The Fire That Stayed

Naresh Dev woke up without an inkling of what was in store for him that day.

He woke up with a headache that was the weight of a sledge hammer as high as a thirty storeyed building and as wide as the Howrah bridge, or so it felt to him. The result of a drinking binge last night which lasted for 3 pubs and a friend’s home and God knows how many drinks.

Running his hand up and down and across his chest, Naresh got up from the bed. He threw a glance at the small time piece on the bedside table on his way to the bathroom. It was late. He was always running late for work these days.

A quick shower and an even shorter breakfast comprising of rather too well done omelette and two slices of bread later, Naresh still didn’t feel much better-that is as far as the hangover was concerned. But he was still thankful that it was a work day. He hated nothing more than having to spend a day all by himself- which unfortunately was his only option during the weekends. He used to travel to distract himself from the fact that he was all alone, and the strategy worked, but only for a while. For it didn’t take long for his journeys to transform from pleasant distractions from his own loneliness to a rather decisive reminder that he was always alone. A trip is not just about the destination, it’s also about the people. And the different people whom he met along the way brought home to him with more force  that there was no one in his life.

 

So, putting the dishes in the sink, and leaving his worries about loneliness at home-as much as he could, Naresh set off to his greatest distraction of all-work.

**

Every day Naresh took the same route to the office. The first right turn after his block and an immediate left which was an uphill walk. The end of that lane which was some 200 meters long brought him to the main lane which he had to cross. To achieve that feat in the busy city was a task in itself-demanding patience the kind of which ironically enough no fast city would grant its children. Naresh would wait, grunting with dissatisfaction as vehicle after vehicle passed him by. And when the lights turned, he would shake his head in disappointment-at what exactly, he wasn’t sure and cross to the other side.

But that wasn’t all.
On the other side of the road was a mall-one which attracted a lot of youngsters and also elders who wanted everyone to know that they were always young, still are and will remain that way for ever and ever more. The kind of hip place which every city has a few of. Naresh would enter the gate and use the pedestrian lane that ran beside the mall to reach its back side. From there, another few seconds of waiting to find enough gap in the traffic to find space enough to cut through to the other side of the street. That’s where the building which housed his office was.

The building was 5 storeyed high. The bottom floor was shared by a bank and a dental clinic while the first and second floors belonged to a media school. The third floor was occupied by a software company which Naresh had no clue as to what they produced-he always had a quasi-mystical view on what the software companies of the world were doing- giving you things that you cannot touch, taste or smell, only experience. The fourth floor belonged to the content marketing company for which Naresh worked whereas on the fifth floor was the cafeteria common to all the companies that functioned in the building.

There were two elevators in the building but Naresh always took the stairs. On this day, he encountered a couple of media students on the stairs-love birds by the look of them, the boy consoling the gal about something or the other, patting her back gently.

By the time he reached the fourth floor, Naresh had all but forgotten about the lovebirds and he was panting hard-his intention with always taking the stairs was to build a better health. But the fact that he indulged in a whole lotta smoking and drinking every night negated the beneficial effects of the climbing.

Were he not focused on his panting Naresh might have noticed the odd look on the face of the hook nosed security guard who greeted him from behind the desk in the lobby. The man-with whom Naresh was on very friendly terms looked like he was embarrassed-his cheeks flushed red and his eyes fidgety with shame. However, Naresh didn’t see him, busy trying to get his lost breath. He waved a hand at the guard without looking at him before proceeding to his own department which was to the left of the lobby.

The corridor was empty as usual at this time of the day. Sure, by conventional standards, this was by no means early for an office day. But Rega Corp was one of those startups which attracted and retained talent by giving them perks like extremely flexible working hours and a virtually endless supply of Tropicana juice. Sure, the pay wasn’t bad but almost everyone who worked in the company knew that if they tried, they could land better paying jobs in far bigger companies. But the thing was, most of the people who worked for the Rega Corp were in their early twenties.And they liked the lax work culture and figured that they could always try for a better job some three or four years down the line- “We are young and we should run free” that was the unwritten, unspoken motto for them.

Most of the employees arrived in the afternoon and left in the early morning, odd exceptions like Naresh notwithstanding.

There’s nothing cool about the corridor. The walls were painted in gray and the floor carpeting was also gray-it wasn’t the most creative person in town who did the interior, that much was sure.

And except for a water tumbler there was nothing in the corridor. Absolutely nothing. It was like a highway with nothing on either side for kilometers except for a single cow mooing.

But Naresh never felt bored with it. In fact, it was when he entered the corridor and made his way to the door -the one which opens into the vast hall which was converted to a work space that he felt the most invigorated in the day. In those moments he could almost hear the sound of the blood rushing to his brain. Naresh assumed that this was how Roman gladiators must have felt like when they walked to the colosseum for a fight. The heart beating so hard that you’re almost giddy with the sensation. This is one thought which Naresh hadn’t shared with anyone-not even with his ‘best friend in the office,’ Alok. Naresh was only too aware that the job of a content writer isn’t anywhere as close in excitement as that of a gladiator’s. You don’t die a physical death here and that’s the major difference.

Naresh pushed open the door and as usual, there was just one person in the big room-his team leader, Natasha Sinha. Natassa was a recent joinee in the office(joined just over 5 months  ago) but she was well appreciated by the team, mostly for the fact that she let them all have their own way. The six people who came in her team were as diverse a bunch as you could imagine.

Naresh was someone who was hooked on science and believed in having a scientific outlook on life(he believed in it, but as for practising, well, that’s another matter..). Daisy was a food fiend who would write reviews of new restaurants before most of her peers would even know that so and so a place even exists. Then there’s Alok-Naresh’s ‘Best friend in the office’ who was nonetheless the exact opposite to Naresh in many ways. He was the least scientific of persons-having the ideology that one should always give into one’s impulses as and when they arise. In Alok’s case, the impulse is the same almost all the time-just chill out. This meant that he did rarely any work during office hours and drank like the drunkard that he was in the evenings(and the nights, and sometimes in the early mornings too).

Suchitra was arguably the most composed of the lot- a rather reserved character with a flair for words and a passion for everything Indian. This passion was reflected in her writing-she was the one who usually covered the social interest issues in their team. The fifth member of the content team was Chandru- a twice divorced man who despite(or maybe because of) the fact, had a cheerful charisma.  He was much loved by his co-workers because he could make them laugh even in their darkest hours-like when they learn that the salary this month is going to be delayed by a day. The last member of the team wasn’t a writer but the team’s designer-Nakul, a  young man who rarely spoke but when he did did so with spite-the only times anyone has seen him open his mouth was to eat or make a complaint to Natasha about a team member suggesting that one of his designs could be made better- he wasn’t one to take criticisms lightly. Except for Chandru and Naresh, everyone in their team was under 30.

“Good morning, Natasha!” Naresh said brightly, his strides had the energy of a marching band-the thin breakfast that he had notwithstanding.

Natahsa looked up at him. Usually she would smile gracefully at him. But today, her expression was of deep concern.

Some client might be ruining her day, Naresh thought immediately. The team in which Naresh worked was that of a blog run independently by the content agency-a feature blog which covered everything from the latest wedding in Bollywood to the latest policy introduced by the Modi government about startups to terrorism and the effects of colours on your mood. But mostly, it’s stuff like Bolllywood weddings that got the most traction. The blog, which was just over an year old has already garnered a decent amount of readership which was steadily on the rise. And it has attracted the eye of many a brand who paid the company to have articles about them published on the blog.

Now, anyone with a minimal amount of commercial writing experience would tell you that writing in-house is one thing, while writing for a client is entirely different. The bottomline:Clients suck.

Yes, they help bolster your paycheck-which is the only reason why writers tolerate them, but at the end of the day, no one’s denying the fact that they are a pain in the ass. A necessary pain, perhaps but a pain nonetheless. With their incessant ‘requests’(ha ha ha) for corrections and the permanent  requirement to kill the soul of the piece that’s sent to them at first.

“Which client is bugging you today, Natahsa?” Naresh asked in a cheerful tone.

But that didn’t do anything to change the expression on her face.

“We need to talk,” she said.

 

*****

They were at a conference room- all five writers plus the one designer for the blog. But it was no conference that was going on. At the other side of the long table was the CEO of the company- a woman 26 years old who could pass for a school student if she tries on a uniform. With neatly dyed hair(blonde) and tastefully applied lipstick along with a designer attire for which such terms as ‘lovely’ were created, she looked fit to be on Page 3 instead of being in this room firing her employees.

‘Laying off ‘ was the more technically correct term, Naresh would be be told repeatedly later when he use the word ‘fired’ as he got drunk with his friends.

Even though Natasha told him earlier that the company was firing-letting go- more than 100 employees today, Naresh sat in the conference room with an air of unreality. He calmly listened to the CEO’s words explaining how they had to let them go not because of any performance issues but because of a sudden volatility in the market. “This is an extremely tough decision for the company to make but we don’t have any other option.” Said the CEO with the palm of her hand pressed to the top of her left breast. And whether she was just emoting or not, she looked sad.

Never had she looked so fuckable to Naresh as she did at that moment. She, along with a senior HR manager explained to them how they all will be given two months salaries as compensation and they had even made an arrangement with a recruitment firm to find all the employees who are being let go a new job within two months’ time.

“Please know that this isn’t because of performance issues,” the CEO repeated. “You all were major assets to the company,” this last was said looking at Naresh, and as is his nature when someone senior to him speaks in a meeting and such, Naresh automatically nodded. Something he would later remember and laugh at.

After the ‘laying off ceremony’-as he and his co workers jokingly called it, they all went together to have breakfast together. Natasha suggested a place where they should all go. “They serve some amazing egg-based dishes,” she had said. “Yeah, egg based dishes sound good,” said Naresh.

They had breakfast together-all seven of them. Some of them had egg dishes. All of them enjoyed the breakfast. Then, they left on their own ways. Only Natasha went back to the office. She wasn’t being ‘let go.’ The company apparently had ‘other plans’ with her though Natasha herself was already saying that she would probably quit within the next month-“After all, what am I gonna do without a team,” she said. “Hell, they’re gonna shut down the blog itself! I really doubt if even they know what they plan to do by retaining me!”

Everyone listened to her in silence and with empathy. Though the dark shroud which settled over them prohibited them from reaching out for her too much.

Everyone left. And so did Naresh, every step that he took taking him farther from the breakfast joint and closer to home where he would feel suffocated with the loneliness he must endure. The rest of his colleagues- who were no more so, had left in autorickshaws. Naresh decided to walk it- it wasn’t all that far-some 30 minutes to his home by foot and he would certainly like to prolong reaching there as much as possible.

He felt a little foolish feeling his bag slung across the shoulder hitting the side of his body. The bag contained a notebook and a pen, and also a case that contained his anti-glare glasses. Even though he primarily did all his writings in a computer he still used an old fashioned notebook  to jot down ideas when he got them. But now, in the absence of a job, he felt stupid about carrying around a notebook and a pen. Naresh wasn’t the kind of writer who wrote stories. He never had any such ambitions. He loved to write but only as long as someone was willing to pay him. And never stories for he never could see the point about fiction-as far as he could understand it was to learn about the hard facts about the world and life in general that one should read. And there’s no better representation of fact that in non-fiction, duh!

The way he sees it, one of the major problems that the world grapples with-religion came into being because of people taking stories to be real. If only people realized that it’s facts that matter and not fiction-how different the world would be. It was for this reason that Naresh liked science so much-it never told you tales, or rather it told you grand tales that are completely factual.

Naresh waited at an intersection, waiting too long one could say-even waiting when no vehicles were passing by and he had a wide berth to cross the road. After crossing the intersection, he was just five minutes away from home. He dragged his feet homewards. He thought of stopping at multiple juice joints but also thought that he ought to tighten his purse for a while and let go of the idea.

He was groaning inside when he took the turn towards the lane immediately before his home. This lane was short but beautiful-largely because there weren’’t many houses or other buildings in the lane-nature had a tiny space to show off its beauty. Trees in which pink and white flowers bloomed and birds chirped flanked the lane on both sides. And the ground was well paved as well which made walking through the lane rather pleasant.

Naresh has always liked the lane-the short walk which it afforded has been therapeutic for him many a time. And as is usual most of the days, today also the lane was empty of any traffic-either on wheels or on feet, except for a grey cat which fleetingly looked to its side before disappearing around a bend.

Naresh sub consciously slowed his pace as he entered the lane. A cool wind was blowing and birds were singing. “Thank God for small favours!” he remarked ironically. He didn’t believe in God.
That was when his eyes fell on the thing that stood right in the middle of the lane. In appearance, it displayed all the features of a human including legs, hands, face and an upright position. And across its body was slung a brown coloured bag exactly like Naresh’s. In fact, Naresh could even see that the brand name embossed on the bag was also the same.

Moreover,the thing wore the same clothes as Naresh and the only reason why Naresh failed to register that fact at first was because his eyes were drawn to the things’s face. The facial features were hard to make out for it was like that of a burn victim’s. In fact, Naresh could see faint wisps of smoke rising off its body though he couldn’t be sure whether it was the steadily increasing light of the sun playing tricks on his eyes. However, the whites of the thing’s eyes were pure white, and the pupils just tiny dots-so tiny that Naresh had to squint to make them out.

“What the fuck!” the words that he has been trying to say finally broke free from Naresh’s chest.

The thing grinned at him. Likes it’s eyes, its teeth were also pure white-fit enough to appear in a toothpaste commercial.

Naresh scanned the thing from top to bottom-the off white shirt and the dark brown chinos, the pair of black Reeboks as also the yellow friendship band on the left wrist-everything was the exact replica of what he wore.

“What the fuck!” Naresh said again, this time louder. And the thing-the creature, apparently found this funny for it began to laugh. A dry cackle like twigs being snapped in a fire.

“Move aside, baba!”

Naresh literally jumped. He swirled around to see an old man in a bicycle giving him a dismissive wave of the hand and pedalling his bicycle past him. “Day dreaming in the middle of the road!” he called out in Kannada as he passed him by.

Like millions of others, Naresh also constituted the ‘floating population’ of Bangalore. Those who were originally in the city even before all the IT boom began to happen were resentful of the influx of all these people from different parts of the country, at least that’s how Naresh felt whenever he came in contact with the native population. And Naresh could certainly empathise with what he took to be their viewpoint- they are living in a place that’s called “The pensioner’s paradise”- a place for a permanent retreat, a beautiful land filled with hillocks and lakes.

But once “progress” happened, the land was turned into a pit of pollution and garbage that mounted on the sides of the streets. Plus, it became seriously congested in terms of living spaces. Whereas, in the glory days before progress, the locals had enough space to hang around within the perimeters of their home, now they were forced to share walls with their neighbours and the hang out spaces in the city were largely targeted at the metropolitan youngsters with expendable incomes- in other words, they felt left out from their own birthplace. Sure, the influx also brought more income to the locals- by way of rent etc. but ironically enough, their quality of life came down on many fronts as a result.

They were resentful, of course-this Naresh firmly believed. And more often than not, they openly showed this resentment towards the floating population. Having been in the city for over three years, Naresh was convinced that if you are in trouble of any sorts, the locals are the last people you want to turn to.

For these reasons, the old man on the bicycle did not surprise him. But Naresh did think about the reasons why the old man may have behaved in a rude manner. Yes, add to the “native resentment” element  the tiny fact that Naresh was in fact standing still in the middle of the small lane which even though didn’t hamper the progress of a bicycle could still be construed as rude behaviour.

Naresh willfully thought of all this in the few moments that took for the old man to pass him by. He was systemizing his thoughts-forcing himself to see things from a scientific/logical viewpoint. The sudden appearance of the charred being has unmoored his mind from its logical grounding, and he needed to regain his mental footing. The fact that the old man passed through the charred being easily in his bicycle and didn’t even seem to notice it was ample proof that the being was just a figment of his imagination.

And as soon as the old man made his smooth way through the ghostly being, it disappeared completely.

**

Stress. It must be stress, Naresh told himself as he allowed tap water to pour into a glass. It wasn’t recommended to drink tap water in Bangalore but Naresh didn’t mind right now. The tumblr of water he had bought had run out and he didn’t have the energy to go out and buy another. Neither did he feel like boiling water. l.He has never felt this parched in years-and that’s saying a lot as Naresh was someone who frequented pubs all too often feeling thirsty for water(and disregarded it)whenever he drank. It felt as though the sight of the charred being drained every last molecule of moisturer from his body.

Naresh drank down the glass of water greedily, filled it with more tap water, finished that in no time as well.

He let out a long sigh-staring at the painting on the kitchen wall- a scientific depiction of the anatomy of a mynah bird. He had bought it at a science exhibition which he visited last year.

“It’s the stress,” this time he said those words out loud. “Stress because I have lost my job.”

He held that thought in his mind a moment. He brooded on it as if validating it. It didn’t take him too long to realize that even though he was stressed, he wasn’t nearly stressed out enough to see visions.

“Shit!,” leaving the glass in the kitchen sink, he walked to the front door, opened it and stood on the balcony staring out at the road below. Naresh lived in a one bedroom apartment which was on the top floor of a three storeyed house. The bottom two floors were occupied by the owner and his family- a chartered accountant who talked nothing but money, his wife who was much the same and their son-a guy in his thirties who was unsurprisingly enough always going on about money.

Though Naresh has been here for about an year now, the only interactions he has had with these people were about cash. “Did you pay the rent for this month?” the owner would ask him and he would say, “Yes, I did give the money to your son yesterday.” The son would come up to the third floor and knock on his door. “Here’s the electricity bill. Please give us the money asap as the last date for remitting the bill is tomorrow,” the guy would say, complete with a smile that was as true as the artificial stars that one pasted on the roof of a ceiling. As for the mother of the house, she would mostly speak to him about the water bill. He would pass her on the stairs sometimes where she would be watering the plants.

At first, he thought that the family’s fixation on treating their lodger like some character perennially trying to evade his financial responsibilities would fade away with time. After all, it was a matter of principle with Naresh to pay the rent etc. on time- a habit he has always maintained even at places where he had lived before. But his adherence to the code of pay-your-rent-on-time month after month didn’t do anything to discourage the family downstairs from looking at him with suspicious eyes.

Even now, as Naresh looked down towards the road, he could see the old woman standing just inside the gate with a watering can in front of a pot of flowers. His mood was never uplifted by the sight of anyone in the owner’s family. However, for some reason he felt himself letting out a sigh of relief at the sight of her. It took him a couple of moments to figure out the reason- he was afraid of seeing the charred being on the street in front of the house. And the money-obsessed woman down below-even though not exactly the most charming individual was nonetheless a world better than the other.

“What’s happening to me?” Naresh said to himself. He got back into the house, turned on some music- Bon Iver began to croon in his throaty voice. Naresh lied back in the bed listening to the music. Music was something which he allowed himself that wasn’t that scientific. He knew that music had the power to beat logic-and he liked it that way. Sometimes, when things got really dark inside him-there was nothing, absolutely nothing which helped him like a good song. He couldn’t call any of his friends-they just wouldn’t understand the depths to which he could plunge in his moments of despair. But music could, and more than that it could lift him up, if not to a plateau of elation at least to a level ground where he could breathe easy again.

But it wasn’t helping this time.

The problem was, as he had surmised before, he wasn’t too stressed out. For one thing he had the two  months’ salary with him, so he wasn’t in immediate financial trouble. He didn’t believe that the manpower company that Rega Corp. has appointed to find job for everyone who was fired-laid off, would be able to place over a hundred suddenly jobless individuals with a job, but he was fairly confident that he would be able to find a job on his own within a month. That was one of the things that he liked about Bangalore-the availability of jobs. Unlike Jharkhand, where he is from, this place had a momentum to talk about-including with job hunting. The only possible thing that could drag him down was the hours he would have to spend at home all on his own. But then, even that wasn’t enough of a reason to put him under serious pressure.

All in all, he shouldn’t be stressed out about the fact that he wasn’t too stressed out about losing his job.

“Man, what the hell!” No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t get the charred being out of his mind and neither could he explain it away.

Feeling too restless to be lying down anymore, he sat up in the bed. And did the only thing he could think of to bring at least a temporary halt to the situation- he called Alok and asked, “Would you like to grab a drink?” knowing full well what the answer would be.

 

**

As he sat in the auto rickshaw on his way to Alok’s home, Naresh harbored the vague hope that maybe there was something in the drinks that they had last night which made him see things. Even as he thought so, Naresh knew only too well that that wasn’t a likely scenario but then again, it needn’t be completely discounted. If that were the case, it’s highly likely that Alok would have seen something as well. Of course, the biggest loophole in the theory was the time lapse- they drank last night, so why would he get hallucinations only towards the afternoon the next day?

All the same, Naresh hoped that were the truth  for it would be a logical explanation to what happened. And if something like that had happened to Alok, he was sure that his friend would tell him openly- Alok, being inebriated most of the time never hesitated telling what’s on his mind, especially to Naresh with whom he was rather close.

But Naresh didn’t have any such luck. Alok was cheerful as usual. They drank a lot. Talked a lot-calling the CEO of their last company names. All in all, they had a fun time but Alok didn’t say anything about any visions. Neither did Naesh divulge about what he saw; he did thought of bringing it up a couple of times but then kept his tongue in check at the last moment. Not willfully-at least, not completely. It was more like some force was ensuring that certain things wouldn’t be spoken about.

Though they drank a lot, Naresh felt almost completely sober by the time he reached home, and this time he avoided the lane where he had seen the charred being for another.

He and Alok both had dinner from a streetside shack- kebabs and breads, so without bothering to fix anything to eat, Naresh went straight to bed and was alseep in a few minutes.

 

**

Naresh came awake with the first stirrings of the dream, Maybe awake is not the perfect word to explain it for he was still asleep. But he was extremely conscious that he was in a dream.

He was inside a giant pink cube.Like the short corridor from the lobby to the door of his department at Reva Corp, the cube was also empty, devoid even of a tumbler of water. The walls painted in baby pink were also unadorned with paintings and such.

Naresh stood in the exact centre of the cube. He was dressed in the same clothes that he wore to the office in the  morning. He could hear a faint buzzing sound though he was unable to place where it was coming for; in fact, it sounded like it was coming from all over the place. But then, a movement caught his eye, at a top corner to his right. He tilted his head in that direction. Almost immediately the buzzing sound intensified. It now sounded a lot like a chainsaw cutting through wood.

Naresh squinted to see that the reason for the sound was just a fly which was dancing in the air like it was drunk. But the sound progressively got heavier-until it got so loud that Naresh had to block his ears using his hands. But that wasn’t enough to cut off the noise completely- he could still feel the vibrations passing through the flesh and bones of his hands and into his ear canals. He felt a mounting pain built by pressure inside his ears. He began to scream but couldn’t hear his own voice over the sound of the buzzing. He looked at the fly once again and saw that it was still making its wavy motions in the air but had its eyes trained on him.

Naresh felt disoriented. He didn’t know how he could see the eyes of the fly so closely from this distance-he stood at least a couple of dozen feet away from the fly, and he didn’t care. All he wanted was for the noise to end. Instead it worsened. Tiny rivulets of blood now began to come out of Naresh’s nostrils. A heavy thudding sound pounded hard inside his ears, as though someone was knocking from within with enough force to bring down the wall of China. Naresh screamed louder..

 

He doubled over and was now crouched on the pure white floor. Droplets of blood fell on the floor and on to the back of his fingers as he pressed his hand down or support. The pressure now spread from his ears to the centre of his face and migrated up from there towards his eyes.

His eyes began to bulge out. “Noo!!!!” screamed Naresh. The pain behind his eyes was now insufferable. Some impulse made him reach his hands up to his eyes but he didn’t know what to do further.

The buzzing of the fly now sounded like laughter-in fact, it sounded precisely like the cackle which he has heard coming from the charred being’s mouth.

“No, stop it!” Naresh shouted but to no avail.

 

The fly painted an erratic path in the air as it danced. More blood began to pour out of Naresh’s nose and the pain in his bulging eyes became so intense that he couldn’t even scream anymore.

Naresh-the one who was asleep on the bed willed himself to wake up, but his body wouldn’t accept his command. It lied still as a corpse even as his mind was becoming more agitated by the minute, not to mention frightened.

That was when he heard the door opening. The fact that he was asleep meant that he couldn’t see who it was who opened the door. But he could hear footsteps coming closer to his bed. And he could discern an odd quality to the sound of the footsteps. It sounded like someone walking on a floor that’s filled with water.’Splosh, splosh, SPLOSH!. With each step the sound loomed larger, making it clear to Naresh that whoever or whatever opened that door had him as the destination.

In excruciating pain, Naresh opened his mouth to scream-for he couldn’t think of anything else to do.

But before he could let out any sound, the incredible buzzing sound came to an abrupt halt, forcing the Naresh inside the pink cube to look up.

The first thing he saw was that the fly lied dead on the floor, just a few feet away from him. The second thing he saw was that there was a rectangular opening on the wall in front of him- a door in the cube which was now opened, a door he didn’t even realise existed there. The third thing he saw was the thing that came in through the door. The charred being- it wore no shoes, leaving a trail of black footprints on the floor. Looking up, Naresh saw that the being was completely naked-its entire body a painful example of what fire can do to one’s body. But in this close a distance, Naresh had no doubt that the being was himself- if he were a fire victim.

Splosh, splosh, splosh..the being took the final steps toward him and came to a halt in front of Naresh\. Naresh could now smell the burns. He flinched.

The Naresh on the bed stopped struggling to come out of his sleep, realising that at least for the time being there was no danger of his physical self dying. The door was opened in the dream world, the creature stood beside him inside the pink cube and not in his bedroom.

“You know, I hate the colour pink,” said Naresh. He was as much surprised by his own words as the charred being. The latter, once the initial surprise which widened his eyes passed grinned.

“Don’t you think that I know that?” it said in a raspy voice. “After all, I am you.”

Naresh looked the being from top to bottom. There was hardly an inch of skin on its body which wasn’t burned. The head was completely devoid of hair and the lips looked mangled. It’s member was shrivelled due to the heat that made it this way and its legs looked like they were melting away.

The being now crouched before him. Eye to eye, they stared at each other.

“So, how are you doing, Naresh?” it asked, still not having lost its grin. “Oh, wait, don’t answer that.I’ll tell you how you feel, you can correct me if I’m wrong. You used your job as a diversion from the fact that your life is one endless vortex. Now, you lost your job. You are not in panic but you still feel wretched, and you know that you will continue feeling wretched until the day you start your next job. You cannot sit at home and feel at peace-not like your friends who would be chilled out at the prospect. You will simply suffer. Suffer yourself that is, or shall I say, you will suffer me,” the being paused to laugh. But when it continued, it was in a very serious tone.

“But, you don’t have to worry Naresh. I’ll make sure that you are not the only one who will go through this suffering during this..shall we say.. dry phase?”

Naresh didn’t quite understand what this meant. But he didn’t ask for a clarification. Instead, he said, “What the hell are you?”

The being flexed its hand a bit and Naresh caught a glimpse of bright, almost luminescent flesh peeking out from between the cracks that formed on the skin of the hand. “I,” said the being. “You know who I am.” Naresh opened his mouth but the being cut him off before he could say anything.

“Tomorrow, tomorrow, the first suffering will begin.”said the being.

And just like that, the dream was over. Naresh woke up from his sleep, breathing heavily but feeling considerably better than how he felt in the dream.

The image of the charred being’s face grinning at him still persisted in his retina, as though it was not in a dream that he had seen it but in the flesh.

***

Naresh wasn’t sure when he fell asleep again. Maybe 5 m \nutes later or maybe hours afterwards. Any which way, by the time he woke up the next day, it was rather later. He checked the time piece on the table to see that it was past noon.

He groaned and sat up on the bed. He rested his head on the palm of his hand. A headache was blazing inside him, though he didn’t drink last night. Besides, this wasn’t the kind of headache that came with a hangover. It was more like the burning headache that one gets when you have a fever.

He pressed his forehead with the back of his hand to see if he has a fever. Nothing of the sort, he felt perfectly fine except for the headache.

Groaning yet again, he walked to the bathroom where he opened the tap in the washbasin and drank from it, hoping that the water would curb the ache.

It was only after he gulped down two mouthfuls of water that he thought that maybe it’s the tap water which he has been drinking these past few days which was the cause of the headache. “My God!” he said aloud to himself, “maybe it’s the water that’s giving me these hallucinations and dreams as well!” As soon as he said it to himself, he knew that it was an incongruous thought.

Sure, the tap water you get in Bangalore may not be the best quality you can hope for. But neither was it something out of science fiction or a comic book in which a villain has contaminated the water in the public pool so that he could mind-control the entire population.

Even so, he closed the pipe and went out and made arrangements for a new tumblr of water to be brought in.

When he returned home, he felt the buzzing before he heard it. And once he did hear it, he was absolutely convinced that it was the same fly from his dream that was buzzing, only this time inside his home, for real.

The hair stood up on the back of his neck. He turned around to see where the fly was buzzing from. To be able to hear it, it ought to be somewhere very close to his ears. But he couldn’t see any close to him. And even though he was sure that he wasn’t going to find any in his immediate vicinity, he kept looking, for the alternative-which was indeed a realization within him, was too horrifying to accept: he could tilt his head and look up at the upper right corner of the room-just as he did in the dream, and there the fly would be dancing in the air.

And then, then what? Would the charred being walk in then? That was something he was certainly not looking forward to. Even though the being didn’t harm him in the dream(all the bleeding and the pain came before he entered the room in the dream) there was something malicious that emanated off it like heat waves.

“Fuck, I’m thinking of it as if it’s real!” Having been living all by himself for over half a decade now, Naresh had developed the habit that all lonely people have-of talking loud to themselves when they are alone(though you’d have a surprisingly hard time convincing these people that they have that peculiarity).

The buzzing intensified and along with it, so did the fear inside Naresh’s chest.

He was afraid that blood would start flowing out of his nose and an excruciating pain will sprout inside his ears. And even as a part of him told himself that such a line of thought is hardly logical- another part willed himself to look up, towards the right corner. And it is this latter part which was gaining dominion. Naresh resisted it though, not allowing himself from turning his head. For that would mean succumbing to irrationality.

“No,” he said to himself. “It was just a dream!”

But this is real! the other part of him spoke in a voice so vehement it surprised him. This sound that you’re hearing, it’s fucking live!

Naresh felt a strain developing on the left side of his neck, as though some invisible force was being applied there, doing his best to make him turn his head. “Fuck! Okay, okay!” he said, and just as he turned his head the buzzing sound ended. It was as though the sound was cut off using some sharp anti-sound knife.

But Naresh did see something- something black and tiny falling from the air to the ground. He knew what it was. But he wanted to see it from up close. He walked towards the black speck on the ground. Even though the buzzing sound had ended, Naresh still felt his heart pounding with fear.

And the speck transformed into a dead insect as he walked closer to it. Sure enough, it was a fly-in Naresh’s mind, THE fly. Had anyone told him a couple of days ago that he would feel a chill going up his spine at the sight of a dead fly on his kitchen floor, Naresh would have laughed at them.

He kept staring at the dead fly on the floor. He wanted to clear the ground of it, but didn’t feel like touching it-not even with a broom. “Fuck,” he said.
**

It was sometime in the evening-long after he has devoured his pasta that Naresh’s phone began to ring. Naresh was in the living room, on his laptop, sending out his CV to potential employers.

He half-expected the call to be from one of those to whom he has shared the CV with. But, the caller id told him that the call was from Alok.

“Hello, man!” said Naresh. He was feeling rather good, considering what transpired earlier in the day. The sending of the CVs- a positive action which was also something that was ‘normal’ had put him in a better spirit. At one point, he even put aside the laptop, went to the kitchen floor and cleared the fly from the floor.

“Hello?” he said again.

The other end was silent, except for heavy breathing. He was about to say hello again when in came his friend’s voice-emotional, words interlaced with raspy breath, scared.

“We were.we were planning to drink, man!” said Alok. “She invited me over and we were gonna drink. I came here and found..found this..with cops already in the scene.”

“Cops!” It was only when Alok said that word that Naresh became fully alert to what Alok was saying. Until then he had half his attention devoted to the laptop screen-he was checking for more potential employers.

“What cops?” he said. “What are you talking about? Where are you?”

A beat of silence before Alok said, “I’m at Suchitra’s, man. She..she’s dead. Burned to death, it seems. An accident involving the gas stove, it seems.” Alok’s voice was shaking with sadness. Naresh knew only too well that Alok was a deeply insecure person with a troubled relationship with his father- a real estate baron who was displeased with his son’s literary aspirations. This failed relation with his father was the main reason he drank so much. And it also meant that when he got attached to someone, he got really attached to them-like he did with his team members at Rega Corp, and Suchitra-he and she were practically inseparable.

Naresh knew all of this. Yet, he couldn’t empathize with his friend right now. In fact, he was barely perceptive of the fact that Alok’s voice wavered with a heavy sadness. All Naresh could think of was two things- that Suchitra was burned to death, and the charred being.

***

“Holy fuck! Holy fuck, what should I do?” Naresh stood in front of the mirror. The mirror was man sized and stood tall and proud(complete mahogany piece) inside his bedroom. He felt like drinking some water but didn’t want to go into the kitchen where he had the water tumbler. The fly might be dead, but the nightmare- he realised was only beginning.

Naresh was never really too hot on all the mystical practices to improve your health, even before he got into what he considers as his ‘scientific phase.’ And meditation and breathing exercises, even though some claimed that they were helpful in beating stress , has never really worked for him(He tried such techniques post his divorce hoping they would aid him to come out of the depression but if anything, sitting still and watching his mind only made him even more stressed.).

Yet, Naresh began to take deep breaths. He wasn’t even conscious of what he was doing at first. It was only as he gan to stop saying, “fuck” to himself in the mirror that he noticed that his breathing has got deeper in the last few minutes.

And even though he didn’t feel relaxed- far from it, he was positively palpitating, he nonetheless felt marginally better- at least, enough to think that the headache which still existed inside him like a thing with a life of its own wouldn’t spike all of a sudden and explode his brain.

He looked at his image and took heart(or tried to take heart) at the fact that he wasn’t sweating as much as he was before.

“Okay,” he told himself, “I think I should talk to Alok about this. Tell him everything. Sure, there’s no proof that the thing in my dream or hallucination or whatever it was has anything to do with what happened to Suchitra, but deep inside…deep inside you know that it was him.It. whatever it is,” he said pointing at the face of his mirror image.

But once he said that much his face fell, thinking how lost he felt. This is not the kind of situation that he could logically think through, neither was it something about which he could write a scientific article in the future. If his assumption was correct that the charred being has begun to keep it’s promise true, the promise that he won’t be the only person suffering until he finds the next job, then he has no idea what he could do about it.

Heck, he didn’t even know what exactly the charred being was!

As if in answer, his mirror image flickered, wavering like a reflection in a pond disturbed by a stones’ plunge.

The image remained undefined for a few moments more before the surface of the mirror began to coagulate, forming once more the whole that it was. However, this time the entire surface showed something that at the same time revolted Naresh and also brought him realisation. The charred being-his reflection, mimicking every action of his, when he brought his hand to his head, so did he, when he parted his lips to facilitate his hastening breathing, so did the other. The only difference was that whereas Naresh performed all of his actions with clear panic-evidenced by the expression of his face and the rigid posture of his body, the charred being was smiling all the time, looking as relaxed as if he were standing at a beach gazing at the setting sun.

And the image disappeared, just like that, to be replaced by that of a very scared 35 year old.

**

Naresh managed to track down Alok. He was not picking his call, so  he went to Suchitra’s home.

But by the time he reached there the body was taken away and everyone has left, there was no sign of Alok. He tried him on the phone a couple of times more but Alok wasn’t picking the call still.

But Naresh was confident that he would be able to find Alok in one of the watering holes they frequented. And sure enough there he was in the second pub that he checked- there, at the corner table talking to someone who looked like a cross between a hippie and a cloth merchant of the middle ages- at least, that’s the feel you got from the rather extravagant clothes that he wore.

The man looked to be in his late forties- Alok has a natural suspicion about anyone above the age of 30(he made a few exceptions, one of them being Naresh) as he believed that once you cross thirty, you attain the escape velocity towards death, a point of no return, so to speak. Alok himself was 29 and will turn 30 in a few months(all his team members at Rega planned to throw him a surprise party, now no one knows..).

“Hey,” Naresh said as he reached the table.

Alok, who was in deep talk with the hippyish guy didn’t notice.

He was talking loudly and the other man was nodding, more out of politeness than anything else.

Naresh could clearly see that the man didn’t have any interest in what Alok was saying-something about “shit hitting the fan and then the sky falling on your head!” But Alok, inebriated more than usual(and this, in the context that he got drunk every day more than is usual for a reasonably heavy drinker) wasn’t aware of the fact that the man listening to him did so with only a half heart.

“Alok!” Naresh called loudly, loud enough for him to be heard over the sound of the pop song which blared from the speakers.

Alok looked up, and so did the man who was seated at the table with him. Naresh couldn’t be sure but it appeared as though the latter’s facial expression had a faint trace of expectation on it, as though hoping that someone would relieve him of the duty of listening to the tedium that Alok was pouring down his ears.

“Hey, hey, Naresh!” Alok said, with a wide grin on his face, a grin that faded all too soon. His face transformed into a picture of despair, “Oh, man!” he said, “Did you hear about Suchitra!”

“Yes,” said Naresh, “You told me.”

“Okay, I think I’ll leave now,” said the Hippyish man to Alok, seeing his opportunity. “I have gig tonight.”

“Okay man” saying so Alok rose up with the man and gave him a hug. The man drained what was left of his beer mug before he left. He nodded at Naresh(gratefully) as he passed him by.

“Who was that?” Naresh said as soon as he sat down.

“Let’s order you a beer,” said Alok.

The idea of drinking himself to the point where he didn’t care about anything anymore held huge attraction for Naresh but he said no to Alok’s suggestion. He had a feeling that staying sober would be an advantage in getting through this-whatever this was.

“No, but listen, I need to talk!” And so he told him, everything-right from the walk home from that breakfast place last morning when he ‘met’ the charred being for the first time to the fly from his dream falling down dead in his kitchen earlier this day.

From being pitch drunk, Alok was brought down to the level of being almost completely sober by Naresh’ story.

“Do you know what time Suchitra…?” Naresh asked gently.

“The neighbours said they heard the sound around two,” said Alok, in a daze from both the drinking and the incredible story that Naresh just told him. He was blinking rapidly-something that he was prone to do whenever he got really nervous.

“Two,” Naresh nodded thoughtfully, “That must be the time around which the fly buzzed in my kitchen.”

“Fuck!” said Alok, placing a hand on his head, as if courting a headache. “You realise that nothing that you are saying actually make any sense?”

Naresh could only nod sadly at that statement. “But it’s true..” he said in a weak tone.

He looked down at the lacquered surface of the table, feeling more depressed than ever before. The headache about which he had forgotten for the past couple of minutes again loomed in his consciousness, like a steadily rising heat within his brain cells.

And now, it felt as though the heat was exiting his body and taking shape outside it, all around him.

Taking the shape of a beast that was ready to devour him. Naresh wasn’t quite sure why he thought so, he has never really been a fan of monster movies. And when he was a kid, even though he enjoyed a story involving a prince slaughtering a monster as much as the next child, he preferred those tales involving ghosts much more. The way he saw it, something that you could define held much less terror than something you couldn’t. And terror is the anchor which moors most good stories to the shores of ‘good.’

But when he looked up, he got the answer to why he had the thought. For the fire was actually outside of him, though the beast was not devouring him but his friend.

Aok’s hair was on fire and at first Naresh though that it must be a practical joke- a prank pulled by some youngster to make up for a lack of life. After all, the setting was perfect-albeit dangerous for pulling just such a joke. But anyone who would do this in a pub- no matter how inebriated wasn’t obviously the sort to give mind to such things as danger to others. All he would have to do is pour just a little bit of alcohol onto someone’s hair and set it on fire.

But even as these thoughts were running through his mind, Naresh knew-with the conviction that can only come from the gut that what he was seeing was not the doing of any mortal. He called for help. Help arrived in the form of a wide eyed man who came running with a glass of water which he promptly emptied on Alok’s head.

Of course, that didn’t work. In fact, the flame only seems to blaze higher, making the man’s eyes, if anything go wider with horror. And he backed away.

The next help that arrived was more feasible- at least it looked to be so. For it was one of the bartenders(the pub had two at the moment, both men who looked to be in their early forties, one with a tatttoo of a leaping tiger on the side of his neck and the other with a bruise on his left eye. If circumstances were different, Naresh might have wondered if these two were a two- member thug team prior to joining the place). The bartender who came to  Alok’s help was the bald one- one with the leaping tiger,and true to the spirit of the tattoo he had etched on his skin, he leaped forward with a small fire extinguisher in his hand. Alok, who was just now realising that the heat in his head may not be all because of the drink, presently stood up, almost immediately the bartender applied the fire extinguisher at him.

The flame went out immediately. And it was hard to figure out whether which sound was the louder-the hiss of the extinguisher of the sigh of relief that escaped Naresh.

The bartender also sighed, shutting off the fire extinguisher and holding it in such a manner that it gave the clear impression that he intended to use it as a weapon if the need arose.

He looked around at the nearly empty pub and said, “Now, what prick would do something like that?”

No one, prick or otherwise said anything. The scattering of patrons looked equally amazed and horrified at what just transpired. Following the bartender’s gaze, Naresh saw an elderly lady in a salwar kameez place a hand on her own head, as if wondering if there was a fire going on there- a contagion in the making.

Alok, for his part was reduced to being a baby that has so far learned just one thing to say. A particularly nasty baby for the sole thing that he kept repeating was, “What the fuck!”

As for the expression on his face, he looked like someone stuck between  the desire to become completely sober and the unwillingness of the drunk to step out of the comfort zone of inebriation.

The bartender with the leaping tiger placed a hand on his shoulder. “You okay, sir? Can I bring you anything, a drink of water or something?”

Alok looked completely disoriented, but only for a second. Something about the word “drink” brought him- ironically enough, to focus.

He slowly looked up at the bartender, who stood at least two heads taller than him. He nodded slowly but said, “I’d like a drink, of course, but it’s definitely not water. At least, not completely.”

The tension which was rising inside the pub like something palpable- a balloon that was being blown up, suddenly burst. Everyone laughed- even the ones who didn’t really heard what Alok has said. And of course, the sound of laughter is the most contagious sound on the planet. So, it looked as though things were veering merrywards. Even Naresh was willing to accept that what happened was the result of some prankster getting his way, after all.

But of course, such things were not to be. Not if the charred being gets his way.

And he always gets his way.

Before anyone could even comprehend what was going on, Alok burst into a thousand tiny fragments- or rather his torso burst into pieces- specks of flames that flew far and wide inside the pub, landing in fluids that were meant to make men and women forget their worries for a while but which now acted as a fuel for a fresh new worry- that of getting out of the pub which was on fire, alive.

****

No one died at the pub except for Alok. The low death count was attributed to two things- it wasn’t a Saturday night, so there weren’tt that many patrons, and the staff members had enough presence of mind to herd the patrons out before saving their own asses. In fact, the only reason Naresh was still alive was because one of the bouncers pushed him out with a firm hand. For he was completely debilitated by the shock of what happened to Alok. A mass of flesh that got transformed into tiny specks of flame.

What exactly was he dealing with here?

Many of the people who were present in the pub would later relate to the media about the same thing-how the man was standing there one moment and the next went ‘pooof!’ in a thousand tiny sparks accompanied by a scream that kept reverberating inside the cavernous pub, louder even than the rock song which was playing thunderously loud.

But ‘experts’ surmised that it was as a result of the shock of seeing a mam being on fire that the people had a collective hallucination. The fact that all the patrons were in different stages of inebriation gave the ‘experts’ more credence.

 

***

 

“But, I know otherwise. I told you- it was the charred being who did it! And when I reached back home, there was another dead fly on the kitchen floor!” Naresh was breathing hard once he finished talking, as if he just completed an arduous hike up a mountain. And for Naresh, it was arduous in its own way – for deep down he knew that he was going to sound incongruous, and coming across as a fool to anyone was the last thing anyone wanted in this earth of ours, isn’t it?

But it has to be said. He cannot let his friends not know about what’s happening.

That was why he called them all up and asked to meet. And as a result, now they were at a CCD, each with a cup of hot chocolate in front of them.

Once he said his piece, Naresh looked at them each, one after the other. He was relieved,and somewhat surprised to see that they were taking it better than he hoped. At least, no one was laughing at him.

But they were eyeing him with what appeared to be suspicion.

“Look, guys, I’m not joking!” said Naresh, unable to take their silence anymore. “This is not the result of pressure of not having a job that’s talking. This is real!”

At work, whenever there came a pressure situation, it was Natasha who took hold of the situation, and she tried to take hold of the situation now though she looked as lost as the rest. Leaning forward , she said, “No one is saying that you’re saying all this because of pressure..”

Naresh, along with the others, waited for her to say more. But nothing more was forthcoming. She looked at Naresh and it was clear from the look in her eyes that she wasn’t sure what more to add. After a few more moments she added in a feeble voice, “But I think we should also look into the possibility that these could be genuine accidents. That Suchitra…” she rubbed a teardrop that bloomed in the side of her eye,” the gas tube might have had a hole in it, ” she continued, “that’s not unheard of, unfortunately, and as for Alok..why,  it could have been a prank gone wrong, after all!”

She leaned back in the chair, and she looked wretched after having said it. Clearly, the demise of her friends wasn’t something she wished to talk about. Daisy, who was sitting to her right, rubbed her back and glared at Naresh, accusing him with her eyes for bringing mental anguish to their beloved ex-team lead.

“Neresh,” said Daisy, “I’ll be blunt with you, I think that it’s the pressure  of not having a job that has put such crazy ideas in your head.”

Naresh wanted to scream at her. Daisy was always blunt with people- one of those persons who thought that it was admirable to be straightforward with others, even when it’s  clearly desirable not to be. Naresh has never had a dislike for her, but then again, for him she was always the least liked among his team members.

Screaming won’t get me anywhere, Naresh silently told himself. And least liked though she is, she’s still my friend. And they should all be aware of the kind of peril they are in. If only they’d listen…

Natasha placed a gentle hand on Daisy’s arm, disallowing her from saying anything else.

“Come on, guys,” said Naresh, “Two of our friends, in the same day, going out in the same way..Do you really think that’s a coincidence?”

“Crazier things happen in the world, you know?, ” it was Nakul the designer, who spoke these words. He had a somewhat crazed expression on his face, which was in stark contrast to the calm aura which he tried to exude with the blue dotted white shirt that he was wearing.

“Oh, yeah, like what?” said Naresh, this time not bothering to keep his rising frustration from showing in his voice. All of a sudden, he felt like an island surrounded by endless water, even though he was among friends.

Nakul laughed, raising his face upwards. They were sitting in the open area under an umbrella. As he threw his head back to laugh, the sun’s rays fell on Nakul’s forehead, which gave the impression-if only for a short while that he was ablaze, at least Naresh- who was in a susceptible state of mind, saw it that way.

But Nakul soon lowered his head, stopped laughing and said, “Like over a hundred people finding themselves with a lay off letter in their hand on the very same day!” And he laughed some more after which he drank from his cup of hot chocolate.

“Now, that’s crazier!,” he added in the ensuing silence.

There was a reason why everyone-including Naresh remained silent. Nakul was usually the quiet one at the office. In fact, during the initial months of his employment with Reva Corp, he had the reputation of being socially agnostic-which was true only to an extent. The truth was that Nakul was a workaholic. Simple as that. He didn’t hold any grudge against people in general. Wasn’t an anarchist or anything close to that. What he was was a young man with a lot of responsibilities- a Schizophrenic father who occasionally disappears from home, no matter how close a watch the people of the house kept on him- the last time he was lost for more than two days before he found him lying in a park bench, famished and asleep. Then there was his younger sister-a student at the University College, in her final year of engineering.

Thanks to the acumen of the doctors who could spot a good deal when they see it, Nakul ended up spending more than could be considered ‘healthy’ in the hope that his father would return to his normal self. By the time the doctors graciously related to him that his father indeed was schizophrenic and there was nothing they-or anyone could do about it, Nakul had to sell the home which his father built.

Now, the family of three lived in a rented apartment. Besides, he still had loans to pay off for the money he took out for his father’s treatment. All this put him in a financially tight spot and a life that was a synonym for pressure. The team came to know about all this only when Nakul had to leave one day from work owing to the fact that his father has disappeared again. He didn’t tell them anything then, he was in a hurry to leave. But the next day(he found his father about to board a train)he nearly broke down when he told them all about it.

They knew that losing the job would have affected him the worst. They knew that if he had a slightly disturbed appearance, it was wholly justified. And they also knew that the death of Suchitra and Alok wouldn’t have done anything to improve his state of mind.

Naresh empathized with the guy as much as anyone else, but that still didn’t mean that there was no more necessity to convince his team about the charred being.

With the same intention, he leaned forward in his chair and placed a hand on Nakul’s knee, hoping to calm him. But before he could let out a single word, Natasha spoke. “Do you guys feel there’s something funny about this hot chocolate?” She was eyeing the near empty glass in front of her as though she was looking at a turd of shit.

“Why, we have been drinking it for some time now. So,what-?” Daisy began in a cheerful enough tone but then she abruptly stopped speaking-as though the words coagulated into a solid mass and was stuck in her throat.

“What’s going on?” said Naresh, looking from Daisy to Natasha. As for him, he felt the taste to be more than agreeable. He has always liked the hot chocolate that CCD makes and this time also , they maintained their standard. So, he wasn’t sure what to make of the look of disgust that suddenly came over the faces of Daisy, Natasha and Chandru. It was Chandru who looked the most disturbed, practically clawing his tongue as if to take the bad taste out.

“What’s wrong?” it was Nakul who asked it. Naresh turned to him and saw that he looked perfectly normal. Except of course for that slightly wide-eyed crazed look which was now steadily being replaced with a look of confusion.

Naresh swivelled his head again to look at the others. They were all rubbing their thorats rather intensely now, as if they developed a sore throat, attracting curious glances from the others around them. But it was in Natahsa’s eyes that Naresh saw the expression of naked horror-something that was brought on by a realization. And before she managed to squeeze the words out of her throat, Naresh knew what she was going to say:

“It tastes like char.”

As far as last words go, that wasn’t much.

First Natahsa, then Chandru followed by Daisy..that was the order in which Death claimed. Daisy, just before she burst into a thousand tiny flickers of flame, looked at Naresh with  eyes filled with anger and sadness, as though it was because of him that all this had happened.

Everything happened in a whirl after that for Naresh. The people screaming, rushing, the cops arriving some time later, the stares of disbelief..

Naresh and Nakul were taken to the police station where they were asked about the circumstances in which the incident took place. That’s when the cops learned that Naresh was present the previous day when a man died at the pub not two blocks away. It didn’t take long for them to have him in the lockup for the night. And Nakul, just because he happened to decide at the last minute that he should go and see what the meeting set up by Naresh is all about, also ended up in the cell with him.

Now, Nakul was walking to and fro inside the cell rubbing the hair on his head like a wild man.

“Fuck! My father is all alone at home!” he said, glaring at Naresh. The same kind of look which Daisy gave him before she was consumed by the flame of death.

“Don’t worry, I’ve called for the lawyer,” said Naresh, “He’ll be here soon. He’ll get us out.The cops have no reason to detain you. And I’ll make sure the lawyer will give them hell for that! ”

The only other person in the cell was a leech infested old man who said to them both that he was in here for trying to rob an old woman of her handbag. Presently he said, “Can you arrange the lawyer to get me out as well?” then he laughed after which he added, not convincingly, “Or maybe not. Where am I going to sleep if they let me outbut the streets?”

Naresh barely even glanced at him as he said this. Instead, he fixed his eyes on his friend. Nakul was still toing and froing inside the dimly lit cell, his eyes brimming with tears.

“What the hell, man!” he said eventually, “Why does shit keep happening?”

That was one question to which no one seems to have an answer, thought Naresh. Surprisingly or not Nakul’s question brought to his mind memories of his ex-wife. Or rather the memories of those painful final days of their relationship.

His ex-wife was a nurse. They met and fell in love with each other when Naresh was admitted in the same hospital where she worked. A bike accident, he injured his leg and had to spend a few days at the hospital as part of his recovery. There were two nurses who were caregivers for him; the moment he saw the one who worked the day shift for the first time, Naresh knew that she was going to be his wife.

And nothing in those first days suggested how painful a breakup it would be they will have to face. Correction, HE will have to face. For when the time came for them to part ways for good, she appeared to be in a much more stable state of mind than him. Naresh liked to think that it was mere appearance but having lived together for over 6 years he knew only too well that that wasn’t the case.

It took him that many years to realise that  his dear wife, the one whom he loved with all his heart has been having an affair. For quite some time and that the two parties have been planning to get married. The divorce was just a necessity for her, a devastation for Naresh-he couldn’t comprehend how his love could be so feeble!

Which only put the pain which he went through in a funny light-  a light that had a life of its own and laughed at him. People usually talk about the living daylights.

Naresh has experienced what he came to call the funny lights of days and nights.

A mad sort of laughter from the old thief who was sitting in the corner of the cell brought Naresh out of his reverie. It seems to him that recently whenever someone laughed around him, it was a mad laugh.

The laughter from the old man was so loud that it brought to a halt Nakul’s toing and froing. Nakul looked at the man.

“What are you laughing about?! Shut up!!” the shout came from outside. And the old man stopped laughing abruptly.

But there was a grin still on his face when he looked up at Naresh. In the age when all the youngsters of India are losing the hair on their heads at an alarming rate-this when they have access to all the best hair care products that the mighty corporates could bring them, the old man had a head full of hair that would be the envy of any youngster. Of course, all the hair was grey and it wasn’t exactly combed to perfection, but still with such things as hair colouring and stylists, the old man stood a way better chance at coming out of a barber shop looking awesome than your average young Indian male trying desperately to hide his growing baldness.

The old man now scratched his head-something else that has to be taken care of. He had a mad gleam in his eyes as he looked at Nakul. When he opened his mouth, Naresh could see nothing but a black cavern. Of course, the light inside the cell wasn’t bright, so it was logical to assume that things such that the roof of an old man’s mouth may not stand out in sharp relief in the light. However, the darkness that Naresh saw looked much deeper than natural, as if it proceeded from the nether regions of hell.

And when the old man began to speak, the impression became a conviction. For it was not in his normal voice that the man spoke. In fact, the voice hardly sounded human, though neither Nakul nor Naresh had any trouble discerning the words and their meanings. The voice sounded like someone hammering in multiple nails into a wall all at the same time while repeatedly playing a screeching note  on an out of tune cello.

The effect was disturbing to say the least. Oddly enough, it was also mesmerizing. For neither Naresh nor Nakul could take their eyes off the old man when he spoke:

“Why does shit keep happening? Isn’t that the biggest question of all? Wouldn’t it be convenient if there was this one phase assigned to you in life when you get nothing but shit ? And once that phase is over, it’s all bed of roses from there on? But, of course things are never that easy in life..”Here, he paused and let out a sigh. And the more he spoke, the deeper his voice became.

Naresh had a vision of echoes floating down deeper into the black cavern.

“For instance,” the old man continued, “Naresh here went through a really bad phase what with his divorce, a phase the repercussions of which he’s still experiencing.”

Naresh raised his eyes.

“And now,” said the old man, “Now, he seems to be swimming through another pool of shit. He may or may not drown. But all his friends certainly are- drowning in a lake of fire!” And the old man began to laugh again, this time louder than before. Surprisingly enough, no policeman asked him to stop.

Not that Naresh noticed. He looked fascinated at the old man, as though he were a creature from outer space.

“Who are you?” he said.

The old man laughed, then opened his mouth wide. At first, Naresh thought that he was going to say something but the cavern of  a mouth just kept widening until it looked as though the jaws would snap. But they didn’t, instead the opening of the mouth widened beyond a normal proportion.

And then they heard the roar of fire-soon followed by the gush of flames that proceeded from the old man’s mouth. Both Naresh and Nakul were startled by this. They took a few steps back.

A police constable arrived at the cell door, peering into the cell he saw the old man crouched on the corner and spitting fire. “What’s going on?” the constable spilled out the words that were on the tip of his tongue, though it was clear that no one was going to be able to give him an explanation about this.

The cop tried to unclasp his fists from the bars of the cell. His efforts were futile. He looked down to see that his hands were now welded together with the bars, and he screamed-a sound that was all but drowned by the roar of fire that came out of the old man’s mouth. Incredibly enough, the old man was still laughing- at least, Naresh could hear the sound of laughing rising over the sound of the fire which proceeded from that black cave of a mouth.

But the sound of the cop screaming rose steadily, as if he were in a competition with the old man to see who could make the louder sound. It reached a point when Naresh couldn’t help but turn his head in his direction, and right at that moment, the upper half of the cop burst into flames. Two of his colleagues and the circle inspector who also came to the aid of his subordinate were all amazed at this sight. They all took a step back when the police constable went out in a shower of flames. But that was hardly enough to protect them for soon the rest of the cops also met with the same fate as the first one.

Naresh felt his eyes stinging with tears. The old man meanwhile stopped breathing out fire and started laughing in that voice which was clearly not his or belonged to this world, for that matter.

He stood up from his crouching position. There was something unnatural about the movement- like he was an automaton, or a puppet that was being moved around by some unseen hands. And when he looked at Naresh, his eyes were as black as the cave which he had for a mouth.

“What did you think, Naresh?” he asked. “That you are going to escape what you did in your past?”

Even though the old man didn’t move from where he stood, Naresh shuffled back until his back was pressed up against the wall. There was something about the old man’s ,voice now- a force which physically pushed him back

“What are you talking about?” Naresh managed to speak through the sudden dryness he felt inside his mouth.

“Oh, you have forgotten, have you?” the old man said in a mocking tone.

Naresh stayed silent for a moment, looking at the old man, his eyes stinging with the tears that were building up behind them.

An odd sort of silence now descended into the jail. As if all the creatures in the entire planet chose to stay absolutely still for a while. Only the old man spoke.

“It goes way back,” he said, “To times you probably don’t remember.”

Naresh tried to think of such a time. He went through the different phases of his life in the reverse order, reaching back to his childhood, seeing if there was something that he did which merited a visitation of the unnatural kind.

“What are you talking about?” he said eventually, unable to make head or tails of what the old man was talking about. “And, if it’s about something that I have done, why is it that my friends are being punished?”

Punished. No one  told him anything about this being a punishment. The word came to him and just as he said it, it felt like the right word to him.

“Oh, they are all in it,” said the old man, “And so is this body that I am in for the time being.”

Both Naresh and Nakul looked at the old man with baffled expressions.Childishly enough,  Naresh hoped that someone-maybe the lawyer would arrive and take them out of here, though this didn’t exactly look like a matter for the court.

Seeing the expressions on the two men’s faces, the old man laughed. “Worry not,” he said,”I will make it all clear to you. You see, the times that I am talking about go way before your current life on the planet. All six of you- the men and women who landed a job with Rega Corp used to be men and women who inflicted more than a few damages on people- innocent people. And the ones who died- including the cops who were the last, were all associated with you people- a band of anarchic rebels in an erstwhile kingdom who made a mockery of such things as justice, who pillaged and murdered without remorse, all in the name of living a life of plenty. And you two, you two were the worst of the lot, the ones with the least amount of remorse. You,” he said to Nakul, “You know very much how you have suffered from having a father whose mental faculties slipped away and insanity settled in.” Turning to Naresh, he added,”And you, you never thought you would ever truly love someone. You were born to parents who treated you well enough but saw you only as a material that they could mould to achieve their own ends. You were a romantic, someone who wanted to travel the world and write about things. They just wanted you to be like every other person- someone who wears plaids to work, gets promoted, gets married, raise kids, die. For you, growing up was also growing away from your family. And now-”

For apparently no reason, the old man stopped talking. For a second, Naresh thought that he was going to pop out fire from his mouth again but then, he laughed again, making Nakul and Naresh exchanged baffled glances.

“I had you, didn’t I?” said the old man, not quite completely done laughing. “Oh, it was so much fun giving you that story about the past karma coming to haunt you. And you know what the most fascinating thing about it is? It works every single time.Even among modern people like you. Even with you, Naresh, you who don’t believe in a God who metes out justice to the people-if not in this life, then in the next.” Shaking his head, he laughed some more. “No, no, no, all this is happening not because of some past misdemeanour. This is all you, Naresh. You and your agnosticity towards humans. You and the way you cling to things non-human, like work, or music, or books for the sake of finding contentment. This- I, am the manifestation of all that’s burned to a char inside you. The detachment that you practiced became only stronger after your divorce. And when the job at Reva Cop came along, you clung to it like your life depended on it- you found an escape from all that’s around you,, from all the people- because people have only ever hurt you-especially the ones who were close to you, your parents, then your wife.. Even your friends, the people you worked with at Reva Corp saw you as an odd one out. Sure, they accommodated you but there was no way they couldn’t notice how aloof you were.

“ Anyway, it all came to a head when all of you were fired on the same day. Something that didn’t affect any of you that much on a financial front-except for you, Nakul. But, as for Naresh, it was only after your joined Reva Corp as a writer that you truly found a distraction strong enough to keep your mind from thoughts of your ex-wife and of your current personal life. For that’s the fact, isn’t it? Ever the romantic, you are still in love with her, you silly ass. And the sudden unplugging from the job disturbed you enough to make me manifest- the intense rage at the injustice of being left out, starting with your parents, which you have bottled up inside you for so long- that rage is me. And your friends who died, and anyone else-like these copes,” he waved towards the cell gate, and then pointing towards himself, “Or this old man who’s about to die, they are all collateral damage. For you can’t expect rage to come to this world and not leave a trail of dead bodies behind, Naresh.”

Naresh stood silent. He was too stunned to talk.

“And rage always consumes.” With these words the old man too burst into flames. Naresh found that the charred being now stood just a couple of feet away from him, grinning, those pearly white teeth gleaming.

Moving closer to Naresh, he took his chin between the fingers of his hand.

“I am rage” it said, “And I am always around.” With these words, the charred being opened its mouth wide and devoured Naresh. Nakul, who stood stock still heard the fading scream of his friend, coming from what felt to be a long way off..

He presently saw the Charred being turn towards him. He couldn’t stop the trembling that seized his body.

The being burped, as if it was done digesting Naresh. Running the tip of a finger along its upper lip, it grinned at Nakul. It lifted the finger off its lip and pointed at the young man, without losing its grin.

“You,” the being said, “You will not die. For you are building rage inside you-rage at the world, at life for not permitting you to join it completely. For getting you cooped up in a trap of less than glamorous responsibilities. And there will come a day when all the rage will boil over and it will be time for me to come alive yet again-in another form, in the form of the burnt you!”

The being vanished. One moment it was there, the next it wasn’t.

Nakul was still shivering when Naresh’s lawyer arrived at the cell. Seeing the mess inside the cell-the blood and the ashes, he asked, “What the hell happened here?”

That’s when Nakul wondered about how he was going to explain all of this to others. And he thought, not for the first time, “Why does shit keep happening?” With the utmost pathos, he kept repeating that question in his mind, and slowly yet steadily the pathos gave way to rage.

 

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