Mercury Lane-8

Even as the villain was laughing, the wall of light once again rose, this time not in front of them, but directly beneath them. Shobhana now realised that the reflection they saw earlier was cast on the top of the wall.

And the wall’s top appeared to become clearer, coming in sharper relief, as it rose upwards with a loud moaning sound- the sound of a hungry beast ready to prey.

The hues that made up the wall now coagulated to form crystals-thousands of sharp edges were now pointed at them, as if the wall just got weaponised.

The moaning sound rose in pitch, so much that so it sounded like a wail- “I….AAAAAM…..HUUUUNGRYYYYYY…” The loud echo seemed to reverberate endlessly inside the cavernous eternality.

“So, the story you told us, about Elsa, and you being a professor, all were lies!?” Shobhana shouted above the loud noise.

Terrence didn’t hesitate to nod. He grinned. “Pardon the worms.” He pointed to his teeth. “Sometimes I too feed on the sacrifices and the worms are a natural by-product of that! Ha ha ha!”

Shobhana felt a crystalline edge cracking the skin beneath her feet. It broke her flesh. “Aargh!” she shouted as she instinctively pulled her leg up.

She looked down to see that the wall has risen every close to them. Mere inches divided  it from their feet now. Perhaps,  if they kept wading upwards, they may try and keep one step above it.

But she knew that with Rachana’s body mass they wouldn’t be able to keep it up for long. Besides, running away from an angry wall for eternality didn’t seem like a feasible idea.

She had to do something. But what? She looked to Terrance, pleading with her eyes for help. But the mad man- if man was what he was- simply went on laughing. He was not even looking at them anymore.

His eyes were pressed closed and red tears broke from those eyes. Tears of mad joy!

Shobhana heard Rachana gasp beside her. A look of terror had come over her face as she saw a part of the wall parting into two jaws with pointed crystal teeth, its yawning mouth an endless pit, poised to devour them whole.

Rachana’s grip tightened on her arm.

Grief! Shobhana thought suddenly, that’s what’s keeping me here. If I could overpower that emotion with something else, we could get out of here!

The only emotion she felt would be powerful enough for that was what she felt for her friend. Yes, if she was to preserve their friendship, they must survive. It was as simple as that.

A wave of calmness came over her, washing her from head to toe, making her forget the throbbing pain in her foot where the blood dripped from the wound. She imagined the calmness to be a lush white light- the kind of pure light one only sees in dreams.

She imagined the light spreading across her body and from her self getting transferred to Rachana’s body.

She imagined the two of them drifting away from this place, down and down and down, beyond the wall of glass that couldn’t hurt them anymore. Moving faster, faster, faster like a jet plane across the sky.

She imagined Terrence’s laughter fading away like vocals at the end of a song.

But then, she heard something else as well- the sound of laughter, a sound of relief. It came from Rachana.

She opened her eyes(she wasn’t even aware that she had them closed) and saw that they were back in her terrace.

**

With this knowledge also came the realisation that her foot hurt. She winced with pain.

Abruptly stopping her triumphant laugh, Rachana said, “Oooh, you are hurting! I will go down and bring some ointment and plaster for you. Then we can go to the hospital.”

“I don’t think that would be necessary,” said Shobhana. “I don’t think the wound is that deep!”

Rachana nodded, though she still looked unsure. “Well, let me at least get the ointment and band-aid. I wasn’t much help for you out in the dimension. At least, let me be a help down here!”

“Oh, don’t say that,” Shobhana said abruptly. “You have no idea how much help you were out there!”

Rachana frowned at her. But she didn’t get any explanation.

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Mercury Lane 7

The terrace was just a small space, made even smaller by the two solar panels and a huge black water tank that were fixed to the roof. Shobhana sometimes came up to the terrace on sleepless nights when she felt particularly lonely and when thought about home. She would come up here and watch the stars in the sky.

Star gazing was something that she used to do back home as well- where her brother accompanied her sometimes, both of them lying in separate mats, soaking up the cold of the night, her brother cracking vile jokes at some of the star clusters. “Look at that cluster over there! Doesn’t it look like the crack of an ass!”

Tonight, there weren’t all that many stars in the sky. But Shobhana didn’t mind. After all, star gazing was not on the agenda tonight.

“Are you okay?”she asked Rachana.

Rachana stood beside her, panting hard, feeling winded after climbing the further two flights of stairs from Shobhana’s floor to the terrace.Short of breath that she was, she just nodded at her friend.

“It’s good that there is no one in the next terrace,” Shobhana pointed to the considerably larger terrace of the next building. The building next door was only as tall as this one and both the terraces were in the level. In fact, you could literally hop from one to the other with the least effort due to their proximity. “Sometimes, when I come up here, there would be a bunch of guys drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. I think bachelors are the lodgers on the top floor there. They would have freaked out if they were to see us chanting some voodoo shit in the night, don’t you think?” She laughed- a nervous cackle that rose into the night air like a wisp of smoke- slowly, hesitantly.

Rachana smiled though she didn’t laugh- she was still chasing breath to do that.

“Listen, you don’t have to do this,” Shobhana said in a more somber tone. “In fact, I urge you not to do this. Whatever this is, it’s something that I should face on my own. As Terrence said, this could be dangerous in which case I wouldn’t want you to-“

Rachana raised a hand, cutting off her monologue. She continued panting for a few more moments before gathering enough breath to talk. “If thought that I will let you go on your own because of some generic  TV show monologue, you have another thought coming!”

Shobhana couldn’t help but laugh. Nervous energy got translated into sonic vibrations. Tears began to flow from her eyes. Only, she wasn’t sure if they were tears of joy or sadness or fear.

“Now, let’s get this done!” said Rachana. Pulling her smartphone from her jeans pocket, she turned on the torch, shedding light on the paper that Shobhana held in her hand.

“You ready?”

Shobhana nodded, wiping her eyes with her free hand. Rachana nooded appreciatively at the gesture. “Appearances. Always be mindful of your appearance when you are going somewhere.”

In another minute, they began the chant  together.

**

It appeared like a wall. A wall of light made of multiple hues- predominantly red, blue and yellow but other shades too; darker ones like brown and black and also the lighter shades like pink and magenta.

But no sooner than Shobhana and Rachana arrived in the dimension than the wall wrapped around them. The two women stood- if being suspended in empty space could be called so- holding each other’s hands, and they gasped when the wall of light turned into a cylinder that covered them all around.

Shobhana felt sure that notwithstanding the non-threatening, even beautiful appearance of the wall of light, if it touched her body, she would have freaked out.

Whatever this was, it was also part of what was inside her body- the purple hands. And she wasn’t yet willing to believe that anything from the world of those hands could be gentle or benevolent.

Thankfully, the wall didn’t touch either of them, not even when it reshaped into a cylinder. There was about two inches of space between its surface and the women’s bodies. Occasionally, slow waves of dark green light passed across the cylinder’s surface, like gentle waves licking on the beach. Other than that, there was no movement, or indication of any danger, as Terrence had theorized.

Rachana tentatively shifted her body to her left, just to see if movement was possible. She couldn’t smile at the sensation of wading through water- though there was no water around. Indeed, she felt weightless. “This must be how astronauts feel like when they walk on the moon!” she said, giggling softly.

“But there certainly is air here,” said Shobhana, critically evaluating their new surroundings. “Because we are breathing. But beyond his tube of light, I couldn’t see anything. It looks like just black emptiness. Like outer space. Do you reckon we should  break through this cylinder and go beyond? Maybe it’s like a screening door for new entrants- you know the kind which screens you for weapons and stuff in air ports!” They both laughed.

They were both nervous, though a wave of excitement also coursed through their selves. It wasn’t every day that you got proof that other dimensions than our own existed- let alone visit one.

“Maybe the cylinder is a trap,” said Rachana. “Maybe it’s the danger that Terence talked about. Maybe if we try to go through it, it would hurt us!”

“Well, there is no point coming here, only to be stuck inside a cylinder, is there?” said Shobhana after a moment. “Besides, the only way we could return is if I purge my feeling for Madhav here. That’s what Terrence said. And I guess the only way we could find the ocean where we could do that…is by breaking through this wall of light.”

Before Rachana could say anything, she reached out a hand and touched the cylinder. The light-or what appeared like light felt like cobwebs. It pressed down like jelly on her finger. “What are you doing!” Rachana chided. But Shobhana didn’t seem to be hurt from her action.

“It looks okay,” she said. “Shall we go?”

Rachana hesitated, but only for a second. She nodded.

They both took a deep breath as though they were about to plunge into a pool of water the depth of which they weren’t sure.

But just as the two women were about to move closer to the inner surface of the cylinder, Rachana’s grip tightened on Shobhana’s arm.

Shobhana looked at her friend. Following her gaze, she saw what made her hesitate.

A hazy black shape loomed up from the other side of the cylindrical wall. The amorphous shape kept shifting, taking on variously the appearance of a crow, Madhav and at one point, even a cone of ice cream.

“Madhav used to buy me a lot of ice-cream because he knew how much I liked it.” Shobhana muttered. Her heart began to beat faster in her chest.

“And the crow?”  From Rachana’s voice, she realized that her friend too felt the same as her on seeing the shape drifting closer towards them. They both felt a sense of awe.

A sad smile appeared on Shobhana’s face as she said, “You know the old movie ‘The crow’?”

Rachana shook her head no.

“Well, it’s this trashy thing- a superhero flick- which we both loved. In fact, we both counted it as our favourite film!” She shook her head at the memory.

“Okay, so this dimension must have gone through your Netflix history” said Rachana.

They both laughed. Their grip on each other’s hands tightened. Shobhana felt thankful that Rachana was here with

Otherwise, I might have gone bonkers, she thought.

**

The amorphous shape shifted closer and closer towards the cylinder which covered them.

And as it came ever closer, once the only thing that divided them was the flimsy filament of light that formed the body of the cylinder, they saw that the shape that loomed from the other side has now obtained a permanent figure.

And it was that of a human- from top to bottom, it was the black, as though dipped in tar. But the red eyes and the white teeth as it parted its lips were clearly visible, and so were the hands which it waved at them- more specifically at Shobhana.

She shuddered to see that the hands were purple in colour.

She expected the man-shaped thing to be Madhav- or his representation in this dimension.

But she was surprised to see that it wasn’t.

Both the women gasped when they saw Terrence’s face, grinning at them from beyond the wall of light. He winked at Shobhana.

**

It was just like a soap bubble bursting. Spontaneous and momentary. One moment, the division was there, and the next it wasn’t.

All that existed between them and Terrence now was thin air.

A few feet below them, the two women’s reflections were cast tohugh no surface per se was discernible. Neither was there any reflection for Terrence.

As for the women’s reflections, they looked skewed, like the images on a trick mirror at a fair ground. Some might consider the reflections funny, others may think of them grotesque. 

Just like my life at this point, Shobhana couldn’t help but think.

It’s funny because I thought we were going to be together forever. It’s grotesque because he left me, because love couldn’t be trusted.

Her thoughts about her past love were broken unceremoniously by the voice of Terrence. “Surprised to see me here, are you? Well, I would have liked to say that this is just the dimension messing with your head- by sending someone- or something in the shape of someone whom you had trusted back in your home dimension, to hurt you. But if I do that, I would only be lying.” The grin on his face widened, and Shobhana saw feces-colored worms wriggling in the spaces between his teeth. For a second she wondered how his teeth could remain so white, and looked so healthy with them worms around.

“But I don’t lie,” said Terrence. “At least, not here. Lying is for earth. Here, in this dimension, there are no lies. Only truth resides here, though some might find the truth too malignant for comfort.” He nodded enthusiastically at the two women, as though pleased with himself.

“Why do you want to hurt us? We trusted you!” The note of accusation in Rachana’s voice was perfectly backed by the venomous look in her eyes.

“You, my dear, I didn’t want here,” Terrence said chidingly. “Remember, I tried to discourage you from joining her,” he pointed at Shobhana, “ But you wouldn’t hear of it. I guess this is the price that you pay for friendship!”

There was a cockiness to Terrence’s voice which was lacking back on earth. Neither did he appear to be as old as he was when they met him in his small terrestrial room. In fact, what with the blackness that covered him not so much like a layer of thick skin, but a hardened froth, it was impossible to tell his age.

Shobhana felt that, like this surreal vacuum in which they found themselves- Terrence too was immortal, timeless.

And when he laughed, his voice thundered across eternity.

“But why” she said, her voice barely over a whisper. “Why do you want to  hurt me?”

“Because I am the guardian of this dimension!” Terrence spread his arms as though trying to hug the entire dimension. “This dimension, my dear thrives on grief. It needs to be fed, with bodies racked with pain. Though I claim that I am the guardian, I am something of a slave to this dimension, but I do say that I enjoy carrying out the duties that role entails! Ha ha ha!” Terrence’s laugh reminded Shobhana of someone else’s. And she didn’t have to think long for who it was.

It was a fictional villain- the Joker, in the old DC cartoons she and Madhav used to watch together, cuddling up in her sofa on cold nights with a hot cup of coffee and a bowl of popcorn.

Mercury Lane-6

“I am sorry,” Terrence said, “It’s been a long time since I have entertained guests, so I am a little rough around the edges, courtesy -wise. I didn’t offer you anything to drink. Well, there is only water to drink.” He pointed at the half a bottle of Bisleri that stood on the window sill, alongside the row of empty curd boxes. “And I don’t have any glasses either. But I can order something for you, it wouldn’t take more than five minutes!”

Bothe Shobhana and Rachana shook heir head. Rachana assured him that they both had something to drink not more than ten minutes ago. “So, we are doing fine, thank you all the same.But I don’t think you are being a bad host here. After all, we occupy the only seat in the house while you stand!” She laughed merrily, breaking the tension that was building in the atmosphere.

Shobhana smiled though she had begun to think whether, instead of waiting for Terrence to start speaking, she should tell him what happened to her.

She was eager to know what the man might have to say. He seemed to know why they were here. Maybe not the finer details, but he certainly knew something about the park- something that she suspected not many- or perhaps no one else-knew.

She wanted to know what it was the man had to say before she said anything. So, reserving her words for later, folding her arms on her lap, she sat like a child eager for a lesson.

Understanding her eagerness from her posture, Terrence nodded at her. “My name is Terrence, by the way,” he said. “My wife used to call me Terry. She was the only one to do so,” he chuckled at the memory before going on.

Rachana smiled. She was already beginning to like this sentimental old man.

“Anyway, it’s because of Elsa that I came here. That’s the name of my wife. She died last year- she was sixty four. She died of natural causes. Age-realted, you know.” Terence looked almost ashamed saying this, as though he was ashamed of his own advanced age. “Her health had begun to deteriorate during the last couple of years of her life. And that’s when we came to Bangalore from Kerala, because our son- who lives and works in Canada, he hired out a villa for us here in Bangalore. The heat back home was making Elsa really uncomfortable once she started getting frail. And my son thought that we should move to Canada so we could be with him and his family. But we didn’t want to go there, especially Elsa. For one thing it gets too cold there. That’s when we came to the compromise of Bangalore- a place with considerably better weather than Kerala, and it’s just two hours away from home by air. He had air conditioners installed inside the villa, just in case it got hot. Also appointed a full time home nurse and a maid to look after both of us. Really, he is such a nice son…” Terrence’s eyes twinkled at the thought of his progeny.

“The villa was right here in Kormangala. In fact, it was right here in Mercury Lane.”

When he told them the exact location of the villa where Elsa lived out her last days, Rachana gasped, “Why, that’s right next to where I live!”

They both smiled at each other, a soft camaraderie forming at this unexpected link between them.

But when Terrence continued speaking, it was in a more somber tone. “My wife died in the park.” He paused for his audience to absorb this information before adding, “Frail though she was, Elsa couldn’t go through a single day without getting out in the open for at least an hour. You know, back in our home in Kerala, we have a backyard that’s as big as the park. But here, it’s so congested, with hardly a hair’s breadth between two houses. So, we used to come to this park- the closest one to our home, every evening. As you have probably noticed, not many people come to the park- I guess partly because it’s so small, and also because it lacks the accoutrements of many parks- no swings or slides for children to play, no gym equipment installed for the adults. Hell, even the walkway within is broken at some places! Anyway, the lack of visitors was something that attracted Elsa to the place, which made her wanting to keep going there. She was always a private person, you see.”

Shobhana nodded. She could understand what a private person was. She pulled on her hoodie even though it still covered her head pretty well.

“So, we were at the park as usual that evening as well, hardly suspecting that it was to be her final evening on earth. Her last moments…It was the summer season, like this. But a cool wind was blowing, “the branches of the gulmohar looks like they are dancing”…those were the very last words Elsa uttered. I think she died a happy person. But I ripped my heart all the same- to see her go. You know, even though it was said that it was age related complications that killed her, she was still not that old, you know.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that! Wait till you reach your sixties and you would also begin to think that you are not old until you reach the nineties. And after burying her, back in Kerala, I came back here, and took up lodging in this room, just so that I could see the park, and the gulmohar tree which was the last thing my dear Elsa ever laid her eyes on! I know I was being sentimental. But I couldn’t help it. Truth is, I was always sentimental. I guess it’s because I have always been a reader- ever since ten when my father brought me a copy of Enid Blyton, I have been an avid lover of fiction. And most readers of fiction may not acknowledge this, but we are all sentimental to the core. That’s the God’s hard truth- and if either of you like reading fiction, you would know what I am talking about.”

Rachana smiled sweetly. She really was liking this old man. This sentimental old man. She told him that neither of them were big on reading. “But we do watch a whole lot of movies and television series, don’t we Shobhie?”

Terence grinned even as Shobhana nodded.

He felt energetic in the presence of youth, though the woman in the hoodie looked more than a little pale, a little too tired for a young person. (It felt like the kind of frailty that consumed Elsa slowly yet surely in her final days. I looked like death hovered around this young woman).

“I thought that I would stay here for a week or so before returning,” he said. “I went to the park every evening. But then, one of those evenings, on the penultimate day to when I was supposed to leave, I was sitting in the same bench where Elsa and I were seated on her last day. And a breeze swayed the branches of the gulmohar, and I could’t help it- I broke down and cried. There was no one else in the park, but even if there was someone, I don’t think I would have cared- I just bawled my eyes out like a baby! Grief shook me to the core. I have been bottling up my emotions since her death- you know, I was trying to be a man about it all. But at that point, all defence broke down within me and out flooded emotions in the form of tears, burning, burning me from the inside out. And that’s when the portal opened up!

“Yes, the portal- there are certain spots on the earth which connects dimensions, and the plot of land where the park stands is one of them. These portals open up, compelled by strong emotions. Usually, it’s a sense of awe that does the trick. A sense of worship, you could say. One theory is that during pre-historic times, men and women used to gather together at such spots, holding hands and chanting or singing or dancing in ecstacy to show how much they are in awe of existence. They conducted these…ceremonies, if you will…in such ‘sacred spots.’ How they gained understanding of such spots- by accident or divination, is open for debate. But they were the first worshippers in the world. And possibly the forerunners of all religious congregations. Of course, many of these things may be said to be mere conjecture, or speculation. But what is for sure, as far as I am concerned is that the park right out there,” he pointed a finger towards the closed door, “is one such gateway to another world.”

“But no one worshipped there, did they, to open up this portal?” Shobhana said suddenly. She was feeling frustrated.

She has come here expecting a possibly scientific explanation of what happened to her. Instead, she now got a tall tale about pagan worshippers and intra-dimensional portals. All of a sudden, she felt like a child with an under-developed consciousness so she couldn’t understand what the the universe was all about.

She felt like she was in a weirder version of ‘Stranger Things.’

“Yes, you are right! There was no worship in the park!” Terence got visibly more excited the more he talked. His eyes were widened and he was practically foaming at the mouth. Raising a finger, he said, “But as I said, worship is not the primary requisite for opening the portal. It’s sense of awe that does the trick! If it’s strong enough.  And what greater awe does man have than grief? Won’t we feel overwhelmed by grief at times. Won’t we all? Though I don’t really understand what could have grieved someone so young like you so much?” This last question was directed at Shobhana.

“What? You think young people don’t have cause for sadness. That just because we are here in this city that’s all fun and which have the motto, ‘Live young, live free!’, we are emotionless, untouched by the pall of sadness?”

Terrence shook his head slowly. “No. The portal is already opened, I can see. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. So, I know your grief is strong enough. I was just wondering aloud, that’s all. And if I have offended you, I am sorry.”

Shobhana nodded, though now that the outburst was over, she felt ashamed of it. “It was…I broke up with someone. It was he who broke the relationship. We…I thought that we were going to be together, you know. So, I..I couldn’t bear it when…” Shobhana couldn’t speak anymore.

Her words dissolved into sobs. Her head lolling forwards and backwards, high pitched grating noises issuing from her throat, as if she were in a mini-trace.

The movement of her head made the hood fall off, exposing her hairlessness, even as Rachana kept rubbing down her back consolingly.

“I am sorry..” said Terrence. And once she stopped sobbing and got a grip on herself, “Maybe now, you would like some water.”

Shobhana nodded. She reached for the bottle of water on the window sill herself. After taking two long swigs, she said, “So, this dimension, I suppose the tree that I saw earlier, it crossed over to this realm when the portal opened? Yes, there was this strange tree in the park, you see. And I think, something from it, a spore or something got into me, and it’s inside me! It hurts me at times!”

Taking a deep breath as though he was hurt, Terrence moved towards the bed. Crouching beside Shobhana, he said, “Listen, the other dimension behaves a lot in tune with your emotions- you are evidently grieving a relationship which you couldn’t let go even though you are trying. And unless you shed it, the manifestation inside you-whatever it is, wouldn’t go away! As for me, I have intense longing to see Elsa- so sometimes, I see her, she comes to this room, talks with me…but the dimension is benevolent with me, not because of any inherent merit in me, but because my feelings towards Elsa- through whom I am linked to the dimension, is not too complex, unlike in your case.

You still obviously love this person, but at the same time, you hate him for what he did. These conflicting emotions are clashing within you. Violently so. And the dimension has latched on to that violence, attacking you. It’s been just one evening, and you are already very weak. If things go on like this, you wouldn’t last long. At least, that’s what I think. Over the past months, I have seen how the dimension behaves with people, what it does with people, more than once. And it’s not always pretty, I can assure you. You are barely older than my grand-daughter, and I would hate to see something happening to you.”

Shobhana nodded her thanks. “But..is there anything that we could do?”

Terrence looked thoughtful for a moment. “Most of the times, things from the dimension crosses over to this realm. But once.. once I managed to go there! I was there for just a few minutes, but what I saw there are things I would never be able to explain. To anyone.

“ For I don’t think any human language is evolved enough to describe such things. It’s funny because I used to be an English language professor before I retired,  and I always exhorted my students to be articulate when they framed their thoughts, especially thoughts regarding their most profound experiences. For if language couldn’t express such thoughts and emotions, what’s the point in having it? But then, what I saw and experienced in the dimension, it’s….it’s beyond words. Too terrifying, too abstract, and too profound all at the same time. It’s simply too much for words!” he laughed a short laugh. “The closest I could explain it is that it’s like an ocean, one where you could leave your emotions for good. Just as you could throw a pebble in the ocean and never see it surface again.”

“How do we go there?” It was Rachana who said it. And seeing the expression on Terrence’ face, she added, “Oh, I am not going to let her go all alone!”

“It might be dangerous. As I said, the dimension is already behaving violently towards her,” he pointed at Shobhana.

“All the more reason for me to accompany her. Now, tell us how to reach there.” Rachana was in her no-nonsense mode, the one she turned on whenever an employee in the office came to her with some excruciatingly silly request- like having the company install a footstool  beneath all the employees’ cabins because it’s “cool”(That’s a bona fide request which came in through the official channel once).

Terrence nodded, seeing there was no way he could change her mind. “I have been doing some research on these types of phenomena. Pseudo-science as many would say but which, as we have seen has-a basis on reality.” He walked around to the small stack of drawers. Opening the top drawer, he pulled out a sheaf of Xeroxed papers.

He shuffled through the papers which were stapled together, the act of shuffling sounding unusually loud within the small room. H

is eyes brightened when he found the paper he was looking for. He walked back to the women and detaching the paper from the sheaf, he handed it to Shobhana.

“This is one of the prayers- or chants- if you will that a paganistic tribe in the Andoman and Nocobar islands used to utter during their worship in one such portal. It was with much hardship that I obtained this. For me, it was always an academic curiosity- these sorts of prayers. I mean, I never really expected that these things would actually work. But the will to see Elsa was so overpowering that one day I just tried it- the chanting is based on sound vibrations, so the louder the better, and the more number of people to chant, the more effective it would be. Of course, in my case, there was only myself. But it worked. Though it’s not Elena I met in the dimension. Rather, the visit turned out to be an expedition to purge all my longing for her- so that I could move on, leaving the past behind. Of course, I still think of Elsa, but I see death as an inevitability now, not as a villain that snatches your loved one away. And Elsa…wherever she is, she is hopefully safe and happy….”

Shobhana nodded at the man’s words.

“I don’t know how the dimension would be in your case,” he said. “Maybe it would be violent for you. But I do think this is the best chance you have.”

After just a moment of silence, Shobhana said, “If anyone had told me yesterday that tonight I would be willing to try an ancient chant so that I could go into another dimension all so that I can get over a break-up, I would have laughed at their face!” She smiled weakly. “When do you think I should do this?”

“The earlier, the better. And I don’t know if there’s any rule regarding this, but the Andaman tribe always used the group chant only during the nights. And I too tried it in the night.”

“No time like the present, I suppose,” muttered Shobhana. Getting off the bed, she thanked Terrence.

“I will be leaving here tomorrow,” he said. “There’s no reason for me to remain here. It’s been two days since the purge…and really, there’s no reason to reman here anymore.” Even as he said the words, a wave of relief washed over him.

For an year, he has been bearing the burden of grief- the kind of burden that was inevitable for many human beings, but which could consume you whole if you weren’t careful. But now the burden has been removed so that he could move forwards with ease.

“I hope that it works out for you….I am sorry, I never got your name. Either of yours,” he said, grinning.

The two women introduced themselves, a smile coming over their faces despite the circumstances.

“Okay, Shobhana,” said Terrence, “I really hope this works for you. And, if I may, I request you to let me know how it went. I would be leaving by the evening train tomorrow.”

“Sure thing,” said Shobhana, putting on a brave face.

Mercury Lane-5

Stepping out of the gate, the night felt chilly to Rachana- much colder than how much a summer night in Bangalore would typically entail. She imagined it had to do with the fact that she felt so much out of her own depths.

“I am trying my best to see this as a predicament I could solve as an HR manager. You know, someone has infringed upon your cabin space in the office, and now I need to tell that person to back off, tell him nicely, professionally.”

Rachana’s words brought an unexpected smile on Shobhana’s face. “And how is that working out for you?”

“Not very well, I must say,” admitted Rachana.

A young jogger- male, with a smattering of soft beard, in a blue and blue running outfit jogged past them leisurely, though both the women could hear the sound of his harsh breaths. Rachana saw the young man eyeing her and then Shobhana. His eyes rested on the latter longer than they did on her. And she wasn’t surprised.

Even beneath the thick full-leeved shirt and shapeless jeans, it was clear that Shobhana had a terrific body structure, and even with the hood and the pale skin, her natural beauty couldn’t be concealed.

Not that Shobhana took note of this attention. She was in no mood for such things. She was thinking of what she would say when she met the old man. And how silly it would be if it turns out that the man didn’t know anything about what was going on, contrary to her hunch.

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” she muttered softly into the night air. She took hold of Rachana’s hand. She needed all the strength that she could get.

Rachana squeezed her hand reassuringly.

**

The park, which was practically deserted even in the evening,  was completely desolate now that it was past nine in the night. Two young lovers- boy and girl sitting on the boy’s motorcycle, the boy holding the girl’s hand, gently running it up and down as they chatted, laughing, playfully beating each other’s shoulders- were in front of the locked park gate.

Shobhana felt nauseated by this sight. ‘He is just play-acting, you fool!’ she tried to convey this message telepathically to the girl, even though there was no reason for her to believe that the boy’s love was in earnest.

But the thoughts of the boy and t girl fell from her mind when her eyes strayed towards the lone tree that stood in the centre of the park. The tree was ominously lit from below by the lamps fixed along the walkway inside the park. The light was more yellow than white, more pale than illuminating.

But there was no doubt in her mind- it was a different tree from what she saw in the evening.

Gasping, she crossed to the other side of he street, closer to the park, past the boy and the girl on the motorbike who stopped chatting abruptly as soon as they saw the wide-eyed woman in the black hoodie walking past them, who took a grip on the iron fence and peered closely, seemingly at the gulmohar tree at the centre of the park.

Sure, the number of gulmohars- and all sorts of trees- was coming down in Bangalore, what with ultra urbanization.

But neither of the lovers could see why the woman could be so fascinated about this particular tree. It was like most other trees- of average height, bearing average number of gulmohars, its leaves gently ruffled by the night wind. Shrugging at each other, they went back to their conversation.

“What is it?”

Shobhana hasn’t noticed that Rachana has crossed over from the other side of the street and was now by her side. And even when she asked the question, she didn’t look at her. “The flowers. They re red in colour!” Shobhana said in a hushed whisper as though she were revealing the very secret of existence.

Rachana squinted at the tree. “Why, it’s a gulmohar yaa? I thought you said it was a tree of unknown description. There’s no way you have been living in Bangalore for three years and never seen a gulmohar before.”

“No, it wasn’t a gulmohar. It was some different kind of tree before!” Shobhana said vehemently. “One with purple flowers.”

The vision of two purple hands rising from the back of her friend’s head and rudely fondling her breasts flashed across Rachana’s mind. For a second, she even closed her eyes, willing the image to disappear from her consciousness.

She didn’t say anything.

Instead, the two of them turned away from the park and looked at the long building across the street. Without wasting time, Shobhana crossed to the building, Rachana closely following. 

They stopped at the small bakery and provisionary store on the ground floor- one that was run by a Malayali chettan. Usually, the man would have a couple of assistants in the shop- young, more agile.  But tonight, Shobhana saw that the elderly man was the only one in the shop, and neither was there any customers at the moment.

She felt grateful for this and not just because she has always felt uncomfortable, too self-conscious around people.

“Hello, chetta!” she said, offering the man, who was sipping on a cup of hot black coffee, a warm smile. She hoped the smile and her (extra) cheerful tone would divert the man’s attention from the planeness of her face.

The shopkeeper- who has always been soft spoken and polite with her- smiled gently, before placing the cup of coffee on a wooden stool beside him, he moved closer to the front of the shop-towards her. “What do you want, molu? Is it rice?”

Rice was what  Shobhana bought the most from the shop- particularly a variant of rice that was grown in Kerala, which was hard to find in the shops of Bangalore.

Shobhana smiled, but she said, “No, chetta, I….I want some Maggie noodles!”

“Oh, which type? Atta, oats, or regular?”

“Hmmm…attaa..”

“Atta it is.” The shopkeeper moved towards the shelf where the stack of noodle packets, alongside stack of Parle-G biscuits, was kept. While the man’s back was turned to them, Shobhana exchanged a glance with Rachana who was looking at her with a ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ expression.

The thing was, now that she had to ask the shopkeeper about the old man who lived upstairs, she found her typical introversion kicking in.

Kicking in hard, like a foot landing on her chest with extra-ordinary force. And in this mind-set, asking for a packet of noodles was the best that she could do.

Sensing her friend’s predicament, Rachana decided to intervene. When the shopkeeper came back with a four piece atta noodle packet and asked, “What else?” it was Rachana who replied, “Nothing else, bhaiiya” even though his question was directed towards Shobhana.

Thankfully, she found that the man spoke excellent Hindi- “Have been in Bangalore for more than four decades, and have learned four languages since I arrived!” the man said proudly- and so she could converse easily with him.

“Bhaiyya, do you know the old gentleman who lives on the top floor?” she asked without wasting time.

The shopkeeper frowned, but just for a second before realization dawned on his face. “I have seen the man a few times. I have been running this shop for just under an year now, and that man has been living upstairs for almost as long. However, I have seen him only a few times. He rarely comes out of his room. There are three such rooms on the top floor- the two others are let out to laborers from somewhere north. But this man is obviously no laborer. Obviously educated. I heard that he is a professor of some sort, in fact. So, I don’t know why someone like that would take up residence in such a place. Though it’s not any of my business!” The man laughed as though he just cracked a joke.

Indulging him, Rachana laughed along with him- these were soft skills that she has learned in the course of her job.

The shopkeeper has spoken in Hindi. So, she translated the gist of what he said for Shobhana.

“Is the old man in his room now, bhaiyya? Do you know?” Rachana said.

A gentle smile appeared on the shopkeeper’s face. He ran a hand down the greying hairs on his head. “As I said, our man rarely comes out. So, there’s a fair chance that you will find him there.” Then, with a frown, he added, to both the women, “May I know why you wish to see him? Again, this is also none of my business, but you see, aside from rarely stepping out from this building, the old man also never receives any visitor. So, as you can see, I am genuinely curious, especially since Shobhana here is someone I know and I don’t think she and the professor know each other.” The shopkeeper spoke to Rachana as though Shobhana wasn’t even present there.

As for Shobhana- whose knowledge of the Hindi language was pretty rudimentary(while in school, remained as a passive listener, catching only slivers of the whole light of meaning in their conversation.

Rachana hesitated but only for a second. “I saw the man earlier thus evening. I caught a distant glimpse of him, and he looked a lot like the father of someone whom I went to school with. I couldn’t go up to him when I saw him in the evening, but I did see him go into the room upstairs. Thought I would come and see if that’s him, after all.”

The shopkeeper nodded. Before he could say anything, a customer came to the shop- a customer with a child who was crying for a Frooti. The shopkeeper hurried to the fridge at the back of the shop, to get a Frooti for the crying child.

His movements indicated an urgency commensurate with what firefighters might display when they went in to douse a raging fire.

Taking advantage of this opportunity, Rachana prodded Shobhana to move. Before the shopkeeper could bring the Footi out of the fridge, thee two women had begun to climb the stairs by the shop, on their way up to see the mysterious old man.

**

They say that too much curd is bad for your health.

Sure, there are the numerous advantages to curd- its positive effect in digestion, and the bacteria in it that improves your immune system. But still, they say that to much curd could ruin your health at worst, or at the very least give you a nasty cold.

At sixty six years, Terrance Benjamin would consider a cold more than a minor inconvenience, especially since the cold invariably escalated to headaches and sometimes, even fever in his case. And there’s nothing worse than being stuck inside this room, unable to even read a book because his brain felt melted  by the heat of fever.

For that’s what Terrence did all day long- just lie in his bed and read, and occasionally watch a movie or television show. He did all of this on his mobile phone. The ten feet by ten feet room was too small for a television set, he felt- even if it were the kind that was fixed to the wall, the kind that was popular these days. He would have to get a chair to sit and watch the damn thing, and a chair would take up space in the room where space was of a premium.

As for the bed, it was already in the room when he moved in almost an year ago. Apparently, the bed was what the landlord meant when it was mentioned in the advert that the room was ‘semi-furshined’. That, and the small wooden cabinet in the bathroom where he kept his toiletries.

He was sitting in the bed, drinking set curd which he had delivered not more than ten minutes ago, unmindful of the fact that it was the eighth 500 ml container of curd that he was having today, unmindful of the ill-effects of too much curd that experts so often expounded.

He was feeling just too damned hot, and curd was the only thing that helped him settle down inside his own body, the only thing that made him cool down- literally. He has tried everything else he could think of- from Coca Cola to using ice packets that be got delivered from the nearby liquor boutique. But nothing compared to the soothing feeling that curd brought him. 

So, he didn’t give a fuck what the experts said. The experts didn’t experience the kind of heat that consumed his body whenever the portal opened in the nearby park. They didn’t know what it was like to feel molten steel flowing through your veins- at least, that’s how he felt in such moments.

And he considered it a miracle of miracles that the ‘inconveniences’ could be alleviated with something as simple and economic as a box of curd.

Yes, the experts be damned!

Taking the last scoop of the white gooey liquid from the box, he placed the empty box alongside the row of empty blue curd boxes on the sill of the only window in the room- a window he has left wide open to let in as much air in to the room as possible.

No sooner has he done this than Terrence heard a knocking on the door. Two soft knuckle raps, sounding almost timid, reluctant. He wondered who it could be. The only ones who came to his door were delivery boys- Terrence had all his food delivered at home. And also the landlord when he came around once a month to collect the rent.

There was also the one time when his next door neighbor- a young laborer who worked in the construction sector- came home drunk one night and mistook Terrence’s door to be the door to his own room.

Looking at the wall clock- the only thing that hung on any of the blue walls of the room other than a calendar of a jewellery shop which the previous tenant has left behind-Terrence saw that it was almost 9:30. It was around this time that his neighbour came home.

In the event that the neighbour has come back drunk once again, the knock on the door was too hesitant to be his.

He put on a checkered shirt to cover his bare torso before opening the door- Terrence wasn’t all that proud of his potbelly.

He was surprised to see the young woman whom he saw earlier in the evening at the park, standing at his door. The one who was crying alone. The one who probably was the reason the ports opened today.

The surprise he felt coursed up from his heart along the routes laid out by the nervous system, and pushed his brow up, painting an expression of surprise on his face. But the expression was soon replaced with a smile- as he didn’t know what else to do.

Behind the young woman stood another equally young- but bigger woman. He presently nodded at her before turning his attention back to the woman from the park.

The woman from the park wet her lips before saying, in Malayalam, “My name is Shobhana. I think you are a Malayali?” It was a question rather than a statement, and  automatically, without thinking, he nodded. “Well, I don’t know if you remember me, but you saw me in the park earlier.” She tilted her head towards the park.

“I remember you,” said Terrence. “What do you want?” he said, sounding more gruff than he intended.

Well, that is THE question, isn’t it?, Shobhana thought not without humor.

“Would you mind letting us in?” she said. “I think it would be better if we continue this conversation inside the room.” I don’t want anyone to overhear this and think I am a raving lunatic, she thought but didn’t add.

Terrence looked a little hesitant about the idea, but only for a second. Stepping back, opening the door even wider, he nodded.

“And do you mind if we continued this conversation in English, my friend here doesn’t speak Malayalam,” Shobhana said before entering the room.

“Sure,” said Terrence.

**

Terrence apologised because there were no furniture in the room for them to sit except for the bed. But when the women said they would rather remain standing, he insisted. “It’s the first time you are coming here, and I would be offended if you were to stand all the while. I know this place is humble- to say the least. But I didn’t have any other option. This is the only building that overlooks the park, you see, so I couldn’t find anyplace else.”

Seeing a frown appearing on Shobhana’s face, he said, “I shall explain.”

Shobhana nodded. Whatever this guy is going to say, it might be better to listen to it while sitting down, she thought.

Along with Rachana, she took a seat on the bed. The bedsheet was crumpled, there were flecks of dirt on the exposed parts of the matress- from Terrences feet or from the ceiling fan that revolved above them, or both. The room, thanks to being shut most of the time, had a stuffiness which bordered on stifling.

The cold breeze that came in through the lone window didn’t do much to alleviate this.

In other words, neither of the women felt like they were in the royal suite of a JW Mariotte. But neither of them gave much mind to the discomfort, they had their eyes and mind diligently focused on the man, eager to hear what he had to say.

Terrence, who stood just a few feet in front of the bed, his back to the wall where the pages of  the Jewellery store calendar fluttered in the wind from the fan, cleared his throat as if about to say something.

Then, he seemed to think of something, which made him smile sheepishly at his guests.

There was something so abrupt, so innocent about the expression that Shobhana felt a lttle guilty for having thought that the man might be a pervert when she first saw him at the park.

Mercury Lane- 4

“Whoa girl, wait!” Rachana interjected, raising a hand. “Slow down and tell me what exactly happened. Whose hand came up? What burning are you talking about? Do you mean to say that losing your hair was some kind of an accident?” She eyed Shobhana’s hair- or lack of it- once again. She frowned, as though declaring she couldn’t think of any sort of accident that would lose so much hair.

Placing the coffee mug on the floor beside the sofa(like the rest of the apartment, the living room was also sparsely furnished), Shobhana took hold of both her hands. Looking in to her eyes, she said with barely suppressed emotion, “Look, what I am gong to say will sound completely crazy. But you must believe me when I say this is exactly what happened.”

Rachana nodded, confident that Shobhana must be over-reacting to whatever has happened. Maybe someone- at work or somewhere else- told her that she looked like a loser(though she couldn’t imagine why anyone would say such a thing to her) and she cut off her hair in a moment of passion, thinking how she would have a different identity- a different persona other than ‘loser’ once she lost her hair.

Yes, something like that must have been what happened.

**

“What?” Rachana felt surprised at herself for having held the question in so long- letting Shobhana complete her narrative. And it was one heck of a narrative- the kind which would make a great surreal fiction. Her reading was limited to the Hanuman Chalisa(Hanuman was her favorite god) and Filmfare magazine that she subscribed to. So, she didn’t know much about surrealism in literature. However, she felt pretty confident that the tale Shobhana just told her could easily feature in a television show like ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales from the crypt.’ Sure they were old shows, but Rachana had heard that at least one of those shows were pitted to be revived by Amazon or Netflix or Disney or one of the other streaming services who want to entertain the hell out of your weekends.

And she would have told her friend to try and get her story into the hands of the screenwriters of such projects, had she not seen how serious Shobhie looked.

Leaning forward, she looked closely into her eyes.

Shobhana blinked. “Why are you looking me like this?”

“When I was in college, I stayed at the hostel. My room-mate was a junkie type. She used to do LSD at least once every month, and I could tell when she was under the influence just by gazing into her eyes. Her pupils sort of swirled, or at least, that’s how they appeared whenever the dear girl’s  head was stuck inside Venus’ ass or wherever it was lost in.”

Shobhana shook her head angrily, frustration drawing deep grooves on her face. “I told you it’s the truth!”

‘Anyone under the influence of drugs believe what they see is true’: even though these words popped up in her mind, lit in neon, jumping up and down like kids overeager  in classroom to give answers to a teacher, Rachana thought it best to keep the thought to herself. Somehow, she didn’t think that saying it out loud was going to help the situation.

One thing bothered her though- there was  no swirl like appearance in Shobie’s pupils. Also, her haggard appearance couldn’t have been brought about by any drugs- not until she has been abusing it for a long time. But there was no way that Shobhana could have abused any drug for long. After all, she looked more or less alright last day at the office.

The only way she could have gotten so pale, and this jittery in so short a period of time was if something had entered her body and was draining her body’s resources from within- like  a parasite. That still wouldn’t explain the loss of hair- not unless the parasite’s presence instigated a chemical process which uprooted the hairs on the head.

But what parasite could attack so fast?

A supernatural parasite, came the answer, unbidden to her mind.

The answer popped in her mind so abruptly that it made her almost laugh. It was all she could do to keep the laughter from bursting out of her mind, through her mouth which would further alienate Shobhana from her.

The hand that Shobhana mentioned, the one that came out of her hair, would it be the parasite that lived inside her body?

Rachana couldn’t believe that she was thinking in this manner, but there was no better theory for her to go ahead with. Unless she wanted to believe that Shobhie scalded her own hand and cut her own hair and made her look like some vampire sucked her lifeblood earlier this evening, just so she could try and convince her of the wild tale.

But why would she want to do that? No, that didn’t make sense.

Rachana retreaded in her mind the story that Shobhana said- about what happened in the bathroom, and how later, after having placed a call to her, while she was waiting in the living room, “even more hair began to fall off my head. They crawled their way down to the floor, like slugs. Slimy slugs! I was sweeping the floor clean of them when you arrived at the door. That’s why I couldn’t come to the door soon when you rang the bell.”

No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t find any point of logic in the whole narrative.

“Darling, I would have really loved to believe your story, but I really can’t!” she framed this sentence in her mind.

To utter the words, she opened her mouth. Only, when she looked at Shobhana, what came out were not words but a gasp.

**

For the hair on Shobhana ‘s head rose up and were blown around like tufts of dry grass uprooted by strong wind. But the hair was not being blown around haphazardly, though that’s how it appeared  at first to Rachana.

A closer look revealed a pattern to the unseen, unfelt wind’s manoeuvring of the tufts of hair in the air. It looked as though the strands of hair were being slowly yet steadily pushed upright before being dropped down to her shoulders.

Shobhana, who still sat upset that Rachana didn’t believe her, didn’t notice this. Not until she looked up and caught the incredible expression on Rachana’s face.

The strands of hairs, once they alighted on her nightie, behaved much like slugs- albeit  fast moving slugs.

Lying down pressed against the cloth, the hairs began moving down Shobhana’s sides, dragging themselves forwards(or downwards) by rhythmically raising their midriff, pushing back against surface of the fabric(soft cotton) with the rear end, letting the front end slide forward easily. In other words, every strand of hair moved exactly like slugs.

More than a hundred individual strands of hair moved concertedly in this manner, as though guided by an unseen conductor. While the movement of slugs may at times strike one as cute-ish(if not cute),, Rachana could find nothing even remotely cute about the black mass migration that was happening from Shobhana’s shoulders all the way down to her feet and from there to the floor.

In fact, the view was rather disconcerting, making the skin of her entire body stand on end, as though she just felt a thousand lightweight footsteps of cockroaches passing over her body.

As for Shobhana- even though she gasped and stood hurriedly when she saw what was happening and accidentally struck the glass of coffee down with her foot- she stood more or less immobile after that. The last time this happened, she had tried to wipe the creepy-crawlie hairs off of her body.

And that hasn’t gone well.

In fact, that only made a clump of hairs de-route and move back up towards her face. It was only when a bunch of them inched towards her nostril that she realized that the strands of hair intended to kill her, by blocking her air passages if she tried to wipe them off her body.

They had a will of their own, she saw.

And if she let them proceed in their own pace, in the direction they wanted to, they may not harm her. So, she stopped struggling and stood still, and the hairs reversed their direction once again and exited her body via her feet.

Putting to practice the lesson she learned from the last time, she remained still, as still as she could, even as Rachana felt a shiver within her as she watched the last of the strands of hair crawl off of her body. Soon as hey hit the floor, the hairs fell dead.

It was as though the hairs derived energy from Shobhana’s body and once they were out of the body, withered in the absence of their energy source.

Shobhana let out a sigh even though a tingling sensation still remained in her body.

“Now, what do you think?” she said to Rachana. Her voice came out harder than she intended.

Rachana wasn’t sure what to say. She was panting hard, as though she just climbed eighteen flights of stairs in a row. Looking at Shobhana’s head, she saw that now that even more hair has fallen off, she could see her bare scalp at certain points.

**

“So, you think that this has got something to do with the tree you saw in the park?” Rachana said.

They were now sitting in Shobhana’s bedroom, in her bed with a blue bed spread with concentric rings of red and grey. The idea with the deign was apparently to give the sensation of infinity, but under the circumstances, Rachana felt lightly dizzy when she looked at the concentric circles.

So, she kept her gaze squarely on Shobhana, careful not to let her eyes stray to the well of dizziness etched on the bed sheet.

It was Rachana who insisted that they move from the living room to the bedroom. Though Shobhana said that that wouldn’t probably prevent even more hair from falling off her head, she was persistent.

But now that she was in the bedroom, she didn’t feel any better either. She still felt unnerved by what she saw, by the possibility that Shobhana’s story was indeed the truth and not the product of a drug addled mind.

Now that such convenient theories were out of the picture, she was forced to consider other possibilities.

“Yes,” Shobhana replied to her question. “I mean, the hand was purple in color, and so was the flowers on the tree. I know that’s a flimsy connection to make, but still…”

Once again throwing a glance at her head, Rachana said, “This hand that you mentioned, I don’t think there is enough hair anymore in your head for it to hide in.”

“Don’t rub it in!” said Shobhana.

“No,no, that’s not what I meant!” Rachana said. “I meant I would like to just feel around on your head, if you don’t mind, just to see if- you know if I could feel something.”

Shobhana’s eyes widened at the suggestion. “Didn’t you see this?” She raised her palm- the scorch mark had turned a deeper shade of crimson in the past hour (though it no more hurt as much as before.)

“Well, if I feel pain or anything, I would quickly draw my head back!” said Rachana.

Seeing how Shobhana still looked unconvinced, she added, “Maybe a different person’s hand wouldn’t get the same reaction!”

The thing was, Rachana was getting increasingly nervous at not doing anything about the situation they were presented with.

At the office she was in the Human Resources department. Since the company was small- with just over 30 employees- this meant that she was the whole department. Young and relatively inexperienced though she was, Rachana had to don the role of a senior HR Manager.

And it was a role in which she flourished. She liked taking care of the needs of the employees- getting the coffee machine fixed if it broke down(and the old machine broke down quite frequently), making sure that things like notepads and pens are replenished before dire need kicks in, ensuring that whatever construction work went on in the neighboring buildings- of which many were still in the construction phase- didn’t disturb the employees(Installing sound insulating padding inside the office rooms, and making an arrangement with the building contractor so that they would get a day’s notice in advance if any work involving high noise was to happen, thereby giving them more time to prepare for it, were some of the tactics she used to get around this)- these were just some of the duties that she carried out in her role(not to mention getting down to the nitty gritties of an office party whenever that was to be arranged).

Being the professional that she was, she usually became nervous and fidgety if she sat on a problem for too long without doing anything about it. Though it’s been just ten minutes since she saw the (literally) creepy way in which the hairs fell off Shobhana’s head, she already felt like they have gone too long without doing anything.

And feeling her friend’s scalp- no matter how futile an action that may turn out to be- felt like a beginning.

Seeing how determined she looked, Shobhana shrugged. “Okay, if you are so sure. But please be careful.”

Rachana nodded. She took a deep breath, as though she was about to plunge into water where she planned to remain submerged for some time.

She raised her hand towards Shobhana’s head. Her plump fingers trembled just a little. She hoped that the tremor was small enough so Shobhana wouldn’t notice it.

She gasped almost immediately as her hand was placed on Shobhana’s head.

“What is it?”

“Nothing. Just that your stubby hair spiked into my arm at some points!”

They both laughed, the moment offering an opportunity for much-needed release of tension.

Rachana felt around her scalp- first tentatively, then more boldly as she continued not to feel any burning sensation or anything untoward.

The image of the purple hand suddenly pouncing and grabbing her fingers that Shobhana gave her was so vivid that notwithstanding the uneventful manner in which the scalp exploration proceeded, she anticipated the strong arm popping up like a bunny from a magician’s hat and grasping her hand, pulling her into Shobhana’s body where she would find herself in freefall, down an infinite pit-just like the infinity of the concentric circles on the bedsheet.

But nothing of the sort happened. No hand popped up and no free-fall happened. In fact, she explored the well shaped scalp with her fingers, twice, running her hand from top to the base of the back of the neck.

“Nothing, there’s nothing.”

Shobhana heaved a sigh of relief, even as Rachana gave her an encouraging smile.

But the smile disappeared as she saw two purple hands raising from behind Shobhana.

Like twin tails of a deadly scorpion, the purple hands rose around the sides of her body, and the palms pressed hard on her breasts.

Shobhana gasped, but before she could make any further reaction, the arms retreated from where they had popped from- from the back of her head. Feeling hot tears streaming down her face, she touched the back of her head, at the exact spot from where the hands had sprouted.

In her desperation, she beat hard on her own head, and Rachana had to grasp her arms to prevent her from harming herself.

“I couldn’t feel them!” Shobhana said, crying, opening her mouth in a silent scream. “I couldn’t feel them in my head!”

Rachana hugged her to comfort her. Being the huge woman that she was, this meant that Shobhana practically disappeared in her grasp.

Once the tears subsided and the rush of emotion from what happened passed, Shobhana said, “We need to find out what this is all about! Otherwise, I have a feeling that it wouldn’t leave me in peace. This thing is inside me, Rachana! Whatever this thing is! I mean, you did see what just happened, didn’t you?” Shobhana was beaming more frenzied the more she talked.

So that things wouldn’t get out of hand, Rachana said, in as calm a voice as she could summon under the given circumstances, “We will find out what’s going on? We will think of this as a …” she fumbled for a word before settling on “disease. Yes, this is a disease, and for every disease there’s a cure, right? We are going to find that cure!” She forced a smile on to her face, showing a bravery she didn’t really feel in her heart.

“I think the old man I told you about?he knows something about what’s going on,” said Shobhana. “I have no logical reason to assume so, but there was this look that the old man gave me, a smirk, really, as though he knew something bad was going to happen to me.”

“Are you sure he wasn’t just a dirty old man?”

Shobhana shrugged. “I don’t know. But I strongly feel that he would know something about all this.”

Rachana nodded. “Well, we don’t have any other leads to follow, do we?”

Shobhana smiled weakly. “You sound like a True Detective episode. But you are right all the same.”

Shobhana put on a hoodie before stepping out of the house. She didn’t want anyone who knew her to ask what she did to her hair.

After Rachana, if one more person were to ask her that question, she might break down, she felt. Besides, without her “long black armor of hair”-as Madhav used to playfully say= she felt naked. The hoodie helped conceal that nakedness.

Rachana followed Shobhana down the stairs. While they reached the second floor, she heard sounds of the television- a children’s cartoon show-coming past the open door of the apartment there. The little girl who had laughed at her before was nowhere to be seen, and Rachana took that to be a good omen. Though she still had no idea how exactly the two of them were going to solve Shobhana’s peculiar predicament, she chose to think that the absent little girl indicated a presence of solution in the near future- solutions to a baffling problem neither of them was probably equipped to deal with.

Mercury Lane-3

She recalled the two times that they had made love- Madhav and her- the only times she has had sex in her life.

She remembered asking him to grip her hands down by her side and fuck her hard- it’s something she has always fantasized about. Her boyfriend(ex-boyfriend) was only too glad to indulge her.

Though Shobhana enjoyed the sex, she felt Madhav’s grip on her wrists to be flimsy. And she told him as much. Someone who hit the gym every day like it was a religious ritual, and whose body was somewhere between well-built and body-builder-good, she knew that Madhav could easily hold her down stronger if he wanted to.

She told him as much but he said he didn’t wish to hurt her. “Not even inadvertently.”

Well, the hand that came out of her hair didn’t have any such qualms. For hurt it did, though as far as Shobhana could feel, none of the bones on her hand was broken.

“Thank God for small miracles!” she muttered, looking at the mirror. After a brief pause, she started laughing. And when the laughter continued unabated minute after minute, she began to fear she was going crazy.

“Well, if a purple hand were to pop out of your hair and grip your hand, anyone would go crazy!” she heard her telling herself, and this brought another wave of laughter- one that lasted for another couple of minutes, and by the end of which she began to ache in her tummy. Gripping her belly, she crouched on the floor where strands of hair were lying around, the sight of which made her cry, even through her laughter.

“My lovely hair!” she muttered. “My hair that amma has looked after with so much care when I was a child, my hair which has given me so much confidence in myself, my poor..poor hair is gone!”

She laughed again, but this time the sound was devoid of any humour.

She hoped the sound of her own laughter- a sound that ricocheted within the four walls of the bathroom- would provide enough of a diversion from the fact that she has lost so much of her precious hair.

It didn’t.

If anything, the sound of her laughter made her realise how desperate she was- alone and broken hearted, sitting in her bathroom floor, cold and shivering, her palm scalded with heat and her head reeling like a spin.

“Get a hold on yourself!” she said. “You need help!”

**

Rachana Gupta wasn’t what you would call a thin person. In fact, since her school days, people have taunted her about her size. “Tank”, “Monster” “The Big One” and “Beast” were only some of the names which kids in school used to taunt her with.

Admittedly, working in a professional environment was so different an experience from learning at school. For one thing, she didn’t get taunted anymore for her size- at least not to her face(though Rachana was sure that people talked about her plus size body behind her back). But still, the world could be a pretty bad place for a woman who could only shop at extremely limited number of places for her clothes.

Which was one reason why Rachana got close with Shobhana pretty fast.

By the time Rachana joined the office, Shobhana was already an employee for two months. But she was lonely-being the introvert that she was, she didn’t exactly go all out to make friends with others in the office.

Rachana was not an introvert, neither was she the opposite. In fact, she had a feeling that she was born an extrovert, only years of getting taunted related to her body size has pushed her back into herself. Shobhana was the only one in the office- aside from her- who never got excited whenever an office party was announced.

They were birds of the same feather in that sense- neither of them enjoyed being around people all that much. Even if the people were amicable enough, years of conditioning has prompted Rachana to think something always went around in the back of people’s minds whenever they spoke with her-something like, “Oh, this girl is so goddamn huge!”

Whenever she had to attend an office party or a gathering, she found herself with Shobhana, or vice versa.

Their friendship, which has grown over the past one year took a slight slip(at least from Rachana’s point of view) when Shobhana fell in love with Madhav, and began to hang out with him more than she did with her. At first, she felt a little sad, even jealous at Madhav. But then, she began to feel genuinely happy for her friend.

All part of growing up, she thought.

Which was why when Shobhana told her last week that she and Madhav had split, she felt bad for her friend. Bad enough for her to cease watching ’13 reasons why’ for a few days(’13 reasons why’ was her favorite television show). She tried to provide Shobhana with moral support, spending as much time as she could with her, in or outside the office.

But then, Shobhana herself kept pushing her away, urging her to have fun with other friends, instead of sharing in her misery- as if she had a lot of other friends.

Sure, she had a few friends, but no one to whom she was as close as with Shobhana.

She reckoned Shobhie- as she called her- wanted some alone time to recuperate. She tried to be matured about it, thinking how in her time of distress, Shobhana wanted some space for herself, though at times her twenty four year old self surfaced and told her to feel sad because Shobhana too has begun to avoid her. “Because she doesn’t want to be seen with you- you tank! She is a slim beauty with long beautiful hair while you are nothing but a walking planet with bristly mop for hair, a mis-shapen planet at that!” this part of her, which often behaved with her worse than an enemy would, told her.

All this is to say that Rachana was incredibly glad when she got a call from Shobhie who asked her to come over asap, “I need your help!”

Of all the people in the whole world, she chose to call me in her time of peril!. And judging from Shobhana’s strained voice, it certainly sounded like she was in a world of peril.

Without wasting time, Rachana changed into a tee-shirt and jeans and stepped out of her home. Though she lived just a block away from Shohana’s, it took her some time to reach there.

For one thing, she walked slowly, or rather, she couldn’t walk nearly as fast as she wanted to. Also, there was the fact that many people in Bangalore had the nasty habit of leaving their dog turds on the streets when they walked the dogs in the evenings. And if there was one thing Rachana thought would make people notice a plus sized woman walking as fast she could was a plus sized woman walking as fast as she could with dog turd on her feet.

But even worse than the walk was the climb up the stairs to Shobhie’s apartment.

**

Shobhana lived on the second floor of a three storied building. While reaching the landing of the first floor, a pretty little girl in ponytails came out of the apartment there. Rachana has seen the child before on a couple of occasions when she visited Shobhie, but she has never got the opportunity to interact with her before.

Seeing the curious expression with which the girl beheld her, Rachana smiled. “Hey, sweetie, how are you?” Rachana would have liked to stop and talk with her more, only Shobhie has asked her to come over fast. In fact, even while she was on the way to her apartment, Shobhana has called her again, urging her to rush.

The girl broke into a laugh as she saw the evident hardship with which Rachana climbed the stairs, gripping the railing hard and pulling herself up like an elephant climbing a steep hill- at least, that’s how the child thought.

The girl- who shouldn’t have been more than five or six- didn’t even bother cupping her mouth with her palms while she laughed. It was the most open, brutal laugh that Rachana has experienced in recent memory.

Flitting her eyes around, ensuring there was no one else around, Rachana spewed at the girl, “Cunt child!” She said this in English.

Rachana was from Mumbai and was well versed Marathi, Hindi and English. But she couldn’t tell which part of India this child was from- maybe she was a Kannadiga, maybe a Tamilian or a Malayali, or maybe from Mumbai like her. It was hard to tell such things just by the look of someone.

Unsure which language would be effective against the child, she had chosen English. And even though the child didn’t understand what she said, the venomous delivery of the phrase made her flinch, wiping the smile right off her face.

It was now Rachana’s turn to smile. Happily, she climbed up the final flight of stairs to the second floor.

Now, she thought, if only I could take care of Shobhana’s problem this easily.

**

Rachana had to ring the calling bell twice before Shobhana opened the door. Between the first ring and the click of the door handle, almost five minutes passed, and Rachana was beginning to worry that maybe the urgency Shobhana had implied in the phone call didn’t have anything to do with her broken mental state, as she had assumed. (Rachana had thought that something must have made Shobhie think of that prick, Madhav again which must have saddened her, and the sadness must have become so hard to bear that she called Rachana for support).

Maybe something physical has happened!

This idea was further bolstered by the fact that when she gave Shobie’s phone a ring, standing at her door, she didn’t pick it up. She could hear the phone ringing inside the house though.

She was contemplating calling the police when the door was opened.

But the relief that flooded her mind left immediately when she saw the person who opened the door.

**

“Who-“ She was about to ask who are you?, when a closer scrutiny made it clear that the person who stood at the door was indeed Shobhana Shivdasan.

She looked pale- as though she has lost a whole lot of blood in the last few minutes. Her lips quivered- whether with sadness or fatigue or both, she wasn’t sure. And she clutched the button-filled parting of her nightgown so hard that the veins on the back of her hand stood out against the skin. It was as though she feared someone would forcefully undress her any moment.

There was a wild expression on her face- the eyes flitting inside the sockets, as though unable to find anywhere to settle.

But more than anything else, it was the hair- or lack of hair- on her head which Rachana found the most incomprehensible. In all her life, Rachana has never seen anyone who loved their hair more than Shobhana- and for good reason too.

She could imagine grief driving her friend to do many things- like starving herself, withdrawing even more into herself, not taking an interest in knowing what the latest Netflix shows were- but she couldn’t imagine her destroying her own hair.

And this was destruction- no other word for it.

For Shobhie’s head was closely cropped, with clumps of hair standing helter-skelter, different strands pointing in different directions- and not in any fashionable way either. In fact, it looked as though a team of miniscule demons sheared the hair with iron scissors forged in hell.

“What the hell happened, Shobhie?” The two friends conversed in English- lacking any other common language. And whenever Rachana spoke in the language of the ex-colonists, there was a particular inflection which Shobhie has always said made her “sound like cute little girl excited about a new doll!”

Hearing the question of alarm in that cute voice made Shobhie laugh before the tears broke free from her eyes in a torrent.

Before Rachana could say anything else, Shobhana leaned forward and hugged her, crying on her shoulder, soaking that area of her T-shirt through and through.

**&&

Once they were inside the house, Rachana didn’t immediately ask her friend what was wrong. Neither did Shobhana offer any explanation for the urgent call she made. Instead, Rachana went to the kitchen, where she fixed a cup of coffee, just the way Shobhana liked it- with a little coffee and a lot of cream. She poured just a glass of water for herself- Rachana disliked caffeine and was a tea drinker, only there was no tea dust in this house.

She then walked to the living room with the glasses, to the sofa where Shobhana sat with a thoughtful expression, her face down, staring at the ground. When Rachana gave her the coffee, she accepted it with a softly muttered thank you. She sounded as weak as she looked. Sitting beside her Rachana gently rubbed her back, even as she took a sip of water from her glass.

She decided to give Shobhana as much time as she wanted to start speaking. She thought it best not to force herself to speak. Whatever she has done to herself, she has done because of grief- Rachana felt sure of that.

But at the same time, she was having trouble acknowledging that idea. She has had only one romantic relationship in her life so far- that happened when she was in school, she was in the tenth standard when a boy joined their school, in her class.

He was the first plus sized student other than her in the entire high school.

Things escalated pretty fast. Just two days after the boy- whose name Rachana didn’t even liked to think of anymore- joined the school, they were talking during lunch hour and class breaks like they were best friends who have known each other for a long time. By the third day, hey had become lovers and the fifth day, the boy kissed Rachana on the cheek, behind the bathroom block.

Sure, it wasn’t the most romantic of spots to get your first kiss, but Rachana didn’t mind. In fact, she was elated. Ecstatic, even. 

She has been hearing many of her classmates brag about how they have got boyfriends and how they made out all the time. Though they never came out and said it in so many words, the insinuation was always that Rachana being such a super-sized girl, she could never hope to find a boyfriend. Rachana told them that she was proud of her size(“Bigger means better” was her motto) and she meant it. Only, her believing her own words didn’t have much value with her peers who still continued seeing her as inferior to them:  boyfriend-less.

So when a boy- that too, a nice looking boy, kissed her and professed his eternal love for her, Rachana Gupta thought that heaven has opened up and angels were singing her songs. But when the academic year came to an end, the boy moved to another school and Rachana never saw, or heard from him after that.

To say that she was heart-broken would be an understatement, as huge an understatement as saying that she found the concept of running a marathon a little daunting. It took her almost three months to come out of the darkness, to begin feeling like an actual living person again. But as the time went by, she began to think of the boy in more amicable terms. After all, he did give her a short year when she too had felt wanted. Like she was someone who was cherished, like how many a girl with an hour glass figure was cherished by their boyfriends. 

And she sometimes wondered what would have happened if they had continued the relationship, if the boy had expressed any interest in reciprocating the interest that she showed in keeping in touch. As adults, would they both have moved to Bangalore to find a job, and would they have got married? Had kids?

Seeing the state of despair that Shobhana was in, she thought of something else: if they- she and the boy- were still boyfriend and girlfriend, and the boy had dumped her like Madhav dumped Shobhie, and if she had such gorgeous hair that  she cherished more than anything else in the world, would she have cut off her hair, in a passion of grief?

No, she didn’t think so.

But then again, every person thought- and acted- differently, didn’t they? Even two persons as close as she and Shobhana.

Sitting in the red sofa, under the framed wall poster of ‘Stranger Things’(Shobhana’s favorite TV show) that Rachana had gifted her on her birthday, Rachana found the minutes of silence prolonging, deepening, an absence of sounds except for the soft slurping of the coffee that Shobhie made and the gentle tick-tock of the wall clock. So that the silence didn’t slip into awkwardness, Rachana said, “So, you want to talk about it?”

Shobhana nodded, but barely so. She didn’t look at her friend either. Instead, she kept staring at the floor, with a dazed look in her eyes. The caffeine didn’t seem to have worked quite effectively in waking her up from the daze.

“Why did you cut your hair?”

The question seemed to bring her out of the daze. Looking at Rachana, she fixed her with a gaze that made her friend recoil.

“Do you think that I would cut my own hair, huh?” She pointed at her baldh-ish head. “Do you think that my hair doesn’t mean anything to me? Because if that’s what you think, then Rachana, you don’t know anything about me and you are not my friend!”

Her loud voice reverberated inside the small living room.

Rachana feared that the sound might carry beyond the closed front door and down to those who lived in the  apartment in the first floor.

Suddenly realizing what she just said, Shobhana brought a hand up to her mouth. Gasping, she leaned towards Rachana. Her eyes welled up once again as she said, “I am so sorry..Rachana…I don’t know what I am saying! I am..just so frustrated. I am confused. I don’t know what the fuck is happening! I was just taking a bath and then a hand came up and I got scorched in my palm and then I lost my hair and-“

Mercury Lane-2

The lights came on in the park, and for some reason this heightened her sense of isolation. Shobhana felt like a speck of dirt floating in an ocean of warm yellow light. She imagined that each of the lamps inside the park contained a fragment of the sun and she was a moth that was being burned in the ferocious light.

She cast a glance yet again towards the long building on the other side of the street- to be more precise at the door into which the man in sweater had disappeared. The door was closed, and it was only now that she noticed the door was painted a bright yellow.

Warm and bright- just like the light from the lamps in the park.  She felt invisible rays of light rising off the door and scorching her.

But instead of warming her, the rays made her cold. Shivering, she stood up.

As she did so, she cast one last glance at the tree with the purple flowers. For some reason, the sight of the tree made her feel more peaceful. Like the tree was a living sculpture that spelled a message of peace.

Shobhana quickly walked down towards the gate of the park. Another gust of wind made the branches of the tree sway behind her. The force of the wind was such that it detached the petal from one of the over-ripe flowers that clung to the tree desperately, not quite ready to part ways from its source of life.

The petal- thin and long, like the floral representation of an artist’s finger, floated downwards, carried by the wind as though with a destination in mind. And the destination was the back of Shobhana’s head, where it perched softly on her lush hair before, like a slug, the petal began to move, crawling on its belly and embedding itself between strands of hair, oozing  further into the dark crevices offered by the rich flock of hair on the woman’s head.

At one point, the tip of the petal touched her scalp and Shobhana felt a cold shiver pass down the length of her body. This felt at the same time both eerie and oddly soothing.

Instinctively, she touched the back of her head, around the area where the shiver had originated. But all her fingers felt were her hair- lush and still wet from the bath she took just around half an hour back. The petal, by this time had comfortably made itself confine deep within her locks, staying securely away from the reach of her fingers, from out of anyone’s sight.

Like a spy who has managed to get inside an enemy fortress- unseen, unheard.

The next gust of wind that shook the lone tree in the park was more violent than before, as though it was a premonition of bad things to come.

Shobhana, at the moment was pushing open the iron gate of the park, didn’t notice this.

**

Returning home, Shobhana had a pretty decent time. For the next two hours, that was.

She fixed herself some pasta and coffee, watched part of a movie on Netflix. Ever since the breakup she was careful not to watch any romantic films, as they sometimes brought up bile in her throat,so this evening it was an old Chinese action film.

The action flick reminded her of his father- not because the man himself was a martial arts expert, but rather because he was a huge action film fan.

Many were the mornings when  Shobhana used to come awake hearing the grunts and sound of pieces of wood and bricks and being broken on the television in the living room, back when she was still living with her parents.

And when she came out of her bedroom, bleary eyed, she would see her father sitting in the sofa watching an action flick- mostly the old Chinese films(“They are the only ones who understands what filmic action truly is!” he always said). More often than not, he would be drinking his morning cup of coffee while watching the film. Just as you may find other people his age in front of the television in the mornings watching the morning news, Shivdasan Krishnankutty began the day watching some old action films- especially if it was a holiday and he didn’t have to rush in the morning to get ready for “the one idea in the world that keeps the world running but which I hate the most- job!”

Remembering her father made her smile, but only weakly.

Shobhana paused the Netflix movie.

On screen an almost completely bald young man in a grey robe was in the process of flying-literally- towards his enemy so that he could kick the latter all the way to hell. As she hit the space bar on her laptop, the man became frozen in mid-flight, his arms raised above him in a threatening gesture, his face a veritable study on how to scowl angrily, his lips parted in a snarl.

But all that Shobhana could think of was how the man didn’t have any hair on his head and how sad that was.

“So, what if you are a man?” she said to the Chinaman in mid-flight. “You have no hair but I do- lots and lots, dark and lush, more beautiful than even the best martial arts move you could pull off!” She smirked at the man on screen.

Men, she has come to decide in the last few weeks, were never to be trusted. They may do and say a lot of impressive things, maybe even fly around so that they could kick their enemy’s ass, but at the end of the day, they were not to be trusted.

Unless, of course, if the man in question were her father.

She called Shivdasan on the phone. He picked up on the second ring.

They chatted for more than thirty minutes- mostly, Shivdasan filling her in on all the happenings in their small village. Shobhana felt peace settling in her as she listened to his words.

In fact, the words themselves were irrelevant, what mattered was that she was listening to his voice- the same voice that has placated her, and talked to her lovingly whenever she has felt down in life. Shobhana was always closer to her father than she was with mother.(Mother had a special affinity for her other child- her son, Shobhana’s younger brother). And it was to her father she ran whenever she felt some parental intervention was required to solve a crisis.

The sound of his voice felt so soothing, so reassuring. When the world felt like it was made of thin glass that was cracking beneath her feet, Shivdasan’s voice felt like the only stable point in a fluctuating environment.

‘Like my hair,’ she couldn’t help but think. ‘My hair is the same now as it was before the breakup. It’s still beautiful, unlike my soul that is getting tainted with misery.’

“Shobhana, are you alright?”

Her mind was divided between his voice(and not words) and her own thoughts that Shivdasan’s question felt like a rude awakening. “I am sorry, daddy, I was just thinking of something..my mind drifted off, sorry.”

“That’s alright,” said Shivdasan. “But what’s bothering you? Since we started this conversation, I could sense something was wrong. Or am I wrong in that assumption?”

Shobhana was surprised by her father’s words. It wasn’t, of course, the first time that she has talked with him after breaking up with Madhav.

But the thing was, maybe because of the short visit to the park or maybe because of the action film she has been watching  that helped her take her mind off things, she was feeling much better, mentally much freer than she has in quite some time.

It was odd then that father would find something amiss now.

She assured him that nothing was amiss- the last thing she wanted to do was reminisce about her breakup. She asked him if mother was around, if he could put her on the call. But Shivdasan said she has gone out with Sanjay- Shobhana’s brother- to the local market to buy fish.

Sanjay turned eighteen this year and got his driver’s license just last month. Shivdasan had brought him a motorcycle the previous year, and ever since he has been itching to take it out without fearing for cops flagging him down as he rode without a license. “Ever since he got his license, he is only too enthusiastic about going anywhere on the bike- even if it’s to take his mother to the fish market,” Shivdasan laughed.

Shobhana laughed with him. She knew only too well how much Sanjay used to hate such tasks as going to the grocery store or the fish market. In fact, when Shobhana was still living at her parents’ home, it was she who accompanied her mother- who was the expert in the house in choosing the right vegetables and fish- to the market or the grocery store.

And now, the idea of Sanjay actually showing enthusiasm in such tasks tickled her funny bones.

She was feeling even better than before when she got off the call with Shivdasan.

But just then, she felt the same shiver that she had felt at the park pass through her body, originating from the same spot on her scalp as before.

She wondered if there was dandruff in her scalp- a scary thought for someone who cherished her hair as much as she did. ‘But then,’ she thought, ‘I always take care of my hair with ayurvedic oils and other essentials to prevent dandruff.’

Besides, getting chilly shivers down your spine wasn’t a symptom of dandruff, was it?

In the aftermath of the shivers, her body began to get warm, as though she just came from a short jog. And the heat escalated by the minute, so much so that when she resumed the movie on her laptop, she found it hard to concentrate on it anymore.

Though it’s not been long since she took a bath and the night was turning out to be reasonably cold- she has already turned off the ceiling fan since it was found to be unnecessary- she felt that another bath was in order.

This time, maybe she wouldn’t even turn on the geyser and just bathe in cold water.

**

While in the shower, just as she did whenever she bathed, she squirted a pop of shampoo in her palm and lathered it onto her hair. But this time, when she was rubbing the lather down the length of her hair, she found a clump of hair has come undone.

At first, looking at the hair wound around her hand, the reality didn’t register with her. It was simply too absurd for her hair to loosen like this?.After all, she took a bath just a couple of hours ago and it  was all fine then! She has applied the shampoo then too and nothing like this happened!

But something told her that this wasn’t the shampoo’s doing. For one thing, the shampoo was ayurvedic, devoid of any chemical whatsoever, and it was meant to protect her hair, not damage it.

There was only so long that she could deny the obvious. Walking from the shower to the wash basin, she looked in the mirror.

She tentatively pulled on her hair, so gently that she might as well have been handling a child. But even so, another clump of hair came undone in her hand- the clump, which had detached from the scalp felt like bristles to the touch, even though they were wet.

It was as though her hair was consistently drying even as she held it in her hand, just as her body heated up before.

Feeling panic rising in her, Shobhana pulled on her hair again. And again. And again.

Each time, her fist didn’t come off empty. Hair- like a clutch of grass was in her fist every time.

And even as she watched her panic stricken face in the mirror, she saw a purple finger rising from within the hair in the head. No, not a finger, it was too thin and almost one-dimensional to be a finger.

But Shobhana couldn’t make a closer inspection as the thing-whatever it was, pulled itself back and hid itself away shortly.

Uttering a yelp of fear, Shobhana clutched at her hair around the spot where she saw the thing rearing its head.

But her fingers were immediately burned, so that wincing in pain, she took her hand off her head.

Soon, thin wisps of smoke began to emerge from the water being evaporated in her hair. Feeling a little dizzy, she leaned against the wall of the bathroom for support.

Just a couple of feet away, the jet of water from the shower continued to hit the bare floor; it sounded too loud in her ear- like a viciously thunderous laughter.

And as she watched out of her eyes which kept going in and out of focus, she saw tricking towards the drain, along with the water from the shower that touched no body, black tendrils of hair- long and lush, beautiful an majestic, if only the hair was still attached to her head.

Now, the hair was falling off her head on its own! Falling all around her, touching, teasingly caressing her curves and her legs on their way down, like feathers breaking from wings, like an angel falling from grace.

Shobhana opened her mouth to scream. But all that came out was a gentle whoosh- like the distant sound of the ocean after a storm. She felt the whirl of dizziness rotating faster inside her brain, going round and round and round, faster, faster, faster, like a hyperactive merry-go-round, like a perpetual motion machine keyed up to its maximum potential, ready to burst and break apart into a thousand different pieces.

She hit the ground unconscious.

**

When she came to, Shobhana felt the world to be the same.

The wet and slimy ground, a chillness which clung to her body like a vaporous embrace, the sound of mocking laughter rising from behind her. The sound of fate making fun of her, saying, “And you thought he was the love of your life, didn’t you, silly girl?”

But no, it wasn’t the sound of fate, In fact, it wasn’t laughter at all, but the sound of water hitting the tiled floor from the shower head. This realization occurred to her as she recalled where she was- and what had happened to her.

Sitting up on the wet white floor, she touched her hair, an act which dispelled any hope that she had imagined the whole episode involving the loss of hair and the dizziness and the finger that poked from her scalp.

The finger!

She shuddered at the thought of the purple worm like figure. She instinctively raised her hand to her hair but stopped at the last moment-remembering what had happened the last time she touched her head.

The scalding had left angry looking red marks on her palm , which she presently looked at. Her hand smarted, and she bit down on her lip to stifle a cry. Standing up, she gazed at her face in the mirror.

And this time, she couldn’t help but scream.

For she saw that she had lost more than half her hair, so that what was once long and flowing now stopped short just beneath her shoulders. Also, it wasn’t as though some barber has cut it with precision. It was more like a host of cockroaches had a field day on her head, scratching and taking off pieces and entire clumps of hair from her head as they pleased.

The result was far from pretty.

And even as she watched, she felt a trickle of blood coming down the forehead, originating from her scalp.

In fact, she felt a burning sensation on her scalp, and she couldn’t help but reach her hand and touch the spot, caress her head even, though she wasn’t sure what exactly that would accomplish. But just as she touched her hair, she felt a hand- a human hand, strong and masculine, taking a strong grip of her fingers.

The hand had reached up from the thick velvety hair, and now it had clamped around her fingers, clutching like an anaconda trying to chock the life out of its prey.

The hand  with the long fingers was purple in color.

Notwithstanding the chill in the atmosphere, Shobhana began to sweat, the beads of perspiration mingling with the drops of water on her naked body. She wanted very much to scream, but the sight of the purple hand protruding from her scalp like a horn unsettled her so much that she was having trouble finding her breath, let alone screaming.

She heard a scrunching sound as the hand clamped down even harder on her fingers, like a coil of rope being tightened around dry twigs. As an explosion of pain broke from her fingers, she felt sure that the bones in her fingers must surely have broken, at least in two places.

But just as the red hot pain began to blind her consciousness, creeping up from the edges of her mind towards its centre like a virus consuming a blood cell, the grip on her fingers was abruptly released.

The pain in her bones retreated by gradients. She pulled back her hand from over her head. Looking in the mirror, she saw that the purple hand was no more to be seen.

She still couldn’t bring herself to touch her head though, and not just because of the pain in her hand.

She tentatively stretched the three fingers which had come under the firm  grip of the purple hand(just thinking the phrase made her laugh out loud)- the strongest grip she had experienced in her life.