In my future, a whole lot of dead souls

Antony Gomez is 26 years old. But that doesn’t mean that he has the mental maturity of a 26 year old. If you ask his mom, she would say that the maturity level of her son would pertain to that of a 16 year old-provided that the 16 year old was dropped on his head as a child-many times over. As for his father-the more lenient one, surprising perhaps given fathers are often harsher critics of sons, he would say that Antony needs some more time to reach a reasonable level of maturity.

“How much more time?” he was asked by his wife once. “Oh, say, another six years-which is when I would have to retire and the money flow in the house would become stringent,” he said with wry humor. Antony was present at the dinner table when this conversation was happening. He just smiled to himself, appreciating his dad’s sense of humour-something that was a rare trait among government employees, especially those who worked in the accounts departments.

Then, there was his sister-older by two years, already married and with a kid. She stayed with her husband and his parents. If someone were to ask her about her brother’s maturity aspect, she would smirk and say the same thing that she has always said about him, to him: “Dork!” Not that she didn’t like him. On the contrary, she-like her parents, adored her little brother. Just that she didn’t particularly believe in seeing him as being capable of handling the entire affairs of a household -like what’s expected of a master of a house.

For one thing, Antony drank too much. A habit he developed during his college years and never let go. Just the other day, her mother was taking about it when they talked over the phone.

“He came home pitch drunk,” her mother had said. “A friend of his-Sumesh, I think, dropped him off. I saw him only from the distance-but from the way he was addled on the bike, it looked like he too was not all that sober. Anyway, Antony’s father was in the living room, reading the newspaper when he came in. It was rather late, after 10. He looked up at his son but didn’t say anything. Antony, with a sheepish grin walked in and got hold of a bottle of whiskey which his father had got from one of his friends. I had seen Antony eyeing the bottle before. He reached the door. He held the bottle to a side so his father wouldn’t see it. But sensing his presence, his father did look up. Saw that he was hiding something. What’s going on? , he asked. My dear son said that one of his friends wanted a pen drive. “Urgently,” he said, and that he was taking it to him. His father leaned his head back so that he could get a look at what Antony was trying so hard to hide from him. He got a glimpse of the bottle. “So, is that the pen drive?” h

Once her mother finished saying it, they both laughed.

Not that anyone in the household actively encouraged him to drink-they would tell him whenever they felt like it-which was every other day that he should be cutting down on the drinks. “Especially at your age,” his mother would say. As for his father, this was his favourite line: “If you want to drink, go ahead and drink. But drink at your home, just as I do, once in a while. “ But Anthony thought that drinking once in a while was not drinking at all.

One key reason why no one in the family tried to press the point too hard was that Antony rarely got into trouble with his drinking. While many of his so called ‘friends’ would get into the occasional skirmishes, getting involved in brawls, Anthony-and his core group of friends, stayed out of such things. And it was more tomfoolery than problems that they created after a bout of drinking. Like what happened last Christmas when Antony played the Santa for the Carols and puked all over his Santa suit and the lawn of the house in which he was dancing at that point.

But this doesn’t mean that he was a complete fool either. A graduate in journalism, he joined a newspaper as a rookie reporter only to leave the job two months later. “The job of a journalist is too boring, too hard or both” was his explanation to his father.

“So, what do you want to do then?” his father had asked. He was hoping that Antony would just shrug and say, “I don’t know.” Then he could have gently nudged him in the direction he wanted to-which was to urge Antony to join some job abroad-in the Middle East. His father himself used to work in Dubai for a few years before coming back home and joining the government service. He didn’t like it there-an oasis in a vast desert, that was what Dubai was. And no matter how beautiful the oasis, the fact still remained that it was just that- a tiny patch of isolation. Far from home and all his loved ones.

But he heard that things have changed dramatically in Dubai in the intervening years. It’s now “one of the most fun places on the planet!” Something he read in a newspaper article which he made a point to impress upon Antony as much as he could.

But contrary to his hopes, Antony didn’t say “I don’t know” when asked what he wanted to do instead of being a journalist. He said, “Hotel management. He said this because he liked to cook-especially after he got drunk. The inclination for cooking was something which got planted in him at a young age. His father was working abroad-it was his mother who brought both his sister and him up during those years. The kids were both young. And on days when they didn’t have school or tuition she would enlist the children’s help at the kitchen. “Just flip the chappathi after a while,” she would say to Antony. “Make sure that the curry didn’t get too dry” might be a directive given to his sister.

So it was that Antony joined a hotel management course at a time when most of his peers were beginning to earn money from work. And he did great in the course-coming at the top of his class in the final exams, to the delight of his parents.

With the ambitions of becoming a chef one day, he joined a 7-star hotel as an apprentice(endorsed by the institution where he learned). While he lasted around two months at the newspaper, it took him just a month of apprenticeship to realize that the work was just too hard for an ordinary mortal-all that month, practically all he did was chop up onions-sackful of them every day. And the fact that all he got for his efforts was a measly stipend of Rs.500 didn’t help either.

“So, what do you want to do now?” his father asked, with a wearier sigh this time.

“Think I will join the writing profession after all,” said Anthony. “Not journalism thought. Something…lighter.”

Anthony found the job that fits the description in Bangalore-the mecca of sorts for all the young Keralites whom the state cannot accommodate with a job. The job-as a content writer for an entertainment blog didn’t pay all that well but he wasn’t too bothered. Whenever he ran out of money-which he did frequently, he would call up his father. Dad would be gruff with him, declining to send money but after about 10 minutes of cajoling, he would consent. Dad had a special attachment to his first-born, this Antony knew, and took advantage of.

Surprising his parents yet again, Antony stuck with the job. His father even made a bet with his wife that he wouldn’t last in the job for more than three months. He lost that bet. He put another one, pushing the upper limit to six months. When he lost that bet too, he decided that things might be (finally) getting better. At least, marginally- Antony did keep asking for money every other month.

But an improvement was an improvement was an improvement, thought his father.

**

Antony arrived at Hampi early in the morning-about 6:30. The bus was supposed to reach Hospet only by 6 but reached its destination a full hour before-surprising how tourist buses have a reputation of arriving late rather than early, keeping to the best traditions of Indian punctuality.

Antony had a breakfast of idlis and vadas from a Brahmin restaurant. When he checked his face in the mirror at the wash, it appeared to him as though the stubble on his square chin was too thick to be just two days old. His gravity defying flock of hair appeared messy but there was nothing unusual about that-unless he was going out on a date, it always remained messy.

He took a bus from Hospet to Hampi. Even though early in the day, it wasn’t cold, especially when compared with the early morning cold of Bangalore which pendulmed between ‘gloomy cold’ and ‘enjoyabe’ depending on the day.

But Antony wasn’t here for the weather. He was here more to get away from the hubbub of Bangalore than anything. Having been born and brought up in the small district of Kottayam in Kerala where he had spend all his life until around 8 months ago, he often found the mad traffic rush and the heightened pace of the city kind of overwhelming-especially considering how he was the lazy type by nature who would rather stand by and watch the rush than join in.

He took the boat that carried him-and a handful of others(it wasn’t the tourist season) across the lake behind the main temple. A small pathway led up where they alighted on the shore. Walking up a lane, Antony was asked twice-by two different men representing tow different establishments whether he would like to hire a scooter. The rates they quoted was cheap and he thought that maybe he should take up on the offer. But then, he decided that he ought to stick with the original plan-which was to walk all the way to Muhammed’s.

As it turned out, it took the better part of an hour to reach Muhammed’s lodging facility. A walk through a lonely road on which he saw just one person-an old man in a faded shirt and shorts mired with dust who stood at a fork on the road. It might as well that he was there for Antony alone for he wasn’t sure whether he should take the route on the left or right. There was no network on his phone either to check on G Plus(assuming Mohammed’s will be listed on it).

The man grinned as Antony said the word, “Hanumanahally.”

Antony was surprised but not revolted by how black the man’s teeth were. It felt a wonder that such teeth still had roots. As far as Antony could see, the old man had all his teeth intact. He had a pick-zaxe over his shoulder, a lazy hand placed over its long arm. The man’s smallish face was a mass of wrinkles which looked like the dried remains of worms stuck to the pale brown skin.

It was hard to tell the man’s age-it could be anywhere up from 80, thought Antony. Besides, once you have passed a certain age, age ceased to have much meaning. The rolling years which swifted by became just landmarks on the way to the grave.

But when the man smiled, there was a certain youthfulness to it-like behind the veneer of age and the muddied eyes he held the secret of youthfulness, hidden from the world, a precious mystery he was determined to take to his grave. Something that one commonly sees appear on old faces in villages.

The man pointed a long bony finger towards the road to the right. Nodding his thanks and after letting his gaze linger on the old man’s face for a second more than was necessary, Antony walked away. The old man was still smiling.

Hanumanahalli wasn’t too far from where the road forked. And he had no trouble finding Muhammed’s lodging place for that was the only establishment of its kind in the small quasi-village which was essentially a handful of homes-mostly huts with barns for livestock.

In fact, the lodging facilty of Muhammed  was attached  to the man’s home- a small tile-roofed house to which Antony was led by a young girl of around 10 years who had snot running down her nose.

When the kid announced the visitor, Muhammed-6 feet tall and wearing a tuglaq and one of the most pleasant smile that Antony had ever seen on a face, came out of the house.

Antony introduced himself as Sumesh’s friend.

“Oh, great!” Muhammed’s eyes widened with happiness at the mention of Sumesh’ name. For Sumesh, Hampi was THE destination to unwind-often with the aid of substances that polite society would frown at. And whenever he came here, he crashed at Muhammed’s.

“So, is Sumesh also coming?” said Muhammed.

“He was planning to,” said Antony, an edge of irritation creeping into his voice despite himself. “In fact, he was the one who planned this trip. We were both supposed to arrive here together. But what do you know, he found some chick on Tinder who wants to meet up tomorrow. So, instead of boarding the bus with me, he took another one-to Mumbai.”

Muhammed laughed, a merry sound which helped take the edge off the resentment that was rising in Antony  towards his friend. “He dumped his friend for a girl, would you believe that!” Antony said with mock-anger, rolling his eyes.

“With Sumesh, I can imagine,” said Muhammed with a smile. Patting him on the shoulder he added, “Come, let me show you the rooms.”

Muhammed took him to a two storied building that was hidden from view from his home by a high fence to which clung a hundred creepers with flowers. As he walked by the fence, Antony could hear bees buzzing on the other side.

Muhammed showed him a room on the ground floor-bare except for a cot and a small beaker of water on a corner-on the floor. The place was dusty to say the least. “I will have the place cleaned, of course,” said Muhammed hastily.

Antony nodded. He wasn’t too impressed by the room which was just a concrete box with a couple of windows-much like many single rooms that one would find for rent in Bangalore. In fact, Antony himself had stayed in one such room the first month of his stay in the city-before he moved in with a couple of colleagues to a 2 BHK.

Here, he was expecting something a little more…exotic.

Perhaps sensing this, Muhammed said, “There’s another room on the top floor.”

They climbed a ladder with wooden planks that was laid against the building. Antony found this a little precarious but the easiness with which Muhammed climbed it-yawning, made him give it lesser mind.

They landed on wooden flooring. The top edge of the ladder rested almost right in the middle of the floor-serving as a sort of partition. On either side was a closed door. Muhammed led him towards the one on the right. Opening the lock with a key he gestured Antony to take a look inside. The roof-thatched with leaves was low and made him stoop his head as he entered.

The room wasn’t large. It was, in fact smaller than the one he saw below. If two people were to stand side by side and stretch their arms, they could touch the walls. The center portion of the room was taken up by a mattress which was well protected with a mosquito net. To the left of the mattress, on the corner, Antony saw a low stool on which lied an open empty cigarette pack and a near empty bottle of water: what the previous occupant left behind.

Despite the smallness of the room, Antony liked it. It had a coziness and a hut-like vibe which appealed to his desire for the exotic. The wall to the left which divided the room from the adjoining one was made of bamboos. ‘Neither of the rooms would be ideal for couples’ thought Anthony, pleased about the fact that he was alone.

For the first time since he reached Hampi, he thought that he actually could have a decent time. When Sumesh had called up to say that he won’t be joining him, he had even thought that he would cancel the trip as well-he didn’t like that much to drink on his own. Only the fact that he was already halfway to the bus pick up point held him from carrying out that plan.

‘I will take this room,” he said., adding, “Is there anyone staying in the next room?” He wanted to know if he would be bothering someone if he were to get drunk and call up Sumesh later and give him a piece of his mind-which he certainly would.

“No.” Muhammed shook his head.

Antony grinned.

Before Mummed  left, he asked, “Where is the bathroom?”

**

There was a common bathroom/toilet in the adjacent plot. Feeling the urgency of nature’s call, Anthony climbed down the ladder forgetting his earlier apprehension.

The steel door to the bathroom creaked as he pushed it open. It was dark inside. He groped for a switch on the wall to his left and found one. Turned it on but no light came on. Then he remembered what Muhammed had earlier said-that power will be available from 6 PM to 6 AM-it’s a tight ship that Muhammed ran. Not that Antony was complaining. Part of the reason why he was here was because it’s cheap.

Before closing the door he took in the layout- a small partition to his immediate right divided the bathing space from the toilet. He would have to take three or four feet to the front before turning right to reach it. To his left, some way beneath the light switch was a tap with a plastic cap. Under the tap was a bucket-blue in colour and rather huge. He noticed that it was filled almost to the brim with water. Upon touching it, he found the water cold and more natural than the water you get in Bangalore.

Perhaps it was just his imagination.

Almost as soon as he closed the door, the entire bathroom fell into a dark so thick that it felt to be suffocating him. It was so dense that for a second he felt disoriented. He thought of getting out and asking Mardhan to bring the power on just for a while so that he could take a crap. That’s when he remembered the cell phone in his jeans pocket. He brought it out and turned it on. The light that fell from its screen panel was usually enough to help him find the candle when the power went off in his apartment. But this was another kind of dark entirely. He had to lean forward and stretch his hand considerably in front of him to see the tiled floor he was walking on.

Slowly, putting one foot in front of the other, he made his way to the Indian style toilet which was covered over with a wide wooden plank.  Tucking the phone between his chin and his neck, he took off his pants and innerwear ,laid them over the partition(which was also wooden). Shedding the phone’s light on the plank, he removed it.

The crap hole for some reason looked unfathomable, as though it held in its mysterious depths dangers no one could imagine. Antony wasn’t easily given to such whimsies but for some reason he found his heartbeat rise. He brought the phone’s light closer to the craphole-it was clean to a T- worthy of a cleaning liquid commercial, he thought.

However, he still couldn’t see into the depths of the hole-besides, there was a limit to how close to it he could bring the hand that held the phone.

Sighing, telling himself not to be a fool to give into childish imaginations he pulled the phone back. Which was when he heard it- a croak. Followed by the appearance of an eye. A frog, he thought. Must be.

And soon enough, a green frog the size of his fist emerged into the light. It croaked once again, but this time the croak sounded like a word. In fact, it sounded like his name. “Tony!”

What the fuck? thought Anthony. And I haven’t started drinking today either.

Maybe it’s because of that that I am hearing things , was his subsequent thought.

But then, the croak came again-and this time, it was unmistakable. The frog indeed croaked his name!

Antony took a step back. Everything remained silent for a while except for the thud thud of his heart which yammered like a Bullet’s engine. The hand that held the phone shivered.

I definitely need a drink now!

He felt something stirring in the dark. No, not the frog. But then peering into the darkness, he found an even thicker dark, growing in stature.

The frog was growing in size!

In the phone’s faint light he saw its face. Only, it wasn’t that of a frog anymore. While the overgrown body remained that of a frog with slime in its belly, the face belonged to someone he knew once.

Gasping, he took a few involuntary steps back, his back hitting against the wall. And immediately, the frog shrank in size, as if air was let out of a balloon. Even though he couldn’t see it, he could sense that the creature was back to its own size.

As if to validate it, the thing croaked again. And this time, it was just that- a frog’s croak.

**

It was only when he was back in the room that he realized that he had indeed managed to put on his innerwear and jeans before rushing out of the bathroom.

His need to take a dump was gone, at least for the time being, to be replaced by an even more pressing need-for a drink. From his backpack, he pulled out one of the two half bottles of Old Monk  which he had brought with him-he was advised that it’s notoriously hard to get alcohol in Hampi. He had also brought a couple of plastic glasses with him. He now poured some rum into one of them. Which was when he remembered that there was no water.

To hell with it, he thought and downed the rum in a single gulp.

A bout 5 minutes later, he repeated the process.

Some 10 minutes after that, he was sound asleep.

**

He was woken by the sound of Muhammed calling him out to lunch.
The lunch was a simple affair-rice and vegetable curry. Prepared by Muhammed’s wife-a petite fair skinned woman with a black beauty mark on her right cheek.

Simple though it was, the food was nourishing. Tony felt considerably revived Upon returning the empty plate(he had the dinner at a charpoy that was laid out on the shade of a tree beside Muhammed’s kitchen), he thanked for the food. And asked if there were any place nearby he should check out.

Muhammed  told him about an old Hanuman temple-situated on a small hill which was where the monkey god was born, apparently.

Once again thanking for the food, Tony went back to his room, had another drink and left for the temple which his host had said was just 10 minutes walk away. While leaving the compound, never once did he look towards the bathroom.

But the call of nature had resurfaced. Thankfully, the way to the temple, he discovered was flanked by nothing but unattended rice fields on either side. And as far as the eye could see, there was not a single human in sight, let alone a house. Huge boulders rose up from the ground like parts of giant monsters sleeping underground. From somewhere he heard the sound of dogs barking.

Tony satisfied nature’s need by stepping into a field, well hidden by paddy stalks from the occasional vehicle carrying tourists that passed by. He cleaned himself with his handkerchief that he left behind. He found it darkly amusing that in the near future someone would be eating the rice which grew nurtured by his waste.

Relieved, he found the rest of the walk to the foot of the hill just too easy.

**

But that couldn’t be said about the climb uphill. For one thing, he was too dehydrated -even the bottle of water which he brought and consumed at the small shack at the foot of the hill didn’t help much. Yes, there were rock cut steps which ought to have made things easier. But, as Tony was finding out, such things were no help in the absence of a robust body.

The last time he was in a gym was in a dream.

Then, there was the thing which he kept seeing every few steps. Somehow the exertion brought back to his mind what he saw earlier in the dark of the bathroom.

That face, the face which was familiar to him. The one that belonged to a dead person.

Feeling out of breath he decided to take a pause, leaning against a railing which was built at a curve on the steps.

A couple of kids- a girl in a pink churidar followed by a (younger) boy in a maroon sherwani and whose missing front tooth made his grin much cuter, passed him by. Somewhere above him, from the branch of a tree, a monkey chirped.

Antony though didn’t notice any of these things.

His mind was focused, beside itself,  on that face-the dimple on the cheek, the tuft of hair which fell over an eyes ,she would gently push the hair back sometimes and try to keep it in check behind her earlobe- a gesture singlehandedly responsible for making a whole lot of people in her class fall in love. Including Tony.

Her name was Ashley. One of the smartest, arguably the most beautiful girl in the journalism college. Tony was just one among many who had professed to her their love. And got rejected in turn.

And like her beauty, her death too became a talking point in the college. Especially given how it happened. She fell off from the college’s 6th floor. A victim of ragging. Some say she jumped. But the legal verdict was that it was an accident. Yes, she was taunted by a few seniors, for being so ‘high minded’ apparently. For not accepting the love of any of her suitors.

Twelve days after her death, Tony would learn the truth.

**

Anthony found the heat oppressive. There seemed to be no end to the beads of sweat originating on his forehead. He wished he hadn’t have to use that handkerchief at the field.

He sighed, looked above, at the monkey which grinned at him , its teeth whiter than most humans’ would ever be, and the same could be said about the innocence in its eyes.

He looked at the deep blue sky which was dotted with a few clouds that drifted aimlessly. He sought a place to focus his eyes on but couldn’t-he found his inner- eye following, almost helplessly the drift of his mind- what happened to Ashley.

She jumped. As a couple of hands reached towards her-or more precisely towards her breasts, the voice of one of her drunk taunters saying., “Are these the ones you find so precious?”

It was after class hours. Ashley had stayed back to finish a special assignment which she had to submit the next day. Having a function to attend later in the evening, she thought it better if she completed it at the college itself.

However, by the time she was done, it was later than she had expected, and even the friends who stayed with her to finish their own assignments had left. They had asked if she would like to leave with them. She said, No. A fatal mistake, as it turned out.

They were four of them. Seniors, all of them. Men who reeked of alcohol and who all wore a grin on their faces which was nonetheless the least friendly.

Ashley managed to make her way out of the door. But there was someone else at the stairs that led down-so in her panic she took the flight of stairs to the upper floor, the sixth floor. They chased her.

“It wasn’t just the-gentle-eve-teasing-and-she-panicked story which they gave to the authorities,” she, or rather Ashley’s ghost had told him.

Like most pupils in the college, Tony too was rather upset by her death, and not just because he loved her. She was a bright student-someone with strong opinions, opinions backed by a strong ethical wisdom and information-a  combination that was crucial to journalism. It was a shame that someone like that would meet such an end. Or maybe, Tony would think sometimes, it was her strong ethics which made her jump.

Tony would have liked to think that Ashley’s ghost appeared to him because she actually loved him when (a fact which she never told him because her father was a superstitious nut who had believed that her marrying anyone with the name, Antony would be the end of her. Or something like that).

Seeing what was in his mind, Ashley’s ghost had smiled- a sad sweet smile. “You are a nice person, Tony. And I do like you. But love is a whole different ballgame, isn’t it?”

“You have no idea,” Tony would have loved to say but kept his mouth shut, too enthralled by her presence in his room, even in her ethereal form.

“No,” she said, the faint trace of the sad smile still on her face. “I came to you because you are the only one with the ability.”

“What ability?”

“The ability to see beyond, of course,”said Ashley’s ghost as if it should have been obvious. And while he looked at her with a baffled expression she added, “And it’s not in the hope that you would help bring justice or anything that I told you. For one thing, they are sons of the powerful ones-the ones that always get away. Besides, what evidence can you show to prove it.” Here she paused and shook her head sadly. “No,” she said, ”it’s just that unless I told this to someone, I won’t be able to move on. And when I found that you had the ability, I was happy. After all, you are someone I knew when I was alive.”

The ability. That’s what she had called it. If that was indeed what it was, neither had it manifested before that nor after. Indeed, there were times when he thought it nothing more than a dream-perhaps born out of his prejudice against her taunters-guys he knew walked on the wrong side of things.

But no, another part of his mind would tell him. A part which acknowledged that there was more to life than the logical. A part which also absorbed the fact through osmosis and accepted it. It kept telling him that it was real, that what he saw was no phantasm.

And it was to subdue that voice that he drank so much. At least, that’s how it began.

His burning skin felt like a tarmac on hell and the sweat kept coming. No, he decided, I can’t do this, climbing down the stairs, whispering a sorry in his mind to Hanuman-the greatest devotee of the omnipresent god, with whom he imagined Ashley’s soul was.

Or with His Christian equivalent, at any rate.

**

Not surprisingly, there was no passion for sightseeing left in him. He was too disturbed by the vision of Ashley’s face on that goddamn frog to enjoy in peace the stunning landscape, or the beautiful man-made edifices on stone with which Hampi enthralled her visitors.

On the way back to Mardhan’s he brought two bottles of water-most of which went to mixing the rum. The rest of the evening was a mix of alcohol induced stupor and sudden awakenings which kept happening whenever Ashley’s smiling face kept nudging his mind.

“Why now?” was what he was thinking as he made his way to Muhammed’s kitchen for dinner. He had taken a bath-in the same bathroom, this time with light. So, he was feeling somewhat fresh, the lethargy brought on byy liquor abating somewhat under the coolness of the water on his body-and he was right, the water was indeed better than what you got in Bangalore.

He half-expected something weird to happen in the bathroom. Twisted enough,  a part of him even wanted Ashley to materialize-to see him naked. He didn’t have 6 packs or anything but a flat belly and a member he was rather proud of.(If he were a porn star, they wouldn’t have to perform any surgery on him on that front, he had thought many times).

But nothing happened.

“Then, what explained what happened earlier?” His thought was broken when Muhammed  brought him the dinner from the kitchen. “You can have it here,” he said pointing to the charpoy, “Or over there.” Following Muhammed’s pointed finger, his gaze fell on the terrace of the house. “It’s breezy there this time of the night,” said Muhammed.

Tony nodded. He could use some breeze just about now. Despite the fact that the heat has abated , he was still sweating. A few drinks could do that to a man.

Upon stepping into the terrace, Tony found the ground beneath his feet filled with dust. He thought about death.

Maybe not the best thing to think about during dinner, he thought wryly.

Like near Muhammed’s kitchen, on the terrace too he found cot wound with twines making a seat. On the coat was seated a young man who looked to be in his late 20s and a woman around the same age. The man who was having his dinner-lilke Tony’s his plate too was filled with rice and vegetable curry, wore a sleeveless T-shirt with the logo of some American basketball team and a pair of shorts.

The woman too wore a sleeveless top along with a pair of three-fourths. She had the sindoor or her forehead. Compared to the man, she was on the more fatter side of things so much so that it was hard to imagine why such a man would go for such a woman.

To each his own, thought Tony.

He didn’t wish to intrude upon them, seeing as how they were having a neat little private time. So he just sat on the railing of the terrace and started having the food. True to Muhammed’s words, there was a gentle breeze blowing. Tony’s eyes rose to the east from where the brezze rushed in. He could see faint outlines of mountains in the distance, hazy sketches on a dark palette, like hints of secrets that lied just beyond the realm of human comprehension.

On the cot the woman was saying something to her husband. The words were indistinct but from the way the man smiled, Tony assumed that she was someone with a humour sense.

Like Ashley, he suddenly thought. Had she been alive, she would probably have been married by now. Maybe even a kid or two..

“Bhaiya!” the voice startled him out of his thought. He saw the woman looking at her. “You can come and have your food here,” she said, indicating to a chair near the cot. Tony had seen the chair before. He shook his head. “I’m fine, thank you!”

The couple left not too later, leaving Tony with his thoughts about Ashley.

By the time he handed the empty dinner platter to Muhammed, a group of foreign tourists had come together with their guitars and their drums. Sitting on a small boulder within Muhammed’s premises they were singing, and playing music. A white man with long blond hair and a thick moustache was rolling a giant-sized joint.

On another night, Tony might have joined them-he was not a bad singer, especially if he was drunk. His favourite tunes were classics: “Born to be wild” and “This house is a’rocking” But tonight, he didn’t feel like it. He just wanted to get back to his room, and hit the bottle to subdue the image of Ashley which kept surfacing in his mind.

He was now well into the second-and last bottle of rum. So far, the liquor has done nothing to kill Ashley’s image. And the wretched frog kept croaking his name. He tried calling Sumesh, just to yell at him-yelling can be pretty therapeutic at such times, he knew. Only, he couldn’t get a signal on his phone.

Feeling restless, he came out of the room and stood on the corridor, looking out at the dark face of the night.

The sound of laughter made him turn his attention downwards. There, he saw the woman he saw earlier at the terrace-a fair portion of her breasts visible from where he stood. Clad in the sleeveless V-neck top, washed in an iridescent light that fell from a naked bulb, she was laughing. And the woman’s laugh brought Ashley’s face into his mind with more force.

How this woman was enjoying with her husband, Ashley could have too, he couldn’t help but think.

Was it perhaps for justice, after all that Ashley appeared again? He thought. Sure, she had said that she wasn’t particularly looking for justice. But maybe she changed her mind. Or maybe she learned later on that unless justice was meted out to her taunters she couldn’t move on-after all, it’s not like she had experience dying before so she knew exactly how these things went…

Her taunters had graduated from the college without any issues. In the absence of evidence, there wasn’t much anyone could have done. And what could he himself do, anyway?

Down below, the man’s voice now joined the woman’s laughter. She was splashing water on his face from a tap. The man, not to be outdone, did the same to her. Some water fell on her blouse. One of her stiff nipples came clear through the fabric of the cloth-he saw clearly. The woman’s lips gleamed in the light, like two slices of red apple.

Tony groaned and went back into his room.

**

The next morning, almost as soon as he woke up, Tony went down to Muhammed’s to pay him for his hospitality-he felt like he wanted to get out of here as soon as possible. The place was now suffused with a bad vibe, tinged with thoughts about Ashley that floated in the air like unseen wisps of smoke.

On the way back to his room, from where he must collect his bag his eyes fell on the closed door of the room below-the same room that was first shown him, the one where the couple now stayed. He imagined the things that might have happened last night behind the closed door. Sure, the woman  was a bit on the fatter side of but there was no doubt that she was an attractive specimen.

Shaking his head at his own folly of not brining a woman with him, he climbed to the room. Before leaving he opened the rum bottle again. About half the bottle had content. In the span of another fifteen minutes, he emptied half of that. He capped the bottle and put it back inside the bag. He took one last look at the room-at the crumpled sheet on the mattress and the empty water bottles.

This hasn’t been the most restful of stays, he thought.

As he came out of the room, he heard the man’s voice from below. He had a gentle voice-something of a rarity among people his age. He was talking to his wife. They were both walking to and fro, arm in arm, in front of their room, on the small lawn on the other side of which was the fence with all the creepers. And the bees.

As he stepped off the ladder, Tony saw those bees. Black, big and buzzing, hovering above the flowers like vultures around carrion, or so he thought in his gloomy mood.

And he saw something else too-the woman, still in the same dress as last night(but without the nipple visible-the dress wasn’t wet anymore) fading in and out.

Tony blinked. Twice. He haven’t had breajfast. Muhammed had offered but he had declined- not wanting to spend any more time here than was necessary. But he wondered if that, coupled with the few drinks he had were enough to make him see what he was .

The woman was being stretched along the breadth of her body by some unseen forces, and every time that happened, she would nearly disappear in a white haze that almost got absorbed into the air. But she would rebound, to take on her normal appearance but with each rebound, she appeared less material and more like a fragment of a dream.

Also, with each iteration, the man who held her arms lowered his voice even further, appearing to be saddened.

“This place is seriously fucked up!” murmuring thus, Tony hastened out of the compound. As he briskly walked back on the rod he had took this way yesterday, he wished he had taken up on that offer for hiring a scooter. He wouldn’t like anything more than putting as much space between himself and that place as fast as possible.

Halfway through the lonely road, he saw an elderly man in a grey shirt and white pants standing at the shore of the lake that flew by. Standing extremely still, he appeared to be looking at the shimmering water of the lake, without taking his eyes off it. Tony only had a view of his back but thanks to the sunlight which reflected off the water, the man appeared more as a silhouette than a man.

Is he real or a dream fragment? thought Tony. He looked up at the sky. Even though it was just 8:30 in the morning, the sky was alit, stark and bright. Was it possible that ghosts walked at this time of the day? he thought, hastening his pace.

Some way further up the road, the man from Mardhan’s place-the one who was with that woman, passed him on a scooter. Tony just caught a glimpse but from what he saw the man looked grim, sad. Like Tony, he too had a backpack on. But the passenger seat of the scooter was empty.

After a while, as Tony turned a bend, he saw that the man had stopped his scooter, almost in the middle of the road. And after a few moments of hesitation, he moved on again.

The further the scooter moved from him, the slower Tony’s steps became, until it felt to him like he was walking in slow motion. What was slowing him down was what was materializing in front of him, right where the man had halted his scooter. At first it was just an outline drawn with gravity that ridged a hole in the very air. Then slowly,as he watched, the area within the outline coagulated as molecules re-arranged themselves to become an amorphous representation of the woman.

Tony stopped in his tracks completely. But the woman-uninhibited by the constraints of the flesh floated towards him, stopped just a few feet in front of him.

Tony wasn’t scared. He was gone beyond that. He was petrified. He couldn’t move his lips even though many were the questions on his tongue. What is going on?What happened to Ashley? Is she alright in the beyond? Why am I seeing all you people? What happened to you?

But aside from a faint groan, he was unable to make a sound.

As if to placate him, the amorphous being smiled. She said, “I know what you are thinking. Yes, I am a ghost. My husband, he hasn’t let go of me from his mind still. Which is why every year, on the day of our wedding anniversary, I come to meet him, here in Hampi, where we came for our honeymoon.”

The woman, despite her otherworldly appearance spoke in a normal enough tone. And like her husband, hers too was a gentle voice . This had the effect of Antony breathing again. Indeed, he wasn’t even aware that he was holding his breath all this while.

“What you saw earlier today,” she continued,” when I was sliding between being manifest and not..those were my last moments this year when I could have the appearance in my old body.” She smiled a sad smile-much like the one Ashley had smiled all those years ago in his room. “You see, the rules of the beyond are rather strict,” she said. “Indeed, it was with much pleading that I managed to convince them to have this..special arrangement..for me.”

A wind blew hard, making the trees around them sway. For a moment, Tony wondered if the woman’s form will be swifted away by the wind. But she held form.

Of course, she did, he thought. She is a supernatural being. Why would she be affected by something entirely natural like the wind? He felt amused, and somewhat glad that he could think of this apparition on such logical terms.

“And..Ashley?” he said.

There was a small moment of confusion on the apparition’s face before it settled into a rather serene form. “Oh, yes, your girlfriend!” Tony didn’t bother telling her that it wasn’t so.

“Yes, such a pure spirit,” she said, “She was the one who pointed you out to me. You see, this is something that she would have done herself. Only she has practically moved on, having no reason for attaching herself to earth anymore-unlike me,” she added with that same sad smile which was beginning make Tony pity this woman. Ghost, he corrected himself.

“So she can’t reach out to you as much as she would like to,” she said. “Which is why she asked me to tell you something.”

“What is it?” even as he said it, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know.

“That you seem to be fighting your ability. That you cannot try to kill it with alcohol, you can only kill yourself that way.” Drifting closer to him, the amorphous entity added, almost whispering into his ear, “This is what your Ashley said: Embrace the ability. It is now time. Even though I may have been beyond help-in bringing justice for me, there are other spirits that can guide you to amass evidence against culprits who did them wrong-those who are still roaming free. Soon, these spirits will begin to appear in front of you. You need to be strong for it, you need to be clear-headed. For the ability is a calling from which you cannot walk away!” After a moment in which nothing-not even the leaves stirred, she added, “This is what your Ashley says.”

Before he could raise his head to look at her, she was gone. The emptiness around him was so complete that almost everything that just happened could well have been a fantasy.

But of course, it wasn’t. His mind told him that much. And this time, he didn’t have any reason to doubt it.

As he neared the tree where the road forked, he remembered the old man he saw yesterday, the one to whom he asked for direction, the one with all the dried worm-like wrinkles on his face. He was now pretty sure that he too was someone from the beyond.

God only knows what reason he had for hanging around still.

And sure enough, as he was walking past the tree under which the man stood yesterday, he saw him. The man didn’t see himthough. He stood on the field to the right of the road, tilling the ground. He wasn’t alone. There were four others, two men and two women. Farmers, all of them above the age of fifty from their look. But there was no doubt as to who was the oldest.

One of them called out to the old(er) man for something. Antony’s Kannada wasn’t exactly topnotch. So he didn’t understand what was being asked of the old man. His curiosity was soon quenched when the latter  pulled out a matchbox from within the pocket of his shorts and threw it to the other man. After lighting a beedi, the latter passed the matchbox back to him.

The old man too lit one, put the matchbox away and continued tilling, puffing away on his beedi.

Oh, well, thought Tony. So, my theory was wrong-the man wasn’t dead, after all.

But something tells me that there are a whole lot of dead souls waiting for me in my future.

 

 

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