about the ‘love-not love’ episode, they didn’t know which daily she read.

Which should have led her to the conclusion that there was nothing going on like what she feared- there was no malicious prankster at work, no deviant personality who wished to cause her psychological harm in the twilight of her life.

But that’s not how it worked out, as her mind kept clinging to the idea that there was someone out there who was laughing right at this moment, even as she kept rolling on her bed, unable to sleep, thinking about who it could be that would want to cause her distress like this.

For man is not a completely rational being. And an old woman who lives in fear of dying any day, even less so.

**

“Alan, can you do me a favour?”

It was the second time in a week’s time that Alan found his great grandmother waking him up from his sleep. It was a Sunday morning. Having gone to sleep late last night after staying awake, reading a collection of stories by Kafka, he would have liked to sleep in for a while longer.

But the look of worry in his great grannie’s eyes suggested urgency. Even before she said anything, he figured it had something to do with ‘The Mystery of The Multiple Obits’-which was the tentative title of the book he has envisioned in his mind about the entire episode- an ode to the adventure books he used to read as a teenager in which ordinary kids tried to solve mysteries.

“Would you do me a favour?” she said again.

Alan nodded, partly as an answer, partly an effort to clear his head of the cobwebs of sleep which still clung adamantly.

“Can you drive me to Puthukurichy?” said Agnes, lowering her voice even though there was no one else in the room. “I would like to see what the thing is about the Ronald Gomez obituaries. I am unable to get proper sleep because I kept thinking of it and can’t stop.” This last part, she said so softly that Alan had to cock an ear and strain to make out the words.

“So, you knew this person really well? I don’t remember you ever mentioning about him..You or anyone on the family, actually..”

That’s because I haven’t told anyone- not even to my own children, not even after my husband’s death, , she thought. But she remained silent, eyeing Alan with round eyes which looked like they were ready to pop tears. Aside from the wobbly walk, old folks and small kids have something else in common- the power to pull off the most pathos-inducing look in the universe.

Not that such a look was needed for Alan to get enthused about the idea of driving down to Puthikurichy to investigate the mystery. In fact, he was hoping for something like this- something that would be a break from the mind-numbing mundanity that was modern professional education, something that would help him stay awake and alert during the day, unlike sitting, sedated with boredom in the classroom.

“So, can you do this for me?” Agnes said, as though she was a death-row prisoner expressing her final wish.

“Of course, I would, ammachi!” said Alan, being displeased with the pleading tone that she was using.

Ammachi was the one who used to tell him bedtime stories as a child. Amma(i.e. Dorothy) too was a pretty good story-teller but it was Ammachi’s stories that got under the skin of your mind and stayed there- mostly because she told the darkest stories- the ones in which the princess may end up being devoured by a dragon and her bones spat out into a lake of lava, what with the prince being late to the rescue.

The last thing he wanted to hear from such an enchanted storyteller was a pleading tone.

But her next question surprised him.

“So, can we go?”

“What, now?”

Agnes thought for a while before adding, “Maybe we shall wait till breakfast. And don’t tell Dorothy about the reason for the trip. You haven’t told her about the obits, have you?”, she said, worry wrinkling even more her already wrinkled face.

**

“Why this sudden impulse to visit papa’s grave?” Dorothy said as she poured more sambar onto the idlis on her mother’s plate.

Agnes looked at her, exercising her full powers of pulling off the most pathos-inducing look in the universe. “I just have a feeling, dear girl, a feeling that I don’t have too long left on the Earth. And I just want to reach out to my husband in my time of fear, just like when he used to be alive, you know what I mean, don’t you?”

Dororthy did.She too was a widow, after all. So much so that she was on the brink of tears herself. “Such a romantic couple you both made!” she said, hugging her mother.

Agnes hugged her back. She winked at Alan who sat in the opposite chair, crushing a soft idli with his fingers, looking at the curious antics of his grandma and great-grannie with an amused smile on his lips.

**

Puthukurichy isn’t all that far from Triandrum. It’s just under 20 kiometers away. But the drive so far felt longer than that to Alan.

Unlike many of his peers, Alan didn’t enjoy driving.

The way he saw it, driving was like reading while looking at the empty margins of a book. Travelling is so much like reading, but for that, you need to have your eyes free enough to roam around, taking in the passing sceneries and the people on the streets and what they were doing- for these things were the words you could read. And the road which you focused on while you drove, that’s the empty blanks.

Well, not so empty given the appalling traffic conditions that could be seen in Trivandrum, like what he was presently experiencing as he swiveled the car onto the next lane so that he could get better leeway. Not until he reached Kariavottom was he able to come out of the clutches of the traffic. And the drive from thereon- through the suburbs went smooth.

Coming out of the traffic for good also had an effect on Agnes who began to breathe easily. This also put her in a talkative mood. And one of the first things she said was, “Thank God Dorothy had that prayer meet to attend today. I don’t know what I could have said if she had said she wanted to join us. I could hardly stop her from coming to her own father’s graveyard, can I?” Agnes cackled as though she just made an incredible joke.

This was one of the reasons why Alan loved his ammachi so much. Even though the woman has already lived at least two decades longer than most people could ever hope to live, she still had a small-girl vibe. For a young person like Alan, the possibility of retaining such simplicity of the mind even at such advanced ages was a source of hope- something that made him look forward to life rather than treat it like an eventual tragedy- something you know has only pain and death written in the last act.

“Why are you so adamant about keeping this whole thing a secret from amma?” he said, not taking his eyes off the blank margin in front of him.

Agnes took a deep breath. For a moment or two, she appeared lost in thoughts, a glazed look coming over her eyes. The kind of look which made Alan wonder if she even heard his question.

But Agnes did hear it. She was thinking whether she should tell him or not.

Now that he’s helping me out, driving me all the way there, it’s only fair that I should tell him, she decided.

And so she told him. Alan listened closely to every word that she said. And with every word, he found the story more exciting.

“Are you serious? This guy was your lover?!” he exclaimed once she completed her story.

“Shh..not so loud!” she said.

“But there’s no one else in the car!” said Alan.

“But still, I don’t like to hear those words out loud,” said Agnes in a chiding tone. “You are the first one I am telling this in decades, you know!”

“So, that’s why you didn’t want amma to know about this…” Alan’s words trailed off and silence settled inside the small car. A milestone they were passing mentioned the remaining distance to Puthukurichy to be j 3 kilometers.

Even though the AC was on in the car, the harsh sunlight fell through the windshield with an intensity that made the skin on Alan’s hands feel like burning.

The silence was broken some two kilometers after the milestone. It was broken when Agnes said, in a raspy voice, “You will have to take the next right turn. On the left hand side in that lane is the church. We should stop there. Now that we are here, I would visit my husband’s grave,” she added in a lowered tone.

**

Agnes walked towards the cemetery which was on the western corner of the church with slow but steady steps.

Locking the car behind her where he left it parked under a tree, Alan followed. The heat was near unbearable but Agnes looked like she didn’t care. She kept her gaze steadily trained on the cemetery like she were looking through the lens of a sniper gun and had her target locked. Alan walked a couple of steps behind her.

He wasn’t the sentimental type but he did think that this gesture of his great-grandmother bitter-sweet: visiting her dead husband’s grave on the way to investigate the death of her ex-lover.

Agnes reached her husband’s grave in a couple of minutes. Wanting to give her some private space, Alan stood a few paces behind her, his hands clasped in front of his crotch in a reverential stance.

Almost all the graves in the cemetery were overgrown with weed, including that of Agnes’ husband’s. Normally, a relative would come and visit a dead person’s grave on All Saint’s day every year- which was when they would get the grave cleaned by someone. The entire cemetery would reverberate with the sound of shovels and weed cutters on that day- some auditory animation in the otherwise desolate existence of the dead.

It’s been more than 5 months since last All Saint’s Day and it showed in every tomb in the cemetery that overlooked  a big sand-filled field where kids play and grown up men came out to smoking cigarette and playing poker in the evenings.

Feeling bored standing still, looking at Agnes’ back as she stood still in front of the grave, Alan moved around, began walking through the maze created by the tombs. He derived a lot of amusement from reading the various names on the tombstones, especially the ones that belonged to people from the previous generations. Gloria Ramone. Janver Echsberg. Poirot John. Noldic Chapman. The kind of names you would only associate with Europeans.

Though there lived people from all religions and communities in the coastal town, Puthukurichy was mostly a Christian town. Alan remembered someone- his grannie or great grannie, he couldn’t remember whom, telling him how the Christian missionaries visited Puthukurichy quite early in the history of India and so “We are the descendants of some of the first Christians in India! We should be proud!”

He had a feeling that that was an exaggeration.

For in none of his readings of history has he come across a tidbit like that. Most probably, they just cooked up that story so that they could have something to be proud of, even if it’s a constructed lineage. He knew how his ancestors-grand fathers and great-grandfathers of Agnes, were fishermen, and how much they must have struggled for their progeny to be able to reach a point when they have enough expendable income to go on a trip chasing a ghost-which was what Agnes’ ex-lover was at this point.

Amidst such thoughts, Alan’s eyes were caught by one grave in particular.

Not because it didn’t have a proper tombstone in place- there were quite a few graves like that, but because it appeared clean. No weeds or plants grew around or near it. From the slight difference in the colour of the soil, he surmised that the grave was recently dug, its content a dead body that exited life not long ago.

His suspicion was confirmed when he saw the date of death on the make-shift plank at the head of the grave. It mentioned a date some three weeks ago. But it was the name above it which had him excited: Ronald Gomez.

“Ammachi!” he called  in a loud voice, forgetting in his excitement that you ought to abstain from using loud voices in the cemetery. Next to the church, a cemetery is the place that people regard as the most worthy of reverence- mindful never to curse or pee when you’re there- even if there was one around.

Agnaes came to Alan’s side. Alan pointed out the name on the plank. Her gasp, even though soft was audible.

“It’s the same date as the one on the first obituary,” she commented. The two of them exchanged a glance, each having the same thought.

“So, I guess the rest of the two obits were a mistake, after all,” said Alan.

Agnes looked at the grave-which was essentially a mount of dirt, again.

She reckoned that someone must have arranged a proper tombstone to be built over it. At least, she hoped so. Though no embers of the love for him existed in her heart any more, the moments of intimacy that they once shared with each other were strong enough to make her emotional about him, the passage of time notwithstanding.

“We forgot to bring flowers,” she said. Catching the look in Alan’s eyes, she added, “For my dear husband, of course.”

“Oh, of course,” said Alan. “In fact, there’s something that I could maybe do about it.” He had seen a tree with yellow flowers standing at one corner of the cemetary, as though the tree were asked to stand in the corner as a punishment by a school teacher, bearing the burden of flowers as extra-punishment.

He currently ran up to it, plucked off a few flowers. They didn’t have long stems like the flowers one usually put on a grave, but they were large-each almost as large as his hand.

“I don’t know if these are appropriate grave flowers,” he said, handing the loot to Agnes. Agnes looked at the flowers and then at her great grandson. “You are a good boy, Alan,” she beamed.

Before leaving the cemetery, she left the flowers on her husband’s grave. Just before loosening the finger-clasp around the last of the flowers, she hesitated, just for a moment, wondering if she should let her old lover have that one flower.

No, that wouldn’t be appropriate, she decided.

She didn’t expect to live for a long time still(She hasn’t been expecting that for the last three decades, but that’s a different thing altogether). She expected to be united with her husband shortly in heaven. And she didn’t want him to question her loyalty when she reached there.

Yes, let all the flowers be for my hubby!

**

“Is there any point in us going forward with this?” Alan said as soon as the both of them were back in the car. “The first obituary evidently got things right.”

“Yes, but someone did ask the newspaper to run the next two obits.”

Alan nodded at Agnes’ words. Without another word, he keyed in the ignition and moved the car forward.

“Let me know the way,” he said.

“My memory may be hazy. So we may come across a dead end or two, but here we go,” Agnes said.

Alan smiled, once again appreciating the youthful spirit of the old girl.

**

They reached the house in under ten minutes.

To Agnes’ surprise, her memory served her well and they didn’t encounter a single dead end or a wrong lane on the way. The only thing left to be seen was whether Ronald Gomez had lived all his life in the same place where he used to live when he was 25.

The house had changed, of course. The one in Agnes’ memory was a thatched single-storied building with the branches of a mango tree arching above it. But the one she beheld as she got out of the car was a green-painted single storied terraced house. The mongo tree seemed to have been cut down. In it’s place there was a chicken coop, though she could see no chickens in it.

The house had a desolate appearance. No footwear on the front steps to indicate anyone was in. The front door remained shut and there were no pets to be seen, no “Beware of dogs” sign. Not that Ronald had pets when they were having the affair.

But the gate wasn’t locked. Alan looked for a calling bell switch outside the gate. Not finding one, he proceeded to open the gate. Nodding to Agnes to follow, he walked in.

He did find a calling bell switch- an old dirtied switch which felt more like rubber than anything else under his finger when he pressed on it.

Almost a minute later, the door opened. It was an old man. He stood somewhat stooped but his face was full of life- radiant and animated. When he smiled, Alan was surprised to see that the old man had a full set of teeth. Not only that, they looked sparkly white.

Whoever the old man is, he’s not going to die of dental hygiene issues, thought Alan.

“Yes? Who are you, I am sorry, my memory may not be as good as it used to be,” the old man said jovially, as though relating an extra-ordinary joke.

Alan was about to say something when he heard Agnes gasp behind him.

In the preceding few moments, Agnes had moved forward, so that she could take a closer look at the man’s face. Yes, his head had gone completely bald, and the wrinkles on his face practically made a mask over the youthfulness which he once possessed. But there was no doubt in her mind that it was Ronald himself.

The blue eyes were the first tell tale sign. Those eyes which she has never really forgotten, eyes, sparkling and possessing of a depth that could only be said as sublime.

“Ronald!” she gasped.

Alan looked at her, and so did the old man. He moved out from the shade within the house. He held a palm over his forehead to block the sunlight that fell on his eyes. He took a closer look at the woman  who just uttered his name.

He kept looking at her for almost a full minute before lowering his hand. He took a step back in to the house so that he was no more in the sun’ line of fire.

“I am sorry. I don’t know who you are,” he said. The helpless expression on his face put in Agnes’ mind thoughts of a helpless puppy.

She smiled sweetly. “It’s me, Agnes,” she said.

It took the old man a few seconds to recognize the name. And when he did, his eyes widened in surprise, which made him look even cuter in Agnes’ eye.

**

“So, you never married?” said Agnes.

Ronald shook his head, smilingly as though this were yet another joke to be enjoyed.

They were in the living room- a small but comfortable space with sofas and a tea poe. A couple of indoor plants lightened the mood though there was no television to be found. Alan tried to recall when was the last time he was in a house with no television but he couldn’t remember.

He sat beside Agnes on the long sofa- the one with the striped throw pillows on it, sipping the cool lemonade which was made by a man who was supposedly the servant. The man looked to be around 40, with a thin moustache that dropped around the edges and a strong penetrating gaze.

Ronald had introduced the man as Golver before asking him to make lemonade for the guests. There was something unnerving about him which Alan couldn’t put a finger on.

Even as they sat chatting in the living room, Golver stood behind Ronald, leaning against a wall, not quite looking at anyone but still giving the impression that he was observant of everything. There was a certain detachment to him which could only be described as other-worldly

“So, what brings you to my home?” Ronald was saying.

He was still very much the jolly character he was when he opened the door. If there existed any resentment in him for what Agnes did to him, he didn’t show it.

Agnes looked at Alan, silently asking with her eyes, ‘Do you wanna explain it to you?’

Alan sat stone faced which was his way of saying, ‘I am cool, thank you. This entire thing is too weird for me, anyway.’

Agnes apparently got his message for she took a sigh and began speaking to Ronald about what brought her to his home.

**

Ronald sat listening to what she said with rapt attention.

Once the story ended, he looked at Glover and smiled. A smile the meaning of which Alan couldn’t fathom.

Agnes sat with a curious expression on her face, eager to learn what Ronald had to say.

“Would you like some more lemonade?,” Ronald said.

Agnes shook her head. “We are coming from the cemetery where we just saw your grave. I think an explanation would be more fun than a lemonade right now,” she said.

Ronald looked at Alan and Alan nodded. ‘Whatever the old girl says,’ the nod seems to be saying.

“Okay,” Ronald said, nodding himself. His voice was feeble, so his listeners had to lean in to hear. Glover though stood in the same position, leaning against the wall, nary an expression on his face.

“First of all,” Ronald began, “I must say that I’m touched by you taking time to come all the way down here and check up on me. I truly am touched by that. But I wasn’t expecting anyone to notice the three obituaries in a row. That’s why I gave it in the city edition- I don’t really know anyone who lives in the city. No friends, no relatives..My only sibling- she now lives in the gulf with her family. So, I thought no one would notice it. Guess we were wrong..” This last, he said to Glover, who nodded at Ronald’s words.

Turning back to Agnes, the old man continued, “Now that you have come all the way, I must tell you the truth. Otherwise, what sort of a host would I be? So, here is the thing- there is an afterlife. You know how your ghost is supposed to be immortal whereas you- or rather your body is confined to rot away six feet under? Well, there exists a way to reverse the process- to kill the ghost and render the body immortal. Now, you might be thinking why someone would want to do that, right?”

In fact, neither Agnes nor Alan were thinking of anything like that. They were both thinking the same thing though :The man has gone bonkers in his old age. Alan now realized why Golver looked so aloof and detached- caring for a senile person takes an immense measure of detachment.

“Think about it!” Ronald was speaking excitedly, “What good could possibly come from immortality if you’re a ghost. You cannot enjoy any of the fruits of living- like food or a good swim. You are a mere ghost who floats around in the ether, always one step away from being non-existent. On the other hand, if you were your own self- your body, and you were immortal, you could enjoy a lot! Which is why I killed my ghost and granted immortality to myself!” Ronald waved an arm down in front of his body, as though he himself were a magic trick.

The look on his face was one of expectation. He expected his audience to get as excited as himself.

“I just revealed to you arguably the biggest secret about human life and you two just sit there like I told you nothing!” he exclaimed, passing a glance to Glover saying ‘Can you believe these people?’

Turning back to his audience, he said, “If you are wondering how this mighty secret has anything to do with the three obituaries that you saw, then wait no more for the answer! The afterlife too has its rules, and one important rule is that once you have captured a ghost, you should announce to the world on three separate occasions-once every week after the capture, about your own demise. The dates in the obituary must correspond to the dates in which the ghost passes through the stages of death. Oh, don’t look too baffled! There’s nothing to it- you see, once a ghost is captured, it finishes one stage of death every week, for the three weeks since capture. But it would only truly die unless you kill it!”

Ronald saw that despite his best intentions, his explanation has only baffled them more.

“I understand that all of this might sound confusing to you, but…but, well, I can show it to you, if you are interested. I think that would be the best way for you to understand!” Ronald looked eagerly from Agnes to Alan and back again.

Agnes looked at Golver as though saying, ‘Is there any medication that you can give him at moments like these?’

Golver didn’t even look in her direction though. He had his eyes firmly fixed on nothing and everything at the same time.

“Of course, we could do this only if you subscribe to my idea of bodily immortality being superior of ghostly immortality,” Ronald was saying. From his wide eyes and the abruptness with which he kept nodding his head, Alan felt that the old man would be a great fit for the role of a mad scientist in a movie.

For the first time since she entered the house, Agnes felt sympathy towards Ronald. After all, he was a man she used to love at one point of time. Now, seeing him senile like this in his old age was not a pretty sight. That too when he was actually younger than her!

So she listened with a smile, nodding enthusiastically as he spoke about how he fooled everyone in the town by having Golver arrange a life-like dummy of Ronald which they buried, saying that Ronald died of a heart attack. “Now, I am free, immortal, ready to enjoy life for ever and ever more!” Ronald was saying. “And it’s all thanks to a chance encounter with Golver that I came to this wonderful position! He is also an immortal. We ran into each other at the hospital one day. He was an orderly there. I was admitted for a while and we became good friends. I was diagnosed with…with something that could have killed me. That’s when Golver told me about the Way Out- the method by which you could ennoble the body, make it indestructible! Oh, don’t look at my frail looking body like that, thinking how could it possibly be indestructible! There’s more to things than meets the eye! Anyway, when Golver first told me about the Way Out, I thought he must be mad. But I didn’t have any better choice, and also I trusted him. So, I went with it. And here we are!”

Here we all are!, thought Alan. In the house of a mad old man who ran multiple obituary columns for his own death, on a Sunday afternoon when he could have been having a post lunch siesta. Sundays, Dorothy made chicken biryani. He wanted nothing more than to get out of the house and  leave, reach home and have the biryani along with some pomegranate juice(his favourite) before going to sleep.

He tried to wordlessly communicate this idea to Agnes with gestures.

**

But Agnes wasn’t looking at him. She had her eyes on her ex-lover, sympathetic eyes, eyes brimming with emotions, eyes that sought the answer from the universe for the question: ‘Why, oh, why, would you make people lose their goods in their old age? I remember how wonderful a human being Ronald was. And now, he is reduced to being this fool who mumbles about the afterlife and killing ghosts!’ She thanked the universe for bring benevolent to her, by not bestowing upon her senility.

The universe remained silent, offering no responses. Agnes prayed to Jesus to make Ronald better.

She has been a devout Catholic ever since she could remember. And she went to the church every Sunday unless there was something that rendered it impossible, like a heavy fever or if one of her non-Christian friends dropped in unannounced. At least, she used to be a regular church goer until the flight of stairs in front of the church building got to be too many in number for her  arthritic legs. But even then, she didn’t stop the habit of attending a mass- thanks to the miracle of the television.

All this meant that she must have gathered quite some currency from heaven which she could transact for some services. The service that she presently sought was the cure of Ronald. In fact, she was so confident of the power of praying which years of devotion must have granted her that soon as she was done praying, she looked at Ronald expecting him to be cured.

But the mad gleam- or what Agnes took to be one, in Ronald’s eyes remained. Agnes felt her heart melting. She has come this far to see him. Why not indulge him? Just like you would indulge a young child even if you know that the kid was being unwantedly adamant.

There’s something about kids and senile old people that melts her heart. She could never put a finger on what exactly it was but she was pretty sure it wasn’t the poor control they have over bowel movements.

“Okay, show me,” said Agnes, softly, in her most indulgent tone.

Realizing that it’d be a good idea to break his silence now, Alan spoke, or rather whispered to his great grandmother. “Ammachi, it could be a better idea for you not to do it.” Even as he was speaking, he could feel the old man’s eyes on him. But he didn’t care.

There was no doubt that the old man was mad. And he didn’t want his ammachi to get hurt because of the man. Sure, the man has not done anything to indicate he was dangerously senile. In fact, the frail looking man was one of the most amicable persons he has some across in recent times(He wished the teachers and professors in his college were like this, minus the senility, of course).

But the apparent harmlessness of the man notwithstanding, Alan didn’t want his ammachi to take any risks.

Ammachi though looked chill about the whole thing.

Giving Alan a smile of reassurance, she said, “Don’t worry, darling. He obviously is gone in the head. A tragedy of old age. Now, the least I can do, as an old friend, is indulge his whims.” She spoke in a soft tone, partly to soothe Alan but also because she didn’t wish Ronald to hear her.

Without waiting to hear Alan’s response, she turned towards Ronald. “Come, Roanld, show me.”

**

Alan didn’t wait for anyone to invite him. He just tagged along with the trio- Ronald at the front, walking with the aid of a stick though the stick looked more ornamental than functional. The bottom of the stick rarely touched the ground. Following him closely was Agnes, with a curious smile on her face as though she were a little kid about to play hide and seek with her peers.

Golver walked behind the two old people, his strides confident and calm unlike the shaky walk of the old people. Bringing up the rear was Alan. He felt that something was amiss about this whole thing. If what Ronald said was the ramblings of a senile old man, why was he being so calm? Senile people were not this methodical, where they?

Ronald led them to a small bedroom. The bedroom was almost just half the size as the living room. But it appeared larger, mainly because of the colour painted on the walls- a luminescent yellow which gave the impression of a bigger space and also made anyone who looked at it for long to hurt their eyes. Agnes, for one, liked this colour much better than the dark green which was painted everywhere else in the house.

There was also something else in the room which wasn’t there in the living room- a circular diagram with three cones drawn inside it, each positioned in a skewed angle to one another, so that they looked like the geometric representation of three men who didn’t like to see eye to eye and so stood looking in different directions.

Filling in the gaps between the cones were small yet intricate designs- the kind which looked like they were inspired by overgrown weed in a garden-or a cemetery, only much better designed. There were numbers written among these smaller designs, numbers which looked like they were written in no particular sequence.

To Alan, the diagram-which was some 4 feet in diameter looked like a cross between the diagram that a Hindu clairvoyant might use to predict the future and a circle that a European witch would draw to summon evil spirits- at least, the version of such circles that horror films show.

Following a gesture from Ronald, Golver took from a box of chalks on the window-sill one stalk using which he proceeded to draw over the lines and curves of the circle, bringing to life the diagram which has begun to fade. There was a positive glow on the man’s face as he kneeled down and drew over the picture.

It was the first time that Alan saw the man happy.

For some reason, this only made Alan more nervous.

“Are you ready?” Ronald said to Agnes once Golver was done drawing the picture.

Agnes nodded immediately, broadening her smile.

Her stomach was rumbling. So, she would hang around for another ten minutes or so, let Alan show whatever he wanted to in that time, and leave. She could hardly wait to eat the lunch that Dorothy must have prepared by now.

Dorothy made one mean biryani.

Agnes- though she has lost some of her teeth had enough left in her mouth to nibble on the delectable meat pieces and think she was in chicken heaven.

“Ammachi, what is this? There is no point to this! Let’s just leave!” said Alan, careful not to show the panic that was rising in him i – he didn’t want to give the wrong impression to the old man and his servant. He wasn’t being discourteous by wanting to get out of here as soon as he could. He just didn’t want anything bad to happen to his ammachi.

Agnes tut-tutted him. She was looking at Ronald awaiting his instructions.

He asked her to get into the circle. With just the slightest of hesitation, she entered the circle. Alan told himself that the panic which clenched his heart was just over-reaction. It’s not like the old man could actually hurt ammachi’s ghost. One thing that he did find curious the more he thought about it was that the old man always used the word ‘ghost’ and never ‘soul.’

Taking a deep breath, he switched to a relax-mode, folding his arms across his chest. Whatever show the old man was going to put up, he was going to be a spectator. Also, all said and done, he did feel a certain sense of amusement at the proceedings, even a sense of curiosity. What the hell was the old man up to?

Golver meanwhile brought a small glass bottle which seemed to be filled with plain water. He walked back to the edge of the circle, stood reverently like he was attending a religious ceremony.

Which was more or less what the ensuing ‘ceremony’-if that’s what it was, looked like to Alan.

**

First, Ronald extended a hand towards him. When Alan looked at the extended hand with a questioning frown, he said, “So that we could begin the chanting!”

“Of course,” said Alan, not knowing what else to say.

He looked at Golver before taking the old man’s hand. But Golver stood as expressionless as ever. But that was before he reached a hand towards Alan as well. Golver put the bottle of water on the floor and took hold of Ronald’s free hand, smiling. Now the three of them made a circle around the circle.

Agnes, standing right in middle of the circle, gave a nervous chuckle.

Before long, Golver and Ronald began chanting- the younger man in a voice that was not so different from that of a Soprano in the church choir. That made the chanting more onerous than rhythmic but neither Golver nor Ronald seemed to mind that. In fact, the more they chanted, they more immersed they seemed to be in the whole proceeding- first gazing towards the sky-or rather the cobwebbed ceiling, and then closing their eyes in a rapturous emotion, as though the chanting has got them in a continual orgasmic grasp.

As for the chanting itself, if it wasn’t for the fact that his ammachi seemed to have started swooning, closing her eyes herself and spreading her arms wide like a movie heroine in a sunflower field, he would have found it hilarious. In fact, it sounded more like something that you might find in a children’s comic than from any bonafide book of spells.

He kept looking at Golver to see how far the servant would go with all this, to indulge his master’s fancy.

But seeing the earnestness with which he went at it, Alan was beginning to have doubts regarding him. But before he could voice his doubts, something happened.

A sudden flash- like the flash bulb of an old fashioned camera burst in the room. It came from his ammachi’s direction. The old woman gave a short but loud scream when the white light burst out of her heart. The scream was loud enough to rise above the chanting.

But Alan didn’t think that was why Ronald and Golver stopped the chanting abruptly. It was more because whatever they aimed with the…ceremony was accomplished.

For the light that came out of ammachi’s body soon assumed a human shape, like all this was happening in a low-budget supernatural film.

The entity- what one could probably call a ghost was a head or so shorter than ammachi. Alan didn’t know why this was, neither did he think about it because every active cell in his brain was involved in processing the information that he was witnessing.

As he stood flabbergasted, Golver and Ronald dropped his hand. Glover took the bottle of water from the ground and swiftly handed it to Ronald. The old man uncapped the bottle with a swiftness of the wrist which Alan felt to be unnatural on a man his age. When the cap was removed, he saw that the bottle had a wooden stopper with holes in it- like a custom made stopper akin to the ones that wine bottles come with.

Even before Ronald raised the bottle and sprinkled some of its contents on the ghost inside the circle, Alan has changed his opinion about the bottle’s content. It cannot be plain water- not when a ghostly being stood in the same room with four flesh and blood beings.

Whatever was the content of the bottle, no sooner had the liquid touched the ghost than it cowered, appearing to be suddenly fatigued, like a frail human suddenly hit by sun stroke.

But to his relief, Alan saw that his ammachi- the flesh and blood version looked fine enough, albeit a little pale as though she just saw a ghost. Which she did.

Alan wasn’t sure if it was proper to think nothing about seeing his ammachi’s ghost looking worried, but hey, this was his first encounter of the supernatural kind and he was sure there were a lot of things to learn yet about it.

He extended a hand towards Agnes, not stepping into the circle himself, worried about what weird shit might happen if he did that. Agnes took hold of his hand and came out of the circle. She was a little shaky but all things considered, she was coping with the situation decently well, thought Alan.

That was when she swooned and fell into his arms unconscious.

**

“But I thought. I thought…” When she couldn’t go on anymore, Agnes sipped some lemon tea which Golver had made her. She was out for about half an hour and has been awake now for an hour. But still, she couldn’t completely accept what she experienced inside the yellow-painted room.

The lemon tea didn’t make it any easier for her to speak. They were all sitting in the living room, all except Golver who stood a few feet away, in his previous position, leaning against the wall, a part of the background scenery. The significant difference this time was that there was a smile on his face.

Alan could well understand the reason for the smile now. After Ronald had explained.

Golver was one of the immortals. That’s how he knew the spells necessary for the ceremony. “I have been walking this earth for quite a long time now,” Golver has said in a deep sonorous voice. “I thought that many people would be interested in immortality. But to my surprise, I found that most people I made the offer preferred to stay alive only until the natural course of their life ran out. Only a very fewer brave souls- like Ronald, and your grandmother actually expressed consent!”

“Great-grandmother!” Agnes had said immediately. “And I didn’t want this, you know, this immortality without a soul! In fact, I didn’t even think that this would work!”

The details that Alan and his ammachi were given were bizarre. But now that one of them was an immortal, they didn’t find the details all that hard to digest.

The details included:

The fluid in the bottle was indeed water- only water ‘fortified’ with a few spells. The water would hurt weaken the ghost, so that it wouldn’t scream a lot and create a lot of nuisance to people in the house and in the neighborhood.

Once a ghost is entrapped in the circle, it’s impossible for it to escape. It will wither away in around three weeks’ time.

Ronald painted the house green not because shamrock is the supernatural colour of the universe but simply because he liked it.

If a notification is not given to the people three consecutive weeks in a row, there’s going to be a ‘Rupture’, by which two fiends would come out of the skies and take away the ghost to an eternal hell. And the body of the ghost would perish with that.

**

It was this last point which Alan and Agnes found the most troublesome.

“Is there any way for us to put the ghost back in her body?” Soon as Alan asked the question, he felt stupid about it. But someone had to ask it.

Ronald cackled, which didn’t do anything to lighten Alan’s mood.

“It’s not as easy as putting a ball of twine which spilled from a jar back in the jar,” said Ronald.

“And if this…this..rupture as you call it, if it happens, is there any way that we could defeat the fiends?” Agnes, ever the teen filled with fighting spirit, said.

“And why this stupid rule of running three obits in the newspapers!” Alan couldn’t contain himself.

“Because that’s just the way it is. Why does the earth revolve around the sun and not the other way around? Why do people always prefer junk food than healthy food? Because it’s just how it is!” Ronald spoke slowly as though talking to a particularly dumb animal. “Of course, it doesn’t have to be a newspaper. You can use any medium with a good reach. I would have liked to use the internet myself. Only I don’t know anything about it. Neither does Golver.”

Golver gave a sheepish smile to Alan. “I have been around for a long time. But I rarely keep up with the times,” he said. “What with the continual changes that you see, you kind of get bored by the very concept of change itself. After living in this earth for a while- say, for 280 years, one tends to cling to the things that rarely change- like the mountains, or the ocean or…”

“The recipe for puttu?” suggested Agnes.

“Yes, I suppose,” said Golver, sounding rather sheepish at his own inability to come up with many things that don’t change much.

“So, how exactly did you come across this..secret for immortality?” Alan was thinking of posing this question later, after he has solved the situation with his ammachi, but curiosity got the better of him.

Golver opened his mouth, a look of interest crossing his face. He looked pleased for the chance to talk about the experience. But before he could utter even a single word, Agnes said, “People, we might be deviating from the main problem here!” That was a general statement that she made towards the three men.

The next thing she said was specifically towards Ronald. “So, is there a way that we could beat these cosmic fiends!”

Ronald smiled. “Cosmic fiends! I like that!” But seeing that a smile didn’t bloom on Agnes’ face, he quickly assumed a serious expression, and said, “The only way to beat them is for the person whose soul is entrapped- in this case, that would be you-“

“-I noticed that!” Agnes interjected. Her sarcasm, if Ronald noticed, he didn’t give an indication that he did.

Instead, he continued in his serious tone, as though he was talking about the pitfalls of the latest policy decision  made in the last parliament session. “You will have to beat the cosmic fiends, as you put it.”

“Beat, as in physically fight them and win them?” It was Alan who asked the question. If anyone has told him just the previous day that he would soon be asking someone about the specifics of beating two monsters that came out of the skies, he would have laughed at them. But here he was.

Ronald nodded at him before turning his attention back to Agnes.

“But that’s impossible!” Alan said. “Ammachi is an old woman!” he added, just in case, people haven’t noticed that yet.

“But what Ronald sir said is the truth. That is the only way to beat the fiends.I have done extensive research on the matter. I know what I am talking about.” It was the most that Golver has spoken since Alan and Agnes came into the house. Now, everyone had their eyes on him, some of them seeking more from him, as though he would add some caveat to the rule. ‘But there’s a caveat to the rule. If the person is more than 90 years old, you could just shake hands with the demons and they would just be on their way.’ Something like that.

But as the silence lengthened it becm clear that the immortal had nothing more to add.

“How exactly do you fight them? Is there any specific weapon that we could use?” It was Agnes who broke the silence. For an old woman who visits the doctor every month for a checkup and whose different body parts would ache if she didn’t get her regular medications from the doctor, she was being awfully calm about this whole thing. Her presence of mind didn’t fail to impress Alan.

“The fiends are said to be derivatives of fire. So, you need to counter them with that in mind.” It was Ronald who said it. “But let me ask you one thing, Agnes. Why would you want the rupture to happen in the first place? You can just announce your death thrice over and attain immortality. Your ghost would perish but your body would remain forever. It’s quite honestly baffling to think how you are willing to walk away from immortality- the thing that mankind has been looking for since..forever. The basis of all religions and man’s perennial hope!”

“I see that you still possess the eloquence you had as a youth,” Agnes said, her eyes crinkling with memories. And she could hear hopefulness in his words as well. Perhaps, he was thinking that the two of them would spend eternity together?

This made her speak in an even softer tone. “Immortality is precious, no doubt. But I cannot conceive of an immortality without your soul- or ghost, as you like to call it. No, that doesn’t strike me as true.”

“If it’s the age factor that is bothering you, let me assure you that even if you are old, like really, really old like us, if you are an immortal, your senses would work just like that of a young person. You could enjoy everything on earth. And it won’t be..what shall I say..won’t be a…a secondary experience!” Ronald looked pleased with himself for having found the right phrase.

Gently shaking her head, Agnes said, “That’s not the problem, really, Ronald. It’s just that I cannot conceive of immortality as a mere body. The spirit- the spirit is central to my belief. I don’t think that’s the kind of immortality that Jesus would have liked.”

Ronald opened his mouth to say something. But then, failing to find any words, he shut it again. To Alan, he suddenly looked like a fish out of the ocean. A man pitching for eternity with his old lover, now being rejected and finding himself lost. Alan couldn’t help but feel sad for him.

To cut off the awkward silence which has settled in the living room, Alan said, “So, these things are derived from fire, you say. But if that’s the case, having ammachi fight them with a bucket of water seems hardly a feasible strategy.”

Ronald who broke his gaze away from Agnes, nodded slowly.

He looked at Golver, as though asking, ‘Do you have a good plan or are you just gonna stand there scratching your chin looking intelligent, without having anything to add?’

Turned out, Glover did have something to add.

“No, bucket of water would be too silly a weapon against them,” he said. “I propose that we use one of those fire extinguishers that you find in buildings. You know, the ones that are red in colour and come with-“

“-We know what a fire extinguisher looks like!” Alan interjected. “But to me at least, that doesn’t seem like much of a leap from a bucket of water.”

“No, no, no,” Golver said, animatedly waving his hands in front of him. “I have only seen someone fight for his ghost once with the fiends in my life so far. And that time, the person had used a fire extinguisher.”

“Did he win?” Agnes’ words as well as her eyes were filled with hope as she asked the question.

“Well, he beat one of them..” Golver said after a moment of hesitation.

Agnes nodded thoughtfully.

“Maybe if we could all put our heads together, we could think of something…” suggested Alan.

For the next half an hour or so, all four of them racked their brains to come up with better alternatives to fire extinguishers. Their morale took a beating when they found that they couldn’t come up with a single idea amongst the four of them.

**

In the ensuing  days, Agnes and Alan made out of the house citing different reasons- ranging from ‘Ammachi wants to go to the flower show. Again’ to ‘There’s an antiques exhibition at the Nishagandhi. You know how much ammachi loves antiques!” Though Dorothy found the excuses plausible more often than not, it was the frequency with which the two got out that made her suspicious that something else was going on.

But there was no way that she could have hit upon the truth- that Alan and his great-grandmother were going out to an immortal’s house in Puthukurichy so that Golver could train Agnes on how to use a fire extinguisher like a pro.

On the seventh day since the entrapment of her soul, Ronald took her aside and asked whether she was sure if she didn’t wish to run an ad, after all. Maybe a week’s worth of immortal existence has made her change her mind?

“You were right,” Agnes said. “I do feel much better..after..after my death, I guess I should say. I can breathe better and I have not had any pain in any parts of my body. In fact, I even stopped using medicines because I don’t feel there’s any need to. And food tastes much better. My daughter, Dorothy, she makes the best biryani in all of Trivandrum, and I am not saying that just because she’s my daughter. But I have never found it so good until I tasted it as an immortal.”

Ronald’s eyes lit with hope. But the light was doused immediately as he heard the next word that came out of Agnes’ mouth, “But..I still don’t think this is right. It’s the life of the spirit which is eternal and not the body. I know that you were never that devout. So, it’s not a huge problem for you. But for me, I have always remained a devout Catholic, Ronald! And I can’t just give up the ideals now!” She clutched the rosary in her hand even tighter.

Ronald did find it funny to hear someone who walked out on love because of a trip to Ceylone talking about ideals. But he didn’t comment on it. Instead, with a weary sigh, he said, “Then, do prepare well for the fight!”

**

The rupture was to happen tomorrow.

Both Alan and Agnes lied awake in their beds in their separate rooms though the night was no longer young. Agnes was thinking about Dorothy.

There’s a potential that she may die tomorrow. And if that’s the case, Dorothy would be baffled. Maybe, she would even get angry about not telling her about what was really going on.

Agnes loved Dorothy so much. Though a widow who just barely made two ends meet, she was the only child of hers who was glad about taking care of her mother, who didn’t crinkle her nose at the idea of having her mother live with her, unlike Agnes’ other-more successful children.

Alan too was thinking about Dorothy, from a slightly different perspective.

If something happens to Agnes tomorrow- and God forbid, it doesn’t, what was he supposed to tell her? A tale of magic chants and immortality and cosmic fiends would only come across as ramblings of an unsettled mind. Dorothy’s an avid follower of the news and many times Alan had heard her comment about the “growing drug menace” in the state. Ever since hard liquor has been banned in Kerala, there’s been reports that more and more number of youngsters are gravitating towards hard drugs- MD, meth , coke and the likes making their rounds in the state as easily a buses ply on a largely empty highway.

She would just think that Alan was a the prey to the government’s decision to ban liquor. Maybe she would think that he had turned a Satanist under the drug’s influence and killed her great grandma as part of a ritual.

Ronald had agreed that if something were to happen to Agnes, he would come along with Alan and explain things to Dorothy. Agnes too had written a signed letter explaining everything in detail which she has kept in the drawer of her bedside table. Alan knew about this.

He hoped that if the unthinkable happens, the letter and Ronald’s words would be enough to convince Dorothy that there’s more to life than just fun and tragedy and life insurance.

From somewhere afar, a dog howled. The sound was carried far and wide on the crispy night air. Alan felt a creeping sense of uneasiness growing inside him. He prayed to god to keep his great grandma safe tomorrow, even though he didn’t truly believe in God(of all the things, he found the idea of Jesus rising from the dead three days after death the hardest to digest. That was, in his opinion one zombie god).

But still, praying never hurts, he thought.

**

The next day, Alan hugged Agnes in a long time. As far as he could remember, the last time he hugged the old woman was on her last birthday- more than eight months ago.

He couldn’t help but notice how absolutely tiny she felt within his arms, and how fragile her body felt. He could feel her ribs under his fingers when he touched her back.

He wondered, not for the first time, whether such  a person should be fighting fiends of cosmic dimensions at her age.

He didn’t show his apprehensions though. He wanted to give her as much confidence as he could. He smiled at her. “Send them back to whatever unholy hole they came from, ammachi!” he said.

A blank look came over her eyes. “Oh, you’re talking about the fiends!” she said after a couple of moments. “For a moment there, I was wondering what you were talking about. I didn’t get enough sleep last night, you see. Kept rolling over in bed. And you know how my brain works extra-slow when I haven’t got enough sleep…Well, of course, you were talking about the fiends. What else? Silly me!” She chuckled, a sound that was as filled with nervousness as much as a fraud was filled with malicious intent.

Alan gulped. Nodded. Forced a smile on to his face. Prayed again to god.

They were in Ronald’s living room. They all waited for the fiends to turn up.

“Are you sure they would come around this time?” Agnes asked to no one in particular, eyeing her watch, looking rather bored.

It was Golver who answered. “Yes, yes, This is about the time when your ghost was detached from your body. So, they should be here any minute now!” He looked positively thrilled by the prospect. The way he was going, Alan thought that these were the moments for which Golver lived.

“If I remember correctly, “Agnes said slowly, stifling a yawn, “The detachment..as you put it…was over by this time, at least by an hour.”

“Maybe they don’t keep their clocks synchronized with the earth clocks out there in the cosmos!” Ronald’s attempt at a joke wasn’t too successful. Everyone just kept on waiting- somewhat tense, somewhat bored.

The fiends appeared a full hour and twenty minutes late.

But when they did, their entrance was dramatic. A huge puff of fire in the centre of the living room which retreated back into thin air. But between the man sized fire’s appearance and disappearance, there came to being the two fiends- green slimy bodies with red eyes and spiked tails that ended at a conical tip which glinted sharply.

To Alan, the tip looked so much like it was made of ivory. As though the fiends themselves were designed by some toy maker with access to precious objects.

Seeing the four humans in the room, the fiends snarled. Their lizard like tongues extended into the air, at least a foot in front of them. Their teeth were jagged and Alan could see what appeared to be pieces of flesh caught between some of them.

He has never asked how exactly the fiends attacked their enemies. It appeared that they just ate them. This made him even more scared for Agnes. He tried to push off his mind images of her getting eaten by these two monstrosities.

The fiends, he noticed stood with their webbed feet planted apart, gnarling at everyone, a somewhat baffled look on their face, as though they weren’t sure which of the four was their enemy.

The fact that the fiends didn’t look all that intelligent gave Alan hope. That, and the fact that they were only as high as Agnes, who was just five feet two. This latter, he knew wasn’t exactly a matter of comfort, if you were being technical about it. For what they lacked in height, the fiends more than made up in their width. But he needed to clutch on all hopes he could find at this point, goddammit!

He watched, half fascinated and half apprehensive as his ammachi got up from the sofa taking the fire extinguisher in her hands. The red cylinder wobbled in her arms and for a second it looked like it would fall off her grip. It wasn’t exactly a light object. Alan instinctively took a step forward to help her but seeing how she regained her grip on the fire extinguisher, he stepped back.

Agnes took a stance across from the fiends, her legs planted apart, pointing the nozzle of the fire extinguisher in the direction of the fiends, as though saying, ‘Come on you motherfuckers! Let’s do this!’

The fiends, apparently got the message. For they didn’t lose any more time in charging at her.

The distance the fiends had to cover to reach her was just a few feet- enough distance for Agnes to fire off the fire extinguisher at one of them, covering the fiend with froth which made him scream- a high pitched tone which was almost comical, like a shrill whistle which was only partially functioning.

A large portion of the froth was on its midriff, which made the fiend scratch madly around those parts, as though he was stung by a horde of red ants. This only made matters worse for him. For his fingers were more claws than fingers and his scratching only made his flesh-tendered by the white froth- to cave in on itself.

This undoubtedly brought him great pain as evidenced by the even higher turn his screaming took- it appeared as though the more he screamed, the more his voice was carried beyond the auditory spectrum of humans.

It was fascinating to watch the fiend getting melted- for need of a better word- under the impact of the froth. The thing now looked skywards, its mouth wide open in a grotesque parody of a scream for mercy, its tongue wobbling lifelessly, slapping its lower and upper rows of teeth as it moved his head violently back and forth with pain.

In less than a minute, the fiend was lying or the floor, writhing in agony, inching closer to death with every spasmodic kick of its leg.

The sight of a green tailed, red eyed being suffering in agony lying on a Persian carpet was so grotesquely fascinating that even the other fiend stood rooted to the spot for a while, unable to do anything but watch the horrible proceeding silently.

But once the fiend on the floor shivered and pounced and shuddered and wailed its way into death’s arms, the second fiend looked at Agnes with even more ferocity.

Emboldened by the death of the first fiend, Alan’s ammachi was confident about taking on the second one as well. The two fiends looked the same. In fact, they might have been twins. And there was no reason to imagine that the second one would be any better when it came to defending itself than the first one.

Feeling the confidence coursing through her like electricity, Agnes raised the fire extinguisher, shifting the bulk of its weight from one arm to the other, holding its bottom with one hand as with the other she directed the nozzle towards the fiend who snarled.

From behind her, he heard her great grandson cheering, “Go, ammachi!” From her right came the sound of Ronald, somewhat frailer than Alan’s but no less enthusiastic.

But no amount of cheering could prevent what happened next.

Just as Agnes was raising the metallic extinguisher, the tendon in her right arm was stretched as he supported the utility with that hand. The abrupt shift of weight was apparently too much for her tendon and she screamed in pain. More crucially, this made her drop the extinguisher, hitting her right foot.

The resultant sound of bones breaking was heard by everyone. She was on the floor screaming in no time.

And also in no time was the fiend upon her.

No matter how much the others tried to detach the fiend from her, they couldn’t. Not until it has given a good go on her neck with its teeth. As though her neck were a piece of wood and the fiend’s mouth a wood chipper.

**

“You planned all this! I know it! You gave the newspaper ads knowing full well that ammachi would be reading them. You knew that would make her come here to visit you! This was just your way of getting back at her, for not accepting your love all those years back!” Alan was walking in circles in Ronald’s living room.

The last of the fiends had disappeared in a poof of- not smoke but fire, about five minutes ago. (The first fiend, the one which his ammachi annihilated also disappeared in a puff of fire- pretty convenient considering it could be an automatic incineration of the body.

Alan, who has of late been fascinated with the burial customs of different cultures since coming across a book on the same subject in the library would have found this interesting, had his mind not been shocked by the death of his ammachi. His ammachi’ body thankfully didin’t disappear in a puff. But she still lied in a pool of her own blood. (It’s highly doubtful that the resultant stain would ever come off Ronald’s Persian carpet).

“I should have seen this from the beginning!” Alan was saying in a hysterical tone, more to himself than anyone else. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” He admonished himself for not seeing this coming- he who has spent endless hours devouring Agatha Christie mysteries and Raymond Chandler noirs. He of all people should have seen a trap as it was being raised!

Ronald was standing at the far end of the room, right beside Golver. Ronald looked equally sad and shocked.

When he spoke, he spoke in a calm voice. In fact, a voice saturated with fatigue, one that sounded like it came from a man fed up with the shenanigans of fate.

“Please don’t say such things, Alan! I…You know it can’t be right. I am 95 years old, your great grandmother 97. We had our affair when we were both in our twenties. 70 years is just too long a time for humans to wait for having revenge. Besides, how would I ever know that she read the newspaper avidly! In fact, given her age, how could I even have known that she was still alive!”

Alan glared at him. But that was all he could do. Though he would have liked to say something in the way of a come-back, he had to concede that what the man said made sense.

Ronald gave the young man the opportunity to calm down. He asked Golver to make some lemonade for him. Ronald was initially apprehensive about drinking the sweet drink just a few feet away from where his ammachi lied dead, her neck and part of her shoulder mangled as though chewed up by a dog from hell-which was more or less what happened.

But Golver insisted, telling him that it would do him good. And once he gulped down the initial sip, fearing that it might make him puke, the drink actually felt refreshing. He found his heart beat coming down and his mind attained something akin to a level of normalcy.

“So, now that the unthinkable has happened,” Ronald said in a slow drawl, walking closer towards Alan, a benevolent expression on his face. “We must tackle the next issue. About informing all this to Dorothy.”

**

Dorothy was shattered by the news.

Not that Alan was surprised by this. If you had known that your mother- the person who carried you in her womb for 10 months, nurtured you when you couldn’t even frame a sentence or a thought, who sacrificed so much so that you could be an independent human being, was bitten to death by a fiend from the abominable parts of the universe, as she already lied in pain from the broken bones in her foot, you would also have been shattered by the news.

What actually did surprise Alan was how quickly she regained her composure.

No doubt, this was caused partly by the letter which Agnes had written for her just in case of such an eventuality. Also bolstered by the presence of Ronald who kept nodding every time Alan kept presenting one incredible detail after another.

Even when she was taken to Ronald’s home and she saw Agnes’ body, she was more or less stable. (Thanks in no small way to the make-over that Golver had given the dead body. Golver, as per Ronald was something of an expert when it came to such things).

The only time she looked a bit shaky was when Golver informed her that he would be dumping the body in the ocean later that night.

The world would be told that Agnes, in age-related senility just walked out of home one night, unbeknownst to Alan or Dorothy. No one knew where she went or where she was.  A missing person notice would be issued for her.

“But ammachi’s soul would now be in heaven, right?” she asked Ronald before leaving his place.

Ronald looked at her with sympathetic eyes and nodded, adding that he was sorry things happened the way they did.

She said it’s fine, there was nothing that he could have done.

On the drive back from Ronald’s home, Alan also expressed a similar sentiment- about he being sorry for not having done anything to prevent the disaster.

Dorothy gave him the same answer as she did Ronald. What could he have done?

Alan certainly hoped that that was the case. If it turned out that there was actually anything that he could have done to prevent the death, if in hindsight he saw how he missed something to that end, he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself.

**

Ronald sat in the sofa sipping a cold glass of lemonade.

More than half an hour has passed since Alan and Dorothy left.

The day was hot- it was afternoon, and notwithstanding the ceiling fan that was rotating overhead, Ronald had to blow air from his mouth, skewering his mouth so that the air was channeled towards his own body to cool it down.

Golver was in the kitchen, fixing lunch. The sound of cooking- boiling water and plates being moved and veggies being cut on the chopping board- sounded like music to his ears.

Ever since he attained immortality, he has found a renewed interest in food. During the last years of his life as a mere mortal, his taste buds had steadily failed him, making more or less everything taste like boiled potatoes(saltless). But once he- or rather his body hit the jackpot of eternality, it’s as though he was experiencing the varied tastes of foods for the first time in his life, experiencing a thrill and joy in a dish of rice and curry like he could never remember ever having done before.

For that alone, he was thankful to Golver.

But once he was finished with the lemonade, it wasn’t to the kitchen that he went. Instead, he moved towards the bedroom that’s painted yellow- the one where the ritual to encapsulate Agnes’ ghost in the circle took place, the eight by ten feet space where Agnes and Alan realized for the first time that there’s more to the world than just material.

Pushing open the door, he looked down at the floor. The circular diagram which Golver had (re)drawn three weeks ago was beginning to fade. But Ronald knew that it was still strong enough to keep the ghost a prisoner. He might have to draw over it before it faded completely. But that won’t be necessary today.

He couldn’t help but smile seeing the ghost sitting in the centre of the circle, looking forlornly at the floor. He had a feeling that if the ghost could cry, it would have.

He walked towards the window, opened one of the panes which opened into the wall-less backyard beyond which- at a distance of about half a kilometer from the house- was the beach. Sometimes, especially during the nights, Ronald would leave one or two of the windowpanes open. Cool breeze would blow in from the ocean.

“You know, a cool wind is blowing,” he would say to the ghost at such moments. “Quite a counter-point to the insufferable heat of the day. Which makes it even more enjoyable. But you wouldn’t know that, now, would you? That’s the bad thing about being a ghost- you couldn’t enjoy the simple yet beautiful things on earth that makes life loveable-a cool ocean breeze, the taste of well-cooked meat, going for a short walk in the beach in the night…No, without a body, you could never do any of that…And I did dream about doing these and many other beautiful things with you once, when I loved you like you were my own heart..”

Presently, Ronald closed the window soon. Night was still more than 6 hours away and he didn’t wish anyone who might pass by to look in and see a goddamn ghost in the room. In fact, they would be worried seeing Ronald himself, whom they thought was dead and buried.

Taking a deep sigh, he turned towards Agnes’ ghost. “I am going to move soon. Move to some place where no one knows Ronald Gomez. Of course, you would be coming with me…Why, you don’t look happy about it…Well, you needn’t consider this as entirely my doing, you know. What I told Alan was the truth- seven decades is just too long to harbor thoughts of revenge. But that’s not to say that I could ever forgive what you did to me. You were the first woman I truly loved- if you had asked I could have given my life for you, that’s how much I loved you. I know it sounds like a cliché, but that’s how it was…So, when I found you standing at my doorstep one fine day…well, I thought it was destiny telling me that I should have my revenge after all. And what better way to take revenge that have your soul as my prisoner. And since I am potentially looking at an immortal life, that could be forever. I lied to them about your ghost getting released if your body dies. I figured a little white lie wouldn’t be amiss in this situation. In fact, not even a lie-if was more withholding of information. You see, there’s a subsequent ritual to be performed to release the ghost…Anyway, it’s a good thing that you chose you didn’t want physical immortality. Otherwise, I might have had to kill your body myself- that would have made me a murderer! God only knows how it would be to go through eternity bearing the sin of murder!”

Shuddering like his bones were suddenly chilled by a cold wind, he added, “But now you are mine. Mine forever!”

The smell of food wafted into the room through the open door from the kitchen. With smile on his face and a drooling mouth, he slowly walked out, leaving the door shut behind him without locking it. There was no need to.

The ghost was not going anywhere.

A long single thread of saliva dripped down the side of his mouth as he sat down at the table where Golver has placed the dishes.

Fairy Tale With Leopard…Not

The leopard was first sighted on a Monday morning. Walking around the railway tracks of the Tonovil Railway Station.

The morning was misty and those who were waiting for the 6:15 memu at first thought that the silhouette belonged to a dog. But then the creature emerged from the mist, slowly, graciously, timidly.

Since the time was only around 6, there weren’t that many people at the railway station. Not that the Tonovil station was known for the crowds that would come there to board the trains. Not exactly.

Lying between the district of Tarancha and the forest that borders the state of Dohga, Tonovil was a sleepy little town. The town’s loudest claim to fame was a government funded aquarium which but had to be shut down when the government that initiated the program was replaced with another in the subsequent election. Apparently, the latter government was not a huge fan of fish. More importantly, they unearthed certain improprieties in the ways in which the previous government had started the project- not all of the fund meant for the aquarium was spent for that purpose, it turned out. So they simply moved the fish to another aquarium in another district that consistently attracted a good flow of tourists.

Anyway, the leopard didn’t attack any of the people on the platform. Not at first, at any rate.

In fact, the beast looked as afraid of the four or five passengers present there as the people were of him(At this point, they didn’t know if it was a he or a she, of course).

But when the people began to start running, the panic seemed to have affected the leopard as well. And the leopard too began to run. Since it was in a panic, it ran in the same direction as the people- towards the footbridge that would take them on to the platform on the other side.

The leopard is a fast runner, especially when compared with people. Particularly, people who were still somewhat sleepy and who had to get out of bed so early because they didn’t wish to miss the train that would take them to work on time. Finding these human obstacles irksome, the leopard attacked three of the people. None of them were injured gravely, but they were certainly scared out of their wits.

The beast climbed the stairs to the footbridge before any human. It was only when he was crossing the footbridge that he saw that there were more humans on the other platform. That’s when he stopped in his track. Looking ahead and behind, he saw humans on either platforms. He felt trapped. The panic which earlier spurred him to run like the wind now turned into a states. Almost a paralysis- like  feeling which canceled all his movements, except for that of his heart muscles.

The humans are going to kill him. He felt certain of it.

It wasn’t the first time he was seeing humans. They sometimes came to the jungle. They hunted at times, using stick -ike things that fired. Though he has never seen them killing any of his kind, he has seen enough killings to know that the humans were not exactly the most benevolent creatures you could come across in your life.

As soon as it was learned that a leopard was in the station premises, the station master reported the matter to the police who in turn relayed the information to the forest department. The officials from the forest department took more than half an hour to reach the railway station. Their office was some 23 kilometers away.

“I am sure that by the time we reach there, the leopard must have killed at least 10 people!” one of the officials kept muttering throughout the ride. Something which didn’t make the ride any easier for the three others present in the jeep.

But even though the man- a pale skinned mustachioed man with a long forehead and perennially worried looking eyes, kept muttering the same thing over and over again, none of the others asked him to stop. Indeed, they barely showed any sign of having heard him speaking. For they knew only too well that Murugan was something of a paranoid, and with good reasons too.

About a dozen years back, one of the lions in a zoo broke out of its cage. Murugan was among the ones who was brought there for aid. He was mere meters away from the lion when it shred to pieces a child- a 4 year old with glimmer in his eyes who was looking at Murugan, hopeful about a rescue, even as the lion proceeded to chew on his neck.

That incident unhinged Murugan. And no one was surprised about it.

**

Thankfully, for Murugan and everyone else involved, the leopard hadn’t killed anyone by the time they reached the station. And people have assisted the three injured, taking them to the hospital. The station master- a man with superior presence of mind(and who was also an alcoholic-which is irrelevant to this story) has evacuated everyone from the station premises, including the ticket collector cum communications officer who was the only other official in the railway station.

Seeing that the casualties were zero, Murugan breathed a sigh of relief. Feeling his muscles relaxing, he moved cautiously towards the footbridge where the beast was walking up and down as thought it were already caught in a cage.

Hearing the sound of approaching footsteps, it looked up, and saw Murugan slowly moving towards it.

Seeing the stick-like object in the man’s hand pointed in his direction, the leopard whimpered.

**

After the leopard was taken away by the authorities, almost an hour passed before anyone came to the railway station. And the first person to arrive was one of the men who was there earlier for the train, when the leopard was first sighted.

When the man walked in, the station master was giving orders to a woman to clean up the blood that was spilled when the leopard attacked the passengers on the platform.

“Excuse me, sir?”

The station master looked at the source of the voice. “Yes?”

“I presume the memu has already gone?”

Being a small town, everyone knew everyone else and the station master knew that the man had to get to work in the next district.

Offering him a smile, he said, “The train, in fact is running an hour and a half late. You are in luck!”

The man smiled back.

**

For the ensuing couple of days, the key topic of conversation among people of all denominations- castes, religions, sexual orientations, sex, likes and dislikes on television shows- was the leopard. A few men who worked in the forest office 23 kilometers north to the town were from the town itself and it was through them that they came to know about the developments. And the developments were truly astonishing:

Development no: 1

It was evident that the leopard was famished, having not eaten for a considerable amount of time. Now, how did the veterinarian appointed by the forest department came to know about this, no one in Tonovil seemed to know, neither were they too keen to learn about it. Neither was there anything astonishing about the fact that a leopard could be famished- When many members of the most dominant species on the planet frequently went without food, what surprise was there in a beast of the wild- one that is diminishing in numbers, going without food for long hours?

No, what was surprising was that when they brought it food- in the form of a live goat and a couple of rabbits, the beast didn’t kill them. And on one instance, when the leopard did make a kill- snuffing the life out of a rabbit, it didn’t eat it. This, according to the veterinarian, was the “most baffling thing I have ever seen!”, as related by one of the Tonovillians who worked in the forest office(related over a couple of bottles at a toddy shop in the evening with friends).

Development no: 2

When the veterinarian entered the cage in which the leopard was temporarily being held, to make a closer observation, and when he petted the beast’s back, the beast at first looked agitated. Nothing surprising about that.

But when the vet- an expert with wild animals, spent quite some time with it, it began to warm towards him, seeing how he meant no harm. And when the man petted him, gently stroking him on his back, he lied down with his head on the man’s lap, just as a loyal pet dog might do.

Development no: 3

While the leopard was thus lying with his head on his lap, the veterinarian noticed something else. A peculiar smell. A smell that he wouldn’t have expected on any wild animal, especially something that’s supposedly ferocious like a leopard. A closer inspect of its fur confirmed his suspicion – it was indeed the smell of shampoo. He surmised that the beast was shampooed not more than three days ago.

“In fact, the veterinarian was sure that the fragrance of the shampoo was that of the same brand used by his wife!” says the Tonovillian who related this to a captivated audience at the toddy shop. But the audience thought that this last bit of detail must be an add-on by the man who was telling it. For the man was known for his skills of exaggeration.

**

Four days of observing the beast in captivity was enough to convince the authorities that it was a domesticated animal.

One theory was that the animal belonged to a circus company who released him. But the theory didn’t hold much water. For one thing, nearly two years have passed since the rule that made it illegal for circus acts to have wild animals’ illegal in the entire nation of Kjinsoni was passed. So, if someone were to release their animals- it would have happened long ago.

The only other plausible theory was that the leopard was kept as a pet by someone. And has been released for some reason.

“Judging from its weight and physical condition, I would say the leopard is at least two years old. And the older the get the more they eat- at least, until they get really old. So, maybe whoever had him for a pet found the expenses of keeping him progressively higher,” commented the veterinarian.

“So, what do you think we should do?” the chief superintendent of the forest office, a somber looking man asked. His lopsided lips gave him the appearance that he would rather be anywhere other than wherever he was. Always.

A point which the veterinarian has noted on many occasions, and which made him smile. As it did now. But hiding the smile out of politeness, he said, “I think we should keep the beast for three to four weeks, see if it shows any sign of its latent wildness surfacing. If we do see any such sign, we may release it to the wilderness. Otherwise, I reckon the prudent thing to do would be transferring it to a zoo.”

The chief superintendent nodded, looking gravely at the leopard in the glass cage- it was presently eating a piece of goat liver which an attendant had given it- cut to pieces like the leopard were a kid that has to be fed. The serious expression in his face notwithstanding, the superintended didn’t know much about leopards. If the veterinarian had recommended that they dress up the leopard in a skirt and Tee with the words “I don’t rock, I roar!” and made it dance in the attire, he would have gone with it.

The only reason why he was the head of the office was that he was influential. He hoped that he would be able to handle this leopard situation well. If they screwed this up- if they were to release the leopard to the wild and it ended up dead, making the animal protection groups make a hue and cry, they may look closely at the credentials of the chief superintendent who made such a decision.

“Yes,” he said to the veterinarian. “I think what you say makes sense.”

**

“Leo! Leo!” Thages called his pet’s name again. His voice- deep and sonorous resonated across the jungle. But there came no roar in reply.

Thages ran in all the directions, climbing up trees, getting on boulders, swinging on vines across lakes and going into caves to inspect, all to see if Leo was anywhere to be found. To see a human shaped black hole-which is more or less what Thages looked like, running around a jungle looking for his pet would have freaked anyone out. Thankfully, no human was around.

The last of the hunting party had left almost an hour ago.

Dusk was coming in and birds were making their way across the sky to their home. For some reason, the sight of the birds in flight made Thages even more aware of his own sadness. He was a being that stays dormant- asleep most of his life, coming awake once every century or so and staying awake for the next couple of years-give or take.

And he predates the dawn of man by at least 80 millenia. In all that time, never, not even once has he experienced companionship like what he enjoyed with Leo- his beloved pet leopard.

No, to say he was just a pet would be devaluing their relationship.

“He’s more like my son,” Thagesmutterd to himself, gazing sadly at the stretch of forest green from a higher vantage point, a stretch that extended all the way to the horizon, a stretch devoid of Leo. “And to think that I almost killed him!”

**

It was the first time that Thages woke out of season. There were almost two decades to go before it was time for him to wake up, if the natural laws were to be followed.

But the moment he woke up from his slumber, drenched in sweat from head to toe, he knew that it wasn’t time yet. It was more an abstract feeling than anything tangible, but one that was enough to make him convinced that something was wrong.

What brought him awake was, in fact, the unnatural heat in the jungle, which was in turn the result of global warming. Of course, Thages wasn’t acquainted with the concept of global warming, so he didn’t make the connection. All he knew what that unless he took a dip in a cold lake immediately, he would burn from the heat, or so it felt.

He distinctly remembered a small stream with crystal clear water running not far from where he had lied to sleep. But walking up to the spot, he found that the stream was completely dried, leaving behind not even a mud track. He had to walk almost half an hour before he came across a stream deep enough for him to take a swim.

After a long bath, he came out of the water feeling famished beyond belief. After all, he hasn’t eaten for eight decades.

He wanted to find prey. Hopefully, something in the vicinity since he didn’t want to travel far to make his first kill, which he would have to do on an empty stomach.

But Thages knew that such luxuries were hard to come by in a jungle, especially when his appearance- blacker than the night, like a smudge in the atmosphere, moving like an amorphous ghost, his limbs ending in long black fingers which looked more like roots dipped in tar than fingers, would have any animals who beheld him running.

But not so the leopard, he found to his surprise.

**

The leopard was lying asleep at a cave mouth on an incline not far from the stream where he just took his bath. Indeed, the leopard was snoring. Beside it was a cub, finding amusement by chasing its own tail.

The sleeping leopard was its mother. Its father had left her soon after impregnating her. The mother was left to fend for the child as a single mother. And fending for a child on one’s own was tiring task. Something that could send one to sleep at unexpected moments, being tired beyond belief, a tiredness so deep that you wouldn’t wake up even if you heard the sound of splashing water made by an unwholesome black smudge of a creature from a nearby stream.

Not that Thages knew any of this. Neither was he interested in knowing about it. All he cared about was to make the kill- to transfer the sleeping leopard into his belly where it would be digested and transformed to energy.

He would have preferred some animal like a deer or a monkey- there was a special delight in consuming pure vegetarians.But he wasn’t complaining.

One leap and he would be up there at the cave front. Even if the leopard were to come awake and tried to flee in that time, he could easily chase it down- he was fast, damn fast. So, thanking the forest for an easy prey for his first kill, he climbed up the incline.

By the time the leopard came awake- she really liked to sleep, Thages already had his arm raised, ready to bring it down across her face. With one clean swipe, Thages broke the mother leopard’s neck. And within two minutes after that, he cleaned all the flesh from the dead beast’s body, licking his mouth after devouring the last of the morsels of flesh, burping satisfied.

It was only after the burp that he realized what he just did- he ate up the beast while the cub stood looking helplessly just a few feet away. Hardly a cool thing to do, thought Thages.

I have to do something, he thought, feeling that he couldn’t bear the weight of the cub’s gaze on his face anymore.

He moved towards the cub with decisive strides, determined to end the cub’s life as well. The grisly sight of his mother being killed and eaten must still be etched on his eyes, Thages thought. So, it’s better if I Kill the cub asap. It would hardly be compassionate if I were to let if suffer the memory of its mother’s brutal murder for long. In death, let it find peace!

With such noble thoughts, Thages moved towards the cub. But the cub stood its ground, not out of bravery but because it was petrified with fear. It began to tremble all over like a cartoon cub. It’s round eyes became wider and it whimpered multiple times as a prelude to crying.

All of which the beast of ages found to be a bit too much of a cute-attack. Before long, he found his dark heart melting and decided to adopt the cub.

He would keep the leopard cub as his pet, he decided. And if there comes a day when I couldn’t find any other prey and my stomach rumbles, maybe I could make a meal out of it, he added in his mind even though he knew that the chances of him doing that was as low as the earth actually benefiting from humans- the thing was just too darn cute!

**

About humans, Thages had a couple of things to say- if only someone would listen.

For one thing, he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that even though the species displays the highest levels of rationality, they just keep on procreating. It’s like they can’t recognize a failure when they see one. No, that’s not quite right- Thages knew. For the last time he came awake was just a few decades after industrialization kicked in for good. And he had witnessed with his own eyes how meticulously the humans streamline their manufacturing processes, identifying the faulty production methods or products and fixing it with aplomb.

This meant they knew only too well when they encountered a failure.

But the short-sightedness, or rather the blindness in recognizing failure was displayed only when it came to themselves. One can say that it was an innate sense of self-preservation which prompted the species to preserve themselves. But on the other hand, you see humans destroying each other- physically, psychologically and spiritually all the time. See them in action at such times, you would be hard pressed to believe that they have any sense of self-preservation whatsoever.

No, Thages couldn’t understand why the members of the entire species wouldn’t collect themselves at beaches around the world and just walk into the ocean, never to surface again. What a blessing that would be to the world!

Another thing that Thages has found curious about humans is their obsession with amusement. Rape, theater and movies, music, sarcasm, brunch, picnics, strolls, books, political conquests, murder..all these things and more have many a time, amusement as the core reason. It’s like the entire species is restless and amusement is the only drug which could calm it down. Only, the calmness rarely lasts. It’s an episode which moves as swiftly as shallow infatuation. And on they go, seeking the next drug fix. On and on and on.

Crazy species! he had thought.

This time, he didn’t even bother going out into the ‘civilized’ world, he didn’t wish to move among men, and definitely not among women, whom he considered to be the lowest kind among the lowest species. He spent almost his entire time within a radius of 10 kilometers inside the forest, playing with his pet, telling him stories. Having seen events unfolding through millennia, Thages could give Irvin Welsh a run for his money when it came to storytelling.

He had a great time hanging out with Leo- for that’s what he named his pet.

**

“Leo? Why would you name me so?” asked the cub when Thages told him that that’s the name by which he would be known from now on.

They were seated beneath a peepul tree, on a giant black boulder, enjoying the cool wind and the shade which the overarching branches of the tree afforded. Thages has been thinking of naming the leopard for a while now. More than two months had passed since he killed the little one’s mother- an episode which still made his mouth drool- the first meal after a slumber of decades always tastes special.

Throughout this time, he has been addressing his pet as “Hey!”, “Yo!” “Woohoo!” or sometimes simply “You!” Hardly the terms which helped him express the full extent of love he felt towards him. This became even bigger a problem as the relationship deepened and he found his love for the cub getting even stronger. And when he began to look forward to the hour of day every day when the cub would come awake after sleep- just so he could spend time with him, he knew that the time has come to name him.

Leo was one of the first names that popped in his mind.

The beast being a leopard, the idea of having the first three words for its name didn’t require any great leap of imagination. Dissatisfied with his own lack of creativity, he started thinking hard. He came up with such disasters as ‘The cute one’ ‘Four legs, two eyes in a cute bundle’, ‘Jam’- after the idea that they two jammed together, having fun telling each other jokes etc., ‘Spotted sport’, ‘Speedy beast’ and ‘The only one(for me).’ Even a cursory glance through the names would make one realize that Thages was high on descriptive names but low on creativity.

Psychologists say that if you sleep well, you will wake up feeling refreshed, and your creative powers would benefit because of that. That may be true with humans. But not so with something like Thages.(Since the existence of Thages is unknown to human scientists, we should settle for the special name of ‘something’ in the absence of a scientific alternative).

So, after a few days of futile thinking, he decided that Leo was the best of the lot.

“Leo, huh? How dare you give it my name when it’s not a lion?”

The question was raised in a masculine voice. It came from behind the boulder on which Thages and the leopard sat. Looking behind, Thages saw the one who asked the question- a lion who stood majestically like only a lion could, looking royal, ferocious with its squinted eyes.

Not that Thages was scared- he has had too many lions as meals down the ages to be scared. But still, even he was impressed by the posture that this particular lion assumed- one that a wrestler might assume in the ring to signal to his opponent that ‘Your time’s up!’

“What’s it to you!” said Thages in a firm voice, standing up. “I would name my pet whatever I wish to! It’s not like you have a patent on it!”

“Yes, I do!” roared the lion. “Maybe not in the legal sense of the word, but still everyone knows that I’m the king of the jungle and Leo is the name that goes only to the king.”

“Oh, is that so?” the bafflement in Thages’ voice was genuine, for if ever such a rule existed, this was the first time he was hearing of it. “So, your name is Leo, I presume? I must tell you that I have never seen you before,” he added.

The lion looked away before answering. “Yes, you probably haven’t seen me before, I haven’t been this way in a while. But I am the king of this jungle, though my name isn’t Leo.” This last part, he murmured, lower than the gentle wind that was blowing.

“What was it that you said?” Leo said, cocking an ear.

“I said, my name is not Leo,” the lion said in a just-about-audible tone. “I am Jack!”

“Jack, Rack, Rat, whatever it is that you are called, I have named my pet Leo and that’s not gonna change!” said Thages proudly.

“Then, you would experience the ferocity of my teeth!” It was a phrase that Jack’s father used to shout before he made an attack on a prey. Jack began using it after his father’s death, partly to keep his old man’s memory alive, partly because it sounded cool.

But Jack’s father was cleverer than the son and had used the phrase only before jumping at such things as jackals and deers and such- never at a being that verged on the supernatural, having powers which none of the other animals in the forest could match. In fact, his father had told Jack never to engage with a black smudge like being if ever he came across it- a pearl of wisdom the old lion passed down to him. But Jack had thought it was simply the old lion’s senility talking.

So he leaped. On towards Thages’ chest, which expanded with anger.

The lion was flung back to the ground from which he leaped by a whack delivered by Thages’ hand. In the process, it hurt like it has never been hurt in its entire life.

“I will be back! I will exact revenge if it’s the last thing that I ever did!” he roared before running away with his tail between its legs.

Thages stuck his tongue out and made a farting noise which was totally not fitting for a being of ages but completely fitting given the circumstances. More importantly for him, it made Leo laugh and at this point, there was nothing more pleasing to his ears than the sound of his pet’s laughter.

**

Leo grew up under his watch, from a little pup that would fit in his palm to a full grown adult that could shake the braches of even the biggest trees in the jungle as he climbed up. But though he grew up, Leo remained a child in Thages’ eyes. And the latter always treated him like that, telling him stories before, even bringing him food, never letting him exert too much.

As for Leo, he had a great time growing up under the protection of Thages.

After a while, every creature- dwelling in the surface, or below-ground or avian, came to know about the black beast. Many among them have heard stories told by their parents or grandparents about such a beast that came awake once every century or so, then walked around the jungle, consuming a lot of beings before eventually going back to sleep. They had always thought that the story about the beast was just that- a story, part of the jungle’s folklore. But now that they knew better, they cowered in fear every time they heard the beast’s distinct footsteps- louder than anything else would make in the jungle.

And they also knew that Leo was the beast’s pet. For this reason, whenever he came across a creature, he would be treated with respect, respect that verged on the fearful. Leo had to admit to himself that it felt good.

It was only humans whom he feared.

**

The humans came once every while, in small groups, carrying guns and other utilities. They would make a lot of noise-mostly shooting up innocent animals, but also with their drinking and singing in the night. They came with fire, and that’s why none of the creatures could attack them, Thages had told them. Even Thages himself was afraid of fire.

What scared Leo most about the humans wasn’t that they shot fires, or killed animals in the process. After all, beasts killing other beasts was the rule of the jungle-nothing unusual about it.

No, what scared Leo was the irrationality of the humans’ actions. He has observed the humans in action from a safe distance a few times, the comforting presence of Tages by his side. And he has seen how the bipeds would simply kill for fun. Half the time, they left the carcass behind. They wouldn’t even approach it, let alone eat it.

It didn’t make sense to Leo. And a creature that killed just for pleasure was something to fear, he knew instinctively.

**

The humans were there on the day Leo disappeared from the jungle.

Two separate groups of humans, consisting of volunteers and officials of the forest department. They weren’t out for a hun though the guards did carry guns- with tranquilizer shots. They were there to take the census of the wild elephants- the big ones have been diminishing from the jungle steadily.

That Jack-the lion chose just that moment to appear before Thages, along with two of his crony lions, to pick a fight with the beast of ages might have been the doing of fate, or maybe just a coincidence. Whatever it was, there they were, standing in front of Thages, exposing their teeth in an ugly snarl, fixing their ferocious red eyes on the black being, challenging him to fight.

Thages was never one to back down from a fight. Not even when a herd of velociraptors made the challenge in another epoch did he back down.

Compared to those things, three lions were like putty in his hands. But the putty did make him run, giving chase. Each of the lions ran in different directions once they realized that trying to win in a physical fight against Thages was akin to trying to devour their own tails-a sheer physical impossibility.

Thages was not going to let them get away that easily. He gave chase to each of them, hunted them down, gave them a thrashing that they would remember to their dying day, breaoke the ribs of one of them, and even made a meal out of another’s foot.

In his rush to get his assailants, he left behind Leo. Leo would be safe, he knew, for the leopard was left deep within a cave where the humans wouldn’t come looking.

But he failed to take into account Leo’s almost irrational fear of humans- fear which amplified the sound of footsteps manifold in the leopard’s ears.

The footsteps originated from a ledge a few feet away from the cave, one which would have led the humans away from the cave. But in his panic-stricken state, Leo felt sure that the humans were walking towards the mouth of the cave. Any minute now, they would enter the cave, point a gun at him and shoot him.

His life would end within the cold confines of this cave.

And he was just waiting here like a sitting duck!

‘Wait in the cave, don’t go anywhere!’ was the command that Thages had given him before he went to fight the lions. But Leo was sure that Thages would prefer him alive than dead.

And so he ran out of the cave, and then to the right, away from the sound of footsteps and chattering, away from the ferocious beasts with guns who roamed freely in the jungles that had such animals as lions and leopards in it. Crazy beasts that killed for fun. Crazy beasts that came to the animals’ territory and sometimes took a bath in the cold waters of the stream. Crazy beasts that were fearless!

Unlike I.  I am so afraid!, Leo thought as he ran, willing his legs to carry him as far as possible, away from the threat of humans. From somewhere he heard the sound of a gun.

The humans had started killing! Leo ran even faster than before. Ran without looking where he was going, ran through regions of the forest he has never seen before.

At some point, he began to hear human chatter again. It was another team of humans. They were just entering the jungle from the prairie that edged the forest on the southern side. The sounds came somewhere from his left and when he looked up, Leo saw the tips of guns and the capped heads of humans appearing. Tthey were coming up an incline.

He could turn to the right and run, or he could turn and run back towards the heart of jungle from which he just fled.

The problem with the first course of action was that he would have to exit the jungle and get into the wide open prairie which he could see even from here- a vista without a single tree in sight, and nothing for him to hide behind. If the humans were to sight him, they could easily shoot him dead. On the other hand, if he were to run back to the jungle…No, that was too much for the poor leopard to think of. The team of humans that just entered from the prairie was small, not anywhere near the number of humans further in the jungle.

Lesser number of humans= less scary. That was the simple equation on which the leopard operated.

Taking a deep breath, Leo leaped out of the forest and into the prairie- for the first time in his life, he exited the perimeters of the jungle. Coming out of the coolness of the jungle, the heat of the burning fire-like prairie atmosphere felt like an assault. It even made him whimper- something that made him think, once again, how weak he was.

His own weakness made him roar in anger. A roar of impotent rage. And also stupidity.

For it was only after the roar escaped his mouth that Leo realized what he just did.

An act of sheer stupidity which gave away his position to the humans.

Without stopping or even looking back, he ran. With every step he took away from the forest the thought that he was helpless, that he couldn’t take care of himself without the aid of Thages, became louder in his mind.

But he didn’t have the luxury to turn and ran back into the forest.

Even as he was running away, he heard the sound of humans who presently came presently came out of the jungle, attracted by the sound of his roar.

Had he looked back he would have seen one of the men raising a tranquillizer gun, taking careful aim, readying himself to pull the trigger that would down the beast in flight. All of them were certainly baffled by the fact that a lone leopard was running away from the jungle, without there being any particular reason. A few of them kept a close watch on their immediate vicinity, wondering if there were others in the pack. They were more than just a little relieved to find that the leopard was a lone agent in this action-whatever it was.

The first shot from the gun went way off the mark, what with the animal running not just fast but in an uneven pattern, as leopards are wont to do.

The second shot went even farther off the mark.

By the time the man with the gun made himself ready for the third shot, the creature had passed out of range. Lowering the gun, he gave the others in the team a sheepish grin. The rest of them began to wonder just how safe they would be when they moved further into the jungle, with the gun in this man’s hands.

As for Leo, he kept running, running as fast as he has ever done in his 2 years of existence on earth. If the circumstances were different, he would have derived some joy from this running, feeling the wind on his face and the dried grass of the prairie under his hoofs. But as it was, he didn’t have time enough to slow down and enjoy the run.

The only thing he wanted was to get away from the dreaded humans.

But even as he kept putting more distance between himself and the jungle behind him, he heard the roar of some unknown creature shattering the relative peace of the prairie. The roar was coming from somewhere to his left. It sounded like it came from no one animal, but from a herd. Like a herd of elephants was rushing in his direction. But the roar was not like any sound that elephants might make. But Leo did feel the ground beneath him vibrating, like how it would be when a great herd of elephants ran.

Perhaps it’s another creature that comes awake every century, like Thages, he thought.

The memory of Thages brought a fresh batch of tears to his eyes.

But more than sentimentality, it was fear that had the upper hand on his mind at the moment. He wondered if this unknown creature that was rushing in his direction would also be hungry. And if yes, would it eat him, or would it just go for such animals as deer and rabbits?

Leo slowed down. He hoped to catch a glimpse of the creature. His idea was simple- if the animal(s) looked fearsome, he would run back towards the jungle. He knew that no matter how ferocious an animal was, it wouldn’t be a match for the irrationality of the humans, who would take care of it, as easily as they squashed a bug between their fingers. He would lead the animal(s) to the humans. He knew that by doing so, he would be risking his own life- the humans may not discriminate when it came to killing, but given the situation, he thought the risk worth taking.

On the other hand, if the source of the roar turned out to be a meek animal-chances of which were low, judging from the ferocity of the roar, he would ran on, maybe even ask for help from the newcomer.

But he needed to see the unseen creature(s) to make such judgements.

But no matter how hard he strained his neck and looked in the direction of the roar, which kept rising, he couldn’t see anything, blocked as his view was by a thick clump of trees.

But as the roar approached even closer, he saw a parrot perched on a bracnch of a tree taking off and flying away.

That couldn’t be good, he thought. Birds didn’t fly away like that unless there was some ferocious beast around.

And presently, the beast came rushing, right in front of Leo’s eyes that widened with surprise.

It was unlike any beast he has even seen in the forest.

It was long and moved in an almost straight line, with a mad determination that put in his mind the thoughts of human irrationality. For even though this beast moved fast- too fast for something of its gigantic size, there didn’t seem to be any objective to its running. Certainly, there was no prey in front of it that it hunted.

Leo took a couple of steps back, feeling rather apprehensive. But at the same time, he was also fascinated by the beast- as anyone would be at the sight of something strange, something they were witnessing for the first time in their life.

He stood watching as the beast was snaking past him. And snaking is the right word since the beast appeared to him like a never-ending snake. It was taller than Thages by at least a couple of heads but it was as long as..well, he couldn’t say how long it was because it just kept moving, more parts of its tubular body coming out from a curve behind the clump of trees.

Leo looked around to see if there was anything else around to witness this miraculous beast, other than himself. He felt an overwhelming urge to share this magnificent sight of a beast that roared stronger than a herd of elephants with Thages.

To his consternation, he found that there were indeed other beings not far from him- the humans he had thought had gone back into the jungle by now.

The man with the tranquilizer gun walked a few feet ahead of the rest of them, determined to regain his pride lost when his shots missed the target(not once but twice) before. Leo could see at least two other men in the team with guns at the ready, walking behind the man who was apparently their leader.

And none of them were looking at the wondrous beast that was passing by. They all had their eyes on Leo and Leo alone. Though Leo couldn’t see the human’s eyes clearly from this distance, he imagined them to be deep, red and scary.

Turning around, without thinking, he ran towards the train/beast that was passing by.

So far, the beast hasn’t done anything to suggest it intended to hurt him, let alone kill. In fact, the beast’s direction of progress was taking it away from him.

So, he ran, hoping that it might be able to help him out. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to catch up with the beast enough to make a conversation with it. The beast’s face was way up ahead by now, and he had a bit of running to do if he were to catch up. But he was determined to try.

But even as he ran, the beast picked up pace. And fast though he was, Leo realized that he wouldn’t be able to keep up for long. Already, he found his ribs aching with all the running he has done so far. Though a leopard he wasn’t exactly someone who got regular exercise. Back in the jungle, it was always Thages who went for the hunt, and brought him the kill. The maximum physical efforts that Leo ever had to expend included running up a tree and lying down on one of its branches, as he liked to do sometimes.

He panted hard, his mouth feeling dry, his head aching and his chest feeling as though it was ready to burst when he saw one part of the beast’s belly lying open. Perhaps, it was a wound- someone, probably the humans had hurt him. Yes, it has to be the humans! The more he thought of it, the more Leo became convinced of the idea.

Presently, he heard the sound of humans shouting behind him. They were quite a way behind him and the sound of the rushing train was too loud for him to hear the distinct words. So, even if he could understand human speech, he couldn’t have heard.

Not that Leo needed to understand the language of the humans to know what they were shouting to each other. He could guess as well as the next leopard. They were all shouting one thing in a single voice: “Kill the beast! Kill the beast!”

Without looking back again, without thinking any further, Leo leaped into the open bogie of the moving goods train. He didn’t face any troubles leaping onto the bogie- no hanging on to the edge with his paw until the last moment like in a movie. Though he was performing the manuevre for the first time in his life, it all went smooth.

And as he moved deeper into the darkness of the bogie and lied down beside a stack of crates, he derived comfort from the fact that at least in ambience, the bogie was somewhat akin to the cave where Thages had asked him to wait before he went after those wretched lions.

Both were partially dark, both had an opening which brought in light, and both were hopeful sanctuaries from the vagaries of humans.

**

By the time Thages got back to the cave after doing unto the lions what most respectable publications would consider ‘unprintable’, the humans had all left. More importantly, there was no trace of Leo to be found.

Knowing Leo, he surmised that the leopard must have fled in fear of the humans, and cursed himself for having left his pet alone. “I should have known something like this might happen! Shouldn’t have taken such a risk! Though I am practically immortal, it seems that the immortality doesn’t come with the benefit of wisdom!” he admonished himself.

A monkey that was hanging from a nearby tree by its tail wondered what the strange black thing was muttering to himself.

Wisdom may not have been his strong suit, but the eons-worth of evolution has sharpened Thages’s senses beyond the wildest hopes of a mad scientist engaged in developing super-sensory perception. This was particularly true with his sense of smell.

After spending a few moments in the cave where he had left Leo- and where the spotted one’s smell still lingered, he moved out, following the scent, reaching in no time the edge of the forest and then entering the prairie that lied beyond- finding suddenly the that the scent disappeared by the railway track.

It didn’t take much of an imagination to figure out what happened. The leopard had boarded a train.

“Fool, fearing humans, he has now gone to the heartland of humans!” he muttered.

Dusk settled soon enough, snuffing out the light of the sun as easily as though it were a candle.

Thages didn’t have to wait for long after that for a train to pass by, a train which he boarded even as it was moving, without anyone noticing.

**

By the time he reached the Tonovil station, it was almost 10 in the morning. Daylight meant that it would be hard for him to conceal himself from human sight.

Hard but not impossible. Millenia of experrince has made him an expert in merging with the shadows of living things and inanimate objects, hopping from one to the next, existing in the dark even during the day.

Even before the train reached the Tonovil  railway station, news has spread through the train about the leopard attack that happened there.

And once the train halted for the passengers, many in the train eagerly looked out of the window, as though the leopard would still bee roaming around on one of the platforms.

Thages got out along with the shadow of someone who had to get down at the station. In fact, the person who got down did  so to take a leak on the side of a wall, having found the overwhelming stench inside the train compartment’s toilet repulsive.

While the man was taking a leak, his shadow, or rather one layer of it, peeled itself off and  made away beyond the railway station, in search of his lost pet.

**

All Thages had to do was hang around at the local toddy station to hear the latest news about the leopard.

Since the discussions were among men who were inebriated than was considered ‘safe’ by a long measure, many bits of information they carried sounded exaggerated. But Thages could still glean the gist of what they said.

He understood that Leo was being held temporarily by the forest officials. He got the location of the place where he was kept. He also heard that the leopard was actually not a leopard but a shape shifting creature and that soon as the officials got it within a cage, it transformed itself into a fire-breathing dragon.

This last bit was probably the inebriation speaking, thought Thages.

Without losing much time, he proceeded to where Leo was being held captive. En route, he felt his stomach rumbling. Now that his date for departure- or rather another long sleep was looming up, his appetite too was heightened. It was as though his body knew that it wouldn’t have food for a long time and so asked for even more perishables than usual.

Thankfully for him, he found a goat that was tied to a post in the backyard of one of the houses he passed by. He stripped the goat to mere bones with his teeth, burped when he was done and moved on.

**

The cage in which Leo was held was transparent.

Made of extra-fortified glass, the cage was manufactured in a Chinese factory and iweighed almost eight hundred kilograms. It had two fist sized holes to allow in oxygen, and also a latch-like mechanism through which one could push food in.

There were about a dozen such cages in the facility, Thages saw. Almost half the cages were empty and of the ones that had occupants, none of them held one as big as Leo. In fact, every other cage had such harmless creatures as a cockatoo, a deer and in one cage-even a couple of squirrels. Thages wondered why humans would bother keep squirrels in captivity. Especially such charming looking ones- one of them had a cute small vertical line on its head. Also, he had noticed that in the squirrels’ cage, the fist sized holes have been plugged, making him wonder how the tiny creatures could breathe.

But such considerations fell from his mind when he approached Leo’s cage.

He has entered the facility almost two hours ago. But he was unable to approach the cage so far because a man with a gun- Murugan- the man who has seen a child being devoured by a lion, sat on a stool not far from the cage, keeping his eyes on the supine Leo as though he expected the latter to spring up and destroy the cage and come out to eat him any moment.

There was something in the man’s eyes which suggested paranoia.

So, Thages thought it better to make his move when the man wasn’t there.

In all his eons-spanning life, he has never been shot at, not even once. He had a feeling that he would be tough enough to survive bullet wounds but he wasn’t willing to test it.

If he were to make any sudden move, the paranoid man would surely press the trigger without thinking. No, it’s better to wait.

He was beginning to think that the bottom of the man with the gun was fixed to the wooden stool when someone called from outside, “Hey, Murugan! What are you doing in there? Come out here and help us move this thing!”

The man named Murugan stirred as though from a waking sleep and went out to help the others with whatever that they needed help to be moved.

Thages used the opportunity to approach Leo’s cage.

To say that Leo was held was an exaggeration. At least that’s how it appeared to Thages from the way the beast was lying down, with his chin resting on an extended paw, his eyes shut, a couple of chunks of flesh lying beside him on the cage’s floor-graciously provided for by his current keepers.

Finding him in such a comfortable position, Thages breathed in relief. He knew that Leo couldn’t fend for himself. It was good to know that there was someone to take care of him.

Thages tapped on the glass of the cage. He had to do this for some time- almost an entire minute before Leo came awake.

“Why-what?” Leo muttered as the cobwebs of sleep were still lifting from his brain. But once he saw Thage’s face-which was just an oval blackness with two pale holes for eyes, and hence nothing to look at, he excitedly yelped.

“Shhh..there are people outside and they might hear! Keep your voice low!” Even though Thages said so, he too felt emotions welling up inside him at the sight of his beloved pet.

But I shouldn’t let myself get carried away by emotions, he thought.

He has had time to think of this on the train ride. And it was now time to tell Thages about what he thought.

“Come on, let me out of the cage! Let’s go back to the forest! I am sorry that I disobeyed and didn’t stay in the cave!” Leo was so excited that he could barely stop talking.

Raising a hand and shushing him, Thages said, “Listen Leo, I think it’s better if you stay with these guys!”

That doused Leo’s excitement as efficiently as though he got slapped across the face.

“What?” he muttered, looking at Thages as though he was seeing him for the first time.

**

Thages took a deep breath. Throughout the train ride, he had played out this scenario in his mind over and over again. “If there’s someone to take care of Leo, if I could be sure that he would be fed for life, I would do this..” he has hammered the idea into his mind with so much force that it has become indistinguishable from the fabric of his mind.

But still, now that the time has come to utter the words, he found himself chocking up.

Unlike humans and other creatures, Thages didn’t have the capacity to cry. He did have tear ducts but somewhere down the line, evolution has found it to be an unwanted feature. But the part itself remained in his body, without function, like a museum piece.

Without tears, Thages sighed- which was the highest expression of sadness that he could summon.

“I think it’s good that these humans, they are feeding you. From what I heard, they are going to transfer you into a zoo where you would be well looked after…I should have taught you the tricks of hunting as I promised you. But then, I just delighted in looking after you.You see, in all these ages, I have never had the privilege to look after someone. Though I assumed that it would be one drab chore, it turned out to be extra-ordinarily beautiful. For the first time in my life, I had feelings which I have never experienced before. Indeed, these were feelings that I never thought I could experience! It was beautiful. I got carried away, and pampered you like anything. Kept forgetting that one day I should leave and you would have to fend for yourself….And now, the time is upon us when I have to leave. Two, maybe three days. I can feel it…I always feel it when the time is nigh. And it would be brutal if you were to be in the jungle after I’m gone. You know how it’s a jungle out there…”

Thages thought of something else to say, but no matter how much he racked his brain, he couldn’t come up with anything. At least, nothing that would make his action of not teaching Leo how to hunt sound okay.

“You know, I actually thought that one day I might eat you to satisfy my appetite..Goes to show that you never know how things would turn out, no matter how long one lives on this earth,” he said eventually.

Leo merely nodded. He did look sad but Thages felt that all things considering, the leopard was taking the news rather well.

“So, this is goodbye, is it?” said Leo.

The earnestness of the question almost made Theo’s heart break. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“So, we are never going to see each other again? Never, ever?” Leo asked, craning his neck, as though yearning to reach for a good answer that hung just a little distance further.

Thages swallowed. The honest answer would be yes.

He knew only too well that even if Leo were to have a good life, being treated well by his keepers at the zoo, he wouldn’t live for more than another fifteen years. Unless another heat spell prematurely woke Thages from his long sleep before that, he didn’t see how they could see each other again.

But he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

Instead he said, “Yes, we would meet again. The next time when I come awake, I would come find you. I promise!”

Leo’s eyes widened, his pupils glinted with delight. “So, I would live long enough for that?”

“Of course, you will,”said Leo, waving his hand in the air as though it were a silly question.”In fact, if you look after yourself well, if you stay out of trouble and don’t invite injuries, you would live long enough for us to meet twice. That’s two centuries we are talking about..”

Leo’s mouth opened wide in awe. “Wow, all the different foods I could eat in that time! And the hours for which I could sleep. It’s all gonna be awesome!”

Thages nodded, delighted at how delighted Leo was.

Hearing the sound of footsteps just outside the metallic door to the facility, Thages turned his head in that direction.

“I guess I should be leaving now,” he said to Leo. He reached a finger through one of the cage’s fist sized holes. Leo touched him with his paw.

Thages swallowed once again. ‘Goodbye, my dear!’ he wanted to say, bit found his threat constricted by the weight of emotions, like a lump of coal was stuck in there.

Turning around, he walked towards the door.Peering out, he saw Murugan coming in. He waited behind the door until the man entered, before he exited.

He didn’t look back as he merged with the shadows of the trees that surrounded the facility, swifting from one shadow to the next, thinking of all the good times he has had with Leo, wondering if he would have such a relationship ever again in his life.

**

Murugan wasn’t aware of the black smudge in the air which exited the facility soon after he entered.

His eyes were fixed on the leopard in the cage. He walked up to the cage, planted his feet apart like he was inside a wrestling ring, ready to take on his opponent.

“I see you curled up inside the cage, looking all cuddly and cute,”  he muttered in a slow, hissing tone, looking at the leopard like a snake trying to hypnotize. “but don’t think that you are fooling me. You might be fooling the others- including the veterinarian by your cute antics- like licking the back of people’s hands and resting your head on their lap, like you were a regular cat and not a wild animal. But mark my words, you can never fool Murugan. Murugan has seen what a wild animal can do- even one which has spent years in a cage in a zoo, familiar with humans. It just snuffed the life out of a child with the kind of brutality that’s possible only with you wild animals! So, don’t think that you won’t have Murukan’s eyes on you-all the time. Even after you are moved to the zoo, I would come there, just to observe you. If ever I feel that you are up to doing something funny, I would hurt you, and hurt you so bad that you would wish you were never born! Do you hear me?” he spat the words out.

Leo yawned, half-sleepy, wondering what the human was on about.

Now that he has spent some time in the company of humans, he was finding out that the bipeds were not as bad as he thought they were. Not only did they give him a good bath, they also brought liver and flesh pieces in frequent intervals. They certainly didn’t intend to starve him. Which meant they didn’t want him to die.

On the contrary, they wanted him to thrive!

Already, in his mind, Leo was replacing Thages-his old master, with a collective of humans who would be his new master.

**

Thages sat, alone in the twilight on the boulder by the peepul tree where he has spent a lot of time with Leo. It was their perch, their private space, the terrain which no animal in the jungle would breach- not even the apes that could be so nosy.

He held in his hand a bottle of shampoo which one of the humans had left behind a few months ago. He had seen one of the humans take a bath in one of the pools, frothing himself all over with this shampoo. He was fascinated by the forth, and understood its principle of cleaning a body instantly. He thought how wonderful it would be to lather Leo in such froth, making his fur shiny and even more beautiful!

And when he found that the humans had accidentally left the bottle behind, he thought some God had thought He would make Thage’s wish come true.

Thages wasn’t pleased with the idea that humans would come this far into the forest and have the nerve to take a bath, as though the jungle was their private bath. But such breaching of space was getting more frequent, he could see. He had already figured out that the jungle was more than half diminished from what it was the last century. Humans are taking over, everything else was failing.

But he was thankful for the shampoo bottle that the human left behind.

It took some cajoling to get Leo to submit himself to shampooing.Leo was naturally suspicious of everything that humans have made.

“The froth might be okay for humans but for animals like me, it might be poison!” he had said when Thages made mention of the shampoo the first time.

Even after Thages applied the shampoo on his own body was he placated. Only when he saw how saddened Thages was at not being able to shampoo him, and thereby pamper him some more did he agree to the idea.

Looking at the long white bottle of shampoo in his hand, Thages welled up with emotions. Not for the first time in the last couple of days, he felt that it would have been nice if tears still came from his eyes- it would have been nice to have some sort of outlet for all these emotions.

The sun was already half-down on the horizon. For a few moments suspended in an indecision as to whether it should come up or go further down. Thages yawned. The great yawn which preceded the great long sleep. The sound of his yawning lasted for minutes and was carried all over the jungle by the wind.

The apes heard it, so did the tigers, and the lions and the elephants and the squirrels and the rabbits and the wild pigs and jackals and cuckattos and parrots and zebras and jiraffes and hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses and swans and corocdiles and alligators and snakes and coyotes and wolves and foxes and other birds and animals both familiar to humans and those that weren’t. All of them heard the sound of the great yawn, which sounded to them like the earth was breaking apart, like the heavens were being torn open, like the ocean was caving in on itself.

And they all shuddered, and ran back into their caves or holes or whatever burrows they hid themselves in times of calamity.

But the great yawn was prelude to no calamity, it was just the forerunner to the sleep of ages. Thages lied down on the boulder, merged into it, his body and the boulder indistinguishable. He would come awake in the next century- or if the heat woke him prematurely.

Before lying down practically unconscious, overcome with as sleep deeper than the deepest sleep you could imagine, his hand released the shampoo bottle, there to lie by the boulder.

Whether it would still be there when Thages came awake the next time, and if it was, would he remember its significance, only time could tell.

**

The man’s closely cropped hair glistened with sweat. The red checkered shirt stuck to his back  with sweat. He had to wipe his brow of sweat every minute or so, which was making it hard for him to work.

He was one of those who sweated a lot-even during the winters if he were to go for a walk, he would sweat like he was made of water. Even as a child, this was the case. It was this feature of his which made his father say to him as a boy, “You sweat like a pig! So, you better not find yourself doing menial jobs for a living. You better learn hard, and get a job which you could do sitting down in an air conditioned office!”

But of course, he didn’t listen to his pa- what self-respecting kid would? He would hang out with his friends anywhere other than the school and before long he dropped out and started doing oddjobs. While most of his peers were still in school, he was earning money. And that felt great. For a while, at least.

For sooner than he though, most of his peers were office workers-people who had bank balances and owned such things as houses with landscaped lawns. Meanwhile, he worked in quarries and such places from where they obtained the raw materials for people to build such fancy homes and lawns.

In fact, the task that he was currently involved in was something like that.

It was a logging contract, because of which he was in this jungle with 40 other men.

The scale at which they were cutting down trees, he was pretty sure that they were overreaching- crossing the limit of what was allowed. He had engaged in work of this kind enough to know such things. And the way they were blowing up boulders and ferrying the rock pieces back, it was illegal as the night sky was dark.

Not that he minded. As long as he got paid, they could blow the entire forest for all he cared. In fact, if it was an illegal operation, they may even pay the men more than was promised- to ensure their silence regarding the nature of the operation.

Wiping the sweat off his brow, he finished laying down the explosive around the boulder. Of the entire team, he was the one most equipped to deal with explosives, having performed jobs of the kind in many quarries before.

But even he was unsure about whether the explosion would leave the peepul tree that stood beside the boulder unmarked. The explosives were arranged optimally, so that only the boulder and the immediate surroundings would be affected. But, when you’re dealing with explosives, you could never be completely sure.

“Ready to blow!” he called out in the loudest voice, so that anyone foolish enough to still be hanging around could clear their asses off.

He himself began to move away from the big black boulder which was when something struck his foot. Looking down, he found that it was a plastic bottle. The label on it revealed it to be a shampoo container.

He couldn’t help but smile at the sight of the bottle, lying on the forest ground so far from civilization. Okay, maybe not so far- a couple of hours walk would bring you out to the prairie which ended the forest, but still, he was amused by the thought of someone coming all the way into the jungle and taking a bath-using a shampoo for crying out loud!

He kicked the shampoo bottle as though it were football. It hit the trunk of the peepul tree at the foot of which it lied like a cub alongside its mother.

Five minutes later, a small yet loud explosion shook the forest.

Thages didn’t get time to respond to the way he was rudely woken. By the time consciousness dawned, it soon died, for good.

Thages’s dying thoughts were horrifying- seeing his own body parts blowing along with big chunks of rock. The thought about a certain leopard and a shampoo bottle also crossed his mind. But before he could draw the connection between them, his life that began in some misty past long, long before the age of dinosaurs, finally came to an end.

Almost half the roots of the peepul tree came apart in the explosion.

John’s Post-Death Special Revenge Plan

The clouds in the sky looked like they were ready to burst, thought John. But then, they have been looking like than for the past hour, since he stepped out of home for the office.

Little did John know that before the dark rain clouds would burst, his belly would.

**

John couldn’t believe that he was still stuck in traffic. Not that he has never been in a situation in which he found himself stuck on the road an hour after leaving for work when the distance between home and work was less than 10 kilometers. In fact, it was the reasonable distance between home and work which made him opt for the house in ShivajiNagare. Since he had a bike, he could easily reach his office in the Manyata Tech Park in half an hour, 40 minutes top.

But as it turned out, that was just wishful thinking. The traffic between the two places could get so bad some days you could forget entirely the fact that you’re a being capable of movement and not a tree.

But no matter how many times he got trapped in the insane traffic, he just couldn’t get over it. The fact that he spent almost 3 hours every day inching through the road like a man without limbs out for a walk grated on his nerves.

He felt relieved when the tanker lorry in front of him began to move. Again. The exhaust was so thick that there were times when he found himself driving completely blind. As for his lungs, he thought it better not to think about them.

The bike hit him from behind. What surprised him more than the fact that another vehicle had hit his own was the fact that there was space enough on the road for a hit with good impact.

And the impact was good, for he felt his ass lifting from the seat and his entire torso twisting beyond his control. He had time enough to see that the bike that hit him had come in from the sidewalk. Yes, it was riding on the sidewalk, and hit his own Honda motorcycle when it transitioned to the road at a point where the sidewalk had a missing slab or two which exposed the muck and scum of the sewage that flowed under the city.

John also saw the bike swiveling, the man on the bike- whose face was hidden behind a helmet visor expertly maneuvered the two wheeler through the space between a push cart filled with fruits and an autorikshaw. He entered a small bylane by a playground that lied empty at this time of the morning, and scooted away on his bike

The clouds were parting and the sun was already sending some intensely hot rays towards Bangalore when John Sebastion- 26 years old, with a thick black moustache and black pupils hit the black road face up.  As he fell, his cell phone fell out of his shirt pocket. In fact, it fell out ringing, right beside his face.

Looking at the screen he saw the caller’s ID. It was his betrothed calling him. They were going to be married in less than two months. Usually, she called before he left home. Today, she was a bit late.

“That’s no problem, darling! You can call me anytime you want to!” he thought of telling her.

Indeed, the fool in love that he was, he reached for the phone, hoping to attend the call, even before getting his ass up from the ground.

The idea of trying to take the call was wrong on many fronts. For one thing, he would have sounded winded to his fiancé, given how the entire air was knocked out of his body by the fall. And a man who sound as though he has trouble catching breath rarely comes across as romantic.

Another thing was the strange behavior that drivers express in a high traffic situation.

If you have observed how people behave in traffic- and you would have plenty of opportunity to do that if you lived in Bangalore-you would see how, as soon as the vehicles in front of him begins to move again, the driver would immediately get impatient. To go as fast as possible. After spending a good share of half an hour nose to back with a water tanker in front of you, you are no more patient enough for the traffic to clear for you to go fast. Even if it’s a few inches of  ground that have cleared in front of you, you would want to cover that distance at the maximum possible velocity. Just to prove to yourself that there still exists the thing called speed.

While the mini-accident victim John was lying on the side of the road, reaching for his red Lenovo smartphone so that he could talk with his doe eyed fiancé whom he thought of as the sexiest girl in the entire universe, a car was making the above-mentioned maneuver just behind him- covering a tiny fraction of ground at the highest possible speed, oblivious of the mini-accident that happened just a few moments ago.

The car- a red Scorpio-ran over John’s body as casually as it would have run over a smear of dried cow dung that you frequently encountered on the roads of Bangalore.

Surprise, more than pain got hold of John’s brain.

He also felt sad at the fact that he was unable to take the call. And now that he had his attention on the slowly yet steadily spreading pain that moved to different parts of the body like a fluid down a slope, he no more could move enough to reach for the phone. Or rather, he was afraid that any movement would amplify the pain.

The driver of the car had seen the man lying on the ground, his toppled bike by his side, just a fraction of a second before he ran over him. That didn’t give him enough time to change the course of his direction. In fact, what with the traffic that has filled the not-so-broad road near the Banaswadi junction like Maharaja burger would a small saucer, he couldn’t have moved the vehicle in any other direction had he even got the time.

However, the fraction of a second was enough for the driver to turn the wheel just enough so that the two wheels on the left hand side got on the edge of the sidewalk.

This meant that John found himself partially under the car, his belly and a portion of his rib already ruptured. Blood flowed out of him like a disappointed tenant fleeing a bad building. He couldn’t see the blood from where he lied, which was as well because the sight just might have been too much for him. As far as fearful sights went, there’s something unparalleled about your life blood exiting your body when you seemingly could do nothing to prevent it.

But judging from the high pitched screams that many of the passersby raised, he assumed that it was not at all a good sight to behold. Indeed, he saw one elderly woman sticking her head out of the window of a bus and puking her guts out. Whatever she had for breakfast, she would have to make up for it come lunch.

John wasn’t really surprised by the reaction of people. Though he wasn’t exactly feeling the sharpest- loss of blood and the shock of the accident, not to mention the overwhelming pain had seen to it that he was feeling a little dull, he did understand that it’s only natural for people to respond to the sight of a gory accident in this way- by screaming and puking.

No, that didn’t surprise him at all.

What did surprise him was that he was still conscious. In almost all the movies he has seen with a similar scene, the accident victim would be unconscious or maybe even dead by now.John was an avid movie watcher who downloaded and watched at least one movie every day. It was hard for him to imagine that every one of those filmmakers got the plot wrong.

He was grateful that he wasn’t dead. But he would have been even more grateful if a dark shroud were draped over his consciousness right about now.

The driver of the car that ran over him presently got out. A middle aged man with so many pock marks on his face that he looked like the dark side of the moon, gazed at the damage he has caused. And to John’s amazement, he saw him immediately getting back in the car- reversing it carefully enough not to run over him again, and slowly inching across the road along with the other vehicles, driving past John without even looking at him, as though it was the most natural thing for the driver to hit a man and injure him, possibly fatally before driving away to work. All in a morning’s itinerary!

John looked around and saw a lot of concerned faces, eyes fascinated and repulsed at the same time  by the gruesome sight. But no one  came up to him. No one was trying to get him to a hospital or anything. Hell, no one was even trying to give him some water!

Everyone was in a hurry- even though the going was slow due to the traffic. This was the hour when everyone rushed to get to work. Most people in Bangalore came from other places in the country, and the only reason they came here was to work. So, of course it made sense that they wouldn’t want to be late for the sole purpose for which they had arrived in the city.

But, come on! Can’t you even spare a few minutes to get me into a car and a hospital!, thought John, a thought that pained him almost as much as the injuries.

If only there were bystanders, people who walked by.., he thought. People who drove or rode by would have a psychological barrier in getting off their vehicles and helping someone lying on the roadside drenched in blood. You’ll have to find a spot to park the vehicle, then bring it to a halt, then get out of it-that’s one step too many for many people. On the other hand, for a man walking by, there were no such barriers. So it makes sense that he would-

John’s train of thoughts was broken when he turned his head slightly to his right,, looked above and saw a bunch of people standing at the nearby bus stand waiting for the bus. They were not more than 10 feet away from him. They included young women- children in school uniform, a priest in a white cassock, a couple of elderly men, quite a few young men, and a dwarf. In other words, too many people to be contained within the smallish perimeters of the bus stop shelter.

But none of them even moved. Many among them looked at John with sympathetic eyes, though the priest was looking away with an expression on his face which suggested distress. John thought he saw the man mumbling something-praying, he supposed. Possibly praying for me?

But prayer is not what I want right now, dammit!

John tried to shout for help. Maybe hearing him whine or plead would make the people’s hearts finally melt. But sadly enough, the best he could do was make a wheezing sound. And that was barely heard by himself, let alone anyone else. The problem was that when he tried to suck in enough air to utter a word, his ribs ached like they were getting fried in a pan.

Instinct told him to look down and investigate what exactly the problem appeared to be around his rib area. But better logic prevailed- the logic that he didn’t want to freak himself out, not anymore than he already was.

It was when he tried and failed to utter even a single word that it occurred to John that these just might be his last moments on the earth. So far, he has thought that this would be an accident episode that he would talk with his friends in the future and maybe even laugh about-God only knew there were darkly comic elements galore in this.

He began to feel weaker than before. And as if to accentuate the thought that his demise was impending, a wave of blackness swept through him, a surge of dark feeling complemented by shrouding of his eyes as though they were covered with a black cloth.

In the next few minutes he experienced the loss of vision occasionally. And every time the vision was snuffed out, he thought this was it. The kiss of death, the touch of oblivion. He prayed every time it happened- asking Jesus to forgive him for all his trespasses and to deliver his soul to heaven. But after repeating the same prayer a fourth time which was immediately followed by a restoring of his vision, he thought it better to pray for someone to come and help him out.

At least ten minutes have passed since the accident and even though no one came to help him in that much time, he was still alive, wasn’t he?

This meant that he still had life left in him. He was not going to die that easily, if only someone would come and help me…

Whether it was because of his prayer or not, someone did come help.

An old man in a long kurta and a Musalman’s cap. His eyes were smeared with mascara. As though these weren’t signs enough that he was a Muslim, he also had on a Musalman’s round cap, not to mention the black mark on his forehead, the result of repeated niskaars over the years.

The man was walking by, chewing paan, holding a small red Nokia phone tightly in his fist when his eyes fell on the young man on the side of the road, surrounded by blood that was already hardening.

The Musalman’s bored fexpression didn’t change upon beholding this sight which was surely not a common phenomenon in Banaswadi. He simply spat out a stream of paan juice before dialing a number on the phone and bringing it up to his ear, all the while looking at John as if he were watching a boring television serial.

John assumed that the Musalman must have served in some war, and having seen all the gore in battle after battle, there was nothing left to shock him. Though the man’s lean frame and too smooth looking skin didn’t correlate with that theory.

“Hello, I need an ambulance!” John heard the man speaking on the phone, a calm yet firm voice. The words were crisp enough to be heard over the honking and the screeching of the passing vehicles.

It occurred to John that instead of the side of the road, had he lied somewhere to the middle, he would have been taken to a hospital by now. After all, no one liked anyone to disrupt the (slow) flow of the traffic.

The Musalman crouched beside him, placed a hand on his shoulder. The first person to touch him after the accident. John was an avid Catholic. But the man’s gesture made him reassess the idea that the only good people in the world were Christians.

“I have called for an ambulance,” the Musalman spoke in a calm monotone. “The traffic is bad, so it might take them a while to reach here. But they will be here. Stay alive! Now, I need to go somewhere, okay?”

The question was rhetorical. For the man got up soon after and walked on.

Some ten minutes after that, John started hearing the sound of someone screaming again. It sounded like somone screaming from afar. Maybe someone was aggravated at the traffic and was screaming at it, he thought. It took him a couple of more minutes to realize that what sounded like screaming was actually the sound of the ambulance siren.

Finally, they were here!

The traffic wasn’t as bad as it was during the time of his accident, but it was still bad. But by the time the ambulance was near him, it had eased up enough to permit all the vehicles presently on the road to hit at least the 20 km/hr mark- miracle of miracle!

Sadly enough, the ambulance didn’t stop for him. It went past him, the siren sounding harsh in his ears. Through its window, he could see an elderly man and woman with concerned expressions on their faces, looking down at someone lying on the stretcher.

John groaned as he realized that this wasn’t the ambulance which was called for him.

The Musalman waved to him on his way back, telling him once again that the ambulance would be here any time soon, cursing the bloody traffic. The transparent plastic bag he carried was chock full of onions.

“I am sorry, I couldn’t stop,” he said, “I have to go back to the restaurant. I work as a cook, you see, and the restaurant will open for business in another hour. A lot to do before that!”

Though every passing minute was draining energy from him, John summoned up enough energy to nod- that was the least he could do after what the good Musalman has done for him.

Soon after the Musalman was gone, the rain began. More a drizzle, really, but the droplets that landed on his wounds for some reason hurt him, each splash on an open wound a painful reminder that he wasn’t at his seat at the office, drinking coffee and typing computer codes.

The ambulance arrived soon after. When they loaded him on the gurney, John didn’t feel anything- no pain, no distress, nothing. It was as though he was different from his body. He watched from outside as his body was being carried into the ambulance.

His last thought before losing consciousness was whether his betrothed- who was a rather sensitive person, would be pissed that he didn’t attend her call.

**

He felt a sudden jerk of his body.

He blinked, the white light feeling harsh on his pupils. For a second, he was completely disoriented, not knowing where he was. But then, he recalled the accident, and his body being carried into the ambulance which was the last thing he saw before passing out.

The lights must be the operating lights!  he thought with alarm. It was never a good idea to be awake when you are undergoing an operation.

However, when he looked around he saw that he was still in the ambulance. There were two men with him- both in white overalls, one was the attendant and the other a nurse.

Seeing John come awake, the nurse- a young man with an angular face placed a hand on his shoulder, a placating gesture. “I have injected some sedatives in you. You wouldn’t feel much pain. Don’t worry!”

Contrary to the calm tone in which the nurse spoke, the other man in the ambulance- the attendant was positively fuming. Looking out of the window at the road outside(or what he could see of it), he bellowed, “What the hell kind of pubic hair is this traffic!” The man spoke in Kannada. Though John- who hailed from Kerala and moved to Bangalore just two years ago wasn’t too conversant in the language of Karnataka, he knew the bad words well enough- he shared a house with two Kannada friends who threw such words playfully at each other with the ease of someone throwing a frisbee to a dog.

The ambulance tires dipped into a pothole and John realized that the jarring feeling which brought him awake was thanks to the lackadaisical road conditions.

The attendant meanwhile turned around and looked at the nurse. “Do you think he has any chance! We should have reached the hospital long time ago. Only, now, what with this godforsaken traffic, we are still at least fifteen minutes away from the hospital. Come on, you have learned how to care for people medically! Tell me, does he stand a chance! I can hardly stand the thought of losing yet another person to this infernal traffic! If he too dies, it would be the third person in a week!”

Though the attendant gestured towards the supine John while he talked, he rarely looked at him. In fact, he talked as though John wasn’t present in the ambulance. The nurse- a young chap in his late 20s blushed upon hearing his comrade’s words. “Such matters are always up to god, isn’t it?” he said with a calmness that well surpassed his age.

The attendant’s eyes fell on John, eyes filled with sympathy, eyes that looked like they were ready to leak tears. He looked as though he was convinced that John would die before long, as though he had a special line with God through which such information was passed down.

The man’s look sent shivers down John’s spine. Once again, he thought, ‘This is it!’ Once again, he thought about his doe eyed betrothed and how he has never made love to her- they were waiting for after the wedding to do that.

He would have liked to hold her image in his mind a while longer, it helped him imagine that she was right here by his side in the ambulance. It made the ordeal of lying in a drugged state, having lost blood and in pain, not knowing whether he was going to come out of this alive or not, a little bit better.

But that was not to be. For he soon lost consciousness. Again.

**

John Sebastian of Mukkadan House in Palakkad passed away before he reached the hospital.

Once the last breath left him, he once again felt himself stepping out of his body, and looking at it as though it belonged to someone else.

His vantage point was above the body. Looking down at the blood smeared and injured body he felt like laughing. For the body, with its open mouth, the tongue lolling out of the mouth like a rolled up pink tissue paper, looked grotesquely funny.

The ambulance attendant-who helped roll the gurney with the body into the ICU, presently stood to a side. John was surprised to see him crying. He felt gratified that someone- a stranger would cry for him. In fact, the sheer intensity with which the man cried- his body shook with convulsions, made him wonder for a moment if even his own mother or dad would have cried so hard.

A couple of doctors stood by the gurney as well, both young men in white coats, both looking glum.

“I’m pretty sure that had he reached the hospital at least ten minutes ago, we could have saved him.” said one of them. “What do you think?” he added, looking at the other doctor.

The latter nodded silently, still looking glumly at the dead body.

Though it was evident from the unnatural stillness with which the body lied that it was a lifeless body, it was only when the doctors acknowledged the death that John’s soul, which hovered above the carcass finally accepted the fact.

“That’s not fair! That’s so not fair!” he shouted, thinking about his doe eyed betrothed and her nether regions which he has never seen, not even once. Though he shouted, no one could hear him. And that’s when the realization struck him that he was now immaterial- a soul, what’s mentioned in the scriptures as the eternal body.

But his eternal body was raging with anger at the infernal Bangalore traffic responsible for killing him. He felt destructive but before he could give vent to his anger, he felt sucked from above- like a vacuum cleaner sucking up dirt.

Though John Sebastian felt that his ascension was towards Heaven where he would meet the Good Lord and rest in eternal peace, he still was fuming inside. He wished he could rain a deluge in Bangalore and destroy the city- the ridiculously inefficient machine that killed him.
**

St. Peter has been doing the job of heaven’s gatekeeper for a long time. Longer than you would care to know, long enough to make him familiarize with every creak that the gate made when it was pushed open.

But never in his entire career has he seen a newcomer who looked so agitated.

He has seen plenty of new comers in his time as heaven’s gatekeeper, as you may imagine. And the expressions on the souls’ faces when they landed in heaven after being sucked out of the earth through the heavenly vacuum cleaner ranged from blissed out to wonder struck. In other words, these were expressions which could honestly be described using words that you would find in a holiday brochure- only, in this case, all those words would be true.

But not so with this young man who was walking towards him. The man looked positively agitated. He kept wiping away imaginary sweat from his forehead, even though no one ever sweated in heaven, of course.

“Call me Peter,” St. Peter said to the man after introducing himself, hoping that a friendly attitude would help put John’s mind at ease.

It didn’t.

Opening the gate, Peter led John inside. John was surprised to find that heaven looked like a plush hotel- with elevators made of clouds and a bar that’s open 24 by 7 which served the most delectable wines ever. Indeed, it was to the bar that Peter led him first, where an angel-bartender served them. “Give John the best you got!” Peter ordered the bartender.

Back on earth, John was a whiskey man. Though he liked Johnny Walker-which was his go to drink whenever he hung out with his friends, it was Old Pulteney that was his absolute favourite. In fact, many a Friday night, sitting in the comforts of his home, sipping some Pulteney while also enjoying cashew nuts(unsalted, plain-just the way he liked it), feeling the warmth of the drink spreading through his limbs like light illuminating a dark tunnel, he had thought he knew what heaven felt like.

But compared to the exquisite red wine that the angel-bartender served him, Pulteney was just barley water.

But even so, the wine didn’t do anything to better his mood.

Peter next took him to the heavenly spa, the beach, a chocolate parlour(“Bite into bliss!” was the tagline), the sports centre where they played table tennis for a while- TT being John’s favourite game, a park the trees of which were filled with all the extinct beautiful birds of earth, the pizza corner where they made pizza using dough mixed by our good Lord Himself, the gaming centre where John played a strategy game the main aspect of which was to make as many people see the light of Jesus and make them baptized, a flower show, a heavenly handicraft show, scuba diving in the Ocean of Eternal Bliss, fishing at the River of Glee and a poetry recital by Shakespeare himself, in that order.

Heaven has traditionally been a place that has attracted very little number of people. That tradition hasn’t changed much. There were times when Peter would have to stand at the gate for days on end, bored out of his skull, before he saw a new arrival being brought by the heavenly vacuum cleaner.

Though there were a large number of Christians back on earth, the ones who truly believed in Jesus as our savior were limited in number.

John Sebastian- someone who has never missed a Sunday mass in 12 years straight( an under-30 world record) was one of them.

And John  was the first newcomer to heaven in 6 days.

This meant that Peter had enough time on hand to show a newcomer around. But after giving John the tour, Peter was sad. He was sad seeing how John still remained sad. For heaven is a place where empathy reigned foremost.

So they went back to the bar. This time, Peter ordered a couple of beers and asked John what exactly was the matter. Why did he look so glum when he was in heaven? Didn’t he realise that people would give anything-literally anything so that their souls could enjoy eternality in heaven than rot in hell?

And so John told him.

By the time John finished talking, he had downed two mugs of heavenly beer, brewed by the Angel-Bartender himself. By the time he was done talking, he felt slightly better- though he couldn’t be sure if that was because he shared what was on his mind with Peter, or because of the beer.

“So, you are angry at the Bangalore traffic for claiming your life!” Peter said.

John was glad that Peter got the gist of what he said so easily. But then again, he thought, nothing unusual about that. For it’s logical to assume that Heaven’s gatekeeper- one of Jesus’ closest aides also possessed a sharp mind.

“I’m not just angry!” said John. “I am positively fuming. So much so that I would like nothing better than destroy that entire city. Otherwise, I don’t see any way in which I would curb this agitation inside me. Tell me, Peter, is there any way that I could pour down like a deluge on that city and wipe it away!”

“Now, now, John,” Peter said, patting him on the shoulder, “You ought to know that such mass scale wiping out is not what heaven is concerned with.”

John’s shoulders stooped at these words but Peter said, “But I do empathize with your agitation. The city of Bangalore can be vicious- no doubt about it. And I can see that the agitation that you feel cannot be remedied unless you do something.”

John looked up at him with hope in his eyes.

“But have you thought of all your loved ones in Bangalore who would be wiped away by a deluge?” continued John. “And if you were to choose and punish all those who are responsible for the traffic mess in the city, why that would be a large number of people you would be punishing- from policy makers who don’t do their job properly to corrupt government officials to everyday people who don’t obey the traffic rules! If you were to punish or kill that many people, I would worry about your soul!”

“But I believe that Jesus is my savior, with the core of my heart!” John said.

“I know, John. In fact, you are one of the strongest believers, I can tell such things you know. Experience and all…But still, if you were to indulge in mass killings, you may have to spend a considerable amount of time- weeks, maybe even months in purgatory. And believe me when I say purgatory is no Wonderla. In fact, it would be a bit like going through that harrowing experience of lying in pain after an accident on the side of the road, with no one coming to your aid, over and over again”

That does sound like a bad deal, thought John. Lowering his head, he looked at his own reflection on the bar counter.

When he looked at Peter again, he was near tears.

“But, what did I do to deserve it?” John said. “I have never violated a traffic rule- at least not knowingly, and I have always make way for ambulances when I ride!”

Peter looked at him with sympathetic eyes. He beheld him in silence, thinking how the man needed to expunge his anger if he were to enjoy his eternal stay in heaven. There was another reason why he thought it a good idea for the newcomer to expel anger- his state of mind would affect the other residents.

He has already caught a few glimpses of the effect- when he was walking out of the spa with John, for instance, a elderly soul, a woman who was just then going in, caught the glum look on the newcomer’s eyes. Seeing it, her own expression changed from serenity to sadness. Indeed, for a second, she looked downright heartbroken.

Peter could certainly empathize with the woman. For wouldn’t you be heartbroken too if you were to think that even the spa in heaven couldn’t remedy human sadness? What hope is there for the human soul, if that’s the case?

It was only when Peter smiled at the woman- it always has a magical effect on the womenfolk-that the woman cheered up again.

As the guardian of heaven, he couldn’t allow other residents to be affected by one person’s glumness.

“Okay..” he said ruminatively, pulling out a PDA from the pocket in his robe.On the PDA, he opened a folder named “Incoming.” Inside that folder were two more sub-folders, one marked heaven and the other hell.Peter clicked open the latter.

“This is a database that contains information about the ones who would soon be dead,” Peter explained as John looked over his shoulder at the PDA screen. John exclaimed how sleek the PDA looked, sleeker even than the latest iPhone. “Yeah, our eternal engineers are unmatched in skill,” said Peter. “Anyway, let me see if I can find someone in this database…Yes, here is one! His name is Stephen Godda, he is a resident of Bangalore- #294, 19 b Main, KHB Residential Plot, Kormangala. The man is a government official. Last year he got bribed by a big corporate that has one of their establishments in the Residency Road. The reason was that that road was supposed to be widened. If they did that the said establishment would have to be torn down. You see, it was already standing on space that belonged to the road, to begin with. So, they paid this official to make sure that the widening didn’t happen. Their wish was granted. As you surely know that area sees some of the biggest traffic jams in the city- sometimes its so intricate that you couldn’t help but laugh- seeing how people who would absolutely hate each other if they were bedfellows, spending so much time close to each other, entrapped by the unmoving steel of vehicles…Anyway, John, I propose that to expunge your anger, you go down to earth and..err..haunt this person. I cannot grant you the permission to touch the person’s body. But you can touch objects associated with him. I suggest that you cause him troubles, troubles that would make his late two weeks on earth hell-which is where he is to end up, unless by some miracle he were to find God in these last days of his life, highly unlikely given how the last time he used our Lord’s name was when he needed to curse someone. In short, he looks like a good target for you to drive your anger at. I hope that after the two weeks worth of..haunting..you would be cleansed.”

“I hope so,” said John. He would have liked to wipe away the entire city, but then as Peter said, such a move would kill off his loved ones too. Besides, now that the beer had hit the spot, he wasn’t so sure if jumping a traffic signal actually warranted anyone a death sentence.

Given such a scenario, what Peter was proposing, about haunting and making life miserable for this Godda guy sounded like a better idea.

He nodded. “You do realize that we don’t usually allow souls to return to earth once they are here?” said Peter. “But I am treating this as an exceptional case. And I am allowing you to go on my own personal risk. So, I hope you wouldn’t let the anger get the better of you and kill him.” Placing a gentle yet firm hand on his shoulder, he added, “ I hope you won’t get carried away.”

“No, I won’t,” said John. “And thank you for this opportunity. Really, I appreciate it.”

Peter smiled at him like he were an old friend. “Let’s have one more beer before you leave, then.”

I like this man’s style, thought John.

**

Stephen Godda was a middle aged man with darkish brown skin and a pudgy nose. Something about his face made one repulsed on the first sight, or so thought John. He couldn’t be sure if what caused this was the permanent sneer on the man’s face or the peculiar nose which gave him a bulldoggish appearance.

Stephen’s wife was a fair skinned woman who seemed to be in the same age bracket(40 to 45). All she did all day long, as far as John could tell was watch the television. It didn’t matter what was on- reality TV., soaps, celebrity news, songs..the lady would watch one thing after the other, munching on nuts like she was the undisputed  queen of binge watching. The only times she stepped out of the home were to watch films in the theater with her daughter.

The couple had but one child- a girl of 18 years, who mostly stayed in her room upstairs chatting on the phone with her friends or browsing the internet. A fashionista who went out shopping every other day, she was a student at the JyothiNivas College, in her first year of BCom. But as far as John could make out, her interest in commerce was limited to the pricing structures of latest Kurtas and minis.

Now that he was down on earth with the explicit purpose to bring trouble to the Godda household, John’s first plan was to observe the girl while she took a shower. That would be a pretty demeaning experience for her, he thought. But that was before he realized that such a move would go unnoticed by the girl- he being invisible and all. What with no more in possession of his physical brain, John had trouble thinking things through, unlike when he was alive.

There was another reason why he abandoned the plan to peep into the bathroom while the girl took a bath.

The girl was beautiful. She took after her mother, thankfully, rather than her ugly mutt of a father. Dark skinned, she had a long forehead, petal shaped eyes and a pretty long nose which ended in a hook- something which John thought was quite appealing on her. There was yet another feature on her face which he found even more appealing- a black birthmark on her cheek. It looked like the miniature map of Sri Lanka. The first time he saw it, he imagined planting multiple kisses on that map, until his lips turned sour. He could also imagine how many young men and boys who saw her wouldn’t have trouble conjuring up a suitable scenario when they masturbated.

The beauty of her face was perfectly complemented by the rest of her body- the curvatures and bends of which he could see easily thanks to the bodyhuggers and micro-minis which she wore while she was at home. Which would have meant a feast of a time looking at her naked body in the shower.

But John restrained, thinking how that would be infidelity to his betrothed. He has never had sex in his life and died a virgin. He was looking forward to putting his virginhood in the past by consummating his wedding which would have happened some two months from now had not his mortal remains begun to rot. Even when a friend of his offered to “arrange” someone for him for “one last fling as a bachelor” he would hear nothing of it, opting instead to stay true to his betrothed.

And though death probably has rendered the engagement moot- for all he know, his betrothed’s parents might, at this very moment be looking for another husband for their daighter, he still felt uncomfortable about gazing at another woman’s naked body. Not matter how heavenly an experience that would have been.

He felt sure that Peter- when he came to know about it, would congratulate him for the restraint.

Leaving the girl without following her into the bath attached to her room, John floated down to the first floor of the house- Godda’s bungalow was three stories high and occupied a space enough to accommodate at least two duplex villas. His daughter’s room was on the third floor while the entertainment room- the size of a large conference hall and the wall of which was adorned with pictures of superstars was where his wife passed entire days watching the giant screen television. The overtly dramatic music cues in the soap operas that she watched didn’t sound good even with the superior speakers system of the home theatre.

But the woman didn’t seem to notice this. She had her eyes glued to a verbal fight between two young women on the screen as John floated down to the room. At one end of the room was a glass-paneled cupboard which contained a lot of crystal objects. There was no reason for the existence of these objects in the entertainment room except for the visual appeal. At least, Godda’s wife, who was in charge of the interior decoration, thought that they enhanced the room’s visual aura. John thought the crystal pieces looked as out of place in there as a spaceship would inside a washroom. But being a ghost, he didn’t have much say on it.

So, he moved towards the cupboard and began rattling the glasspane on the cupboard. It was his first active interference with the material world as a ghost. Even though he knew that such an interference was possible only because of the special permission granted by Peter, he still felt a shiver of thrill coursing through himself. He felt gratified to see that his actions were having a direct impact on the material plane- a realm with which he still held a connection. After all, it’s been but only one day since his demise.

However, Godda’s wife didn’t look too impressed by the ghostly feat. In fact, she didn’t even notice it, keeping on watching the television with her legs bent under her thigh, chewing on some nuts. Deciding that he should take things to the next level, John opened one of the cupboard’s glass panels and toppled a couple of crystal pieces to the ground where they shattered to smithereens like the crystal pieces they were.

One of them was that of a swan and John found it incredibly funny to look at the swan lying on the floor with a broken neck, as if it just felt the sharpness of a butcher’s knife.

And that’s exactly how I would like to have Godda!, he thought venomously.

Godda’s wife was startled by the sound of the crystals breaking. Even as she looked up in the direction of the cupboard, she saw two more pieces plummeting from their rack. One of them was of the peeing boy which was one of her favourites- she had always wanted a baby boy, a wish she harbored in her mind but never told her daughter.

“Pankajam!” she shouted, jumping off the lounge chair on which she sat.

From somewhere within the house came running a short elderly woman. She looked flustered, tired and she was sweating.

“Pankajam! Look what you have done!” Godda’s wife shouted, pointing towards the crystals. “I asked you to clean the crsytals. And you put them back carelessly so that they are falling off and breaking. That’s really irresponsible of you! I would make sure that the cost of the crystals would come out of your pay in the coming months!”

Though her servant stood not more than a few feet away, Godda’s wife was shouting as though they were divided by an entire football field. Hearing the shouting, Pankajam looked even more flustered than before. The poor woman attempted to say something but she was brutally cut short by the madam when the latter said, “I don’t want to hear anything from you! In fact, I can’t stand your sight at the moment! Get out of here!”

Pankajam turned away and trotted back down the way she came from. Tears were beginning to form in her eyes.

But even more heartbroken by the incident than her was the ghost.

**

After the attempt to scare Godda’s wife by dropping crystals failed, John re-strategized and decided the best way on would be to directly scare Godda.

Godda, who was away during the day returned only by late evening. John had decided that the most effective way to scare him would be to scare him in his sleep. So, he waited for the ugly man to sink to sleep.

In fact, he waited till midnight- so that his attack would have even more of a dramatic effect.

When the giant grandfather clock in the living room on the ground floor chimed 12, sending tinny sonic vibrations across the length and breadth of the entire house, John slowly creeped into the room where Godda and his wife slept. The closed door was no obstacle for a ghost who could pass through wood easier than a knife would through a pillow.

But once he was inside the room, he was surprised by the fact that a light was still on. He also heard noises- the kind which people made when they were in severe distress, like when they had trouble breathing, or they had a really upset stomach.

Or maybe when having a heart attack, he thought.

He remembered  Peter telling him back in heaven how Godda was to die in two weeks’ time due to a heart attack. Maybe heaven’s guardian got the dates mixed up. Maybe this was the sound of Godda dying!

Shit! Then, I am so late!, he thought.

John looked towards the bed from which issued the noises- moaning and groaning and other indescribable expressions of distress. The bed was so big that  it took John a couple of seconds to locate the couple in it.

And when he did, he wished that he hadn’t.

What with her doing nothing but watching the tele all day long, Godda’s wife wasn’t exactly the epitome of a good figure. And as for Godda, he was as ugly as they came. The soft light of the lighting fixture in didn’t do anything to alter that fact.

What this meant was that seeing such two bodies making love was an unholy sight, especially after you have seen and experienced the heights of sensory delights in heaven. But now that his eyes fell on the unholy scene, John found it hard to pry his eyes away, though he was revolted by it. It was, he assumed just like how many people looked both fascinated and horrified at him when he was lying injured on the side of the road after the accident.

There’s a fascination for the ugly and the grotesque in the human soul which didn’t even end with death.

Almost as bad as the sight were the accompanying sounds.

The grunts and groans and moans which he had earlier took to be signs of distress were actually expressions of delight and pleasure. Having never had sex himself, Johns’s experience with such matters was almost completely limited to the porn he has watched online. He considered himself a connoisseur of the “Neighbours” genre and though he has, in the course of exploring the genre seen a variety of people- ranging from the exotic to the downright ugly-copulating in more positions that you could shake a dick at, he has never heard ugly noises like these.

He has always associated love-making with sensuous and passionate sounds like the ones made by those porn actors- mostly American, some Scandinavians too. Never sounds as grating on the ears as what these two elderly people were making on a bed which, on hindsight, looked like it was especially made for sex.

John wasn’t sure what eventually made him feel like puking- the sight of Godda having his wife get on top of him and seeing that woman’s flabby ass with so many lines on it it looked like a roadways map, or the ever-increasing noises the couple made- more wheezing than anything sensual.

But felt like puking he did, and unable to give in to his feeling thanks to the absence of a body, he doubled back out of the room, and floated down the stairs, went all the way down to the living room where there was a small chamber underneath the stairs where they kept old rugs and mats.

He hid himself inside it as though haunted by the sight of the infernal love-making.

**

A full two hours passed before John came out of the chamber under the stairs.

John knew this because he heard the old grandfather clock chiming.

Time enough to make another attempt, he thought.

The images of the unholy sex scene kept flashing in front of his eyes as he floated upwards to the couple’s room on the first floor, disturbing him, making him halt in his airy tracks at times. To give himself something else to focus on, he went over in his mind the plan he was to enact.

The plan was simple. It involved shattering the glasses of the windows in the room. He has seen a ghost doing this in a movie once. It was so effective in the movie, bringing two sleeping figures- a husband and wife though (not nearly as ugly as the ones above), awake and screaming with fear. He hoped that the same could be replicated in real life.

He entered the room without effort, like the last time. But unlike the previous time, he kept his eyes down, not daring to look towards the bed. He was gratified to notice that the lights were out. But there was a noise coming from the bed- the sound of Godda snoring. It sounded to John like a bee that has been a wood cutter in its previous life.

John proceeded towards the first of the windows. Now that he has had some practise breaking objects(crystals) , he proceeded to break the window glasses with a confidence he has rarely felt in life. The first window was broken in a second. John found the sight of the tiny broken shards of glass- a lot of them, flying out into the night, glittering under the light from the street lamp that was right in front of the bungalow. It delighted him.

The sound made the couple’s dog- a German shepherd half John’s size to bark from the yard. It also jolted awake the security guard who was posted near the gate. Jumping out of his chair, he looked around, still in a daze and admonished the dog to keep quiet, thinking it was barking for no reason.

Though the guard and the dog were now active, the couple lying in their bed, remained in their supine position, one of them snoring, both of them asleep. The post-coital bliss is too much for them, thought John, not without anger, thinking the injustice of a man responsible for hundreds of traffic accidents – including deaths sleeping so blissfully, like a baby.

The anger made John inadvertently crash the glass on the rest of the three windows simultaneously. He could hardly control the ectoplasmic energy surge effectively. Nonetheless, he was impressed by it. Next to sitting at a bar counter in heaven, chatting with none lesser than St.Peter over a mug of beer, he felt this to be the coolest thing that had happened to him since death.

More importantly, it brought the sleeping couple wide awake. To his delight, John saw that Godda’s wife, soon as she came awake and saw that the windows were shattered, began to scream- just like in the movie that he saw.

But not so Stephen Godda himself. The man was, if anything calm.

He expressed his distress at being brought out of a deep sleep by saying “Who the hell?” or something to that end . But once his mind was awake enough to discern what was going on, he calmly reached for the table lamp and turned it on. Then he wrapped the lungi around his waist tighter before walking towards one of the windows.

The dog was still barking down below and beside the canine stood the security guard, staring up.

“Everything alright, sir?” the guard called out.

“Of course, not, you idiot!” Godda called back in a voice raspy with lingering sleep. “Can’t you see that someone just broke all the windows?”

“Of course, sir!” said the guard in a timid voice.

John observed this exchange with amusement. The security guard was easily double the size of Godda. And he was at least a head taller than his boss who himself stood at a respectable 5 feet 8. However, there was no doubt that the guard was extremely submissive to his boss. His stooped over body posture and the cowering voice were indications enough. John assumed that the fact of the windows getting broken while on his watch also put the guard on the back foot.

John saw Godda looking up and down the street in front of the house which lied empty at this hour, except for a couple of stray cats looking for a feast in a garbage bin.

“Should I come up, sir?” the guard said.

“Of course, not, you fool! What good would that do? Just step out of the gate and take a look outside . See if someone’s still lurking. Though I think they must have got away by now.”

The guard did as Godda commanded. He came back with the report that there was no one on the road.

“Well, you know who did this, Anthony! You deal with him tomorrow, you hear me? And I don’t want any delays!” The raspiness had lifted from Godda’s voice and his words rang loud and clear in the cold night.

“Yes, sir!” said the guard, even saluting with a hand. “I would make sure of it, sir!” he added even as Godda turned away from the windows and walked towards the bed.

His wife was still sitting on the bed, her legs drawn towards her body, just the way she did soon after she came awake. Though the screaming has subsided, she was still shivering, perceptibly so. Sitting beside her, Godda consoled her, saying there was nothing to worry about.

“We should go to one of the other rooms,” he said. “The AC here won’t serve us tonight now that the windows can’t be shut!” He tried to make light of the situation.

He helped her get up from the bed and guided her by the hand to one of the numerous other rooms in the mansion. John watched as the elderly couple made their way out of the room. Bare chested, wearing just a lungi, Godda looked just like an ordinary man. Not a corrupt individual responsible for multiple traffic accidents and deaths.

In other words, he looked just like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And John felt righteous anger seething through him at the decoy.

But more than that was curiosity, about what Godda mentioned to the security guard- about taking care of the one responsible for the shattered windows tomorrow itself. How would they know who was the responsible party?

John walked up to one of the windows, if he had a body, the silvery moonlight would have illuminated it. As it was, he remained hidden in plain sight from the security guard who regained his place on the chair by the gate, the dog lying very close to his feet.

**

The guard was bulky, with a bald head and a pudgy nose. His round eyes reflected the harsh light from the street lamp.

Aside from the bulky physique he looked normal enough- nothing to suggest that he was a medium or someone who could at least peek into the doings of the ghosts. Yet, for a moment, John wondered if that was the case. Did the man actually realise this was a ghost attack? Was he conversant in magic spells and such which was what he was going to apply against him- John- tomorrow? After all, it stands to reason that the ghost of someone who had died in a previous accident had come down and pulled a similar stunt before? Perhaps, that explained why neither Godda nor his security guard appeared too flustered by the broken windows brought?

John shook his head, from old habit, to dislodge the thought from his brain, though he no more possessed a brain in the conventional sense, not any more than a wounded animal held a clairvoyant’s license.

But still, he couldn’t shake the feeling so easily.

**

John was too flustered about the thought of the security guard doing some voodoo on him that he didn’t dare perpetrate an attack on Godda again later that night- or early morning, if you want to get technical.

But as it turned out, he needn’t have worried. For the next day, John had the opportunity to learn exactly what Godda and the guard thought about the nightly attack.

There was this chap in Godda’s neighborhood- 17, 18 years old, John couldn’t be sure about the age from the conversations between Godda and the other members of the household that he overheard- Godda kept referring to the young chap as that ‘brat’ or ‘punk’ or ‘asshole’ and never ‘that 18 year old’ or anything like that.

The chap in question was apparently a ‘no-good nobody’ who had a crush on Godda’s daughter. He expressed this crush to the girl on multiple occasions- in manners ranging from the chivalrous to the lewd. And every time the girl had informed him about her disinterest. When the boy didn’t stop his advances- he just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that an 18 year old girl wouldn’t like a present of a black currant cake, she informed her father about it.

Godda, along with the security guard had a little chat with the boy, cornering him in the street one day. That happened almost a month ago.(Around the time his own engagement happened, John figured). And since then the boy has not entered the girl’s life- almost as though he didn’t exist in the first place.

Godda had begun to think that that issue was solved- one of the minor issues he has solved in a life that has seen its fair share of issue-solvings.

But as the incident last night revealed, he was wrong!

The boy came back with a literal bang. ”With the aid of some friend, the punk threw stones and broke our windows! You must give him a good beating for this!” John heard Godda say to the security guard. The security guard pointed out that when he checked for stones or any other weapons that the perpetrators could have used, he has found nothing.

Godda laughed. A chiding, deep throated, belly shaking laugh. “Show me your mobile phone!” he said. The guard pulled out of his pocket a red coloured Nokia phone. John was pretty savvy when it came to mobile phones, buying at least one new model every year- at least, he used to when he was alive. But even he couldn’t place the model. But the old fashioned physical buttons on the thing was all the proof he needed to know that it wasn’t a model DeepikaPadukone would be caught flaunting on a red carpet.

Godda’s phone, which he raised in his hand like a prize was a silver coloured iPhone 7- the latest model, sleek and for a phone geek, the most delectable thing in the entire galaxy.

“Now, which phone do you think is the most advanced?” John heard Godda ask the guard. The guard, smart enough to know that it was a rhetorical question, kept mum. “This means,” Godda continued, “that I know more about technology than you do. Way more. You wouldn’t even begin to believe the kind of things that are made using technology these days, Anthony.” He placed a patronizing hand on the guard’s shoulder. “And young people- they know more about technology than you or I would know about sex, if you know what I mean. I’m sure that that brat and whoever helped him would have used some fancy gadget to perform the vandalism that they did last night on my windows. Something which emits some sort of force- maybe high frequency sound waves that may shatter glass. In fact, the wife even told me that she saw a few of her prized crystals breaking before. Maybe that was the brat giving it a trial run! Come to think of it, if he had in his possession such a devise, he wouldn’t even need the assistance of anyone else to pull the coup! The motherfucker must have done it himself!”

By the time his master was done talking, the security guard was more than convinced that it must be the brat behind the attack. “And can you please shut that dog up!” Godda said before leaving.

The dog has been barking throughout their conversation.

Though John hated to admit it to himself, he was impressed by Godda’s theorizing about a device that emitted sound waves. Like any self-respecting techie, John too was interested in sci-fi films and has seen such principles in action on the big screen multiple times. But that’s not to say that he didn’t find it hilarious to hear Godda- the crafty man who has earned more wealth than you could shake a stick at, ascribing last night’s attacks to the wrong cause. In fact, he laughed so loud that had he been alive, the sheer noise of it would have woken up the dead.

But all such jolliness dissipated when he saw what Anthony- Godda’s security guard did to the ‘brat’.

The brat in question was lean and tall. Judging by the meticulous appearance of his superbly manicured beard and equally stylistic hair, John assumed that he spent an inordinate amount of time on personal grooming every day. In fact, John even caught himself thinking how he should ask the chap for grooming tips- so that he would appear crisp on his wedding day. But that was before he recalled that he won’t be having a wedding day anymore. Sigh.

But he saw the meticulously crafted appearance melting- so to speak. Every beating that Anthony the guard inflicted on the chap was almost more disheartening than the thought that he would never get married.

John had tagged along with the security guard just out of curiosity. The guard who traversed in his silver Enfield on the expedition located the ‘target’ in the public playground around the corner from the Apollo Cradle Hospital on the fifth block of Kormangala. It was around 10 in the morning, on a working day and there weren’t that many people in the park. Only a smattering of young people who, from the bags they carried looked like they bunked classes.

The ‘brat’ was one of them. He sat on a wall with three of his friends like Humpty Dumpty.

And like how cracks would appear on Humpty’s egghead, cracks began to appear on the chap’s face once Anthony began to go at it. Even before that, the three friends who were with him, scooted out of there. Anthony didn’t even give him the reason for the beating- just gave him a good taste of his hand’s power.

From the ever broadening smile on his face, it was done with apparent relish.

**

John was disheartened by this turn of events. It appeared to him that more than Godda., his actions were hurting other, innocent, people- first, that poor housemaid whom Godda’s wife chided for breaking the crystals, and now the brat who was going through his life wondering why he got the injuries which was making him pay a hefty hospital bill.

John was seated on the front steps of Godda’s porch. Technically, he could float around for eternity and still wouldn’t get tired. But at this point, he felt that it would be a good idea to sit down for a while all the same. And get some thinking done.

His next move has to be something that gets to Godda for good.

But he wasn’t being successful in getting much thinking done.

For the German shepherd in its kennel was barking like there was no tomorrow and it was giving its due to existence with its barking. “shut up, you silly mutt! Let me think!” John shouted exasperatedly, though the dog of course, couldn’t hear him.

But when he looked up, he saw that the canine had its deep brown eyes fixed on him even as he was barking viciously.

Of course, the dog could see me!

The thought struck him with a suddenness which almost knocked John off his feet. Yes, he thought, why hadn’t I thought of it before?

He remembered the scenes in the horror films he has seen. Nit that he has seen many. Wasn’t much of a fan of the genre. It lacked the logical sanctity of science fiction. But he distinctly recalled scenes depicting canines and cats getting agitated when they saw a ghost.

So, that was real, huh?

The idea gave him another idea.

He had seen Godda petting the dog a few times. The man even talked to the dog just like he would to a child. Of course, it would be mighty vicious if I could turn the dog against him!

The thought made him so excited that he could hardly keep still throughout the day. He kept walking to and fro in front of the house, waiting for Godda to come home.

**

Godda reached home later than usual that evening. In fact, it was almost night. John worried that due to the lateness of the hour, Godda may forego his routine of coming out and petting the dog, talking to it for a while.

But he needn’t have worried. For right after his bath, Godda came out and began spending time with the dog, playing with it by throwing a ball and talking and laughing and all. Once again, Godda looked to John like an ordinary person than a corrupt soul- a wolf in a sheep’s clothing.

Feeling angered, John floated out of the house and stood behind Godda, at an angle that ensured that the dog could see him.

The dog was trotting up and down, clasping the ball in his jaws, dropping it at its master’s feet and then trotting back up to collect it when it was released by the master again, when its eyes fell on the ghost. At first it took a couple of steps back, as though startled by the vision.

John hoped that he hasn’t turned the dog away with fright. That would be the opposite of what he wanted to accomplish.

But thankfully, he saw the dog inching forward towards him, snarling, and before long, it started barking viciously, just like earlier in the day when it saw John sitting on the porch stairs.

Feeling irritated by the mutt’s change in behavior, Godda gave it a slap on its back. The dog was apparently perplexed by this behavior of its master. It was after all, barking at an intruder, just doing its job, wasn’t it? The confusion, along with the supernatural disturbance caused by the presence of the ghost propelled the dog to do something-anything- other than just barking like there was no tomorrow.

To John’s delight, the ‘something-anything’ that the dog opted for turned out to be jumping straight at its master’s feet and biting at his ankle. Godda started screaming, shouting invectives at the dog. Hearing the commotion the security guard came running.

But before the guard to detach the dog from its master, it had taken a decent sized chunk of flesh from its masters leg.

When it looked up, the ghost was nowhere to be seen.

**

The dog’s bite inflicted enough injury on Godda to warrant bed rest. On the second day of his rest, John decided to strike again.

Godda was lying in a large bed- all the beds in all the rooms of the house, it seemed, were large. Since he couldn’t climb stairs in his condition, he was in a room on the ground floor. His wife, after feeding him cut pieces of apple just exited the room, mumbling she would bring more from the kitchen.

Godda had his ankle wrapped in a bandage. The whiteness of the bandage was in stark contrast to his dark skin. Though the television in the room was on(a soap which his wife was watching), Godda was just lying down, staring at the ceiling, or rather the chandelier which hung from the ceiling.

The chandelier was the reason why John thought that Godda was moved into the room thanks to divine intervention- so that he could attack him further. John was sure that he would disturb the chandelier enough to make a couple of pendalogues or even a candle tube fall off- parts that would be enough to inflict major injuries on the man on the bed. Indeed, not a man but a beast. A beast that killed people in traffic traps!

He had heard the beast commenting to its wife earlier that the pain in the leg was abating.

“I would give him some more pain!” he thought, floating up to the chandelier and beginning to disturb it. Godda had presently begun to slip into a sleep, and seeing that beast lying on the plush bed, looking comfortable as though he were already in heaven, the anger inside John flared even higher, high enough to make him lose control over himself, enough to make him fail to notice that the force with which he was shaking the chandelier was too much for his purposes.

Godda saw the violent shaking of the chandelier and his eyes widened in horror.

Due to his leg, he couldn’t move as fast as he wished to, but still he was fast enough to move out of the way just a spilt second before the 22 kilogram chandleire crashed on the exact spot where he was lying just a moment ago.

Once he managed to get out of the bed, he looked back, only to see the chandelier, precariously perched on the bed, swiveling and falling off the bed, almost as though it was chasing him, determined to get him, one way or the other.

‘Aargh!’ screaming louder than how his dog had barked at the sight of the ghost, Godda ran out of the room with his arms raised, his face drained of all its colour, fear the only emotion that he experienced in his heart.

It was fear for his life that made him run like that, John realized. And he liked it.

Oh, yes, he did. For the second time in three days, he contemplated whether it’s worth killing Godda. He would then go to purgatory for a cleansing period, as Peter had said. And his stay would be excruciatingly painful, the saint with the flaming arrows have said.

But savouring in his mind the sight of Godda lying dead, his body brutally mutilated, he thought the pain that he might have to endure in purgatory would be totally worth it.

John spent the rest of the day weighing different methods to kill Godda, but trying to settle on one that would prove the most effective, one which would mangle his body so much that his own wife and daughter would find it fearsome to look at it was hard.

But he was determined to find it, regardless of how much he had to stretch his feeble creative intelligence.

**

As it turned out, he didn’t have to tax himself too much. For early next morning, he found that Godda had died. The man passed away peacefully in his sleep. The most awesome sort of death anyone could hope for.

Oh, god! How come! John shouted angrily at the sky.

Godda’s death was not to happen in another ten days. Unless the information that Peter gave him was wrong. But why would the good saint do that? He didn’t know.

As he stood in Godda’s house feeling like an utter fool, he felt a suction from above. The heavenly vacuum cleaner’s suction hose protruded through the sky- unseen by mortal eyes, except of course by those of dogs and other creatures smarter than humans. Godda’s dog barked as it saw John  being hoisted towards the sky, carried by the pull of powerful ectoplasmic air coming from the giant vacuum cleaner that no man designed.

**

“No, I didn’t make any mistake. What I told you, about Godda’s death date was right. Only, I had to prepone it by a few days,” Peter shrugged after speaking, taking another swig of the beer which the angel-bartender served.

No sooner had John got back to heaven than Peter guided him towards the heavenly bar counter. If the two glasses of wine- one red and one white which the angel served (upon Peter’s command) were meant to placate John , it was working.

After spending the last couple of days in the mortal realm, his mind tinkering with such concepts as destruction and death, John could certainly appreciate the charms of heaven much better.

But that’s not to say that he was still not angry at not being able to vent his anger completely. He was this close to killing that goddamn murderer!

“I thought things like death date were fixed”, he said, looking at Peter. “You know, preordained. Like, once it’s fixed, it cannot be changed. At all.”

Peter shrugged. “In most cases, yeah. But in some instances, if the change is worth it, then, we go for it, change the whole arrangement of the future for the sake of the soul in peril.”

“And which soul exactly was in peril this time?” John didn’t bother hiding the sarcasm in his words.

“Why, yours, of course!” The surprise in Peter’s voice was also reflected in his face. “The moment you decided in your heart that you would kill Stephen Godda and imperil your soul, I knew that something had to be done. I did a quick calculation and saw that bringing his death up by a few days wouldn’t make that much of a difference, cosmically speaking. So, I pulled the plug on him. Had to!” Peter shook his head, as though saying to himself, ‘Jesus, the things that a man must do to make a living in heaven!’

“But my soul wasn’t in peril!” shouted John. “At most, I would have to spend a few months down in the purgatory. That’s it! You said so yourself!”

“But John, this is murder we are talking about!” Peter spoke patiently, adopting a tone which a teacher might with a particularly slow student. “And once you perform murder, you cannot predict what would happen to your soul afterwards, not with utmost certainty. It may just turn a shade darker- to coffee brown maybe, in which case it’s fine, you still have a chance of making it back to the light. More than a chance, in fact. But if the shade turns even darker- more towards jet black or the black of the tees that the death metal lovers prefer to wear, then you may find yourself in a cave cut off from the light of the  Lord Jesus. You may not then be able to find your way back to the light, for the labyrinthine pathways inside the cave would be like a maze, a maze that keeps you going in circles, never quite leading you to the –“

“_light of the lord, I get it,” John interjected, suddenly feeling tired of the paternistic mode of governance that was evidently heaven’s style.

But the alternative- of being in hell was, of course, hellish. So, he thought he as well might get used to it. It was not like he had any other option but to spend the rest of eternity in heaven.

“You do realize that I did what I did with the sole intention of saving your soul?” Peter said, offering his sweetest smile. A smile that could melt butter.

John didn’t even bother nodding. Just grunted which he thought the saint would take to be a sign of assent.

“Now, if you would please excuse me..”

John got off the bar stool, feeling tipsy from the drink but with none of the associated bad vibes which he may have got if he were having liquor back on earth. His legs didn’t wobble and he didn’t perspire unusually.

In fact, he felt just fine except for a tiredness which was more of an abstract feeling than anything tangible.

He thought that maybe he should go take a dip in the pool of eternal joy, so that he could take away some of the weariness. The more he thought of it, the more the idea appealed to him. Though the wine had put a tinkle of joy in his heart, he still felt bad about not being able to off Godda himself. He imagined the waters of the holy pool washing away that resentment, making the film of resentment fall off him like unwanted skin.

He was about to ask one of the passerby for directions when all of a sudden he found himself standing beside the pool with its name stenciled on a board beside it.

Of course, this was heaven. All you had to do was wish for something and it would happen! No transportation involved. Just straight ferrying, bypassing time and space. John reckoned that science fiction writers back on earth would get to learn a lot if only they knew the underlying mechanisms that kept heaven functional.

He got into the pool and felt his weightless self floating around on weightless water- sparkling and crystal clear water, the kind which you would see only in dreams- that too if you are lucky.

As he had expected, he started feeling all worries slipping away from his self, he felt like an overstuffed bag which was finally being emptied after a long, arduous journey. A young boy swam past him, smiling at him a cherubic smile.

The boy looked no more than 10 years old. He almost called out to the boy to be careful, that the pool was much deeper than he may think, when he recalled that the boy was already dead if he were in heaven, duh.

With that thought, he once again began to relax, just letting him float around on the surface of the pool, like he were floating around on the dead sea.

Minutes, or perhaps hours drifted by- if such measures of time had any meaning up here in heaven. And the more he floated in the eternal pool of joy, the more joyful, the more filled with radiance he became.

Splash!Splash! Spalsh!

John’s eyes were closed in a silent yet joyful reverie when they were brought open by the sound of splashing water that someone made. He looked to his left, from where the sound issued, expecting to see the boy who passed him by a while ago.

But it was a man, on a huge plastic duck, wearing nothing but a pair of orange shorts- an orange too loud for even the beach but which fitted perfectly in heaven where the light was extra crisply white. The duck described short but slow circles on the water, while the man slurped through a straw some blue liquid from a glass in a cup holder attached to the duck- surely an addition that he wished to existence.

The duck eventually turned in such an angle that John finally had the opportunity to see the man’s face.

It was Godda!The one he couldn’t kill, the one that got away! Now, sharing the same pool as him in heaven.

John noticed how the man had a glum looking smile on his face, the same kind of smile he has expressed on many occasions back on earth- particularly when he made a scathing remark about someone.

Even as he made note of it, John was thinking just one thing: “How?” It didn’t make sense for this grave sinner to be here in heaven, much less have access to the eternal pool of joy, that too wearing shorts even Hawaii would find obscenely loud.

For a second, he thought this might be a prank. Someone was pulling his legs, someone with a mean sense of humour.

But hold on, hold on! he told himself silently. Mean and heaven are two words that don’t go hand in hand. So this was not a prank. Then what the hell was this?

He had to get out of this pool and go find Peter- and learn from him what’s going on. No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he heard Peter’s immaterial voice within him: “John, don’t freak out. Stephen Godda is, of course, here through legitimate channels. For the last minute before his death, when his heart convulsed and excruciating pain shot through his chest, Godda woke up  from sleep and the first thing he uttered was “Oh, sweet Jesus, I love you, please don’t abandon me!” A thought which he held on to until the last moment, right until when the last breath escaped his mouth.” After allowing John a few moments to digest this news, he added rather grandiloquently, sounding a bit too pleased with himself, “Stephen Godda may have lived the life of  a sinner but he died a believer!”

And with that the voice faded.

John observed mutely as the duck kept revolving around him, making small circles which described a wider circle that was drawn around him- John, on the ultra-clear water.

He felt nothing- not even anger. The long soak in the eternal pool of joy has seen to it.

But the idea that injustice could extent to eternity did occur to him.

Slowly closing his eyes once again, John hoped that when he finally got to meet Jesus in person- Peter had said that the Man visited the living quarters of heaven every Sunday- all such nasty feelings, including that of injustice would leave him once and for all.

But something told him it wouldn’t be wise to bet on it.

A Product Called Fear

With the killing descended peace.

Not the cold and unbending peace of death, but warm and soothing..like the touch of the first rays of the sun on your skin after a long stretch of cold.

The peace coursed through the killer’s veins even as he dug the shallow grave- casting his eyes every now and then at the gaping wound on the woman’s throat- practically a grin in the shape of a wound, the coagulated blood which rimmed its edges looking more black than red.

When he started digging the grave, he kept looking over his shoulder, to see if someone passed by on the road behind. Kormangala was one of the places in Bangalore that was most densely populated. To pull off a murder here and to bury the carcass in the vicinity was a double thrill for him- the girl who met his maker this evening, thanks to a swiftly applied cut to the throat, delivered by his expert hand was the first of his kill in the city that they call India’s Silicon Valley.

He has been here for eight days now. Came to the city with high hopes. He has heard how young women were plentiful in the city. He has also heard how cool and futuristic the city was. He wasn’t disappointed on the former. Not only did he see a lot of young women in the city, he also found that many of them just stood around in alleyways talking on the phone at night- as though that was the only way in which they knew how to kill the time till bedtime, when sleep would cover their eyes until sun-u,  when they would once again start running around like a headless chicken to make a living in the city.

As for the idea that the city was cool and futuristic, the killer couldn’t agree with that. This was the first time that he was here, and the way he saw it, it’s one of the most wretched places to live in- overpopulated, congested streets filled with shit and filth, the air toxic, everything-and literally everything- overpriced, and from what he read in the newspapers, the city was fast running out of natural resources. Including water. In fact, there was a mention in an article about ‘water mafias’ working in the city, the public infrastructure having failed to bring water to the people. Of the more than 300 lakes in the city, there were just around 80 left.

Cases of depression and suicide-even among the affluent, especially among the affluent were going up.

In other words, a veritable hell in the making, disguised as a coloured dream of capitalism.

No, he didn’t think that this was a cool city. Nowhere near. But it’s in this hell that he was going to get his pick of women, it seems. There was something about snuffing the life out of someone who considers herself immune to bad things- which is just about every woman who grew up in a financially well off family, that gave him a lot of satisfaction.

The look in their eyes when they finally acknowledge that this is it- that there’s not going to be many more breaths in their life, is a mix of surprise and denial- and it’s the best thing that you can ever hope to see in your life, like the glimpse of civilization after an arduous walk through a desert, or the touch of cool water in your parched lips.

The killer looked at the woman’s half naked body one last time before burying her.

Except for the gash in the throat, she looked unblemished- unless you looked closely and saw the various telltale signs of futile struggle that she put up. He hadn’t wanted to bury her half-naked. But the top came off during the struggle and it was somewhere back in the apartment. He wasn’t confident enough to go back in to get it-what if someone saw him? The apartment was empty, of this he was sure but what if one of the neighbors chose the moment to go up to the balcony and talk on the phone. Looking down at the neighboring house, they would see someone- a stranger snooping around, and they could raise an alarm.

No, this must do. He didn’t like the idea of his prey’s nakedness being seen by some random stranger who discovered her- such shallow graves were sure to be discovered sooner or later. But he couldn’t do anything about it!

Shit!

The thought threatened to disrupt the newfound peace.

He buried the body, then folded the shovel- one of those foldable types that’s a recent entry in the market, wrapped it in a towel which he had brought for the purpose, and put it away in the duffel bag which was his constant companion.

The plot behind the woman’s house- a two storied affair with a  landscaped exterior and posh interiors, has been marked out for a building construction . A sign board planted at the entrance mentioned the name of the upcoming apartment complex.

But for the time being, the land remained empty, except for the shallow grave in which lied a 23 year old woman’s body.

The killer waited for almost 15 minutes by her grave, lamenting the fact that he couldn’t bury her fully attired, lamenting even more the fact that it upset his peace.

‘But no matter,’ he thought, ‘I can regain the peace if it’s lost. All I have to do is kill again.’

Grinning softly, throwing the duffel bag over his shoulder, he turned and walked away. In the pale silvery moonlight the lone figure cast a long shadow behind him.

**

The man is handsome and certainly not a ghost!

Remya kept telling herself this.

But the ghostly figure that appeared behind Roy mingled in her sight with her flesh and blood date.

“Are you alright?” Roy said, not for the first time during the dinner.

Remya nodded with effort. Her eyes strayed to the blue coil of cereal bulbs wound around a pillar behind Roy- a luminous ornamentation piece in the restaurant which was making Remya distressed. She had thought that she could ignore it. But no, the luminescence was turning out to be too much for her fragile nerves.

“Remya?”

The concern in Roy’s voice was real but there was nothing she could say to put his mind at ease.

In fact, to her surprise, she found that there was nothing that she could say. Period.

For her lips felt dry and her tongue was a dead weight inside her mouth. It  felt like her mouth was filled with lead pellets.

The ghostly shape flickered in an out of her vision even as Roy kept calling her name, asking her repeatedly if she was alright.

She sensed the gaze of the other patrons of the restaurant on her face.

However, before the sensation of feeling strangers’ eyes on her face could turn into full-fledged embarrassment, her brain shut off and she fainted.

**

“Why did it take two days for you to come to me!?”

Remya didn’t like anyone talking to her in a patronizing tone, but Dr. Natesan was an exception. Not just because he was around the same age as her father, but also because he was genuinely concerned about her. Ever since the disease has been diagnosed when she was 15, he has been her caregiver. And he has done an excellent job of it.

“I thought that it was just like any other time,”Remya couldn’t keep the pleading tone out of her voice- something that came naturally to her whenever she came to consult Dr. Nateshan at his office in Sarjapore Road. “But it was only over the last two days-when I was at the office that I kept getting a recurring view of the ghost-like shape.” She said it with as much drama as someone might talk about the sun rising in the east.

As a sufferer of the neurological condition, Neuritis Pragalia, Remya was used to waking hallucinations.

Her condition rendered her vulnerable to sensory overload. This made it impossible to go to the movies- the loud sounds would inevitably get to her, giving her a splitting headache at the least, or any venues where they played music loudly. This was one of the main reasons that, beautiful though she was, she didn’t get invited for that many dates.

This time around, she was sure that it was the surprisingly bright light of the blue cereal bulbs in the restaurant where she went with her date that tipped her over the edge.

“Have you seen such ghostly figures before in any of your episodes?” the doctor asked in that calm and measured tone of his, which never failed to put Remya’s mind at ease. She often joked with her father that more than any of his medicines, it was the doctor’s tone of speech which helped with her incurable ailment.

“I have seen such figures-just a couple of times before, that’s been years,” she said , “but never this distinctly…Do you think that I’m getting worse?” she added, hardly able to keep the note of panic out of her voice.

Once her condition got so bad that even the slightest sound-like that of a pencil falling off a table would sent her mind reedling to the realm of unreality. It was some three years ago- she was around 20, in the final year of her graduation. She remembered how she would lie with her hed buried under the pillow, feeling miserable, on many instances, unable to tell what’s real and what’s not.

She hoped this wasn’t the beginning of a recurrence.

It took Dr. Nateshan almost a week to bring her back to normal. “Stress caused by overworking,” that was the reason he cited. The prolonged episode happened when she was preparing for the semester exams.

The words that Dr.Nateshan presently spoke mirrored his words from years ago.

“Are you, by any chance, working too much?”

Remya looked up. She wanted to say no- the kindly doctor always reminded her not to overwork. But she had a feeling that if she were to lie, he would know. She was never really a good liar- especially with the good doctor.

Remya worked as a secretary to the manager of a memento manufacturing firm. Until she joined the company-right after her studies, her first and so far, the only job, she didn’t know that mementoes were such big business. The company- with HQ in Kormangala, Bangalore had clients in countries as diverse as Japan, Norway and America. She was glad to know that there were so many people around the world with disposable incomes to buy such things as heart shaped pendants for their lovers.

And along with the growth in the disposable incomes of the global population, the company’s revenue also grew steadily.

However, this also meant that things have been rather hectic in the past few months. Her manager- a young man of 35, though efficient overall wasn’t the best of book-keepers. He relied onn Remya for everything from finding an invoice a client raised six months ago to ensuring that the dinner appointment with a prospective client was done.

Remya nodded. “Yes, things have been a bit hectic of late.”

“Then I am sure that’s what brought this on,” said the doctor. “But just to be sure, I would also run a couple of tests the results of which would tell you if this is something other than that!”

Seeing how glum she still looked, the doctor said, “Don’t worry. I’m sure there’s nothing to it. I suggest that you take a couple of days off from work. Stay at home. Take some rest.” Looking closely at her, he added, “Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?”

There was something else which happened over the last two days at work-aside from seeing the weird ghostly shape like transmission through a faulty channel.

It was about Roy.

He joined recently at the company in the accounts department. She did notice the signs that he gave from early on that he was interested in her- from how he would join her at lunch and how he kept approaching her to ask questions that a novice would ask- what’s the leave policy in the office, are there any good snack shops in the vicinity? etc.

But he has always been gentlemanly and that’s one quality which she hasn’t seen in many young men in the city. Or elsewhere for that matter.

“You must know something,” she had told him when he asked her out for dinner. And she told him about her condition.

He waved it away, saying it’s nothing. “We wouldn’t go to any place with a live band!” he said, smiling.

But once he saw how her eyes swooned and a trickle of blood coiming out of her nostril at the restaurant, his concept about the disease was apparently toppled. For the last two days, she felt him growing distant from her, evading her even when she went to him, confining his answers to her questions in monosyllables.

But that wasn’t information that she wished to discuss with the doctor.

“No,” she said. “There’s nothing else.”

The doctor nodded. Assuring her once again that it would probably be just the over-working, he gave her a smile.

**

That night, sleep was hard in coming.

She felt surprised at how much she was affected by Roy’s behavior at the office the last couple of days.

She had hoped that maybe she would call her and she waited for his call all day long. Silly her.

She has never had a steady boyfriend. She was young enough to warrant such things in the future, but somehow she doubted  it. As soon as they learned that she had an incurable disease that put her at the mercy of continuous medication, they scooted. Or if they stuck around, it wasn’t in anticipation of a long term relationship. And easy sex wasn’t what she looked from a relation either.

She had taken three days off. “You can have even more days off if you want,” the HR Manager- an elderly woman who knew of her condition, told her over the phone when she requested for leaves.

Thinking how she didn’t have to wake up early the next morning to go to work, she decided that she would watch a movie on the tab. The only way she could watch movies or any other entertainment of the manner was on a device over which she had complete control. She could always keep the volume low and if too colorful a frame appeared on screen, she could immediately turn it off.

She has access to the common television on the floor where she stayed in the PG, but she rarely watched it. For one thing, there was something faulty about the TV which made it impossible to turn the volume down beyond a point.

She didn’t think that the movie that she was about to watch would pose any problem for her. It was one that her best friend, Natasha had given her. Natasha and she grew up together and if there was anyone who knew which films would be safe for Remya to watch, it would be her.

Lying on her bed, she turned on the tab and began watching the movie. Half way through it, she began to feel sleepy. Yawning, she checked the time and was surprised to see that it well past 1 in the morning.

She turned off the movie and was about to pull the earplugs from her ears when she caught something flitting out of the corner of an eye. The movement was swift but it was unmistakable.

Lowering the tab, she looked up to see the ghost like figure from her hallucination, hovering right over her bed, leaning its head towards her, snarling.

Putting the tablet aside, she sat up.

The ghost was more vivid than it was in the hallucination. She didn’t think that it was the movie that has set this off.

She did what Dr. Nateshan has told her to do in situations when she felt too stressed out, feeling her nerves buckling under pressure- she closed her eyes and took deep breaths. One..two..three..four..

Her plan was to suck in air ten times, letting each gulp out slow and steady. But she couldn’t keep at it. For the ghost spoke midway, “Why are you trying to shut me out?”

Remya opened her eyes and looked right at the ghost’s eyes-two black fathomless pools which glared in the light from the CFL that glowed bright in the night.

The ghost did look more substantial than in the hallucination.

In her hallucinatory vision, it was nothing more than a white wisp in the dark, like a white curtain swirling in the night. But now, it was more solid- it’s body covered with what looked like hardened scab, dots of thick black ooze dripping from its pores, its nostrils propped up like it belonged to a disfigured face and the light crackling sound it made whenever it talked- details which she weren’t present in the hallucination.

The ghost’s voice was that of a man’s. But it sounded like it had to strain a lot to talk- as though every single word were a bulbous mass of flesh which needed to be birthed through a pin sized wound.

“Don’t try to shut me off!” it said, “That would be a terrible mistake!” The ghost looked right into her eyes, and Remya felt as though it was looking right to the centre of her being, as though it knew something about her that she herself didn’t.

The sensation this lit in her was almost as disturbing as the presence of the ghost itself.

“Come out tomorrow. Night. After midnight. To the rain tree.” After uttering these words, the ghost lingered for just another moment before disappearing into thin air, leaving nothing but cold air in its wake, and Remya’s heart beating at a mad pace.

**

 

“So, essentially what you are saying is that you got an invitation for a late night date from a ghost?”

“Ouch!” Remya made an expression of mock-hurt. “Seeing how I don’t seem to be getting too many date invites from the living, I think the non-living might be the only option I have left,” she added good-naturedly.

Natasha, who was busy stirring sugar into her cup of coffee looked up. Her eyes crinkling with concern,  placing a hand over Remya’s she said, “Oh, darling, I didn’t mean it like that. That was pretty insensitive of me, wasn’t it?”

“Nah, it’s cool,” said Remya, waving away. “Though if it was anyone else who had said that, I would have killed her.”

Both of them smiled at that.

When she thought of whom to tell about the weird episode from last night, the only person she could think of was her best friend. She had a tough time getting a good night’s sleep after the ghostly visitation. So, by sun-up, she was awake and alert, though her nerves were somewhat fraught- the bed rest which Dr. Nateshan had prescribed was not being followed, due to circumstances beyond her control.

And it was the doctor whom she called first- even before calling Natasha. She needed to know a couple of things.

One- is it possible to get auditory hallucinations due to her condition? So far in her life, all the hallucinations that Neuritis Pragalia gifted her were of the visual kind – until last night when the ghost talked with her. An eerie, but distinct voice. Two- has her test results come, and if yes, did they reveal anything unusual?

The doctor sounded bright, even though it wasn’t yet seven in the morning. But she knew that the doctor-though he was on the other side of sixty was someone who kept himself sprightly by getting out of bed early in the morning and going for a jog.

“Well, I cannot remember coming across any such instance in medical literature or online. Of course, you are my only patient with this particular condition-you know, how rare it is..So, I’d be lying if I were to say I am familiar with all the variants of Neuritis Pragalia. But I can say with some confidence that I do keep myself updated with all the latest in the medical development in the field- the internet has made such endeavours not just easy but even more pleasurable. And I don’t think there’s any mention anywhere of a case which has auditory hallucinations associated with the disease,” the doctor said in his calmly explanatory tone, answering her first question. “Why, did you experience anything of the sort?” he added immediately.

For some reason, Remya wasn’t willing to talk to the doctor about what happened last night. Odd as the experience was, she couldn’t shake a feeling of intimacy which had existed between the ghost and herself, perhaps established by the former when he invited her to a late night rendezvous by the rain tree.

An intimacy which felt too personal, even to be shared with her doctor.

“No,” she said, “I was just curious.”

As to her second question, the doctor said that the results came in last evening. He was to call her today when she called. There was nothing to worry about. Everything was normal.

When she got off the phone, Remya felt almost disheartened.

She reckoned she just might be the only patient in the world to feel bad about having test results turning out well. But some anomaly that the tests might have shown could have explained the weird episode from last night.

The alternative was just too damn strange to contemplate- even for her.

That was when she decided to call Natasha.

**

Natasha took the information that her friend provided her in stride.

When she got the call in the morning and Remya told her that there was something “urgent that I want to tell you!” she asked her to spill the beans immediately. But Remya suggested that it might be better if it was done face-to-face, and the bean could be spilled somewhere where they roasted beans of another kind- coffee beans, to be precise.

It was Natasha who suggested that they meet at ‘Nambiar’s Coffee’- a small but elegant coffee joint in oKormangala. In fact, the place was couple of minutes walk away from Remya’s PG which was on the 5th Block.

Remya would have preferred somewhere else- the two days she has spent alone at the PG, not going to work made her crave to be outside, to be among people, preferably some distant away from the PG. But when Natasha told her that she would be coming back from work and her office cab would swing by there, Remya didn’t contest the idea.

Remya reached the coffee shop five minutes before Natasha. The uneasiness that the ghostly visitation gave her hasn’t completely left her. Besides, she kept wondering if not telling her doctor about it was such a good idea, after all. At one point she even picked up the phone and dilled his number, before abandoning the endeavour, feeling confused.

But all feelings of confusions and apprehensions fell off from her at the sight of the smiling face of her friend.

Natasha and she have known each other ever since Natasha moved into their neighbourhood in Pathanmthitta as  a toddler. The secrets that they have shared with each other were numerous and they were there for each other during many of life’s rough patches.

Though they met in a café, Remya didn’t order coffee. Coffee made her hyper sometimes, and hyper was the last thing she wanted to be at the moment.

“So, what do you think about it?” she said to Natasha who, having done stirring her coffee was now drinking it, exclaiming how good it was.

“Do about it?” she said. “What to do about it? It’s another one of your episoides, isn’t it?”

“But, I told you! This time, it was different. This time, it felt more real!” Remya said, trying to keep her voice low while at the same time, trying to communicate how strongly she felt about what she was talking about.

“You felt it so real because of the voice,” Natasha said, “Did you ask Dr. Nateshan about possible auditory hallucination?”

“I did! He says that’s highly unlikely!”

“Well, then, what did he say about the episode?”

Remya remained silent. She lowered her eyes to the steel table where they stood.

Natasha lowered the coffee cup which she was bringing up to her lips, without taking a sip. Eyes widening in surprise, she said, “You didn’t tell the doctor about it, did you?”

Remya shok her head, still not meeting her friend’s eyes.

“Remya, what are you doing?” said Natsha, “You know you should be-“

She bit off her words when something occurred to her. Her widened eyes now shrunk and she lowered her head, peering at Remya closer, as though she were concentrating harder on a passage in a book she was reading.

“You actually believe that it’s real!” It wasn’t a question but a statement- a statement of discovery which an exultant but quietly awed scientist might make after years of research, trying to crack a particularly baffling phenomenon.

Glancing up, Remya shook her head vehemently. “No!” she said.

But even as she uttered the word, she could hear the hollowness in her voice.

What her friend said was true, and it was something she hasn’t acknowledged to herself- she did believe what she saw and experienced last night in its literal sense. An ugly looking ghost visited her in the night in her PG room where she lived alone, and for unknown reasons, it invited her to a sojourn under a nearby tree.

A cheesy ghost, maybe, but a ghost all the same.

Natasha silently appraised her for a while before speaking, but only after draining the rest of the black coffee in her cup.

“So, assuming that it’s real, what are you going to do about it?”

**

Nothing. She intended to do nothing about it. She only hoped to go to bed a little early tonight-maybe around 10 and get a good night’s sleep, to make up for last night’s slumber dotted with disturbing nightmares and moans in the night.

And that’s exactly what she told Natasha.

“I think you ought to tell the doctor about it,” Natasha had said before they parted for the night. “But I have a feeling that you wouldn’t do something that went against your belief,” she added with a wry smile-one that was as much an acknowledgement of her friend’s stubbornness as was an expression of her love for her.

During their childhood, during one summer, a dead body turned up at a canal in their village. The body was so decayed that it was impossible to identify it. The officials couldn’t get a blood match, and since dental records were not in vogue in Kerala, it was impossible to make a match that way either.

There was one person in the village who has been gone for over a month from home and wasn’t back yet. This was a time before the cell phone. Indeed, in the village only very few people owned a land phone- those who did have them were minor celebrities of sort.

The missing man had told his wife that he would be back in two days-  a school teacher who also ran a tutorial home in the village, he was going away for an education conference in Hyderabad.

When he wasn’t back and the body turned up, the cops suspected it might be him.

And they had good reasons too. For one thing, the cop’s height matched that of the teacher’s. Then, there was also the fact that the plaid shirt on the corpse- partially decayed and torn in places matched the description of what the missing person was wearing the last anyone saw him.

A search party from the village had found that the teacher hadn’t reached the conference. But that was the extent of the information that they could turn up.

All this made the cop suspect that the teacher either committed suicide or maybe slipped into the waters by accident. The canal was a sub-channel of the lake which flowed past the village church. It would fill with water come monsoon when the lake overflowed, spilling excess into the aqueduct that coursed water to a reservoir which the village could draw from during the summers-and summers could be harsh in the village.

It’s plausible, theorized the officials, that the teacher might have slipped and fell in the lake when he set out from home. It was night and it was raining. His house was near to the church and to reach the bus stop he would have to walk for some ten minutes, along the side of the lake- a terrain that was made muddier, and slippery by the rain.

And when the teacher’s wife- teary eyed, revealed to them that the man was under severe financial constraints- the tutorial home for high school kids was running on loss, and due to a recent operation on his father for which he had to spend a lot, he had to take out huge loans, the cops flipped their theory and said it was indeed suicide.

In fact, the cops didn’t have any issue fitting the man into this scenario- after all, Kerala has the highest suicide rate among middle aged men in India and the major reason for the suicides is finance-or the lack thereof. The state being rather affluent, generally speaking the sense of shame that one felt due to lack of money was acute, living among such an affluent people.

When the matter of the teacher’s financial troubles came to be known widely, the villagers also accepted the fact that it was the teacher-a gentleman who always had a smile for everyone who turned up as a carcass in their canal.

All except one, that is. But who was going to believe what a ten year old girl thought about  a probable suicide?

But Remya was adamant in her belief- she was a student of the teacher, attended the tutorial every Saturday and Sunday. Indeed, she spoke with him on the day before he was last seen. Though what they talked was regarding one of her lessons, Remya has felt the warmth flowing from the good teacher as clearly as  you would see the moon on a cloudless fullmoon night.

Nearly a month after the dead body was first glimpsed by a bunch of boys who went to take a dip in the canal, Remya was proven true.

The teacher came home. He had an accident, sustained some injuries, injuries which prevented him from reaching the conference, an accident that kept him on the verge of unconsciousness, partly delirious, for quite some time.

Someone got away with the accident victim’s bag from the site of the road accident. So, there was no way anyone could identify the man. By the time he was strong enough- and conscious enough to gather thoughts and communicate who he was, he was only a week away from getting discharged from the hospital.

He called and informed that he was alive. Not just his wife, but the entire village rejoiced. Indeed, members of the society even formed a group to pool money and bail out the teacher from his financial troubles. In fact, the fund became a permanent fixture in the village’s management- there for someone to access in their time of trouble.

Another change that came over the village was a respect for the child who “believed the teacher is not dead.” Earlier, they had thought it cute that a young student  would show so much faith in the inherent goodness of the teacher- a goodness which she believed would prevent him from doing himself in.

But what would a child know about the wile ways of the world! They had thought.

But that was before news came that the teacher was alive. And when he came home and someone told him that it was only little Remya who, in the entire village actually believed that he was still alive- when they even held a burial with the dead body they found in the canal- the teacher personally came to her home and presented her a box of chocolates. A gift that was a testimonial to the quality of her faith, and in her instinctual knowledge that sometimes, it’s best to go with your gut feeling, even if it went against the grain of logic.

A gift which she considered as the sweetest she has got in her life so far, and not just because it was a gift of chocolates.

**

But believing that your teacher whose eyes widened when he explained to you the wonder that was an atom-the building blocks of something as magical as existence, wouldn’t just fling his life away was a far cry from believing in ghosts.

And regardless of the belief, she did try to go to sleep early that night, hoping that sleep would help her forget all about the ghost and the proposed rendezvous by the rain tree. Only, sleep wouldn’t come to her, evading her like the logic of the ghost.

Her restlessness grew as the night deepened. By midnight, the restlessness began to make her body visibly shake. She started anticipating the appearance of the ghost. When a lizard flittered cross the wall, she thought that it was him and gasped. When she heard the sound of someone opening and closing the common bathroom on the floor- their floor had three rooms, each occupied by one working woman- she practically jumped off her skin.

Deciding she needed a walk to calm her nerves if not to quench her curiosity regarding the ghost, she got out of the room and went down the stairs.

At the front gate stood the security guard- a man in his forties who joined some three or four months back- much after Remya herself joined the PG. The previous guard would be sleeping at such an hour, but this one, even though he sat in his chair was wide awake, watching the road, gazing at the vehicles that passed by occasionally, gazing after them long after the vehicle passed out of view.

It was a boring job, no doubt, thought Remya. One that was bound to send even the most enthusiastic of persons to sleep.

But she was thankful that the man stayed awake, reasonably alert, so that  soon as he heard her footsteps, he said, “Anything wrong, madam?”

The question, she assumed was because she was still in her T-shirt and pajama bottom, not exactly the kind of dress you would wear to go for late night clubbing. Saying no, she walked out of the gate.

She had intended to walk a bit down the road, keeping to the main lane which connected the 5th block with the Hosur highway and which still had a trickle of traffic, but she found her feet taking the direction towards Nambia’rs Café, as if they had a will of their own.

The rain tree that the ghost had mentioned was in the alleyway right next to the Café. She had found her gaze straying to the tree earlier in the evening when she went for the rendezvous with Natasha at the café.

**

Samanea Saman- that’s the scientific name of the rain tree- a species that used to be plentiful in Bangalore not long ago. But once the city began to expand and more number of buildings started pop up than you could shake a stick at, the tree-which grew up to a height of 25 m and which branched out like an overgrown umbrella was deemed an inconvenience for the city which needed buildings to be stacked with practically no breathing space between them.

So, they began to take down the rain trees-among other growths of the earth in a large number. Only a few survived the onslaught, one of which stood in the alleyway by the Nabiar’s Café.

Remya stepped into the alleyway with trepidation.

As far as alleyways went, this one was narrower than most that you could find in Bangalore. Hardly wide enough for two people to walk side by side, it connected the main road by the café to a backstreet which had, at this time nothing but houses with sleeping people in them.

The tree stood some 30 meters down its entrance, almost directly opposite to a Royal Enfield service centre. Moving closer to the tree, Remya saw that the service centre remained closed. Though it was only to be expected that the centre would be closed at this hour, she still felt somewhat disappointed. It would have been nice to know that there were people in the vicinity-someone to hear if she were to scream.

As she got closer to the tree which was probably older than the majority of Indians at this point ,she felt a coolness envelope her. Instead of feeling thankful for the coolness in these times when even the usually clement Bangalore weather has turned hot, she felt fear.

For she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something unusual about the coolness- the phrase “cold like a grave” which she has heard say in many a Hollywood film crossed her mind.

Augmenting her fear was the ghost who presently appeared from behind the trunk of the tree. Indeed, it looked as though the ghost were a part of the trunk that took distinct form and came out of it.

The ghost walked on nimble feet- swift and graceful. Since the only source of light was the light from a lone lamp post that stood some 40 feet away from the tree, it was hard to see the ghost clearly, given how most of the light was blocked by the arched canopy of the rain tree.

But the scab-filled skin surface- if it was skin and also the eyes that gleamed red could be seen well enough, the sight of which made her take an involuntary step back.

“I was waiting for you.” The ghost’s voice sounded softer than yesterday, as though it was being more courteous. Perhaps because I have obeyed its orders? thought Remya.

“Why did you ask me to come?” That was something obvious which she had planned to ask him. But saying the words out loud in the dark and lukewarm night, she felt stupid. What if this was just another piece of hallucination?

The ghost remained silent for a moment before he answered. The answer was but a gesture. A pointed finger that was directed to one side of the tree trunk. Towards a portion of the wall on which was graffitied a giant heart and an arrow across it, along with the names of two people who apparently were in love with each other.

But it wasn’t to the graffiti that the ghost invited her attention. Rather, it was to a woman—the dead body of a woman to be more precise.

The body’s torso was leaning against the wall, stiff and rigid, like it was being an obedient student listening to a lecture in the classroom. It’s arms lied across its lap- unmoving, unnaturally so. In fact, it was this factor which gave away the fact that it was not a living body that she was looking at.

Though alarmed at the sight of the carcass, she was nonetheless fascinated- not least because it was not there a moment ago. Looking closer she saw a piece of chord extending from off the back of the corpse’s neck. At first, she thought that what she was looking at was a lock of hair, but closer inspection revealed it to be a chord of rope.

It didn’t take too much of imagination to realize that it was a woman’s body she was looking at.

Judging by the quality of the skin of the hands which she could see, she assumed the dead woman to be in her twenties, possibly around her own age. She was wearing a pajama bottom with dog paw designs which looked darkly comedic to Remya given the circumstance. The top was striped- interleaving reds and blues. There were white buttons nearer to the neck, two of which gleamed in the harsh light of the streetlamp.

But above that was a cocoon of darkness, caused by a thick clump of leaves on the tree which blocked the light, almost completely. A gentle wind presently blew, making the leaves part now and then, which shed the light in occasionally like the shafts of sunlight falling on the ocean through breaks in the cloud.

And what these shafts revealed were sights unseemly- an eye that was hanging by a thread shaped flesh from its socket, her cheek split open vertically, somewhat jaggedly, a part of the cheek lying open like a cake cut open on someone’s birthday.

Most unsightly was the stare in the one good eye of the woman. The eye was open, fixed in death, just as the open grin on her face. But the grin and the look in the eye both suggested that the dead woman beheld Remya.

The breezed halted and so did the gentle swaying of the branches in the tree. The leaves didn’t part anymore and the light couldn’t penetrate any more either. At least, not enough to reveal any more of the dead woman’s face.

Remya wasn’t sure if she felt thankful for this or disappointed. She would have liked to look at the woman’s face closer. Though the facial features weren’t exactly in pristine condition, the glances that she had of them made her feel that there was something familiar about them. Was it someone she knew? Was it why the ghost asked her to come here tonight?

But despite the curiosity, there was also the aversion that the sight elicited.

Like most of her peers, Remya too was tech-savvy. More than reasonably. Which put her in that category of people who experienced first-hand that science, or the application of it, could produce magic. A magic called technology.

But such an experience couldn’t displace the primitive sensations of dread for death- one concept which science couldn’t explain fully well. And the reason for that is that science, till date hasn’t been able to explain life all that well. Indeed, there were conflicts of interest in the scientific community regarding the definition of death. If life means reproduction and transformation over time, then don’t rocks represent a rudimentary form of life? Their transformation in shape and size may take far longer than  humans but it does occur. And as for reproduction-why, a large number of pebbles owe their existence to their ‘ancestor’ rock.

And in a dark alleyway on a lukewarm night in Kormangala 5th block, standing under the canopy of a tree which was a member of a species fast disappearing from the city, Remya felt the weight of the absence of an explanation from science acutely, sending tendrils of shivers up her spine, making her move away from the tree, towards the screaming sounds of the fast moving vehicles on the road, towards light and civilization, towards the land of the living.

“Wait!” the ghost called out even as she was moving away. But Remya didn’t stop.

The fact was that the voice of the ghost- from beyond the grave, and the sight of the horrendously mutilated dead body together made a sensory load too weighty for her nerves to bear.

And unless she reached back in her room fast, she feared that she might faint- lying on the side of the road in an unconscious state was so not the best of positions for a young woman to be in. Especially not in a city like Bangalore where you could end up lying on the side of the road for hours before someone stopped to help.

As she rushed back into the gate, the security guard, eyes widened seeing the alarmed look on her face, aked, “Madam, is anything worng?”

She didn’t stop to answer. Instead, she rushed into the three storeyed building- taking the stairs two at a time. Soon as she entered her room, she bolted the latch on the door, and turned the key which she then took away from the keyhole and put on a desk.

Not that such measures would be any defense against a ghost- she knew that only too well, but doing such things did give her a sense of being in control.

However, she couldn’t enjoy that sense of power for too long. For even as she moved towards the bed, she felt her heart hammering in her chest even faster than before, and it sounded in her head like tens of machine guns fired in a closed, windowless room.

The last thing that she saw before fainting was the face of the ghost. She wasn’t sure if it was real or not.

**

“Here you go,” Natasha handed her a cup of hot lemon tea before taking a seat on the sofa.

After last night, Remya wasn’t sure if she could stay alone in the room without letting go of her sanity. So, she called her best friend, told her about what happened- at least, as much as she was willing to recount before the memory of it all became too much of a load to bear.

Even before she asked, Natasha told her that she would come stay with her for a few days. Natasha lived with her uncle and his family n Bommanahalli. Though her commute to and work would be prolonged by almost an hour if she were in Kormangala, she had no qualms staying with her friend.

“Only, I have a cousin’s wedding to attend in Mysore on the third day,” she had said. “My parents are not going for it- so I have to represent them. I would be back the next day, though if something..err..unusual happened I would cancel it”

“I appreciate that,” Remya had replied.

Now, sitting beside her friend on the sofa, Natahsa gently rubbed the back of Remya’s neck, as though the latter were a puppy or a cat.. Sipping the hot tea that she made for her, feeling the relaxing touch of the fingers on her skin, Remya certainly appreciated her friend’s presence. Indeed, she wondered what she would have done without her.

Simply having another person in the room relieved her so much.

Her condition made her acutely sensitive to the changes in the atmosphere in the night. Shifts in temperature and quality of light automatically put in motion an adjustment mechanism in the human body . That was something many people took for granted but for Remya, it was a problem, feeling the shift like a grating of the sharp edge of  pins on her skin.

The presence of someone with her made it easier for her to bear that transformation period. Natasha reached home by 7 in the night, around the time when the atmospheric temperature began to dip perceptibly.

Remya placed a hand on the side of her fiend’s arm- a gesture she knew would hardly suffice to express her thankfulness. Natasha looked at her and smiled.

Nothing unnatural has happened since Natahsa got here. Since she got here, Remya rarely felt any sensory overload. Even if she was away at work, Natasha would call her every hour, talk to her, making her feel relaxed and soothed.

This made her wonder yet again if what she experienced- the ghost and everything associated, was not just a hallucination after all? Now that she didn’t feel stressed, the ghost has disappeared.

“Listen,” she said. “I want you to go to that wedding tomorrow.”

“Are you sure?” said Natahsa. “As I told you, I would be happy to stay in.”

“No, really., You should go. As you said your parents aren’t going, so you should. And nothing..nothing bad happened these last two days, isn’t that so?”

“But I would be back only day after tomorrow!” Natasha said after thinking for a while.

“It’s fine. I am sure nothing would happen tomorrow night as well. I am sure that the ghost, or whatever it was, was just a part of my hallucinations.” Or so I hope, Remya added in her mind.

**

Natasha left early in the morning. Her uncle came to pick her in the car.

Once she felt, Remya went back to bed. She would have liked to stay asleep at least until noon but she came awake by 10 o clock.

She had extended the leave at work by two more days. Now, she wondered if that was such a smart move after all. Maybe work would have kept her distracted. But then, Dr. Nateshan’s voice came to her mind- what he said about getting as much rest as she could. His advice certainly seemed to be working.

But she could hardly stay idle all day long, now, could she?

**

After ordering breakfast from a nearby restaurant, she decided that it was time to get her laundry done. She would have to call the laundry guys to come and pick the clothes but before that she would have to get the clothes that needed to be washed, in a plastic bag, ready to be taken away.

Though the PG she stayed in was termed a “Posh” pg, it was nothing of the sort. Her room, for instance, had just one shelf the height of  half a wall which coupled as both her wardrobe and where she stuffed her other belongings- like a few books, makeup material, even the file that contained all her academic certificates. Other than the shelf, the amenities included a bed, a table which had seen better days and a chair that was equally bad. And a nail on the wall from which hung a cloth hanger which she rarely used.

She usually relegated the right half of the shelf for fresh clothes while the left half was given over for the soiled ones. Natasha, who read a lot of psychology books- she said it helped her in her practice as an HR manager, theorized that this was because Remya, like all Indians used the left hand to clean her bottom after taking a dump. So she was subconsciously inclined to use the left hand side of the shelf for soiled clothes.

Though she found quite a heap of soiled clothes on the left hand side presently, what caught Remya’s attention was a piece of clothing on the right hand side. Neatly folded and kept near Natasha’s red hand bag was a pyjama top and bottom- prints of dog paws and blue and red strips- usual motifs that are to be found in such clothes but which instantly made Remya’s mind reel.

The dead body by the rain tree that the ghost showed her! It wore these same clothes. Was that Nastasha’s? Is it something from her future that the ghost showed her!

**

Remya called her friend soon after.

Her repeated questions of was she fine made Natasha suspicious that there might be something wrong. But when she asked about it,Remya just said, “No, nothing. I think, after you being here for a couple of days, I’m feeling protective of you!”

Though the explanation didn’t satisfy her completely, Natasha didn’t press the matter, largely because she was at the wedding and they were calling her up stage to take pictures with the bride and groom.

Promising that she would call her later, she got off the phone.

As she was calling the laundry guys, Remya’s mind once again strayed to the thoughts of her friend’s clothes. Maybe I have seen them sometime before and was stuck in my mind somewhere. That must be how it got into my hallucination.

Unlike Natasha, Remya was no reader of psychology. And she wasn’t sure if her theory held water, scientifically speaking or not. Either way, it wasn’t working much since the idea of the clothes being part of Natasha’s wardrobe kept disturbing her mind.

After giving the soiled clothes for the laundry, she took a shower. If there was one thing that cooled her warming head down, it was a long cold shower.

She did feel considerably better after the shower. Taking off the white towel which she had wrapped around herself, she sorted through the shelf, looking for a fresh pair of clothes to wear. But she found that there was not a single piece of clothing that she could wear at home that was fresh. She has been on leave from work for almost a week now. And in these last days, she had worn all her home clothes.

So, she donned a pair of trousers and an executive shirt which she picked from her work wear selection. Some ten minutes after putting them on, she began to feel stupid.

The clothes also made her feel hot. The shirt with buttons right up to the neck and the pants made of thick fabric were styles that originated in countries with colder climates and were appropriated by Indians. In an air conditioned environment- like in her office, these functioned perfectly-making her look professional and not sweaty as hell.

But in a PG that wasn’t posh, it only made her look like she just had a prolonged session of sex which made her sweat all over.

So she took them off and reached for the only option of home clothes available to her at the moment- Natasha’s pyjama set. She was sure her friend wouldn’t mind. She would wash them before giving them back to her.

 

Putting on the clothes, the thought did occur to her that maybe the vision that the ghost showed her was her own demise. But then, such an idea was too wild to even contemplate. For who would want to kill her? Not that she could envision many people wishing to murder Natasha. But still, all said and done, though her best friend, Natasha was another person.

And Remya was grown up enough to know that there are things that even best friends don’t share with each other.

**

What an ass I am!

It wasn’t the first time that the thought was crossing Roy’s mind in the last few days. In fact, the thought now pops us so frequently in his mind that it has practically become a background noise to him- like the sound of traffic while you’re waiting for a bus.

But instead of getting inured to the effects of those words, with each iteration of the thought, he felt the shame more and more acutely. Yes, shame.

In fact, a couple of times he came very close to calling Remya to apologize.

She did tell him beforehand of her condition. Only, when he saw the blood coming out of her nostril and her fainting, he just freaked out. And the state of mind persisted over the next couple of days which made him behave towards her like an..well, like an ass. There was no other way he could have explained it to himself, though he did try to come up with something that wasn’t so scathing.

All the same, he wasn’t able to call her, his fingers dropping the phone at the last moment before dialing, for the cell phone, even though ubiquitous is hardly a device suitable for apologizing- this he knew only too well.

I may have acted like an ass, but I don’t have to remain one!

This thought was the impetus behind him ordering a bouquet of flowers from the florist. A bouquet of red and pink orchids, beautifully arranged, which they delivered some fifteen minutes back, while he was still getting ready, checking and re-checking himself in the mirror.

But now, he was ready. He carried the bouquet out, putting as much confidence in his strides even though he felt nervous inside. He didn’t know how Remya would respond when he apologized.

“I am sorry and I would love to have another chance,” was the gist of what he intended to say. But if Remya were to say something along the lines of “Go to hell!” he would still understand- if he were in her shoes, he just might say the same thing.

But that didn’t mean he was not going to give a try. He had thought about calling ahead but abandoned the idea soon as he thought it, afraid that if she said over the phone that she didn’t wish to see him, his plan would come to an end even before it was carried out.

Taking a deep sigh, he walked to the waiting cab. Getting in, he gave the driver the address of Remya’s PG as the destination.

**

This was the day. The security guard felt it in his bones. Or rather, in the way there was a deep disturbance swirling inside his soul, like a whirlpool made of nothing but debris.

And he knew a way in which he could still that whirlpool and regain peace.

He must kill again.

More than that, this time he ought to make it known to the public in Bangalore that he has arrived. His previous kill- the only one in Banglore so far, lied buried in an empty plot some two kilometers away from the ladies’ PG where he presently worked as a security guard.

He had bet on the fact that that grave was shallow would make the discovery of the dead body easy.

But even after nearly two months, they haven’t discovered the mutilated corpse. He would scan the newspaper every day like he has never done in his life-only to be disappointed every day by the absence of the particular news piece that he looked for.

All his previous killings were in villages and small towns, places that would rarely feature in international news, unlike Bangalore. Though he has found the city hellish with its shoddy infrastructure and ultra-congested streets, he still liked the idea of becoming famous for his deeds here in this city. The killings had begun almost five years ago, when the weight of years of abuse- more psychological than physical- that he suffered from his mother finally caught up with him.

It was the day he came home with the report that he was no longer employed with the mill where he worked. They had to let him go since they were facing revenue crunch and so had to downsize.

“You are 35 years old and you still haven’t managed to find a steady job!” was his mother’s first remark. Growing up fatherless, his mother- someone who worked as housemaid in different houses-brought him up with the sweat of her brows, and a lot of abuse that came out of her mouth.

She never hesitated in pointing out whenever she got the opportunity, how much of a failure he was. When he dropped out of school, she said this, laced with words the kind of which are fit more for a whorehouse than a house with a mother and son in it. He had thought that once he started working-which he did soon after he dropped out of school when he was 12, first as an assistant to construction workers and later as a transport assistant for a moving company where his primary duty was to check whether all the objects from one household did reach the destination, his mother would leave him alone.

But she didn’t. Not even when he gave her the money that he earned.

In fact, whenever he gave her the money, she would taunt him, saying how little he earned. “Look, the little man trying to be like the big man!” she would say.

Years later, when he was big enough to think about such things, he would think that his mother simply liked to taunt him. He was the single point in her life upon which she could vent all her frustrations. Nowhere else could she do that. Not with his father for the man had come and disappeared from her life as swiftly as a draft of wind. And she wasn’t sure in which direction he had gone.

She would have liked to give him a piece of her mind, but she couldn’t go after a ghost-which was practically what he has become.

Then, there was her work.

Lying in the dark at night, the boy would hear his mother mumbling angrily about the harassments she suffered in the households where she worked as a maid. “I wish one day I would be rich enough to be able to stop doing the dirty dishes for them, so that I could give them a piece of my mind!” she would say on such nights. “But I don’t see that happening, do I? Not when my son has just dropped out of school and is working as a labourer- and how hard would it be for a labourer to make something of himself in this life!” Lying beside him, she would give him a rough shove in the back. The boy would pretend that he was already asleep. Otherwise, the abuse would only escalate.

As a boy, he was scrawny, weak and always afraid of his mother- the kind of characteristics which made him an easy target for the woman.

And whenever he heard someone say such things as “a mother is the best thing in the whole world!”- the kind of thing that he would mostly hear in movie dialogues, he would wonder how that could be. He found it hard to believe that that was how it was with most people. He thought they were all just lying.

He bashed her head in with a huge rock he found in the backyard. He hit her with it from behind and  a single swing of the rock was enough to make the old woman lie still on the ground, blood and brain particles oozing out of the shattered skull, like juice from a pierced soft drink can.

By the look of things, the woman was already dead.

But just to make sure, he bashed her head in four or five more times. By the time he was done, the woman’s entire head was nothing more than a pulpy blob.

The sight should have been horrendous but instead of terror, it had the opposite effect on him. For the first time in his life, he found a peace so complete that he felt it was an ocean in which he could tirelessly swim for eternity.

But eternity didn’t last too long.

About a month after the killing-while he was on the run, thousands of kilometers away from home, he felt the stirrings within- a yearning to fill the void which gaped again.

As if by destiny’s intervention, he happened to see a lone woman on the side of the road just then. She was carrying a pot of water on her head, she was all alone on a stretch of road that was lined on either side by empty farmlands- a stretch that continued for a couple of kilometers. There was a good chance that no one would pass by there anytime soon. He has been walking along that road for almost half an hour and this woman was the first person he saw.

The woman looked too young to be a mother. And there was no sindoor on her forehead to indicate that she was married. But she would surely become a mother. And there is always the chance that she would be a bad mother. The risk that such a potential posed for the unborn child is huge, he theorized. Taking her out of the world would potentially save the world from having another sad child in its premises.

Since then, he has always killed young women- women who bore the potential of being a bad mother. The motto “prevention is better than cure” was one that was stenciled on the wall of the government clinic back in his village. And it was a phrase that he would mumble to himself as he snuffed the life out of each of his victims.

The young woman who stayed in this PG- the one whom he saw walking out of the gate well after midnight a couple of nights ago, certainly looked like someone who would go on to be a bad mother. She had that disturbed look on her face- the look of someone who couldn’t find closure, the same look he has always seen on his mother’s face-a woman who has never found the answer to the question, “Why do I have to suffer like this?”

He has noticed how she has been staying in in the PG these last few days, not going to work. This being a working woman’s PG, this meant that she was the only one in the building during the day while everyone else was away at work. He had noticed also that the woman who stayed with her last couple of days- presumably her friend, had left this morning.

As he walked towards the main entrance door to the building, he patted the pants pocket. The familiar bulge of the pocket knife put a smile on his face.

The smile broadened as he thought of the irony of him being appointed as a security guard in the women’s PG.

When he came to know about the opening, he had applied without much hopes of getting appointed. He had thought that it would require a whole lot of recommendations.

However, as it turned out, all that was required was a good bulk- and at above 6 feet, he certainly had that, and an Aadhar card. There was no criminal record in his name either. No criminal record at all.

**

Though he has been guarding the PG for over a month, he has been within the building only twice. Once, on a hot day like this when he knew there was no one inside- there were just 12 inmates in the 3 storeyed building which made it easy to keep track of them.

That day, he went in and checked all the floors. Found the door to one flat open, went in and used the common bathroom. Standing under the shower, he masturbated, thinking of the women who usually used the shower.

Another time, he heard a short scream coming from the ground floor. It was night. He rushed in to investigate, as would be expected of him, only to find that one of the lodgers had found a cockroach running across the bedsheet.

Presently he climbed the stairs on to the ground floor where he knew his newest victim lived. In less than two minutes, he was at her door and knocking.

**

Even after paying the cabbie and seeing the car leave, Roy stood at the PG gate for another minute.

The nervousness, even though it made his heart hammer inside his chest so wildly that it felt like it would jump out of its cage, didn’t help moving his legs even a bit.

It was sweltering. Sweat beads began to flow down his forehead like a mini-waterfall, though he has been riding in an air conditioned car. Unlimitedly, it was the heat more than anything else that made him move.

Pushing open the gate, he found the security guard’s station empty. He could see the empty chair within the small cone shaped security chamber, and a Hindi newspaper on the chair. However, the guard himself was nowhere in sight.

He waited, wishing not to proceed into the building. But a minute passed without any sign of movement.

Maybe someone is in the lobby. Thinking thus, he moved to the main entrance, only to find that there was no lobby as such. In fact, he saw that it was just a house that has been converted into a PG. The exterior glass casing gave it an executive appearance but apart from that it was just a plain old house.

This meant that instead of a lobby, there was a hall which led to a corridor deep within, and which branched to a staircase to the right.

It was from one of the top floors that the scream came .

**

There were no words in the scream- just an expression of animal terror. A sound that put Roy in a fight or flight stance. Though he made an unconscious step back, something stopped him from running away.

It took him a couple of seconds to figure out the logical pathways that his mind took to reach the conclusion that instead of turning away, he should run up to the sound of screaming, and help the person in trouble. The logical deduction, once he had calmed down enough to fathom it, was simple enough- Remya is on leave today. He knows this is a working women’s PG. He had checked the time before he stepped out of the cab- it was nearing noon. There was a good chance that Remya was the only person in the building now.

And when the image of the empty security guard’s chamber popped in his mind, he didn’t waste another minute. Taking the stairs two at a time, he reached the landing on the second floor. He was about to take the next flight of stairs- assuming that the scream of fear originated from the top floor, when he heard noises coming from his right.

Turning his gaze in that direction, he saw the door to a flat standing open. The sounds-a shuddering gasp followed by a gargling or maybe choking noise, supplanted by the sound of something like a wet towel hitting the floor, all came from inside the door on the far end.

The quality of the sounds suggested unpelasntness, and Roy proceeded slowly, careful not to make any sound as he put one foot in front of the other.

Reaching the door which stood slightly ajar, he pushed it open.

His brain refused to process what he was seeing.

A table was toppled over. Beyond that sat a bulky man in a security guard’s uniform. Remya was lying on the floor beside him, her eyes wide open in death. The man had spilt open her stomach, he was presently coiling her large intestine around his fist, playing with it like a child, a mad grin on his face, his hand smeared with blood, holding a knife.

Hearing the creak that the door made he raised his head and looked at the visitor, offering him a wider grin, as though asking, ‘Isn’t this amazing?’

Roy’s brain all but shut down, feeling a brain-shaped ice in his skull that sent shivers down his spine.

It was only until the security guard was just two feet away from him that the response mechanisms in his body came awake enough to allow him to move. But by that time, it was too late.

He turned around and began to run, the bouquet of flowers slipping from his hand, the palm of which has suddenly turned cold with sweat.

It took the killer just two leaps to reach him. A part of the dead woman’s intestine was still coiled around his wrist, like a wrist chain made in hell. That same hand also head the blood-smeared knife, which he presently rose, plunging it into the back of the running man’s neck. Another gargling sound filled the flat.

**

The woman’s body, he dragged out of the PG and over the wall which lined the nearby alleyway. The body fell on the alleyway with a loud thud. He jumped over the wall and landed on his feet beside the carcass.

Just like with the last time, he felt a wave of thrill pass through his entire body at the idea of doing this in so public a place. Unlike last time, he was doing it in broad daylight-which made it even more exciting.

This alleyway was just perfect for his purpose, this he had noticed. The Royal Enfield service center was the only establishment- commercial or otherwise in here, and even for them, the main entrance was on the backstreet. People rarely used this alleyway.

He dragged the body to the foot of the rain tree. He had put on gloves in the last few minutes after thoroughly scrubbing the body, wiping it clean of any marks. He would have to repeat the procedure on the room and the second body that was still in the flat. It was a casualty which he couldn’t have foreseen and it would cost him time- now that the peace has descended, he needed to get away soon.

But not before disposing of the other body and cleaning the room of any prints.

If he hurried, he could be away from here in half an hour.

However, before that, he must do something. He must publicize.

He toot out a coil of rope from his pocket and wound it around the dead woman’s throat. For effect, he also coiled part of her intestine around her neck, hoping that no crow would peck it away before the body was discovered. His plan was to hang the body on one of the low hanging branches of the tree.

Hurrying through the motions, he finished tying the knot on the back of her neck. The alleyway jilted a bit to the right a few feet after its start from the main road. This kept him-and the body-well out of view from anyone in a passing vehicle, or who might be walking by. But this didn’t mean he wasn’t nervous.

This was the first time that he was disposing of a body in so public a place in broad daylight. He could hear the screeching sounds of vehicles passing by on the road, and their incessant honking. Although this made the proceedings altogether more thrilling, it also made him more nervous.

He pushed the body up against the wall with a heart shaped graffiti on it. Holding one end of the rope in hand, he looked up at a branch, ready to fling it over the branch, so that pulling on it he could hoist the body up. He would then tie the end of the rope to the tree’s trunk.

That wouldn’t make it look like a suicide. But then, that wasn’t his intention, not when the woman’s bloody entrails were hanging out of a wound the size of a football on her stomach.

But it would be a horrendous sight for anyone to discover. One that would make Bangaloreans know of the arrival of a killer amongst them. One that would make him famous, far from a nobody that his mother has considered him to be!

He was swinging the length of the rope like a lassoe when he heard a screeching sound from somewhere behind him. At first he thought it was the sound of a passing vehicle. But there was something wrong with it, he thought.

For one thing, it was coming from the wrong direction.

Turning around he saw the shutter on the garage of the service center coming up. The shutter faced the alleyway. The garage was diagonally opposite to the rain tree. Which meant they wouldn’t have a view of the dead body in its present state-which in their eyes is hidden by the tree trunk.

But if he were to hoist it up, they would see it as easily as you would see the stars in a cloudless sky. More importantly for him, they might see him.

As the shutter was opened, he caught a glimpse of a man in blue overalls within- grease smeared, the hair on his head sticking close to the scalpopf his head with sweat. The man looked to be in his early thirties, reasonably fit. But he could take him out if he wanted to, this he knew. And the temptation to have the woman’s body hanging from the branch of the tree was almost too much to bear. It would be like putting up a hoarding for a brand new product- a product he has launched, a product called fear.

But better sense prevailed. It might be just one man in the garage. But the garage was part of a bigger establishment, and there could be more people in the service center. The killer cursed at the fact that the service center was open. He cursed at his own foolishness

.Before going into the PG to make the kill, he did check and simply assumed by the closed garage door that the center was closed.

“Stupid!” he hissed at himself. Anger surged through him, anger which threatened to upset the peace.

He threw the end of the rope that he held in hand at the corpse. Casting one last glance at the body, he made his way out of the alleyway. But not before taking the gloves off and stuffing them into the pocket.

Once he exited the alleyway, instead of turning left towards the PG, he went in the opposite direction. He would have liked to go back up there and clean up the mess, to take the second corpse and stuff it somewhere it wouldn’t be seen right away, maybe under the bed of one of the lodgers. The look on her face when she saw the horribly mutilated body under the bed would have been priceless…

But he couldn’t do it. Not now when he came so close to being discovered. The fragile peace that he has discovered was like a thin sheet of glass and cracks were already appearing on it.

He tried to take comfort from the fact that though he didn’t string the body up on the tree, they would still discover the body- see the terrible handiwork he was capable of.

As he passed by the Nambiar’s café, he saw a lone young woman in shorts and tee shirt standing at a table, sipping coffee and talking on the phone.

She was talking animatedly on the phone, with a smile that was so broad it could hardly fit her face, when her eyes fell on the passing stranger.

The killer saw fear in her eyes. There was something in his own stare which made the woman feel like she was plunged down a long hole that went all the way down to the core of the earth where the heat was unimaginable, savage.

And he liked that.

Breaking the glance, he moved away, walking faster before hailing an autorikshaw, moving away from Kormangala, but not out of Bangalore.

He intended to stick around. His brand of fear, after all, was only just launched in the city.

**

After plunging the knife into the back of Danny’s neck, the killer had  repeatedly stabbed him, all over his body, so much so that the violence of it even affected his soul- the ghost that urgently detached from the body appearing with cross-crosses from head to toe, with black ectoplasmic bile coming out of the slashes.

Danny’s soul got its first lesson regarding the afterlife- what happens to the body could crush the soul as well.

Finding his dead body too terrible to behold, the ghost moved away, carrying its weightless weight across the air, drawn to another recently dead soul in the vicinity by instinct. Instinct alone carried him to the rain tree where Remya’s ghost was just coming out of the body which would begin to decay in a few more hours.

“Is that you, Roy?” It was only because he herself was a ghost that she recognized. Otherwise, he was almost beyond recognition, the soul was that violated.

“Ye-“ Roy couldn’t finish the reply. For they felt a shuddering, like the land was shifting beneath their feet. The clouds in the sky revolved in an aticlockwise direction and night and day shifted rapidly- like they were in a hurry to reach somewhere. The two ghosts remained where they were. And once the shifting of the fabric of reality ended, they both saw Remya walking past with Roy, towards a restaurant

Remya found it equally exhilarating and scary to find herself both dead and alive at the same time.

Danny’s ghost floated out of the alleyway and to the road. A child sucking on an ice cream, walking past him, holding on to its mother’s eyes, looked straight through him.

He was sure that no one living could see him.

He watched as Remya and himself- both alive and well took their reserved seats at the classy restaurant on their first date.

For some reason, Roy’s ghost felt that she would be able to see him.This was more  a conviction than a feeling. A conviction born out of instinct- the same instinct that guided him to Remya’s soul by the rain tree before.

Remya’s medical condition, for some reason gave her access to communicate with those in the afterlife, he felt sure of this. A conviction that was as real as his own death. And the same condition has helped her glimpse the future, only she didn’t know of it.

I must make her see that!, he thought. I must make her see what would happen to her in the future. If I could show her the corpse by the rain tree, she would surely move from the PG. Then, she wouldn’t come to any harm.

Thinking thus, he looked towards Remya. She was but a few feet away.

Even as the  ghost began to wave his arm to catch her attention, he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was something he has done before.

An Evening For Trespassing

Gayatri Menon didn’t have any premonition of anything unusual happening that evening.

As was the case on any working day, the office cab let her off right outside the township. It was just past 6 and the evening sky was steadily turning from a hazy red to a steely grey- a jarring transformation which made the Bangalore sky o look like a dirty washrag.

But Gayatri didn’t look to the sky. Feeling slightly exhausted after a long day at work, she walked past the gate, past the saluting security guard, barely acknowledging his presence, moving as fast as she could, in anticipation of a long cold soak in the tub.

This being a Friday, the next two days were off and she had planned a few things for the weekend- like going for a bruch with a couple of a colleagues on Saturday and later shopping. Also, on Sunday she was going to travel all the way to Hennur(her township was near Kormangala) to meet her uncle. His daughter-her cousin-has flown in from the US with their new born- it was obligatory for her to go and see the child, though she would have preferred staying in on Sunday, lazing around at home, maybe watching the television.

None of these planned events struck her fancy right this moment when her entire body felt the exhaustion of a brain overworked by having to come up with logical schema for computer programming. She didn’t hate her job at the big multinational- in fact, there were times when she really loved it- there was a puzzle solving quality to software coding if you could look at it that way, and the pay was great and the frequent on-site travels to the company’s affiliates in Europe didn’t hurt either.

However, there were certain times, like this, when she wondered if running around like a headless chicken in the city-which was what being a professional in the big city was all about-was really worth it.

Not wishing to dwell too much on the disheartening thought, she pulled out her phone from her handbag and dialed her father’s number.

**

To call it a township was an exaggeration. And yet, that was what they named it- the Sara Joseph Township, named after one of the famous architects currently working in India who spearheaded the project.

The ‘township’ was made of 18 villas spread over an area of nearly 20 acres, filled with greenery and every amenities that you could dream of. In fact, the list of amenities- from a doctor on call to a supermarket and a multi-screen theater was so exhaustive that you could do without going out for weeks on end, maybe even months.

Though all the villas have been sold out even before the project was completed, not every one of them was occupied. From what Gayatri has heard, most of the properties were brought by wealthy NRIs who might use these villas as a vacation home- a place to stretch their legs on their visits home.

Gayatri walked along pathways snaked by villas which lied empty, but which were nonetheless kept in an excellent state of upkeep by the township’s efficient housekeeping system. Not that she noticed this- she had her attention solely on her father’s words.

“You are going to see Rani’s child this Sunday, aren’t you? You haven’t forgotten?” her father’s voice came through loud and clear on her iPhone.

“Yes,” she spoke the word wearily, making it clear to him that she still didn’t think much of the plan. Her cousin was someone who rubbed it in when it came to ‘America this, and America that!’ and she could hardly stand her.

Her father, laughing, said, “I know it’s not the most exciting way to spend your weekend, but you know how it would look if you were not to go and see the kid!”

“Yes, dad, I know, I know…How is the weather there?”she added, wanting very much to change the subject. Talking about relatives was almost as bad as talking about work on a holiday- both could give you a bad case of headache.

“Hot. As ever,” her father said curtly.

It has become his permanent lament these last couple of years on how much the weather in Kerala has deteriorated- “So far from the Kerala that I used to know in my childhood!” was how he frequently put it.

After chatting with her dad for a while, the latter put her mom on the phone. Gayatri- an only child was always her daddy’s girl. Right from childhood, whenever she had a problem-either at school or something else, it was to her father that she always ran to. And it was with her father that she felt the most comfortable talking with, almost like talking with a friend.

That’s not to say that she didn’t enjoy talking with her mother- especially when the latter related to her the latest exploits of her and her neighborhood girlfriends. This time, she apparently went with one of her friends to attend a charity event that had many ‘talented’ youngsters from the neighborhood displaying their skills- singing, dancing “and all such things!”

“It was terrible!” her mother was saying. “So terrible that I thought we ought to have a charity set up to make our talented youngsters truly talented!”

That made Gayatri laugh. Among all the people that she knew, her mother didn’t exactly have the best comedic sense, and the joke that she just made wouldn’t win her any comedy contest either. But she always felt refreshed by the way her mother- though a survivor of a heart attack on the wrong side of 50, tried to view everything in a lighter vein.

And it made her miss home. Wanting to leave Bangalore and go back home, to the cradling arms of her father and mother.

God only knew that she didn’t have to work- her father, a retired NRI had made enough wealth to last two lifetimes- if those lifetimes are spent indulging not too wildly. In fact, when she told them that she got a good opportunity with a firm in Bangalore, they didn’t want her to leave. They asked her to find a position with a company in Kerala, perhaps another better company in Techno park where she already worked.

But it wasn’t just the better pay and prospects, or the fact that it was a bigger company- at least 10 times bigger in revenue to her previous employer, that made her want to move. It was also the fact that she wished to live in another place, not close to home, for a while. Until that point, the farthest she had stayed from home was the college hostel while she was doing her engineering degree-but that was just 40 kilometers from home.

And she knew that a few years further down the line, when her parents were older and dad’s arthritis begins to get seriously worse, she probably won’t be able to make a move away.

She would go to Bangalore and live there for a few years before returning.

Though she didn’t say these things to them, her parents seemed to have understood it all the same, for neither of them tried to impose their wish on them after a point.

And when the news of the ‘township’ designed by the famed Sara Joseph- an architect whom her father hugely admired reached the old man’s ears, he was the one who brought her the villa, though she protested. “I would be glad knowing that you are completely safe in such a place,” was what her father said- something to which Gayatri couldn’t find anything to say.

She was still talking on the phone as she pushed open the fence-height gate of the villa and entered the compound. She had her eyes on the ground as she listened to one of her mother’s non-jokes so she failed to notice the open front door, not until she was just a few feet from the porch.

And if the sight of the door standing ajar, light flooding from within, sent a shaft of fear down her spine, an even fiercer jolt pierced her heart when her eyes fell on the man who sat on the step.

With closely cropped hair and an uneven growth of stubble on his chin, he looked to be in his early thirties, though the fading light of day made it hard for her to make out all his features. He had a long forehead and a thin nose, this much she could see.

And fading light or not, she could also see that the man held an opened bottle of beer- from the look of it, one of the Carlsbergs she had kept in the fridge.

“Mommy, I would call you right back,” she muttered and got off the phone. Though she stopped walking towards the house as soon as she saw the stranger, she was but only a few feet away from him- not any more distance than what he couldn’t cover in two leaps.

The word “rape” crossed her mind immediately, even as she dialed 100 on the phone.

“Don’t call anyone.” the man spoke in a calm yet stern voice. And it was the calmness more than anything which kept her from pressing the call button. With a calmness that was perfectly in keeping to his voice, the man brought out a pen knife from his shirt pocket, which he flicked on.

The light on the lamp-post just outside the villa came on at that moment, making the knife’s edge glint in the harsh light, giving the entire scene an orchestrated quality.

The fates are conspiring to get me raped!

The thought barged into her mind with the abruptness of an out of control car bashing into a wall.

Every evening, after she reached home and took a bath, Gayatri would read the Vishnu Sahasranama- a book that her mother gave her when she moved to Bangalore more than two years ago, one that mentioned with sublime eloquence the one thousand names of the Lord of all universes- known and unknown.

She now found herself reciting some of those names, with an earnestness she could barely summon up on her regular evening recitals. “Oh, good Lord- protector of the weak, please keep me safe!” her heart whispered even as she had a finger hovering over the call button on the phone.

She had heard someone say, or maybe read somewhere that all you need to do is type 100 and it would automatically go into call- even if you didn’t hit the dial button. What with the modern phone coming equipped with GPS, the police would be able to trace your whereabouts and come rushing to the scene even if you were in a situation in which you were unable to say a word.

Well, this certainly was such a situation, but she didn’t dare look down at the phone. Didn’t wish to make the man with the knife angry. She wondered if she should give a shout. Of the villas in her immediate neighborhood, only one was occupied. The one right opposite to hers, where lived another young woman, like her on her own.

Walking towards her home, she had seen that house shrouded in darkness. There seemed to be no one there.

If she screamed, the voice would surely carry all the way to the front gate, to the ears of the security guard. But by the time he reached here, the stranger would have enough time to grab her and hurt her, or even worse.

As though reading her mind, the stranger said, “Don’t scream either. For I would have no issues cutting you open if you did that,” he waved the penknife around. In a different circumstance, Gayatri would have found it grossly funny to have someone wielding so small a knife making such grand threats.

But in this late evening, standing on her lawn, feeling the cold sweat trickling down the back of her neck, she felt the man’s words oddly convincing.

“On the other hand,” he continued, “If you don’t do anything stupid, I wouldn’t hurt you. I just want to have this beer and nothing more.” As if to prove that he meant it, the man took a couple of more sips from the beer.

Calm. Extremely so.

Like hell you do! Thought Gataryi, though she kept her mouth shut. Somehow those words didn’t feel like the right ones to be said in this situation.

Another thought crossed her mind, this one potentially to her advantage- The stranger spoke in Hindi- though spoken with a hard rustic edge, she has understood every word of it. What with her mother being half-Marathi, Hindi has been a language which they sometimes used at home. “Whom else am I going to talk Hindi in?” her mother would say, fluttering her eyelids when Gayatri groaned about why they had to talk in another language when Malayalam was a rich enough language.

But even though she understood every word of what the stranger said, she hasn’t said anything to him. Maybe she could feign ignorance? Maybe that would create a divide among them and the man would just leave, feeling bored of talking to someone who didn’t understand a word he said?

Yeah, sure he would, she said to herself in a tone that had an extra-coating of sarcasm. Rapists don’t need you to understand their language, she reminded herself.

“What do you want?” She wasn’t confident that her words would come out sounding steady. Internally, she was shivering. But she was glad upon hearing very voice sounding normal if not exactly calm. She hoped that the Hindi that her mother has taught her would be enough to negotiate her way out of a prospective rape-scenario.

The man looked up. His slightly arched eyebrows suggested surprise- as though surprised to find that she could actually speak.

“I told you,” he said, “I just want to have this beer.” Pointing with the knife to his left, he invited her to come sit by his side.

“If you don’t mind, I would rather stand here.” This time, there was a tremor in her voice. But if he noticed it, the stranger didn’t give any indication, only repeated what he said before.

After a few moments of hesitation, Gayatri went and sat by him, leaving a feet or so of space between them.

The first thing she felt as she came close to him was the smell of sweat. An overwhelmingly strong smell which even surpassed the smell of beer.

And from up close, she saw that the man’s shirt and pants, as also the partly torn sandals on his feet all were dirty. Even in the light cast by the lamp post-which wasn’t all that bright, she could see the specks of dust on various parts of his apparel. Indeed, there was dust smearing the side of his head, coating his prematurely graying hair in a sheen of dirty white. And particularly noticeable was a cluster of white hair on the side which looked like a design of coiled snakes. The sight made her shudder inwards.

The compound next to the ‘township’ had an apartment complex coming up. She remembered her next door neighbor mentioning about it one day- about how it included 4 blocks, all pretty large and each standing at 80 floors. They were some of the biggest buildings coming up in the area. And though the 20 acres in which their township was situated gave them a decent insulation from the sounds of the construction, on especially calm nights Gayatri would hear the sound of machines rumbling in the distance, of the earth being broken apart and structures shooting up from the ground.

It occurred to her that this man might be one of the workers there.

**

Though she would sometimes glimpse articles with such titles like ‘The plight of the modern construction laborer’ in the news websites, she would rarely read through an entire piece- the world that they portrayed was as far from her own as the sun was from the earth.

And there were always better things to read in the news- like a new deal that the government has made with an MNC which would bring more jobs to India, or a new sale that’s happening on an e-commerce site: positive news that kept the world running.

Gayaatri’s knowledge about the life style of these workers was negligible. But she was fairly certain that they wouldn’t be so hard pressed to trespass and risk arrest just for the sake of a beer. She wasn’t yet sure how the man managed to get into the township- maybe he scaled the high outer perimeters with an above-average ladder, or maybe the security guard was in compliance with this guy?

“You stay here alone, madam?”

Her train of thoughts was broken by the man’s question. A question which she chose not to answer.

“I would take the silence as yes,” he said. “Don’t worry, I don’t want you to worry. I was asking just out of curiosity. You know, in villages, women rarely stay on their own. There would always be someone with them- a brother or husband or father..But in the cities, I see a lot of women who actually like to stay on their own. I used to work in Pune before coming to Bangalore. There also the same thing..I don’t know if you people don’t feel bored living on your own?”

Gayatri’s answer would have been “sometimes” but apparently the question was mere rhetoric as the man continued talking.

“But there’s one thing that I do like about the city girls. Their love for drinking. I’m not saying that the girls in the villages don’t. They do drink. Perhaps more than most city girls. I know that my wife certainly does!” He chuckled before going on. “But they sure as hell won’t stack their fridge full of beers like you do. And they may not be as relaxed as the city girls when it comes to drinking with other men. That’s something else which I love about city girls. In fact, would you mind getting another beer from the fridge? Would you mind having that beer with me? You know, I have never drunk with any woman other than my wife or grandmother!” he added with a grin.

As Gayatri was about to get up he asked her to leave the handbag and the phone on the step- a directive which she felt she didn’t have any other option but to obey.

As she walked into the open door, she gazed at the green buttoned security mechanism which was installed just the other month. High tech, cutting edge shit. She wondered why it failed to work. In fact, the way the door lied open, it was as though he opened it with a legitimate key- the only way by which the security system could be bypassed. She also wondered why- if the man had jumped over the high wall of the township’s compound, didn’t the s guard see him on the CCTV?

Her earlier assumption of the security guard being in compliance with the stranger became more deep rooted in her mind.

But there was a more immediate problem for her to contend with- the fact that the stranger was now inside her home.

Surely, now was when she was going to get raped!

Judging from the sound of his footsteps(she didn’t dare turn and look), he always kept a few feet of distance from her, following her as she made her way from the living room to the kitchen- but that was still a distance which he could easily navigate in a fraction of a second, reach out, grab her, turn her around and..

Gayatri didn’t like to think beyond that.

But she was determined that- the threat of knife notwithstanding, if he were to try and grab her inside the house, she would scream at the top of her lungs, even attack him with whatever objects that she could get her hand on.

But the man didn’t come near. Even when she opened the fridge door, he stood at the kitchen door, gazing her silently. She could feel the pressure of the stranger’s gaze ion the side of her neck, but she could also see out of the side of her eye that the man was stationary.

Within the fridge, she saw a piece of cake which she half-ate the other day. There it lied on a saucer, and the fork which she had used was still beside it. For one second, the image of her running at the stranger like a banshee, the fork raised in hand, flashed in her mind. But then, she blinked the image out of her brain, recognizing it as nothing but fancy.

Once they were back in the proch, the man began to sip his beer even before Gayatri opened hers.

Seeing her hesitate, he urged her to open her bottle which she promptly did. And once she did, he didn’t hesitate in saying cheers!, clinking his bottle to hers, as though they were good friends catching up on old times.

While she walked out of the house bringing her beer with her, Gayatri had left the door open a little wider. She wanted as much light to spill out onto the porch so that if anyone were to pass by, they could see her sitting with the stranger, and seeing the unusualness of the situation, they might stop to investigate- or so she hoped.

The better light afforded her a better view of the man.

She now saw that the man might be even younger than she had previously thought-perhaps in his late twenties. She thought how the man could have been someone who worked at her office- Most of the people at work were young.

But he was from another world, as far as she was concerned- a world where people didn’t spent all day long at a desk, one where sedentary lifestyle issues weren’t exactly the biggest problem one faced.

“You look beautiful!”

She was somewhat startled by the man’s words, not because he was so straightforward in his observation but because she couldn’t remember when was the last time someone told her that. So far, she has had two boyfriends and only one of them- the first one had told her that she was beautiful.

She saw now that thanks to the better light, the stranger now observed her with as much attention to detail as she did his face just a few seconds ago. It made her blush, made her lower her face.

“Don’t you think it sad that anyone’s body, no matter how beautiful it is, would go to waste after death?” he said, “Either burnt to ashes or eaten by maggots of the earth? Even someone so beautiful as you?”

If the man used those words to make her scared, he was successful. Gayatri, in fact, now thought that he might be wanting to kill her rather than rape. Yes, he would first finish the beer, then break the bottle, the jagged edges of which he would strike into her neck. Blood would gush out of her ripped open throat before any screams escaped her mouth.

But even as thinking all these unsightly thoughts, Gayatri began to breathe rapidly, the man calmly turned his attention to his beer-which was now more than half empty. He continued to speak in a calm monotone, broken only by the sound of the crickets chirping from the surrounding gardens.

“I had the same thought last week,” he was saying, “I was working at a site in Jayanagar then. A small shopping centre. We- around six of the workers slept in the centre itself at night. Directly opposite to the centre was a bar- I mean, a pub, you know the kind in which you could see the people sitting and drinking through the glass. One night, I was lying by a window, gazing out. The night was dark but not so the streets, and certainly not the pub. It was quite lively there. In fact, I could hear the sound of music they played- some fast music the kind of which they have in many Hindi films, well enough from where I lied in the building. And I could see with a relative clarity the girl and the boy who sat directly opposite to the centre which I was helping bringing up.

‘They both looked to be in their early twenties, in fact, the girl might have been younger. They were a handsome couple and the girl looked like she was made of butter. The pub’s orange light made her skin glow and when they talked, occasionally she laughed, and  I remembered thinking it was the most beautiful thing I have seen in a long time. I would be candid with you…the next thought that crossed my mind was to lay her, to take her in my arms, rip off all her clothes and fuck her like mad. If you were a man, you would have thought so too, she was almost as beautiful as you.”

Flatterer!, Gayatri thought.

But she was curious to see where the man was going with this story. Maybe he made up this story right now, or maybe it did happen the way he explained. Either way, he sounded in earnest.

The man took a few moments to drink beer before continuing, “But the thought that came to me soon afterwards was that of death. The boy and girl were laughing and chatting and having a good time. But those fleeting moments would fade from both their memories sooner than they think, and they would both be dead one day, the girl’s beautiful body rotting, becoming so ugly that not even the most sex-starved of men would like to touch it, let alone fuck it!”

The man stopped his monologue and drained the rest of the beer.

When he kept the empty bottle on the step, the sound which the bottom of the bottle made as it touched the floor sounded too loud to Gayatri.

She expected the man to continue with his story but he didn’t. He stood up, smiled at her once. Saying, “You have a very beautiful home,” walked out of the gate.

Gayatri remained seated on her front step at least for another fifteen minutes, her partially finished beer in hand before she became convinced that the stranger had indeed left for good.

Just as she was thinking to get up and move into the house, her neighbor drove by. That woman gave her a wave, seeing the beer bottle in her hand, she called out, “Rough day, huh?” She said that in English, sounding just like a character out of a Hollywood film.

Gayatri called back in much the same vein, in the same language, “You wouldn’t believe it!”

The neighbor smiled, then drove her car into the driveway, got out and got into her house.

Gayatri sighed in relief seeing the lights coming on in the opposite house. Now at least, there was someone in the vicinity, someone who might notice if weird shit like random strangers dropping in for beer were to happen.

Gathering her bag and phone, she got up from the step and turned around, ready to go in.

She had taken but two steps towards the front door when she saw the stranger coming out from there. He was in the same soiled clothes as before but this time, he had a grin on his face, stretched from ear to ear, as though it was plastered there. He moved towards her with an abruptness which verged on the unnatural. The shock of seeing the man-whom she just saw disappearing out of her front gate, now coming at her through the open door was enough to make Gayatri feel dizzy.

She fell but before her head hit the floor, she was unconscious.

**

She came to to the sound of a swarm of bees buzzing.

Once the cobwebs in her mind began to clear, she recognized the buzz for what it was- people murmuring. Opening her eyes, she saw five or six people standing around her bed, talking in hushed tones, murmuring, making up theories about what might have happened.

She was glad to notice that she was in her own room, in her own bed- there was something undeniably comforting about such familiar places. But then, the memory of the last thing she saw before fading out sent a chill down her spine, making her look around with apprehension. Her senses suddenly alert, she looked at the people assembled around her bed to see if the stranger was among them.

No, they were all people from the township- she couldn’t name all of them, but she knew all of them by sight.

She was most relieved to see that her friendly neighbor was also among them. That woman presently leaned towards her and asked, “Are you alright, dear?” The genuine concerned in her tone almost made Gayatri sob.

It was, she realized a far cry from the rugged tone of the man she last had a conversation with.

Thinking about the man, she wondered if he was still hidden somewhere in the house. Perhaps, she should mention about him to one of these people. Before they left, she would like them to give the house a thorough check.

However, before she could voice the issue, the township’s doctor on a call- an elderly man with a prematurely balding head, leaned his face towards her and said, “You gave us all a scare, Gayatri! I think you’re working too much. Over-exhaustion is common enough among young people these days,” he added to the others present.

Patting on the back of her hand like an affectionate father, he said, “You needn’t worry. Just take plenty of rest over the weekend. I would come and check on you first thing tomorrow. “ His smile was like a beam of the sun on a cloudy day. But still, Gayatri’s mind wasn’t at rest, and neither would it be- not until they made sure that the stranger was not in her house, or within the township’s premier. In fact, it’s not just for her own safety a that she must inform them about the stranger, she realized. The man might be lurking somewhere else in the township, at someone else’s house, even as they were here, and someone might get hurt or worse as a result.

“I must say that this has been the busiest day for me since I started giving my service to this community!” the doctor said with a smile to the others. “First that issue with the construction worker-which was tragic, and now this, which thankfully isn’t anywhere near tragic!” The doctor now looked at Gayatri and beamed at her, like she were a little kid he just treated back to normal health.

“What issue with the construction worker?” Gayatri asked, sitting up, all thoughts of telling them about her visitor temporarily suspended. She had a feeling that whatever the doctor was going to say was related to the stranger who visited her.

“Oh, there is this construction work going on nearby, a new apartment complex,” said the doctor.

“Yes, I know,” Gayatri said, urging him silently to hurry on. She couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say.

Perhaps sensing her imploration for speed, the doctor continued in a hastened pace, “One of the construction workers- a young guy at that, he fell from the scaffolding this evening. They knew there was a doctor available in this township, so I was the first medical help to arrive at the scene. Sadly enough, there wasn’t anything I could do. He was dead by the time I reached there.”

Gayatri pressed for more details, more precisely, about the man’s appearance.

Though the doctor found this request somewhat odd, he nonetheless provided details from his memory.

“And one of the most distinguishing features was a patch of white on the side of his head, a cluster of grey hairs that almost looked like a coil of snakes..” the doctor said at one point.

Hearing those words, another wave of dizziness swept over her. But she didn’t faint this time, instead, thoughts began to cloud her mind. Could ghosts drink beer? Could they open a door without a key? Could they converse like flesh and blood men?

Questions the answers to which she could only speculate.

For the time being though, she didn’t have the presence of mind to do even that.  The shivers of fear that gripped her were too much to permit that.