A Poem At The End Of Time

 No one told Samson that writing poetry was hard.

And certainly no one told him that it was no fun at all.

The way Samson used to see it, poetry was as close as words got to music, and words and music being his two most favorite things in the world, what could possibly be more fun than reading poetry?

Unfortunately, though he was all for broadening one’s mind by reading as widely as possible, he just couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that other people may not share the same passion for poetry as he did- that just wasn’t a concept he could contained in  his broad mind. In fact, he was of the opinion that if you couldn’t enjoy a good poem, you were sub-human, worse than the diseased dogs that you sometimes came across on the side of the streets.

Being no sissy, Samson Kumar didn’t have any issues expressing this sentiment to someone who had the temerity to say that they haven’t read a poem in their life since they have left school(And these people have only grudgingly read poetry at school since they were obliged to do so for exams, Joseph has found).

Needless to say, this sort of behavior has alienated Joseph from a whole lot of people, including his closest friends. In fact, the only people who still talked with Joseph were his mother and younger brother.

His mother called him on the phone every Sunday after church- their conversations were never lengthy since Joseph found that words were hard in coming from his mind whenever he talked with someone who didn’t like poetry- and he knew that his mother didn’t like poetry.

As for his younger brother, he too was not into poems. His forte was films.

But he was so fixated on films that  Samson found something undeniably poetic about it.

For instance, when Joseph- his brother- broke up with his last girlfriend, he went through a phase when he watched only movies the titles of which began with the letter ‘D’ until he got over it. (The girl’s name started with the same letter).

Though Samson wasn’t clear on the connection of movies like ‘Dances with wolves’ and ‘Die hard’ with the human mind’s capacity to mend itself after a break-up, he nonetheless found the relationship that Joseph had with movies to be rather poetic.

This meant that conversations with his brother on the phone sometimes lasted hours.

But Samson had a feeling that if his father were still around, they could have had great lengthy discussions about poetry.

There was no particular reason for thinking in this way.

Samson’s father was never really a poetry-fiend when he was alive. In fact, the man who has only ever gone till 10th standard in school disliked reading in its entirety(though he did use to skim through the newspapers every morning when he was alive).

The only reason Samson had built a romantic notion about his father as a widely read man who would tout poetry at the drop of a hat was because Samson was just 3(and Joseph,2) when his father passed away.

Growing up, he didn’t have many memories about his father- in fact, the only thing he could remember clearly about his old man was the feel of his bristly beard on his skin and the rugged  voice which sounded like a garbled version of  a song from a high-voltage speaker system(at least, that’s how Samson remembered it).

So, once he discovered a love for reading- and this happened early on since shy that he was, he spent an awful amount of time inside the house reading books and not out playing with friends like his brother – he began building his own memory palace inside his mind: a palace in which his father was the king who recited poems at the moon from his balcony.

**

Samson was thinking about his father when his immediate boss- the Creative Director of the ad agency where he worked tapped him on the shoulder.

Handing him a sheet of printed paper, the 40ysh man with a goatee so thick that it looked artificial(but it’s not- an employee did pull on it once to check when the CD was passed out drunk at an office party) smiled at him.

“This is a new brief. It’s urgent. Please finish it before you leave,” the CD said in his sonorous tone.

As the only graphic designer of the 20 member company, it was Samson’s responsibility to create logos and other motifs that would be required for a client’s ad communication. Smiling at the CD(and cursing him in his mind) he accepted the brief.

A cursory glance through the paper made it clear that he was going to have to stay late if he were to finish this particular assignment.

Staying in late was not unusual in the agency.

On the contrary, most days of the week, he did stay back later than was his call of duty.

But today was one of those rare days when Samson didn’t have any work at all to do during the entire morning session.

He was hoping that the luck of not having to do any work would run through the latter half of the day as well and for once, he would be able to go home without having his head swimming with the swirls and lines of the design work that he has been performing during the day.

But the bloody CD had to come and ruin it for him!

When he looked up, he saw the reteareting figure of the CD- his overfat backside wiggling as he climbed the stairs that led to the upper floor of the two storied apartment which was the office of the agency.

The upper floor was where the BIG ONES were at – the CD, the AD(Art director), the lone AM(Accounts Manager) of the firm and of course, the MD of the company.

It amused Samson no end thinking how such a small company could have BIG ONES at all!

“Bastard,” he muttered under his breath at the retreating figure of the CD.

Turning towards his computer, he clicked on the Coral Draw icon on his desktop, ready to get to work(albeit grudgingly).

As he waited for the software to open(it wasn’t exactly the fastest  computer in the world that the company has provided him with), thoughts of his father – about whom he was thinking before the CD broke his peace- resurfaced in his mind.

**

There was a reason why Samson was thinking about his father on this rather hot Thursday afternoon in Bangalore.  This Saturday would mark the 21st anniversary of his father’s death.

Samson has already booked the bus ticket to go home to Kerala for the next evening. There would be  no special ceremony or anything to commemorate the day. He was simply going home to be with his mother and brother.

They probably wouldn’t even talk about his father- that’s how it was last year: even though thoughts about his father were in the back of their minds, they didn’t bring it up.

The dead stay dead and the living persist until they die- there was nothing more to it.

And there was nothing more to talk about either- at least this seemed to be the unspoken agreement that the three surviving members of the Kumar family had come to during the last death anniversary of Samson’s father.

This year may see just a repetition of that- the three surviving members talking about everything else but Samson’s father.

But Samson didn’t mind.

It’s been a long time since he has been home- more than  three months and he was looking forward to spending some time with Joseph- his favorite person in the entire world.

**

“Naah, I think the logo is a little too reddish!” the CD said, peering at Samson’s computer screen. “Can you lighten it up a bit?”

It was past 8 in the night and most of the others in the room which Samson shared with a lead designer and a couple of Operations Managers among others have long left.

The sound of crickets chirping outside came loud and clear through the open windows- Samson has opened the windows and turned the AC off once the others had left because he found the room stuffy.

“But, sir, I just raised the couloirs gradient upon your suggestion!” It was all Samson could do to keep the anger out of his voice.

For the past hour, they have been doing nothing but tinkering with this one logo for a new client- an upcoming high dining restaurant that specialized in Uttar Karnataka cuisine.

But the CD, over-eager to please the client was finding faults with the option that Samson has come up with where there were no major faults- at least, not according to Samson.

Rubbing his goatee, the CD, tilting his head and observing the logo like a painter might his latest creation shook his head slowly.

“Just one more time, Samson..”

Sighing softly, with drooping eyes, Samson proceeded to do more tinkering with the colour of the logo.

It was another half an hour before all the tinkering and the polishing were done.

And by the time he reached home, Samson was so tired that he didn’t even have the necessary energy to heat up the pre-cooked chappathis that he has brought on the way from work. Neither could he bring himself to do the simple task of boiling a couple of eggs- his favorite food.

He knew that his fatigue was more mental than physical and that if he were to read some good poetry, he would feel refreshed in no time- poetry was like a cool blast of wind to his heated up brain.

Going online, he checked out some poems by his favorite poet- Pablo Neruda. But for some reason, Neruda’s words didn’t work their usual magic on him this night.

Maybe because thoughts about my father are still swirling in my mind- thoughts about death and morbidity, and Neruda- or at least his poems that I am reading are too light, he thought.

Being in the habit of reading for a long time, Samson knew that when it came to reading, if you were approaching it for solace, the best thing to do was read about the thing that was bothering you at the moment.

Thoughts about his father’s death didn’t bother him exactly- after all, he liked to reminisce a lot, being a poem lover. But the idea of morbidity, for some reason did bother him this night.

Maybe it was the fact that a sudden chill has settled in during the night that brought to him the possibility of a cold grave as the only eternal abode that awaited you. Or maybe, it was that his father’s death anniversary was so near.

Or then again, the thought might have been just the result of his wishing that his CD- the imbecile who didn’t know a pleasant shade of red when he saw one and still somehow became his boss- would die. (To be more precise, Samson wished that his CD be killed by the serial murderer at large in Bangalore whom the media has dubbed “Night chopper”- because he killed and chopped up his victims to pieces in the night).

Whatever be the reason, Samson Kumar found himself googling “Poems on death” next.

**

He waded through the links to the usual suspects- poems by heavyweights like William Blake and Lord Byron in which death was not so much an event as a spectacle and which Samson has read a bazillion times.

Lying in his cozy single bed with a hand under the head, he felt like reading some new poet, ideally someone whom he has never heard of before- there was a peculiar thrill in discovering a new poet which couldn’t be replicated any other way(If you were Samson, that is).

So, Samson did what’s unthinkable for most people in the 21st century- he went to the second page of Google results.

And when he found that that page was filled with links to academic papers on poetry (“The syntactic deliberations in the poems of Keats” being a case in point), he did what would surely sent the majority of smartphone users in the world into a stupor: he went to the third page of the Google results.

Scrolling down the page, he saw that it also contained links to famous works of famous poets. He was about to scroll back up and search for “Poems about death by upcoming poets” when his eyes caught a name above a link.

The link was the very last one on the page.

The words that appeared above the link was “ Death Macabre” by Kumar Johnson.

**

That was his father’s name. Of course, that didn’t mean the poem was written by his father- someone who passed away years before the internet exploded into the forefront of the world’s cultural and technological landscape.

But still, Samson couldn’t resist the temptation to click on the link- if for nothing else, only to see the picture of the poet(assuming there was a picture).

A poet who shared the same peculiar name as Samson’s father’s.

For Kumar Johnson was indeed a strange name.

While Kumar was a Hindu name, Johnson was a Christian name. And though it wasn’t unheard of for a Hindu to marry a Christian, the idea of a ‘combination name’ was not too popular.

Samson’s father’s mother was Hindu and her husband a Christian. And though they brought up their only child a Christian, the mother insisted that the child’s first name be Kumar- in memory of her father who also had the same name.

Clicking on the link, Samson thought how rare it would be for someone else to have the same name.

The link led him to a page that remained blank- black, actually- for a few seconds before it was loaded with the poem in white letters. The use of gothic font to accentuate the dreaded topic felt a little cheesy to Samson.

But when he began reading the poem, he found that the font was the least of it- the poem was worse.

In fact, it was one of the worst poems that he has ever read in his life. It was so bad that he felt it shouldn’t be catalogued under the word “poem” at all.

If there was a literary genre called “asswipe” that’s where this poem should be, he thought.

But notwithstanding the pathetic quality of the poem, he found himself continuing to read.

It took him a few moments to realize the reason why instead of writing a letter to whoever maintained the page to delete the poem in the name of general decency, he continued reading the damn thing.

But when the reason hit him(with the blunt force of a hammer hitting a nail-head) he sat up in bed and gasped.

The poem, he found, was filled with details about his life only someone who knew him well would know.

For instance, there was a mention of how his father- a rational man most of the times- once took a 2 year old Samson out of desperation to see an esoteric medicine man who was known to cure diseases that no one else could. At that point, Samson was down with a pneumonia which simply wouldn’t leave him, not even after consulting the best practitioners of modern medicine in town.

Later, when the child’s fever came down and his health improved(thanks to modern medicine), Kumar would laugh at his own folly- of running to the fake medicine man like that.

That episode was something which only his mother and Joseph knew about.

After a few moments of reflection, Samson felt convinced that it must be his brother who has put the page up- as a (weird) prank. He knew that Samson frequently read poems online.

But when he called Joseph and asked him about it, he said it was the funniest thing he has ever heard.

As for Samson, when he heard himself speak the accusation out loud, he realized how stupid it sounded. Apologizing to Joseph, Samson once again turned to the web page in front of him.

Only to find that something was happening.

**

Even as he was looking at the page, new lines were being added into the poem!

As far as he knew, such a trick was not possible with programming. For the first time, he wondered if the spirit of his father might be trying to communicate with him.

The medium of internet would make sense for his father to talk to him, and especially in the form of a poem, because he spent a lot of time(in fact, the bulk of his free time) reading poems online. Samson wasn’t active on any social media platforms and when a message alert appeared on his phone, it would be days before he got around to reading it(not least because he rarely got personal messages).

So, if there was something that his father wanted to talk to him about, something which couldn’t wait, an online poem made sense- and certainly the use of language suggested someone whose education didn’t extend beyond 10th standard in school and who used to dislike reading when he was alive.

So, what could be so urgent that his father’s spirit sought this unusual method to communicate?

Reading the ever expanding lines towards the bottom of the poem, it seemed that his father was talking about the “curious beauty of death which makes you see future!”

He assumed that that meant his father could now see the future.

He then went ahead to write about the yellow mattress of the bed where Samson was sitting and the killer- the one they call the Night Chopper- who was about to come breaking down his front door and chop him to pieces. “Get out, now!” his father typed with no pretension of poetry.

Even as he was reading the words, Samson heard the front door being kicked open. He hurriedly went  to the door of his bed room to look at the door beyond the drawing room.

His eyes widened as he saw the killer, holding a machete in hand walking towards him.

He saw the grin widen on the killer’s face. He saw the bald head glisten under the light from the tubelight. He saw the goatee so thick that it could have been artificial.

Samson didn’t find it surprising that the Night Chopper was the creative director at his agency.

But he was surprised by the ease with which the blade went through his body.

 

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Invisible Descent

 Walking on the road that wound its way along huts and small houses that belonged to the ones confined to live in the outer boundaries not just of the town but of civilization itself just because they lacked money compared to the rest of the citizenry, he forgot for a while that he was invisible.

Without thinking, he waved at a little naked boy who was taking a dump out in the open right beside his hut. But the boy looked right through him. And when he came across a dog that was walking languidly down the road from the opposite direction, he playfully raised his hand in a throwing motion as though he held a stone in his hand and was going to release it at the animal- he used to do that a lot when he was a young boy.

But of course, the dog didn’t flinch. It just went right by him, yawning.

After a few minutes of such antics which failed to evoke responses from other creatures- human or otherwise(his attempt to startle a chameleon sunning on the side of the road also failed miserably), the obviousness of his situation once again came home to him- that he was not obvious to the world.

Far from it- like the wind, he was invisible.

But unlike the wind which you could feel on your skin when it touches you, his presence could not be experienced by others in any way.

The thought saddened him. Frustrated, he ran a hand through his hair which has become rather coarse and overgrown during the nearly one year for which he has been invisible so far.

One might imagine that with the passage of time, he might have got used to the situation. After all, the state of invisibility did have its advantages- at least this particular state of invisibility that he found himself in.

To begin with, his body no more demanded him to eat or drink anything. In its obsolete form, the body has ironically become a decent companion rather than a “necessary evil” as it’s called by everyone with half a brain.

His body didn’t grow stronger by the lack of food, of course but neither did it grow any weaker.

He was 22 years and 5 days old when his existence as a normal(read visible) human being on God’s green earth came to an end.

One year later, his body hasn’t aged beyond that.

Then, there was also the fact that his invisibility has rendered the notion of working out a moot point.

In his previous existence when his friends waiting at a mall for him could wave at the sight of him, or his mother, when she saw him coming in to the house in an inebriated state could scold him in the way only mothers could, he used to hit the gym thrice every week.

Though he didn’t really dislike the notion of moving his body strenuously- sometimes even violently to the sound of hard pounding music, practicing this strange craft along with like-minded individuals in an enclosed environment, he was nonetheless not someone whom you might term as a “sweat fiend.”

The principal reason he went to the gym was so that he would look good enough to the ladies. He never really had any notion of building up a good body for the sake of building up a good body.

So, once he found himself in a position by which he couldn’t be observed for the bulges that showed through the thin fabric of his T-shirt, he gave up working out without much regret.

But these minor pros which the state of invisibility brought him didn’t outweigh its cons, not by a long shot.

What he missed the most about his old life was of course companionship and the affection that could only be experienced if you were visible- he discovered it the hard way that people didn’t give love to an invisible person any more than they did a dirty stain on the wall.

**

For a few weeks after he turned invisible, he used to spend a lot of time in and around his house- in the hope that his mother or his father or his brother, or maybe the family dog- a sturdy young pug who went by the name of Johnson would somehow feel his presence. (It was his mother who named the dog. She proposed the name as a joke, saying that the dog looked as cute as a baby in a Johnson and Johnson commercial).

In many horror films that he has seen, the pets of a household could see things that the humans couldn’t. In almost all of these films, the invisible presence was a ghost.

‘Maybe it’s because I am not a ghost that the dog is unable to see me’, he would later think.

Indeed, one night when he felt tears stinging behind his eyes seeing how his mother sat sad but oblivious to his presence in the room, he thought that he should kill himself.

For then, the dog would be able to see his ghost and may alert his parents- in what manner, he wasn’t sure- that there was a ghostly presence in the house.

Then, maybe his parents would put two and two together and realize that it was their son’s ghost that was in the house.

That sounded like a good plan to himself.

The only problem was that he couldn’t execute the plan- for the simple reason that he didn’t have the ability to manipulate objects- like a knife with which to cut his wrist or a length of rope to hang himself with.

He did try things like drowning himself in the ocean and folding his tongue within his mouth and chocking himself(something which he has seen in a Hollywood serial killer film once). But such attempts failed totally. It was as though his body, now that its physicality was open to interpretation denied him any physical means to kill it.

‘Then, what am I supposed to do! Simply go through life as a non-entity, without partaking in life in any form, without contributing anything to my family?’ He raised this question to himself long enough to realize that he was never going to be able to answer if, not if he were given a hundred lifetimes to love.

Once he realized this, he has given up asking the question, left his home because he could no more bare to see the sadness that came over his family’s faces whenever someone mentioned his name, and he started roaming.

After waving to the child who was taking a dump and mock-threatening the stray dog, he walked on, shoulders stooped in a defeatist’s posture, eyes staring at the road and nothing but the road, sensing the overwhelming brightness of the noonday sun and hoping that he could feel the heat.

He walked on to the beach.

**

The beach was where it all started.

One fine evening he was waiting at the beach. His friends had told him that they would be there by 6. But 6’O clock came and went and the sky- a hazy red fast turned into azure and then deep blue which verged on being black.

By 6:45, he gave up trying to reach his friends by messaging on Watsapp and called them.

The first one said that he had to drop his mother in his motorbike somewhere before coming to the beach and he would take some time. The second friend didn’t pick the call.

Muttering profanities at his absent friends, he walked to the road by the beach and brought a cigarette. Lighting it up, he walked back to the beach- to an isolated part of the beach and sat down on the sand behind an overturned boat which lied on the shore like a beached animal.

To his right was a long stretch of beach that extended all the way to the light house some two kilometers away. The beacon from the tower kept rotating, but from his vantage point, it looked weak. He wondered how a light so weak could be seen by ships in the ocean.

Towards his right was where the evening crowd who had come to enjoy the beach were assembled- eating oily snacks from the food vendors, tasting ice creams, children playing in the slides and a small merry-go-around which was fixed in a make-shift park right in the middle of the beach.

This being a Saturday evening, the beach was rather crowded and in typical beach-crowd manner, the people made a hell of a lot of noise.

But their collective noise sounded feeble to him since he sat so far from them- the nearest of the people- a circle of old men who sat talking and laughing like they were determined to find something funny to talk about every five seconds, sat more than three hundred meters away from him.

Part of the reason he sat so far from others was because he was smoking a cigarette.

The beach was a no-smoking zone and the beach patrol, if they found anyone smoking were rather strict in enforcing their Rs.500 fine rule. But they rarely came to the side of the beach where he sat.

Another reason for this self-imposed isolation on a public space was that he simply felt weird sitting on his own among all these people who were having fun.

The thought made him curse his friends some more and take a deep drag on his cigarette.

While he was blowing out, through the haze of the tobacco smoke he saw someone swimming in from the ocean.

Though the beach was not known to be popular for swimmers, one could spot the occasional swimmer out in the churning waters, particularly during the evenings. So, there was nothing unusual about this.

But when the person came nearer and nearer to the shore, he realized two things:

1) The swimmer was fast- extremely so. One moment he was hardly more than a dot in the ocean but the next moment, he could see the swimmer’s head and arms in clear detail- at least as much as the fading light would allow him to see.

2)The swimmer was not human. At least, not entirely.

**

He watched with a petrified fascination as the swimmer came ashore, planting his palms with the webbed fingers on the ground and dragging himself out of the ocean. When the swimmer raised his head, there was a grin on his face- a grin which exposed teeth between which were caught what appeared to be green weed or moss.

The swimmer’s eyes were bright yellow with multiple black pupils. Both the eyes gleamed bright in the darkness as though they were lit from within.

When the swimmer stood up and stretched his hands as if to shake off the tiredness of swimming, the man on the shore saw that the swimmer was at least eight feet tall- possibly more.

The swimmer had an easy- almost comical gait as he walked towards him, as though he or it was amused by something.

As the swimmer came close to him, he began to get his whiff, carried by the wind which blew in from the sea. For a second, he couldn’t place the smell- he was too overwhelmed by the sight of this strange being to think clearly. But a few moments later, when the swimmer stood so close to him that he could reach out and touch him if so he wished, it came to him.

The swimmer smelled like fish!

Not rotting or spoiled fish but dead fish the kind which his mother brought from the market and washed in the sink and cleaned before cooking it.

The swimmer laughed: a high pitched sound which was half-whistle and half-human. The wind carried the shrill sound upwards to the sky.

He looked at the swimmer with ever-widening eyes. He noticed the green scales on the swimmer’s legs, and the tiny round black dots which appeared to be encrusted in a seemingly haphazard design along the side of his body.

If at all he had any doubt at all that the swimmer was not human, he didn’t now.

After laughing, the swimmer said, “I was hoping that it wouldn’t be someone so young as you!”

He then went on to explain that he has been fated to live in his quasi-amphibious form, never truly fitting in either on the land or the water because of a curse.

That curse, apparently was put not on him but on a human ancestor from a time before written history.  The only problem was that the curse couldn’t be broken and it must be carried on down the ages, until the end of time.

“The one I lay my eyes on first after coming ashore after living for so many years in the ocean would have to carry the brunt of the curse for the next hundred years.” He spoke with a calmness that was unnerving.

He spoke as though he were talking about an extremely mundane affair like the weather or the price of onion.

The swimmer said that he- the man on the shore- wouldn’t be an oceanic being.

“Every new person to whom the curse is transfered would adopt a new form- you can consider it as a convoluted form of evolution. Your form, for instance would be formlessness. You see, I have been condemned to the ocean floor, so no on one- no human that is, would see me. Now, that concept takes an evolutionary next step with the idea of formlessness- in which case, you would be literally unseen. Where things go from there, I don’t know! I guess we would have to wait for another 100 years and see! Ha!Ha!ha!”

The swimmer laughed and walked away.

Even as the swimmer was walking away, he noticed the scales and the black dots on the surface of his skin falling like flakes and disappearing into thin air.

“Urgh!” he uttered a short but hoarse cry as he felt his skin burning.

For one second, he thought that what the strange being has said- about him turning invisible has begun. Maybe he was to lose his body, one burning layer after another!

But when he looked down, he saw that the burning on his finger was caused by the cigarette which has burned down to its butt. Losing it in the sand, cursing loudly, he tried to make sense of what just happened.

He wondered if it was a prank pulled by one of his friends. Maybe they had asked someone to do this? Maybe that’s why they were late?

But he couldn’t think of anyone outside of a film make-up artist being able to attire someone in such impeccable detail.

Also, the swimmer- a young man beneath all the fishy add-ons didn’t for an instance look like he was acting.

Besides, why would his friends do something like that?

He has asked them to meet him at the beach so that he could treat them at the nearby bar which overlooked the ocean- for he has got his first job!

They wouldn’t be interested in wasting time like this. They would just want to drink. He knew his friends.

Half an hour later, one of his friends appeared. S

eeing him, he smiled with relief- he hasn’t realized that he was tense all this while.

He was about to tell him about the strange man from the ocean when he saw a baffled expression coming over his friend’s face. He saw him picking his phone and dialing someone.

In that instant, he felt sure that the strange being from the ocean was no prank.

Even though his friend called him, his phone didn’t ring.

Neither could he see him, even though he stood mere inches from him.

For all practical purposes, he was dead to the world.

**

He now sat down at the exact spot on the beach where he was on that fateful night.

But the upside-down boat was not beside him and the beach was entirely deserted what with the heat of the day.

He has often come to the beach since that night. He didn’t know why exactly but this beach was the only place to which he had a sense of belonging anymore.

Sitting here on the sandy shore, he has often wondered about the strangeness of the world he lived in, about how little we know about our own existence.

As for himself, he didn’t even have a full picture of the curse which befell one of our ancestors that has been coursing through the lives of people down generations.

Who was that ancestor? What did he do to deserve a curse that made him- and many others live a subhuman life?

These were questions to which he didn’t have the answers.

Not that it mattered.

All that mattered was that here he was, caught in the mysteries of the world, a link in a chain of events that trickled down centuries- the inheritor of an absurd existence.

Whether it had meaning or not was something he didn’t dare think about.

As he gazed at the horizon, a smile broke on his face, thinking of the next “evolution” in the chain.

The person to whom he was to pass on the curse one hundred years- no, 99 years from now would be sucked out of his existence and flung back into his mother’s womb, where he would exist as a single cell, a cell with consciousness, one potent with more energy than mitochondria, yet it wouldn’t have any means of expending that energy!

The unspent energy would continue to harass it, leaving it in a constant state of unsettlement, like how unspent rage would hurt the brain of a fully formed human being.

He knew this, because part of the curse was the knowledge of the fate that will befall the next one in the chain.

And that knowledge helped him to look down at the as yet unknown and possibly unborn person with pity.

‘At least, I could move around at will. At least, I am not  locked in a womb for all life!’ he thought.

And that was the only claim to superiority he had in his invisible existence.

Gazing at the silvery sparkles of the oceanic water, he wished-not for the first time-that this one thought would make him feel truly content.

The wish failed, yet again.

 

Them

Susmita Mukundan got bored with the television at around 12:30 in the afternoon.

She was in the middle of a rerun of one of her favourite mega-serials. This particular episode-which was about the death of the lead actress’ pet dog and the mystery that revolves around  it, she has already seen twice. Not that she found watching it once more too much of an ask- Susmita has been watching the show without fail the three days it aired every week since the show started to be beamed on the Asianet channel almost ten years ago.

She was too invested in it by this point to have found anything- literally anything related to the show too much of an ask.

Why, the show was practically like a loved one as far as she was concerned- there may be some, or even plenty of flaws in a loved one but if you truly loved that person, you would do almost anything for them. In the case of the show, doing anything translated as watching an intermittently crying and shrewd female lead trying to piece together the clues that would shed light on whether her poodle was murdered by her mother-in-law, and if she did, was her husband also part of the murder plot?

No, Susmita didn’t get bored because of the longest soap opera in Malayalam  television history- called ‘Karmegham’(The Dark Cloud). She was rather bored by the very act of watching television- which was all she has been doing since 8 in the morning.

If her kids were around, it would have been a different scenario.

Though the maid cooked the food for the family, it was Susmita’s job to feed them. The two girls were divided by two years- the eldest was 8 years old-but when they were at the dining table, both of them behaved more or less the same way- that is, with extreme prejudice towards food, even though the maid made some excellent fare.

To make sure that they did eat their food- at least, enough so that they didn’t become anemic, Susmita would have to coddle, cajole and threaten them in equal measure. In fact, the by the end of their breakfast, she would feel like a soldier who just came through a battle-field after a hard fight.

And given how this was summer vacation for both of them, after breakfast she might have bathed them, got them dressed(both chores harder than how they sound) and taken them to the park at the Trivandrum Museum and Zoo complex or to a mall where they could just hangout, eating junk food and window shopping and occasionally buying something if it caught her eye. They might have lunch on their way back from one of the children’s favorite restaurants(and they had quite a lot of favourites in town) and by the time they reached back home it would have been late afternoon-aka, siesta time.

After siesta, Susmita would fix herself a coffee after drinking which she would hit the showers- a long cold shower that would wash away the heat which has accumulated in her body during the course of the day. The shower would also be an attempt at washing away the fatigue that came with being a single mother.

She suspected that it was something that couldn’t be washed away with water- or anything else for that matter. But there was no harm in trying, was there?

After the bath, she would sit down with the children and teach them some elementary math or English- just about the only subjects in which Susmita herself was any good at when she herself was in school.

She would soon lose interest in teaching them though- her mood always darkened with the setting of the sun, the final rays of natural light to grace the earth reminding her of another day coming to an end in her relatively new status as a single mother.

So, breaking the lessons which she herself initiated, she would then move to the living room where plopping down on the sofa with the kids, she would proceed to watch a mix of shows including kids’ cartoons, an American music reality show(which both the kids and Susmita loved) and Karmegham(wich Susmita loved but the kids hated).

Her days would go by fast, to put it mildly. But today, since her kids were staying at her parents’ for a couple of days , she felt bored, restless and the television too lame a companion.

Also, she was tired of waiting for Them.

They had said that they would be at her doorat noon sharp. But later, they called saying there was a slight delay- though a delay of two hours wasn’t something Susmita herself would have called ‘slight.’

**

Susmita came to know about Them through a friend.

The friend in question was someone whom she has been close with ever since they were in school. They both lived in the same city and both were divorced- her friend before Susmita, way before.

So, when Susmita got divorced, she was the one whom she called the most, to weep on the phone in the nights when she felt utterly, terribly sad, because she was someone who could understand- to a certain extent, at least how she felt.

Both of them had the same fate of their husbands walking out on their relationships because they preferred other women.

A few months after Susmita’s divorce, the two friends were at a restaurant, chatting about anything and everything but deliberately avoiding the topic of their divorce-after all, how many angles were in something so sad to explore?- when a handsome young man walked into the restaurant with an equally young woman.

“Why would such a handsome man go with such an ugly woman?” Susmita’s friend whispered as her eyes fell on the man who took a seat two tables away from them. “God, I would have given anything to hump that guy!” she added.

Her  candid proclamation made Susmita laugh.

Smiling, her friend said, “I know that at 35, we are past the age when most young men worth their salt would even look at us, let alone smile at us. But still, there is no harm in wishing, is there?”

They were at a newly opened Italian restaurant.

The red wine which she was having with their meal had made Susmita a little tipsy.

Perhaps because of that, Susmita revealed to her friend that over the last few months, she has been having these wild fantasies in which she would be doing things with muscular young men the kind who graced the covers of romance novels.

“What kind of things?” her friend said with a mischievous smile.

All the answer that she needed was contained in the smile that she got in response.

That’s when, leaning across the table, she whispered to her about Them.

“You could find Them online. I could give you the link to their forum. They have a chapter in many parts of the world. They have one in Trivandrum too. Though a small chapter with very limited number of members, there are quite a few grand specimens among them- including the types that grace the covers of foreign romance novels.”

Later, when she explained to her what the group which called themselves as simply ‘Them’ did, Susmita was equally excited and awed.

The way her friend put it, they were not your regular escort services or even a high-profile prostitution ring. “The members of Them- both men and women are all extremely wealthy individuals. This is more of a hobby for them than anything. And they make house calls only if requested by other wealthy members of the society-other members. You and I would both satisfy their criterion for a wealthy individual.”

Her friend winked when she said this: the alimonies they got were grand and they both knew it.

“Someone who is already a member of the club should recommend if a newcomer is to avail their services.”

Susmita gasped when she learned that her friend was already a member.

“Why do they call themselves so?” she has asked.

“Because they function somewhat outside the normal functioning of society-so, in a sense they are outsiders- ‘them’ as opposed to ‘us’ They have embraced this outsider status, for they know that that’s the only way to bring sexual liberation to the society.”

“I don’t know…I don’t know how how I would feel about it..” Susmita has said with a smile.

Smiling an understanding smile and patting her hand, the other woman has said, “I get it. Just let me know if you need their services. I can tell you from personal experience that you would not regret it!”

After months of pondering, Susmita called her friend last week to ask her if a housecall could be arranged.

**

The circumstance that prompted her to make the call was no mystery. In fact, you could say that the circumstance was a person.

Susmita’s eldest daughter has expressed an interest in learning the guitar.

So, she arranged a private tuition for her- a music teacher would come over to the house twice every week and spend an hour or two in the evening teaching her. The teacher was not young- he was in his early forties but he did keep himself in good shape and had a pair of the bluest eyes and the reddest lips that Susmita has ever seen on any man.

On the second day of his house visit, when Susmita brought him coffee during a lesson, she deliberately unhooked the top button of her nightie before coming towards him. When she bent to place the cup of coffee on the table, she noticed him eyeing her breasts. She also noticed her daughter catching the man eyeing her.

Her daughter was probably too young to attach any significance to this. But still, Susmita felt ashamed by this episode. In fact, once the teacher was gone from the house, she locked herself up in her bedroom and cried herself hoarse, muffling her voice by pressing her face on the pillow.

That very same night, she called her friend.

“I don’t want to..you know, do it!” She was hesitant in speaking her mind at first, unused as she was talking so openly about such things – not even with her closest friends. Her parents were both school teachers with strong religious values and they brought her up instilling such values in her- one of which was that you didn’t speak openly about sexual matters.

But as things have changed since she was a petti-coat wearing, thumb-sucking toddler whose favourite food was chewing gum, she eventually found the courage to say what’s on her mind. “I want to watch. I want to watch two people making love in front of me. I want to masturbate as I watch them doing it. These last few months, I have been watching so much porn that my eyes practically popped out of their sockets. But they don’t excite me. I want to see them alive and thrusting in front of me, in the flesh. I want to hear their grunts and moans but not on headphones. And more than anything, I want to smell them. Oh, the smell of sex, you don’t know how much I miss that!”

Her friend assured her that she would do everything she could to see that her wish was fulfilled. “Remember- Them is not just a club, it’s a brotherhood, or sisterhood, for that matter. And we take care of each other’s needs!”

“Thank you!” Susmita has said, her voice hardly a whisper.

**

After turning the television off and abandoning the newest episode of ‘Karmegham’ mid-way, Susmita went to the kitchen, or to the fridge to be more precise. From the freezer, she pulled out a half-finished tub of black currant ice-cream.

Ice-cream was her go-to food whenever she felt nervous. Giving sweet to her body was her idea of fooling her brain into thinking that things were fine and she shouldn’t be nervous.

But even after having four mighty scoops of the ice cream, she still felt nervous at the prospect of the “Amazingly beautiful man and woman”(her friend’s words) turning up at her door so that they could fornicate for her pleasure.

“Is that a bad thing to do?” was a question which still ran through the back of her mind, even though there was no real reason to think so.

It wasn’t like she was still married and was going to sleep with someone else. But still, the question persisted. It was a result of decades of social conditioning, she reckoned.

Another question was more pragmatic- what if some of the neighbours saw her? She lived in one of the more populated areas of Nanthencode in Trivandrum.

Such close proximity to neighbors was a good thing as she lived with her kids alone(with the maid coming in every morning to cook) but the flipside was that it improved the chances of someone seeing what went on inside if someone- say, like a handsome young couple, came over for a piece of performance-fornication.

She has closed all the drapes over the windows already. But she was still nervous.

Putting the tub of ice cream back in the freezer, she then called her parents’ to check on her children. She had lied to her parents that she had to go away for a couple of days to Bangalore for a friend’s wedding. So, they asked her how things were in Bangalore, the weather etc. She said everything was fine.

Though she did enjoy talking with her children and her parents, she still felt vaguely guilty by the end of the call.

Looking at the clock on the kitchen wall, she saw that there was almost an hour still for Them to turn up. As the hour was drawing near, she felt her heart beating fast and her palms turning sweaty.

“Maybe I should just go sleep for a while,” she murmured to herself.

Climbing the stairs to her bedroom on the first floor of the three storied house, she kept glancing back as though she expected to see someone in the living room, even though she has shut the front and back doors.

Lying on the bed, she found- to no surprise- that she couldn’t sleep. She was just too nervous for sleep. But she did feel a wetness between her legs.

She smiled thinking that even through her nervousness, she was also excited about the sexual adventure that was in the making.

Raising her nightie, she lowered her black filigreed panties(brought especially for the day) and began fingering herself.

Soon, she started moaning softly.

**

When the calling bell rang, she was still on bed, lying wide awake.

Susmita’s heart, if anything beat even harder upon hearing the sound.

Getting off the bed, she went down to the ground floor. Before opening the front door, she composed herself. There was a brass ornamental piece on the wall right beside the front door in which she looked to see her own reflection. She arranged her hair looking at it before opening the door.

As her friend promised, the man and woman- both in their late twenties were extremely handsome.

He, at some five feet eight high and with chiseled facial features and deep brown eyes and the woman standing a couple of inches shorter than him, with an angelic face and a beautiful smile.

Susmita invited them in.

Before closing the door she cast a glance at the neighboring houses. All the doors and windows seemed to remain shut. Even if someone were to see the man and woman getting in, there was nothing to worry about. They were just a couple, after all.

Closing the door and turning around, Susmita was surprised to hear the man say, “Would you like us to have some foreplay first or would you like us to get straight to the sex?” The man spoke in a stern and burly voice, his Malayalam text-book perfect.

His business-like language, rather than making her feel down, actually aroused her. She nodded, meaning that they should have some foreplay first. She smiled.

The woman seemed to get her meaning as she nodded at her and gave her a smile.

“Would you like something to drink first?” Susmita said. “Something cold perhaps?” She laughed nervously. She couldn’t believe that she was doing this!

It was the woman who replied. “No, we are fine.”

“Can we move this tea-poe from here? I think we could have more space that way. Unless you have another place in the house in mind?” the man said.

Susmita realized that in her excitement(and nervousness) she hasn’t thought of where exactly the ‘primary event’ was to take place.

But now that the man mentioned the living room, she thought it a good enough place.

It was an unorthodox place to have sex- even when she was married, she has never had sex here.

She reckoned that watching these two strangers fucking for her sake in the living room would be doubly arousing. She nodded.

The man was carrying a black bag- the kind which golfers carry, Susmita noticed.

He now put the bag down before moving the tea-poe from its space. The furniture was made of oak but he didn’t seem to have any trouble moving it.  Susmita noticed his muscles bulging through the thin fabric of his black T-shirt.

He then pulled out a grey mat from within the bag which he then unfolded and spread out on the floor. Aside from a small X symbol at the centre, the mat was devoid of any design.

“So, you came prepared!” Susmita said. She couldn’t help but smile.

The man smiled back at her. “Yes, we did. Now, it is in our understanding that you don’t wish to have sex with either of us- or both of us, for that matter!”

“Yes, yes,..eh..You see I got divorced a few months ago, and I am still, not sure, not over him, to be honest!”, Susmita stumbled through the sentence.

“That is no problem. I just wanted to clarify,” said the man in his customary business-like manner. “Now, if you would sit over there- on that sofa, I think you would have the best vantage point.”

Susmita nodded. To reach the sofa that he pointed at, she would have to walk past them.

The woman waved her towards her seat and gave her a reassuring smile that meant she needn’t be nervous.

She didn’t notice the man dipping his hand into his bag and pulling out a sword. Not until it was too late.

He chopped her head off with one clean sweep. Her head fell on the mat with the X spot.

While Susmita’s body was still warm, the duo then went upstairs to the two biggest rooms in the house and took a few valuables which they then put in the bag. Not because they wanted the wealth but to give the impression that the murder was done for the sake of robbery.

Once they returned to the ground floor, the man pulled the mat from beneath the dead body.

Since they entered the house, neither of them has pulled out their skin coloured gloves- so, they were quite confident that they didn’t leave any fingerprints behind.

Seeing that the ‘X’ in the rubber mat was soaked in blood, the man, smiling, said to the woman: “A perfectly blood soaked offering!” The woman nodded appreciatively.

The offering was for their cult’s leader- he who called himself the Principal Diety of Them. He was based in Los Angeles, America and his theology was that the souls of the richest individuals were the most valuable assets in the whole universe.

And the more of them they reaped, the more spiritual they became.

Of course, that was just the beginning of the cult’s operation. With the aid of a strong network of individuals(members) including politicians, law makers and lawyers, they would then draw up fake documents related to the dead person’s assets- at least a portion of it, which they would then transfer to their own coffers via a set of intermediary companies the depth of which would put many an oil drill to shame.

The thing was, if the wealthy individuals were still alive, the wealth tranference would be complicated to do that.

Of course, wherever possible, they tried to recruit the wealthy individuals to their cause, and when that failed, they contemplated other options.

The man put the sword and the now blood-soaked mat back in the bag.

Looking around the house one last time to make sure they weren’t accidentally leaving anything behind, the two of them left the house.

They had noticed while coming in that the neighboring houses didn’t even have a single window open, neither anyone sitting or standing outside.

The same proved to be true while they left.

“We are getting very good at this, aren’t we?” the man sad with a smile as they drove away in their car with the fake license.

A few minutes into the ride, the woman’s phone rang.

It was Susmita’s friend. She wanted to know how it went. The woman said it went smoothly.
Susmita’s friend was happy. This “referral” would earn her more money. A lot of money.

The story about her husband leaving her a big sun when he walked out was not exactly true.

In fact, the reason he walked out was because he came to know she was mixed up with some strange sexual cult- he didn’t know that murder was part of the picture.

She had next to nothing in terms of wealth at that point. She contemplated becoming a “Reaper” for Them- the ones who did the actual killings. But she knew she didn’t have the stomach for it. So, she became the next best thing, and refereed her friend to Them.

Yes, it saddened her a little to see her best friend of decades go like this. But then, she served a good purpose. Susmita has made the cult members spiritually wealthier, and herself materially so.

She knew that Them would transfer her money soon enough, once again proving that they were a brotherhood-or sisterhood-that took care of their own very well.

Sweat-Face

Waking up to the sound of the alarm clock, Mahadevan shuffled his feet to the bathroom like a duck walking in slow motion.

On the way he kept scratching the right cheek of his buttocks and yawned like a hippopotamus. His eyes, bleary eyed and red with sleep which lingered like a guest overstaying the welcome was just about half-open.

But once he entered the bathroom and shut the door behind him, once he was standing in front of the mirror above the wash basin, once he forced his eyes open all the way and looked himself in the mirror, the last vestiges of sleep got shocked out of his brain.

For instead of the familiar face with the double chin and skin that had crevices and pockmarks which marked the passage of time he witnessed over the forty years of his life on earth- and which could be seen only if you looked closely,-what appeared in the mirror was a face made entirely of sweat beads.

It’s not that his face was covered in sweat- though that in itself would have been a surprising turn of events given how the nights were cold in Bangalore this winter.

And last night was especially cold, so much so that he felt Sheela shivering beside him during the middle of the night even though they were both under the blanket, prompting him to get off from the bed and turn the ceiling fan off before returning to sleep.

No, what Mahadevan was looking at was not a face covered in sweat but one which was made entirely of sweat beads- as though they were like the Lego Blocks with which his four year old daughter, Chayya made into different shapes(or rather, tried to make palpable shapes for she hasn’t yet got good at it).

Mahadevan blinked his eyes a few times, thinking or rather hoping that his eyes were playing a trick on him.

Maybe, he thought, he didn’t get enough sleep last night- after all, he stayed up pretty late binge-watching ‘Game of Thrones’ with Sheela. And his sleep-deprived brain was creating images that had no rooting in the real world- a way of saying, “Go back to sleep and get your sanity back!”

But if blinking were supposed to restore his sanity, it wasn’t working.

For no matter how many times, or how hard he blinked, the sweat-face remained.

Hesitantly, Mahadevan brought his hand up to his face and touched it.

The sweat beads were bulbous and they had a sheen as though somebody photo-shopped to make them look good.

Even weirder was how it felt to the touch.

Instead of popping off, the sweat bead that Mahadevan touched,-on his forehead almost as big as the tip of his thumb-clung to his finger like it had glue mixed in.

When he pulled his finger back, the bead elongated until its viscous self looked like it was ready to break.

Only, at the point when it looked as though it would break completely, the bead detached from Mahadevan’s finger and regained its position on his forehead, once again assuming the round bulbous shape, finding itself back amongst other beads of equally unnatural sizes, like an animal back in its natural habitat.

Mahadevan gasped.

**

Of all the human senses, touch is perhaps the one which we humans used the most to convince ourselves of something.

Even if we saw a corpse and knew it to be a corpse, there would come some impulse which would prompt us to touch it- to feel the coldness of the body-to convince ourselves of the tangibility of death, even if against our conscious wish.

And if we were to see a beautiful little child, glowing with the innocent happiness which only a child could possess, it’s not enough for us to admire the beauty with our eyes, but we need to touch the baby, caress it, pinch its cheek if that’s possible- only then would we be convinced that such amazing beauty could actually exist on this earth.

Touching on the sweat bead convinced Mahadevan of its reality.

It also made him scared. Because shit like this just didn’t happen.

**

Getting out of the bathroom, he rushed to the bed and started shaking Sheela by the shoulder. “..Oh, wha- let me sleep for a while more..” Sheela crooned without opening her eyes and turned around on to her other side, her back now to Mahadevan.

But Mahadevan couldn’t let his wife go back to sleep. Not when he lacked a proper pair of lips to kiss her with anymore.

“Sheela, wake up!” he said.

He realized that his voice sounded different than usual- as though it had to travel through kilometers of a hose before coming out of his mouth.

Nonetheless, he was pleased that he could speak at all- for a while, he actually assumed that his entire innards would also have been turned into sweat and he couldn’t talk anymore.

But he would have been even more pleased if his wife could have woken up and looked at his face and told him that the sweat-face was real. (Next to touching, it’s the verbal backing from our loved ones which could convince us about the reality of something).

But Mahadevan had to shake his wife- the deepest sleeper he knew- twice more before she woke up.

And when she woke up and looked at his face, murmuring, “What?” it was the highest confirmation of his sweat-face that he got: a loud piercing scream that threatened to shatter the entire house.

**

“So, it’s real!” exclaimed Mahadevan bringing his hand up to his face but not daring to touch it, as though his face were an alien part fixed to his body-which in some ways he felt it to be.

“What is that?” said Sheela, breathing heavily and throwing her legs off the side of the bed.

“I…I don’t know,” stuttered Mahadevan. “I just woke up and went to the bathroom and when I looked in the mirror, this..this is what I saw!”

Sheela shook her head, her loose curly hair shaking like a horse’s mane. “What are you talking about?” She reached out and touched his face. The viscous liquid clung to her fingers for a moment before bouncing back to its original position.

“How could this be?” she said with an equal mix of awe and terror.

Whereas just moments ago, her mind was a complete sleep-filled void, now it was a house teeming with horrified thoughts- Has her husband contracted some strange disease? Will he die of it? How could something so grotesque happen to him?

But then, the longer she looked at his face, the more convinced she became that it was no disease.

The word that sprung to her mind was “Magic”. But she didn’t believe in magic.

“Mommy…” Neither Mahadevan nor Sheela has noticed that Chayya has come to the door .She stood leaning against the door, trying to rub the sleep out of her eye.

My scream must have woken her up, thought Sheela.

Before Chayya could see her father’s face, Sheela moved to the door and crouching down by her side, said, “What happened, dear?”

If Chayya heard the tremble in her voice, she didn’t show it.

“What was the noise I heard?” she said in a whiny voice. It was evident that she wasn’t exactly happy with the way in which her sleep was abruptly broken.

“It was nothing, darling!” Sheela said.

She hugged her daughter close to her body in such an angle that Chayya wouldn’t have been able to see her father’s face(An unnecessary precaution since Mahadevan, only too aware of the impact the sight of his face could have on his daughter, stood with his back towards the door).

“Why don’t you go back to sleep?” said Sheela. “It’s still early and you have plenty of time before you need to get ready for the play school.”

Chayya didn’t have to be told twice.

Yawning widely, she turned around and walked back to her room, which was on the other end of the short corridor from her parent’s bedroom.

Sheela waited until Chayya got in her room before, standing up, she turned back into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.

**

“Okay, this is officially the creepiest thing that I have ever seen in my life.”

More than half an hour has passed since Sheela first laid her eyes on her husband’s new avatar- as she has come to think of it.

She couldn’t keep the humour out of her voice.

And the humor was not lost on Mahadevan who laughed along with her.

“You sound different, you know?” Sheela said. “You actually sound better. Earlier, your voice was almost nasal. But now it’s more husky.”

“And husky is sexy, isn’t it?” Mahadevan said and uttered a laugh once more.

“I wonder if my voice is the only thing which has been-“ he made air quotes with his fingers- “ “sexified” by this new scenario. I would like to think that my lovemaking moves must also have got better!”

But as soon as a picture of himself making love to his wife, pressing his sweat-face in all its ugly glory upon her face as she gagged upon the sweat stench rose in his mind, his voice was stripped of its humour.

“I think I should go and see a doctor,” he said in a serious tone.

“Who, a dermatologist?” Though she asked the question seriously, both of them couldn’t help but smile.

“I don’t know,” said Mahadevan. “But I don’t think a dermatologist would help me much in this situation.”Once again, touching his face and feeling the elastic liquid that has literally replaced his face, he said, “What the fuck is this thing? It looks and smells like sweat but it doesn’t act like sweat!”

He said it in English, deliberately adopting the tone of Greg Chappel- his and Sheela’s favorite standup comedian: He didn’t want to show her how scared he was.

“I know of a general practitioner. A good doctor,” said Sheela. “He is a friend of Molly and he is also in ’ in Groverchain.”

Groverchain was a multi-tiered marketing format for products ranging from toilet products to OTC drugs. Anyone (anyone who can pay the nominal joining fee of 2000 rupees, that is)could join the chain.

Though his wife- who quit her job as an HR Manager with a  software firm when Chayya was born, has been an active member(seller) of the chain, Mahadevan wasn’t knowledgeable about the intricacies of the marketing plan.

But he certainly knew Molly Alexander. One might even say that he knew her a little too well.

But that was irrelevant in the present context. All that mattered was that Molly had a friend doctor whom they could go meet.

Mahadevan nodded. “I think we shouldn’t let Chayya see me like this. So, first I will drop her off at the play school and then we can go to this doctor. Oh, what am I saying! I think you should drop her off at the playschool today. Then, come back and pick me up.”

Sheela nodded.

She gently patted him on the side of his arm.

“It’s going to be alright,” she said.

Mahadevan nodded, wanting to believe her words. “Let me call in sick to the office,” he said. “I don’t think I would be going to work today.”

**

So that Chayya may not accidentally see her if she strayed into their bedroom- as was her habit- Mahadevan spent the time inside the bathroom in their bedroom while in his daughter’s room, Sheela was dressing her up for school.

The dump which he took a while ago did make him feel a little better. But only a little.

He would have liked to take a bath and had even stepped out of his clothes and turned on the shower, only to abandon the endeavor in the last moment- somehow, the idea of water falling on his sweat-face felt uncomfortable to him.

With the lid of the closet shut, he sat down and read the newspaper of the day.

The main headlines were customarily bleak- another terror attack in Kashmir, a traffic accident in Bangalore killed two men who were flung off a bridge, heavy rains have flooded parts of the city and residents were in an uproar, meanwhile up in Delhi, the Prime Minister has made yet another promise- some said  it was just an empty promise while others called it a new dawn in nation building.

He was presently reading a piece about a new Bangalore based startup who were bringing to urban customers curry and masala powders that were made by cottage industries in tiny villages in the Karnataka hinterland- thereby bringing to the customer’s palate truly unique flavors.

Mahadevan- who was the Marketing manager at a food processing unit at the Peenya Industrial Region was quite intrigued by the story. He was on the second paragraph of the four-paragraph story when he saw a drop of liquid fall on the paper.

At first he thought that it was a water drop from the shower. But then, he recalled that he has turned off the shower almost as soon as he opened it.

He realized that it was a sweat bead that fell on the paper.

But if it were, his sweat seemed to have lost its super-viscosity, for bringing the paper closer towards his eyes, he saw that the drop didn’t cling to the surface of the paper but soaked it where it fell.

The sweat beads were falling off. He would have his normal face back!

The thought invigorated him so much that he stood up  abruptly from the lid of the closet and hurried to the mirror.

There, he saw his face beginning to melt- sweat bead after sweat bead dropping off like over-ripe mangoes from a tree. Only, instead of revealing his true face, the sweat beads when they fell off left nothing in their place.

First his forehead, and then  his nose and his eyes and mouth and chin and neck- one after the other, they all melted away in a downward procession, so dramatically and fast that he didn’t even get the chance to utter a scream.

Five minutes later, when Sheela came to inform him that she was taking Chayya to the playschool, she didn’t get any answer when she called him from outside the bathroom door.

Sensing that something was wrong, he pushed on the bathroom door which, thankfully, he hasn’t locked from within.

Peering in, she saw lying on the floor, the headless body of her husband.

Unlike her husband in the last minutes of his life, Sheela screamed.

**

The baffling nature of Mahadevan’s death generated quite a lot of interest- especially in the medical and forensic/investigative circles.

But no one could come to any conclusion as to how or why he died.

And as is the case with even the most intriguing of mysteries, this too fell out of people’s minds with the passage of time.

Except in the minds of the handful of people for whom Mahadevan Raghendra was more than just a fascinating medical mystery- including, Sheela, Chayya and Sheela’s close friend and ‘Secondary partner’ in Groverchain, Molly Alexander.

For Sheela spent most of these days immersed in thoughts about her dead husband, or rather thoughts about a future that they never could live.

Sometimes, Chayya asked where her father was.

Even though she did see her father’s body being burned in the pier, she hasn’t understood the significance of what she saw.

The frequency of her asking for Mahadevan was coming down but whenever she did ask Sheela about him, tears sprang to Sheela’s eyes: a fatherless daughter- especially one so young was a sorry sight indeed.

And then, there was Molly Alexander.

Even though months have passed since the “sad demise” of Mahadevan (those were the words printed on the invite to the commemoration ceremony that she received), she still derived a lot of satisfaction thinking about how she got her revenge.

**

They were secret lovers. They made love eight times altogether(she has kept  count) and each of those times was memorable.

They made a pact that they would live together- Mahadevan would ask Sheela for a divorce, he has promised.

But at the last moment, he pulled out of the pact, saying how such a move would destroy his daughter’s life, as though he hasn’t known about it before he made love for the first time.

Molly knew only too well that he has betrayed her. Worse, he has used her- used her body and thrown it away.

She could have destroyed his and Sheela’s marriage. But she didn’t. Not because she was interested in protecting her best friend’s marriage but because her interest was in destroying the man itself.

It was while she was on a market expansion project in Nepal as part of the Groverchain marketing team(one which Sheela couldn’t attend because she had to stay home for Chayya’s sake) that she met the old man.

He lived in a house very near to the hotel where they were put up at.

She has gone to the house in the hope of selling Groverchain’s products.

But when she got to the part where she explained the values of a face wash that the company produced, the old man just cackled and said in broken English, “I-no need for face-wash.”

For a second, Molly thought that the old man meant that such cosmetic products were of no use for him in his old age.

But he said, “We people of mountains. We know secret cures that glow skin. And more colourful. And even turn to sweat!”

Molly thought that the old man was a rambling fool.

But the idea of face turning to sweat brought to her mind a picture of Mahadevan, lying over her, his face inches away from hers and soaked in sweat as he humped away at her like she were an instrument.

Almost unconsciously, she asked, “How do you turn face to sweat?”

The old man laughed, said such secrets were “only for mountain people.”

Molly insisted, half playfully.

When the old man said he would need money to spill the secrets, she was surprised by the temerity of the man who would sell a phony formula. Looking around the shoddy household, she realized that the man was in a poor way, living alone and in poverty.

No wonder he wants money, she thought.

She promised him the money, but only if he could prove beforehand that his potion would work.

She had thought that that would be it and she could leave. But to her surprise, she saw him get off his chair and go pick one of the rabbits that were playing in his backyard.

Her eyes widened when she was what happened to the rabbit’s tail where the old man smeared the salve.

“It is not paste itself,” the old man said with a smile when he saw the surprise rise in her face. “More important- it is the chant-special chant that I say when I make paste. But that I will not give you for the money. More money for that!”

Molly told the man she had no interest in knowing the chant and that he can keep it to himself. “I just want you to make some of that stuff for me- a tubeful. I would pay you extra for that.”

The man obliged. S

he filled a Gover Men’s Facial tube with the stuff the old man made for her and sold it to Mahadevan when she went to meet Sheela the next time. (She did notice how Mahadevan blushed when she sold him the facial).

“See how wonderful a friend she is? She is beautifying my husband for me!” Sheela- a little bit naïve and a whole lot innocent has exclaimed to Mahadevan. She expressed her own stupidity at “Not seeing the market right in my home! Now, you see why Molly makes more money than me in Groverchain!”

Sure, there was the risk that Sheela or maybe Chayya might try the cream.

But the old man had promised that it would take time for the cream to take effect- given how one application involved only a little amount of the cream.

And the old man’s cream did work like a charm.

And Molly Alexander slelpt like a child these days, satisfied in the knowledge of a revenge served cold.

Burning The Cape

The yellow cape was found lying on the side of the road by Nagarjuna Ganeshan’s son, Kishore. The 12 year old boy was excited, to say the least- his eyes widening with delight as he held the cape in his hand. Looking at Nagarjuna, he said, “Look, daddy! It’s the Golden Flyer’s cape!”

Nagarjuna couldn’t help but laugh though even as he laughed he could see that it was hurting his son whose face clouded over- the boy really loved the Golder Flyer.

“That probably belongs to a theater performer,” Nagarjuna said. “You know that they hold performances’ at the auditorium at the end of this lane, right? Remember, we went with mommy to watch The Lion King a couple of years ago?”

Kishore nodded energetically though he said, “Yes, but it wasn’t as much fun as the movie.”

Laughing, Nagarjuna said, “For you kids, nothing is as interesting as the movies, unless it’s a new computer game! Anyway, I bet this cape was one that one of the actors used in a show.”

“But if there was a show about the Golden Flyer, we would surely have heard of it!”

Nagarjuna nodded.

What Kishore said was true. If there a play based on the exploits of the caped superhero who has been keeping Bangalore safe for over two years now was held in the auditorium not more than 500 m from their home, they would surely have heard of it.

The auditorium in question belonged to a cultural NGO and the secretary of that NGO was a close friend of Nagarjuna’s wife. She called on their house at least once every week- there was no way she would have failed to mention about a Golden Flyer show if there was one- particularly given how she knew how much Kishore(along with millions of kids in the subcontinent) loved the superhero. Why, for Kishiore’s last birthday, she even gifted him a life-size replica of the Golden Flyer which now stood beside his bed.(Chaithali- Kishore’s mother, did raise the objection to her friend that she shouldn’t buy Kishore such gifts because according to her, 12 years was a little “too old for superhero worshipping.” For some reason, she seems to forget that the superhero in question himself was a fully grow man).

**

“Can I see that?” Nagarjuna said. Kishore handed him the cape.

Nagarjuna felt it between his fingers- so soft and yet firm.

The power to fly and the superhuman strength that the Golden Flyer possessed came from this cape- at least, that’s what the superhero has said in the only press-conference that he has ever given since his public career as a masked vigilante began.

The cape was all but indestructible and was a gift from emissaries of an alien species who came down to visit the earth. There visit was meant to be discreet- they wanted to observe and learn the workings of life on earth- the joys and beauty and of course, the pathos of it all.

But unfortunately, somebody did happen upon them one night.

They found the man surprisingly amicable(From the general state of this world, they had assumed that every member of the dominant species was inherently violent). And they established communication with him. Before they left, they gave him a gift- because they found him to be pure-hearted enough not to use it for any violent ends.

Of course, to hear the Golden Flyer say all these things- about himself being pure of heart and all, it did sound a little pompous. But then again, there was no reason to doubt him either. Even though he never revealed who he was (the purple eye-patch that he wore was an eyesore, many thought) he has nonetheless saved a lot of lives in Bangalore and foiled many a criminal’s plan.

“Maybe the Golden Flyer came here to stop a crime and when he left he left the cape behind!” Kishore said excitedly.

“But if he left this cape behind, he wouldn’t have any more power,” Nagarjuna said matter-of-factly, even thoughtfully.

The thing was, the more he felt the fabric of the cape between his fingers, the more strange it felt.

It was at the same time smooth like silk and hard as steel, if that made any sense. It was unlike anything that was made on earth, he thought.

“Can I keep it, daddy?”

Nagarjuna’s brooding was disrupted by his son’s question.

He looked at the cape once again, turned it over in his hand. It looked clean enough.

“Yes, you can keep it,” he said, handing the yellow cape to Kishore.

“Cool!” Kishore said in English.

Smiling, Nagarjuna looked to the sky. The sky was the deepest blue- clear of clouds.

Also devoid of flying superheroes.

**

That very same night, it became clear to the family that the cape was the real deal.

Once he reached home and he showed the cape to his mother, Kishore had went straight to his bedroom where threw the cape over the lifesize replica of the Golden Flyer before sitting down at his table to do some homework.

But come night and there was nothing fun to watch in the television(and there never was anything fun to watch in the TV, according to Kishore) and he felt bored playing the racing game in his father’s smartphone. So, he went to his bedroom with the intention to sleep.

But when his eyes fell on the cape, he couldn’t resist the temptation to don it. So, standing in front of the dressing table mirror, he tried it on.

Immediately, he felt a rush of energy through his body, a though a humongous wave from the ocean just crashed into him.

Only, instead of throwing him off balance, the wave made him stronger- he could feel every muscle in his body vibrating with hardly contained tension- a tension that could only be relieved by action.

Of course, this subjective experience was not easy to translate into words.

So, when he tried to communicate the same to his parents- his father, a school teacher , was correcting exam sheets of students while his mother was watching a live music show on television on low volume- they just thought that the barely comprehensible jumble of words that came out of their son’s mouth was indicative of the fact that he was in dire need of sleep.

“It’s way past your bedtime and you have school tomorrow. So, go to sleep!” said his mother.

His father, taking his eyes off the exam sheet that he was presently correcting for just a moment nodded , seconding his wife’s opinion.

But then, Kishore shouted, “No, you are not understanding me!”

Kishore being an only child, his parents did over-indulge him at times. But he was never given to shouting like this. So, it certainly caught their attention.

Seeing the baffled expression on their faces, he said, “I will show you!”

He then went straight to the back door opening which he exited into the backyard.

The wall at the back was recently rebuilt- a heavy rainfall during the monsoon which ended a few weeks ago had made part of the wall cave in. That part was now rebuilt with newer bricks- the freshness of which made them stand out even in the dim moonlight.

A few left-over bricks were neatly stacked with a blue tarpaulin sheet laid over it to prevent the bricks from getting wet from any errant rain which might fall off-season.

From this stack, Kishore pulled out a brick which he then carried back into the house and to the living room where both Chaithali and Nagarjuna still sat, looking baffled.

“Watch!” said Kishore with a smile as he crumbled the brick into dust with just one hand.

Chaithali gasped. The act surprised her so much  that she ended up spilling some of the peanuts from the small bowl in her hand- she often munched on peanuts when she watched the TV.

Kishore’s grin widened seeing the expressions on his parents’ faces. He was satisfied especially by the wide-eyed look on Chaitali’s face.

Chaitali- who once worked as a teacher at a private school used to say that she has seen everything bad that a young boy or girl could do- from throwing piss filled plastic bags at each other to calling teachers “bad names” when she had her back towards the students as she wrote something on the blackboard.

“Nothing that children do could surprise me anymore!” was something that she said whenever she saw or read about crimes and misdemeanors that children perpetrated. (These crimes and misdemeanors were always way more serious than throwing piss-filled bags at fellow-students. But oddly enough, she seemed to view all these things in the same light).

But when she was how her son- who, until yesterday could carry a bucket of water from the water pipe outside to the bathroom with much hardship crumble a solid brick to dust as though it were laddu, she looked not just surprised but flabbergasted.

Now that he was completely sure that the cape was the one that belonged to the Golden Flyer(the ridiculous name the media has given to the only superhero of Bangalore, and whose cape, incidentally was not golden but yellow) Kishore couldn’t wait to try out more “options”.

“Daddy, daddy, can I fly? I would love to fly!” he said, jumping up and down like a kid at least six years younger than him.

“Absolutely not!” It was Chaitali who replied, her surprise at her son’s superhuman strength at least temporarily forgotten as concerns about the hazards of flying flooded her mind.

“Please…” Kishore said, directing his gaze at Nagarjuna on whose face he could see a small grin appearing.

Of his parents, it was his father who indulged his whimsies the most- who took him to see Marvel movies, and who brought him a football every time he asked(he and his friends had a knack for destroying footballs frequently) and who rarely scolded him- even if his marks dipped in school.

“Please, please,please, please!” He kept repeating the word like a chant, partly because of his over-excitement(who wouldn’t be in his position?) and partly because he didn’t want to allow his mother to say anything- not before his father spoke.

And he heard his father speaking. Not to him, but to his mother, trying to cajole her, convince her that Kishore was going to be alright.

After all, how many times have they seen the Golden Flyer himself fly in the television? “And he goes way higher than any plane could- have you ever seen anything happen to him?”

“But what about the fact that you two found the cape on the side of the road?” Chaitali retorted. “Maybe he fell and that’s how the cape ended up there?”

“But if he fell, how come he was not there on the sidewalk!” said Nagarjuna.

While his parents were engaged in this to and fro, it occurred to Kishore that there was a great potential that this verbal engagement without any plausible solution could continue for a very long time.

Taking advantage of this potential, Kishore sneaked out and took to the skies.

It was a full ten minutes later that his parents realized that he was gone- bringing to their minds thoughts of parental incapacity and panic, and more panic.

**

The sky was darker than it looked from below.

And the scenes on the ground were not clearly visible- only those parts of the city which were the most lit were visible clearly. Not surprisingly, most of these places were commercial streets and office complexes.

Kishore wished it were daytime for then he could have seen the goings on below very clearly.

Not that he was complaining.

For one thing, he was flying!

With his hands held straight ahead of him, cutting through clouds like a plane, flying way above than most birds could ever hope fly!

Not little was the pleasure which he felt in his heart when he thought that in the entire history of the planet, he was only the second person to do this!(Unless the Golden Flyer has a son or daughter and he allowed them to wear the cape once in a while- just to keep their mouths shut about him being the caped crusader).

Of course, there were fictional characters who did this all the time- Superman being the most famous (and he also had a costume far cooler than the Golden Flyer).

But for once, Kishore felt that he was cooler than Superman- for Superman could only fly in the pages of books and on screen, and of course, in people’s imaginations.

He, on the other hand, could do it in the real world! In Bangalore! The city where he was born and lived so far.

“Woohooo!” He couldn’t help but yelp in joy at the thought.

But the yelp died in his throat when he saw something amiss below- a man chasing a woman down an empty bylane.

Were Kishore as familiar with the city as his father, he would have recognized the street for one that branched out from the Sony Signal- Indiranagar road, one that veered toward Eejipura, a lane that ended at a railway line and towards the end of which were no houses or establishments of any kind. The woman was running towards the emptiness, towards darkness.

As it was, little Kishore didn’t  know which road it was.

All he knew was that someone was chasing a hapless woman, and as a vigilante, it was his duty to swoop down and save her.

**

He landed right in front of the man- a burly man with round eyes and thick lips, he stared at the little superhero with a baffled expression.

The woman- who looked to be in her late twenties and who had tears flowing down her cheeks stopped running and turned around when she heard the unnaturally loud “Thud!” with which the young superhero landed.

“Don’t worry, miss, this goon is not going to do anything to you!”

The goon in question broke into guffaws when he heard the puny voice of the child.

But the laugh was broken when the most powerful punch he has experienced in his life(and as a goon he has taken quite a few punches in his life) landed on his face. Aside from his laugh, the punch also broke many of his teeth.

Clenching his fists, he tried to move towards the little boy but he found his legs giving away from beneath him- for a second he hobbled like a sailor fresh off the boat, and then fell down backwards on the ground.

The rush of air escaping his mouth as his body hit the ground was almost as loud as the sigh of relief that the woman let out behind Kishore.

As for Kishore, he didn’t turn to look at the woman.

In fact, he felt that his job here wasn’t done.

He still felt the energy coursing through his body like boiling lava. He knew that he has never felt this thrilled before- not even when he went for the schooltrip last summer to Wonderla.

He looked at the figure of the goon, lying on the ground- a helpless heap. He had his eyes barely open and his breathing was harsh-every intake of breath an exercise in pain.

His nose was broken in at least two places and the right side of his face-which was where the punch mostly landed- was a little caved in.

Crouching down beside the goon, Kishore delivered another punch- this one aimed at the man’s belly.

His little hand was hard as rock and as fast as a speeding bullet from a gun.

His fist plunged right through the man’s body and went a few inches through the ground.

When he pulled his hand back up, it was smeared with blood and sand.

Dipping his hand right back into the man’s belly, he pulled up his entrails. Raising the wobbly mess of internal flesh in his hand, Kishore said to the woman, “Now, he won’t do anything to you!”

The man let out a final gasp- a shudder of horror- before his mind and soul plunged into oblivion.

The woman, with horrified eyes ran right past the little superhero and made her way to the highway, where other people were- where little kids were little kids and not little demons who killed men in cold blood before eviscerating them.

For surely, that boy who just saved her was a demon?

**

In the following days, Nagarjuna Ganeshan tried his level best to synthesize the various pieces of information that came his way- 1) His son was still missing 2)The report of a woman to the police that a little kid in the Golden Flyer’s cape has killed someone in the most grotesque manner. 3)Reports of more violent acts perpetrated by the same kid in the cape. 4)The Golden Flyer revealing himself as an IT engineer whose day job was with one of the biggest MNCs in the field.

He explained in a press conference how after thwarting an attempted robbery, he had a seizure- an episode which was brought by his overexertion to fight crime and which resulted him losing his all important cape.

“The energy that the cape gave me was enormous,” he explained to those attending the press meet at the Bangalore Press club. “After a while, the energy got to be addictive. But the problem was that you need to constantly expend the energy to keep feeding from it. So, I fought crime, one after the other, day after day, without rest. But even that wasn’t enough and eventually one day, the toll became too much for my body and I had the seizure.

“It was like what those who gave me the cape said, ‘Unless you wield it wisely, the cape would begin to use you.’ They thought that I was strong enough and matured enough to use it. Obviously they were wrong. So, I implore whoever has the cape now to not get carried away by the surge of power, to not give in to the base impulses that are inside all of us! In fact, it’s best if you ceased using it at all.”

Nagarjuna tried to put together all these disparate pieces of information to try and form a cohesive picture, as though they were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

But no matter what combinations and permutations he used, he couldn’t form a whole picture- let alone a cohesive one.

For Kishore was just a little boy, wasn’t he? How much of the base emotions would exist in such a kid, that too a son of two school teachers?

Sure, news of kids- some even younger than Kishore- shooting their fellow students in American schools and beating up and sometimes killing hapless tourists in Combodia just to take their wallets off them and fighting guerilla warfare in third world African countries were not unheard of.

But Kishore, his little boy- could so much darkness be contained in that little mind?

Though the answer to the question stared right at his face as reports after reports of heinous crimes perpetrated by the little hero continued to pour in- a thief hung by rope from the branch of a tree for all to see, and flinging the driver of a speeding car off a bridge to his death 20 meters below just because he violated traffic rules- Nagarjuna couldn’t come to terms with it.

All he could do to vent his frustration was take out the life-size replica of the Golden Flyer in Kishore’s room and burn it in the backyard. Cape and all.

 

The Lucky Candidate

“You must understand that we are not your typical recruitment agency. We don’t just get our clients candidates who could do their job reasonably well- which, in many cases, is acceptable. Indeed, if  we were to adopt that modus operandi, we could have grown our business many-fold than what it is now.  Because…because, getting mediocre job candidates is not at all a big deal in Bangalore!” The man paused and winked at Suresh as though conspiratorially. Had he winked any harder, Suresh might have thought that the man was gay and was trying to seduce him.

His thin long moustache and skin that gleamed with sunscreen somehow made him look like a gay prototype.

Suresh Nambiar didn’t have any issues with gay people- to each his own was his philosophy. But he did have issues with potentially gay people trying to seduce him when he has come for a job interview.

“But now us! Not the Long-Term Recruitment Company!” the man continued in his merry tone(a tone which felt to Suresh as though the man, if he hasn’t started this company would have been happy working as a Santa Clause all year long, never mind that fact that Christmas came around only once a year).

“We make sure that the candidate we get our clients is the most brilliant possible! And we have a proven track record! An expertise that many major multinationals have been benefiting from since we started almost 6 years ago. Which is why most of our clients- indeed, all of our clients now trust us so much that we could actually do the recruitment for them. We- or rather, I conduct the interview and if I find the candidate satisfactory, you are in!”

This was a point the man has raised multiple times before- evidently, a matter of pride for him.

But it was also something that Suresh found to be surprising. “Quite honestly, sir, that is something that I find surprising,” he said, throwing one leg over the other and clasping the fingers of his hands over a knee.

He put on a smile which his girlfriend called as the “Needy smile”- the one which he adopted whenever he wanted to please someone at any rate(the one which he put on whenever he tried to please her after making some stupid remark which hurt her).

“I will be candid with you,” he said. “This is the third recruitment organization that I am approaching and I have also interacted with a few over the phone. But none of them functions the way your company does, sir! For they only recommend CVs which would then have to be approved by their clients before the candidate could go to the client for an interview.” The man on the other side of the table nodded with a  grin as though saying, ‘I know, funny, right?’

Suresh half-expected him to lean back in his leather chair and light up a cigar in celebration of the joke. Just like a Mexican drug lord might(at least how they show Mexican Drug lords behave in the American movies and television shows.)

“Yours is the only company that could recruit on behalf of a client! And that in itself shows how distinct your company is!” Suresh continued what was now an unabashed session of ass-licking.

The thing was, it’s been more than two months since he has started looking for a job, and he was getting seriously tired of sitting at home days on end without having anything to do. He has left his previous job in a huff and puff when his ex-boss insisted that he worked on Saturdays too. “We are a startup and everyone does their bit to keep the ship moving!” his boss- a Malayali like him, has said.

Suresh didn’t bother framing a response to that statement. Just saying, “I quit!” , he left just like that. A hot-headed response in hindsight but one which has felt like the only recourse to be taken at that moment.

The upshot of that hot-headedness was that the boss declined to give him his last month’s salary on the grounds that he left without serving the 15 days notice period as obligated by his contract. Whatever money he has left in the bank account- after paying for the EMI for his motorbike and sending money home- was fast depleting and he needed to find a job as soon as possible.

If a little ass-licking was what it took, so be it!

He looked expectantly at the man. (In his mind, he kept thinking of the recruitment company’s Managing Director as ‘the man’ because he didn’t know his name).

Nodding gladly, the man once again glanced through Suresh’ CV that was lying on the table in front of him. “You have just three years of work experience..” he murmured thoughtfully. “That might be a problem as our client has specified that they are looking for someone with at least 5 years worth of experience in content writing plus experience in copy writing would be considered an advantage. And you don’t have any experience whatsoever in copywriting.”

Just as Suresh opened his mouth to say something, the man raised a finger. Looking at Suresh, he smiled.

“But you are smart!” he said, “I can see that. You are intelligent! I can see the gleam of intelligence shining bright in your eyes. And I know for a fact that my client would prefer an intelligent, brilliant candidate with three years of experience than an average candidate with six years worth of experience!” After a short pause which was nonetheless filled with dramatic tension, he added, “You are selected, Mr. Suresh Nambiar!” A thin smile appeared on the man’s face- a smile that could be considered as gay-ish or slightly creepy or both.

But Suresh was glad, hardly noticing the smile, his mind instead filled with the words, “You are selected!”

“Thank you, sir. Thank you!” he said. At the back of his mind, he was thinking of the dinner he would be taking his girlfriend out for  tonight to celebrate(and the possibility of sex afterwards).

“Why don’t you wait out in the lobby, Suresh?” the man said. “I will have Clara draw up the documents that you would need to sign. You can start immediately, can’t you?”

Suresh nodded but he said, “Immediately as in…?

Leaning back in his chair, the man looked to the ceiling with intensely reflective eyes as though he was pondering on the origins of the universe. After a couple of seconds, still looking at the ceiling, he said, “Today is Friday…So, what do you say about starting on Monday?”

“Yes,” Suresh said. He nodded, albeit reluctantly- he would have liked to have a few days- maybe a week of just chilling out in the knowledge that he has landed a new job, just whiling his days away drinking gin and reading books and hanging out with friends in the evenings and making love to his girlfriend in the night…A pleasant dream if ever there was one.

However, he didn’t wish to push his luck- so, he said okay.

“How about the salary?”

The man snapped out of his pensive mood and smiled at him. “You would be paid just what you asked for!”

Suresh smiled his thank you. This was turning out to be better than he hoped.

He had anticipated some sort of bargaining on the salary front- especially given that he has asked for a 30% hike from his previous salary. He made a mental note to visit the temple on his way back and break a coconut in favour of Hanuman swami- his favorite God.

“So, if everything is satisfactory, can you wait in the lobby? I had a few calls to make, one of which is to the company where you are going to work next. I would inform them right away that they have a wonderful new employee coming right up!”

Suresh nodded. But he couldn’t help but think how over-the-top the man sounded. As though he was eager to please him-Suresh.

While kissing a recruiter’s ass- especially as ass that belonged to someone who had the power to recruit for a major company was common even if not honorable, the other way around was hardly ever heard of.

Getting up from his seat, he was walking towards the door of the small cabin of the Managing Director when, halfway through, he abruptly turned around and asked, “Sir, you didn’t tell me which company you are hiring for.”

The man gave him a name which Suresh has never heard of.

There was nothing amiss in that, he thought. There were plenty of big companies in Bangalore which he has never heard of. Not wanting to come across like an ignoramus, he didn’t ask the man anything about the company.

Smiling once again at the man, he walked out of the door.”

**

Like the Managing Director’s cabin, the corridor outside was also painted a dark blue.

While blue was a soothing colour, one which was meant to calm your nerves and whisper in your ears, “Everything is going to be alright” like Bob Marley, this was an intense variety of blue.

Instead of making you feel relaxed, it made you feel somewhat oppressed- this blue didn’t whisper its message as much as shout it at your face: “Now, you relax, right now!”

And if you could imagine how someone screaming those words at your face while standing just two centimeters from you, you would know how Suresh felt on seeing the blue that shaded the walls and the doors and even the bloody flower pots inside the office.

Exiting the MD’s cabin-which was the nearest room to the front entrance , he had to walk just a few steps before he got to the small rectangular space which was the lobby- just large enough for a reception desk and two sofas each of which could accommodate two people.

Behind the reception desk sat a woman whose age could be anywhere between 25 and 40, depending on your mood.

While the acne-like marks on her face looked like the result of a persistent teenage, the way her eyes gleamed as she looked at Suresh spoke about an intelligence that could well be termed as craftiness- the kind of intelligence that could only come aftre living for a while in the world.

But then, she was also flirtatiousness in the way she looked at Suresh- a well built young man whose  girlfriend teased him that his smile was the second most gorgeous thing about his body.

The blatant manner in which the receptionist’s eyes fluttered when she eyed him suggested a young girl rather than a matured woman.

“What is the MD’s name?” he asked her when she entered the small lobby area, sliding shut the door which divided the lobby from the rest of the office.

Offering him a broader smile than what the situation warranted, she said, “Mamon!”

Thinking that he must have misheard her, he said, “Menon? He is a Malayali?”

The man, with his dark tanned skin and heavily Tamil accented English has come across more as a Tamilian than a Malayali.

The woman shook her head and said, “No, Mamon!”

“Clara!” Suresh heard the MD call her. Smiling at him in that salacious way of hers, she moved out from behind the reception desk and went to the MD’s cabin.

Suresh found it curious that aside from Clara and the MD, he hasn’t seen anyone else in the office.

There were a few other doors inside other than the one with the words ‘MD Cabin’ on it. But all of them remained shut with no sign of activity inside.

Sitting down in the grey sofa in the lobby, Suresh took out his phone from his pocket with the intention of looking up the company for which the man has said he was hired.

The more he thought about it, the stranger it felt- the fact that the man could recruit for another company, and the way he got recruited so easily- the interview was just five minutes old when the man said he was hired!- and last but not least, the presence of someone like Clara as seemingly the only staff member in Mamon’s payroll.

Bringing up the phone’s screen, he saw there was a Watsapp notification.

He couldn’t help but tap on it- he was, after all a 24 year old.

And when he saw that it was a message from his girlfriend, and she was online, he immediately got to messaging with her.

And as is the case with these things, time flew without him noticing.

And before he knew it, Clara was standing beside him with a set of documents in her hand. She had him sign the employment contracts.

Suresh couldn’t see anything amiss with any of the documents.

He thanked Clara as he handed them back to her. He got up, ready to say goodbye but Clara stopped him with her words: “The MD is here. And he would like to meet you before you left.”

Suresh was flinging his bag over a shoulder. Looking at her with a frown of surprise, he said, “But I already met the MD!”

Clara smiled- a smile that let her crafty intelligence shine through. “I meant the MD of the company that you are going to join!” she said.

This, Suresh felt even more surprising than anything he has so far heard.

According to Mamon, the company for which he was hired was a multinational. What would the MD for such a company be doing here- in this small recruitment agency tucked away inside a small alleyway in HSR Layout, 1st Block.

As though reading his mind, Clara said, “Mr.Mamon and he are long time friends. He drops in sometimes when he passes by.”

This sounded plausible to Suresh. Admonishing himself for being so skeptical and being a kill-joy to his own happiness, he followed Clara’s lead and once again, entered the short corridor beyond the sliding door.

To his surprise, Suresh found that he was not being led to the MD’s cabin but towards a door  further down the corridor, on the right hand side, outside of which was a potted spider plant(the plain looking pot, of course was painted blue).

The door had the word “Library” on it- the Long Term agency also provided skills improvement courses for candidates and the library was meant for them.

Knocking timidly on the door, as though she was afraid of the very act, Clara opened the door. Looking in and smiling( not a flirtatious smile but a chaste one, Suresh noticed) she then looked at Suresh and a nodded for him to enter the room.

He was surprised when he found Clara herself entering the room after him.

The library was, if anything smaller than the MD’s cabin.

A small wooden round table with four chairs was the centre piece while two tall shelves with eight racks each held books to full capacity. A cursory glance through the titles revealed to Suresh that most of them were management titles- his least favorite genre.

He then turned his attention from the book racks to the only man sitting at the table- a bulky individual who sat with his head lowered as he was absorbed in a book. From where he stood, Suresh couldn’t see what the book was. Neither did the man invite him to take a seat.

But he bet that it was a business book that he was reading. The man was certainly dressed in an executive manner- striped shirt, fully cuffed and a pair of brown cotton pants. And judging from the impeccably unwrinkled state of that shirt, Suresh didn’t need to see it to know that the pair of shoes the man wore must be polished like a mirror.

But when the man eventually looked up from the book, he didn’t look executive at all.

**

The skin on his face was hardened with scorch marks that made it look like he had a honeycomb for a face. And when he spoke, though there was a persistent note of humour, his voice was more a roar than anything-as though multiple persons were using the same throat to communuicate at the same time.

“Mamon was ecstatic about you! So, I thought I would take a look at you before we take you!”

Panic set in as Suresh realized that the person who was talking to him was not a person at all but something evil. Something not of this world.

But before the panic could make him move and get out of there, he felt Clara move beside him.

He felt her hand on his ass, and from there, the hand slid under him and to the front of his pants where it unzipped and took out his dick with a skill which could only be termed as impeccable.

Before he knew it, his stiff penis was inside her mouth and her tongue, elongating and contracting as per her will slid from all the way up from his balls to the tip of his penis, then wrapped along the length of his shaft in multiple coils before starting to gently churn, teasing the semen from rising from within.

“Ahhh!” he moaned with pleasure, eyes half closed.

His bag fell from his hand but he was barely conscious of it.

For his mind had become a playground of pleasure where the only thing that mattered was how long he could hang on to that pleasure before Clara’s snake-like tongue could make him come.

“Yes, that’s right,” said the monster who sat at the table. “Enjoy earthy pleasure for the last time. For this is a recruitment agency for hell, and hell is where you are going!

“You- with a good strong body and brains that would help you in battles will be among the warriors who fight each other for the entertainment of the Dark One himself- the mighty Lord of hell! Yes, he would be pleased with this new recruit. And Mammon will be on the good books of the Lord! As they say in this book-“ he raised the book that he has been reading. “All is well that ends well!”

The culmination of the monster’s words coincided with Suresh ejaculating into Clara’s mouth.

Clara looked happy. She looked at the monster like a dog looking to its master for approval for killing a mouse.

The monster didn’t even glance at her though.

He was busy laughing- happy that Mamon-whom he himself has chosen to be one of the earthly emissaries for the Dark One has done such a good job of finding an apt candidate.

The candidate who had a job waiting in hell.

 

The Devil In The Back Seat

“Doesn’t it ever get boring for you?,” Denny said to Satan. “This running around the world, tempting people to do bad things, or in case that someone has already decided to do a bad thing- as I have-then, accompany him on the way to doing that bad thing, and take a perverse-even morbid pleasure from that? Don’t these kinds of activities limit your emotional range? I mean, don’t you ever feel like experiencing something…different? Don’t you ever feel bored with walking in the shadows- so to speak, all the time? Don’t you wish to step into the light at times, like how someone whose favorite food is biryani might eventually get bored with it and wish for something else?”

Satan cackled a laugh in the back seat.

For the overlord of everything dark and vile in this world, his laugh was quite timid-sounding: more like the laugh that a school boy might give when he was identified as the culprit behind a harmless prank than one a serial killer might rise at the question, “So, how many people have you actually murdered?”

Denny looked at Satan in the mirror, never taking his hands off the car’s steering wheel.

“For a 32 year old, you certainly have a lot of questions,” said Satan with humour in his voice. “Usually, only kids have this many questions about anything. That’s what fascinates me the most about humans, you know! After you reach a certain point, you cease asking questions and become more or less complacent with whatever happens in the world. It’s like deep down, you all know that you are an insignificant species- one which is fated for a slave-like existence!”

“Slave-like?” said Denny, eyes fixed on the road, “How do you mean? My grandfather was the wealthiest man back in our village. Of course, by the time I was born, all that wealth was lost because- of course, you know the reasons. You surely must have worked behind the scenes!”

Satan nodded with a self-satisfied grin.

“My daddy used to tell me stories about him- how he would take a trip from Kollam all the way to Kochi in a car just to see some Karnatik musician perform- he was a huge music lover, you see. Back in the day, cars were only owned by the wealthiest of the wealthiest. And even then, they would be taken out only on special occasions- certainly not for a 500 kilometer round trip just to see a musician perform! And there were many such tales of exuberances about my grandfather- hearing them, even as a young boy, I used to think how freely he lived, doing whatever he wished to do! No, he didn’t sound like he was a slave at all!,” he added.

Satan nodded but said, “And then, in the end, he died a poor old man, his entire body filled with sores, his once powerful voice reduced to nothing more than a hoarse whisper, the eyes which used to survey lands that belonged to him and which stretched as far as they eye could see were misted over with cataracts. For the last few months of his existence- indeed, for almost an year, he couldn’t see anything beyond an inch in front of him. “

He paused and licked his lips as though savoring a delicacy before going on.

“And then, there was the pain that ravaged his body. Sure, you were very young then. But even you must remember the noises he made in the night, the screams, the earnest pleadings for help. Often, you used to come awake in the middle of the night hearing his screams, didn’t you? And you would sit there on the bed, right between the sleeping figures of your mother and father- you would sit there unable to go back to sleep, because the sensation of being jolted awake by the screams which sounded like they came  from the bowels of hell itself was just too much for you to bear over and over again. And you-“

“Stop it!” Denny shouted. He was perspiring even though the AC was on.

He was careful not to eye the Devil and kept his focus on the road.

Because he didn’t wish to die on the road.

Satan laughed. This time too, it sounded more like the innocent laughter of a school boy than anything else. But despite that, or maybe because of it, Denny found the sound unnerving.

**

But it’s too late now, thought Denny.

Once you decide that you are going to do something bad- indeed, something that could potentially be called ‘evil’ ( hell, fuck potential, it would surely be called ‘evil’), you are inviting the Devil in to your car as you are driving on the way towards committing the said evil deed. No other way around.

Of course, he hasn’t known this beforehand.

But when he found himself driving his old Ford Figo with Satan in the backseat, he didn’t really find it strange. In fact, it felt quite natural. How else could it be?

As though reading his mind(which was probably what he did) Satan said, “You are convinced that what you are about to do is a bad deed. Tell me then, why do you intend to go ahead and do it anyway? I thought that the notion of good and bad exists so that you could choose wisely: If something is bad, you avoid it, if something is good, you approach it. Simple! And yet, here you are, going at full speed- or at least, as much speed as you could afford on this traffic-ridden road, ready to do what you know very well in your heart is a bad deed!”

Denny drove in silence for a while. They were passing by the Kollam Central Railway Station when he spoke again. Just under ten kilometers separated him from his destination now.

“Am I obliged to answer you?” he said.

“Not at all. Not at all,” said Satan. “As the lord of all material things, I very much value the notion of ownership. And this car is yours. And I am just an uninvited guest, I know. So, you are not obliged to answer someone who practically barged into your private space. No. But I would very much be obliged if you would answer me all the same- shed some light on human behavior which has baffled me for millennia.”

“If you haven’t yet figured out human behavior after having lived for longer, far longer than humans, how do you expect me to have insights which you don’t?” Denny felt a slight yet satisfactory glow in his heart as he uttered these words. Indeed, even a little smile appeared on his face.

For it’s not everyday that one got to make smart remarks at the Devil, is it?

Satan, for his part, simply shrugged. “You seem to forget that at the end of the day, I belong to a different species. I am an angel, after all- at least, I used to be one. So, my mode of thinking is naturally different from a human’s. I believe that you would have better insight into the human condition than I.”

Tilting his head a little like a child trying to choose between two toffees, Denny said, “I decline to answer your question, all the same!”

Satan laughed clapping his thigh with a hand.

Looking out of the window, he saw a pretty young woman waiting at a bus stop they were passing by. He winked at her.

The woman blushed, seeing the handsome young man who just winked at her.

**

“I never really imagined that you would be so…normal looking,” Denny said after a few moments of silence.

“What, you were expecting Satan to be a red skinned , dark eyed, fanged monster with a tail, is that it?” said Satan amicably enough.

“More or less.”

“Well, I can assume that form for you if you so wish!”

For a few seconds Denny looked as though he was seriously contemplating the idea.

Then, shaking his head slowly, he said, “No, I think you are good as it is. In fact, you look too good- like a film actor!”

His eyebrow arched as if sparked by a fresh idea.

“Why didn’t you go become an actor in the movies! That way you could exert your power over anyone who watches films, couldn’t you? Besides, that would be fun as well, I assume. As opposed to just tempting people by putting ideas in their brains incorporeally. If you were a film star, you would also get adorations from the audience. As it is, people just despise you.”

“Why do you say that?” Satan said suddenly. If he felt hurt by Denny’s remark, he didn’t show it.

“Because, you never see a sign on any door that says- Satan: the ruler of this household, like you do for Jesus!”

“But then again, there are people in the world who worship me!” said the Devil. And this time, he did sound a little hurt.

“Yes, but if I am not mistaken, they are a minority. A very marginal minority at that!” came the immediate reply.

Denny smiled. He couldn’t help but think about how much fun he was having talking to the one and only Devil- in the flesh, in his car.

Satan nodded. “It’s true, they are a minority. But then again, who knows how many people in the world secretly worship me! Maybe many of them are outwardly religious but deep within their heart, they know that their allegiance is to the master of this world- because they know that the only life they are ever going to get is life on this planet. No hell or heaven await them. No redemption or eternal damnation on the horizon! Whatever you do- whatever your failures or victories, you experience in this world. They know this. Or rather, they believe it in their heart, and act accordingly.”

“But it’s a lie!” Denny said. “Your presence in this car means that there is a hell. And if there is a hell, there is heaven too!”

“But that’s only the truth, Danny! That’s beside the point!”

Danny looked at the Devil in the mirror, a baffled expression on his face.

Like a teacher explaining a hard concept to a child student, Satan said to Denny: “ The truth is immaterial. All that matters is what you believe in. That’s going to be the only basis of your action- no matter what that action is.”

An uneasy silence settled in the car- one which felt like flesh to Denny- flesh that stank with sweat, flesh that has begun to rot.

As though stimulated by the rotting smell, a question rose in his mind- one which he has been suppressing for long.

“I wanted to ask something. What I am going to do- Was that a thought which you put in my brain, or did I come to the plan myself?”

He shuddered as he thought about the plan he was about to execute. But his hands still held the wheels steady, and his eyes were leveled at the road ahead.

Sighing loudly, Satan ran a hand with manicured fingernails across his smooth-skinned face.

“What do you think?” he said.

Seeing the hopeless look that momentarily crossed Denny’s face, he added, “Don’t worry too much. You came up with the thought yourself. Indeed, that’s why I thought I would tag along with you on this very last ride of your life! You see, many men contemplate killing their entire family- their wife and their children. But not many have the guts to see it through. The situation is almost always dire, as is with you- no money to look after them, the sense of shame weighing heavily on you, the dark creeping sense of failure clinging to you like a bad scent you cannot lose. And now, the debts have mounted so much and life has become so dark that the only way out you could see is death- for everyone involved.

“First, you kill your youngest child- your daughter, because you know she is going to be the easiest one to kill, then you would proceed to the elder child- the son before using the machete on your wife. And then, you snuff out your own life! You have seen this sequence of events – playing over and over in your mind like you are trying to convince yourself of the sequence as an impending reality. You have even brought a machete of all things for the purpose, proving you are no middle class wimp!

“No sleeping pills for you, no poison that you could mix in a bucket of ice cream which you could then feed to the entire family. No, you think that a machete would be more effective- a weapon that gives faster results!”

Denny laughed at Satan’s words. But his laughter was mingled with tears which sprouted from his eyes with an alarming suddenness that surprised even Denny.

But the laughter continued for a while, for the more he thought about the machete in the bag lying on the seat beside him, the more absurd it felt to him.

The laughter was also part defense mechanism- to keep himself from thinking about the life blood of his loved ones that he must shed.

For now that he heard his thoughts explained by another person- even though the person happened to be the Dark One himself, he realized how brutally violent his plan of action was. Even if he were to adopt an alternative method- like the poison that the Devil mentioned, his plan would still be violent. His daughter was just 3 years old, goddammit!

“Tell me something, Denis Sebastian, where do you think your soul will go after death- now that you know for certain that there is a hell and there is a heaven?

“To hell. I would go to hell.” There was nothing but conviction in his voice. No trace of terror, and certainly no remorse.

“But why?” said Satan, sounding genuinely curious. “After all, the only reason you are going to do this is because you don’t have any other choice! What, don’t you think that your eternal Father who is in heaven wouldn’t know that? That you are doing this out of desperation and not malice.

“Indeed, to get some much needed money, you could have perpetrated another crime- like killing a rich man and taking his wealth, but you didn’t even contemplate such a notion! Because you are decent citizen who believes that your personal troubles shouldn’t cause of harm for others in the society! In other words, you are taking the most decent course available to you in the circumstances! God should appreciate you, instead of sending you to hell!”

Denis drove in silence. He didn’t have anything to say to the Devil’s words.

God’s deeds are God’s deeds, he thought. Let Him figure out the moral conundrums of his actions.

As far as Denis was concerned, all that mattered was that he was getting very close to his home and he needed to keep his mind steady and when the time came, not lose his grip on the machete.

But the Devil’s next words were impossible to ignore: “Tell me, Daniel, tell me this one thing: If, after you do this, if you found yourself at the gates of heaven rather than hell, would you enter? Would you be happy at such a place?”

Denny had to think for just a few seconds before he answered. “No,” he said. “I would not enter such a place, for I would never be happy there.”

Once again, there was only conviction in his voice. Conviction, and resignation to his fate.

“Good!” Satan exclaimed. “Good! Very good! You are the kind of soul whom hell needs the most!”

Leaning forward in his seat, he spoke in an excited manner: “You see, hell is often considered as a place where the vilest of souls go for their eternal residence. While I concede that such souls do make up the majority of the hellish population, there are also souls like you- souls who could see what’s what in the clear light of day, so to speak. Souls that know that certain deeds merit the fires of hell, no matter what God may think! You should be proud of yourself, Denis! I can tell you that it’s not every day that I come across noble souls such as you!”

Denis pulled the car into the space beside his front gate. Turning off the ignition, he said, “Trust me, Mr. Devil, whatever I feel right now, it’s not pride!”

But when he looked in the mirror, he saw that the back seat was empty. He turned around and looked, just to make sure- after all, the Devil was the greatest trickster.

But Satan was nowhere to be seen.

Shaking his head grimly, Denny took the bag which contained the machete from the seat beside him. Stepping out of the car, flinging the bag over his shoulder, he walked towards the gate.

He felt surprised at how confident his gait felt- he felt like a giant walking.

And it should rightly be so, he thought.

These last few moments of my life when I am to perform the most desperate of all acts, these moments should have the consolation of confidence- for otherwise, the darkness would be too overpowering.

“Funny,” he muttered to himself. “Funny how I feel sure that this confidence-which feels like the only light in the dark is a gift from the Devil”

“What did you say, daddy?” his little daughter- hair tied in pigtails and wearing an overlong nightie which dropped all the way down to the top of her toes called out to him. She was standing at the porch with a big grin on her face.

“Nothing, nothing, darling!” said Denis, a smile on his face. Placing one hand on his bag, he added, “Let’s go inside. Daddy has got something to show you!”

From somewhere afar, or maybe near, the Devil snickered.

But no one heard it.