Gayatri Menon didn’t have any premonition of anything unusual happening that evening.
As was the case on any working day, the office cab let her off right outside the township. It was just past 6 and the evening sky was steadily turning from a hazy red to a steely grey- a jarring transformation which made the Bangalore sky o look like a dirty washrag.
But Gayatri didn’t look to the sky. Feeling slightly exhausted after a long day at work, she walked past the gate, past the saluting security guard, barely acknowledging his presence, moving as fast as she could, in anticipation of a long cold soak in the tub.
This being a Friday, the next two days were off and she had planned a few things for the weekend- like going for a bruch with a couple of a colleagues on Saturday and later shopping. Also, on Sunday she was going to travel all the way to Hennur(her township was near Kormangala) to meet her uncle. His daughter-her cousin-has flown in from the US with their new born- it was obligatory for her to go and see the child, though she would have preferred staying in on Sunday, lazing around at home, maybe watching the television.
None of these planned events struck her fancy right this moment when her entire body felt the exhaustion of a brain overworked by having to come up with logical schema for computer programming. She didn’t hate her job at the big multinational- in fact, there were times when she really loved it- there was a puzzle solving quality to software coding if you could look at it that way, and the pay was great and the frequent on-site travels to the company’s affiliates in Europe didn’t hurt either.
However, there were certain times, like this, when she wondered if running around like a headless chicken in the city-which was what being a professional in the big city was all about-was really worth it.
Not wishing to dwell too much on the disheartening thought, she pulled out her phone from her handbag and dialed her father’s number.
To call it a township was an exaggeration. And yet, that was what they named it- the Sara Joseph Township, named after one of the famous architects currently working in India who spearheaded the project.
The ‘township’ was made of 18 villas spread over an area of nearly 20 acres, filled with greenery and every amenities that you could dream of. In fact, the list of amenities- from a doctor on call to a supermarket and a multi-screen theater was so exhaustive that you could do without going out for weeks on end, maybe even months.
Though all the villas have been sold out even before the project was completed, not every one of them was occupied. From what Gayatri has heard, most of the properties were brought by wealthy NRIs who might use these villas as a vacation home- a place to stretch their legs on their visits home.
Gayatri walked along pathways snaked by villas which lied empty, but which were nonetheless kept in an excellent state of upkeep by the township’s efficient housekeeping system. Not that she noticed this- she had her attention solely on her father’s words.
“You are going to see Rani’s child this Sunday, aren’t you? You haven’t forgotten?” her father’s voice came through loud and clear on her iPhone.
“Yes,” she spoke the word wearily, making it clear to him that she still didn’t think much of the plan. Her cousin was someone who rubbed it in when it came to ‘America this, and America that!’ and she could hardly stand her.
Her father, laughing, said, “I know it’s not the most exciting way to spend your weekend, but you know how it would look if you were not to go and see the kid!”
“Yes, dad, I know, I know…How is the weather there?”she added, wanting very much to change the subject. Talking about relatives was almost as bad as talking about work on a holiday- both could give you a bad case of headache.
“Hot. As ever,” her father said curtly.
It has become his permanent lament these last couple of years on how much the weather in Kerala has deteriorated- “So far from the Kerala that I used to know in my childhood!” was how he frequently put it.
After chatting with her dad for a while, the latter put her mom on the phone. Gayatri- an only child was always her daddy’s girl. Right from childhood, whenever she had a problem-either at school or something else, it was to her father that she always ran to. And it was with her father that she felt the most comfortable talking with, almost like talking with a friend.
That’s not to say that she didn’t enjoy talking with her mother- especially when the latter related to her the latest exploits of her and her neighborhood girlfriends. This time, she apparently went with one of her friends to attend a charity event that had many ‘talented’ youngsters from the neighborhood displaying their skills- singing, dancing “and all such things!”
“It was terrible!” her mother was saying. “So terrible that I thought we ought to have a charity set up to make our talented youngsters truly talented!”
That made Gayatri laugh. Among all the people that she knew, her mother didn’t exactly have the best comedic sense, and the joke that she just made wouldn’t win her any comedy contest either. But she always felt refreshed by the way her mother- though a survivor of a heart attack on the wrong side of 50, tried to view everything in a lighter vein.
And it made her miss home. Wanting to leave Bangalore and go back home, to the cradling arms of her father and mother.
God only knew that she didn’t have to work- her father, a retired NRI had made enough wealth to last two lifetimes- if those lifetimes are spent indulging not too wildly. In fact, when she told them that she got a good opportunity with a firm in Bangalore, they didn’t want her to leave. They asked her to find a position with a company in Kerala, perhaps another better company in Techno park where she already worked.
But it wasn’t just the better pay and prospects, or the fact that it was a bigger company- at least 10 times bigger in revenue to her previous employer, that made her want to move. It was also the fact that she wished to live in another place, not close to home, for a while. Until that point, the farthest she had stayed from home was the college hostel while she was doing her engineering degree-but that was just 40 kilometers from home.
And she knew that a few years further down the line, when her parents were older and dad’s arthritis begins to get seriously worse, she probably won’t be able to make a move away.
She would go to Bangalore and live there for a few years before returning.
Though she didn’t say these things to them, her parents seemed to have understood it all the same, for neither of them tried to impose their wish on them after a point.
And when the news of the ‘township’ designed by the famed Sara Joseph- an architect whom her father hugely admired reached the old man’s ears, he was the one who brought her the villa, though she protested. “I would be glad knowing that you are completely safe in such a place,” was what her father said- something to which Gayatri couldn’t find anything to say.
She was still talking on the phone as she pushed open the fence-height gate of the villa and entered the compound. She had her eyes on the ground as she listened to one of her mother’s non-jokes so she failed to notice the open front door, not until she was just a few feet from the porch.
And if the sight of the door standing ajar, light flooding from within, sent a shaft of fear down her spine, an even fiercer jolt pierced her heart when her eyes fell on the man who sat on the step.
With closely cropped hair and an uneven growth of stubble on his chin, he looked to be in his early thirties, though the fading light of day made it hard for her to make out all his features. He had a long forehead and a thin nose, this much she could see.
And fading light or not, she could also see that the man held an opened bottle of beer- from the look of it, one of the Carlsbergs she had kept in the fridge.
“Mommy, I would call you right back,” she muttered and got off the phone. Though she stopped walking towards the house as soon as she saw the stranger, she was but only a few feet away from him- not any more distance than what he couldn’t cover in two leaps.
The word “rape” crossed her mind immediately, even as she dialed 100 on the phone.
“Don’t call anyone.” the man spoke in a calm yet stern voice. And it was the calmness more than anything which kept her from pressing the call button. With a calmness that was perfectly in keeping to his voice, the man brought out a pen knife from his shirt pocket, which he flicked on.
The light on the lamp-post just outside the villa came on at that moment, making the knife’s edge glint in the harsh light, giving the entire scene an orchestrated quality.
The fates are conspiring to get me raped!
The thought barged into her mind with the abruptness of an out of control car bashing into a wall.
Every evening, after she reached home and took a bath, Gayatri would read the Vishnu Sahasranama- a book that her mother gave her when she moved to Bangalore more than two years ago, one that mentioned with sublime eloquence the one thousand names of the Lord of all universes- known and unknown.
She now found herself reciting some of those names, with an earnestness she could barely summon up on her regular evening recitals. “Oh, good Lord- protector of the weak, please keep me safe!” her heart whispered even as she had a finger hovering over the call button on the phone.
She had heard someone say, or maybe read somewhere that all you need to do is type 100 and it would automatically go into call- even if you didn’t hit the dial button. What with the modern phone coming equipped with GPS, the police would be able to trace your whereabouts and come rushing to the scene even if you were in a situation in which you were unable to say a word.
Well, this certainly was such a situation, but she didn’t dare look down at the phone. Didn’t wish to make the man with the knife angry. She wondered if she should give a shout. Of the villas in her immediate neighborhood, only one was occupied. The one right opposite to hers, where lived another young woman, like her on her own.
Walking towards her home, she had seen that house shrouded in darkness. There seemed to be no one there.
If she screamed, the voice would surely carry all the way to the front gate, to the ears of the security guard. But by the time he reached here, the stranger would have enough time to grab her and hurt her, or even worse.
As though reading her mind, the stranger said, “Don’t scream either. For I would have no issues cutting you open if you did that,” he waved the penknife around. In a different circumstance, Gayatri would have found it grossly funny to have someone wielding so small a knife making such grand threats.
But in this late evening, standing on her lawn, feeling the cold sweat trickling down the back of her neck, she felt the man’s words oddly convincing.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “If you don’t do anything stupid, I wouldn’t hurt you. I just want to have this beer and nothing more.” As if to prove that he meant it, the man took a couple of more sips from the beer.
Calm. Extremely so.
Like hell you do! Thought Gataryi, though she kept her mouth shut. Somehow those words didn’t feel like the right ones to be said in this situation.
Another thought crossed her mind, this one potentially to her advantage- The stranger spoke in Hindi- though spoken with a hard rustic edge, she has understood every word of it. What with her mother being half-Marathi, Hindi has been a language which they sometimes used at home. “Whom else am I going to talk Hindi in?” her mother would say, fluttering her eyelids when Gayatri groaned about why they had to talk in another language when Malayalam was a rich enough language.
But even though she understood every word of what the stranger said, she hasn’t said anything to him. Maybe she could feign ignorance? Maybe that would create a divide among them and the man would just leave, feeling bored of talking to someone who didn’t understand a word he said?
Yeah, sure he would, she said to herself in a tone that had an extra-coating of sarcasm. Rapists don’t need you to understand their language, she reminded herself.
“What do you want?” She wasn’t confident that her words would come out sounding steady. Internally, she was shivering. But she was glad upon hearing very voice sounding normal if not exactly calm. She hoped that the Hindi that her mother has taught her would be enough to negotiate her way out of a prospective rape-scenario.
The man looked up. His slightly arched eyebrows suggested surprise- as though surprised to find that she could actually speak.
“I told you,” he said, “I just want to have this beer.” Pointing with the knife to his left, he invited her to come sit by his side.
“If you don’t mind, I would rather stand here.” This time, there was a tremor in her voice. But if he noticed it, the stranger didn’t give any indication, only repeated what he said before.
After a few moments of hesitation, Gayatri went and sat by him, leaving a feet or so of space between them.
The first thing she felt as she came close to him was the smell of sweat. An overwhelmingly strong smell which even surpassed the smell of beer.
And from up close, she saw that the man’s shirt and pants, as also the partly torn sandals on his feet all were dirty. Even in the light cast by the lamp post-which wasn’t all that bright, she could see the specks of dust on various parts of his apparel. Indeed, there was dust smearing the side of his head, coating his prematurely graying hair in a sheen of dirty white. And particularly noticeable was a cluster of white hair on the side which looked like a design of coiled snakes. The sight made her shudder inwards.
The compound next to the ‘township’ had an apartment complex coming up. She remembered her next door neighbor mentioning about it one day- about how it included 4 blocks, all pretty large and each standing at 80 floors. They were some of the biggest buildings coming up in the area. And though the 20 acres in which their township was situated gave them a decent insulation from the sounds of the construction, on especially calm nights Gayatri would hear the sound of machines rumbling in the distance, of the earth being broken apart and structures shooting up from the ground.
It occurred to her that this man might be one of the workers there.
Though she would sometimes glimpse articles with such titles like ‘The plight of the modern construction laborer’ in the news websites, she would rarely read through an entire piece- the world that they portrayed was as far from her own as the sun was from the earth.
And there were always better things to read in the news- like a new deal that the government has made with an MNC which would bring more jobs to India, or a new sale that’s happening on an e-commerce site: positive news that kept the world running.
Gayaatri’s knowledge about the life style of these workers was negligible. But she was fairly certain that they wouldn’t be so hard pressed to trespass and risk arrest just for the sake of a beer. She wasn’t yet sure how the man managed to get into the township- maybe he scaled the high outer perimeters with an above-average ladder, or maybe the security guard was in compliance with this guy?
“You stay here alone, madam?”
Her train of thoughts was broken by the man’s question. A question which she chose not to answer.
“I would take the silence as yes,” he said. “Don’t worry, I don’t want you to worry. I was asking just out of curiosity. You know, in villages, women rarely stay on their own. There would always be someone with them- a brother or husband or father..But in the cities, I see a lot of women who actually like to stay on their own. I used to work in Pune before coming to Bangalore. There also the same thing..I don’t know if you people don’t feel bored living on your own?”
Gayatri’s answer would have been “sometimes” but apparently the question was mere rhetoric as the man continued talking.
“But there’s one thing that I do like about the city girls. Their love for drinking. I’m not saying that the girls in the villages don’t. They do drink. Perhaps more than most city girls. I know that my wife certainly does!” He chuckled before going on. “But they sure as hell won’t stack their fridge full of beers like you do. And they may not be as relaxed as the city girls when it comes to drinking with other men. That’s something else which I love about city girls. In fact, would you mind getting another beer from the fridge? Would you mind having that beer with me? You know, I have never drunk with any woman other than my wife or grandmother!” he added with a grin.
As Gayatri was about to get up he asked her to leave the handbag and the phone on the step- a directive which she felt she didn’t have any other option but to obey.
As she walked into the open door, she gazed at the green buttoned security mechanism which was installed just the other month. High tech, cutting edge shit. She wondered why it failed to work. In fact, the way the door lied open, it was as though he opened it with a legitimate key- the only way by which the security system could be bypassed. She also wondered why- if the man had jumped over the high wall of the township’s compound, didn’t the s guard see him on the CCTV?
Her earlier assumption of the security guard being in compliance with the stranger became more deep rooted in her mind.
But there was a more immediate problem for her to contend with- the fact that the stranger was now inside her home.
Surely, now was when she was going to get raped!
Judging from the sound of his footsteps(she didn’t dare turn and look), he always kept a few feet of distance from her, following her as she made her way from the living room to the kitchen- but that was still a distance which he could easily navigate in a fraction of a second, reach out, grab her, turn her around and..
Gayatri didn’t like to think beyond that.
But she was determined that- the threat of knife notwithstanding, if he were to try and grab her inside the house, she would scream at the top of her lungs, even attack him with whatever objects that she could get her hand on.
But the man didn’t come near. Even when she opened the fridge door, he stood at the kitchen door, gazing her silently. She could feel the pressure of the stranger’s gaze ion the side of her neck, but she could also see out of the side of her eye that the man was stationary.
Within the fridge, she saw a piece of cake which she half-ate the other day. There it lied on a saucer, and the fork which she had used was still beside it. For one second, the image of her running at the stranger like a banshee, the fork raised in hand, flashed in her mind. But then, she blinked the image out of her brain, recognizing it as nothing but fancy.
Once they were back in the proch, the man began to sip his beer even before Gayatri opened hers.
Seeing her hesitate, he urged her to open her bottle which she promptly did. And once she did, he didn’t hesitate in saying cheers!, clinking his bottle to hers, as though they were good friends catching up on old times.
While she walked out of the house bringing her beer with her, Gayatri had left the door open a little wider. She wanted as much light to spill out onto the porch so that if anyone were to pass by, they could see her sitting with the stranger, and seeing the unusualness of the situation, they might stop to investigate- or so she hoped.
The better light afforded her a better view of the man.
She now saw that the man might be even younger than she had previously thought-perhaps in his late twenties. She thought how the man could have been someone who worked at her office- Most of the people at work were young.
But he was from another world, as far as she was concerned- a world where people didn’t spent all day long at a desk, one where sedentary lifestyle issues weren’t exactly the biggest problem one faced.
“You look beautiful!”
She was somewhat startled by the man’s words, not because he was so straightforward in his observation but because she couldn’t remember when was the last time someone told her that. So far, she has had two boyfriends and only one of them- the first one had told her that she was beautiful.
She saw now that thanks to the better light, the stranger now observed her with as much attention to detail as she did his face just a few seconds ago. It made her blush, made her lower her face.
“Don’t you think it sad that anyone’s body, no matter how beautiful it is, would go to waste after death?” he said, “Either burnt to ashes or eaten by maggots of the earth? Even someone so beautiful as you?”
If the man used those words to make her scared, he was successful. Gayatri, in fact, now thought that he might be wanting to kill her rather than rape. Yes, he would first finish the beer, then break the bottle, the jagged edges of which he would strike into her neck. Blood would gush out of her ripped open throat before any screams escaped her mouth.
But even as thinking all these unsightly thoughts, Gayatri began to breathe rapidly, the man calmly turned his attention to his beer-which was now more than half empty. He continued to speak in a calm monotone, broken only by the sound of the crickets chirping from the surrounding gardens.
“I had the same thought last week,” he was saying, “I was working at a site in Jayanagar then. A small shopping centre. We- around six of the workers slept in the centre itself at night. Directly opposite to the centre was a bar- I mean, a pub, you know the kind in which you could see the people sitting and drinking through the glass. One night, I was lying by a window, gazing out. The night was dark but not so the streets, and certainly not the pub. It was quite lively there. In fact, I could hear the sound of music they played- some fast music the kind of which they have in many Hindi films, well enough from where I lied in the building. And I could see with a relative clarity the girl and the boy who sat directly opposite to the centre which I was helping bringing up.
‘They both looked to be in their early twenties, in fact, the girl might have been younger. They were a handsome couple and the girl looked like she was made of butter. The pub’s orange light made her skin glow and when they talked, occasionally she laughed, and I remembered thinking it was the most beautiful thing I have seen in a long time. I would be candid with you…the next thought that crossed my mind was to lay her, to take her in my arms, rip off all her clothes and fuck her like mad. If you were a man, you would have thought so too, she was almost as beautiful as you.”
Flatterer!, Gayatri thought.
But she was curious to see where the man was going with this story. Maybe he made up this story right now, or maybe it did happen the way he explained. Either way, he sounded in earnest.
The man took a few moments to drink beer before continuing, “But the thought that came to me soon afterwards was that of death. The boy and girl were laughing and chatting and having a good time. But those fleeting moments would fade from both their memories sooner than they think, and they would both be dead one day, the girl’s beautiful body rotting, becoming so ugly that not even the most sex-starved of men would like to touch it, let alone fuck it!”
The man stopped his monologue and drained the rest of the beer.
When he kept the empty bottle on the step, the sound which the bottom of the bottle made as it touched the floor sounded too loud to Gayatri.
She expected the man to continue with his story but he didn’t. He stood up, smiled at her once. Saying, “You have a very beautiful home,” walked out of the gate.
Gayatri remained seated on her front step at least for another fifteen minutes, her partially finished beer in hand before she became convinced that the stranger had indeed left for good.
Just as she was thinking to get up and move into the house, her neighbor drove by. That woman gave her a wave, seeing the beer bottle in her hand, she called out, “Rough day, huh?” She said that in English, sounding just like a character out of a Hollywood film.
Gayatri called back in much the same vein, in the same language, “You wouldn’t believe it!”
The neighbor smiled, then drove her car into the driveway, got out and got into her house.
Gayatri sighed in relief seeing the lights coming on in the opposite house. Now at least, there was someone in the vicinity, someone who might notice if weird shit like random strangers dropping in for beer were to happen.
Gathering her bag and phone, she got up from the step and turned around, ready to go in.
She had taken but two steps towards the front door when she saw the stranger coming out from there. He was in the same soiled clothes as before but this time, he had a grin on his face, stretched from ear to ear, as though it was plastered there. He moved towards her with an abruptness which verged on the unnatural. The shock of seeing the man-whom she just saw disappearing out of her front gate, now coming at her through the open door was enough to make Gayatri feel dizzy.
She fell but before her head hit the floor, she was unconscious.
She came to to the sound of a swarm of bees buzzing.
Once the cobwebs in her mind began to clear, she recognized the buzz for what it was- people murmuring. Opening her eyes, she saw five or six people standing around her bed, talking in hushed tones, murmuring, making up theories about what might have happened.
She was glad to notice that she was in her own room, in her own bed- there was something undeniably comforting about such familiar places. But then, the memory of the last thing she saw before fading out sent a chill down her spine, making her look around with apprehension. Her senses suddenly alert, she looked at the people assembled around her bed to see if the stranger was among them.
No, they were all people from the township- she couldn’t name all of them, but she knew all of them by sight.
She was most relieved to see that her friendly neighbor was also among them. That woman presently leaned towards her and asked, “Are you alright, dear?” The genuine concerned in her tone almost made Gayatri sob.
It was, she realized a far cry from the rugged tone of the man she last had a conversation with.
Thinking about the man, she wondered if he was still hidden somewhere in the house. Perhaps, she should mention about him to one of these people. Before they left, she would like them to give the house a thorough check.
However, before she could voice the issue, the township’s doctor on a call- an elderly man with a prematurely balding head, leaned his face towards her and said, “You gave us all a scare, Gayatri! I think you’re working too much. Over-exhaustion is common enough among young people these days,” he added to the others present.
Patting on the back of her hand like an affectionate father, he said, “You needn’t worry. Just take plenty of rest over the weekend. I would come and check on you first thing tomorrow. “ His smile was like a beam of the sun on a cloudy day. But still, Gayatri’s mind wasn’t at rest, and neither would it be- not until they made sure that the stranger was not in her house, or within the township’s premier. In fact, it’s not just for her own safety a that she must inform them about the stranger, she realized. The man might be lurking somewhere else in the township, at someone else’s house, even as they were here, and someone might get hurt or worse as a result.
“I must say that this has been the busiest day for me since I started giving my service to this community!” the doctor said with a smile to the others. “First that issue with the construction worker-which was tragic, and now this, which thankfully isn’t anywhere near tragic!” The doctor now looked at Gayatri and beamed at her, like she were a little kid he just treated back to normal health.
“What issue with the construction worker?” Gayatri asked, sitting up, all thoughts of telling them about her visitor temporarily suspended. She had a feeling that whatever the doctor was going to say was related to the stranger who visited her.
“Oh, there is this construction work going on nearby, a new apartment complex,” said the doctor.
“Yes, I know,” Gayatri said, urging him silently to hurry on. She couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say.
Perhaps sensing her imploration for speed, the doctor continued in a hastened pace, “One of the construction workers- a young guy at that, he fell from the scaffolding this evening. They knew there was a doctor available in this township, so I was the first medical help to arrive at the scene. Sadly enough, there wasn’t anything I could do. He was dead by the time I reached there.”
Gayatri pressed for more details, more precisely, about the man’s appearance.
Though the doctor found this request somewhat odd, he nonetheless provided details from his memory.
“And one of the most distinguishing features was a patch of white on the side of his head, a cluster of grey hairs that almost looked like a coil of snakes..” the doctor said at one point.
Hearing those words, another wave of dizziness swept over her. But she didn’t faint this time, instead, thoughts began to cloud her mind. Could ghosts drink beer? Could they open a door without a key? Could they converse like flesh and blood men?
Questions the answers to which she could only speculate.
For the time being though, she didn’t have the presence of mind to do even that. The shivers of fear that gripped her were too much to permit that.