As he stepped out of the theatre complex, Varun felt a heat wave strike him like a blast from hell.
“Man, that’s not fair! It’s after 6 in the evening for hell’s sake!” he said aloud, though he was alone walking out of the door.
A good number of people remained seated in the auditorium-ready for the next film as soon as this one got over. Those for whom attending a film festival was as much a part of their life as having food. Maybe not that frequent but still.
As for Varun, he only recently acquired a taste for world cinema, largely because he was dissatisfied with his job at the ad agency and needed something-something dense to counteract the utter meaninglessness in which he mire himself every day in the name of promoting products.
“Change the shoes, change the game,” “No country for the square one” and “Team spirit has no borders” were some of the lines that he recently wrote-for shoes, a self-styled ‘country club’ and a hospital respectively. That last one was regarding the doctors and patients being part of the same team-together fighting the diseases. A noble idea no doubt but utter rubbish since Varun knew well enough that the hospital’s major concern was squeezing as much money out of the patient as possible.
Watching world cinema most of which he couldn’t understand because of its supposed philosophical depth which came across like a barrage of spears pointed at him saying, “Do not come near!” helped him take his mind off such things. For how long this will be effective was left to be seen. For the time being at least, he thought that this is better for his health than resorting to alcohol.
“Hell!” he said as he waited outside the theatre gate, impatient about the lack of any autorickshaws around.
A bearded man in a plaid shirt who stood near him, smoking a cigarette casting nervous glances around for cops who may appear to apprehend him for smoking, knitted his brows as he looked at Varun. Possibly because he said the word, “hell” in English.
Though it was all but mandatory for every Malayali to think of knowing English as a higher asset than reading Malayalam books, you were generally looked down ,or frowned upon, if you ‘showed it off.’ Particularly true with those in an age group northwards of 40-like the gentleman in plaids.
Varun saw the man eyeing him with displeasure. But he didn’t give it too much mind.
However, he wasn’t really showing off his virtuosity in the English language by uttering that single word-the beads of sweat which rolled down his forehead did make it feel though he was in hell. He found it curious that the man beside him, even though smoking didn’t look to be overcome by sweat like he did.
He didn’t have time to dwell on it as an auto just turned the corner and was coming on his lane.
“Auto!” he called out, raising a hand.
The rikshaw came nearer, then passed him by, only to stop just a way ahead. From the side looked out an old man’s face-thick white beard and goggles the turmeric smeared on his forehead flaking ; the driver was squinting at him though his face was otherwise devoid of expression.
Varun proceeded to the auto in a trot, slightly worried that the driver might take off any time. The auto drivers of the city were notorious for taking a fare only if they liked the destination.
“Thampanoor bus station?” said Varun, soon as he reached him.
The driver looked skywards, as if the answer will come from above.
After a moment of hesitation, he said, “Yes.”
“It’s too hot today, isn’t it?” Varun said, wiping off sweat from the back of his neck with a handkerchief.
“Not really,” said the driver-his voice as neutral as the expression on his face.
They hadn’t come too far from the theatre complex and were moving at a moderate pace. Varun wasn’t complaining though. It wasn’t far to the bus station anyway.
“Then why is it that I am sweating so much?” Varun muttered, more to himself than to the driver.
“I am sure it’s not because you don’t bathe,” said the driver.
Varun who was in mid-motion wiping the sweat beads from the side of his forehead looked up. In the mirror, he could see that the driver still had his eyes fixed on the road.
“What do you mean, chetta?” he said.
“Nothing, people your age usually are very concerned about their appearances. So, they bathe and use creams and things. Even the men.” For the first time, Varun detected a hint of humor in the old man’s voice.
Looking at the mirror, he saw that indeed the driver was smiling, though only lightly.
“So, do you think bathing’s a bad thing?” said Varun. He himself wasn’t an appearance aficionado. He shaves but once a week and the last time he used a cream was when his lips were parched after a holiday in Kodaikanal. And yes, he did skip bathing every now and then, when it felt like too much work.
But not today. This morning, he had a lengthy shower. He didn’t want the persons sitting near him in the movie auditorium to be turned off. He was thoughtful like that.
But he felt like playing along with this old man, who was saying, “Oh, no. It is no bad thing. I am just saying.” After a few beats, he added, ” How old are you?”
He said it with a calm authority which surprised Varun. “Twenty one,” he said.
“People of your generation spend a lot of time caring for yourself and less about others,” said the driver. “Is that not true?”
Varun thought about a suitable comeback but a few moments of thinking was enough to convince him that what the old man said was the truth.
“Yes. It is true. But it’s people of your generation who first brought into the idea,” he added.
“What idea?” said the old man, his eyes still on the road. In fact, he sat with his face so rigid that at times Varun even entertained the notion that the man was a robot(he was usually given to such idle flights of fancy).
“The idea that working in grand glass buildings, wearing great clothes and looking great, always working, working to make more money to buy more things to challenge others to buy more, so they will have to earn more money so they can buy more and challenge you in turn…this entire cycle, you people brought into it first , which is why you take pride seeing how ‘savvy’ your children are about things “modern”” Varun used his fingers to add the required inverted commas. “Many of you sweated your life away to bring this about,” he added.
Varun said all this in a casual tone, laughing good-humouredly every now and then. But still, he wondered if he has overstepped the border.
He was glad to hear that the old man was laughing.
“That’s another thing about you youngsters,” he said. “You know so much.”
Varun looked at the back of the man’s head. He didn’t say anything.
“What you said is true through,” the old man said after a moment. “We did pave the way for all this mess when everyone is like an island. So, I guess we are to blame.”
“Oh, no, not at all!” said Varun suddenly, detecting the sad note which has creeped into the old man’s voice. “Not everything is bad. There are good people among the younger generation too,” he added, though even he noticed how his voiced dropped.
The old man nodded. “So, are you a student?”
“No,” said Varun. “I used to be.Until very recently. Got my first job just 6 months ago. And my second one two months back,” he was surprised how candidly he was speaking with this stranger.
He might be a stranger but there was something about the driver which made him not just trust him, but like him, like him like he was someone familiar since he was a child.
The idea of the man being a robot fell off from his mind.
“Why, did they fire you?” the driver asked.
“No. I quit, “said Varun. Even though the driver didn’t ask anything further Varun continued,” You see, I joined an advertising agency after college. I studied Biology in college. But got sick of it. I wanted to work somewhere creative. That’s why I joined an advertising agency. But I am beginning to suspect that an ad agency is the last place for a creative person to join.”
“Does it pay well?”
” Yes, it’s okay.”Varun said after a beat.
The auto entered a lane that was a steep downhill. The pace slackened even further though there wasn’t much of a traffic. It was unusual to see an autodriver who drives this carefully. Varun ascribed this to the man’s age. You rarely see drivers who are this old .
“So, if you are a creative person, why did you learn Biology?”
“Because parents didn’t want me to do anything “silly” like literature. “And it wasn’t that I disliked Biology. It was only after I went through how they taught it that I began to hate it.”
Both Varun and the driver shared as laugh.
“Well, as long as it pays well, any job is fine, I think,” said the driver.
Varun wished his father shared the same idea. His father was a pretty successful criminal lawyer. Varun’s mother passed away when he was 7. However, his father never remarried and notwithstanding his rather busy schedule, found enough time for Varun.
But he didn’t like the idea of Varun becoming something like an ad copywriter- a “silly” job the way he saw it.
At the foot of the lane was an intersection. The traffic light turned red as they neared . The driver brought the rickshaw to a stop behind a white Hyndai Eon.
The sun was fast descending, streetlights were coming on. But Varun was still sweating.
“Man, this heat!” he said in English, once again wiping the sweat beads from his brow.
As a contrast to the heat he found the presence of the driver a cool comfort. The feeling once again was indefinable though the sense of intimacy was unmistakable.
Perhaps the feeling was mutual because the driver said without prompting, “My name is Ramachandran.”
Not much later the light flicked to yellow and then to green. The white Hyundai moved on but the autorickshaw remained where it was.
Varun, who was busy checking his phone for new messages(something he felt compelled to do every five minutes or so) looked up and wondered why the auto wasn’t moving. Looking back through the small window made by a transparent plastic sheet he saw that there weren’t any vehicles behind them either.
He was glad for that, otherwise they would have started honking by now, and there’s nothing that he hated more than the cacophony made by a bunch of car honks initiated by drivers who collectively realise the value of a few seconds while at a traffic signal.
“Is there any problem with the auto?” said Varun though the rik-the engine of which was still running, sounded good to him.
“No, why?” said Ramachandran.
Varun frowned. The driver was still looking ahead. “Because the light has changed.”
“Oh,” muttered Ramachandran, shifting gear.
The intersection was crossed at a snail’s pace. But even so, there was a close call when a Santro which was rushing past at a not so amicable pace missed them by this much.
Once they entered the lane on the other side that was lined on either side with shanty huts , Ramachandran said, “I didn’t tell you before but my eyesight begins to fail once it’s dusk.”
Varun remained silent, processing what he just heard. But no matter how many times he ran it through his brain, the idea remained the same-he was in a potentially dangerous situation-something that could have been avoided had the old man but exercised some caution, as in not picking him up.
“Okay…” he said. He was waiting for the anger to kick in. The autorik proceeded in a slow pace . Both of them remained silent. Varun still waited for the onslaught of anger. But it was not forthcoming.
It was Ramachandran who broke the silence. “I know I shouldn’t be driving at this time of the day. In fact, I was on my way home when I saw you. I wouldn’t have taken the fare where the destination somewhere far. But since it was so close..” his words trailed off into a relative silence marred only by the slow rumble of the auto’s engine and the sound of distant traffic.
“Okay..” that was the only thing that Varun could think of saying, which he found strange. He should be brimming with righteous anger, or at the very least, he should be asking to be let off here, tell him that he would walk the rest of the way.
But that was the odd thing, not only was he not feeling any anger towards Ramachandran, when he thought of asking to be let off, he actually felt that he might hurt the man’s feeling.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t scared though. They would reach the bus station in another minute or so even at this pace which would make any self-respecting auto driver break out in tears. But Varun held on to the back of the seat-for lack of another place to hold on to as if his life depended on it.Which maybe it did.
“Life is hard. That’s why I still run the auto. I have to take care of my wife.”
“Okay,” said Varun again, suddenly reduced to being a one-word man.
Ramachandran turned his head slightly to his right, perhaps because of my strange mono-word responses, thought Varun. But Varun was too caught up in his own predicament to notice that they had reached another intersection, which was why Ramachandran was looking to his right, to see if any vehicle was coming.
Cautiously, he proceeded.
Varun opened his mouth. He hadn’t yet framed exactly what he was going to say but the gist of it was: “If you are uncomfortable, you can let me off. But otherwise, if you have the confidence, I too back you.”
The idea didn’t make much sense, he knew that. For even if Ramachandran successfully dropped him off at the bus station, he would still have to reach home safe. So, if he were concerned about the man as well, he ought to be getting off right now and asking the man to go home right away, perhaps even pay him more than the meter fare for all his efforts.
All of which made perfect sense. Only, his mind bypassed that particular bit of sense and latched itself to the juvenile and absurd idea that if the driver had confidence, then so did Varun.
Absurd, absurd, absurd, the word repeated in a seemingly endless loop even as he opened his mouth to share his vote of confidence.
But the loop was broken and the words never spoken as a truck that came from the right rammed into the rickshaw.
‘I’m not sweating anymore,’ that was the first thought which occurred to Varun as soon as he woke up. That and the idea of coldness.
No, not just the idea but the hard fact which seems to creep into his very marrow, turning his cells into icicles. He could see the air conditioner on the wall to his left. But he didn’t think that was all the cold was about.
It hurt his neck to move his head. He grunted involuntarily. A sound that made someone-or something in the room move.
A sudden fear gripped him with a coldness much fiercer than what he was presently feeling. He couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever made the movement was a something, not a someone. An irrational feeling having not basis perhaps. But it was there in the inner core of his heart-like a conviction, just like he was convinced to remain in the autorikshaw even after knowing Ramachandran’s ailing eyesight.
Remembering the driver, his fear was replaced, if only momentarily with anger.
Rather late for that, he thought sarcastically.
Whatever moved near the foot of his bed came closer. It was just a shape at first, then it came in sharp relief, almost as abruptly as varun had woken from his deep deep slumber.
He was relieved to see his father’s face, concern tinged with smile at seeing him awake.
As his senses slowly came awake, the beep beep beep of the machine to which he was hooked sounded too loud to Varun, so loud that it began to pulsate inside his ears, like so many violent particles banging against the walls of his ear.
Such slight disturbances aside, he was glad to see his father again.
But the feeling of something being present in the room, something that intended to hurt him, remained, pushing in deeper shafts of cold into his heart.
The days since his wakening, Varun learned what happened in bits and pieces. Largely because he couldn’t keep awake for long periods at a time, and when he was awake, was enmeshed in a haze brought on by the drugs-hardly the state of mind to absorb and retain information.
But what he did learn kept coming back to him with an angry force whenever he was awake.
The accident had resulted in severe brain injury for Varun. At present, it was impossible for him to move his legs. In fact, he couldn’t feel anything below his navel. But doctors had assured that that would change, his father had told him. If there was one thing that worked in the largely dysfunctional India, it was the medical establishment, provided you had the money.
Which Varun’s father certainly did. “You needn’t worry,” his father had said.
The doctors said it would take at least an year before Varun will walk again. Possibly more.
Every time he could summon up the energy to think, he thought of how foolish he was to have remained in that autoriskshaw. And whenever he could think, his thoughts turned to Ramachandran. And those thoughts were heavily lit with the bright red of anger.
Even learning that the driver had to have both his legs amputated after the accident didn’t do anything to alleviate the anger. “Is that all that happened to the motherfucker!” those were the exact words that he used to his father when he was told the news.
Not the kind of language that he would usually use. Varun’s father ascribed it to the circumstances.
Slowly yet steadily the hours that Varun could stay awake increased.
“You know, I have something to talk to you about, ” said his father one day, pulling up a chair near the bed.
It was about the accident.
Eyewitnesses were not in consensus , apparently. While some thought that the truck was speeding, others saw the autorikshaw haphazardly getting into the line of the truck which was proceeding at a normal enough pace.
“What exactly happened? Do you remember anything?” said his father.
Varun has never told anyone about how the accident was probably a direct result of Ramchandran’s eye problem. Even as he opened his mouth to speak, he realised that this could cause some fair bit of trouble to the old man.
And he delighted in that knowledge.
The case went to court.
Varun, by now was back at home. Personal care-givers were appointed, physicotherapy was underway, and he was making rapid progress-more rapid than the doctors had thought possible.
Though he could still not use his legs, Varun certainly felt his body becoming more his-rather than the alien dead weight which it was turned to after the accident. But the warmth of spreading wellness was no match for that absurd cold which has become the mainstay of his heart. A cold which was irrevocably linked with the anger for the old man.
This cold, he never told anyone about.
For one thing, he doubted if it could be healed by any earthy powers. It just didn’t feel that way. Also, there was the fact that he was beginning to enjoy it.
Sure it sent shivers of pain down to the depths of his soul. But there was something about that shiver which felt like the quiver of pleasure which accompanied ejaculation.
And it was while he was lost in this pleasure principle on a summer afternoon, exhausted after a particularly grueling session of physiotherapy that father showed the woman in.
She was clad in a cotton saree that had evidently seen better days. In fact, the woman herself looked like she had seen better days. She was old but the mesh of lines that made the wrinkles on her face were cast by time’s branding iron on days when time itself was hating existence, or so it looked.
Then, there was the sadness on the face. So deep, so earnest that one could easily imagine it to be a permanent fixture on her, as permanent as the parched trembling lips.
The sight of the old woman-the misery incarnate gladdened Varun’s heart. For just a moment, he felt the cold in his heart being whisked away to be replaced by a glow of happiness.
His father introduced the woman as Ramachandran’s wife.
“She said that her husband would be destroyed if he is put in prison,” said his father in a grim but neutral tone. “His health, which has been bad since the accident is apparently deteriorating. And the only way his incarceration could be prevented is if you give the court something-a word, a sentence that indicates that perhaps it wasn’t the old man’s oversight that caused the accident.”
His father said all this in a strained voice. Beneath the calmness of his face, Varun could discern emotions-was it sympathy for the old woman?
“It wasn’t precisely oversight which caused the accident,” said Varun is a calm tone, “Rather it was the lack of sight,” He chuckled.
As if he didn’t hear it, his father said, “I told her it was you who must take the decision.” Throwing a glance towards the old woman who stood at the foot of the bed with her arms clasped together in a pleading gesture, he left them alone, only to wait outside the room.
As soon as he left, Ramachandran’s wife clasped Varun’s feet. “Whatever money he made, he spent it educating and marrying away our two daughters. Now, in his old age, no one bothers to look after him. That’s why he still had to ride the autorikshaw. That’s why he…Please, you can save him.”
“I won’t be too sure about it,” said Varun in the same calm tone, as if savouring every word that he said. “And even if I could, I wouldn’t do it. I would rather see him rot in hell than anything else. And you along with him!”
“Sir, please-” the woman began but was crudely cut short.
“No!” said Varun. “Didn’t you hear me? Now, leave bitch!”
The outburst startled Varun’s father more than the woman. Standing just outside the bedroom’s door, he felt for a second that it wasn’t his son-who everyone close to him considered as too gentle for his own good, lying on that bed.
Varun testified that not only had Ramachandran said that he couldn’t see properly once evening settles in, he distinctly saw the driver looking to the right before the truck hit them. The truck came from the long road to the right.
“It’s not hard to imagine that neither of us would be in this position if his eyesight was proper,” he said before the lawyer called “Objection!”
In the court, Ramchandran was also in a wheelchair, much like Varun. But whereas the latter actually appeared to be enjoying the whole proceedings, Ramchandran was a figure beaten by pain, more than the physical kind.
Never once did he meet Varun’s eyes, not just because of guilt.But also with fear.
The first few days after he came out of his coma, Varun had trouble sleeping. Though he has been ‘out’ for just four days, it had felt longer than that. Way longer.
It felt like he visited some other dimension-one where time was an elastic band that you could stretch as much as you pleased.No resistance at all. And he wasn’t sure how long he had spent on that protracted time span.
Coming out of it, the idea of days neatly divided into daytime and night seemed quite unnatural . And there was something about the night which made the cold within him grow. No, not the absence of the sun but rather the presence of something, something that carved its existence out of the fabric of the night.
But he got used to it. And as his health improved, so did the quality of his sleep.
So he couldn’t understand why he was lying awake on his bed now.
The timepiece on the bedstand blinked red, announcing that it’s 2:01 AM.
Varun sighed. The last time he checked, it was 10. He fell asleep soon afterwards. The book he was reading- a short story collection by Milan Kundera still lied open beside him, just the way it fell when it slipped out of his hand as he was drawn to sleep.
But when did I come awake? he couldn’t remember.
“Oh, you can’t remember , can you?”
Had Varun still possessed the use of his legs, he would have sprung out of the bed and run.
“Who is there?” he said, eyes wide, propping himself up on his elbows.
His bedroom was a study in shadows. Cast by the myriad objects -from the table lamp to the dressing table to the life-size replica of the Hulk which he got as a birthday present from his mother when he was 10 but which he refused to give up even as an adult- because that was the last year she was alive.
It was on the corner where Hulk stood that the shadow stirred.
Varun squinted as if to ascertain that it wasn’t just an illusion. No, the shadow looked real enough though he couldn’t see what could have cast it. Not that he was looking; he had eyes only for the shadow which was outlined with spikes that projected from an amorphous body, blacker the deepest black, a vortex seemed to open within its centre.
A cold breeze issued from the vortex which touched Varun’s skin, entered his body through the many pores on the surface, seeped through his veins which became numb and eventually touched his heart. Which was when he surrendered completely to it.
“Order me! What shall I do?” the words spoken with his tongue but coming out of that vortex on the multi-spiked shadow.
And it gave its order.
Varun was to visit Ramachandran at the prison the next day.
Varun’s father was at court when Varun asked one of his servants to ask the driver to get the car ready.
The servant gently reminded him of what the doctors have said-about how he mustn’t over-exert himself. He also reminded Varun of the physiotherapist who would be here in another hour.
“Maybe you can consider leaving after he has left?” the servant, a dark skinned man with a small ridge that ran horizontally across his nose giving him a villainous appearance suggested.
“By that time, the visiting hours will be over.” Varun had made a few calls to ascertain the visiting hours at the prison.
“Visiting hours? Where are you planning to go to, sir?”
“Just ask the driver to get the car ready. Or do you want me to wheel myself there and tell him? I can do that!” Varun said with a vehemence that was fast becoming part of his character.
“And don’t tell father about this!” Varun called after the retreating figure of the servant.
Half an hour later, the very same servant wheeled him out to the car, helped him in, folded the wheelchair and kept it beside Varun.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come, sir?”
Varun looked up at the man. He has been there with the family for over twenty years. Varun had fond childhood memories of playing with the man. For a second, he felt bad about bursting out at him like that earlier. But a second is but a second which passes too fast, too easily. An armour fell over Varun’s soul-thick, dark, juvenile yet cruel.
“No.Just leave me alone.” The door snapped shut
As his eyes met the driver’s on the mirror, the driver looked away.
“Let’s go!” Varun said-his voice boiling over like a lava lake.
Varun didn’t quite expect things to be so…cinema-like.
This was his first time inside a prison and it was just as they show it in the movies. Wire mesh dividing the incarcerated from the free-the visited from the visitors. They weren’t by any means the only ones in meeting though they certainly appeared to be the least emotional.
An elderly woman there to meet whom Varun presumed to be her husband was openly crying to his right whereas another prisoner was trying so hard to touch the finger of a child through the small gaps in the mesh.
Even though the court had found Ramachandran guilty, endangering Varun’s life, the court was lenient in its verdict given how Ramachandran had lost both his limbs and was in a weak physical condition. Something that got him an year’s sentence-‘just’ an year in Varun’s eyes.
But Varun was pleased to see the man on the other side of the mesh now. From his waist down, he was covered in a long shawl. The upper half was almost the whole man: Ramachandran has lost weight and looked as if he was distressed with bearing some heavy load, something which he carried around not in his arms but in his heart.
As though eager to catch up with his wife who came to Varun to beg for him, his face too sported more number of wrinkles than the last time.
Varun was satisfied by how in distress the old man looked.
“You look quite different now. Almost as if you are a different person.”
Varun was surprised to hear Ramachandran saying what he himself felt.
“I think I can say the same about you,” Varun said,a smile stretching his lips in a thin line.
Lowering his eyes, Varun saw that Ramachaandran had his left arm clenched in a fist beside the wheel of his chair. This indication of subdued anger gladdened his black heart even more.
“I find it funny that we are both on a wheelchair,” said Varun. “The last time we were together, we were in the same vehicle. Looks like we share the same tastes more than you may think.” Varun knew that he wasn’t making much sense. In fact, he wasn’t entirely sure of what he was saying. But as long as it was irritating the other person, he was happy.
And it was distressing Ramchandran, as was evident from the way he gritted his teeth and kept averting his eyes. The clench of his fist hardened. It almost looked as if he was fighting some unseen demon.
“Why are you here?” said Ramachandran in a strained tone which verged on angry.
Now, that’s an interesting question, thought Varun. ‘Because the shadow told me to’ was the only answer he could think of. And he did think of conveying the same to Ramachandran. For in the old man’s tone of voice, he could detect the dark edge which the shadow has left in his heart.
We are like comrades now, the thought broadened Varun’s smile.
As if to ascertain his idea, the shadow suddenly sprung up behind Ramachandran, a black halo projected off the back of the man’s body, spiked around the edges, quivering slightly.
At the sight of it, Varun was overcome with an urge to kneel down and pray. It was only because of his weak legs that he was unable to give in to the urge.
No one else seemed to see it though. Not the police guard who stood behind Ramachandran, nor the other visitors and prisoners and neither Ramachandran himself.
But Ramchandran seemed to feel its presence.
For Varun saw the old man slowly raising his head, looking at him from behind red-rimmed eyes. And in those eyes, Varun could see the same swirling vortex which he had glimpsed in the shadow the other night in his room-a dark depper than black, denser that the entire cosmos in a single point, brimming with more energy than possessed by a thousand suns.
And the energy issued orders.
This time, not to Varun though he could also hear it- a sexless voice, like the grating of knife on stone, saying, urging, cajoling, “I. want. your. eyes!”
From beside the wheel of his chair, Ramachandran raised his clenched fist. It was only as he brought it in front of his eye that the guard saw the object in that hand-a red and black striped ballpen which belonged to him. That which Ramachandran had managed to take out of his pants pocket while he was wheeled from his cell to this room.
The guard moved forward, one arm stretched in front of him, his attempt clearly to stop Ramachandran from plunging the tip of the pen into his eye.
Varun watched all this as though everything was happening in slow motion, at first with a silent gleee but with growing horror as the scale of black fell from his heart.And the horror grew the closer the gleaming tip of the pen got to the old man’s eye.
He plunged the pen in, one eye after the other-the sound what you would get when you steped on rotting flesh. A gooey mess of white, red and nerve endings replacing what was a normalpair of eyes just moments ago.
Screams arose all around as people began to register what just transpired.
Varun saw the shadow quivering behind Ramachandran like a peacock doing a rain dance.
He leaned forward and vomited.
Through the car’s window, he watched the sky-the clouds drifting by beyond the leaves of the trees-way up there where he wished to be right now, away from whatever the hell was happening.
“Can you roll the window down?” said Varun, forgetting that he could do it himself.
The driver complied. He looked at him in the mirror, then turned his eyes away immediately. He didn’t know what happened inside the prison. Only Varun was allowed in. But when he came out, the driver had seen something in Varun’s eyes- an indecision about whether he should go insane or break down and cry or do both.
The same look persisted in those eyes still. And the driver feared that if he looked at the eyes for long, he would also have to walk down a lonely path of madness.
As soon as the glass was lowered, Varun moved closer to the door, dragging himself through the seat with the aid of his hands. He sucked in the air audibly, too eagerly as though the air conditioner had so far covered him in vacuum.
“Is something wrong, sir?” the driver said. He recently joined the household as a driver. He didn’t know what to make of this kid. But he felt in his heart that he must quit, if for nothing else only to stay away from this person. For there was something in him that distressed you to be around him, like being near a person with boils on his face from which oozed thick mucous-like acid.
As for Varun, he barely heard the driver over the sound of the shadow’s words- an incessant noise which kept drilling into his brain: “Those eyes..that was for you. You like it?” “Those eyes..that was for you. You liked it?” ad infinitum.
“Everything is okay,” said Varun to the driver.
Except five minutes later, he felt as though the entire moisture in his body has left. From head to toe, he felt like a dry stick. And the voice said: “Do you feel the heat now? The heat of hatred?”
Varun wanted to scream at the shadow which he could see now, materializing-if that’s the word, right beside him. A largely shapeless blog with its outlines roughly defined by the spikes.
He wanted to shout at it to leave him alone.
But he didn’t give into the impulse. For that would just give the thing more satisfaction.
Instead, he said to the driver, “Stop somewhere where we can get some tender coconut juice.”
The juice from two tender coconuts revived him somewhat. But by the time he reached home, the innards of his body felt like they were on fire.
He was barely conscious of the fact that he was being wheeled to his room, neither was he aware when they lied him down on the bed. “I will be just outside the door.’ If at all you need anything, just call. I will be right outside the door.” said the elderly servant.
But Varun didn’t hear, his mind was focused on the heat which threatened to devour him from within.
“Please close the door after you” he managed to say to the servant who was leaving.
Upon hearing the door lock click, Varun sank his head deep into the softness of the pillow. Willfully, he took a few deep breaths but with every capsule of air that he sucked in, the heat within him flared more.
He wondered if this was the beginning of spontaneous combustion. Would he explode? Will he go out of the world as a load of fire-flecks?
“Who are you?” he whispered the question into the air of the bedroom which has become so thin, making breathing harder.
Out of the edge of his eye he saw the shadow rising. The shape twisted around on itself and laughed-the sound so loud that it was all Varun could do to keep from pressing the palms of his hands to his ears.
“I am Wenchaali!” the shadow hissed. The sheer presence of the thing was making the air noxious, or so it seemed.
But despite the depleting air, notwithstanding the choking sensation Varun couldn’t help but laugh. But even as he was laughing, he wondered if he was going insane.
“Wenchaali?” he said. “What sort of a name is that? Sounds like something that someone would come up with to scare children.”
“Ah, children..” said Wenchaali. “All humans..regardless of age, are but kids. Always reliant on something or someone..the state or the individual, nature or machine… You are like chaff in the wind, you don’t know when disaster will strike, and when it does, most of the times you don’t know why it did.”
The shadow slowly rose from the ground, and with it lifted the overwhelming heat from Varun’s body. That was soon replaced with its opposite -an intense cold which felt like a blast of wind passing through an ice cave.
“Heat, cold..,” the shadow said, “The living don’t know when they are going to embrace the cold of dead, when the heat ends for good.” Wenchaali laughed-arguably the ugliest sound on the planet, thought Varun. Uglier than a roomful of jackals fighting over a single dot of flesh.
Varun couldn’t help but think how Wenchaali was saying things just to irritate him, much like how he did with Ramachandran at the prison.
“Were you the one who made me do all those things?” said Varun. “Treat his wife badly, helped send him to prison…”
“Yes!” Wenchaali was now spread against the ceiling, black ripples passed through its body like waves softly crashing into the shore.
“But why?” said Varun.
“Because I am destiny’s servant, that’s why!” Wenchaali said in a tone that suggested it should be obvious. “I was the one who made Ramachandran stop the rickshaw for you- against his better judgement.Also made you stay in that rikshaw even after you learned about his eyesight. Then…”
The shadow slowly floated down with a grace that would have been beautiful on a being more on the positive side of things. With Wenchaali, it just came across as threatening, making Varun flinch involuntarily.
But Wenchaali didn’t touch him, simply hovered inches above him. But the heat that emanated from its body was a touch of some kind-bringing not relief to Varun’s cold body but despair. Despair at the sudden awareness that these two are the only states possible for him- numbing cold and burning heat.
“Then I made you hate him,” said Wenchaali, “Not that you needed much of a prompt. You did think that the old man was to blame for your distress. However, without a certain prodding delivered expertly to the back of your mind, you would not have ensured that he was sent to jail. Neither would you have treated his old hag of a wife the way you did. You would have gone soft!”
Even though no smoke was visible, the air was thick with fumes.
Chocking up, Varun said, “Why?”
“Why? That’s a silly question. There is no rhyme or reason to life, Varun. Bad things happen. To both good and bad people. It’s not because of a plan made by the universe ages ago which make somone get a cold that escalated to pneumonia that kills her. No, no, no, Varun..it’s just random. Destiny decides something on a whim. And Destiny always gets her way. ”
Varun felt a chill pass through him which was deeper than the cold he was under. He has lost faith in God when he was 10 years old and his mother died, of pneumonia. He wished that he could call out to some god now.
“So, you are Destiny’s emissary..” he said.
“One of them, Varun. Or rather, you can say I am a copy. The current technology of you humans give us such analogies, doesn’t it?” said Wenchaali. “Right now, billions of my other copies are at work, influencing different people, indeed influencing various species.”
“So, you have been around all along?”
Judging from how he said that, Varun felt that if the shadow had hands, it would have clapped.
“But things became real fun only after humans entered the picture,” continued Wenchaali. “There’s a level of complexity to you things which make your suffering nothing less than an artwork .”
Again,Varun got the distinct impression that if it had hands it would have clapped.
The combination of the heat and cold and the revelation that the fundamental guiding principle of the universe is just chaos made Varun dizzy. Turning his head , he puked out the tender coconut juice which dripped down the side of the bed like an ugly miniature waterfall.
Genchaali laughed. The sound grated on Varun’s nerves. Beside himself, he felt tears welling up in his eyes. He remembered that the last time he cried was at his mother’s cremation- a memory which brought more tears in its wake.
“Why are you telling me this?” he said, turning around to face the shadow.
The shadow quivered, just like it did when Ramachandran plunged the pen into his eyes. With pleasure.
And it lifted, floating away from Varun towards the door, cackling its hideous laugh, saying, “You fool! You are still asking for reasons! I told you, everything is random. Bad things happen. To everyone. But if you insist on a reason, I revealed this secret because it will be hard for you to bear. Not if you want to remain sane!”
Another burst of laughter. With the words, “Destiny will be so pleased!” the shadow exited through the keyhole of the door.
For a few moments, Varun kept his eyes fixed on the door. Everything remained still.
A fly alighted on the lampshade on his bedstand.
The Hulk stood mutely at his corner, with one hand raised, ready to bring it down on anyone, the curtain on the window provided the only evident movement, thanks to a gentle breeze.
But all Varun noticed was the intense cold inside his heart. Devoid of emotion, he fell back on the bed.
There was one trace of feeling which wanted to surface through the ice cold in the heart, if only he would allow it.
And his eyes opened wide in terror as he thought of how long before he let it surface. That feeling which was a black shapeless mass with spikes on its body-spikes that would inject black despair into his soul, making his mouth open and his tongue move, in a cackle of mad, unstoppable laughter.
Varun lied extremely still.