The House With The Chrysanthemum Garden

The three boys watched with ever-widening eyes as the yellow ball rolled past the open door and into the witch’s house.

“No,no,no,no…” Karthik kept muttering, willing the ball to stop on its track and  roll back out of the witch’s gate that had iron etchings of two chrysanthemums on it.

But, of course, the ball did nothing of the sort. I

t just rolled right into the green house the inside of which looked dark to the kids who stood on the street.

“Now, look what you have done!” Karthik said angrily, turning Sammy. The latter looked at the green house, nervously swinging a cricket bat.

The bat had the letters MRF plastered on it- though Sachin Tendulkar was retired, his legacy lived on in such bats wielded by kids who made the streets their playgrounds over the weekends.

“What do you mean? Sammy said equally angrily. “It’s not like I struck the ball into her house because I wanted to..”

“At least, the ball didn’t hit any of her windows..”

Of the three boys, Ashok was the softest spoken. That attribute was not lost even under pressure situations- or what passed for pressure situation in a 10 year old’s life- like losing a ball into the house of someone whom they were sure was an evil witch.

“If we had broken a window or something, she might put a curse on us!” he added.

This was yet another aspect of Ashok’s character which endeared him more to his friends- he could always find the silver lining to the cloud, like what he did last summer when Prakash came down with measles and so couldn’t join them for cricket or going to the mall in the evenings. Prakash texted him saying how he could now coax his parents into buying him the new Play Station, telling them how miserable he was being stuck in the house all alone all day long.

Sammy nodded appreciatively at Ashok.

But whereas Ashok was an expert in finding the positives of a given situation, Karthik was the opposite.

Which is to say that neither Ashok nor Sammy were surprised to hear him say, “Ok, but what if the old witch still put a curse on us? What if she doesn’t need a broken window to be become angry enough to curse us? Maybe a tennis ball going where it shouldn’t be visiting in the first place is enough of a reason?”

Though the words didn’t surprise the others, they did sent a chill of fear dancing up their spine, though neither of them showed it- that would be unmanly.

The repeated honks from a two wheeler moving towards them made the three move to the side of the street. The bike, rode by a young man behind whom sat an equally young woman with a coton shawl covering the lower half of her face from the perennial dust of Bangalore passed them by swiftly.

“Yuck!” Ashok said in English, twisting his mouth as though he tasted something awful when he saw how the  woman, who sat with her breasts pressed against the back of the man as though she wanted to merge into him, ran a hand up and down the leather of his jacket, over his chest.

Whenever they played on the street near the park, it was almost inevitable to see something like this at least once.

And it invariably made them feel sick- especially Ashok who was of the opinion that girls and boyswere always meant to stay in the opposite sides and never come close, just like in the school classroom.

Seeing the exaggeratedly sick expression on Ashok’s face, the other two boys laughed Ashok too joined them though all of their laughs were somewhat strained- they still needed to figure out how to get their ball from out of the witch’s house.

So far, even though her front door-also with a chrysanthemum motif was partially open, the witch hasn’t come out.

This hasn’t really surprised them as they had rarely seen the woman  come out in the daylight.

Most of the times any of them has seen her was in the evenings when she went out for a walk in the small park that was directly opposite to her house.

Once the collective laugh subsided- which didn’t take long, Kartik said, “So, Sammy, go and get the ball!” He scratched his midriff casually, crumpling his Scoobee Doo T-shirt as he did so, trying to bring in an element of casualness to his words, though his high voice sounded nervous.

“Why should I go?” Sammy, if anything, sounded even more nervous than his friend.

“Because you are the one who knocked the ball in there..”

Sammy opened his mouth to say something but then with a ‘Why bother?” expression, closed his mouth again.

It’’s not like Karthik hasn’t seen how the ball, delivered by Ashok caught the edge of his bat and went over the Chysanthemum gate, and bounced just once on the witch’s lawn before rolling into the house.

“Also, it’s your ball!” Karthik added, seeing how Sammy still looked hesitant.

Before Sammy could say anything, another voice- peppier than any of theirs rose from behind them: “You want to start playing or do you just want to stand around all day long sweating?”

**

Prakash parked his bicyclcle by the green fence of the park.

He had a red rubber ball in his hand- brand new and shining. Grinning a toothy grin, pushing the round soda-bottle glasses up his nose, he said, “Why are you looking at me like you saw a ghost?”

When Karthik explained how Sammy knocked the ball into the witch’s house(“No, I did not!” Sammy shouted though no one listened), the pleasant expression faded from Prakash’ face.

After consulting with each other they came to the unanimous decision that they should continue the game with the ball that Prakash brought with him. In the meantime, maybe the witch would bring the ball out on her own volition.

“By evening, maybe she would come out..”Prakash said hopefully.

“And if she doesn’t?” Sammy asked, unable to completely keep the shiver out of his voice.

“Why, then, you should go talk with her! She, after all is a neighbor!” Prakash said with mock-jolliness. “Or, you could just let the ball go..”

“I can’t!” Sammy said suddenly. “Then, this would be the third ball that I lost this month! Father wouldn’t like that at all!”

His friends nodded solemnly at his words, as though they understood that Sammy must walk his head into the death knot if that’s what circumstances demanded; only, they were helpless to do anything about it.

“Let’s play!” Sammy said, swallowing hard, not wishing to brood too much.

**

Now that Prakash has joined them, formed two teams with two members each.

So far in the day, the three boys have been playing individually- one person batting after the other, each getting a three over innings. At the end of the three innings, whoever has got the highest number of runs would be the winner.

But even with the additional number, many rules for their ‘improvised’ cricket remained the same.

For instance, the bowler’s delivery must hit the white part of the pair of slippers that were used in lieu of stumps behind the batsman.

The rubber slippers which belonged to Sammy were white but came with blue straps.

All the kids agreed that this rule heightened the excitement of their games- though it also often led to arguments with the bowler swearing that he saw the ball landing right in the centre of a slipper, only for the batsman to claim he was wrong. (“How could you know? You were looking in the opposite direction when the ball hit it!” the bowler would say, prompting the batsman to say how the idea of everything slowing down as though in slo-mo movie in crucial situations- like when facing a ball, standing at the crease, so he had enough time to see the ball hitting the blue strap, thank you very much).

Another rule was that if anyone hit a ball into the nearby park or past the gate of the witch’s house, that would automatically bring their inning to an end.

The park maintained by the resident’s association, though not large was still well kept, flowers of different shades and shapes stood dancing in the wind, adding life to the drab surroundings which were filled with houses and buildings, standing so close to one another that you may have trouble telling where one ended and the next began.

Everyone was extra- cautious this day to maintain this rule, after losing the tennis ball.

And not just because they didn’t wish their inning to end abruptly. It was the first time that a ball has gone into the witch’s house.

**

If you were to ask the four why they thought the old woman was a witch, they may not be able to give you any one reason.

There would be multiple reasons, depending on whom you asked.

“It’s the hair. That’s how you could tell! The old woman ‘s grey hair is BIG!- like there is a bird’s nest underneath …That’s the sign of a witch- I have read that in a book!” That’s how Ashok- the only one among them who would go to a library because he wanted to, would tell you.

“I saw her walking down the street in front of my house once. I was standing at the balcony of our house when looking down, I saw the old witch, walking with that slight limp of hers, down the street with a  plastic bag of groceries or something in her hand. It was 3 in the afternoon, and I noticed, I noticed that even though the sun was up in the sky, she had no shadows” That would be Sammy, speaking in a hushed tone, as though the very air could carry the tale to the old woman’s ear if he wasn’t careful.

Prakash too had a story to tell- one which he has told his friends one night when they had all come over to sleep at his home- this was right after he recovered from his pneumonia and he invited them for a sleep-over so that he could show off his latest acquisition: the newest Playstation.

They were all seated in a circle on his bed, a paused game on the game console behind them, showing a humongous robot with its arm suspended in mid-motion on its way to landing a punch.

The robot watched over them like a deity as Prakash talked to his friends in a hushed whisper, his thin lips parting to reveal pearly white teeth as he spoke. “You know how there are an large number of chrysanthemum plants in the witch’s front yard?  And also other plants..Well, ever wondered how she manages to take care of then all- I mean, she is an old lady, with a limp and everything..how could she stand and water them and make compost and stuff?”

“Maybe someone helps her,” Ashok suggested.

“Oh, and when was it that you have actually seen anyone go into that house?”

Ashok nodded at Prakash’ question, as though that settled the matter.

“So, there I was walking past her gate, coming back from visiting Sammy here one day-you remember, last week when I came to borrow your Physics notebook?, yeah, that’s when. Anyway, I was walking past her gate when I saw the flowers in two of the chrysanthemum plants, elongated on their stems- like that rubbery guy from Fantastic 4, and they were spitting- yes, spitting out water from their mouths. Watering each other. Sometimes, out came of their mouths dark things- like pellets of shit-“

Hearing the word ‘shit’ said aloud made one of the other boys giggle.

“I think those pellets were fertilizer of some kind. What I mean is, the flowers were very much alive and they were taking care of each other!” When he saw the silent stares from his friends, he added, “Don’t you see! She put a spell on the flowers to do that! Only, when the chrysanthemums saw me noticing them, they went back to being just ordinary flowers!”

Though none of the other boys found this story that believable, neither did they contest it. It’s a witch they were talking about- so, they had to give it the benefit of the doubt.

However, they did think how during nearly a month when he was bed-ridden at home, Prakash has done nothing but watch manga toons TV and fight alien robots on the PS, so maybe he was running away with his imagination.

As for Sammy, his entire attitude towards the old woman could be summed up in his own words which he uttered one day to his parents, shortly after the woman arrived in their housing colony: “There is something off about that woman!”

It was an abstract feeling- a response to the fact that the woman had a hooked nose and a sly face and bishy eyebrows and a wicked stare, among other things.

The fact that her back was bent and so she walked slightly stooped didn’t help either.

Once he saw the woman walking up from the other side of the street by the park.

It was dark, the street was deserted- the two wheelers and cars parked on either side were all covered under plastic sheets. With the woman there, all the vehicles took on an ominous quality, as though the covers would come off from them any moment now and out would pop car and bike shaped monster instead of machines.

He also expected the woman, walking with her head bent, to suddenly jerk her head up and look at him as she passed him by, and her eyes would sparkle green, and when she grinned, her teethwould  be revealed for what they were- knife like protrusions which made eating up pieces of little children easy.

To avoid such an eventuality, he entered a bylane to his right where he waited  in the darkness until the witch passed by.

Then, there was also the fact that the woman lived alone. Now, who in their old age would live alone, unless she was a witch?

Sammy’s father explained patiently that there wasn’t anything ‘off’ about the fact that the woman lived alone. “Her children all live abroad and she doesn’t wish to join them there. She likes to live in Karnataka where she was born and lived for so long. Her husband died many years ago. Yes, she may benefit from having a help around- at least, someone who could clean the house and the yards for her.

“But both mummy and I met her the other day, and Mrs.Sandhya came across as a strong-willed woman. You know what strong-willed means? It means she doesn’t like to think of herself as old. ‘I can take care of myself without help!’ that’s what she says” Both his parents laughed lightly at this, though Sammy didn’t get the joke.

Neither was he convinced that the witch was not a witch. There was just something ‘off’ about her.

**

“We won!” Prakash, who has teamed up with Sammy picked up the latter after hitting the winning score for their team. Sammy laughed, shouting, “Hey, put me down or we are both going to fall!”

An old man wearing thick black rimmed glasses, watching from a balcony grinned at the children.

When Prakash stuck his tongue out at Karthik, the latter said, “Yes, we should get you tomorrow! In fact, the light is fading. Otherwise, we would have beaten you right now itself! Isn’t that right, Ashok?”

Ashok nodded in the affirmative, though he was smiling self-consciously.

The light was indeed fading in Kormangala’s KHB colony.

Whatever little number of trees remained in the area- leftovers from man’s hunt for ‘progress’ now became shelters for birds that came flocking back to their nests. The air was suddenly alive with the sound of birds and the boys themselves must now go back to their homes, or else face their parents’ ire for being late.

Only Sammy had a little business to take care of first.

**

“Are you sure you guys couldn’t even wait out here until I get back from there?”

His three friends- all of whom now perched on their bicycles, – Ashok with his cricket bat clipped to the carrier of his bike, shook their heads in unison.

“Mom would be mad if I am late!”

“Need to go finish some homework!”

“We are going out tonight and it’s already late!”

The three of them called out and went their separate ways.

Looking again at the old woman’s house, Sammy swallowed.

Though the evening was fast turning grey, he still couldn’t see any lights on in the house.

It was as though the grayness of the eve was draining colours from the world- including from the chrysanthemums in the witch’s front-yard.

Looking both to his right and  left, Sammy saw that the small street was empty, except for a woman at the far end who was sweeping the patch of the road in front of her gate.

The only commercial establishment in the entire street- a small tailoring shop that specialized in women’s salwar, was not open today for some reason. Two doors away from the witch’s, it’s blue shutter- with a white painted image of a young woman cat-walking, remained resolutely shut.

Sammy wished that it were open. The whirring sound of the sewing machine would have been a constant auditory reminder that people were not far away, even when he walked into the gate of the witch’s home.

“What’s not to be is not to be” he muttered an line often repeated by the lead detective of a detective show he regularly watched on the television.

The detective uttreed these words whenever he ran into a dead end chasing clues.

The old man with the thick glasses still stood on the balcony, observing a green parrot take refuge in a tree.

Wondering if the old man would be fast enough if he had to come save Sammy, the boy unlatched the gate.

**

The latch on the gate was in its middle and there was plenty of space in the grill for Sammy to reach his hand in and slowly turn it.

It looked like it was placed there in such a way that kids could easily get in.

The though sent a shiver down his spine.

He reminded himself that this house had belonged to someone else before the old woman brought it, with the gate and everything. So, it couldn’t be the witch’s way of inviting the kids in.

The frontyard, though small was  filled with flower bearing plants- chrysanthemums and lilies and orchids and roses and plenty of others which Sammy didn’t know the names of. The air was thick with the fragrance of these flowers.

From somewhere not far rose the sound of bees buzzing.

Reaching the porch, he had to stand on his toes to reach his hand to the calling bell switch .

He felt assured by the fact that the switch was not positioned for a child’s convenience. A shrill and loud cuckoo cry rang inside the house.

Sammy waited for almost a whole minute before he tried the switch again- he didn’t wish to piss off the witch by repeatedly pressing it.

He kept looking towards the gate for reassurance, as though making sure that it remained open, just the way he has left it.

The door to the house too remained open, just as he has seen it when they reached the street to play earlier in the afternoon.

But no one came out of that door.

He took two tentative steps towards the open door, as though expecting something to pounce at him from the quasi-darkness within. But nothing happened. Only, the fragrance of the flowers from the yard abated as a the relatively stale air from within the house entered his nostrils.

Squinting, he saw the faint outline of a television on one wall and a glassed show case- some five feet by four feet in dimensions on the opposite wall.

Almost the entire showcase was filled with small sculptures and plastic replicas of flowers- of different shapes and sized and colours, just like there was a proliferation of floral species in  the garden outside.

Mrs. Sandhya must be a great flower lover, that’s why she maintains the garden just like the previous owners, he thought

For a fleeting moment, he had a vision of the old woman walking toward her house with plastic bags in hand, as seen by a 10 year old from his balcony- when he saw that she didn’t had a shadow- or thought he saw…he couldn’t be sure now.

It occurred to him those plastic bags might have contained fertilizers.

Titling down his head, he saw the greenish yellow ball lying on the white marble floor, resting against the leg of the coffee table.

The two plush looking sofas near the table were empty, except for the green cusions.

He could reach the ball in two steps, take it and run out of here, though.

Looking up further into the house, he could see the arched door which probably led to the kitchen.

But no one came out through it- a brown double fridge stood to the door’s right. It hummed softly, almost menacingly.

Taking a deep breath, he took the necessary two steps, and stooping down, picked up the ball.

But when he looked up, he saw the woman.

Or, the woman’s legs to be particular.

**

Even in the dim light he could see that they looked somewhat bloated- though aged, she had a lot of fat on her body still.

But what was she doing lying there on the floor like that? Wouldn’t the floor be cold and couldn’t an old woman like her catch a fever from that?

Despite himself, he moved towards the woman- there was something ‘off’ about the way she was lying- he could feel it. More palpable than the buzzing of the fridge, almost as real as the soft thud that his slippers made on the floor was that feeling.

She was lying the way in which the detective found dead people lying in side their apartments-or anywhere else, for that matter, in the television show.

Sammy looke away when he saw that the woman’s nightie didn’t cover her neatly anymore. Her thighs were visible, as also the blue frilled edge of her panties.

But out of the corner of his eye, he saw crimson blood congealed around her head.

“She has obviously slipped and fallen. Her head cracked open when she fell. There is no case here!” He could hear the television detective speak in his head, in that somber tone of his.

Sammy peered at the woman’s open eyes that glinted faintly in the light from the window, as though even the last hope for life was leaving the body.

A bee-which has left its comfort zone of the garden and entered the house- flew into the old woman’s open mouth, poainting a wavy path on the air in the process. The bee perched on the tip of her tongue and started to nibble.

That was when Sammy acknowledged to himself that the witch was dead.

A pain in his hand made him look down. He held the tennis ball so hard that it has begun to hurt him.

Outside, the light was fading even faster now, the night, now that its time has come, displaying an  urgency to claim its territory.

With pounding heart and sweaty palms, Sammy ran out of the house, ready to proclaim to his friends, or anyone who cared to listen, for that matter: “The witch is dead! The witch is dead!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Café Black

Though Sooraj has noticed the restaurant a few times before, he has never been in there.

The place was so small that in a sense, terming it a restaurant was an exaggeration- the eating area had just two small benches-long enough to seat two people and desks and a steel sink to wash your hands. A glass paneled shelf near entrance had inside light snacks laid out on pages of days-old Malayalam newspapers.

With all these things, there was just enough space for one person to stand comfortably between the two benches in the small room. A doorless opening on one corner with a dirty red curtain led to the kitchen. What what he had seen of the café,  Sooraj Srinivasan assumed the kicthen was smaller than the eating area.

Called Black Café’ the restaurant was opened not more than a month ago.

Located right around the corner at the entrance of a street near the Laxmi theatre in Thaverekkere- the street which led you up to the Jayadeva Hospital the café was in a strategic location-  a large number of Malayalis lived in that area- a lot of whom were students- from the nearby Christ College and elsewhere- the age group that ate out the most.

The café’s 2D logo depicted a cup of black coffee from which rose twirling white smoke tendrils that curved back in towards the mouth of the cup.

Notwithstanding the café’s name, the background colour of the board on which the logo was imprinted- as also the wallpaper inside the tiny space was brown.

Which Sooraj thought was a wise decision- for using an all black theme might have given the place a funereal aura.

**

Though Sooraj was tempted to try the food at the café(or restaurant or shack or whatever you wished to call it) more than a few times, he always resisted the temptation.

Having developed a healthy(sic) skepticism about restaurants after coming down with a severe case of food poisoning when he was 15 years old, he rarely ate out.

The food poisoning incident made him so sick that the doctors who treated him actually told his parents that they should inform their relatives, claiming that he didn’t have long to live.

That he came back from the brink of death- the doctors considered as nothing less than a miracle.

Not that  Sooraj was not grateful for the miracle, but he didn’t intend to count on miracles to keep him alive for the rest of his life.

But the terrible food poisoning was only part of the reason he rarely ate out anymore- in the 20 years since then, he has overcome to a great extent the blanket fear he had towards all kitchens in the world not run by himself or someone he trusted- like his mother.

Part of the reason was also that eating at restaurants on his own made him realize how lonely he was.

That was especially true since he moved to Bangalore- in this once beautiful city, no matter what kind of eatery you went to- a high end wine bar of a small dhaba tucked away in the quiet corner of an alleyway, you are bound to find a young couple or two, sharing  food and soda if not love.

And that made his loneliness feel even more acute.

**

But on this particular evening, Sooraj let go of such inhibitions.

But not so easily.

Sooraj has actually walked past the Black Cafe and turned around the corner on his way home from work before he decided to retrace his path.

He was in a state of frustration- he has had a minor skirmish with his boss at work. Okay, not very minor.

As an assistant editor at an online content firm, such ‘confrontations’ were becoming increasingly normal- whenever the number of clicks went down, the boss called in Sooraj and told him how piss-poor he was when it came to curating the content- maybe not in those exact terms but close. Very close.

On the other hand, when the number of clicks were high, nothing much happened. Except that work went on as usual- no parties thrown in his favour, and definitely no payrise.

The dark after-taste of the ‘meeting’ with the boss was still in his mind, making him sick.

The feeling made him so disheartened that he was sure that he wouldn’t be able to prepare anything in the kitchen once he reached home. He was just too mentally fatigued for that- the skirmishes with the boss were becoming more and more frequent of late, he has noticed.

Maybe, a fundamental mismatch in tastes and opinions that has always existed between them was now rearing its ugly head.

Mayb,e it would be best if he switched jobs.

Such a contemplation inevitably brought in its wake stress. The kind of stress which felt like two oversized iron fists were pressing up against the ceiling of his skull.

So, perhaps it was not surprising that he felt piping hot dosas and chutney would help lighten his mood.

**

Retraciung his steps to the café, just as he turned around the corner, a young man who stood on one of the steps of the small bakery nearby spat out a thick gob of spit which landed on the ground just a few centimeters in front of Sooraj.

A few specks landed on his brown  Red Tapes, which were now smeared with dust from the street.

Sooraj turned a sore eye towards the young man from whose mouth the liquid projectile has issued.

But the dude- not more than 20, who was busy chatting on the phone, smiling and rubbing his thick goatee, didn’t even notice him.

For a second, Sooraj thought of tapping him on the shoulder and giving him a piece of his mind- God only knew he had some leftover anger from the ‘meeting’ which he would have loved to expend.

Just as he was contemplating the notion though, a black Honda Activa carrying five kids, including its driver ranging in ages 12 to 15 came speeding towards him, completely out of control.

Only the kid who was handling the vehicle (if you could call continual swiveling accompanied by  leg- pushes against the ground with his legs to be ‘handling’) was screaming while the four boys behind him laughed at the top of their lungs.

They looked like a veritable gang of monkeys who just came down from a tree for the first time in theuir lives.

Sooraj could see nothing funny about the scenario- especially when he had to literally jump out of the bike’s way to avoid being hit.

His quick reflexes notwithstanding, his lower leg grazed against the scooter’s leg rest. This resulted in a small tear across the leg of his corduroy pants, making him wince as he felt the sting on his skin.

Despite the rider’s best efforts to avoid the fall, the scooter hit the side of the stairs of the bakery and sent the five kids sprawling to the ground.

Sooraj saw one of the them- a lanky kid with closely cropped hair hitting the back of his head on the edge of the stair in the fall. He saw how a wince of pain appeared on the kid’s face, as though in slow motion, a thin thread of saliva bridging the two halves of his open mouth.

Sooraj felt a glow of satisfaction inside his heart.

The kids deserved the fall, he though.

None of them were legally old enough to have a two wheeler license. On top of that, they were five of them when the maximum allowed number of people on a bike was two.

At some part of his mind, Sooraj knew that it was uncool to think of kids kids in this manner, but the lion share of his mind was reveling in it- and the reveling factor won over the prick of conscience, the majority beating the minority- an internal democracy at work.

He saw the goateed dude getting off his phone and coming stepping down from the bakery’s step to help the kids up.

And as Suraj turned towards the Black Café- now not more than a few feet in front of him, he saw a man getting down the two steps in front of that establishment, and trotting towards the kids.

Suraj has seen the man before- he was the one who served food at the joint.

When there were no customers, he could be seen standing at the door, leaning against the frame peering at the world from behind his round spectacles with a bored expression.

It was possible that the pot-bellied man who looked to be in his early fifties was the only person in charge of the café- the waiter cum cook.

God only knew that the café was small enough to be run by a single person.

Neither has Sooraj ever seen any other employees in the café.

**

If his single- employee theory was true, there was no point in his going into the café yet. He should wait for the bespectacled man to come back.

Reaching the front of the café, he looked in through the door- to see that both the benches inside were empty.

Indeed, the whole place was empty.

Shifting the weight of his backpack-which he slung over his shoulder with just one strap- from one shoulder to the other, he looked towards the bakery where the four kids were now being helped up by strangers- including the café guy.

Though there was something touching about the way strangers were helping strangers(as much of a rarity these days as a well made 7 course Kerala meal), Sooraj still felt that the kids deserved the fall that they took.

In fact, he found that he felt irritated at the mere fact that the kids were being helped by others- he now saw one of the kids being given water by someone.

Sooraj knew that he was projecting the animosity he had  towards his boss onto the hapless kids.

But he didn’t care. It felt good to have an object of anger.

Turning abruptly, he entered the café and took the bench that faced against a wall, facing away from the narrow street outside.

**

While he sat in the small café, he though it unprofessional of the proprietor-or whoever it was to just leave the joint unattended like this.

After all, it wasn’t as though the kids who fell off the scooter suffered any great injuries.

Looking around, he saw on the walls black and white pictures showing images from Kerala’s past- a KSRTC bus the model of which was no more in use, women in a village using a long wooden pole to grind rice and a tea shack from a bygone era from the porch of which looked out two men drinking tea, sporting hairstyles that would be considered hilarious today.

For some reason, such images, taken from decades before his birth, brought a smile to Sooraj’s face.

“What would you like to eat, son?”

Shifting his gaze from the picture of the bus to the source of the sound, he expected to see the pot- bellied man.

Instead, he was greeted with the smiling face of a thin old man

At least 60 years old, with grey hairs on his head and grey moustache, his bead-like eyes were the blackest that Sooraj has ever seen. There were veins projecting from beneath the skin on his forehead, like barely hidden roots.

Only his face and part of his torso and a hand were visible- the rest of his body was hidden behind the frame of the doorless door which led to the kitchen.

“I..thought that there was no one here,” said Sooraj, offering the old man a thin smile.

“Oh, that is not how any business works! Especially a restaurant where hungry people come to fill their tummy. What good would it do to keep them waiting?” The old man’s voice was both soft and jovial- the kind of voice that made you feel immediately comfortable with the person it belonged to.

And he had a smile to go with it. The number of wrinkles which broke on his face with the smile somehow only made him look even more friendly.

Sooraj ordered two dosas and a double omelet.

“But before that, I will have one of those banana fries!” He pointed to the stack of fries kept in the glass shelf near the door.

Smilingly, the old man obliged,  coming out from behind the door.

Unlike the pot bellied man whom Sooraj has always seen in shirt and a pair of pants, this old man was wearing a cotton shirt and  mundu. The white mundu was dirty at certain places- as was natural with someone who worked in a kitchen.

Sooraj resisted the temptation to tell him that he ought to wear a colourful lungi instead of a mundu while working.

The old man brought him a banana fry in a small saucer. Sooraj accept it with thanks. Nodding, the old man disappeared into the kitchen.

The banana fry was too oily for his taste, but still Sooraj enjoyed it, for the sheer fact that it’s been a while since he has had one- it was hard to find good places to eat such simple Kerala delicacies in Bangalore.

Once he was finished with the fry, he didn’t have to wait for long for the old man to bring the first of the dosas.

The chutney, Sooraj found was brilliant- both tasty and rich, it was a world away from what passed for chutney in most restaurants.

The same could be said about the dosa – he found that it actually had measurable depth.

The few occasions he has tried dosas in restaurants, they have claimed ‘paper-thin’ as an actual merit.

“Shall I bring you another dosa?” the old man said once he brought Sooraj the double omlette.

Now that he had finished more than half of the second dosa, he wasn’t feeling too hungry anymore. But there was a sweetness to the old man’s tone which made him nod.

Once the old man disappeared into the kitchen again, Sooraj thought with a smile how the he was a very good salesman.

‘If he were so good, what’s he doing still working in his age, that too in a tiny place like this?’ was the thought that came next.

Sooraj shook his head, wishing to clear his mind of such thoughts.

The thing was, what with the food and the old man’s gentle behavior with him- like he were part of his family, he was beginning to feel better.

The dark cross-hatches that were carved on his heart by thoughts about the disastrous ‘meeting’ with his boss were slowly being washed clean.

**

Feeling a hand on his back, patting him gently, Sooraj looked up to see the kindly old man smiling at him.

“Would you like anything else? Shall I bring one more dosa? Or maybe some rice and curry?”

Sooraj thought- only half-jokingly that the only other person who has ever spoke to him with so much love was his  mother.

He shook his head.

“We don’t charge much. So, eat to your heart’s content! I know that many restaurants in Bangalore run by Malayalis charge a lot! But not us! What’s the use of calling ourselves Malayalis if we couldn’t feed our fellow Malayalis without making them pay a sack-ful, huh?” The old man playfully slapped him on the back.

He had a laugh that would have done Santa Claus proud, thought Sooraj.

“Thanks, chetta,” he said. “But I am really full now.” And he meant it. “Maybe I would come and have rice and curry tomorrow night,” he added.

“Yes, you do that! For I make great fish curry, if I may say so myself!” the old man said, smiling modestly.

A flicker of sadness crossed his face when he spoke the next words: “My son used to love the fish curry that I made- more than he liked any of his mother’s preparations- though his mother was a great cook herself!”

“Where is your son now?” said Sooraj after a brief hesitation, guessing what the answer would be.

Pointing to a small framed picture of Attukal amma that was on the wall above the sink in the corner, the old man said in a quivering voice, “The goddess called him, and his mother back to her…”

After a moment, shaking his head sadly, clearing Sooraj’s table and collecting the plates, he walked into the kitchen, calling after him in a soft voice, “Son, you go and wash your hands.”

Sooraj did as he was told, though he was no more feeling as good as he did a few minutes ago. There was significant difference between death and divorce, but ever since he and his wife parted nearly an year ago, he felt like something has died in him.

Almost irrationally, he thought of the old man’s sadness to be similar to his own, thinking loss was loss.

After washing his hands, he looked around for a tissue paper to dry them.

He couldn’t find it anywhere. His eyes strayed towards to the goddess’ picture on the wall.

His face was mere inches away from that of the goddess. This closed to the divinity, he could see the three small, passport sized photographs that were tucked into the narrow gap between the frame and the image, along the frame’s bottom plank.

Two of those pictures showed a middle aged woman and a teenaged boy.

But it was the picture on the extreme left that made Sooraj reel.

Though he looked at least 10 years younger, there was no mistaking the fact that it was the old man- the cook. The sharp gaze of the black eyes and the jovial smile were unmistakable.

Sooraj’s heart began to beat wildly, thinking how only dead people’s images were placed alongside a god’s like this.

Looking to his right, he saw the red curtain on the doorless door to the kitchen swaying in the breeze. When the curtain parted, he could see a table with a mixer grinder and a few steel utensils on it,and  also a steel gas stove on the brown floor immediately beside the table.

But there was no sign of the old man.

Swallowing hard, he once again looked at the picture tucked into the frame, hoping that his eyes had played a trick before.

“That’s my brother and his family…”

The voice so startled Sooraj that when he turned around, he looked pale like paper.

Frowning, the potbellied man said, “What happened? Are you unwell?”

Sooraj shook his head slowly. When he spoke, he sounded far off to himself. “Your bother, you said?”

The pot bellied man nodded, a sad smile appearing on his face.

“We used to run a restaurant together back in Trivandrum. He was a great cook- I think he made food better than many of the cooks in 5 star and 7 star hotels! But the lord above claimed all their lives- in the Trivandrum-Mangalore Express derailment last year…”

Sooraj slowly nodded. The train accident, which claimed more than 20 lives was one of the biggest in Kerala in recent times.

It was also a big news when it happened.

He remembered donating for a special fund raiser for the poor who were disabled by the accident.

The pot-bellied man’s smile broadened.

Though physically he was on the opposite end of the body proportions spectrum from his thin(and dead) elder brother, his smile  was as sweet as his sibling’s.

His voice- huskier and deeper, also carried the same earnestness.

“I have noticed you walking by before- I guess your office is this way? I always noticed you because you look a little like my brother’s son-“ he pointed to the picture behind him. “That’s him there in that picture. Of course, that photo is from when he was just a young lad..He was the biggest fan of brother’s food- he used to come to the restaurant almost every day to eat his father’s cooking, and elder brother…he loved nothing more than to cook, especially for young people- ‘Young people are the future- they should be well fed, strong!’ that’s what he used to say..”

Sooraj noticed the man’s eyes becoming moist.

Taking the specs off, he wiped his eyes with the tip of his fingers before putting the glasses back on.

Looking at Sooraj, forcing a smile on to his face, he said,  “Today is their death anniversary. I guess that’s why I am so emotional….Anyway, what would you like to have?”

Demon Heart

“Where is she?”

There was as much restraint in Amal’s voice as there was anger. But all her got in response was silence, and a smirk, a quivering of a brow-less eye.

“You know that you are running out of time..unless you tell me where she is you will never get out..”

Amal hoped that the threat would be enough to make the demon give up the information.

Apparently, it wasn’t enough.

For the demon just shrugged.

When he spoke, the kitchen stank with the breath that came out of his mouth. Amal wasn’t surprised. This wasn’t the first time that he was speaking to one- neither was it the first time he was interrogating one for information.

But this was the first time the interrogation was to pry out the whereabouts of the woman he loved.

“Why do you think I would be scared of annihilation? Don’t you think that after living for millennia, I have had enough of this thing called life?” With his free hand, the demon scratched the side of his thigh.

The sharp green fingernails made a rough scraping sound on the hard skin.

“Well, from what I understand, life isn’t something that you ever get tired of- no matter how long one lives on earth…or elsewhere,” Amal added.

The demon tut-tutted. The inch-long tail twitched behind him.

“How could you say that when a lot of people commit suicide every day up here? From what I understand, India has one of the biggest suicide rates in the world, and this city Bangalore is not that far backward on that front either..” The demon laughed softly, as if quietly amused by his own observation.

More than anything else, what grated on Amal’s nerves was the absolute reasonableness of tone that the creature used when he talked. For all that was going on, he as well might be discussing his weather with his grand father.

But the demon didn’t look like his grand father- or any human being for that matter.

At more than eight feet high, he was taller than the tallest person that you would know. Even sitting there in the wooden chair in Amal’s modest kitchen, he looked tall.

His skin was a patch work of yellows and greens- shapeless shapes created in both colours that moved around, mixed with each other-forming new shapes every minute in the process, like the colours were inks that never truly dried.

If you could overlook the scale-like protrusions that ran the entire length of his body from head to toes, each line separated by mere centimeters, you might even get fascinated with those colours, like a child peering into a kaleidoscope for the first time.

“I think we are deviating from the topic,” said Amal. “I will ask you once more. Where is Chaitanya?”

The demon laughed, as though the name was the funniest thing he has heard in his life.

The sound of the laugh made the anger surge in Amal’s heart.

Raising the kitchen knife in his hand, he uttered forcefully: “Boratharikkah!”

The blue lasso of light that originated from the tip of his finger, wound itself around the black handle of the knife and flung it towards the demon.

Though the demon raised a hand to block the knife, he wasn’t fast enough.

The entire blade gleamed an eerie blue as it plunged deep into the demon’s neck

. Amal watched with satisfaction as the blade twisted in the creature’s body, just a few centimeters above his collar bone.

The demon moaned, his round yellow eyes widened even as the red pupils at the centre dilated with the pain.

The knife pulled itself out from the creature’s body with a sickening ‘pluck’ sound- like a suction being retreated from the surface of a floor, only to plunge again into the neck, and again and again and again.

With every iteration, it brought out black bile-like blood, viscous and gleaming in the harsh light of the overhead bulb in the kitchen.

Amal just watched with an impassive expression as the demon screamed in agony.

His only concern was that the neighbors might hear the sound and get curious- not that there was much of a chance for that, for the entire apartment was soundproofed using black acoustic room treatment foam which Amal himself has chosen from over more than 30 varieties, after lengthy consultations with fellow demon-hunters and taking feedback from them about the most effective kind that they have ever used- in their line of work, they all needed to bring a demon or the other home sometimes, to interrogate, or to kill.

The downside of the foam that Amal chose was that it made the interiors look dark even during the daytime- like it did now, necessitating artificial lights to be turned on- contributing more to the electricity department.

But that was a small price to pay for keeping ordinary mortals from knowing who he was- in the common man’s eyes, anyone who dealt with demons could be someone to avoid- or even hate.

**

“Berekinnala!” the spell was barely whispered but the knife obeyed its master’s command and floated back into Amal’s hand where it rested in a firm grip.

The demon lurched forward in the chair, a painful grimace  forming on his face, exposing the rows of finely pointed teeth, teeth that were so sharp that you could probably cut diamonds with them.

When he looked up, his eyes blazed with pure hatred. He frothed from his mouth with the anger that boiled him. Though he knew that it wouldn’t do any good, he kept pulling his hand that was chained to the plumbing line on the wall.

The chain itself was ordinary- garden variety supermarket chain that you bought for the dog.

But it was enchanted, and the spell couldn’t be broken, not unless the demon hunter willed so.

Grinning maliciously, the demon spoke in a half-hiss: “You are an impressive spellsman, that much I will give. Because, you know how many times I have been captured by a hunter in that past five centuries? Zero.

Before that, in the 15th century, there lived an expert demon hunter in what people otoday call Egypt. He was- well, he was a lot like you in terms of skill. But not at all like you in appearance. Neither did he have a flabby belly nor did he let his cheeks sag like yours..”

The demon waved his hand dismissively in Amal’s general direction. He winced surprised with the pain the gesture brought as the wound starched on his neck.

From experience that spanned millennia, the demon knew that humans were rather too sensitive when they were told they looked ugly- which in the case of this hunter was quite true- and not just because of his bald head that had wisps of grey hair growing in small clumps here and there like patches of white rashes on a baby’s bum.

He was glad to see that Amal looked, at least momentarily, hurt.

Sure, that hurt was not the same as the pain which the wounds from the knife made him suffer, but still it was something…

“But aside from the appearance,” the demon continued, “You are every bit as skilled as that Egyptian from old when it comes to making demons fall. So, I respect you. But I wouldn’t tell you where your lover is!”

A look of mild surprise crossed Amal’s eyes. “She..is…a colleague..” He sounded unconvincing, though he was telling the truth.

Smiling slyly, the demon shook his head, “Come on, I know that look in your eyes. I know that no one would go to the length of hunting down a demon, then holding a fight with him that lasts more than an hour, and bring him to his home where he chains him down and torture him, asking him the same question over and over again, if she were only a colleague.”

Amal wasn’t sure if the demon was just saying those words.

He wouldn’t be surprised if the words had the weight of meaning attached to them- one of the many curious aspects of existence was that even demons knew how to love.

In fact, there were bona fide literary classics- love poems and ballads- that were produced in the demonic world.

Of course, one needed to be know the language of that world to read such tomes.

“Are you wondering how I know you love her?” the demon spoke in a low voice, a tone somewhere between a threat and a sign of weakening spirit.

“Because I know exactly what it is like to fear for the life of your loved one. To be more precise, I experienced that fear for the first time earlier this day…” The demon watched the man closely once his words ended.

He could see that Amal was no fool. He was confident that he would figure out what he meant.

As indeed Amal did in just a few seconds.

And when the realization dawned, his eyes widened- both horror and surprise competing for space in them.

**

“The demoness….that was…” Amal didn’t say the rest of the words. There was no need to.

The demon sat stony faced, the hurt in his neck temporarily forgotten as it was superseded by the painful memory of his lover’s death.

Both the man and the creature were thinking the same thing- about something that happened not more than two hours ago.

The confrontation happened inside an abandoned warehouse on the fringes of Malakidurga- some sixty kilometers north of Bangalore. The warehouse was the remnant of a brick and tile micro-industry that existed in that region until a decads ago.

But once Bangalore became a hot spot for investment- especially in the realty sector, the major players in the micro-industry found such ‘modern’ investments way more lucrative, not to mention less effortful than the small industry which they have been nurturing for years.

With the exit of the major players, the entire foundation of the industry became shaky, and it didn’t take long for the castle to tumble altogether, leaving behind unused kilns in different states of dilapidation and warehouses which housed nothing more than stray dogs and creepers anymore.

Sometimes, the demons that visited the earth used these abandoned spaces for their own purposes.

**

When Amal, along with Chaitanya and two other demon hunters arrived at the warehouse, the demons- or rather the demon and the demoness, had already begun to feed on the Minister’s body.

Demons came up to the earth with only one intent- to create chaos.

That’s a fact which hasn’t changed since time immemorial. The wild and dark psychic energy that chaos breeds is fodder for the Masters of hell- and it is they who assign the demons to different parts of the world from time to time, to create havoc, whenever the force of havoc needed to be replenished.

This information is passed down from one demon hunter to the next generation, to his son or daughter- you could say that the job of the demon hunter is family business.

Amal and Chaitanya- both in their early thirties were among the newer generation of demon hunters.

Soon as they learned that demons have captured a prominent Minister in the Karnataka assembly, to make it look like people from an opposing party have possibly killed him, they knew that the demons’ intent was to create communal disharmony and trigger fights backed by religious intolerance- the abducted minister belonged to a party with a strong Hindutva stand.

Though the demon hunters locked in on the demons’ location without delay, they weren’t able to reach on time to stop them from killing the politician.

But that didn’t mean they didn’t intend to give them a good fight.

**

Both the demon and the demoness proved to be formidable opponents.

The shred pieces of flesh that once belonged to two demon-hunters were literally throbbing on the floor of the warehouse, dancing with the life which still contained in them when the two creatures turned their focused attention towards the remaining hunters- Chaitanya and Amal.

The ferocity of their gaze was so much that they could feel it like a physical force.

It was largely due to luck- when a noise caused by a dog that chose an odd moment to stray into the warehouse distracted the demoness, that Amal managed to kill her, wielding a spell like a sword which cut through her, making her fall apart in two different halves, the broken roof of the warehouse proving to be no barrier in containing her ugly scream that rose into the huge umbrella-like sky.

Before either Chaitanya or Amal could turn their attention to the dead demoness’ lover, the demon, in his fury shouted a single spell: “Angroofta Boncha!”

Chaitanya, still reeling from fighting the demoness had her mental shield down. The spell hit her like a speeding bullet.

She disappeared.

It was the first time that Amal has hearing the spell.

But he realized that it was a  vanishing spell- the magical equivalent of teleportation, transplanting an object- or as in this case, a living being from one place to another. Maybe even by shrinking them in size.

Only the most evolved of spell-casters could do it effectively- there weren’t many, not even among demons, who could do it so well.

**

“Where is she?” Amal hissed, wiping the sweat beads that had begun to break on his forehead, the knife in his hand gleaming velvety dark with the demon’s blood.

He looked at the Mickey Mouse time piece on top of the fridge. The one which played the Mickey Mouse club intro when the alarm went off- a tune that was popular in America during the 1960s.

The clock was a gift from Chaitanya for his prebious birthday- she knew how much he liked Disney’s mouse still, though he has long grown out of the age in which such obsesssions could be considered as ‘normal.’

“It’s just like how I still adore Winnie the Pooh!” Chaitanya has giggled when she heard him say how much he adored Mickey.

The clock showed the time to be just past seven.

Amal knew that he had just half an hour at the most before the window of time would be over and the demon would disintegrate.

Since the arrival of demons on the world of the living was essentially two different worlds coming in alignment- like planetary bodies in the heavens, such alignments are bound to pass in time, according to the universal laws.

He could either allow the demon to go back to hell, or let it remain chained even after the window of time closed.

If he chose the latter, the demon would simply disintegrate into oblivion, leaving behind only the acrid stench which was a part of him as proof that he has been in this kitchen.

Not that that would be a bad idea but that still wouldn’t necessarily bring him to Chaitanya.

Seeing the clock handle ticking past the widely smiling face of Mickey Mouse, Amal wondered if he made a strategic mistake by bringing the demon to his apartment from the warehouse- the ride in the car had took nearly forty five minutes.

Should he have done this interrogation right there inside the warehouse i, thereby saving precious time? He had brought him here because his was bolstered with special spells- he  has hoped that the extra gravity of those spells would help coerce the demon to giving up Chaitanya’s whereabouts.

Just thinking about her brought him close to tears.

As though sensing his distress, the demon said, “You need the counter-spell..Even if you were to learn where she was hidden, you would still need the counter-spell to bring her out of there. In fact, if you knew the counter-spell, it wouldn’t even matter if you were unsure where she was…’

He smiled as though amused by the fact.

The chain around his wrist jangled as he repositioned himself on the chair, his tail twitched.

“My backside is getting numb from sitting!” he said. After a second, he said, “Lagraka bontria!’ That’s the spell..”

Amal looked at the demon, thoughtfully swiveling his knife like a student might a pen.

“Why should I believe you?”

Even as he said the words, a part of him just wanted to shout out the spell, so that he could bring the girl of his heart from wherever this monster has hidden her.

He was surprised to see the flicker of emotion that passed behind the demon’s eyes.

“Because I know what it feels like to lose the one you love. I might be a demon, but I am no monster,” he added. “The Masters have got their wish- chaos would ensue now with your minister’s death. My dearest …she was just a casualty, and it doesn’t matter now if you got your lover back or not. My love is dead one way or another…”

The demon’s shoulders drooped and he lowered his head. His weary sigh was a half-cry.

**

Amal still didn’t believe the demon.

Not completely, at any rate. Demons may have the capacity to love, and the equivalent of Shakespeare’s’ sonnets might be created in hell.

But they were not exactly known for their compassion.

A sidelong glance at the Mickey Mouse clock showed that almost ten minutes have passed since he last checked the time.

Time was passing too fast when it was most needed, as was usual with it.

Realizing that he didn’t have any other option- somehow he didn’t feel that any more torture techniques would be beneficial after over an hour of continual exertion in that direction- Amal took a deep breath and spoke in slow and deliberate manner, as though trying the words on for size: “La-gra-ka… bon…tria!”

More sweat beads broke on his forehead. It felt like time began to move slowly for once.

Amal’s heart hammered in his chest with anticipation.

He looked around, hoping for Chaitanya to appear out of thin air- just like in an old Disney cartoon, complete with a blue puff of smoke and tilting harp music.

But nothing happened. Not for almost a minute.

That’s when his hammering heart stopped completely.

And then it burst.

**

In the final moment of his life, Amal realized what happened- the demon had hid Chaitanya inside his heart- from where she burst forth, sending fragments of his flesh in all directions in the kitchen, splattering the Mickey Mosue time piece and the fridge and the round wooden table where they have shared pizza and wine manytimes.

In the final moment of his life, Amal heard the demon’s mad laugh, intermingling with Chaitanya’s rising scream.

Now that the spell caster was dead, the demon rose from the chair, breaking free of the chain that was once again just an ordinary chain.

He laughed louder- as though competing with Chaitanya’s scream of terror to see if he could beat her vocally.

The result was understandably a cacophony which could grating royally on nerves.

But no one outside of the apartment heard it- the acoustic treatment foam that Amal has chosen for the apartment worked really well.

The Planetarium’s Black Heart

A planetarium is not traditionally a place that one associates with supernatural events.

Unlike, say a house at the edge of the village where only an old woman(possibly hook-nosed) lived on her own. Or an old factory which went bankrupt and got locked down years ago.

But then, stranger things happen in the world- at least, that’s what Pallavi would tell herself later.

**

On the bright Tuesday morning when she stepped out of the house to go to the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetorium on the Chawdiah Road in Bangalore, Pallavi wasn’t exactly expecting any encounter of the supernatural kind.

If anything, she was expecting the exact opposite- to walk into that atrium of science and expand her knowledge about the universe, or at the very least have a good time there.

She knew that she was a little old to be excited about a trip to the planetarium- which was exactly what she told her friend, Shobha, when she recommended that she gave the place a visit.

“Me and Mohan went there the other week, and it’s so beautiful..” Shobha had exclaimed in the child-like voice she assumed whenever she spoke about something that she found cute- like dew drops on the tip of grass or the neighbor’s chubby new baby.

“Mohan was a little hesitant to come with me, at first. But then, I told him that I wouldn’t come with him to watch the action film which we were planning to go later. Quid pro quo, you know! Anyway, he too ended up  enjoying the planetarium- at least, I think so. Anyway, it’s a great way to stargaze, especially since you couldn’t do that anymore in Bangalore- it’s the light pollution, they say.” Shobha abruptly stopped her soliloquy, realizing how insensitive it was to be talk of the day out with her boyfriend when Pallvi herself was going through a breakup.

Hell, in fact, the break-up was the reason why she was suggesting a trip to the planetarium, to help take her mind off things.

“Tell you what,” Shobha has said, leaning forward and patting her on the arm as the music in the speaker in the café changed into a mellower track, “We could go there together next weekend, soon as I get back from Kerala!”

Pallavi has nodded to that, but she didn’t wait till the next weekend.

**

Shobha had to go home to Kerala on some urgent business but Pallavi was stuck in her rented apartment, brooding on how easily Michael- whom she was sure would be her life partner broke their relationship that has lasted 2 years.

He didn’t even tell it to her face- opting instead to inform her via Watsapp.

A few words- ungrammatically written, complete with an emoticon, that brought down the curtain on an entire relationship. As for the reason, he sounded as vague about it as Pallavi felt unsure of it.

Maybe he was seeing someone else. Maybe he just got tired of her.

Whatever the reason, it wasn’t worth brooding over- the habit would only hurt her. That was something she knew intellectually, but it didn’t mean she could stop brooding. She just couldn’t help it. Not when there were two years worth of good memories and hopes that she had nurtured.

And it hurt to relive the moments she spent with Michael, every fuck that they shared and every dream that they dreamed together- or at least, she had thought that they dreamed together.

So, she got out of her house on the Tuesday morning.

The only reason she took the day off from work was that she had an off day pending for the month and her company didn’t allow its employees to carry over a paid leave onto the next month.

It just felt like a waste not to take that paid leave.

But when 9 O’clock rolled in and she was already in tears, unable even to get off the bed, weighed down by emotions of a broken love, she began to think if taking the day off was such a good idea, after all.

She reached for the phone on the table by the bed and almost called Shobha-an automatic impulse in times of distress. But she dropped the endeavor thinking how uncool it would be to darken Shoba’s day with her distress when her friend was at home with her parents and siblings.

But the thought of calling Shobha reminded her of the planetarium.

**

Willing herself to get off the bed, she went to the bathroom and freshened up.

She had just one saree in her entire wardrobe and that was what she chose to wore – a brown silk item with green peacock feathers printed all over, and along the border of which ran a dual golden line- a little too flashy for an ordinary day, but she thought a saree would be appropriate.

Michael used to love it when she wore the “modern” jeans and Tees. He ‘tolerated’(his own word) but he absolutely abhorred sarees.

After cladding herself in the silk saree, she put on some makeup- not nearly enough to turn heads but just enough to hide the fact that she found it hard to arrange her facial muscles to approximate happiness anymore. The dark pair of goggles helped too.

It was nearly ten when she stepped out of her fourth floor apartment. Looking up the net earlier, she has found that there was a screening of ‘Exploring the universe’ at 12:30 in the afternoon at the planetorium.

**

An auto-rickshaw was waiting almost directly in front of the door to her flat when she came down from her apartment. It was as though the auto-driver was expecting her.

The bored looking driver, who looked to be in his early thirties though didn’t express much enthusiasm in taking her to Chawdiah Road. In typical Bangalore autowallah’s fashion, he spoke about the place as though it existed on the dark side of the moon.

“Too far..madam..lot of traffic….300 rupees..” he said in broken English, running his hand along the side of his head which sported closely cropped hair.

Thinking how a bargaining-episode with an auto driver was the last thing that she needed on this particular morning, Pallavi began to walk away, in search of another driver who perhaps shared her opinion that her destination was just half an hour away and so was not at all unreasonable to expect an auto-rikshaw to take her to.

To her relief, she found one in under five minutes.

The driver asked for 20 rupees extra from the meter charge- which too Pallaivi found was unreasonable but she agreed, nonetheless, having neither the desire nor the mental strength to bargain.

**

Pallavi reached the planetarium more than an hour before the show was to begin.

She liked it that the facility was situated in a wide area sprawling acres of greenery. It felt good to be in nature. The grass under her was so green that it almost looked artificial.

She could see only a few people around- a young couple who walked hand in hand chatting and smiling and a bunch of kids playing under the supervision of a middle aged woman.

The children, around a dozen of them played as the woman sat in one of the stone benches on the lawn, watching them closely.

Though none of the children were in a uniform, Pallavi got the impression that they were students and the woman their teacher. She heard the woman scold a boy when he playfully hit another boy on the back. “If you do that again, You would not be allowed to play again!”

Definitely a teacher, Pallavi thought.

She was about to walk into the part of the lawn where the kids played- she had always liked children, when she saw a board with the word ‘Ticket’ on it, with an arrow pointing to a small one room building to her left.

Approaching the blue building, she saw that the door was closed though a window was open, behind which was a table, behind which sat a balding man. In his late forties, the man wore a pair of round goggles and a thin smile.

“Older people like you do not come here often,” he spoke in stunted English.

Pallavi wondered if her grief showed on her face so much that it made her look like an “older” person or was that just the way the man spoke with his obviously limited English vocabulary.

“How many tickets?” he said, still smiling. Pallavi raised a finger. Ripping a ticket off from the stack on the table, he handed it to Pallavi.

He smiled at her still, looking her face up and down. She couldn’t help but think if he was as pervert.

After paying for it, she walked towards the children.

On the way, she brought a vanilla cone ice cream from the small ‘juice shop’ in the premises. Much like the ticket counter, that too was a one-room building, and painted blue as well.

As she walked towards the shade of a tree not far from where the matronly woman sat observing the children, she wondered why the buildings in the planetarium complex-including the main building which housed the planetarium were all painted in the same light blue colour- almost the same colour as the bright sky today.

There was no particular reason for her to think about it- except that it helped her keep from brooding about Michael.

Taking a seat on a stone bench in the shade, she watched the children at play, as licked the cream off the cone ice-scream, one thin layer at a time.

Watching the kids, she was unable to decipher the game that they were playing- it looked like a cross between blind man’s bluff and musical chair without the chairs.

Kids certainly kept falling down at frequent intervals as though they expected a chair to break their fall, only to find in the last moment that all the chairs had vanished.

“They are quite something, aren’t they?”

Pallavi was so engrossed in watching the children that it took her a couple of moments to realize that the matronly woman was talking to her.

“They are very cute!” Pallavi said, smiling.

“And a handful,” the woman said immediately, though she too smiled. She spoke perfectly British sounding English- the kind you might hear in a Merchant Ivory production.

It was evident from the way she looked at them that she loved them dearly.

“Are they…your students?”

The woman nodded, not taking her eyes off the kids. “I run a tuition centre. Now that the vacation has begun, they wanted me to take them out somewhere- it’s something of a tradition we follow every summer.”

Turning her face, she offered that same sweet smile to Pallavi. “I am Benita Williams, by the way.”

Quickly wiping the cream off her fingers using a handkerchief, Pallavi took the hand that was being offered. “Pallavi Ramachandran.”

They indulged in small talk for a while. Occasionally, Benita would scold a boy or a girl when she saw them doing something she felt was out of bounds.

But mostly, she let them play to their heart’s content.

Until the  ringing of an electric bell announced the fact that the doors to the main facility were now open and that the show was about to begin.

**

Three white people- two men and a woman,  all well tanned and who looked to be in their thirties were standing near the door  of the main facility, chatting amongst the building as Pallavi walked past.

Seeing the white woman’s impeccable body figure and skin, she couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. Though just 26, Pallavi has already begun to put on unwanted weight. Though she kept reading internet articles with headings like “Beauty is not a shape” she still felt uncomfortable about it.

To keep herself from sinking into such negative thoughts, she walked hastily to the “Know your weight on other planets” counter. The kiosk-with pictures of Saturn and Jupiter pasted on it  was manned by a young man in a black tee and a blue hat who invited Pallavi to take a stand on the weighing machine to his side.

After depositing the requisite 5 rupee coin, Pallavi stood on the somewhat rusty looking iron platform on the machine for some five seconds when out of a mail-box like slot popped a printed document. It showed the different weights if she were to go to various planets and also  the earth’s moon.

She was satisfied to see that in certain cases, it was just a single digit number.

That meant she wasn’t too over-weight, surely?

The electric bell rang once again and she got off the platform, to see Brenda ushering her ten students into the auditorium.

They were closely followed by the three foreigners.

The two lovers whom Pallavi had seen earlier holding hands and walking together were the next to enter- they still held hands, and were looking at each other with blank  eyes but full smiles on their faces- which she found a little nauseating.

The usher-the same guy at the weighing machine counter coupled as one- nodded smilingly at her as she entered.

The circular auditorium was mostly immersed in darkness, but from what she could see Pallavi assumed that it could easily seat some 50 odd people.

She assumed that the lower attendance was because it was a working day.

Or was it because no one was interested in science anymore? Maybe everyone was like her. After all, the only reason she was here was because she had a terrible break-up and needed something to distract herself.

Maybe India’s science education would benefit if more number of people had a break-up?, the thought amused her.

The three white people took their seats in the row behind her. The woman sounded excited as he chatted with the men, though Pallavi couldn’t make out what she said- she, and the men, spoke in an unfamiliar tongue.

The seats were divided by an aisle that ran down the centre, which essentially divided the entire auditorium in two. It was to the left of the aisle from the door that Pallavi and the white people sat. Turning her head, she saw Beneta seating the children in two rows. Only after all the children were seated did Beneta herself took her seat.

The concern on her face was clear even in the quasi-darkness when she counted heads using a finger.

Once she sat, she waved at Pallavi, offering her a sweet smile.

Instantly, Pallavi regretted not sitting closer to the children. She might enjoy the show more if she sat with them.

But then again, the children were making an aweful lot of noise, she noticed. Even Beneta’s loud admonishment couldn’t curb their excitement.

But if Pallavi were a 10 year old like the children, visiting a planetarium for the first time in her life, she too would have found it hard to keep her mouth shut.

The usher, who was standing by the open door presently closed the wooden door that shut with a low thud, cutting off the light that fell in from the lobby.

The dim yellow ground lights were switched off and there was a moment of complete darkness before what seemed to be a million stars appeared on the dome-like screen above, showing a deep space darker than the darkest corner of the most criminal human mind.

Pallavi felt weird watching a yellow dot looming closer from the right of the screen.

The dot which, at first was just a few millimeters in diameter soon grew into a blotch that could easily be discerned by the naked eye. And before she knew it, it was the size of a comet or an airplane nosediving to the earth.

It didn’t take long for the entire screen to be filled with that rusty yellow- like the colour of a fading sun.

The first scream arose from behind her.

**

It took her a moment to realise what was happening.

It was the white woman who was screaming.

Turning her head, Pallavi saw that the drops of yellow which dripped from the screen now touched the white woman’s skin, landing on her neck and floating down to her breast, burning her wherever it touched her- like lava eating through cloth. Her white skin turned a deep brown in a matter of seconds. The bones that came visible once the yellow drops cut through her flesh were whiter than her skin, though they were coated red with blood.

When she saw how the woman sat glued to her seat, unable to move, merely shaking her head and screaming in agony, Pallavi’s attention turned to her own body.

To her horror, she realsied that she too couldn’t move her limbs or her body, her feet practically glued to the floor, the same true with the hands that were on the armrests.

The next screams rose from the children, and then from the two lovers who were sitting at the very back row, isolated from the rest of them.

Swiveling her neck, Pallavi saw both the lovers burning down to char, their hands remaining in a bony clasp until the very end. The skeletal grin that  momentarily appeared on their faces before they were burnt to dust didn’t look too love-tinged.

 

All the ten children were dead and Beneta was crying.

Tearful, she looked more helpless than any child.

Pallavi looked above- the gel like yellow kept dripping but it seemed as though the liquid- or whatever it was, could only burn flesh.

For wherever else it fell- on the cushions of the seat or the space on the floor between them or any of the red fire extinguishers fixed to the walls, it didn’t do any harm, except for maybe soiling the surface with its dirty urine-like yellowness.

Suddenly, an elderly man’s voice rose in the auditorium.

The wailing of the survivors abated, at least for the time being.

Beneta, Pallavi and the two white men listened closely to the words that rose from the unseen person, hoping that they could make sense out of what was happening- if something as mind-baffling as this could be made sense of.

Pallavi couldn’t be sure but the voice sounded like that of the balding man who sold her the ticket. It had the same nasal quality, as though the man were a cross between a mosquito and  human.

“Welcome!” the voice bellowed.

“As you all know, there are some 25 planetariums in India, most of them run directly by the government-either state or central. Some of them are in private educational institutes. But no matter who owns them, they all share the same purpose- to enlighten the citizens with  scientific facts.

“But what the government and other institutions don’t seem to understand is that just as citizens benefit from learning more about the cosmos, the cosmos itself benefit from sacrifices. Yes, sacrifices…For the cosmos is a lonely place- filled with so many majestic bodies but also so much…emptiness.

“And the empty spaces are the hunger of the deity that is the Cosmos, do you understand? You need to fill it with sacrifices..of specimen that belong to the dominant species of all planets- that’s a rule, a tradition that has been followed for eons..” The voice sounded reasonable, like that of teacher teaching children – maybe about evolution.

“Which is why this establishment exists..No,no, don’t get confused! I am not saying that that’s why this planetarium exists. For it is not Bangalore’s Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium that you are in right now…” And after a while, “I am not making much sense, am I?”

The unbroken yellow pool in the screen suddenly rippled. Beside herself, Pallavi shrieked, afraid that droplets would fall on her and burn her. But no matter how hard she tried to move her hands or her body, she couldn’t.

It reminded her of being stuck in bed with grief earlier in the morning. Only this was infinitesimally worse.

But no droplets fell from above to burn her. Instead, the ripple moved and a humongous face emerged.

It was the face of the man at the ticket-counter, only it was yellow, as though he just took a dip in a giant paint can.

Even with the yellowness-like a face etched on the middle of a fried egg, the amused expression on the face was all too evident.

Eyeing each one of the four survivors, he said, “Hi there! Let me introduce myself, though my name is irrelevant. What’s important is that I am one of the servants of the Cosmos. One of the many that has served the universe since time immemorial.

“ The Cosmo,s in its infinite wisdom has granted Her servants certain  powers- powers which help us do things that humans find amazing, or even scary- things like making a proxy for the actual planetarium-an enchantment to fool people, if you would…For we know that only the curious come to these places, and curious minds make for the best sacrifices… That’s why the kids all had to go,” he said, eyeing Beneta who shed silent tears.

“In case you are wondering…no,no, of course you are wondering why you four have been spared! Well, it’s because we have plans to…expand, to use a contemporary business term..We are planning a proxy planetarium in Trivandrum. And you..” he pointed at Beneta, “You are good with maintaining discipline- we saw how well you managed the unruly children- giving them the needed space  but intervening when it’s required. Though there’s certainly space for improvement, we do think that such people management skills would be ideal for the role we envision for you…As for the two white gentlemen, well, we actually don’t need you…”

Two big yellow droplets fell on them- unlike with the others, they were enveloped in the droplets, Pallavi heard them sizzle within the drops, their cries came out muffled through the plasma sheath of yellow even as they burned inside, like getting burned in a vat of oil.

She closed her eyes as though that would help block out the sound as the foreigners’ screams got louder.

“As for you…”

Pallavi opened her eyes, knowing somehow that Yellow-face was addressing her.

Yellow-face was smiling, she saw, looking straight at her. Her earlier impression of the man being a pervert got stronger.

“Such a pretty face would be ideal for the ticket counter. Certainly much better than I. Ha,ha,ha!”

The sound of his laugh got so loud and grated on her nerves that Pallavi screamed, hoping just to drown out the sound.

**

Pallavi longed to step out.

Even through the relatively small opening of the window, she could see how bright and sunny the day outside was- in sharp contrast to the slight dampness which was as much a part of the space inside the ticket counter as the Kerala Government calendar that hung on the wall or the small wooden table behind which she sat.

That dampness revealed one of the many glitches in the enchantment capabilities of the Servants of the Cosmos- like the toilet in the facility that kept breaking down, or the extra-fast manner in which the grass grew, making  the lawn weed infested in no time.

At first, she couldn’t believe that they actually called themselves the Servants of the Cosmos. That sounded like the name of a terrible heavy metal band- the kind of which her ex-boyfriend Michael used to like.

But with the passing of time, she began to think of the name as normal, just as she didn’t feel anything wrong with the idea of selling these tickets to people anymore- tickets which sent them literally to their death.

Compared to her own death, it felt like a reasonable deal to her.

The Cosmos, infinite and ancient, could surely understand that?

“Hey Pallavi, you want to come have lunch now?”

Pallavi was caught up in some thought- at the ticket counter, that’s how she spent most of her time, thinking-that she was slightly startled at the sound of Brenda, who stood out the window, looking in and smiling at her.

Pallavi shook her head. “You know I have half an hour more to go before I could take a break..”

Shaking her head as though saying, ‘Your loss!’ but still with the smile on her face, Brenda walked away towards the small cafeteria on the far end of the compound.

Pallavi was about to turn back into her brooding-she has been trying to recollect more things from her life before joining this facility, it was getting harder to recollect such things by the day, she has noticed- when she saw a young woman, not much older than her, fairer-skinned and holding an open umbrella to block the sun’s rays, walking up to the ticket counter.

“When is the show?” the woman asked in an authoritative tone, the hardened expression on her face suitably bossy.

“Half an hour”

“Okay, give me one ticket!”

Pallavi didn’t know what the problem was with this bossy chick. But whatever it was, it sure as hell was going to be solved soon.

Ripping an entry ticket from the wad in front of her, Pallavi said, “Gladly!”

Deadgaluru

In a decayed land, food could grow in the most unexpected of places- like underneath a garbage pile.

A smile broke on Hamid’s face when he  saw the buds of black potatoes that had pushed their way out of the earth, looking like the heads of weird beings that lived underground which popped their heads to see what’s happening in the world above- has plants and trees begun to grow again in earnest, were there birds in the sky and was the sky itself back to its wonderful blueness which has now become all but a legend?

If these were indeed the points of curiosity with which the potatoes looked at the world, they were bound to be disappointed- for the earth, as far as the eye could see was a scorched landmass- grey and black with nothing but endless rubbles, with the occasional pile of garbage dotting the landscape.

The debris from a time when this part of the world was also part of civilization, when people used to watch television in their living rooms and went for jobs and trips.

As for the sky, it was an uneven grey, as though reflecting the bland monochrome of the earth below, or was it the other way around?- one couldn’t be sure, neither did Hamid care.

All he wanted was to get something in him to satiate the rumbling of his belly.

He strained to reach his little hand at the black potatoes closest to him- extending his hand through the small space in the broken panel of a wooden bed. The bed was too heavy for him to move and the wall against which it was propped didn’t allow him any leeway to squeeze in and make his way to the row of eight or so potatoes.

Beside the bed lied other junk like rusting metal containers, a motorbike that looked not just old but downright sad- what with the rust and the years of dust that has gathered on it, and also a collection of what appeared to be metallic school badges- the kind which were pinned on student’s shirt pockets for their achievements. Topper in a school test, or elected leader in school election etc.

Though most badges were rusted and unidentifiable, Hamid saw one among them gleaming under the sun with its yellow paint resolutely clinging to its partial surface- like a ghost that just wouldn’t leave a place it is emotionally attached to.

Hamid himself lacked any memory of school- for he has never been to one.

The bomb has gone off when he was four years old- an explosion which left almost the entire Bangalore nothing more than a pile of rubble. Though the meaning of the words ‘terrorist’ or ‘neuclear’ or ‘chemical warfare’ were unknown to Hamid at the time, the effects of the attack was felt most acutely by members of his generations- the handful of those who survived, that is.

The bomb’s effects persisted for years.

Indeed, it still does.

All the regions starting from Hosur in the south and stretching all the way to Nelamangala on the north turned non-arable in just a few months’s time – infected by the radiation, the very chemical combination of the soil changed, making it hostile to life- whenever the soil sprouted crop, it came out poisoned- doing more harm than good to the consumer.

Of all the perversions that a mutated ecosystem created, the black potatoes were among the safest- Hamid knew this from experience.

His mother used to pluck these for him when he was younger.

His mother survived the attack but she died just a few months after the bomb-fall: not everyone could survive the vagaries of the radiation easily.

Her death was spontaneous. One night, Hamid woke up to the sound of screaming. A small bonfire was going in the night, created by his mother before they went to sleep, to protect them from mad dogs- hungry stray dogs grouping together and hunting for human flesh wasn’t unheard of.

In the red light shed by the dancing flames of the bonfire, Hamid saw his mother crying, who was sitting up in the night with her hands to her eyes.

Through the gaps between the fingers of her hands, he could see the blood that trickled down her eyes.

She has been complaining about a harsh headache for a few weeks by this point. Instinctively, Hamid understood the gush of blood to be linked to the headache. The crimson fluid kept pouring out, bubbling at the side of her eyes, and wetting her rag-like clothe when it fell on the fabric.

Her screams made dogs- which were never far away- to howl.

Unable to staunch the blood-flow, she began scratching at her own eyeballs, shouting profanities all the time, forgetting her little boy who sat, scared and cold by her side.

Unable to utter a word, hardly breathing, he looked at his mother- what scared him the most- even more than the way she scratched an eyeball out, holding it between her fingers like a small mass of pulp, was the ferocity with which she uttered the profanities.

He has never heard his mother say such bad words before.

Sitting under the dome-like nightsky, the woman looked like a stranger to him. He watched her die, chocking on her own blood.

For a few minutes, he sat beside the dead body, weeping silently.

He didn’t expect to be able tp to go back to sleep again.

But just under an hour after his mother’s death, Hamid felt his eyelids getting heavier, drooping on their own.

He moved a little farther from the corpse and drew around him the rug-like blanket which mother has sewn him using pieces from various clothing items that she came across during their endless wanderings(Such wanderings were inevitable to seek out the food. The wanderings sometimes were also propelled by the idea his mother had that if they kept moving, the radiation wouldn’t affect them as much as it would if they remained at the same place- a theory that was disproved with the violent manner of her death).

When Hamid woke up the next morning, he saw that his mother’s body was not to be seen anywhere, though a trail of blood and also the lone eyeball that she held in her hand before dying could be seen on the ground.

Dogs- or maybe worse animals had dragged her away.

**

“Got it!” Hamid exclaimed as his tiny fingers wrapped around a black potato.

Instead of immediately eating the freshly plucked potato, he reached for one more. The second one was at least half a size larger than the first- this, he immediately put inside his pocket.

He would eat it later-provided that the first one didn’t poison him.

Sure, black potatoes were relatively safe. But ‘relatively’ took on a protracted meaning in the super-special circumstances in which he lived.

He himself has seen a kid die from black potato poisoning- her skin turning purplish as her eyes rolled upwards in the sockets, thick yellow bile flowing from her mouth.

After witnessing the ghastly manner in which his mother has died, this didn’t exactly come as a shock to Hamid.

Nonetheless, he didn’t wish to die a painful death – he might have got a lot apathetic in the last few years, but the element of self-preservation, if anything has only gotten stronger.

“Remember, potatoes used to grow underground. That the black potatoes grow over-ground mean that they are a perversion. One which could hurt you!” He remembered his mother’s words still.

“What does…per..pervrson mean, amma?” was all he has said to her.

But after seeing someone give up the ghost from the potato poisoning, Hamid knew the meaning of the word now.

Taking a deep breath, he rotated the potato in his hand, checking it on all the sides for he didn’t know what- it just felt re-assuring to do that.

Only, the potato looked like any of the ones that he has had in the past-  pitch black in appearance, with miniscule white dots all over the skin.

The skin itself came away easily- all Hamid had to do was just rub his finger against it.

Only, the removed skin didn’t reveal anything other than more blackness- so thick and deep that it looked to Hamid like you could take a plunge and never come back up.

Bringing it up to his mouth, he took a small bite, carefully chewing the soft core of the vegetable as though it were some experimental drug made in a laboratory.

“If there is something really wrong with the potato, it will make your mouth sting a little after a few minutes. Like there was chilli powder sprinkled on it..” That was another lesson that his mother has taught him.

Hamid waited for a couple of minutes before taking his next bite.

The food tasted like shit- but there was nothing unusual about that.

However, he could felt no sting in his mouth and so greedily went on to devour the rest of the potato.

After finishing the first one, he was tempted to eat the second one- the one in his pocket, immediately. But he refrained, thinking how it would be imprudent to eat another so soon- whether overtly poisoned or not, it’s never a good idea to have too many of them in a short time.

He would have liked to pluck a couple of more of them. Only, he has seen that the rest of the black potatoes were too tiny to be plucked yet.

He would let them be for the time being. Hopefully, no one else would see them, hidden behind the broken bed. The only reason why Hamid happened to see them was because, attracted by the gleaming school badges lying beside them, he went to inspect.

He presently picked up the one in which the yellow was still partially visible.

Turning it over, he smiled, thinking that it would be an interesting addition to the various curio that he collected for his cave- a small roofless room near what was once the National Games Village, which was  where he lived now. Already, his collection was rather ‘rich’- including such beauties as an old tiffin box with a Mickey Mouse picture and a partially burnt book with pictures of naked women.

He was pushing the badge into the pocket, wedging it between the space between the potato and the inside lining of the pocket when he heard the growl.

**

“Please be patient, tummy, I couldn’t give you more potatoes now! It might kill me!”

Since the bombing, only very few people remained in these parts- next to nil, in fact.

There were days when Hamid would go from dawn till dusk seeing no other living things other than a stray cat or a few dogs.

Lacking company, it was perhaps natural enough for Hamid to start talking with his own stomach- after all, the periodic hunger-induced rumblings were the only sign of life he experienced on certain days.

The growl rose again- a low rumbling that appeared to be coming from under the earth.

Definitely not from Hamid’s belly.

Realizing this, Hamid slowly turned around. He found the source of the growl standing not more than a few feet away.

With lowered head, it peered at him out of hard red eyes. It’s hind legs were longer than the forelimbs, making it look a little comical in its stance- like a drunk dog.

Only, this was no ordinary dog- Hamid could see- its exposed fangs were unlike anything he has seen on any dog-sharp and jagged on the sides,  they curved inside, like the talons of vultures, they were made to rip flesh apart more than to eat.

The molars were a juicy black, as though smeared with diluted tar.

The brown dog’s head had a patch of white running down its middle. Through its translucence, Hamid could see crisscrossing red veins, throbbing inside the creature’s body. From its mouth oozed a thick liquid which looked like a mix of blood and black ink.

Hamid was almost as scared by the creature’s appearance as he was by the fact that it creeped up on him without his noticing.

With years of wanderings, he has developed a knack for sensing potential nemesis’ presence, or so he had thought.

Though he didn’t think that the dog would be interested in ill-tasting bad potatoes, he nonetheless pulled out the one in his pocket and threw it to the dog. He had to try.

Without even looking at the offering, the dog pounced at Hamid.

It went straight for the boy’s jugular. But Hamid raised a hand in the nick of time. For a split second, the dog dangled from his hand, its powerful jaws clamped around the wrist, before getting pulled to the earth with its own weight.

The dog was almost half as tall as the 11 year old boy, which made it easy for the beast to push the boy off his feet with its head.

Hamid fell with the back of his head hitting forcefully on the edge of the broken bed. He gasped as air rushed out of his lungs. The wound that the beast seared open in his wrists began to hurt.

Another blossom of pain formed- this one on his left foot. Looking down, he saw the dog with its teeth clamped around his ankle, shaking its head vigorously.

Hamid screamed in agony as the dog ripped the calcaneal tendon out of his ankle, chewing on it gleefully, pulling on the wire-like tendon with its powerful teeth to bring more of its length out into the world where it could chew on it with even more relish.

That wasn’t a normal dog’s behavior. It looked like the beast wanted more to hurt him than feed on him.

**

Dominic Stephen limped to the entrance of his hut on his crutches when he heard the dog.

Or maybe it’s more apt to say that he ‘sensed’ the creature than heard it- the dog being his only companion for years now, they have developed a telepathic ability amongst them, or so he liked to believe.

Standing at the doorless door of the ‘hut’- a ramshackle room which was the last standing unit of a house that has been brought down by the bombing- Dominic watched as the dog dragged a little kid’s body to the weed-infested frontyard.

He limped forwards excitedly, hoping that the body would be that of his daughter’s- it’s been four days since the girl escaped. She somehow guessed his intentions. He has been feeding her the best food he could get for so long, readying her, fattening her, waiting for the day he could sink his teeth into her tender flesh.

In the last couple of months, Dominic has wondered plenty of times, especially when his stomach growled with hunger, what could have tipped the girl off about his intentions.

Was there something in the way he looked at her which had a trace of the bad intent? Or maybe it was how she woke up in the middle of the night one night to find him gently rubbing her leg up and down.

Yeah, things like that could freak out a 15 year old.

But it wouldn’t matter, not if his hunt-dog has finally brought him her.

Dragging his foot through the dusty ground, he reached the dog, only to be disappointed as he saw the body of a boy.

But the disappointment was short lived since the mere thought of the taste of well -boiled human flesh made him salivate.

“Good boy!” he said to the dog, and waved a hand at it, indicating that it should drag the boy into the hut.

Gently rubbing his long grey beard which was more than what his 50 years perhaps deserved, Dominic watched in silence as the faithful dog dragged the boy past him.

It was evening and light was fast fading from the earth, but Dominic could still see the slow rise and fall of the boy’s blood encrusted belly.

**

It’s been only two weeks since Dominic has moved into this hut. And there was so much left to do to make the place cozy.

But there was already a bed in place- made by piling mattresses one on top of the other which he had collected from what was once a furnishing store in the neighborhood.

After heaving the boy’s body up and dangling it by a chain which hung from the ceiling, he sat down on the bed.

 

He needed to catch his breath. He was getting weaker practically by the day.

He didn’t have much long to live- Dominic could feel it.

Only, before he died, he hoped to consume his daughter- as the emaciated boy who dangled from the chain was proof, there simply wasn’t enough plump children around anymore.

Slowly, standing up on his one foot, leaving the crutch leaning against the bed, Dominic pulled out from his pocket a foldable knife. He heard the boy whimper.

Was he saying something?

“What?” he said, looking down at the boy’s face that was upside down.

“Wa..ter…” Hamid managed to say.

Dominic laughed. Without wasting another moment, he cut Hamid’s belly open with an unbroken vertical slide of the knife.

The boy- too weak and drained of blood by the dog to scream whimpered but once before dying.

As he proceeded to cut the boy’s body into tiny little pieces, Dominic started talking to the boy, as though he were alive.

The thing was,  though he has done this multiple times before, he still couldn’t stand the sound that the knife made when it cut through flesh and bones- it was the sound of loneliness.

“Don’t whimper…everyone has left you here, and so you have come to an end here…Don’t whimper…they.. the government and everyone else, they are scared of those left in this zone, afraid of what we might carry- strange mutations and damaged genes and unheard of infectious diseases and whatnot…so they wouldn’t let us out of here, would they, and no one comes here either!” Giving the knife a temporary respite, Dominic laughed.

His master’s dry cackle made the dog- which was standing at the door, look up.

“I can’t say that I blame them…I mean, even my bloody dog has become something else now! Jackie has been in the family for almost four years before the bombing…And you wouldn’t believe how meek he used to be-always snuggling up on the sofa, finding space between me and my wife. Oh, yes, I was married once…Don’t look so surprised!”

Dominic chuckled as he cut out a piece of the boy’s kidney which he threw  to the dog. Jackie gobbled up the piece greedily.

“I was married before the bomb killed my lovely Teresa and took my leg,” he added in a low whisper- a more intimate tone. He chuckled again. “No, no, I really don’t blame the government for abandoning us. I mean, like Jackie, I too was meek. And now, look at me, I am a cannibal!” Just uttering the word made  him leak saliva.

He knew that he couldn’t resist eating the child for long. Collected the parts of body that fell to the ground-my leaning agsint the stack of mattersses-he walked towards the make-shift hearth that was placed in a corner of the hut.

The hearth was made of two bricks and an aluminum pot was over the fire, the water inside having begun to boil.

Plup! Plup! Plup!- pieces of Hamid’s flesh fell into the boiling water. The slightly pungent smell of raw flesh that has begun to soften soon filled the space.

Soon as his hands were empty though, Dominic lost his balance- it was hard to keep standing on just one foot for long. Drawing an arc in the air with his body, he fell down.

Seeing his master going down, Jackie yelped. But Dominic only laughed.

“Oh, such crazy fun nights!” he yelled. After a while, he used the knife to pick a half-boiled piece of flesh from the pot.

Nibbling on it, he found it to be tastier than he anticipated.

He turned his head to Hamid’s body- torn open and hung upside down from the chain, blood still inching downwards from the open gash where his stomach used to be.

The blood traced a path down to the floor where it formed a thick crimson pool.

Dominic spoke to the body in a hoarse whisper, “You know, I used to think that  the brain is the most important aspect of a child- I was a school teacher, you see, and teachers have this idea that the brain is the greatest gift a human has, and the powers of brain the greatest gift that one could give other humans.

“But in my new life, I am finding that people- especially children, has better body parts than the brain – like the liver, or the kidney, or the heart….”He laughed loudly, the sound drifting into the night sky, its madness fast becoming part of the darkness that was settling in.

Jackie lied down beside his master, his chin resting on Dominic’s stomach.

After the laughter subsided, rubbing the dog’s head, he said, “Jackie, I hope the next time you would bring me my kid. I don’t want her wasting away out there. I want to taste her before the flesh withers, you hear me?”

Jackie growled in response.

“You and I, Jackie…You and I..we have adventures still!” There was no one around to hear the cannibal’s laughter.

The Summer Of 1961

 

Soon as the song in the overhead speakers changed into ‘The summer of 1961’ Likhin winced.

“What’s wrong?” Lallan, taking a mighty sip of his beer asked his friend.

Shaking his head as if in pain, Likhin said, “Nothing…It’s just that I’m not sure if I would be able to stand this song one more time. Every place I go in Bangalore, they play this song. It’s like people in this city have a severe lack of imagination when it comes to picking songs to play in a pub.”

Shrugging, Lallan said, “But you have to admit that it’s a nice song to get drunk to. It has a..what do you call?..tempo to it..”

“You mean rhythm. Yeah, I too used to think so. But there is such a thing as over-exposure, isn’t there?”

Once again, Lallan shrugged.

He looked at the mini-coffin like Bose speaker that was fixed to a pillar behind where Lihkin sat.

The sound was crisp though not loud, just the right volume so that people in the pub could hear each other as they talked.

And this being a Saturday night, there were a lot of people gathered in the place to get into the spirit of spirits. Indeed, the ‘La Rogue’ café was entirely filled. There were people standing on the corridor outside the pub that was on the first floor of a 4000 square feet building. The building’s ground floor, believe it or not- was taken up by a lending library.

Despite the French-sounding name, the pub itself had nothing French about it.

The foods were Continental and Chinese, and their décor was retro-Indian, featuring ornate designs which evoked the colonial-era buildings that you see in cities like Mumbai and Kolkata.

The closest claim they could have to anything French was the French wines on the menu.

But then again, the crowd that frequented the pub- mostly working youngsters between the ages of 25 and 30 came there for their craft beers and rarely for the wine. It was more a ‘mass’ place than a ‘classy’ joint among the reasonably well-to-do who were their target audience.

Turning his attention back from the speaker to Likhin, Lallan said, “I don’t know why you are getting all grumpy about a song! Especially when we are blissfully inebriated! I do believe that Trisha not turning up has put you in a bad mood!” Lallan pointed a finger at him in an ‘I got you’ gesture and laughed.

Likhin shook his head.

He didn’t like what Lallan said- partly becausehe was right- he did feel a little disappointed about it, though Lavanya did have a good reason for not coming- her roommate at the paying guest facility where she lived came down with fever and she was staying back to look after her.

Shaking his head, not making eye contact with Lallan, taking a few puffs of smoke from his cigarette, Likhin said, “No, nothing like that…it’s just this song…” Which was also true, for he absolutely hated the track.

“Well, today is your lucky day! You sit here and groove, man. Meanwhile, let me just visit the loo and get myself comfortable!” Lallan patted his arm before getting up.

“Oh, no, man! Don’t abandon me to the vagaries of Johnny Laxon!” Likhin said jokingly.

Waving goodbye, Lallan walked away from him, towards the loo that was at the other end of the floor. Observing him walking his wobbly walk, Likhin shook his head smilingly.

**

“It’s natural to miss something so beautiful..

Like those glory days from the year of 1961

The summer of 1961 when the world was greener

And we all had awesome fun plentiful!”

The lyrics of Johnny Laxon’s song grated on his nerves.

It felt to him like someone just puked in to his ear. The harsh guitar riffs that underlined the words were meant to make the song sound hip and full of positive attitude, but the discordant riffs only made the song sound even uglier.

Likhin looked around at the other young faces in the pub- everyone was busy chatting or smoking or drinking and at least in one case, doing all three at the same time. No one seemed to be bothered by the music.

No one appeared to have the impulse to find a rock and bash in the speakers, the way Likhin felt.

“So, what do you say we go back?..

Back to the wonderful time

Back to the summer of 1961!”

Hoping to keep himself distracted from the shitty lyrics, Likhin turned his head and looked outside to the street below.

His table was by the edge of the quasi-open floor which lacked any walls though did have a roof. To call it a terrace bar would be a mistake because the actual terrace of the building was one more flight of stairs up, and as far as Likhin could see, it was not used for anything at all.

His table was by the railing on one side of the floor. It overlooked a small street which was largely empty except for a line of cars parked on one side- most of them belonging to the patrons of La Rogue or the small café on the opposite side.

One of the cars parked there- a silver Opel Astra gleamed in the moonlight.

Likhin tried to find enjoyment in that view, so that he wouldn’t have to listen to the shitty lyrics.

But there’s only so long that one could stare at the gleaming silver of someone else’s car before beginning to feel an inadequacy about one’s own life. Also, he thought that it would be too moody a posture to lean towards the steel railing with his hands folded over it, chin resting on a hand.

He didn’t wish to make anyone feel sad with that melancholy posture.

He checked his phone to see if there was any message from Lavanya. He sighed when he saw that there wasn’t. He pushed the phone back into his jeans’ pocket.

He sighed again when his mind- having nothing else to focus on, focused on the song.

And the song seemed to go on forever.

**

It was almost midnight when they left the pub. Lallan was pretty drunk by this time. An equally drunk Likhin saw to it that he got a cab.

The pub was at Kormangala and Lallan lived all the way across the city in Hebbal.

It was hard to find a cab at this hour, this being a Saturday night. Likhin’s place was just a 5 minutes walk away from the pub. So, he invited Lallan to stay over for the night. “Just call your parents and tell them that you would come home tomorrow!”

The sentence felt too long to Likhin as he found his drink-addled tongue hard in co-operating.

But Lallan only shook his head, giving him the same excuse that he always did: “I can’t. I need my own bed to sleep. You know that.”

Once he put his friend in the cab and the vehicle moved away, Likhin took the lane that ran by the pub and started walking towards his own home.

He would have liked to stay out for a while more, only without anyone to hang out with, he knew it would be boring. He didn’t feel like going back to his one-room apartment yet.

But since there was nothing else to do, he did just that- slowly walking past the café that he saw earlier from the pub, going all the way down almost till the end of the lane before taking a left and entering the penultimate bylane.

He heard the soft notes of a blues song wafting out of an open window.

“It feels good to hear some nice music after the Laxon shit,” he muttered. A mangy brown stray god that was lying in front of the gate of the house opposite, seeing this man murmuring in the dark to himself, barked loudly.

Likhin just walked on, ignoring the mutt, and entered the gate of the third house on the left.

The house itself was a two bedroom affair complete with a garage and even a small frontyard- something of a luxury in Bangalore for the common man, which was rented by the owner. A middle aged man and his wife  and their school-going son lived there. Though they too, like Likhin were from Kerala, they rarely talked with him- perhaps, the man of the house thought Likhin, a bachelor would start an illicit affair with his wife and so kept him at a distance.

Likhin’s small apartment was a latter addition- one which the owner- a bald headed old man who spoke rustic-sounding Kannada added seeing the immense potential of collecting good money from even small spaces.

Likhin walked by the side of the ‘main’ house and reached the front door of his own tiny apartment. All the lights were off in the house where the family lived.

Likhin shook his head.

He couldn’t get people who slept before midnight on a Saturday night. If marriage and  family were reasons for that, then people ought not to get married, he thought.

Good thing I don’t have to hold my band practice here, he thought as he pulled out a key from his pocket. He slid the key into the keyhole and rotated it. The keychain-which was a small guitar with the words, “Live fast, die young” printed on it, jangled.

Entering the apartment, he turned on the light and threw the key on the bed. The tubelight flickered twice before getting stable, shedding light on a white tiled 10 feet by 6 feet room with a single bed and a wardrobe with a wooden sliding door.

On one of the walls was a poster of the old glam rock band, Kiss while the wall opposite had a hand-made collage which Likhin has painstakingly put together using pictures of pop stars he cut out from multiple magazines- including Buddy Holly, Bjorke, Thom Yorke and Pandit Vishaw Mohan Bhatt- whom he considered to be a guitar legend.

On one corner was a black Borngenio guitar stand on which was resting a faded brown Yamaha F310 Dreadnought acoustic guitar.

It was to this instrument that Likhin walked to first.

Taking the instrument off the stand as carefully as if he were taking a baby from its cradle, he walked back towards the bed, and taking a seat, and getting the pick lying on the bed, started strumming.

In his 25 years on earth, Likhin has found very few things as satisfying as coming home drunk and playing the guitar. Sex was quite possibly the only thing that topped it.

Picking on the guitar strings gently and expertly, he crooned an old Rolling Stones song.

Rock n’ roll was a genre that very few of his peers listened to. Of his friends who did listen to music religiously- of whom Lallan was definitely not a part- most of them were into hip hop, considered as the modern rock n’roll.

There were enough takers for EDM too, but for rock- especially classic rock which was what Likhin loved the most, very few were the enthusiasts.

Even in the band that he played in- called ‘After life blues’, just two members- counting himself, listened to old school rock.

But from the moment he heard the opening riffs of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir as a five year old boy in his elder brother’s bedroom in their parents home,Likhin knew that rock was the music of  magic-  crafted from pure spiritual energy that resides in every one of us.

And he’s yet to come across any other music that remotely matches that strength and power.

Which is to say that he got carried away playing the guitar, so much so that he began singing at the top of his lungs, though Likhin was as piss-poor a singer as he was a good guitarist.

The brown dog on the street outside howled at the noise he made.

But Likhin didn’t stop his own howling, not until the strain of singing began to make his throat hurt.

More painful was the pressure which his bladder was beginning to exert, all the piss accumulated from the six mugs of beer that he had at the pub now knocking desperately to be left out, threatening to spill out into the world- or rather the uncarpeted floor of his room.

Putting aside his guitar and pick, he stopped singing.

Moving to the low table beneath the ‘Kiss’ poster he turned on the Bose Sound Link Mini speaker on it.

The Bluetooth speaker was linked to his cell phone.

The dog continued howling outside in the night even as Likhin went through the playlist saved in his phone to find something to play.

“Shut up ,you fucking dog!” he yelled at the creature that howled outside. “My singing is way better than Johnny Laxon’s! What have you got to complain? Good thing that that fuckall singer is dead! The world’s saved of more aweful songs!” he added in a lowered tone, suddenly remembering the family sleeping next door.

He kept shifting his body weight from one foot to the other as his bladder kept exerting pressure- he just wanted to put some music on before he went to the washroom.

Settling on an album by Dio, throwing the phone on the bed, he rushed to the bathroom the door to which was adjacent to the sliding door of the wardrobe.

Leaving the bathroom door open, without even bothering to turn on the light, he unzipped and took out his penis and started pissing into the open toilet bowl, all in a single motion.

The sound of piss hitting the water felt too loud, even obscuring the opening riffs of  ‘Holy diver.’

But Likhin felt relieved as the piss began to leak out of his body like a boulder that was blocking a water-way was suddenly removed.

After pissing, he hit the flush cistern.

Only when the sound of the flushing abated did he notice that the song from the speaker in his room was different – it was Johnny Laxon’s ‘The Summer of 1961’!

Perplexed, feeling even a little disoriented, he exited bathroom to the bedroom where he went straight to the bed to get his phone.

He felt bewildered when he saw that the music player app was now closed and instead, Youtube was on. Laxon’s fuck-all song was streaming on it.

“What the fuck!”

He ran a hand hand across his forehead,. He couldn’t remember when he turned the internet connection on on the cell phone, let alone pulled up Youtube

Thinking it should be some kind of glitch- and odd coincidence but still a coincidence still, he turned Youtube off and once again played the Dio song.

He was about to leave the phone back on the bed when the song changed again. This time, he saw the Youtube app opening on its own, and the search bar filling with the words, ‘the summer of’ as though an invisible hand was typing fast.

That was as far as the words went as the rest of it- the year in the song title, was auto-filled and the song began to play again.

Scared, Likhin practically threw the phone down on the bed where it bounced once before coming to a rest face-down.

Knowing not what to think, he turned around to look at the speaker, as though that object would be able to provide some answer.

Only, as he turned around, he was faced with the man himself- Johnny Laxon, all six feet two of him, clad in a bright orange leather vest and shiny black pants as he used to appear when he played live- a look he mastered and perfected from his glam rock years in the 80s.

His unruly flock of blonde hair blew gently in the wind from the ceiling fan.

His face and his hands and the other exposed parts of his skin were white- not the whiteness of the white American that he was but rather the gleaming of a piece of bone lying in the dirt on a night under a silvery moon.

Only the upper half of his face had skin, at that, the lower half being an expose of decayed flesh and molars and mud encrusted, hole-filled teeth. When he moved closer to Likhin-who had to look up at him, a flap of flesh dangled on his right cheek. It quivered as he brought his face closer to Likhin’s, as though the flap of flesh had a life of its own.

The overall emaciated appearance of the dead rock star notwithstanding, when he reached his hand and closed his fingers around Johnny’s throat, Lihkin found the grip to be strong- extremely so, chocking him with an easy efficiency like Jimi Hendrix playing the electric guitar.

It didn’t take long for Likhin to start gasping for breath.

Even as he struggled like a little girl against a monster, beating on the hand that gripped his neck with both his own, his effort failed to have any effect.

When Laxon- or whatever the thing which stood in front of him was, laughed, it sounded like dry pebbles sliding down the inside of a bamboo flute. And when he spoke, it was like rocks grinding against each other.

“Don’t fucking look so surprised, you cunt!” Laxon’s voiced filled the entire room, overwhelming his own singing voice that rose from the speaker.

“Just because the dead are dead don’t mean that you can just say anything about us- or our works for that matter, and get away with it!. I don’t know what’s it with the world that makes it run after one trend after another. Even when I composed The summer of 1961, I knew that it would stand the test of time- if only people were interested in art than trends.

“Unfortunately, the scene being what it is, people began falling out of love with the song after the 80s which was when it first came out. And it never really picked up again- not in the western world at any rate. But then, Bangalore happened- that was in the early years of the new millennium and I was already dead! But it pleased my heart still to watch from the afterlife my song becoming a pub favorite in the new city of Indian dreams.

“Yes, I know what you’re going to say- that the young people in this city are not rock-savvy, so they would go for anything! That’s what you have been saying to all your friends- and sometimes even to total strangers you come across in bars, about my music! I have had up to HERE with your libels! How do you expect me to rest in peace with all that hate emanating towards me- to my spirit that is a part of all the songs that I wrote- especially ‘The summer of 1961’- my favorite! No, not until I exact revenge upon you will I find peace- and then and only then would this disfigurement that has inflicted my spirit would leave and I be pure!”

Gringing his teeth, tightening his grip on the young man’s throat, Laxon added, “Guess what, you filthy rock Nazi!, since you dislike my song so much, I am gonna punish you by taking you there- back to 1961, where you will spend the rest of your life!”

What with his oxygen supply being cut off for some time now, Likhin was THIS close to passing out. And for that reason, he thought that going anywhere- or to any year- was a good idea, provided he could  breathe again.

So he didn’t freak out when he saw everything around him- the bed and the posters on the walsl and the speaker and the table on which it stood and his guitar and eventually all the walls and the room itself, swirling away like pieces carried off by a hurricane, into a darkness which swallowed the objects like an inkwell would a dead cat- never to regurgitate.

All was silence, and it was cold. And all was dark.

**

The closest analogy he had was to  outer space- only in outer space, there would be planets and stars and asteroids and shit.

But the cold darkness in which he stood suspended in thin air- assuming there was air- was complete. Not even a tiny dot of light broke the perfect darkness.

The only thing that he could see was his own body, which he touched to ascertain the reality of this scenario-whatever the word ‘reality’ meant in this extra-ordinary context.

But when he touched his hand, it felt real enough. With a finger, he pressed down on his pot belly which sunk like a pillow under the pressure. That too felt real.

But he couldn’t comprehend whether he was looking DOWN at himself or UP. Lacking any point of reference there was no more concept of direction.

The only good thing was that Lorax’s hand no more choked him. In fact, the dead rocker was nowhere to be seen, though his throat still felt sore and it hurt to breathe.

As though reading his mind, Laxon’s pebble like voice filled the darkness around him- it sounded at the same time both distant and close- close like he stood right next to him, whispering in his ear.

“You wouldn’t be breathing for long! For this is it- 1961. Decades before you were conceived, let alone born! That means, in the year of our Lord 1961, you were nothing- part of oblivion, part of nothingness, part of the deep yawning darkness, and this is where you will live for eternity, my brother, as a shadow, as part of the dark itself!”

Even as Lorax finished speaking, Likhin felt a searing pain startingg at his feet, right where his skin meet the fingernails. The burning pain felt like his flesh was being ripped off from there.

Looking down, he saw that that was indeed what was happening.

Laxon began to laugh loudly, filling what was now Likhin’s entire universe with the hard sound of a merry-less laugh.

With hapless horror, Likhin realized what was happening to him- he was decaying in fast motion.

He remembered a music video he has seen that showed the growth of a group of flowers in fast motion. This was practically the reverse of it- Likhin’s entire body, stripped layer by layer, eroded by age that passed him by in fast motion, breaking though his flesh like butter cutting through knife, ripping apart his tendons that began to float around him like pieces of ham, bright red drops of blood merging into the inky darkness while the decay progressed upwards along his body, breaking his balls in two and doing  the same with his penis, its upper tip breaking away from the rest of it in slow motion, like a sad farewell.

His chest caved in and the broken edge of a rib pierced his heart, making even more warm blood gush out.

The worst part of it all was that he was still conscious- fated to feel the pain of his own decay, until all vestiges of his material self was stripped away and he finally turned into mere shadow- a dark smudge on the face of oblivion, part of the infinitesimal dark fragments which made up the yawning darkness of 1961.

Likhin found his eternal abode and also numbing relief from the pain.

Only loneliness existed now.

The Saturday Kill

Of all the boys, Terrence alone spoke to the cricket ball.

It was more of a murmur or awhisper than an actual talk, but every time he did so, it went on for many seconds- sometimes as much as 15 seconds. Though this may sound like a short span of time it could nonetheless try the other players’ patience, especially if the sky was cloudy and it looked like rain would start drenching the play ground any minute now, making the boys want to to wrap up the game asap.

As they did now.

Terrence, as was not unusual with him, brought the red tennis ball up to his lips and whispered to it before starting the bowler’s run up to the edge of the crease.

There were just four balls left in the match and the opposing team, down to their last wicket needed four more runs to win.

Terrence was a decent batsman but it was as a bowler that he excelled. Many were the Saturday evenings when the team he played in went home victorious solely because of the higher number of wickets he took in a relatively less number of balls. Hell, sometimes they even had time to hit a nearby café on their way home because of how early he helped them end a game.

But it was only Charan who noticed that every time Terrence took a particularly great wicket haul, there was a little bit of talking to the ball involved, as though he somehow cajoled the ball to do his bidding and destroy the batsman.

Charan Prakash was eyeing Terrence talking to the ball.

Standing not far from where Terrence started his run-up, near to the boundary, he could see Terrence’’s lips moving fast, his mouth just a couple of centimeters away from the ball which had bad patches on it because of over-use.

Indeed, at some moments, it looked like he was kissing the ball. His eyes fluttered frequently, as though keeping in rhythm to the movement of his lips, but whenever they rested, it was in a half-open manner, as though the tennis ball and himself had entered a realm which excluded the external world- where it was in his best interest to look inwards than out.

As it did everytime he did this, this creeped Charan out this time too.

As though sensing Charan’s intense gaze on his face, Terrence opened his eyes and started moving.

What began as a slow trot steadily escalated into a rush of legs, one moving past the other with the mechanical precision of the spokes of an engine and the speed of a fast-moving train.

Not just to Charan, but to many of the other players in the game, this came as both a source of amazement and inspiration- they have been playing for nearly two hours straight, and Terrence was bowling his third over, not to mention the fact that he has batted for quite some time earlier during his side’s innings.

But still, he didn’t look like he was tired- not while delivering this ball.

But it was only Charan who felt that the renewed rush of energy had something to do with what he has come to see as ‘Terrence’s murmur-session’ with the ball.

Even as he moved forward a little ,anticipating the ball being hit his way by the batsman, he didn’t fail to notice the decisive-sounding thud with which Terrence landed on his foot- the final step before releasing the ball from his grip.

The ball floated out of his hand and screamed through the air like a fist sized bullet.

The batsman was a tall, lanky boy with closely cropped hair at the centre of his head- the sides being shaved off completely.

He actually squinted once Terrence released the ball, as though straining to see the ball.

Only a part of the reason for the squint could be explained by the fast fading light.

The fact was that the ball moved so fast that he found it hard to focus his eyes.

The ball bounced not far from the batsman, kicking up a reasonable amount of dust from the ground. The red dust has only begun to rise when the ball seared upwards and connected with the lanky boy’s left cheek.

Before hitting the cheek, the ball grazed off the top of his left hand, which he had brought up as a protective gesture rather than a batting technique. But the hand couldn’t quite block the ball from hitting his face.

The snap of the bones could be heard all across the field- so much so that all the players of the two teams in the other match that was going on at the time- it wasn’t uncommon to have multiple matches happening in the small field simultaneously- stopped what they were doing and looked in the direction of the batsman.

They all saw the ball, which appeared to have been ripped to shreds, rising upwards above his head  after hitting his cheek, and falling down in confetti-like pieces.

The blood which sprayed from the lanky boy’s cheek enveloped the different pieces of the broken ball on their way down to the earth.

Even from where Charan stood, he could see the dark crimson spray, a colourful contrast to the graying evening.

**

The lanky boy was soon taken to the hospital- there were a couple of adults who were seated in one of the concrete steps that bordered the field,  watching the boys play. They helped get the hurt boy to a doctor in their car.

Charan and Mohan- one of the other kids in their team, accompanied the adults to the hospital. Some of the other boys too expressed their interest in coming, only they couldn’t because there wasn’t enough space in the small car.

As that captain of their team, it was unanimously decided that Mohan should go in the car. And Charan, being Mohan’s best friend, was dragged along on the trip.

At the hospital, it was found that Terrence had multiple broken bones on his face and his facial muscles has been damaged to a good extent- the exact technical term that the stoopy eyed doctor gave for it sounded like gibberish to Charan.

**

The lanky boy ended up having a surgery.

Apparently, the doctors stitched pieces of his bones together on the operating table- at least, that’s what Charan heard.

It was the first time that the lanky boy has played with them-he just came up to them and asked if he could join them- he was new in the neighborhood.

Mohan’s father took his son and Charan to the hospital the next day to see the lanky boy who was recovering.

Almost the entire left side of his face was bandaged and a dark purple shade had spread to the rest of his face. Though Mohan’s father later explained that that was normal what with the inevitable blood clot, Charan found it creepy. It looked like he was poisoned- at least, that’s how poisoned people looked like in the true-crime investigation series that he watched on TV  with his little sister every Sunday evening.

The lanky boy looked like he was in a lot of pain.

The doctors had administered drugs to help him with that but when his mother- a grey haired woman with round spectacles who sat by his bed, invited his attention to the visitors, and as he tried to turn his head to look at Mohan and Charan, he whimpered, the effort proving to be too painful.

He drooled bubble-rich saliva from the side of his mouth.

The fingers of his hand trembled with pain as his chest heaved up and down with the effort of breathing through the pain of which he was reminded every moment in the day.

The doctors said that he would recover in a few weeks. But even so, Charan didn’t think he would ever come to play with them again.

**

The ‘Café All Star’ was situated right across the street from the public playground. Painted all white, sporting a silver board that spelled out the establishment’s name in bold red, the shop was hard to miss.

Four Saturdays have passed since the one when the lanky boy went down with the strength of Terrence’s ball- four Saturdays in which no game happened in the playground that involved any of the players who witnessed the lanky boy taking a hit.

Three bicycles- one green and two yellow- were parked right in front of the small café. The owners of the bicycles were the only customers at the moment, all grouped around the same white table, talking in hushed whispers.

The store’s proprietor- a balding middle-aged man with a toothy grin brought one of the boys his order of the mashed chicken sandwich. Johnny accepted the dish, saying thanks and smiling.

“You know, my son is the same age as you, but he rarely eats anything at all! I wish he were more like you!”

Johnny wasn’t sure if the proprietor’s words were meant as an insult or a compliment.

He may be just fifteen years old, but he has already amassed enough body weight to last him a lifetime, or so he felt. Indeed, a joke among the kids who came to play in the field was that the only reason Johnny came down to play was because his parents forced him to- so that he would lose some weight.

Johnny, whenever he heard this joke being made in earshot vehemently denied it, saying how much he liked playing cricket.

But he knew that he was a lousy fielder because of all the running involved, though he would never accept the fact in front of the others.

Two young lovers enetred the café. Leaving the three boys, the proprietor-who was also the sole waiter(and cleaner) of the Café All Stars went to attend to them.

Johnny looked at the sandwich in front of him morosely, still unsure if the proprietor just made fun of him or not.

Reading his mind, Charan said to distract him from his thoughts, “So, let’s talk about why I asked you guys to come here early!”

Usually, the players met at the café after a match. But yesterday, Charan called both Mohan and Johnny-his closest friends and told them that they should meet at the café half an hour before the others reached the playground.

“I wanted to talk about Terrence,” he has told them.

Pulling the glass of cold coffee closer towards him, pushing his specs up the bridge of his nose, Mohan assumed a serious expression- one which Charan has seen on his face many times in tuition class, just as the teacher’s about to begin a lecture.

Though Charan didn’t mean to set out on a lecture, what he wanted to talk about was serious enough, definitely more so than the new porn site that Johnny discovered which they were discussing about so far. So he thought that Mohan’s grave expression was appropriate.

Taking  a deep breath, Charan told them about the “Whisper-sessions” that he has seen Terrence hold with the ball plenty of times.

“And many times he did that, something dramatic happens. Like the ball hitting someone’s leg hard, making the batsman unable to resume playing for the rest of the day. But last Saturday was the harshest…”

Johnny broke the uneasy silence that fell amongst the three after Charan stopped talking, by laughing. Even Mohan couldn’t help but smile at what his best buddy just said.

“What are you talking about?” Johnny said, pointing at Charan. “You are saying that  Terrence somehow talk to the ball to hurt people?” He laughed and banged his hand on the table, making the two young lovers who sat two tables away from them turn their heads and look at him. Not amicably, it must be added.

“Come on guys, it was just a tennis ball! Do you think that a mere tennis ball could break bones like that?”

Charan’s question made Johnny’s laughter to abruptly stop. It also wiped the smile off Mohan’s face.

The same question was asked by the doctor at the hospital where they took the lanky kid after the accident. No one has blamed Terrence for what happened to the lanky kid- not even his parents.

It wasn’t the first instance of a playground accident in history, neither would it be the last.

But throughout the preceding weeks, the doctor’s question kept bothering Charan.

“Come on, Charan. We have all seen Terrence whispering to the ball,” said Mohan in a reasonable tone.  “It’s just something that he does-that’s all, like Kishore looking to the sky and muttering a prayer before entering the field or how Johnny here rubs his crotch every time he hits a boundary- he believes that would help him score another boundary!”

“I don’t do anything of the sort!” Johnny said.

Mohan continued speaking to Charan as though Johnny hasn’t said anything. “It’s just..superstition. All players have one.”

“Like Sachin Tendulkar tying on his left leg-pad before the right before he steps out of the dressing room to bat!” Johnny said excitedly.

Charan nodded, though he said, “But what if it isn’t? What if there’s more to it?”

Johnny and Mohan exchanged a glance as if asking each other if their mutual friend was losing it.

“How long have we known Terrence? Merely two months or so, right? And in that time, there has been at least 5 injuries, one of them pretty serious and another really serious. We have been playing in the ground regularly for more than an year now. How many serious injuries could you recall from the period before Terrence joined us?”

To that question, neither Johnny nor Mohan had anything to say.

Taking a sip of coffee with a slurping noise, Mohan said, “So, what are you saying? That Terrence is some kind of black magician who could harm people by whispering into tennis balls?”

The laugh that followed was filled with nervousness.

Spreading his arms, Charan said, “I don’t know. I just don’t know..”

**

The lane that divided the café from the green iron meshed fence that lined one side of the playground wasn’t wide- not more than seven or eight feet. Aside from the café, there was no other building in the street. Tall and flower-bearing trees lined the lane on either sides- it was one of the few lanes left in Kormangala about which you could say that.

Like most of Bangalore, this once-beautiful part of the city too was fast degenerating with ill-advised ‘development’ and over-population. As a very visible sign of the degeneration- aside from the broken  roads and pavements that wafted putrid stench, it wasn’t uncommon to come across human excreta on the side of the streets.

Expertly evading just such excreta, Terence reached entered the lane. One minute later, leaving his bicycle- a Thunderbird-chained to the iron mesh fence, heentered the playground through a small gate that could let in just one person at a time.

The public ground- about two acres in size and circular in shape was situated around the corner of the road that boasted the presence of such pre-eminent establishments like the Appollo Cradle Hospital and Anand Sweets.

A cool breeze was blowing on this Saturday evening though. The sky was relatively cloudy though not too much.

In other words, it was a good evening for cricket.

But when Terrence walked in, he saw that both sides were going to  have only some six players today.

“Do you think the lads are nervous because of the accident that happened? Do you think that’s why very few have turned up today?” he said, walking up towards Charan, who was standing under a tree, doing some warm up stretches on his own, his legs stretched between a rock and the trunk of the tree.

From afar, Johnny just stood watching him enviously for the dexterity on display.

“I don’t know, maybe..” Charan said in reply, without breaking his exercise.

Usually, the teams would have at least 8 players each. Sometimes, maybe even ten players.

“I saw you coming out of the café earlier with Johnny and Mohan.”

Though Terrence spoke in a casual tone, his words made him shiver.

“A secret club of sorts?” said Terrence, laughing slyly. Before Charan could say anything, he added, “You know, I have always thought that rather than Mohan, you would be a better fit as our captain. A captain must be really observant-of his players and the players of the opposing team- to learn their strengths and weaknesses. I have noticed how observant you are, especially of me. Why, I am sure that you know things about me that the others haven’t noticed yet!”

He laughed. Charan gulped, his adam’s apple bobbing up and down.

He was formulating something to say when from a distance, they heard Mohan’s voice floating down, “Guys, I don’t think anyone else is going to come now. Let’s begin!”

Mohan won the toss but he elected to ball first. He sent Terrence-their best to deliver the first over.

**

Walking to the bowler’s end with the new tennis ball in hand, Terrence smiled.

He could sense the bafflement that came from Charan who stood not far behind him, in position to prevent boundaries. The bafflement emanated off him like heat waves.

He knew that even if he explained that the power to wil inanimate objects to do his bidding came ffrom a book, he would never believe it.

A book, which a madman passed to him inside a public lavatory of all places, a book which the crazy old man with the round eyes and the harsh voice promised was filled with chants that could hurt, or even kill.

“Chants that would give you power over others!” the man had said. “Only, make sure that you don’t go crazy with it like me! Ha!Ha?!Ha!”, the mad man has said before disappearing into the darkness of the night.

More than anything else, it was those words that spoke of the idea of having power which made him keep the book and not throw it away. It also made him lie awake thinking in the night and eventually, made him pull the book from within the bottom of a drawer where he has hid it, and try one of the many chants- printed in arcane sounding Kannada which he could read, but with much difficulty.

Chants that gave him power over others- and for the first time in his life, Terrence- the son of a lowly tailor had a chance to show his superiority and maybe impress others, so that he could also be part of a gang- like an ‘advanced’ gang, made of kids who could afford mashed chicken sandwiches and cold coffees for snacks every evening- individual snacks that cost as much as what two meals for four did at home.

For some reason, he routinely got excluded from such company.

The lanky boy whom he hurt the other Saturday would have liked to exclude him, he could tell. He had introduced himself as the son of a senior government official, and immediately began showing off airs.

Terrence didn’t like him.

As he was beginning to dislike Charan- someone who obviously thought that his parents’ superior station in society also lent him superior intelligence, intelligence that made him see what Terrence was.

Raising the ball towards his face, he smelled it- there was something about the smell of a new ball that gladdened one’s heart- like how the mere sight of someone you were infatuated with brightened your day.

But more than that, Terrence felt happy thinking about what his words- recalled from the book and carefully whispered to the ball do to Charan .

Even as he was running up to deliver the ball, he could see the near future like in a movie.

The short length ball that he wished to deliver would be hooked up by the batsman- sending the ball upwards in Charan’s direction.

Charan would move back to position himself better to catch the ball. But the ball would move faster than he anticipated, hitting smack on his forehead.

That wouldn’t do him much harm-just make him a little sore on his forehead.

But that the unexpected force of the ball would make him lose his balance, he would fall back, arcing through the air like a stick and hit his head on a rock- the same one which was used in place of stumps by the players from the other match.

Today, s there was no other match, the rock lied unused- to be used as seem appropriate by Terrence.

Terrence saw clearly the look of surprise and pain that would appear on Charan’s face as blood would begin to gush out of the newly-found wound on the back of his neck.

Clouds would gather in the sky as if from nowhere, but the drops of rain would look to Charan like tiny yet sharp blood-spears, each piercing into his body, inflicting unspeakable pain that was to be his domain in his dying moments.

Everything in his universe would turn crimson and it would be an accident. Just an accident.