The woman strayed into Ramesh’ view as he was standing on his balcony, watching a drying leaf being blown around by the wind. The drift had the yellowing leaf from a nearby maple tree beating against the foot of an electric post, as though it were asking for someone to open a door.
That’s when the cab came to a halt near the post and from it exited the woman aquiline face framed with short yet smartly cropped hair. What with the yellow light from the street lamp Ramesh couldn’t be sure, but he was pretty positive that he could see a streak or two of burgundy on her black hair.
The cab left and revealed her lower half which was earlier concealed behind the bulk of the vehicle.Her grey T-shirt was complemented with a pair of marron jeans. A pair of ash-colored Addidas covered her feet. As a graphic designer, Ramesh always appreciated people with good colour sense. And the woman whom he saw was appreciable not just for that.
As she turned towards the gate of the building behind her, there was a moment when her breasts pressed against the fabric of her T-shirt and he couldn’t help but think how shapely they were. And there was something to the slightly upward tilt of her lips which accentuated her beauty.
All in all, a very desirable young woman, he thought
“Also someone way out of my league,” Ramesh murmured to himself.
He watched quietly coffee, seted on a chair in the quasi-darkness of his balcony(he rarely turns the light on there), as the woman, carrying what appeared to be a leather handbag, the tag which identified her as the employee of a company still around her neck, exhaling softly, probably exhausted after a long day at work, went beyond the gate and started climbing the stairs towards her apartment.
Ramesh exhaled, once she was out of his view. That was when he realized he has been holding his breath.
He also felt that his penis has gone stiff. He smiled, shaking his head and admonishing himself, “It’s time you got a girl, married and settled down!”
There are those who considered graphic designing an art and those who simply consider it a means to an end-the end being a salary at the end of every month. Ramesh fell somewhere in between.
Sitting there in the small cubicle in his office, creating a logo for a client- a restaurant for whom Hyderabadi biryani was the main specialty, it was hard to consider it an art. Especially considering the fact that the client has found the first option they were sent “too abstract.” They wanted something more prosaic-one that showed a dish of biryani, preferably.
Ramesh had expended a significant amount of energy in creating that first logo-one that combined the first two letters of the brand name in such a way that it appeared like the ying-yang symbol(indicating fine balance in taste). He had created it with all the attention to details that one would give to a work of art, making every arc and stroke on the screen with the care of a painter in pursuit of sublime self-expression.
But now, that inspiration was gone-there’s only so much you can do with a plate of biryani in the logo, or so he felt. Also, he was in a kind of rush. For in the evening he was leaving for Goa with his colleagues.
They have finally left behind the mad traffic of Bangalore. They entered the highway, open and wide, a straight drive to Hubli, where one of the persons in the car- a copywriter in the agency, said he has a friend from whom “we could score some stash!Green-o!Top-o!”
The car was moving at a steady 70. Of the four persons in the car, everyone was inebriated-beer or whiskey or both, except for the one who was driving-an accounts manager by profession who was currently having a hard time managing his thirst for whiskey. He had to keep telling himself that once they reached Goa, the sky is the limit as far as inebriation is concerned.
Ramesh-who was going to Goa for the first time was having a pretty good time. He couldn’t relate to the trance music which they played in the car stereo though. He’s been out with these guys a couple of times before and every time it seemed like they played the same song.
He had declined the first couple of times when they invited him on an outing-citing one reason or the other, all the while the real reason remaining the same: he must save up as much money as he could. For Renuka’s wedding. Renu, his elder sister, one and only sibling and recent divorcee. He hasn’t yet breached the topic of a second marriage to her, wanting to give her a bit more time before doing so. Though he had a feeling that she may not agree to the idea immediately-the first marriage having left her heartbroken, emotionally non-confident, he must speak to her about it when the time is right. For who else but he should do it? They were all they got for each other.
But when his colleagues persisted in asking him to join them, he didn’t want to come across as a spoil-sport. And contrary to his expectations-he has never really been a social person, he found the outings rather enjoyable.
But what was this that he was feeling? This pain on the side of his stomach, this sensation like the tip of a knife being drawn up f within the body? It didn’t pertain to any notion of enjoyment, most certainly not to the idea of losing oneself in Goa, which is what the trip is all about.
He suppressed the yell which rose in his throat for few seconds-but then, it erupted with the fury of an out of control train coming through a tunnel, without warning.
At first, his colleagues thought that the screaming was his way of expressing happiness. Sure, Ramesh is usually the quiet type-perceptive, a good listener, his gleaming eyes a symbol of quiet intelligence. But everyone reaches a threshold beyond which they just let themselves go. It’s not a tipping point, folks preferring the term ‘tripping point.’
It was the accounts manager, the one who was driving, who was the first to feel that what Ramesh was experiencing was no tripping point. The way his face was twisted up in a grimace, the too-forced a manner in which he clenched his teeth, and more than anything else the steadily rising tempo of the scream-which rose even above the ear numbing thrash beats all gave clear indications that this was no ride through thrill house that they were witnessing.
They got him to a hospital soon enough. But by that time, the pain had subsided enough for Ramesh to say that there’s no need for the hospital anymore. But his colleagues insisted. Inebriated they may be but they were not lacking in concern.
And Ramesh himself was curious to know what brought about the sudden pain-something that has never happened to him before.
As it turned out, the doctors too were baffled. None of the tests that they ran turned up anything. They referred him to another, more well-equipped hospital in Bangalore.
“But I need only go there after a couple of days, right?” Ramesh asked the doctor. The doctor was a youngish man with a face which gave the impression that it got caught in the space between the pincers of a plier when he was being birthed by his mother. The ‘squeezed’ appearance of his head made it hard to look at him without thinking of anything funny.
Later, when in Goa, Ramesh would joke with his friends about the same, saying how people would find it extremely difficult to respond appropriately when he is the one to give them the news that a loved one has passed away. Sitting on a beach, sipping a beer that came across as rather funny.
But there was nothing funny about the results that came from the second hospital.
Ramesh didn’t really wanted to go for the tests. The pain didn’t arise since the first time, and he was in a great mood after coming back from Goa-the place is everything that he hoped for and more, he found. White sandy beaches, the sun, freedom and a certain pace which is relaxed and yet not boring- a combination that one rarely comes across in cities or villages where it’s either too hectic or too boring.
But his colleagues who were with him in the car when he screamed in pain wouldn’t allow him to get off that easily. (“It sounded like Satan was cinching your testicles hard” was how one of them put it later. Ramesh couldn’t disagree) .
“You must go on your own, or we will carry you on our shoulders and go if we have to,” reported the accounts manager, the one who was driving, the one with a pair of large square spectacles, the one with a small black mole on his chin which earned him the moniker of ‘Darko’ -though his skin was fair.
Ramesh complied, partly because his friends asked him to, but also because he was still curious to know about the pain(though he joked that “It’s probably because of the kebab we had that night!”)
Ramesh had to spend about an hour in the hospital to perform all the tests-from blood to urine to whathaveyou. But it took all of three days for the results to come. And when he called up to ask for the results, as he was told to, the doctor himself came on line and asked him if he could come down to the hospital in person. “I think it would be better that way,” said the gravelly voice of the doctor.
Something may be wrong, Ramesh couldn’t help but think.
Unlike the previous doctor, this one’s face didn’t have a squeezed appearance. In fact, it was as round as it got. And he was older than the other one, way older. From the looks of him, Ramesh thought him at least seventy.
But there was a bald patch on his head which countered the gravity which he otherwise exuded-with his age, the weight of experience in his words and the gravelly voice. The patch was like an expanding crescent, pushing back the hair on the head. In a nation where people are losing their hair at younger ages-if you come across a 28 year old with a full head of hair, chances are it’s fake-it’s nothing short of miraculous that this man have had this much hair on his head for so long, thought Ramesh.
But he couldn’t help laughing inwardly at the sight of that crescent on the head, not even when the doctor was giving him the bad news.
“It’s called Ricehgoria. It’s rare-extremely rare. Happens one in every 30 lakh people. Basically what it does is it shrinks an affected internal organ-atrophies it from the inside out. It’s a deadly virus for which there exists no cure at this time. And once inflicted, it takes effect fast. Pain killers is all that we can give you,”the doctor narrated all this with the least possible emotion, like he was reading off a list of grocery. Which pushed Ramesh towards laughter even more as his eyes remained fixed on the crescent on the elderly doctor’s head.
And when he said, “I’m sorry, Ramesh. You have only about four to six months more to live. I am really sorry,” he burst out laughing.
“So, this changes everything,” Ramesh said to himself, without much emotion-just like the doctor. He was lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling where a home lizard skittered along in search of prey.
The cooker on the stove whistled-once, twice and then a third time which was when, with a weary sigh he went to the counter and turned the stove off. The rice was well-cooked, he has already prepared a side dish of soya chunks-his favourite, but he didn’t like eating.
He was thinking of Renuka, his sister.
They were not always orphans. Their parents’ lives were snatched when a train derailed. 65 lives were lost that day. Ramesh wasn’t sure how many orphans resulted.
An uncle-their mother’s younger brother took in Renuka, then just 6 years old. Being a family man with two kids of his own, he couldn’t afford to have Ramesh with him as well. No one else in the family showed any interest either. The uncle-who knew of an orphanage run by an elderly couple-with just under twenty children as wards, managed to get the 4 year old Ramesh in there.
His uncle would come visit him in the orphanage with his sister on every weekend. And the orphanage itself-owing to the fact that it was run on the personal initiative of the funders and not as a cover for siphoning foreign funds-which is the case with many such establishments, was better off than many.
However, an orphanage is but still an orphanage. Ramesh grew up feeling the isolation from the mainstream life that’s inevitable for anyone growing as he did.
Once he was out of school-his formal education ending when he passed 12th, he exited the orphanage’s roof and joined an electrician as an apprentice. The stint lasted some six months which was when the orphanage’s management reached out to him again. They had started a DTP centre. Training him, they made him an employee. Ramesh’ uncle thought this a ploy by the management to get cheap labour-assuming that Ramesh was being paid way less than the standard, which was true enough.
But Ramesh wasn’t complaining, enjoying the job more than he did trying to fix switchboards and figuring out what’s wrong with a ceiling fan. More importantly, it was while working at the DTP centre that he got the opportunity to learn how to use photoshop.
The person who taught him was a fellow-employee. The reward that was asked of him was of a sexual nature-one which Ramesh gently yet firmly denied(he has had experiences at the orphanage that made it more than clear to him that he wasn’t of a homosexual inclination). Though the man who taught him photoshop kindled in him an enduring passion for visual communication, he also made him leave the DTP centre as soon as possible, not really finding the repeatedly applied hand-on-thigh maneuver to his liking. Needless to say, the orphanage management was displeased with his leaving as well.
Moving from the DTP centre, Ramesh found a job as a graphic designer at an ad agency in Kochi.A move not more than a 100 kilometers from Trichur where he grew up but one which he found liberating all the same.
It was while he was some six months into the job that Renu’s wedding was fixed. His uncle spend the bulk of the money for the wedding, while Ramesh chipped in as best he could. The marriage, unfortunately didn’t last more than two years. Her husband- a carpenter by profession loved her well enough. But it was the in-laws who posed the problem. And the suffering eventually became too much for her.
“I don’t want to be a burden to uncle anymore. Is there any way you can help me?” were the words she said to Ramesh, in a voice that trembled with emotion, almost on the breaking point.
With Ramesh’s help, she found a job as a saleswoman in a garment shop in Kochi. Moving out of her uncle’s home she stayed in a working women’s hostel.
Ramesh, as much as her, was glad enough for the chance to spend more time. Unfortunately, this consolation also had to end when the agency where Ramesh worked lost two of their major clients to an MNC which recently opened shop in the city. He had to be ‘let go’ as the euphemism went. Finding another job in Kochi in so short a notice was hard. And not because of lack of trying either.
His boss at the office intervened, linked him to a friend who ran an agency in Bangalore. Impressed by the portfolio which Ramesh sent across, he got hired by the Bangalore agency.
The pay they offered was good as well- much better than what he could hope for if he stuck to Kochi.
But of course, it was only with a heavy heart that he could leave behind Renu. Though he invited her to live with him in Bangalore-maybe even find a job there, she declined. “I don’t know any language other than Malayalam, and the only skill I have, aside from a bit of tailoring is doing nothing,” she said half-jokingly.
“It’s time you looked to your own future, da. Find a good girl, settle down. I’m sure that Bangalore will be good for you.”
“And Bangalore was good for me,” muttered Ramesh under his breath, “until now.” Sitting in his room, the plate of uneaten rice and soya chunks in front of him, he felt like he was trapped within the four walls, trapped in this life.
“Shit!” he shouted but no one was there to hear. He was surprised to feel the sting of tears behind his eyes. He couldn’t even remember when was the last time he cried:sometime when he was in the orphanage, the stifled emotions being given vent, in sobs, in a whimper that escapes one’s lips in the dead of the night, trapped within the shoddy walls of the establishment-like so many doves with nowhere to fly.
He felt the same sense of isolation now. A sense of injustice being inflicted on him, not by anyone but by life itself. He broke down and cried into his cupped arms.
‘I must go and see Renu, tell her about this. I must tell someone!’ That was the resolution which he made after the crying.
The next two days being the weekend, Ramesh didn’t have to go to work. He hasn’t told anyone at work about his condition, neither did he plan to tell anyone. He wanted to work as long as he could, save up and send as much money as possible to Renu.
He took a late night bus to Kochi.
An arrow of pain shot up the side of his body as the bus was passing through the outskirts of Hosur, one block of identical buildings after another-many ramshackle, the alleyways taken over by stray dogs. Ramesh took one of the tablets which the doctor has given him for just such emergencies. He tried to refocus his eyes on the television screen- a movie was being played, the in-house entertainment the result of someone shooting a movie in a theatre illegally. The movie starred Dulkhar Salman-one among the younger generation of Malayalam film actors and someone whom Ramesh liked as an artist. However, he was unable to focus. Even though it was good, the film was no match for the sleepiness which the pain killer brought on.
It was only as they were nearing Vyttila that he woke up. He got down and without even having breakfast, caught an autorikshaw.
“Hey, why didn’t you call?” Renuka, who was still groggy eyed from sleep, asked in a surprised tone. The matron- an elderly woman who looked like the last time she had actually smiled was in the cradle had her eyes fixed on her phone, typing something-possibly not texting her boyfriend, thought Ramesh.
“Why didn’t you call?” was a pretty good question. Ramesh was wondering what to say when she said, ”I’ll be right back. Just two minutes!” and disappeared into the interior of the building- a “No gents allowed” sign was pasted on the door.
The stubborn looking matron was giving off a professional but not so charming vibe to Ramesh who was feeling kinda low to begin with. “When did you arrive?”, “How is Bangalore?”-these were among the handful of curt questions that the woman asked him, to which he replied as curtly as possible.
Thankfully, he was spared having to spend too much time with the woman-Renuka, dressed in a salwar and looking significantly less groggy eyed came out soon enough.
To her question of why the unannounced appearance, Ramesh simply said he got the impulse to see her. The smile that appeared on her face warmed his heart.
They found a restaurant which served fried prawns even at this early hour. Fried prawns were her favourite.
From the frequent absent looks and the rather fidgety manner in which he remained-something rarely seen with him, Renuka rightly assumed that he wanted to tell her something, something which he was having trouble putting in words.
“Whatever it is, you can tell me, you know!” she said without preamble, washing down the bread and prawns with a swig of soda.
“What made you think I have something on my mind?”
“You are my brother.”
She leaned back in the seat with the bottle of Pepsi, fixed him with an enquiring look, a faint smile on her lips.
She looked happy, thought Ramesh. The idea that he should call ahead and inform her of his arrival simply hadn’t occurred to him. But he was pleased that this is how it turned out. The unexpectedness of his arrival was part of the reason for her happiness.
And he wasn’t willing to break that smile on her face by telling her about his disease, that this is one of the last times they would be seeing each other.
“Yes, I have something to tell you,” he said, running a hand over his curly hair, feeling tired all of a sudden. “You..you have to think of getting married again. I would find a good person for you, if you would like. And for the wedding ceremonies, as long as it’s not too elaborate, I will provide the money, you needn’t worry about it,” he said all of this in a single spurt, afraid that if he stopped even for a moment, she would raise her objection.
Renu’s response though was just silence. Lowering her face she exhaled, ran a finger along the side of the Pepsi can rather wistfully.
“You know you must think about it at some point,” said Ramesh in a mellower tone.
The restaurant overlooked the ocean. After gazing at the shimmering oceanic waters for some time, Renu turned her attention to Ramesh. “I will think about it…but what about you?” She leaned forward, placed an elbow on the table, the nearly empty can of Pepsi beside it.”You are 30 years yourself. Look, some of the hairs on your moustache have even begun to grey.” She forced a smile on to her face.
Neither of them breached the topic of their prospective weddings after that. They shared notes about their respective works, took in a movie, had lunch together(Renu had prawns again. “How much prawns can you eat in a day!” shouted Ramesh in mock surprise), generally had a good time.
After seeing her back to the hostel, Ramesh visited all his favorite places in the city- Fort Kochi and a small restaurant around a corner near Pallimukku which served what’s in his opinion the greatest parippuvadas in the world. He visited a couple of friends who were pleasantly surprised to see him. Before leaving, he even had a couple of drinks with one of them.
On the bus ride back, he kept thinking how he may never visit the city again.
“And I thought I would own a house in Kochi one day!” he thought.
As the swoon of sleep began to envelope him in an embrace of fatigue and inebriation, one thought reverberated inside his brain: It’s not fair.
The next night, upon reaching home from work, a slight ringing which was brought about by a surge of pain that attacked him in the evening persisted in his brain. Also, as he opened the door to the single-room apartment and turned the light on, he saw a man sitting on his bed.
The man had a face the skin of which was unnaturally smooth. Beneath his hook-nose spread a thin smile which wasn’t particularly directed at Ramesh, rather it looked like it was meant at humans in general, the kind of smile one might expect from the member of a superior species that saw human life as source of entertainment-what with the myriad follies which the race is steeped in.
A few dots of black stubble were strewn across his chin but it was impossible to guess his age. Most peculiar of all were his clothes- an azure blue robe and a pair of pants of the same colour. A yellow band was wrapped around his waist. Aside from thin golden ridges that ran along its length, there was no ornamentation or insignia on the band.
The man’s feet were also wrapped in clothe of the same blue colour. Curiously enough, Ramesh couldn’t see any dirt on it.
“Hallucination, this must be a hallucination!” muttered Ramesh. The doctor did tell him that he could expect some sort if hallucination at times-auditory, visual or both. The disease put his entire system under stress which is bound to affect the nervous system. And once the nervous system is involved, one never can tell what one ends up seeing.
The fact that the man in blue just sat there without uttering a word, practically immobile also gave credence to his hallucination theory.
Hoping that the illusion would disappear once he relieved himself, he went to the toilet. A few minutes later, as he stepped out, the man in blue was still seated on the bed, though now he was looking at some spot on the floor rather than at Ramesh.
“Just a hallucination, mere hallucination..” muttering thus Ramesh walked towards the wall hanger by the door, the one which put him almost right in front of the man. Ramesh took off his shirt and put on a T-shirt with the words ‘Motorcycle Rulz’ printed on it. On the hanger was also a pair of shorts. He unbuttoned his pants but then swiveled his head and looked at the man on the bed.
He was still there, and now he was looking straight at Ramesh, that mysterious smile hanging on his lips.
Hallucination or not, Ramesh found that he couldn’t undress in front of the stranger.
“Who are you and what do you want!” Ramesh suddenly shouted, holding his unbuttoned pants from going down. He hoped that showing anger would somehow break the illusion. If he had inspected the logic behind the hope more closely he would have seen the absurdity of it. But as it is, he wasn’t too focused on that. His attention, rather was on what the man was saying.
The man in blue’s voice was just like his skin-silky smooth, without any inflection, the kind of sound that could sing you to sleep.
“I was beginning to think that you would never acknowledge my presence. Well, now that you have, let me answer your question without delay and leave you in peace as early as possible. After all, you only have a very limited number of days left and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to waste even a single moment talking to some random stranger who happened to drop into your abode,” the man spread his two arms to take the whole place in. His arms were the only parts of his body, apart from the face which was exposed. But the skin on the arms, unlike that on the face looked like that of an old man’s, Ramesh noticed.
“Who are you?” said Ramesh. The question that actually arose in his mind was “What are you?” but common decency prevented him from uttering it aloud.
The man in blue’s smile widened. He stood up, a head taller than Ramesh who was a good 5 feet 9 himself.
“I am coming to that,” he continued in the same lulling voice. Though it didn’t make Ramesh sleepy, it did put him in a trance-like state of mind. “But before that a bit of background. You see, Ramesh, the universe seeks balance, at all times. You can say that the universe is like a pregnant woman with a bad craving for something sour, or salty. And she wants to be placated immediately, always.” The man looked at Ramesh closely, as if ascertaining that he followed what was being said.
Apparently satisfied, he went on, “And this need for maintaining balance-inherent in nature is what created duality-right and wrong, good luck and bad luck. Which is where I come in, the distributor of both good and bad luck.I am called Wenchaali.” The man smiled, as if he just made a good joke.
“…and you’re here for..” said Ramesh, feeling the unreality of the situation like a physical force.
“I am here to make you an offer, Ramesh,” Wenchaali said, placing a hand on his shoulder-a cold touch which nearly numbed him.
“If it’s any more bad luck, I can say no already. I have had my fill.”
Wenchaali laughed, the laugh of the most matured person in the world. “You have a good sense of humour. Which makes it all the more important that you get a break. At least, I think that people with good humour sense-a rarity among the species should be given more breaks.”
Ramesh’s eyes flared with hope. As incongruous as the situation was, he couldn’t help but clutch to the hope that this being-whoever or whatever he was could turn things around and make him whole again.
But the offer Wenchaali had in mind was of another kind.
“You know the woman who lives on the fourth floor of the opposite apartment? The one you ogles whenever you get the chance. You, my dear Ramesh have the option to torture and kill her, so that your sister will be spared. If you decline, it will be a night in Kochi, when Renuka walks back from work, a few persons waiting just out of view, taking hold of her without anyone noticing, and what ensues, is something that won’t be fit for family consumption. You do understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”
It took Ramesh a few seconds to find his voice. “But why?”
“Because the woman next door’s father has to have some bad luck, of course. The reason the woman stay alone is because she doesn’t feel safe with her father-who abuses her. Her mother died when she was young. It’s a sob story worthy of a serial. The fact that his daughter was murdered brutally when she lived away from him will drive the old man insane with guilt-thinking if only he hadn’t abused her, if only she had stayed with him, things wouldn’t have happened this way.” Wenchaali snickered gleefully at the thought.
“You have three days to choose. Your decision, you can just whisper into the air for me to hear it. And if the decision is in the affirmative, you have another three days to perform the action.”
Ramesh pressed himself against the wall, wanting to merge into it, become inert.
Wenchaali was no more in the room.
Over the next three days Ramesh kept repeating to himself that what transpired was just a part of a hallucination. But the conviction of the event’s reality had become part of his mind’s core, and on the third day when he called up Renuka.
Listening to her, hearing the voice of someone who was finding happiness in the simple things of life, there was but one decision to make.
The woman suffered, thanks to Ramesh’s actions which closely followed Wenchaali’s directions-plucking the nails on her fingers one after the other, like fruits off a tree, cutting off her breasts-the very same the cupping of which Ramesh had fantasized about on many a night since she moved into the apartment, breaking the back of her ankle, cutting off her molars, taking slices of flesh off the side of her neck..and by that point he was just warming up to the real deal. By the time he was done, the bed to which she was tied was an altar of blood and flesh, chopped, spilled and rendering the very atmosphere warm and insane.
And when Ramesh raised a knife to his own throat, ready to plunge in, Wenchaali didn’t stop him, not physically. But he said, “This is not how you want your sister to remember you for the rest of her life, is it? A murderer…Of course, the call is yours. I will just leave you now. After all, you have a very limited time left on the earth and you shouldn’t waste a single moment with a stranger from the other realm.”
And now, lying on his deathbed, Ramesh kept seeing in his mind’s eye the image of the woman, so brutally murdered, the wounds open, the blood freely flowing. Even faced with the fading strength of his body and mind, he juxtaposed that image with that of the smiling face of his sister, and tried to justify what he did, to resolve the pang of guilt and find peace finally. But he failed, again and again and again. He imagined Wenchaali snickering, looking down at him from somewhere in the other realm.
Or was that just imagination?