Kathir pressed the calling bell and checked the tag dangling on Mohan. He looked down at his own attire and almost smiled.
‘I look like a thirty year old,’ he thought.
A middle-aged woman opened the door.
She ran her eyes through them, noticed the tag of Kathir’s ID card and sighed.
Mohan did not give her time to think, “It’s regarding Ramya’s case, madam”.
“Even the milkman doesn’t come to my doorstep as often as the detectives and policemen,” she said in a distraught tone.
“One last time. We won’t bother you much. We already read the reports,” Kathir said.
The woman ushered them in and had them seated on the couch.
Bold Hindi letters danced on the LED screen, with a Mute sign on the right bottom corner.
The woman surprised them by asking if they’d have something to drink. They tried refusing her, but she insisted.
She left to the kitchen glancing at the Hindi soap opera playing on TV.
Mohan found the bungalow in the soap opera similar to the bungalow he was seated in. The couch felt feather soft, the air ice-cold and the walls were paneled with wood, half a dozen speakers here and there. He was lost in awe.
“Work on your look, buddy. You look like a kid brought to a circus,” Kathir whispered to Mohan.
‘Beautiful bungalows hide ugly truths,’ he thought.
Minutes after the serial started rolling, the woman returned, and placed two cups of coffee from a tray onto the table. She pointed at the packets on the tray, “Sugar packets, in case you need more sugar.”
Kathir began even before she settled, “We’ll verify a few facts that are on the record, first.”
Mohan took out a recorder from his bag, switched it on and placed it near the tray. He drew out a pad and a pen and looked up at the woman.
She did not wait for a question. “Ramya was like a daughter to me. She was 19 when she fell from our terrace and died, during a party my son hosted for his graduation. Date – fifteen, six, two thousand fourteen. In the course of the investigation, my son revealed to your authorities that he had proposed her once, to no luck. He is perfectly sane and has had no history of substance or alcohol abuse prior to the incident. Okay? Make the other questions quick.”
Mohan was busy noting down when Kathir asked the next question, “So your son was a teetotaler prior to the incident. What is he now?”
The woman’s visage turned into a grimace.
“I’ve seen him smoke a few times, on the terrace and in a tea stall in the opposite. Your people are to be blamed. He holds himself guilty for her death,” she replied.
“What type of party was hosted by your teetotaler son?”
“It was more of a get-together. He’d asked me money for a party. Knowing the outstanding quality of his friend circle, I decided that I’ll give him the money but supervise the party. It was so much fun, to be frank, until she tripped and fell down.”
The lack of emotion in her tone was striking. Kathir wondered if it was the repeated telling or something else that had taken away the horror of a death.
Mohan questioned her next. “Why was the terrace parapet so small at that place?”
“I begin to doubt if you’ve gone through the reports,” she said sweeping a glance over them.
“We have, Mam, this is just for verification,” Mohan answered.
“The parapet had a minor crack that remained since this house was built. A few weeks before the party, it fell off, thankfully, on the lawn and not on anyone’s head, or we’d be dealing with the authorities from then.”
She turned to the TV. An advertisement was playing. A countdown timer showing ’13’ followed by hindi text was on the top left. “Shall I un-mute it, or will it a disturbance to the investigation?” she asked no one in particular.
Kathir sighed. “We are sorry for the questioning, but we need you to take this a bit more…”
The calling bell rang.
The woman got up to open the door. Kathir noticed Mohan’s face turn ghostly white and pressed his hand in assurance.
When her husband came in, she whispered something to him and was sent into the adjacent room.
The man winced. “Who the hell are you?” His voice sounded more manly than the man he seemed.
“We are investigating Ramya’s case, sir… there are some… things,” Mohan fumbled.
Kathir completed it. “We want to know if she’d worn her slippers to the terrace and if they were in her feet when she fell”
“I’d answered that… already… to a bunch of people last month,” he replied.
The shakiness in the man’s voice gave Mohan the confidence. “And what was the answer, sir?”
“She must’ve worn her heels to the terrace, but there was only one… when she was in the… hospital,” he replied.
He went into the room undoing his buttons. Kathir wanted to follow him in, but decided against it.
Mohan turned to the LED TV. An actress in the serial was crying inaudibly. He turned away on impulse.
The man came back moments later, in a T-shirt and a track pant, after a hushed conversation with his wife.
Mohan recalled the tennis court near the lawn that he’d noticed when he walked into the bungalow. He wished the man would move them over there for the rest of the conversation. The room felt like it was closing in on him since the man had entered the scene.
“Do you have a warrant to question us? You have not shown my wife anything as proof,” he asked just as he sat on the opposite.
Mohan looked for the papers inside his bag. He closed one zip after not finding them inside, and opened another.
The woman hurried from the adjacent room and handed a phone to her husband. She picked the coffee cups from the table and headed to the kitchen.
Mohan felt the papers in his hand, but knew they’d be of no use.
After about half a minute on the call, the man slammed the phone on the table, and turned to them in fury, “Who the fuck are you? You cannot investigate a closed case. No one’s got permission to question us, bastards!” His yell echoed across the room like thunder.
Kathir thought of so many things to say, but it was Mohan who answered, “Sir, we’d come for our… project…”
The man pulled the recorder from the table and smashed it against the wall. He tore down the sheets from the pad and dragged the two out of the bungalow.
Kathir had changed to his T-shirt by the time he was called to Professor Surkanan’s house. He stopped only once before he reached there.
The gate of Sarkunan’s house was open, and as he removed his slippers, he noticed Mohan’s.
The Professor was pacing left and right in the hall.
Mohan was seated facing him, with a coffee cup in his hand, still in the dress he’d worn earlier in the day. The fake ID card was lying on the glass table.
“Here comes the main culprit, eh?” Professor Sarkunan noted.
“Sit down,” he said in his firm voice. Kathir sat beside Mohan.
“When I meant you had to submit a project, I wasn’t this serious,” he said.
Mohan tried to justify his position, “I asked him, no, begged him, sir, to do something less criminal.”
“You said a bad case could get us failed,” Kathir protested.
Sarkunan sat on his bean bag. “I don’t want you solving a high-profile murder mystery, lads. You could have got into jail. You most probably will in the coming days.”
“But the other day, you talked about the Detective Instinct… And I just happened to follow it.”
“That’s where you went wrong, mister. You are not even half-a-detective.”
He continued, “You guys remind me of my mentor, being wild, brave and stupid.”
Kathir wondered if that description fitted Mohan except for the ‘stupid’ part.
“There are simple ways to pass this subject. Take this Karthik’s case for example,” he said, gesturing to a stick file on the dining table,”he has solved a domestic mystery. Missing ice creams – refrigerator – black hand print on freezer door – bam! His father was the culprit. Very good observa…”
Kathir had been thinking of the elusive title. “He’s given you a short story I studied in my sixth grade text. I can’t recall the title.”
The amusement in Sarkunan’s face slowly faded.”But it’s okay, I guess. The first school lesson that has helped someone I know.”
Mohan smiled, but Kathir was honest enough to keep mum.
Sarkunan’s eyes were on Kathir, “The point was this. You needed to show your skills of observation and deduction. It’d be easier to observe details in simple cases. If you’d only solve something highly challenging, then I suggest you start with a societal mystery. How about trying to find who lifted this street’s CCTV camera to which marriage hall.”
Sarkunan turned to Mohan, “I’m not used to having sugared coffee. You might add some sugar from the kitchen if you want.”
Mohan drew a packet of sugar from his pant pocket, “I can manage, sir.”
Kathir didn’t hide his smile.
When Sarkunan looked at him, he continued, “But the girl has a cinema background which kindled my curiosity. A Death Under Suspicious Circumstances was filed, but that was the end. Her death was labelled an accident. Isn’t it…”
“So, you mean to say nothing is an absolute accident. No child of a big shot is allowed to die by accident?”
Kathir did not know what to say.
“Understand this first, you two.”
“It was Kathir’s idea, sir, not mine,” Mohan protested.
“Whatever. Stop questioning everything around you. That is the thumb rule. Nine times out of ten, you are not dealing with subjects and suspects, but people, like you and me, and such people do not like to be questioned the way you’ve done today. Did you even imagine what sorrow your questions would evoke in that businessman’s family when you went to his house? You need to weigh the damage your actions can cause.”
Kathir did not take his eyes off his professor. There was a long pause before he began. “True, sir. I think I’ve learnt a valuable lesson here. I’ll go find the CCTV camera for the project.”
A faint bit of excitement struck Kathir when he wore his sandals, but he decided to ignore it.
He checked his watch. “The tea was so good there.”
“What? You just heard what the man said, right? We are not going back to that case. Moreover, I had coffee just now.”
“I never said about taking the case again. That’s done, it’s just that we both loved the tea, and why should a bad day stop me from getting good tea?”
Mohan could not convince him otherwise.
At the tea stall, Kathir’s eyes were fixed on the bungalow, looking into a glass pane that showed a flight of stairs inside.
“Kathir, I’m telling the Professor,” Mohan warned.
Kathir ordered a tea and sipped it leisurely. “It’s not as you think, Mohan. It’s over, I promise. It’s just…”
A guy in a stained shirt, riding a tricycle of gas cylinders, stood at the gate of the bungalow. The watchman let him in. Mohan frowned. He couldn’t fathom what Kathir had set up.
A few minutes later, as the two watched on from the tea stall, the boy struggled up the steps dragging the cylinder, with the woman close behind. When he re-appeared behind the glass pane, coming down, he showed Kathir the thumbs-up gesture.
Mohan sighed, “What in fuckin’ hell does that mean?” His words were more curious than angry.
Minutes later, the boy casually drove his tricycle out of the bungalow and stopped at the tea stall. His face did not show any sign of familiarity even when he walked past Kathir to order tea. He settled on the bench and ran through the newspapers.
“That’s the face I always wish I can put on while investigating,” Kathir whispered.
Before he went, the boy left a smart phone on the bench next to his half complete tea glass.
After the boy was gone from the place, Kathir filled his seat, and casually put the phone into his pocket.
Mohan tried not to sound curious. “What did the guy do with your phone? Photos?”
“Remember what Sarkunan sir said? We must forget what happened here. This case is over, Mohan. We shall burn this phone… Or better, use Factory Reset, huh?”
Mohan’s ego hesitated to beg him further.
Kathir took some time to finish his tea, pondering pensively about something, and left the empty glass beside the boy’s half-complete one.
He took the phone from his pocket and turned to Mohan. “Do you want to know what’s in this?”
Some two feet behind them, inside the tea stall, a guy of about twenty-two stood with a cigarette between his fingers wondering what details these two strange men could have collected from his house.
I’ve published this story in the hope of getting honest feedback. Please let me know what you did not like about the story, be it the language, the characters, or whatever that strikes you as boring. Thanks!
It was the 99th year since the last natural rainfall was reported on Earth.
Seeded rain, as was the day’s standard, came into existence some 70 years ago. Nobody knew exactly how long it had been. Days did not make sense. Each human had his own date and quarrelled with his neighbour over it. Paper couldn’t be wasted for writing dates, and so, only memory was employed.
India, once a country of a billion people, had a population of 13,785 according to the latest census, taken only a decade ago. The population expansion of 13 births/month could make a billion strong nation only in forty million years, taking into account the death rate of 11/month.
Suzane breathed heavily in her Human Psychology class.
She wore an oxygen mask and was given a bottle of glacier water that had a proven 79% purity.
She was definitely special. She carried a baby, that too, when she was just 15.
A lot of women lost their sanity trying to procreate, starting from the time they reached puberty, if at all they reached it. A pregnant women was held in the highest regard wherever she went. Sick people got out of her way, a lot of potentially harmful humans were evacuated to at least a mile from her and so on.
Suzane was impregnated by the third guy, a feat considered almost impossible. She had no records to prove that it was only the third guy, but she did not care. She loved the attention. She wished to get pregnant again and again till she died.
She tried recollecting the face of the child’s father, not that it mattered, but because she had nothing to think of.
“The end of the internet was the most lethal blow to us humans and our psychologies. It demoralized and threw back to reality millions of people. It was, as beautifully put by Karzark, a doom of facts and the birth of uncertainty. People believe, pollutition was actually called pollution in the olden day. Same goes for populition. Nobody knows where words diverged or where discrepancies arose. The internet took with it human integrity as it fell” The Professor stopped for a cough.
Before he began again, Suzane yelled in excruciating pain. Fortunately, the class was very well prepared for things that were to happen. The representative ran as fast as his lungs could allow him and brought back a doctor.
The doctor’s assistants rushed behind him, bringing supplies of hot water, syringes, a C-cup and a battery. There was a lack of cotton in the area and its usage had to be neglected in the procedure. The doctor yelled, “Leave the room, everybody, especially the sicklings”
No one moved. No one wanted to miss the opportunity of seeing the birth of a life.
The doctor could sense hatred in the room. He did not dare to ask them leave again.
Labour was divine, and birth carried cosmic significance.
After about an hour of painful shrieking, from the birth canal of a bleeding Suzane came the head of the baby. Some in the room started crying. Some came dangerously close to pull the child out themselves.
Before the doctor could pull further, landed something an entire century of Earth hadn’t experienced– the flash of lightning, the phenomenon that did not accompany seeded rain.
Then came the crying of the child, a boy-human, in a healthy and nourished body.
The class lay flat on the floor as the deafening thunder filled the air.
“Fools! Wake up! These are the lightning! Heralds of good times, demons leaving the planet. THE ONE IS BORN!” The Doctor yelled as loud as the thunder itself.
TWO DAYS LATER:
Suzane leaned on the wall of her house, waiting for sleep. The neighbourhood had been forced into vacancy by the authorities.
The house, commonly called a shelter, was the least amount of space a human could live half-comfortable in.
Her house seemed messier than ever. Suzane tried to clean things up, but her son did not allow her one second of time. He either kept crying, or drinking from his mother. She did not know how to make him quiet. She tried talking to him, knowing he wouldn’t understand what she was saying.
Back at school, post her delivery, everyone at least a year elder to her, half of whom had never seen a new-born before, gave her parenting tips. The doctor had advised to keep the baby warm, fed and safe. Only that stayed in her mind.
‘The holy mother-instinct, as they say,’ she thought proudly. ‘That’s how I found such a safe place for my baby boy’.
A lot of people had been warning her of the Hale ever since she started gestating. People told her of the atrocious ways the Hale adopted to grab healthy children. She’d asked, “Why would they need healthy, innocent and beautiful children like mine?” They did not know the answer. Some said it was to cultivate them for a cause that wasn’t yet known to people outside the Hale.
Suzane caught a faint glimpse of a dream when the knocking woke her.
Three quick knocks followed. She froze pale in terror, not coming to think of opening the door.
The door was just a formality, a metaphor for the agreement of the people on privacy, and so, wasn’t made of anything that could withstand more than a gentle push.
It wasn’t long before the door fell crashing to the floor.
Suzane held her belly protectively, out of instinct.
Before the dust settled, six huge people stood right before her, two of them holding another smaller, heavy man whose visage was masked in blood. They put him down on the floor. He did not seem alive.
“Isn’t he the third guy?” one of them said in a monstrous voice.
Suzane did not open her mouth.
He shouted much louder again.
“I don’t remember. All I recall is that he had a round face,” Suzane answered, trembling in fear.
“Then he is,” the only other woman in the room said. She was the tallest woman Suzane had seen.
She walked towards Suzane and bent to face her.
“Where’s the child?” she asked, her voice as calm as midnight.
“No. Don’t… Don’t take him away. He is my life” Tears ran down to her neck.
“No harm shall come. Just tell me where he is” The woman’s tone wasn’t friendly anymore.
Suzane shut her mouth with her hands.
The woman smacked Suzane with her clenched fist. Suzane did not bleed yet. She slapped her to the floor, “Tell me!”
The woman signalled the two men who had stepped forward to stop. She held Suzane by her hair and hit her head to the ground. “You sold her? Speak up. I don’t want to kill you. Don’t make me.”
Suzane’s nose was blood red by then.
Suzane pointed to her right.
She pointed again, this time emphasising.
The woman moved in the direction she pointed. It ended in a narrow cupboard that almost hid in its surroundings.
The woman thrust it open. She found the baby lying motionless on a towel.
“What on Earth!” She picked the baby up in a flash and opened his mouth to blow.
The baby opened his eyes and soon started giggling. The woman checked his hearing and eyesight. They were good.
The boy started pulling the woman’s red cheeks, cackling as he did it.
“Why did you keep him here?” the woman asked, her voice the fury of an erupting volcano.
The boy fell silent, ready to break into tears anytime.
“To keep him safe,” Suzane answered.
“God hasn’t given you the holy mother-instinct? Bless Him that we arrived.” She kept the voice low.
“He doesn’t like it outside. He keeps crying,” Suzane replied.
“So you chose to suffocate him to death on a cupboard?”
“I cut a hole for air”
The woman looked for the hole on the cupboard. When she found one a feet from the ground, she sent her little finger in. It wouldn’t go.
“FOOL! Don’t do that ever again. Am I understood? Are you feeding him properly?”
“Yes. Yes. Whenever he cries,” Suzane managed to say.
The woman turned to her men, “We need to teach them things. Or…”
One of the heavy men took the earthen pot near the door and emptied its water on the bleeding man on the floor.
“Wake up, husband of the Healthy Woman and father of the One,” he said in a sarcastic tone.
“Quite a title for a vagabond,” the woman said dryly.
The cold of the water woke the guy. He seemed starving and shocked to death.
“Please! Please!” Suzane could hear him murmur. She rushed to him and supported his head on her lap.
“That is the family of the old times for you,” the woman said.
“Now listen, couple! Listen closely or you might lose the opportunity to raise your baby,” the man said, looking down.
The six loomed tall over the two. The woman sat herself beside Suzane, baby on her lap. The men sat around them in a circle.
The next hour saw the six explain them the nuances of parenting. Suzane felt like being in a family after a long time. She could periodically hear pleas of mercy from the guy on her lap.
Unmindful, she listened to the Hale, teaching her how to raise her child.
The gentlemen stood blank. Their device had picked the first signal in ten months. Too Late. Things were falling apart. They hoped this wasn’t bad news.
The Officer scratched his head in confusion. ‘The signal is from his gadget. No doubt. But Sir…’ He recollected his thoughts and continued. ‘This does not completely match his gadget’s signal transmission range. Though most of the received signal is in the range, the rest looks like it has been added which could mean interception and decryption of his messages before they reached us. And curiously, the presence of these additional signals is uneven’.
‘Then how did our device detect an out of range signal’, the first gentleman quipped.
‘Well… It falls within our tolerance range sir. Not too off the mark’, The Officer answered, quite ridiculed by it himself.
The Officer continued, ‘So the interceptor possibly didn’t know that our device had a transmission band?’
The first gentleman spoke again, ‘Rubbish.Anyone intercepting this signal would have unmistakably identified the uniformity. So we assume the other option’.
The second gentleman completed, ‘The interceptor wanted to establish his presence‘.
‘Try finding what the additional signal corresponds to’, the first Gentleman said. Though this had turned out to be one tight mission with very little time to spare, the three men in the room were immensely educated to not make blunders out of rush. They liked to play things slow and, more importantly, safe.
Though the signal contained plenty of these off-the-mark ones, the Officer selected the first one and clicked icons so fast that it seemed random. Now he had better riddles to solve. ‘The message is 8 words of text with two pictorials in-between Sirs’.
There was a moment of silence. The last thing they wanted to see was their dead ‘leader’ and a threat message. The message wasn’t any better though.
“If you call it then I’m ’s Observer “.
The first scientist, the physicist, was the only one to decipher the two signatures instantly. If he hadn’t, he had no eligibility to stand in that innovative place. ‘Galileo’s and Newton’s’, he thought about the signatures. Yet, he didn’t want to make mistakes of memory.
He waited as the Officer searched for the two signatures and found matches instantly. The other two looked lost.
‘The Interceptor knows a lot. A hell a lot about us’, the second Gentleman, the All-powerful, thought.
The Officer started aloud, ‘There is something else. The message came farther from where he was sent’. Just plain faces this time. They were just recovering from the message and this one hit them off guard. ‘Now show the other part of the message supposedly from the President’, said the first gentleman, the Professor.
‘Not a message sir, more of an essay. Five pages of text. And Sirs, the in-between signals are clearly poetic’, the Officer said.
‘Poetry?’ The physicist vented. He knew poetry was definitely the President’s favourite piece of art. He suddenly felt a surge of hope. ‘Was the President too pleased with the proceedings? But then, it shouldn’t have been in the out-of-range part’ he thought.
‘He was well informed that the messages had to be short. This can’t be from the President. Even at an utmost emergency he’d simply follow the protocol’, the All-Powerful said with a voice that flickered between trust and suspicion.
‘I’m afraid’ The Officer murmured without taking his eyes off the gigantic screen. The second Gentleman’s gaze flickered through the page of text spotting a poetic part in the middle before it finally hit the first line.
‘Holy Shit!’ the All-Powerful cursed for the first time in a decade.
The three lost even the slightest hopes they had. They felt like staring at a sky high white wall.
‘So five pages is all we’ve got?’ The All-powerful enquired suddenly feeling it was not enough.
‘We had only two pages of data ten minutes ago. It is being sent in parts’ The Officer said still petrified by the first line.
‘So what do we do? Keep reading an encyclopaedia of text? Don’t we have action waiting to be taken’ The Physicist’s ego protested.
‘Is there an alternative?’ the All-powerful erupted. He was too preoccupied to be at his dignified best.
After a few exchanges of looks and fear, the three, with no other immediate alternate, stared at the screen. The Physicist felt a blood curling chill all of a sudden. He cursed himself. ‘You enjoyed the Nobel. Now take its complimentary.’
I lay with no recollection of where I was. A troubling feeling of hallucination gripped my thinking. As my eyes adjusted to the high contrast of the orange-ish sky above, I doubted my vision. My eyes saw the two sources that supplied this place. Astrophysicists would call this wonder a Binary System. ‘A system of two ‘suns’ orbiting their centre of mass’ reminded my mind. I painstakingly lifted my head pushing my hands on the ground which felt more like rubber. My eyebrows hindered most of the view. Even then, ‘The place’ looked sylvan and breathtakingly colourful. It was a garden of colourful flowers I hadn’t seen anywhere my entire life. My head fell back to the ground. My body felt numb. Before I closed my eyes, to the best of my memory, I saw a small bright fly.
There on the bare floor,
Slept your dear hero,
Not in the comfort of his room,
Not with his Earthly mind,
But In some land far away,
Far from his legendary memory,
Farther from his homeland,
In the Traveller’s Inn,
Which you call Galileo.
An ocean of thoughts, dreams, sounds, hatred, violence, stars, planets, Physics, happiness and arrogance flipped like the pages of an album. I woke up to a melodious sound. The sound of rushing wind. This time I was sure I wasn’t dreaming. The hallucinating feeling was gone.
I tried to stand up, my body resisting the sudden work my muscles were required to perform to get me upright. The floor’s softness kept poking my curiosity. After a few steps of laboured walking, I yielded to my desire to try jumping on this rubbery ground. This is one hell of a dream. The jump immediately took me some 10 feet upward. Air borne, I wondered what units people used on this planet for distance. The possibility of not landing on the ground loomed large. Midway down, I let out a loud cry. The cry gave me a feeling that I was indeed enjoying. I wondered if any Earthian physicist, Newton in particular, could ever be trusted in this strange place. My nose touched the ground 5 seconds later. I fell flat on the ground, face down, completely unhurt. I tried it a few more times, shouting an extra decibel each time. Adrenaline consumes glucose. I may need it later. This activity better wait.
I went down on my knees to examine a curiosity invoking multi-coloured flower. The stem was as slender as a rose’s.On it stood a flower, which looked dense and heavy. I touched it. This could only be felt. Not described. I pulled the plant up with the fear that it would indeed trigger a Hydrogen Bomb. Even that wouldn’t surprise me given the things I had seen the past few minutes. There are only two possibilities. Either I’m dreaming or… I’ve gone nuts. The plant had stood on the ground. It had stood on the ground. I meant what I said. It had no roots. The VIBGYOR of the flower was why I was examining that in particular. Otherwise, I’d have gone for those black ones or better, the shining gold ones.
All of a sudden, a strange fragrance took hold of my olfactory. The smell grew larger each passing second. I had the feeling this would suffocate me to death. A few choking seconds later, the smell seemed to have got to the acceptable range of my olfactory. The fragrance reminded me of a song people loved in my world. I felt a sudden warmth. Warmth I had never felt before. My shoulders felt easier. Her hands had eased them. I turned to see her.
Struck by her immense beauty and the depths her eyes took me, I wished this dream continued at least for a few more days. She then leaned onto my shoulder. The first women I’m ever touching. She guided my hand onto her waist. It was the endorphins this time. I knew what next to do. Walk. I see movies.
They walked like the hopeless Romantic,
Though he felt like a lost lunatic.
In this dreamy a place,
They walked with the slowest pace.
Two stars are less calm a sight,
Than a full moon on a breezy night.
‘Haven’t you still not got back your memory? What is the last thing you remember?’ she asked me rapidly.I gave it a thought. I could remember graduating from college, then, receiving my first salary, almost dying at the hands of Tuberculosis and finally, Riya’s death. I was sure that was my last memory. Before I could speak, ‘So Riya’s… is all that you remember?’ she asked.As if all this mind-reading, rubber flooring and the twin stars weren’t enough, I understood the language unmistakably. It was my mother tongue, Tamil. Her voice brought back memories of a jungle safari I undertook, when, I couldn’t place. The waterfalls, the lovely spotted deer, the smell of pristine greenery and the chilled body of dead Pinto, my cat. We walked for a few more moments as slowly as I could because I kept thinking about my last memory. Riya’s death was the last chronologically. But I had a feeling that it happened long ago.
I was completely unsure why I didn’t ask her questions. I must have asked her a million by now. She felt home.
‘Don’t wanna ask me where you are, who I am, what you are doing here and why you are bald?’. I checked my head and looked at her.
‘Well. To begin with, to answer where you are, you are at Atuka. It is a planet by the way. To be precise, it is some other planet other than the Earth. If some fellow Atukan asked me where he was I’d have said “The Windfield” though I don’t even have to ’. As my ears listened, my eyes were busy studying her. She looked completely Earthian and was wearing a saree with a few bangles on her right hand and simple ear-rings hung from both her ears. That should have been why I felt home with her.
‘To answer who I am’, she continued ‘I’m just one of the 1.5 billion Atukans, and am a descendant of migrants from Earth. Well, a lot of species, races and life forms live here. A total of 53 unique ones so far. As to what you are doing here or why you are bald, I have no idea and you should tell me that. Ya. I know you have forgotten a lot or maybe even the reason why you came here but just try.’ My memory felt intact and perfect except when I tried to think past Riya.
‘You said you are a descendant of people from the Earth’ I pressed. She answered ‘Yes. I am. My great grandparents were offered a place here and that was too much to refuse even back then. They hated the Earth because science was unwelcome there. Religion eclipsed Science. They had migrated some 400 years ago. You guys didn’t know things like ‘codes’ that decide who we are and that they are they are passed through parents.’ ‘We now know that and we call your ‘codes’, Genes’ I thought. ‘Ya. Genes you call that this late?When my grandparents came here, Atuka was doing ‘assisted Code enrichment’by which we disabled or created new sections of codes and improved ourselves. My Grandfather said he hardly had an IQ of 150 when he came here. When my father conducted those IQ tests, I scored 320’. She said with a matter-of-fact tone.‘What is 13301 times 11056?’ I asked. ‘One four seven O five five eight five six’ she said almost instantly. Though I did not have a calculator to verify her answer, I knew that was right, because the answer was a turning point in my life (on Earth) and I’ll never forget that. It was, by the way, my first lesson in failure.
‘Is that how you are able to read my mind?’ I asked. ‘Most Probably’ she said and I could detect something absurd in her. I might not have an IQ of 320 but I definitely knew something was amiss. That was my instinct, something that DNA will never explain. ‘Human instincts have to be trusted’ is what I’d always tell myself when I faced dilemmas in my life. I never did that and that was the primary reason for my miserable life (Yeah. On Earth). ‘For a change’ I thought and asked her, ‘Are you capable of reading any life form’s mind or is it just humans’. ‘Humans, I do well. Other species I’m not very familiar.’ She said now sounding in control. It was the better-luck-next-time moment and I had to stop it there.
I publish this only with the hope that someone in some part of the world will give me an honest opinion on my writing.
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‘Sita. Stay inside no matter what happens!’ Arjun said in the manner his teacher expected.
‘But… Can’t you take Lakshmana with…?’ Sandhya halted seeing Anu Mam’s hand go up beside.
‘What’s with your hair honey? Why does it need your attention at this crucial juncture?’ Ms Anu said as politely as she usually did and hand-combed Sandhya’s hair and clipped it.
Ms Anu looked at Dileep, ‘And Dileep, after Sandhya finishes and before Keshav begins his dialogue, you’ll play something that should bring in the fears’.
Dileep nodded from below the stage from where he watched the proceedings.
‘Does anyone know why our Lakshmana has been absenting himself quite often this month? Any leads?’ Anu Mam enquired. She got suspicious exchanges of glances on stage and silence from below it; nothing else.
And they began rehearsing again. All went well this time.
‘Well done!’ Anu Mam said smiling broadly at Dileep after he’d played a tune at the place specified.
Ms Anu looked at Dileep, ‘Now Dileep play me that Mozart thing. That’s been running in my mind for…’
‘Mam! Time’s 2.30!’ Sandhya informed in a perfectly thrilling voice and apt articulation. She was a much better dramatist off-stage.
Ms Anu checked her watch reflexively and went through her schedule mentally: Once, twice, and thrice.
‘My God! Friday! I have classes’, she said and ran for the door behind the stage shouting ‘Keep rehearsing!’ twice before disappearing behind the big red screen.
The two on stage had absolutely nothing to do for the next hour and even the mere thought of rehearsing didn’t cross their minds from then. They sat on the edge of the stage, legs hanging, and spoke on things they usually did.
‘I’ll meet Prabha and be back in five minutes’, Sandhya told Arjun sometime later, jumped down and rushed out. Arjun heard her shout ‘Keep rehearsing!’ just before closing the door behind her. Arjun smiled involuntarily.
Only when he got down did he remember Dileep’s presence in the auditorium. Dileep had been with the keyboard’s manual all this time. The sight maddened Arjun because he knew Dileep had just managed to pass in the previous cycle test. ‘How could he waste time like this?’
‘What do you want to become Dileep?’ Arjun asked in his diplomatic voice trying to arrive at what he really intended to ask.
‘Musician of some sort’, Dileep replied undoubtingly.
‘Do you think you can support your family with that Dileep?’ he said removing Dileep’s hands from the keyboard and started playing the ‘Happy Birthday’ tune.
Dileep waited until Arjun played it till the last measure to reply but Arjun continued, ‘You’ve got a wonderful brain Dileep! I still remember that relative motion problem you solved. I never thought you would… I mean… I never expected you’d shout an answer anyway’, Arjun said, now placing his hands on Dileep’s shoulders.
‘I do like Science. But, that answer was some random luck. I’m no Genius like you’
‘Never mind. Coming to the point, you can shape a better future for yourself and your family if you spend some time studying! Keyboard all the way? Come out of that. That’s a tough career Man. It’s not even a career option yet. Even if you make a career out of it, you won’t make enough money to support your family unless you’re extremely lucky or a Mozart or a Bash. Be sensible… Practical. I do know you have the necessary influence…’ Arjun stopped seeing discomfort on Dileep’s face and cursed his choice of words.
‘Sorry! I meant no offence Dileep’ Arjun added hoping Dileep would reply. The silence aggravated the development. Arjun wished he had left with Sandhya.
A few seconds later, Dileep broke the silence, ‘I know studies won’t work for me. I don’t have it in me. I will definitely value what you said and take that as good advice from a good friend’.
‘Think about it. Trust me. You are intelligent and you don’t know that! Time’s on your side now. You shouldn’t regret not taking academics seriously later’.
‘Well yes’, Dileep said. Arjun smiled bluntly.
‘And… You’re an exceptional actor da. I can see that’, Dileep lightened the argument.
‘Maybe. But I’m not here for the Oscar’, Arjun winked.
The both of them smiled.
‘Sandhya! Ya! Gem of a girl!’ Dileep said looking straight at Arjun’s blushing face.
The same, clichéd “Eight years later”:
‘You guys find a way into our country like how ants find sugar in my house’, Yusuf told Arjun, leaning on the cabin door.
‘Who is it now?’ Arjun with a grown face, eyeglasses and a tint of tiredness replied.
‘Some MOTIVATIONAL speaker is coming all the way from your India this Saturday! To make us believe the company can run for another year, to make us believe we can walk to the moon! He’ll probably make me believe I’m a genius too! Blah Blah!’
‘This Saturday? God! I had plans!’
‘Everyone had plans! I had to take Amir to the Museum for his assignment. He’s gonna go mad now’
‘Hey! At least you can send him with Aisha. I had to book my ticket!’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll ask her to get tickets for you while she takes Amir to the Museum’
‘On any other day I’d have refused and you know that. Decency can wait now! Tell Aisha I need the ticket badly and I’ll buy Amir as many cupcakes he wants’
‘How much these Sandhyas and Aishas change the personalities of men!’
Arjun chuckled, ‘True’
The Sunday finally showed up.
‘I told you! Our Office is nuts’, Yusuf said after the two had just entered the addressing hall, late by 5 minutes, to see 50 odd people moving here and there, rather awkwardly, to the counts of a young fellow they hadn’t seen before. After a good few seconds, Yusuf discovered what they were doing, ‘Oh Boy! They’re exercising!’
Arjun thought the young guy was some apprentice of the Motivator who was getting people ready for the Motivator‘s session. Arjun later understood that the young guy was indeed the Motivator. The long haired, saffron dressed, polite sounding and slow-moving image he had of the Motivator vaporised. The Motivator looked like a college student and wore a bright t-shirt and a huge wrist watch.
The session was completely unlike anything anyone had seen or heard. The Motivator joked, danced, laughed and even enacted how their boss had invited him here when he met him at a bar in America.
‘You Indians do more than what is expected!’ Yusuf whispered from beside, eyes glued to the stage.
‘Even I’m amazed! The exact opposite of what I’ve seen back there.’
Arjun was starting to like this guy. He volunteered a few times and asked him a few questions. There was something that felt good about meeting a smart headed young Indian in the Gulf.
In the middle of ‘The philosophy of success’, the Motivator increased his pitch, ‘Does anyone here have a true story that has something to do with the right decisions, growing up in life, braving the usual and tasting success in the end?’
Arjun was on stage with the Motivator in no time.
‘Is it the story of ‘your’ life Arjun?’ The Motivator asked Arjun.
‘Yes it is’
‘Ok. What made you think you are a success?’, the Motivator asked casually.
‘I feel I’m successful because… I earn more than 10 times what my father earns.. I have gifted my dad a car that he dreamed about and that too, just with a portion of my first two years’ salary’.
The audience clapped and cheered. This was partly because, going by Arjun’s definition, they were a bunch of highly successful people.
‘That’s a very good level of confidence. I basically hate modest people’, the Motivator said and waited till the chuckles subsided, ‘Now about the decisions?’
‘After Higher Secondary school, the only decent course that I had available at IIT was an Earth Sciences one and that too was available only at IIT Bombay. People asked me to consider other alternatives and opt for some other course that was much more common and recognised even if that meant abandoning the IIT seat. They also discouraged me from going out of town. They told me things like ‘Study some well-known course here and you can do your higher studies abroad’, ‘A good student can study anywhere’, ‘What about your theatre acting? Stay here and continue acting’ and stuff like that’
‘Cool! So you were an actor?’
Finally, the day for which Arjun, Sandhya, Dileep, Keshav and Ms Anu had worked for arrived. A day of Glitz and Grandeur, like never before: The Annual Day.
Ms Anu often feared the failure of her show. She had been quite brave with the screenplay. She had wanted the Ramayana told with a contemporary setting. She spiced the challenge further by casting only 3 people in it and employing an amateur to score the background music. She prayed one last time before she came down and took a seat farthest from the stage. Her play was the last of the day.
The play started with the necessary cheer and anticipation and Ms Anu wished that continued till the end. There was this good looking Ram, the charming Lakshmana and the angelic Sita. The Raavana looked like the one from the deadliest nightmare. He walked peculiarly with a swag and dragged Sita out of the stage when both Ram and Lakshmana were gone. People no longer made any noise. They could actually feel evil. Raavana was defining what ‘horror’ was. The scenes broke and fast forwarded to the battle. Then there was this charming Ram again in the battle but this time with a burning rage. For the climax scene, a white screen had been placed on the stage. The screen showed two silhouettes. One was clearly Arjun’s and the other was assumed to be Raavana’s. Then the silhouette of Ram killed Raavana’s with a sword and Raavana’s head fell on the ground. The crowd erupted.
Arjun came out from behind the white screen. Sandhya and Keshav joined him from each side of the stage.
Keshav started on his mic, ‘Would you believe me if I said Arjun played both Ram and Raavana?’.
There was silence for a complete second. Then the crowd erupted.
The after-play time belonged entirely to Arjun. Parents came praising him, shaking hands with him and suggesting he become an actor. An occasional one or two praised Sandhya and no one even noticed both Keshav and Dileep. Keshav had only 2 minutes of screen time and that was partly acceptable. In half an hour or so the whole gathering had reduced to a handful. Dileep was packing up by then.
Dileep zipped his keyboard into its bag and checked if he had missed something. He put his keyboard bag to his shoulder and turned to leave, ‘Good Job man! Really good! Guess no one appreciated you this evening. Behind the scenes people are often ignored eh?’ Arjun said panting.
‘Yeah… And you acted very well! Congrats! You deserve all the applause’, Dileep offered his hand.
‘Thanks Man! You scored the complete twenty minutes and I get all the applause for the 10 minutes! Weird, isn’t it? Ok! My parents are waiting at the parking. I came back only to appreciate your music. Great work man! Bye!’ Arjun said shaking Dileep’s hand fast and ran to the door. By then, Dileep was the last person left in the auditorium.
‘Cool! So you were an actor?’
‘Yes! A Theatre actor! Now coming back to what I was saying, had I not taken that decision of picking up a not-so-famous course, I wouldn’t be here now’
‘Ok! But then, you left your theatre acting. So you consider letting go a part of yourself and just earning a success?’
‘I did try a bit of acting in college too. It wasn’t serious and eventually it started taking my study time. That’s when I stopped it. You know… Sometimes we need to sacrifice lovely things for the sake of a better future’
Arjun looked at the Motivator. He gave Arjun an assuring nod.
Arjun continued, ‘I had a friend… name… I cannot give… who was a better talent than me. His family was finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet. I advised him to take academics seriously and spend some time studying. But he still did not take my advice or anyone else’s… I told him a keyboard can take him or his family nowhere’
The Motivator’s eyes shone like a diamond, ‘Wait a second! He was a keyboardist?’. He then walked for some time scratching his head implying his confusion, ‘What’s wrong in being a keyboard player? By the way, didn’t he make it big?’
‘No. Not even enough to sustain his family. That’s what I was about to tell you’
‘Oh poor! But this guy’s interesting! Can you describe him?’
‘He was… stubborn… irrational… and didn’t care what good things people told him. He’d say ‘Yes I’ll take your advice’ but the next day he’d do what he’d been doing all the while’
‘Heavy headed, arrogant guy, I guess!’
‘On the inside… Maybe… On the outside,’ Arjun chuckled ‘he had dropped out of school at the beginning of my eleventh standard and I came to know of this only at the end of the year’. The audience laughed.
‘Ah! My God! My God!’ the Motivator said rubbing his hands, ‘So you mean he was an introvert, all-with-himself, prefers-privacy-to-people-guy?’
‘How old was he when he left school?’
Arjun thought for a second, ‘15!’
The Motivator turned towards Arjun, ‘From what hard lessons history has taught me and the ‘educated’ world, I bet my fortune Arjun, your keyboard guy will achieve things we cannot even imagine!’
Arjun spent all the time in the flight thinking entirely of Sandhya. He was done with the recap mid-way in the journey and from then he started imagining the future. By the time he was debating whether he should let his son go abroad to study, the announcement was made. The flight had reached his hometown.
He rushed in security checks, bag collecting and every other airport formality. He was the first to come out and he wasn’t disappointed.
The moment he stepped out of the immigration building, he saw whom he’d come for. Sandhya stood leaning on the visitor’s railing and as soon as she saw him, she waved her hand enthusiastically. Since decency was on pause since last Thursday he went straight towards her without having the patience to meet her at the end of the lane. He stopped within a few inches of her. He wished he hadn’t. That smell of Sandhya! That same smile which broke his heart 15 years ago! They were intact! In those 500 milliseconds he fought a thousand battles trying to prevent tears from rushing out. How he missed her these two years. He knew it there. ‘There’s won’t be life without her!’
‘Welcome back!’ Sandhya said smiling her signature heart-melter. He forced his mind into thinking something for a reply, ‘How do you do?’
In ten minutes, Arjun was in her car, driving to some undisclosed location. Sandhya could sense something abnormal in Arjun. She tried asking him but Arjun did not reply.
‘Why didn’t uncle and aunty come to the airport?’
‘Because they didn’t know I was coming’
Arjun maintained his silence.
Arjun stopped the car at the roadside car parking.
‘Why are we stopping here?’ Sandhya asked.
‘I’ll tell you dear Sandhya!’
Sandhya’s confusion didn’t prevent her from following him.
Arjun stopped just ten feet from the edge of the sea. He could not wait any longer. He took the small shiny box from his pocket.
‘Well… Sandhya…’ , he said turning to her.
‘It took me these two years to understand’ Arjun paused.
‘That I had been head over heels in love with you for over a decade’ he said going down on his knee and opening the diamond box.
Sandhya went blank. Since the silence persisted for a few more seconds, Arjun continued.
‘I’m serious Sandhya, I love you!’
‘I’m sorry Arjun I’m in no mood for all these’
‘Don’t you love…’
‘Listen. I’m already fighting hard at home to prevent my getting married. I don’t wish to be in any kind of romantic relationship at the moment… no… for life!’
Arjun got up, ‘Don’t you love me?’
‘But I love you from the bottom of my heart!’
‘I’m surprised you’re doing this to me Arjun. I’m talking no more on this! I have other important things to do with my life!’
She drove him back to the hotel he wanted to check in. Arjun had never seen her face go this dull all his life. She dropped him at the entrance and refused his plea to have coffee with him.
She kept talking with him standing at the entrance for quite some time until someone told them her car was obstructing the way. She parked it and continued the conversation with him, this time, inside the hotel.
He was the undisputed genius of his class. But he didn’t need genius to guess Sandhya didn’t completely hate the idea of his love. She spoke as if nothing had happened the past hour. She asked him for time. Those hours had given Arjun enough memories for another two years that were going to be devoid of her presence. He decided he was leaving for Dubai the very next day. She told him she wouldn’t marry any time in the next five years. Arjun wanted to be financially sound by then. ‘Operation Love has just failed. Operation Dirham starts now!’
‘Do you know where Dileep’s house is?’ he asked Sandhya out of nowhere.
‘No. I never knew. I met him at Mount Road some time back. He told me he came there for some rare music magazine. He told me he is happy about his profession now as his family is running quite well and also thanked me for my advice.’
‘Hey Dileep!’, Sandhya called from behind, moments after the Annual Day play was over.
She shook his hands, ‘Great Job Dileep! You had a much better role to play than me and… even Arjun. Twenty minutes of music! I wonder how you even remember the notes!’. Dileep smiled, ‘Yeah! Thank you!’
‘The mic went off when I tried to lip my dialogues in the abduction scene. I went cold but then, you played something sad that wasn’t rehearsed. You saved the scene. I cannot even imagine the embarrassment. Thank you so much! We’re indebted ’, Sandhya said.
Dileep displayed a controlled smile.
‘Don’t worry because no one appreciated your music today. Good background music goes with the scene. Yours fit perfectly and people experienced it as part of the scene. That’s a success Dileep! I see amazing talent in you! Don’t follow formula and get into Engineering or Medicine! You are made for music. I’m quite sure people who know music will understand your talent’.
Dileep felt frozen. He started after a few seconds, ‘Music that goes with the scene! I’ll remember that for a very long time! I’ll try to stick to that as much as possible! And thank you Sandhya! Thank you so much!’
‘Long back when we did that Ramayana thing! See how many people I’ve inspired all my life’, Sandhya said smiling. She was bringing the tempo down.
Arjun smiled like he did every other time Sandhya said something like this. The day looked good again.
Three years passed like three hundred years. He had been trying to forget her. He had too many memories about her and it wasn’t easy.
Arjun tore the august 10 from his calendar.
That day, he received a parcel from a friend. He found in it a letter and a gift wrapped article. He read the letter first. He came to know from the letter that the other article inside the parcel was a music disc. His friend had written that it was the soundtrack of the movie which was about to release that week. He had mentioned that he had struck out the director’s name as it would create an unwanted bias and added that he sent this only to a small group comprising his closest friends as a gift and advised that he hear it at least ten times.
He heard the whole soundtrack a few times that day. The album was highly innovative in terms of the sound, no doubt. He only liked one song while the rest did not impress him. Arjun felt a lack of a soul in the soundtrack.
The day was August 15.
The first thing that he did after he woke was play the music disc. He loved every other song in the album. His latest addiction was the ‘separation song’ which was currently playing. That reminded him of Sandhya like nothing else he had ever heard. His eyes moistened every time he heard it. It felt like someone had composed the song only for him. Ever since he started liking the song, he had been fighting the urge to talk to her. Three years of running from himself was what he had been doing.
He paused the song and wiped his tears. He washed his face and jumped twice. It had been nearly a year since he last called Sandhya. He stopped near the telephone. ‘Come on Arjun! Control this thought for just a few more minutes and it’ll…’, He picked the receiver before his voice could convince him against it.
The phone rang for just a few seconds. Arjun must have felt nervous, if not, how else could his heart be beating 3 times a seconds.
‘Oh Arjun! How are you?’
‘Fine. Happy Independence Day!’
‘Well I’m still fighting for it at home so I’m not greeting you back’
Arjun laughed from the heart after a very long time.
‘So still resisting marriage at home?’
‘Ya… India is a bad country for women. While the world is waking up to women power, my mother wants me married off to some stupid guy in the US’
‘So… Do you still remember…’
‘Yeah. Your application is still in the contest’. Sandhya said laughing.
‘Well… I still need some time. Thanks for being a gentleman and not taking this to my parents. They’d have got me married to you immediately.’ she said laughing.
‘Oh! That would have been so bad!’
‘Ha Ha. I didn’t mean it that way’. Sandhya laughed again. Arjun wished he could record all these sounds but immediately decided against it. ‘It’ll only aggravate the situation’ he thought as per his new set of rules he’d framed in a bid to forget Sandhya.
Three minutes into the conversation, he had broken every rule he had set to forget Sandhya. His love for Sandhya was beyond him, beyond her. He often got lost in thought when she spoke. ‘Nostalgia!’. Sandhya meant India for Arjun. Forgetting her would mean forgetting his childhood, his school and, most importantly, India. That’s what made it impossible to forget her.
The talking went on for another twenty minutes.
‘Ok! Arjun! Mom has been asking me to help her with the chappatis. We’ll talk later! Bye!’
‘Bye…’, Arjun said feeling like a child whose toy had just been snatched.
‘Oh wait! Now I’ve got to something interesting about Dileep’
‘Yes’ he said but he thought ‘What is it now?’
‘Firstly, Dileep has changed his name and secondly, he is the music director for your favourite director’s next movie that is releasing someday this’
Arjun hung the phone. He was the undisputed genius of his class. He knew what she’d have told him. A dead-cold chill ran through his spine. He could see a ghostly white image on the mirror to the right.
He dropped to the floor. No other thought crossed his mind for the next few minutes. ‘I’ve lost’. He sat on the floor for 10 minutes not knowing what next to do. ‘From what hard lessons History has taught me, your keyboard guy will achieve things that we can’t even imagine! How true!’
He mustered the courage to stand up against the feeling of being haunted.
He walked to the music player. He had a long thought-battle while his hand was still suspended in the air near the play button. He changed the track to the song that he loved from the very day he got the disc. He had heard a voice in the middle of that song but he couldn’t place whose voice it was back then. Now he knew whose it was. He tapped the play button and sat on the floor.
The prelude was as lovely as a sun rise.
Half a minute into the song broke Vairamuthu’s lyrics, that would go on to win the National award, in the form of Minmini’s voice:
‘Roja’ released on August 15, 1992 to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success and is considered a milestone in Indian film music. It is also one of TIME’s 10 Best Soundtracks.
Rahman lost his father when he was just nine years old (Arjun: ‘Do you think you can support your family with that Dileep?’)
Rahman is an introvert. Yay!! (The Motivator said rubbing his hands, ‘So you mean he was an introvert, all-with-himself, prefers-privacy-to-people-guy?’)
Rahman would cycle to Mount Road to get a rarely available music magazine, by name, Music Makers. (Sandhya: I met him at Mount Road some time back. He told me he came there for some rare music magazine)
“Rahman’s name wasn’t mentioned in (probably) the very first edition of Roja’s music disc”