stories

                                                              AASHA 

                                                               by S.K. 

The lights were bright and shining, the stage was decorated with flowers, relatives were chattering and pulling the legs of the bride Aasha who wore an elegant red saree to compliment the looks of the love of her life, Rohit who was trying hard not to show his flushed face at his friends’ banter.

It was a wedding which every couple would dream of. Theirs was a love marriage with little resistance from parents, it was as if people knew they were made for each other and to part them was a crime. Everything seemed to fall in place.

The cameramen continued to flash their lights.” Aasha mam, smile please”. The flashlights continued to blind, she held Rohit’s hand firmly, their eyes met and they knew they will never let go of each other. Their parents proudly looked on and said, “Such a lovely couple”.

Just then, the cameraman called again, “let’s take a family picture. Almost immediately,  near and dear ones grouped around the couple, trying to get their place alongside the newly married. When finally, everyone was settled down, the cameraman shouted above the loud music, “ Everybody smile please” and off went the bright flash from the camera almost blinding Aasha.

As she opened her eyes, it took some time for Aasha to realise she was dreaming about her wedding which had taken place 5 years ago. Her head was very heavy and she was trying to recount the events of last night. She had taken an overdose of the sleeping pills which she had been taking for the past 2 years since Aug 21st 2015 which was the last day she had heard from Rohit.

“Bruce” was her only companion and a source of comfort, a gift from Rohit on her birthday. Who would have thought of gifting a cat on his wife’s birthday!. That was Rohit’s speciality.

Aasha asked herself the question again “What went wrong?  We were supposed to be the couple as in the fairy tales, where they lived happily ever after”.

As she continued to think about the past, her head became even heavier, the room began to revolve and Aasha fell back on the bed unconscious.

“Don’t you do that again Rohit, it’s too cold,” Asha screamed. She was having the time of her life on their honeymoon in Kashmir, the snow-clad mountains added to the romantic air which surrounded them through the day. There was never a moment when they let go of each other and every night when they went to sleep, Aasha cocooned into Rohit wishing to God that every day of her life was like this.

Honeymoons are like induction training, it’s never meant to last forever. Like every other couple, Aasha and Rohit had to return to normal routine after a dream honeymoon. Being accomplished professionals in Mumbai, Asha and Rohit enjoyed a successful career in diverse fields. While Aasha was a neurosurgeon, Rohit was the Vice President of a multinational corporation. They found every single way to keep in touch though work was keeping them far apart.

But, as days turned into months, the distance kept getting bigger between the two. “Darling, carry on with dinner, I will be late today,” this was a message which Aasha was sending quite often to Rohit’s mobile. She used to get a reply too, “ Alright luv, come home soon,” which provided a sense of comfort to Aasha and she felt blessed to have such an understanding partner.

Rohit never missed to reply, he was always the level-headed of the two, balancing all their fights, talks about raising a family, be it anything Rohit was Aasha’s saviour.

But that day was different.  Aasha had left early in the morning due to a series of meetings at the hospital. This was supposed to follow a surgery in the evening. Aasha lost track of time, she realised it was evening, when the nurse called to her, “Doctor, the operation theatre is ready.” She sent a message out to Rohit, “Baby, I have a surgery to take care of, will be late tonite, please have your dinner, will come over by 1 am.”  It was well over 20 minutes before she looked at her mobile, Rohit had not responded. She felt uneasy, “That wasn’t Rohit.” She almost felt tempted to hand over the surgery to her colleague, but, when the face of Patient’s mother came in front of her, “Madam, will my son become normal after this surgery,” she couldn’t do it. It was a complicated case involving removal of a clot from the brain and Aasha simply couldn’t take the chance of handing this over to a surgeon who was not completely aware of the patient who might develop complications during the course of the surgery.

It was 2 am when the surgery ended. Aasha was exhausted, the surgery was successful. As she came out, she felt relieved and started rushing out of the hospital towards her car waiting at the parking lot. She tried Rohit’s number on her way back, it was switched off.  She reached home to see the door was locked. Aasha was shocked, Rohit always came back home by 6 p.m, he was stickler for time. “What happened”?. She reached out to her mobile to see if Rohit had responded, no messages.

Aasha was getting panicky now, she thought of calling her parents, but, was worried about their health. “Getting a call at this time of the night might really scare them”, she thought to herself.

She decided to call Abhay, Rohit’s closest friend in his office. Rohit was very choosy when it came to friends, but once he put his faith on them, he would stick on. Aasha decide to go for it. The mobile rang 4 times, Aasha was making up her mind on how would she enquire on Rohit’s whereabouts. He was in a very senior position in the company and the last thing she wanted was somebody speculating about his personal life.

Just then, Abhay picked up the call, “ Bhabi, is everything all right? You are calling me at this time of the night. “ Abhay, yes, everything is fine. Sorry to disturb you at this time, did Rohit and you have a long day in the office today, he hasn’t returned back yet, I am unable to reach him.”

“ Bhabi, Rohit never came to office today”. “ Aasha stood stunned, “ What?” she blurted out.

“Bhabi, you didn’t know, he said he was not feeling good today and took a day off. I thought you knew…”  But Aasha couldn’t hear anything, she was too shocked to speak. “Bhabi are you there…”

That’s when Aasha fell down unconscious.

It was 2 p.m in the afternoon, when Aasha woke up, her mother was sitting by her side, “How are you beta,”  she asked worriedly. “ Did Rohit come home,”  that’s the first thing which came out of her mouth. Aasha’s mother spoke after a few second. “ People are looking for him, we might have to file a police complaint in the evening.” Aasha could not  understand any of the things happening around her, less than 24 hours back, Rohit was with her and now isn’t.

“I will start searching for him”, she got up only to stumble and fall back, she started feeling dizzy and then passed out.

When she woke up again, it was 10 p.m in the night, she could see known faces around her murmuring.  “Maa,” she called out, “Is Rohit back?”  Her Mom started crying, “ Beta, we have filed a police complaint, they have assured all help and are investigating.”

Aasha was fighting tears, her life was crumbling around her and she felt powerless to do anything about it.  But deep down, her heart said, “ Rohit would never desert me.”  Almost immediately she felt guilty of even having thought of such a thing. Rohit believed in long term relationships, sticking on no matter what and his absence without a trace was not making sense.

The police were finding it hard to find any clues as well. Rohit was last seen on CCTV camera near their house riding a bike. As the footage was captured late evening, visuals were blurred, hardly providing any help.

There was no further clue or trace of him. Aasha’s house was closer to the beach and a little distance from the bustling city. There was not a great deal of CCTV footage to help the police  further. To dd to the confusion, Rohit had forgotten to charge his mobile and it lay in their bedroom.

Days of searching turned into months and months into years, with no solid clues. The police eventually closed the case and only gave back formal updates to Aasha when approached, indicating there were no strong leads.

Aasha became withdrawn with each passing day, wandering in her house aimlessly for hours, hallucinating about Rohit entering the house. She started medication for acute depression and at times was put on suicide watch.

She stood by the window staring outside for hours waiting for Rohit to open the gates and come running towards her. Somewhere deep down, she felt Rohit would come back one day. Nothing had been found yet which gave her hope to live one more day, waiting….

A few metres away from the gate, a man was glancing at Aasha, looking on. His face was as pale as ghost. He started walking away and his mind started flashing back 2 years back to Aug 21st2015 at 10 p.m. It was a clear night. Ranjit was driving his truck at a brisk speed. He was very happy.  His employer had given him a raise and a loan to buy his own truck. This meant he could manage his time better and make more money for his family. Life was turning good after 10 long years.

He was longing to share the good news with his wife in person. His mind started thinking about all the good things he can buy for his family and that’s exactly when he hit Rohit’s bike from behind. Rohit was flung several hundred meters away dashing into a tree and then landing in the bushes. His bike lay severely mangled on the road. Ranjit sat in his truck shocked, unable to move. It took him a few minutes to gather himself and get down and walk over to Rohit’s lifeless body.

He sensed that Rohit was dead. His shivering hands reached out to dial the number of police control room, but something woke him up. “What will you explain to them Ranjit? You didn’t do it on purpose but will they believe you? You will be jailed. What will happen to your family?”

Ranjit had to make up his mind fast. He looked into Rohit’s pant, took his wallet, looked around and decided to bury Rohit’s body in the nearby forest along-side his bike.

After 1 hour Ranjit was driving back home, feeling nauseated at the crime he had committed. He had to bury this secret with him forever, for his family or atleast until someone found out.

As months passed by, Ranjit left his driving job. He had lost his confidence and never drove on the road again. He became a peon in a private company, spending a mundane life in the morning and sleepless nights as days went by.

After a year he couldn’t hold on anymore and walked up to Aasha’s residence but as he neared her house, his family’s image came in front of him and he turned back. .He continued to make multiple attempts to talk to Aasha over the years, only to return back every time he neared her house. He was torn with the guilt of ruining a family in a moment of carelessness on road. Every night, he wished to god to rewind those few moments before the accident where he could have paid attention to the road,  riding  past Rohit’s bike, glancing at him from rear view mirror for few seconds as he would have with anyone on road.

And yet here he was, with his life connected forever in the wave of sadness which Aasha was under.

Ranjit couldn’t stand anymore and started walking away with tears flowing from his face.

Aasha continued to look through the window, hallucinating Rohit’s image walking towards her smiling…..

                                                 THE END

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                                                                 TOUCH

  by PADMINI VISWANATHAN

 She sat in the Starbucks Café, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood-stained knife lay next to her hand-bag, covered with her blue silk scarf. She was still in a state of shock. She hadn’t a clue about how she got here.

Mr. Mohan moved into flat no. 4 on the first floor of Block IV in their colony. He was a very non-descriptive man. Everything about him was average. Average looks, average complexion, average height, and average age – somewhere between 35 – 40, mild mannered and his clothes were non-descriptive too. So average was he that you would never really see him unless you were looking out for him. He went for a morning walk, came back with the milk and rode a scooter of some vague, unrecognisable make to work. He returned in the evening with a bag of vegetables and groceries. He had a maid who finished all the work before he left for office and a dabba-wala who brought him his dinner.

Gradually Mohan became better known. He was a widower who had lost his wife to cancer. He had no children. He had taken up a new job and come away from Bombay where he had lived before. His parents were still in Bombay. They were too old to make a change, they said. He had a sister in Bombay who kept an eye on them.

As Mohan settled in, he slowly came out of his shell. He was courteous to the women and cordial to the Seniors. He would run errands for them during the week-end and enjoy a meal with one of them occasionally. He played badminton with the teen-agers, supplying them with shuttlecocks most of the time. If the school going group couldn’t get a parent to accompany them for a movie, he would offer his services and gamely take even eight to ten children to a movie and back. But, most of all, he liked the young ones. It was not an uncommon sight to see him sitting on the grass with a group of 3 – 6 year olds around him, telling them stories with appropriate actions. In a year’s time he had fitted into the colony. Only, Ranjitha didn’t like him.

“You’re jealous because he is more popular with the kids now,” her friends made fun of her.

“No! It’s not that. There’s something about that guy that I don’t like,” she replied.

Ranjitha was a tall, good looking girl from the colony who lived in Block V across from Block IV. She was intelligent, smart, good at sports and academics, friendly and full of fun. Endowed with a curvaceous figure and a flashing smile, she was used to having males of all ages make advances at her and had learnt to cope. Even with friends and acquaintances she gave back as good as she got, be it in a debate or when just sparring for the fun of it. But, everyone liked her because along with the no–nonsense demeanour came an absolutely straight-forward, true blue friend.

Like so many modern gated colonies, their colony also sported a swimming pool, a football field and a tennis court. Unending games of badminton took place in the evenings. There was a coach to supervise the swimming pool every evening. Coaching classes were conducted in tennis, football and basketball. Some of the residents had put up hoops for basketball at appropriate places and the college girls and boys generally monopolized these for themselves. For the little ones, there was a play area and since no vehicle was allowed anywhere except in the basement car park, they happily rode their tri-cycles and scooters all over the place, played hide and seek and whatever game took their fancy. On the whole, the colony was absolutely safe and parents sent their children down to play only setting a time for their return.

Mohan often came over for a game when Ranjitha and gang were playing badminton. She avoided playing with him for a while. One day he was bragging to the others that he had been a state level champion in his college days and that he would love to play Ranjitha but she didn’t seem ready. That did it! She had to take up the challenge. Mohan was very good. Though he was much older, he was very fit and played with dexterity and speed. Ranjitha was playing to win but with a vehemence that pushed her way beyond her capacity. She won. Mohan came to congratulate her but she was very cold in her acceptance. He could feel the antagonism radiating from her. Why, he wondered. What had he done to deserve this reaction?

One day, Ranjitha was standing in her balcony after college eating bajjis. She saw one of the little ones walking up the steps. Mohan’s door was open and the little girl went in. A few minutes later another went in and then another. Why were they going into Mohan’s flat, she wondered. ‘Stop it,’ she told herself, ‘don’t become paranoid!’ When she changed and came out, she saw Mohan sitting as usual with his brood of children around him. A few days later, the same thing happened. She was standing in the balcony, the children went in and a short while later they were all outside with Mohan. Somehow she felt uneasy. The next day, she hid behind her bedroom window and watched. Eight children went in and came out almost forty-five minutes later. They were all holding a chocolate in their hands. Within minutes, Mohan came out and herded them downstairs. Ranjitha felt a chill go up her spine. Something was definitely wrong. When she expressed her fears to her friends they pooh-poohed her saying she always over-reacted if she took a dislike to someone. “But why should they play in his flat? Why not outside,” she insisted.

“There must be some very simple reason. For Heaven’s Sake, Mohan is such a nice guy,” they said.

The next day, Ranjitha took the help of Sushma and Varshini, two slightly older girls who lived in her block. That evening, she missed the bus and came home a little late. The two of them were waiting for her.

“Akka, something fishy is going on there. We both went along with Rashmi, Latha and Pinky when they went to Mohan uncle’s flat. He seemed a little surprised to see us but asked us in with a smile. A few more children landed up within five minutes. ‘Shall we listen to a story to-day,’ he asked beaming at them. But the children started jumping and saying, ‘touch – touch, touch – touch,’ and Rashmi went to him and kept pulling at his belt.  Finally, he offered them chocolates and with our help he took them all outside. We’re scared for the children, akka,” they said.

“We have to get to the bottom of this,” Ranjitha said.

The three of them went in search of the little ones. They were playing hide-and-seek in their usual place. Mohan was nowhere to be seen. When the children saw Ranjitha, they came running to her. They were all very fond of Ranjitha. Chatting with them for some time, she slowly veered the conversation towards Mohan.

“Mohan uncle is so sweet, isn’t he? What do you all play in his house,” she asked.

“We won’t tell you. It’s a secret, it’s a secret,” they said happily.

“O.k. Never mind. I thought I’ll also play touch – touch with you” she said.

“But you can’t,” Rashmi said proudly.

“Why?”

“Because you’re not a man,” Pinky piped in.

“If you tell me how he plays the game, I’ll tell you how we play the game,” Ranjitha said, putting her hands on Sushma and Varshini’s shoulders.

“And uncle gives us chocolates too – big ones – Dairy Milk,” the girls said.

The children innocently revealed all. Ranjitha was horrified, disgusted, filled with revulsion and became very, very angry. The bastard! So this is what he has been up to. ‘He’s such a nice guy’ indeed!

“Did he hurt any of you? Did he touch any of you?”

“Next week, new game,” Pinky said.

By this time Ranjitha was livid. She was filled with rage. Shitstick! Scumbug! Touch-touch is it? I’ll Show You, she thought.

Ranjitha went straight to Mohan’s flat. The door was partially open. So this is why he keeps his door open all the time, is it? So that he can lure young babies to participate in his sick games. Who knows what he has done with which child? And parents? A totally irresponsible lot! Oughtn’t they to be more careful? Don’t we read about this type of stuff all the time? ‘Mohan is a nice guy,’ indeed!

She pushed the door open and walked in. He was sitting on the sofa watching T.V.  He came around the sofa smiling. “Hi Ranjitha!What a pleasure.”

“Don’t ‘Hi Ranjitha’ me, you bastard. Touch-touch is it, you sicko?” she said, panting from the effort of running up the stairs.

“Oh! So you’ve come to know, my dear,” he said, still smiling pleasantly. “I had a feeling you were spying on me. Just when things were hotting up. Sad.”

“Sad for you, you slime,” she said and charged at him. Taking hold of his collar she pushed with all her might. He hit the sofa, the sofa overturned and he fell on the other side. But he jumped up in a trice.

“Such anger? Such josh? I just love it,” he said, coming towards her.

Ranjitha realised that she had made a mistake in trying to confront him alone. She tried to make a dash for the door but he caught her firmly around the waist and bolted the front door from the inside.

“Beware! If I don’t go back in ten minutes Sushma and Varshini will bring the elders here,” Ranjitha warned, trying to release herself from his grip.

“Ten minutes is more than enough for me to enjoy you my luscious lollipop. I have been eyeing you from the very first day. Now you have just come and fallen into my lap,” he said, holding her closer.

Taking hold of all her strength, Ranjitha twisted out of his arms and kneed him in the groin. He doubled over in pain. She looked around frantically. That was when she noticed the kitchen knife on the counter. She quickly picked it up and as he came for her again she turned around plunged the knife into his body. He fell like an axed tree trunk and started to bleed profusely. She ran to the front door, opened it, stepped out, bolted it from the outside and left, hiding the knife with her scarf.

THE END

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                              ON THE DAY OF AN ASSASSINATION
                                               By RANJIT NARAYANAN

Coimbatore

31 October 1984

8:00 AM

I was still sleeping. The Ram Nivas Mansion was already bustling with morning ragas of the inmates. The Siruvani water supply will be cut by 8 30 and everyone were filling their quotas from the only tap just outside my room to get their share of India’s best water as it was called. A commotion stirred me up from sleep. Pandemonium was a routine at Ram Nivas Mansion. Outside I heard the voice of Moolchand, the proprietor of this beaten two storeyed building that housed 14 bachelors in 4 shady rooms. Moolchand had his own pawn brokerage in the ground floor that also operated as his “private” bank, and had 3 more petty shops rented out to Selvi Mess, a local gold smith, watch repairman and a paanwala. My roommates would be arriving soon after their extended Diwali holidays and now I was enjoying the luxury of a single room status. But today I had planned to bunk college, sleep till 10 and roam around Lakshmi Complex and do nothing. It was my day of getting a return proxy attendance from Rajesh.

9:00 AM

I used to like the late breakfast at Selvi Mess after the peak breakfast hour. There will be no hurry like normal days and waiting for 10 minutes between each Dosa as happens during peak hours. Selvi Mess was the busiest eatery in this area. Ganesh Mama ran this joint and was proud of his “home food taste Cuisine.” The tile roofed old house converted to restaurant looked more like a party office than any eatery. The walls were decorated with framed pictures of freedom fighters and some candid pictures of famous leaders. His prized possession placed on the cash counter was a picture of him with the PM when he visited Delhi with some local party members recently. Ganesh Mama also lived here with his daughter whom I knew as Ammu who doubled up as the server cum table cleaner whenever she was not in school.

The phone rang a third time when my second Hot Dosa was being served. Angry at this persistent caller, Ganesh Mama went over to the front desk to pick up the telephone telling no one in particular that it must be that idiot lawyer Subramani Iyer who was handling his divorce case.

But Selvi Mess was one of the important reasons why I wasn’t in a college hostel and preferred to stay outside. The college hostel food tasted between yucky and bland. I finished the filter coffee and wrote my consumption data in the account book. But, where did Ganesh Mama leave abruptly and hoped everything was alright at his end. I bid bye to Ammu as she was also getting ready to go to school, perkily dressed in her green half sari green school uniform.

9:35 AM

Ramanna the security guard of this building and my Man Friday was already waiting with my share of pot water which he sold for a fee. He was filing my plastic bucket and at the same time disapproving my idea of using the scarce potable water to delay my receding hairline.

9:45 AM

Back in my room, I was undecided whether to hit the sack for yet another morning siesta or dress up to paint Coimbatore Red. I was reclined on the rickety wooden chair reading the sports page of The Hindu when the first explosion hit my door and the vibrations throwing me against the wall. Swearing with my newly learnt Tamil Obscenities, I jumped up from the chair. I thought that I became deaf instantly. I could hear nothing, and it was left to my olfactory skills to suddenly comprehend that something is on fire and burning. There was now  smoke after the sound.

9:47 AM

What was safe? Staying In or getting out? Something terrible for sure has happened. I tried to call Ramanna, but the din outside was apparently so much that I couldn’t hear my own voice. Option 2 was better. I struggled out of the smoke and peered out of the balcony as the commotion got wilder below. The next moment I was running down the stairs and on to the street, joining the crowd that was staying a safe distance away from the hanging rusty steel board of Ram Nivas Mansion. People were being asked to steer away from its probable fall zone. Questions were being asked if it was a gas cylinder explosion from Selvi Mess or some chemical fire from the goldsmith’s shop?

9:50 AM

It took me three minutes to realize that Moolchand was the target of this attack. He had enemies. He was the wiliest moneylender of Oppanakkara street. He had huge receivables from almost all the traders and bootleggers of the Town Hall area. So? Was it a deal gone wrong? How was he now, dead, injured…as these concerns played on my mind, there was another deafening noise followed by a never-ending tinkle of shattered glass.

9:52 AM

We could see from our position, people running out of Seema Silks, one of the biggest sari outlets of Coimbatore and few armed people running inside. It became clear that the employees were fleeing while a sudden looting spree unfolded.

9:55 AM

Someone just announced that the PM has been assassinated. Killed by her own Security Guards at her own home. The reverberations of those gunshots at New Delhi that killed one of the greatest Stateswomen of the Twentieth Century are being heard down south at Coimbatore, Madurai, Kanyakumari, Thiruvananthapuram. Just one breaking news at this time worldwide: India’s PM assassinated. But here in Coimbatore, someone thought to add….by North Indian fanatics.

 Now it is payback time!

10: 00 AM

It didn’t take more than five minutes to realize that this big national tragedy has triggered large scale rioting and looting. And the targets were specific, anything North Indian. People, business establishments, vehicles with North Indian number plates. And they were right here. Town hall area of Coimbatore, a hub for traders from the North and their families who have been living here for years together. It therefore became an epi-centre for the mayhem that was getting worse as minutes ticked by. Oppankara Street turned into a war zone where just one group attacked and the other just succumbed with absolutely no chance to defend.

10:05 AM

I had abandoned all thoughts of going back to my room as I overheard someone saying, “Seth gaali”, meaning Moolchand is dead. Appalling as it sounds, there were whistles of victory from a section. Humanity also died at this moment!

10:10 AM

 I somehow found myself standing amidst the crowd next to Ramanna and Ammu who was trembling and dishevelled.  Ramanna escaped the petrol bomb that exploded on the face of Moolchand. He had just delivered the flowers for Moolchand’s morning Pooja and had trekked to the side lane for his beedi.  Ammu was waiting for her school rickshaw when the explosion took place. She was frantically crying and looking for Ganesh Mama. Ramanna tried to console her telling not to worry, as Ganesh is one of “our” persons and not ‘Hindikaaran.’ So, he will be safe. This did little to keep the girl quiet.

10:15 AM

I had made up my mind that I need to abandon this place. It was not safe anymore. They could still come back hunting for the goldsmith and paanwala both from some northern state. I had no valuables to take, thank goodness for the student life. My wallet always slept with me and that was useful. I didn’t have to go up to pick anything. I had only one logical destination to go where I could be safe. My college. But I had to secure Ammu somewhere. Ramanna did not look innocuous enough to be trusted with a helpless adolescent girl.

10:20 AM

My thoughts were broken by a screaming siren that became louder as few vehicles turned into our corner. I prayed to see police reinforcements. But this was not a day when prayers worked. This time it was a fleet of ambulances that came at a break neck speed. Probably came to take Moolchand and the rest of injured, deceased to hospital. No. It didn’t stop there. It was parrying the next batch of rioters into the street, using ambulances as a decoy to fool the police who were trying to barricade Townhall. The police were grossly out numbered. One Maruti Omni ambulance stopped abruptly in front of us. I had a north Indian name. I cursed my parents momentarily. Damnit! did anyone know me! I started to move towards the crowd to get lost in it and dragged Ammu with me. A familiar figure slid open the side door of the Ambulance and gripped my arm fiercely. I turned around to stare into Ganesh Mama’s menacing eyes and a stern voice “Dei, Take her to her Amma in Sai Baba colony, and remain safe, I will get her back in the evening!”  Ammu’s frantic cries of Appa! Appa !! was the last thing I heard as another blast brought down the adjacent Ameer complex hurtling down a wave of disintegrated bricks and a wave of concrete dust as the ambulances knifed away through this blindly.

10:25 AM

The blast at Ameer complex that housed many sari traders from Surat was followed by yet another uneasy calm. Probably the worst is over. Most of the shops have been vandalized in the last 30 minutes and I could see looters carrying away whatever their bags could fill. Expensive watches from the Zimson store, tape recorders. Clothes from Seema silks were carted away merrily. The police were torn between containing violence and preventing looting. They decided not to do both. They just didn’t have the numbers and were shielding themselves with whatever objects they could gather from the rubble, more concerned on their own self defence. Meanwhile the looting orgy was escalating to uncontrolled levels. Even the local general merchant shops decided to roll down their shutters and stay inside or flee. No shop was being spared!

They were still trying to break open the Famous Jewellery lock when Ammu called me, looking composed this time after seeing her father. She wanted to go to her Amma. But I had lost my composure after seeing another face of Ganesh Mama. I could never comprehend how this religious master chef could wield the handle of extremism.  Not once did he betray this vicious side of his profile ever since the day he reassured my father on my first day at his mess, that he will serve as my local guardian and ensure my wellbeing!

10:30

Saibaba colony was 45 minutes by town bus. Which means 3 hours easily by walk. The city transportation has come to a standstill. She was right. We need to abandon this place as swiftly as possible. Which way, but? Rioting was still on! The danger of running into another cross fire was lurking large. We just had two providential escapes. Third time may not be that lucky! I decided to follow the trail of destruction. War stories taught me that a place will not be bombed twice. The attackers generally move in one forward direction. So, I trusted this logic despite reports that more rioters are converging towards Saibaba colony the next big colony of residences of North Indians. Ironically, with Ammu beside me I felt safer from direct attacks! Most of them around us knew Ganesh Mama and Ammu.

I wondered why Ammu chose Ganesh Mama over her mother to stay with. As if reading my thoughts, Ammu explained that the school she studied from LKG was closer to here than Sai baba colony. And that Ganesh mama was a much better cook than her mom! She dismissed any thoughts of further queries by saying that she loved both equally.

10:45 AM

We had walked incident free for 15 minutes. The narrow Oppankara street ran for about 2 kilometers end to end. I stopped at a familiar place. Geet Radios and Records! The Bollywood music junction of Coimbatore.

Geet Radios and Records was Manu Sharma’s business. From Alam Ara to Tohfa he had a collection of all Bollywood LPs. That was the technology period of cassettes and tape recorders. Manu’s father Sr. Sharma was a collector of Bollywood music. They used to say that his textile business crumpled because of his obsession with Bollywood Music. He wasn’t fond of the cinema as such. It was the music that he fell in love with.

Sr. Sharma used to record on the new generation cassettes, playlists of different genres from various movies. This was given as gifts on special occasions to the Sharma family’s relatives and friends. Eventually the word spread, and the demand increased. What started as a hobby eventually turned into a prime business for the Sharmas. That is how Geet Radios and Records, the song recording shop evolved.

Early into my days in Coimbatore, Geet was my favourite destination. It was a musical journey by itself to record songs from this shop. I rated Sr Sharma as musically more knowledgeable than even Ameen Sayani. A visit to Geet was never complete without his complementary masala chai and a critical debate on the Top 10 Bollywood songs of the week listed by Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geet Mala. Geet Radios and Records had no sign board. The name used to be in his invoices and the stickers pasted on the cassettes. Sr Sharma said to me once that they didn’t enjoy publicity. But whoever in Coimbatore district and neighbouring Palakkad and from the hilltops of the Nilgiris liked Bollywood music eventually found their way here. Manu used to add that this limited publicity helped to keep the authorities away as most of the recording business was a violation of copyright and no taxes were paid for the income on recordings. Made sense.

10: 50 AM

Made more sense in the present circumstances. We could clearly see the shops with distinct non-south Indian name boards were the prime targets, though some of the locals were also vandalized. It was an opportunity to settle scores for some. I wanted to be reassured that the Sharma’s were safe and the only way to find out was to see for oneself. I prayed for a locked door which meant that they have escaped. But I wasn’t hopeful. My fears became stronger as I found a ransacked shop with all cassette racks empty, broken LP records strewn all over. Ammu was afraid to take another step and was asking her Anna to retreat. Hoping against hope I went inside. I asked Ammu to hide behind the Cash counter for two minutes before I checked on the Sharmas and returned.

10: 52 AM

I had never ventured beyond the veranda of Geet during my visits. The adjoining door opened to a sprawling Chettinad style house with an inside courtyard and 3 rooms on each side, with a Tulasi plant pedestal in the centre of the courtyard. Sprawled on the wall of the pedestal of the Tulasi plant was Sr. Sharma. My first visual of an unnatural death. I had not witnessed even a road accident fatality yet! Another figure in Tees and Jeans face down was Manu and blood was still seeping from his left side. I called out “Sharmaji” hoping at least one torso would move a bit. Nothing moved. Not even the fragile Tulasi leaves.

10: 53 AM

I did not know when Ammu came out of her hideout and came beside me. I was too numb even for tears. She asked if they are dead. I just nodded. She hinted there may be someone needing help in other rooms. For a 15-year-old she was too brave not to be shaken by the sight of butchered bodies and blood. She was the first to run to open the left-wing door. But this time there was a scream followed by a convulsion of her frame and lot of vomit splattering on the walls. I rushed to her wondering what could be ghastly than the frame we just witnessed in the courtyard.

I struggled to maintain the composure at the sightings that caused Ammu to throw up. I could sense the bile rising and decided it was better to throw up than try to retain. I found a hand-wash sink and expelled every bit of my ingestions. I aimed the water to my face and hair to keep me steady from the nausea that replaced my fear.  This wasn’t just cold-blooded murder. Strange I have not met any of the Sharma ladies during my few visits to Geet. Going by the pictures on the counter the youngest would have been younger than Ammu.  The strewn undergarments and exposed body parts betrayed licentious depravity before the beheading. Our baptism with live crime situations was getting no better.

11: 00 AM

I pulled Ammu out  and literally dragged her out of the alley. Ammu let go of my hand forcefully and went inside the room that now housed the mutilated bodies of the women. I called her out shouting that she was crazy. She came back running, clutching a white towel that had an embroidered OM on it. Crazy girl, collecting souvenirs from the place of crime?

One hour of frenzy seemed too short and fast but within such time I had seen at least 6 people I knew slaughtered to avenge the assassination of a leader whom they as much revered as their fanatic killers idolized.

11: 30 AM

We were past flower market bus stand running wherever there was free space amidst the ruins of the mad revelry of the rioters. People were out on the streets trying to reach home by foot. Schools and colleges were asked to close. Curfew was to be imposed with shoot at sight orders before 2 PM.

12:45 Noon

We were more than half way to Ammu’s mother’s house at Saibaba colony. We had to take this break, out of exhaustion opposite to the Central Theatre. A big hoarding of the movie Tohfa in front of the cinema took me back to Geet. Manu Sharma was boasting about the cassette sales of Tohfa breaking a new record in his shop. People said it was 13 dead in that one hour. The AIR news from a transistor was reporting 3 deaths. What nonsense, we saw at least 6 dead bodies, ourselves. Food was the last thing on the mind, but we could do with water. The day was hot even for a Coimbatore October!

1:00 PM

Coimbatore used to be quite organized infrastructure wise. The residential areas of the locals were generally located away from commercial hubs. This part of North Coimbatore was one such area where it was more residential and less commercial. We sensed a “feel safe” ambience here for the first time after the frenzy of the last few hours.

There was no burning vehicles or gutted shops here. We went to the first house. The name board said Sundaram Iyer. (B.A). Well, it was comforting that we bumped into an educated conservative Brahmin household. Maybe they would provide us some breathing space for a while.  Ammu took the lead and knocked. The bell wasn’t working. Power was shut off!  We could hear instructions from a senior lady inside not to respond.  Ammu persisted. She knocked and again asked for water or at least if there was a water tap around.  Silence was the reply.

A city known for its friendly citizens and warm hospitality was closing the doors on its own citizens in distress. There was a trust deficit all around suddenly. We went around the side of the house crouching below the expansive hibiscus garden. We found a hand pump in their backyard. Despite abuses hurled at us for trespassing, I went about pumping the hand bore well till the gush of air was replaced by the squeal of water jetting out in spurts which Ammu was gulping endlessly. We switched our roles and got away before the matriarch of the house executed their warning of letting loose her caged Doberman.

3:00 PM

It took a few more stops and more questioning enroute, by the police, hunting rioters and some commoners before we reached the welcome arch before Saibaba colony. Our appearance was a giveaway. We presented ourselves as the moving mannequins of a rampage.   Ammu took the responsibility of answering on behalf of us. She changed my name temporarily to Sreenivasan as it was more Southern than the way my original name sounded. I was her cousin brother who picked her up from school because of the curfew and walked home with her from Town hall. In the melee, we got caught in the explosion at Ameer palace building and we were lucky to escape. That answered the prying eyes on our soiled clothes and fresh bruises on the exposed skin. She did her part like a pro in chaste Coimbatore Tamil.

3: 13 PM

We finally reached the upscale residential hub at SaiBaba colony. This is where Ammu’s Amma lived. Thankfully there was no action here. People, mostly housewives and maids were at corners in small groups, despite the curfew. They looked at us with uncertainty. Few recognized Ammu but did not speak anything.

It appeared as if Ammu’s mother was waiting for her. She was at the gate of the sprawling Villa named “Ambujam Illam” displayed on an embossed granite stone name plate. But she was more shocked than surprised seeing Ammu.

There were no filmy hugs and tears as I imagined. There were only direct questions. In 10 minutes she narrated the 5-hour journey from Town hall to this house. Ammu’s Amma now looked at me less suspiciously than when she first saw me.

Ammu’s Amma was strangely concerned about her husband’s whereabouts. Even though they are to be formally divorced, it appeared to me that the change of circumstances in this city and Ammu could bring about a reversal of their decision to separate. Later, I realized that all my assumptions fell flat on this day. My thoughts were interrupted by a squeal from a fragile boy with a Diwali toy gun in his hand. He tried to shoot his Ammu Akka. Sadly, the gun wouldn’t fire.

4:00 PM

I had a quick shower but had to be wear my T shirt inside out which was cleaner. What followed was a quickly prepared lunch and Ammu was right about her mom’s culinary skills. Meanwhile, news from AIR reported that the situation is under control and curfew will be lifted for two hours till 6 PM. I had to leave soon, it was going to be another long walk or run.

Ammu’s Amma applied customary vermillion on my forehead as a token of gratitude for bringing Ammu home safely. Ammu was not to be seen after the lunch. Ammu’s brother followed me to the gate. His Diwali gun was totally broken now. He held the ammunition roll loosely hanging as we walked.

Involuntarily I was scraping my hands over the embossed name plate when Ammu appeared out of nowhere and said in a stern voice, “If you meet that terrorist, my father, give this back to him and tell him not to see me again ever.”

I was confounded when she handed me the towel containing the embroidered OM. “This is your bloody Ganesh Mama’s. He ceased to be my father three hours ago and I hope he gets punished.”  Without looking back, Ammu dragged her brother in and shut the gate.

1998

Ganesh Iyer was arrested from his Multi cusine restaurant after being convicted with seven others for the rape and murder of the Sharma family and cases of arson during the riots that plagued Coimbatore on the day of the assassination of the then PM. The prime witness was a lady called Ambujam, aka AMMU, who was the daughter of Ganesh Iyer. The 14-year long case came to its logical conclusion

2000

I was surprised to receive an invitation for a wedding in Jaipur. I did not know anyone in that part of the country. Well the bride’s name on the card Ambujam rang a bell. The groom was Gaurav Sharma.

                                                                       THE END


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                                                 WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE

By RANJIT NARAYANAN  

        We broke our kiss when the voice outside sounded clearer. It sounded like that of the helper who was pacing up and down the narrow corridor of our houseboat talking boorishly on his cell phone. He even had the audacity to fiddle with the DO NOT DISTURB plastic board that hung on the door knob of our room in this houseboat.

        My Cochin University batchmate Cyril Chako had arranged this “The Greatest Honeymoon Experience” cruise in the backwaters of Vembanad lake on a grand houseboat. The experience was heading towards greatness until this moment. We were parked a few meters away from the bank for the night.

        I could still pick up a few Malayalam words. He was inviting someone to take a row boat and come over now!  They were organizing some party!

         My heart-beat stopped as I heard the words meaning “Nerds,” “sexy Northie girl,” “just wed,” “fresh” and references to the honeymoon couple on board.

        Prerna looked concerned and asked “Honey, why are you so irritated, they are drunk and will sleep off soon.”

        I nodded in disagreement. “Prerna, I don’t think this is a safe place, we have to get out of here.” “They are planning some kind of assault on us. I have bad feelings about this crew now.”

       Prerna looked shocked but not convinced, “Honey, don’t you remember how friendly they were during the day. I am sure you are getting paranoid.”

        “Prerna, rapists are usually normal guys till the booze gets into their heads and make them animals.”

         Prerna became pale. “Varun! Are you implying that they are planning to rape me?”

        “And kill me too,” I added. My fears escalated when I heard a whirring noise outside from the waters. I drew the window curtain aside and saw a small motor boat cruising towards us.

        We were both trained swimmers and could make it to the path by the paddy fields leading to the resort with just a few meters of swimming. I took our wallets and put them in a plastic envelope.

        Prerna was saying,“Varun, shouldn’t we wait and see? I am still confident that nothing will happen. After all, this is arranged by your close friend and he must have double checked.”

        “Prerna, the first thing I will do if we get there alive is kick his balls for spoiling our honeymoon. Now, listen to what I say.”

        “This window is big enough and it is only about 2 meters to the water. Do not jump, just slide along the hull and into the water and glide for a distance. Don’t splash and swim. Is that clear?”

        In Five quick minutes we were at the bank of Vembanad lake. Out of nowhere, fireworks lit the still humid Kerala night sky. Lanterns light up. A banner came out of nowhere, “The Greatest Honeymoon Experience” and when the fireworks stopped, the night was reverberating with roars of laughter from the 1990 batch of Cochin University alumini led by Cyril Chako.

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                                                                    HOLY COW!

                           By SARVESWARI SAIKRISHNA

           Once upon a time, there was a good farmer who lived with his good wife. Childless, they earned their living by renting their beloved bull for ploughing the lands of the neighbouring farms. That bull was a fine specimen. Ahem!.That would be me.

           Dear reader, I entreat you to imagine me, a sturdy bull, hump and hooves black, body white as pearls, horns long and pointed, my riveting eyes trained on you, galloping full throttle in your direction. Imagine! Yeah, I was a handsome chap.

           In a thin strip of soil they owned, Ma and Pa grew their nourishment needs and the best of the milky fodder for me, the apple of their eyes. I, in turn, would behave like an excited calf when I would see my momma. I loved them with all my humongous might. All was well until the monsoon failed us time and again. Farmers had no need to till their caked land. I became jobless. Our land dried up too and we were neck deep in mortgage. The Banks were of the sincere sorts. When their flamboyant customers showed their empty Armani pockets, they came back in full vengeance to retrieve their losses from the loin clothes of the farmers. After all, rules were rules.

           In such a dire situation, Sir, one day, I was surprised when Pa made my favourite meal of cotton seeds and rice gruel. I could not understand why he had tears in his eyes. Before giving my meal a final swirl with his bare hands, he mixed a pink liquid in it. Then he went on to mix the same liquid in his and Ma’s thin gruel. He put the vat in front of me and I plunged towards it hoping the pink stuff would make my food sweeter. But the pungent chemical smell put me off and I refused to eat. I was hungry and started bellowing for my Ma.

           Ma, who had eyes that could put an eagle to shame, immediately noticed something amiss with my food. She was livid. Now, dear reader, I was a 500-kilo hunk with horns and I would cower like a kitten when  I  see my Ma angry. My hollow-bellied Pa stood no chance. She kicked the vat aside and screamed at my Pa for his cowardice.

           To cut the short story shorter, a few weeks later, Ma, Pa and I were on our way to the coal mines a few hundred kilometers away, where they were to work as daily labourers. The agent, a fine fellow with a look of a suited bandicoot , had promised them a hut and even a shaded shelter for me in the nearby village. Though it was obvious that he was desperate to hire labourers, Ma and Pa had no choice.  So there I was, hauled onto a cattle carrier along with several cows owned by a dairy company. Ma and Pa had cajoled and begged the driver to add one more animal to the vehicle. My parents had taken the seat along with the driver and the other cattle handlers. The driver agreed to drop us at the mining village for a sum, of course. The rickety vehicle shook, jostled and spewed towards our uncertain future.  We travelled all through the night.

           I, Sir, was of the polished kind. In our village, I was known for my regal looks and was much in demand among the cow owners to pass on my genes. Even then, Sir, whenever I was given a free hand with their beloved cows, I would always ‘May I’ with the madam cow, before getting on with the job. So, when the temptation was rubbing shoulders and other parts of mine, I maintained a decent abstinence.

           By early morning, the vehicle finally gave up its will to carry on. After the driver made a big fuss around the vehicle for hours, it finally sputtered back to life. But the driver observed that the extra load led to the breaking down of the otherwise spectacular vintage vehicle and so abandoned us right in the middle of the road. Luckily we were not far from our destination.

           As I started to walk towards the village, I noticed that the land here was far worse than ours. It was bone dry and barren, deep fissures forming dry veins on mother Earth.  The air was thick with fly ash from the coal mines. In a far distance, I could see Earth,disemboweled, her black flesh carted off in lorries.

           By the time I reached the village, I was parched and hungry. When I entered the village with my Pa and Ma, I attracted startled looks from the villagers who soon formed an amused crowd around me. I was used to ogling looks of madam cows, thanks to my stunning physique. However coming from humans, it was unsettling at the least. It was interesting that I was immediately fed hay, banana and a trough of water. My parents were taken care of too. The village seemed festive, lights hanging from the leafless branches and poles on either side of the mud road, festooned. Nevertheless, the mood was one of apprehension. I soon found out why.

           The rain Gods had been completely ignoring the village and the surrounding areas for several years now. The local MLA who was rumoured to have an interest in the coal mine was truly aghast. After clearing a few hectares of the forest, he had toiled very hard, disregarding a law here and murdering a few there, in order to establish this mine. However, the Gods, whom the MLA reverently prayed to and paid obeisance at the start of the project, had other ideas. The monsoon which had been quite punctual until then began to miss its appointments. Gradually,the land became so sun-scorched that even labourers in the mines were reluctant to live in this arid area.

           While the MLA pondered over the matter in his air-conditioned office,  a brilliant algebraic calculation crossed his mind.  If  X were the rains and Y were the frogs, he observed how X always increased Y. So if X increased Y, then the converse should hold water. To put in layman terms, if the number of frogs were increased, that would proportionately increase the chances of rains. Amidst the thunderous clappings of the civil servants, the MLA promised to implement the policy right away. What better way to do it other than joining two amorous amphibians in holy matrimony?

           Two government officers of excellent repute were deputed to find unwitting frogs that had so far enjoyed the perks of being single and carefree. After many rejections based on looks, skin colour and possible virility, the bride and the groom were selected and wedded in a very orthodox ceremony.

           It had been a year since the webbed couple had happily hopped into the setting sun.But Zilch.

           Maybe the frogs were toads. Maybe they consummmated their marrige the unpious way without the aide of tears. For some inexplicable reason, pregnant clouds never peeked into the area.

           After mulling over the matter during this monsoon season, it was unanimously agreed that the frogs were unclean. To appease the Gods, one needed to marry off something more sacred. What is more sacred than a Cow? As before, a thorough background check was conducted on the Gothras of the cattle. The bride was from the same village and the bull was zeroed in after meticulous screening.The MLA personally oversaw the marriage preparations. Bands were engaged for the after-marriage party. A lavish feast that included the local brew was to follow.

           Sporting an ornamental headgear and bells around my neck, I was taken to the village centre where the ceremony was to be conducted. I jingled to attract the attention of my bovine beauty. I am sure she checked me out slyly but continued to chew her grub as if she did not care. For someone  of her size, she chomped a lot. Now I knew the reason why my predecessor took off in such a hurry. I was already worried about losing half my earnings on her gargantuan appetite!

           At the ceremony a gentleman who sat near the sacred fire was talking to the Gods in their language, Sanskrit I thought,  appealing them to make our union a successful one. Just then I sensed a tingling feeling in the gut. I was quite thrilled about my turn of luck. Good food and a wife to boot. In my excitement, I continued to ignore my full bladder.The tingling soon turned into a nuisance. People around me drinking yellowish ginger soda did not help the cause.  I ‘moo’ed to get my Ma’s attention.But she just did not know and continued to quench her thirst in long gulps. I tried everything from crossing my hind limbs tightly to chanting ‘You can do it. You can hold on’.  But my bladder refused to listen to my pep talk. Finally, I turned to my companion, uttered a rather elegant ‘excuez- moi’ before I opened the floodgates. As if on cue, my companion let her guard down and let it all flow too.  Between us, we managed to make a puddle big enough to swamp the gentleman at our feet. That was probably the only time my missus and I agreed on something.

           I didn’t  know why but our ‘business’ made the villagers very happy and they broke into a rapturous celebration.

           ‘The Gods have blessed us! They have shown us mercy’, they screamed.

           The wedding was carried on with renewed faith but only after customary bottling of the bodily fluids (wonder why missus’ is holier than mine and how would they ever know the difference).

           The Gods were indeed happy with the union, for the dark clouds were rolling towards us and in a matter of few hours, it rained. Nay, It poured.

           From that year on, there were fewer monsoonal disappointments and soon the rain Gods became a regular in the area again. Nobody knew why.

           Was it the new collector who was strict with the mining and deforestation laws?

           Was it the villagers who started a green drive to plant a sapling for every tree that fell?

           Was it the MLA’s other scandalous calculations that led to his eventual arrest?

           All said and done, my role in appeasing the rain God could never be undermined.

           My parents who settled in the village for good,  were revered for bringing in the lucky mascot and they spent their later life in reasonable comfort as cattle breeders.

           As for my missus and I, we sired a good-for-nothing who in turn sired many more of that kind (probably got it from the missus side of the family) and we lived happily ever after.

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                                 NATURE’S FURY: VENGEANCE ON HIGH RANGE

                                                   By RANJIT NARAYANAN

           Hanumantha switched on the Russel Hobbs one cup coffee maker. Coming from Baba BudanGiri Hills, the birth place of Indian coffee, he always carried his own home-grown coffee along with the machine. Ironically, his net worth growth bloomed in a place known for Tea plantations, Munnar, where he now was, on a wet rainy morning.

          A British lawyer couple who enjoyed Hanumantha’s grandfather’s hospitality many times in Chikamagalur had sold their Munnar High Range Villa to the latter, as they left Independent India for good. Mr.Prasad, Hanumantha’s father, an accountant with the Wodeyars of Mysore, had made this villa his retirement home where he lived with his wife since the early 90s.

          When Hanumantha returned to India decorated with a Hotel Management Degree from Geneva, he realized that Munnar had immense potential for growth in the Hospitality sector. Munnar, with its lush green tea plantations, fragrant cardamom shrubs, picture post-card hamlets, misty valleys and easy access from both Kochi and from Tamil Nadu made this a more preferred destination. This was the evolution of the Baba Budangiri Resorts in Munnar owned by the Hanumantha group of companies. Aesthetic looking row villas sprung up on the earth where not long before Camellia sinensis bloomed.

          Sipping original Baba Budangiri Coffee in his resort office, he wondered where Ajit Kuriakose was. Hanumantha had planned to leave after breakfast. The escort lady had left in the morning during a brief respite in the rains this morning. As she left, she advised him to leave early too as landslides were reported in the ghat section and that would make his drive back difficult. He did not have a good feeling about this.

          Kuriakose was desperate to sell his high range estate overlooking the idyllic Banasura Sagar Dam. Hanumantha was equally desperate to build the first ever resort in this paradise. Hanumantha tried calling Kuriakose. The automated reply said, “Please check the number you have dialled”. He frowned. This was the same number from which Kuriakose himself had called last night.

          He drowned the rest of the coffee, in one gulp. He opened the diary to recheck the mobile number. The book mark in the diary opened always to his asset list. It was a ritual, a private moment he always cherished. Post this deal, he would rise to the Numero Uno position at Munnar. He beamed in pride.

          The rains showed no respite. The rumbling noise seemed closer and louder. Hanumantha sensed the floor shake, the side-wall along with the false ceiling collapsing on him like a pack of cards and his final vision was a wave of red soil with shale and sand-stone that fell on him in a labyrinth.

          The JCB driver clearing the landslide debris spotted the arm holding a diary and alerted the rescue supervisor. The face was beyond recognition. The coffee mug was blood stained but strangely survived the fury unleashed in vengeance by nature.

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                   Life in a Metro for an OAP (Old Aged Pensioner)

                                    By RANJIT NARAYANAN

 Old age realizes the dreams of youth: look at Dean Swift; in his youth he built an asylum for the insane, in his old age he was himself an inmate.

 

          Mr. Raghuram, that’s what I shall call him. He looked to be in his 70s but quite fit, as he manoeuvred his way through the narrow space between the racks at the Spencer’s supermarket.I was at the cookies section searching for Hide and Seek cookies, that were my son’s favourite.I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and turned around to face Mr Raghuram. I assumed that I was blocking his way and leaned back for him to pass. He stood there and pointed to the Britannia Bourbon biscuits that were in the rack. As I picked the cookies and handed them to Mr Raghuraman, he told me to put it in my shopping basket and to give it to him at the counter after paying for it.

          I was a bit confused. Mr Raghuram’s trolley seemed to be overflowing with his big-time purchases and he wants me to gift him a box of cookies? It occurred to me that there was something wrong with this senior gentleman and I decided to play along. I found myself in the queue at the counter, right behind Mr Raghuraman. His bill was being printed endlessly, and when it stopped, it totalled 3,875 Rupees.

          Mr Raghuraman sought the assistance of the boys at Spencers to ferry his overflowing shopping bags to a waiting autorickshaw parked in front. As Mr. Raghuraman waited for my bill to be paid, he reminded me of his Britannia Bourbon. As he gleefully took the biscuit and walked behind the helper, I was still bewildered by this strange request from this septuagenarian.

          As I exited, I found Mr Raghuraman sitting on the steps of the entrance of Spencer’s happily munching away the last one from the packet, while his purchases were being loaded into the Rick. Curiosity got the better of me and as I went out, I stopped the boy who was returning after having loaded Mr Raghuraman’s shopping bags into the rick. I narrated the incident of the gift sought by Mr Raghuraman from me despite purchasing a month’s stock of groceries and provisions.

The story goes on like this.

          Mr. Raghuraman, is a retired Government clerk and lives with his eldest son’s family after the demise of his wife last year. The son works in the USA. Mr. Raghuraman assists the family with errands like shopping for groceries, veggies, escorting the kids to school and tuition. They have engaged an auto rickshaw on a monthly prepaid basis. His meagre pension is just enough for buying the medicines for his respiratory ailments.

          For the groceries, he gets a list and he gets the cash from home. He is not permitted to buy anything more than the list nor spend anything more than the money given. The balance change must be returned to the last penny. He is fond of chocolates and cookies, but he apparently cannot buy some as it is not in the shopping list given to him. So, every time he comes, he asks someone for a 5-star bar, chocolate, cookies etc. Sometimes the girls behind the counter give him the “free” toffees or cookies whenever there are such offers from the suppliers.

           From that day, I decided that I will, that I need to become rich enough to have a cookie and many other things with my own money every day in the twilight of my life.  I do not want to be another Mr. Raghuram sir, bonded parent labourer in his own quarry run by his own loved ones.


                                                   ALL FOR A LARK

                                      BY PADMINI VISWANATHAN

          I took one last look at myself in the small mirror on the wall, slicked my hair and smiled. My hand automatically reached out for the Cuticura powder on the shelf but I withdrew it just in time. “Only village baays use talcum powder on their faces,” I admonished myself. “City guys use after-shave and deo, mind – it,” I said trying an impersonation of Dilip’s ‘mind-it’ which he executed in perfect Rajnikanth i-shytle.

          I was very excited. I was going out for a movie and then to Barista with the gang. “The Gang” felt so good to hear. I had always wanted to belong to a gang but was too self-conscious and inhibited even to make friends with these suave, smart, self –confident, English-speaking students of my college. And I? I was the proverbial village bumpkin when I arrived in college on that first day – my dress, my hairstyle, my way of talking, my English accent – the perfect target for ragging, and boy, did I get ragged! I had been prepared for it and didn’t allow myself to get overly upset but it was tough going for almost one month. Finally it was Dilip who took me under his wing and the ragging slowly stopped.

          Dilip was a happy-go-lucky guy who grabbed whatever life had to offer with both hands. He was athletic, played foot-ball with a passion, followed cricket like a true Indian and somehow wadded through his studies. He was ready to try out anything, got into a lot of scrapes but knew where to draw the line. He never felt embarrassed to say, “Sorry boss, this is not my cup of tea.” He was very warm-hearted and tended to take everyone into his fold which led to his becoming my friend. He said that he had admired my guts for having taken the ragging for so long. In a few months he turned me into a smart City slicker too!

          City dwellers only notice our outward lack of polish but we rural guys come from pretty solid stock. Facing hardship is a very common aspect of our lives. Take my father – he was the Contract Carpenter in a construction firm in a town close to our village. He had come up through sheer dint of hard work and had a comfortable job, a comfortable home, a loving wife and a grown son. But the moment he realized that the local college was not good enough for his only son to achieve his ambition, he just wound up his family, quit his secure life and shifted to the City. It was a huge sacrifice to make but he never thought of it that way. He worked hard and re-established himself in the City. I am proud to be my father’s son. After my graduation I want to join the Indian Institute Of Science in Bangalore and then move abroad for higher research. Nothing will deter me from achieving my goal.

          It’s very amusing the way I joined ‘the gang’. Taking ‘selfies’ is such a fad these days. I was talking to Dilip in the canteen one afternoon when a group of boisterous students were taking a ‘selfie.’ “Dilip, come,” one of them yelled and Dilip dragged me there. I’m sure Dilip was pulling my leg, but he insisted that one of the girls’ said, “Hey, Who’s that handsome guy with an electric smile?” I must confess that inwardly I was thrilled. Electric Smile? Me? Holy Cow! ‘LectricShmi-i-le!! I met them in the canteen one afternoon. What fun, what chatter, what laughter. I’d never experienced something like this before. Dilip and Raghav were like clowns, up to antics that kept us in splits all the time. Latha and Radhika had been close buddies since school. Total opposites – Radhika was down-to-earth, good, prudent, kind, a friend in need and Latha? Latha was —— was ——‘Lectric (like my Shmi-i-le?!). She was totally without inhibition or guile, out to have a great time and game for any sort of wager. They were a happy gang who hung out together at the college canteen, bunked classes to go for movies, got into scrapes mostly instigated by Latha and in general had a blast.

          At first I was hesitant to join them because I belonged to a different class altogether but Dilip convinced me that it was of no consequence. “Even I treat only occasionally and only in the canteen,” he said. Latha was very affluent. She was the daughter of a big industrialist but she never threw her weight around or her money. I hit upon the idea of doing a few tuitions to earn some pocket money and finally I was one of them. I was floating in a seventh heaven.

          Laying wagers had turned into our favourite pass-time. We would dare one of the girls to go and maintain a three minute conversation with one of the senior boys. They would dare us to go down on our knees and present a red rose to a particularly haughty senior. Dilip got smacked in the face for doing that, once. How we all laughed! Raghav dared Latha to go with me to my house and meet my parents. Raghav should have known better than to do that. Latha happily walked down the narrow lane in which I lived with me and met my mother. She enjoyed a tiffin of ‘kuzhipaniyaram and chutney’ and left, promising to return as often as possible, which she did. On her fourth visit she burst out laughing at the look of total discomfiture on my mother’s face, hugged and kissed her saying, “Now you explain everything to her,” and left. It took a while to convince my mother that this was the City, that this was how city girls were – free and friendly.

          Latha’s father bought her a car for her eighteenth birthday and insisted that she drive herself to college. Latha was over- joyed as a car meant more freedom and more fun. We jumped into a totally different level of freedom. We could go wherever we wanted at whatever time took our fancy. We met up in the evenings and went to the beach. We played Frisbee. We also parked our car in the corner of a lonely street in the dark and tried our hand at smoking cigarettes. Radhika would join us for all the fun but she never touched a cigarette. We started boozing occasionally. Radhika opted out of these outings. We ragged her mercilessly but she just didn’t waver from her stand. I admired her for it but I didn’t think there was any harm in what we did. Everyone did these things even in the villages.

          One day Latha brought us some new foreign cigarettes which her brother had given her. The moment we inhaled, we knew that it was not an ordinary cigarette but we smoked them anyway. It did strange things to us. That night appa was angry with me.

          “I don’t like this one bit,” he yelled. “You’re out late more and more often and now you come home in this state.”

          I think it was the effect of that cigarette that made me react the way I did. I shouted back at him.

         “What’s bugging you? I’m getting good marks, aren’t I? You don’t like me to have a little fun. What do you know about the city? Villagers!”

          My mother gave me a tight rap across my face. “Don’t you dare talk to appa like that,” she said. “After all the sacrifice that he has done for you!”

          “Big sacrifice,” I spat out. “I can earn the money in one year and throw it on his face.”

          “Get out of this house at once,” my mother said, seething with anger.

          “Parvathi, calm down,” my father consoled her, “He is not in his senses. Let him sleep it off.”

          The next morning I was very ashamed of myself. Dilip told us that the cigarette had marijuana and that if we were going in that direction he would opt out. None of us wanted to get into that racket. It was addictive. We just wanted to have some great fun and be happy.

          Anything can become addictive – even harmless habits like placing wagers. We all saw ‘3 Idiots’ together. That was it! After that we would take turns entering people’s houses in the middle of the night, ringing their door-bell and making a dash for the gate. We would then get into the car and drive away feeling exhilarated. Latha would insist on having her turn.

          One evening when we were on the beach, Raghav and Dilip dared us to pick someone’s pocket. Latha and I worked out a plan. I followed the prospective target closely and Latha followed a few feet behind. Within minutes I had withdrawn his wallet, removed a few notes, dropped the wallet with a thud and carried on past the man. Latha called out, “Sir, Sir, your wallet,” picked up the wallet and handed it to the man with a smile. At that precise moment Dilip drove up honking. Latha waved and got into the car and they drove away. They picked me up at the corner of the street.

          “How did you manage that so effectively,” they asked.

          “Rural acumen,” I said, grinning. How they ribbed me! I felt very pleased with myself. It never occurred to us that from a group of boisterous students we had turned into rowdy elements. Prudence had made its exit with Radhika.

          Latha gifted me a lovely smart phone for my birthday. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the most precious gift I had ever received in my life. I went home and showed it to appa and he said, “Return it at once. We don’t accept such expensive gifts from unknown people.”

          I was horrified. “Unknown? Appa, she’s one of my best friends,” I said. “She has given me a gift to show she cares for me.”

          Appa was not convinced. “That’s not the point at all. You are  losing your sense of values. Give it back, please. I’ll buy you a cell phone if you want.”

          “What can you get me,” I asked sarcastically. “Some cheap two-k cell phone. Do you have any idea how much this phone costs? Fifteen-k, no less. I’m not giving it back and that’s final. Latha will be upset if I do.”

          “You’re getting carried away with the glitz and glamour of city life. I wish we had never left the village,” appa said sadly.

          “Well! You can always go back if you want,” I said in an off –hand manner. “I can manage, you know.”

          I don’t know how it came about but I found myself bragging that I could evacuate the whole college if I wanted. “Done,” said Latha “By a specific time. I bet you five-k if you win. If you lose you have to treat me to four movies in one month.” The bet was sealed.

          D-day arrived. The others were to remain in their classes. My time-out was 12 noon. As usual I had a plan. The Public Address System was in the Principal’s office. There was a staff room across the corridor from his office. I had already noted that no staff member occupied the room in that period on that particular day. The Principal came in around 11:30 every morning and went straight to his office. I hid in the staff room peeping out at his door. If any staff member entered, I could always pretend that I had been sent by a lecturer to collect a stack of books. I waited for the principal to come. 11:30 —–11:40 – I looked at my watch. 11:45 – I started getting anxious. There wasn’t much time left. Aah – there he was! I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five ——.”  “THERE’S A BOMB IN THE STAFF ROOM,” I yelled at the top of my voice and scooted down the corridor and out of the building at super speed. Within minutes the voice came out on the Public Address System – “Will all the students calmly evacuate their class-rooms. This is a Bomb Scare Exercise. Follow the rules practised – Down the stairs in rows of two. No need to panic. No running. We want everyone outside within five minutes. Go to the football and cricket grounds and stay there till further notice.”

          The students were very happy – anything to miss class. They filed out of their classes and onto the grounds where they got together in groups and chatted. I had unobtrusively joined one line as they left the building. Then I went in search of my friends feeling super elated. Ya! I had done it! It was exactly 12 noon.

          Police vehicles came screeching into the campus followed by the bomb squad who jumped out of the vehicle in their gear and went into the building. The students watched aghast. It was a real bomb scare! I winked at Dilip. “Bloody fool,” he said under his breath, “What have you gone and done?” At that precise moment a hand came up from behind, grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and dragged me towards a police vehicle. It was the Pricipal’s peon. He pushed me towards the Inspector and said, “This is the boy. I saw him with my own two eyes.” Two hulky policemen lifted me bodily, threw me into the police vehicle, jumped in after me and the vehicle drove away. “Bomb scare, is it,” one of the policemen said giving me a tight slap across my face. I felt as if my neck would break. I remembered the slap that my mother had dealt me a few months ago.

          Here I am sitting alone on a bench in the police station holding my head in my hands. I feel deep remorse – as usual too late. Appa had been right. I had allowed myself to get carried away. I had turned into a total rowdy. Pick pocketing? How despicable! How did I think it was a fun thing to do?

          I feel as if I have been here for ever. I am scared. To be honest, I am terrified. What is going to happen to me? Will they put me in jail? And what about the others?  Will they come and support me or Are they just Fair Weather Friends?

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                                                                DOUBLE TROUBLE

                                                  By SARVESWARI SAIKRISHNA

“I hope you have a daughter just like you,” my mother had said, when I feigned a stomach ache that had miraculously made me unable to lift a finger to do any chores for the day. I had chuckled then and gone back to my book. That was 20 years ago. The almighty did her bidding. To add some extra fun, He gave me two.

I am a hapless mother of twin daughters, six years of age. They are like any other girl children, made of sugar spice and everything nice but then I suspect God added a dollop of wry humor to the concoction while dishing my twins out.

I take pride in being a lazy person. To me, the ultimate purpose of life is to accomplish maximum with minimum use of body or brain. I largely succeeded at it until my daughters came along.

My day starts early with a mad scamper to use the restroom. (Now, why do I feel like I am at the girls’ hostel all over again?) One of my daughters decides that she has to go exactly when I want to use it.  She pleads that I bequeath the throne or she may have to do her thing on the floor, which sends me scurrying out of the room. Having successfully dethroned me, she realizes she need not do it after all.

A filter coffee at the beginning of the day has become a luxury now. Out of necessity, I have cold coffee these days. No, not those pricey ones. Mine is left so long on the counter that the fly decides to commit suicide in it rather than drinking it.

Halfway through my bath, I have to broker peace between two warring amazons, ready to slay each other. Now people are no longer surprised when my hair smells like Gillette shaving foam.  They just tsk tsk and go along.

Then, comes getting ready for school.

I get the shirt on one kid struggling to get the button into the smallest hole I have ever seen. After a few minutes of breath in and breath out and the shirt is done, I discover that the uniform has been swapped between the twins.

I scream, “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“You asked me to keep quiet,mama,” one says, her eyes accusing me. After a couple of remove and repeats, we are all set to go, when it turns out that it is a Friday and hence an entirely different ensemble for school.

I request all and sundry who feel pity for my kids to stop, pause and read on. They possess the bargaining skills of a professional hostage negotiator. Their secret weapon, tire your opponent (mostly me) out.

On any given day the conversation goes something like this,

I say, “Wanna help me put your toys away?”

They say, “No.”

I say, “I won’t put them away for you.”

They say, “Ok.”

Then for the next half an hour, I try to put on a brave face and try to ignore the mess (They are so good at not caring a jot). Then the fun begins. I scream, they look at me with lost puppy eyes.  The whole house comes to their rescue. Finally, I end up cleaning the mess and they get cookies (before dinner) for putting up with my ‘tantrums’!  You haven’t seen passive aggressive until you have met my two angels.

Now, I am not that witch in Hansel and Gretal who suckle kids to eat them. Do think of me like a mother bird who nudges her little birdies towards the periphery of the nest, waiting for the day when their wings are strong enough and waiting to get a clear shot at their butts.

They will fly, falter a little, but fly.

They are after all their mother’s daughters.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

                                                               THE ARRIVAL

                                                  By RANJIT NARAYANAN

Air India Express IX 346 from Dubai landed before schedule at Kozhikode Airport. There was a buzz from the waiting crowd as the status changed to “Arrived” on the display board outside the airport

Latif was rolling the trolley train when he spotted someone lighting up a cigarette just outside the barricade at the arrival gate. This was his last errand of the day and after this he was excited to go home to watch the FIFA world cup match Live from Kick off time.

“Mashe, this is prohibited area, you should not smoke. Fine is 500 Rupees’ he warned as he carted in the trolley train. The lanky man in his late 50s looked uncertain before he took three more quick puffs and stubbed out the cigarette. He was peering inside as if he was expecting someone.

‘An incident-free day,’ Latif sighed when he swiped his fingers on the biometrics marking his duty for the day. Shamsu, the CISF at the gate, nodded goodbye as he frisked Latif at the gate. He walked the short distance to his parking lot from the Arrivals gate.

As he walked to his motorcycle stand, he saw the man again, this time seated on the kerb. Maybe his guest was not yet out. Anyway, he could not care less. He was in a hurry to catch the game between Argentina and Nigeria at home, 13 kilometers away in Chemmad. On his way, Latif stopped at the petty shop located at the intersection where the airport road joined the highway.

His friend Rafeeque, the shop owner, was already restless. “Latifka, please hurry up, the match has already started.’

                                                                          ***

This was the fourth night that Latif encountered the lanky man at the arrival gate. He wondered if he was a cabbie but apparently not, for it was mandatory for the taxi drivers at the airport to wear a white coat and a badge.

The mobile buzzed in his pocket. Sulaiman’s friend had landed. IX 346 arrived before time. Air India services seemed to be getting better, ironically when they wanted to sell it off. Latif darted to the over-sized baggage delivery counter near the conveyor belt #3. The TV was 50 Inch and the fluorescent stickers were pasted all over the packing board. It was a Samsung XHD. Latif balanced it expertly on the trolley and wheeled it out of the exit, past the Green Channel,  bidding a quick salaam at Shamsu at the gate. Mr. Nair, the customs supervisor seemed glued to the big screen that was playing the highlights of the game where Croatia upset Argentina. Latif didn’t even look. It was a rare defeat and he was sure that Messi and Co. would bounce back.

Latif wheeled the trolley to the Departure gate. Kozhikode had both departures and arrivals on the same level. The Innova was waiting with engine and headlights turned on. Latif carefully placed the TV on the back seat. The packing was good. It will survive the 13 Kilometre drive to Chemmad and the airport road was newly laid. The driver gave Sulaiman’s friend a new Boarding pass CCX to DXB by the return IX 345. “Hurry up, boarding has started,” Latif murmured as he shook hands with Sulaiman’s friend. The reconnaissance run passed the test, incident free.

                                                                           ***

It was another hectic day at the Airport. The baggage carousel area was chaotic. Outside the glass pane, Latif suddenly the lanky man swaying his head and peering inside. Latif decided to act now, beckoning Shamsu the CISF to come along with him outside.

The man was startled when Latif caught hold of his wrist suddenly.

‘’What is it, Latifka?  Who is he?” Shamsu enquired.

“I see him every day at the arrivals gate. Today is the fifth day I see him. He just comes just before IX 346 lands, pretends as if he is waiting for someone, and leaves without a fuss. Looks like he is making surveillance of this airport.”

“Come with me, Mashe”, Shamsu ordered

The agitated man begged him, “Saare, I have nothing to hide.”

Shamsu demanded, “Then what are you doing here. Show me your papers”

The Aadhar card read Ibrahim Sait Pudhiyaveetil and the address was at Mambram, close to the holy mosque.

“Saare, I am waiting for my son Wasim to come from Dubai. Every night, with hope’

Latif and Shamsu gave a quizzical look.

“My wife is very sick. I called him ten days ago and he said he would come immediately. For some reason, his mobile is switched off since then. I am hoping that he will come one of these days,” and at this point, the man broke down, “before Allah takes his mother away.”

Latif mellowed down as the thought of losing his own mother a few years ago flooded him.

 He called Shamsu aside and pleaded, “Sorry, brother. I think he is telling the truth. We should let him go?”

Shamsu, still suspicious, looked at the man and sighed. He then turned to Latif and said before leaving, “These days, you never know. Anyways, I will keep an eye on this guy.”

                                                                               ***

“How bad is she?’ Latif enquired as he drove Ibrahim on his Pulsar to the highway.

“All Allah’s games, my son. Fatima requires a major surgery to remove a complicated tumour in her uterus’

“Cancer?’ Latif enquired

“No, my son. Thankfully, it is not malignant. However, it is still life threatening and a major surgery must be done as soon as possible. It is very expensive for us. We are counting on Wasim”

“Ibrahimka, you can call me Latif. I know how distressing it can be.I lost my mother to the dreaded CA two years ago. We spared no expenses for the treatments, surgery,chemo. But then, Allah had other plans.”

“Oh, Sorry to hear about your Umma, Latifbai,” the man said

He continued, “I am a retired teacher, used to work at an LP school. My son is the sole breadwinner now. My pension hardly amounts to anything.”

They were at the junction where the airport road met the highway. Rafeeque was waiting in front of his petty shop in the corner. The shutter was down.

“Rafi, this is Ibrahimka. I met him at the airport. He has a sob story that I will tell you later. Now please can you wait here until Ibrahimka gets a bus to Mambram. I need to rush away on an errand.”

That night Latif tossed in his bed but sleep still seemed a big premium. He thought about his mother and his frantic search for money every time she fell sick, how each time he saw a pleading apology in his mother eyes when she had to be hospitalized.

                                                                              ***

Two days later, Air India Express IX 346 arrived on time. Latif darted to the Over Sized baggage delivery counter near the conveyor belt #3. He greeted Sulaiman silently. The TV was 50 Inch and the fluorescent stickers were pasted all over the packing. It was a Samsung XHD. Latif balanced it expertly on the trolley and wheeled it out of the exit, past the Green Channel bidding a quick salaam to Shamsu at the gate. Mr. Nair, the customs supervisor was watching the replay of the Lukaku Goal.

Sulaiman was texting on his mobile. At the Departures area the Innova was waiting with engines and headlights on. The driver opened the back door and Latif carefully placed the TV on the back seat.The driver gave a new boarding pass to Sulaiman. They embraced and departed in opposite directions.

                                                     ***

Latif returned to the Airport to sign off duty only to find Ibrahim again, as forlorn as before, peering against the glass pane in the Arrivals area.

Seeing Latif, Ibrahim Sait burst into tears and was sobbing inconsolably. “The Hospital has asked me to take her home, if we do not plan the surgery this week and Wasim didn’t come even today.”

Latiif’s heart melted. “Ibrahimka, wait for me here.”

He remembered today’s prayer at the Darul Huda Masjid –

“And turn in repentance and in obedience with true Faith to your Lord and submit to Him, before the torment comes upon you, then you will not be helped.” (Quran 39:54)

                                                  ***

Rafeeque was relieved to hear the noise of the approaching Pulsar. But Latif was not alone. Ibrahim Sait was on the pillion.

 “The moron,” cursed Rafeeque. “What a time to have company!”

The Toyota parked on the grass path suddenly switched on the headlights. The driver greeted Latif again for the second time that night and handed over a black duffle bag. Rafeeque got in the passenger seat in front and the SUV swiftly turned towards the Calicut Road.

As the tail lights of the SUV vanished to the night, Latif turned to Ibrahim Sait.

“Ibrahimka, Wasim didn’t come, but don’t worry, he is destined to come when his Umma is cured,” he said to the confused man. As he placed the duffle bag into Ibrahim Sait’s palms, the serenity of a humid Kerala night was abruptly interrupted by screaming sirens of patrol cars that landed out of darkness.

                                                                             ***

The cameras at Chemmad Police station worked overtime clicking the huge haul of gold bars packed inside a SONY LED TV frame. Ibrahim Sait had changed into uniform. Latif and Rafeeque struggled to mask their faces from the camera. The driver was on the run. Shamsu was detained at the airport and was being interrogated. Sulaiman was arrested by Dubai Police upon landing. More arrests were foreseen.

Latif turned approver. He now teaches languages in a Madrassa near Mambram. Ibrahim Sait was promoted to Assistant Director In Special Branch Kozhikode.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

                                 CURSE ABSOLVED BY NATURE’S BOON

                                           By RANJIT NARAYANAN                  

       Devikulam, my home town is a sleepy hamlet in the foothills of Munnar in Kerala. The name was evolved from two words Devi, meaning goddess and Kulam meaning lake.  Folklore says Sita Devi visited this settlement and bathed in the lake, hence known as Sita Devi lake. The villagers believe that the water of this lake has healing powers. Traditional medicine practitioners made Devikulam their home and set up clinics.

      I have never been here. The reason for this absenteeism was ironically, my medical condition, called congenital infantile uterus. In my ancestral home, it had a simpler name, the curse. Delayed puberty was a serious disorder here. I hadn’t yet become a “big girl,” I had completed only my twelfth birthday!

      My medical condition fell into Paattis ears. Doctors had mixed prognosis, from easily curable to medical miracle. To Paatti, it was because of the curse.

      Paatti ordered Amma to bring me to Devikulam to perform the long overdueShayana Pradakshinam in Sita Devi temple followed by a visit to Guruji’s clinic. Guruji was a top notch healer of Devikulam, the local Hippocrates.

      I was wet, shivering and numb to the core after the cold morning Shayana Pradakshinam. After one more dip in the cold waters of the lake, I was ushered into Guruji’s chamber draped in a freezing wet half-sari.

      My woes continued through another round of Pujas in Guruji’s chamber. At the end of it, they forced a thick syrup of shatavarighritmahayograj guggul pushpdhanwaras, (I had written it down just for the records,) down my throat, after which I passed out promptly.

      Back in the comfort of the cosy room in Paattis house, I was being attended by Rakki, the domestic help. She said that Guruji had advised day long fasting for the “dam” to open (his words! not mine.)

      I roamed around the wooden floored rooms, rummaging through dusty cupboards when my eyes rested on a carton full of old books. That was how I stumbled upon Amma’s old personal diary.

      Snuggled in a wooden recliner with Amma’s diary, I snooped on her untold stories. As I shuffled the pages, out popped a neatly folded letter and fell on my lap. Written in Tamil, the translation read:

 Dearest

It hurts to see you grieve this way. You are too young and fragile to endure this suffering. I won’t allow the curse to fall upon you. I have a plan. With Sita Devi’s blessings, we will succeed. Please come to the slope garden behind the dam. I hope you will be able to trek all the way up there in this condition. Tomorrow is the day of Neelakurinji’s blooming. Nature will hold answers to our plight. I will be waiting.

Love,

Jana

       The letter struck a chord, as if it was addressed to me. It was eerie, yet intriguing. Amma had mentioned that Neelakurinji was expected to blossom tomorrow, promptly, on the first day of Avani month as it had done always in the past. Despite my fatigue, I was too shaken to sleep the whole night. At 5 AM, I decided to break the curfew. I silently tip-toed and jumped out of the window, landing barefoot on the cold, soft moss bedded soil.

      I unleashed Zimba, my only friend in this home, who seemed to fancy me from the day we met on this visit. Zimba was a Rajapalayam breed, usually wary of strangers and their large size can intimidate almost any intruders. But somehow, we bonded like siblings.  The morning walk with Zimba in tow was a perfect alibi, in case someone saw me breaking the curfew.

      Mist hung heavily as I trekked my way up the hill. Breathless, I reached the entrance of the slope garden and my eager eyes scanned for the appearance of Jana of the letter. I still tried to reason that the letter was written to me. I couldn’t imagine it being any other way.  Barring a few foreigners and bird watchers, not a single face under the woollen hoods cared even to glance at us.

      The lethargic clearing of mist was welcomed with gasps of excitement from the sparse tourists, as the canvas over the turf was being lifted.

      And then I felt it. The jarring pain that started from the sides radiating to the lower back and an excruciating yell that failed to come out of my throat as I doubled up. Clutching my abdomen, I lowered myself on the damp rock as the villagers scrambled past us to witness the early spectre of nature.

      I saw fear in Zimba’s eyes as he looked at the wild grass turning red. I extended a hand seeking his help. I felt a familiar clasp on my palm, a touch that I never missed when needed as Amma sat beside me and straddled my head into her bosom as a cardamom laced breeze comforted us.

      And then it bloomed.  As I watched in utmost awe, the Neelakurinji plietesials were blooming, ending a 12-year hiatus and blossoming gregariously on nature’s canvas, as a sea of violet that cleansed us from a curse that weighed us down for twelve prejudiced years.

Mom’s diary

23/8/2006

Munnar Public Health Center.

Doctor uncle was fending off the villagers’ attempt to lay siege of the hospital. Uncle and Janaki sister locked me inside the ward.  My illicit pregnancy would bring a curse to the village. Sita Devi would be very angry. Famine, epidemic and major disaster was in store. The usually affable Iyer Mama growled. Here, I lie in shame, disgust and solitude as they brought in Janardhanan’s body for the post mortem, fished out from the Aylampuzha river, downstream of the Mattupety dam. I begged to see him, one last time. Janaki sister forbid it. It was too dangerous. Even Thambi had come brandishing a sickle. Devikulam’s honour was more important than Akka and her baby in the first trimester. The curse had to be banished, forever.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

                                                THE GUARD’S SOULMATE

                                                 BY RANJIT NARAYANAN

       The residents of Devi apartment woke up to the news of their security guard Ram Bahadur’s demise at the hospital. The Secretary of the complex had arranged for his body to be brought in for the residents to pay their last respects, before being taken to the cemetery.

       The honking of an ambulance at the apartment gate stirred Jimmy from a deep sleep. He was hungry and tired, having not eaten anything since Ram Bahadur fed him the previous afternoon.

       The residents flocked the ambulance as the freezer casket containing Ram Bahadur’s mortal remains was lowered to the ground. Men sighed in sympathy. Women struggled to hide their tears. The children hid behind their mothers, afraid to look.

       Jimmy tiptoed up to the rectangular box winding his way between the onlookers. There was a strong smell of some medicine. Jimmy tapped on the frosting glass box peering into it. Jimmy wondered how Ram Bahadur could sleep inside the cold box.

       The mortal remains of Ram Bahadur was shifted to the mat made from braided coconut leaves.Someone walked up to the security cabin and brought Ram Bahadur’s khaki dress and cap and placed it next to it.

       Jimmy took a few steps, backing away from the burning lamp that was placed adjacent to Ram Bahadur.

       The ambulance retreated into the street. A few residents cried without restraint. The Nepali priest arrived with his men. After a brief chant of hymns, they lifted the body and marched out into the street. A few men from the complex went along. The women and children stayed inside the compound.

       Jimmy knew this place well. Ram Bahadur used to take him here to attend to nature’s call. It was his foes’ territory and he had had a few violent skirmishes with them. Ram Bahadur had saved him on many an occasion. Jimmy ignored the glare of his adversaries and walked between the men for safety. Jimmy did not understand why Ram Bahadur was being lowered into a pit.

       The new security guard,Tej Pratap assumed charge the next day. Despite the residents’ assurances, he didn’t like Jimmy. He brandished his baton whenever Jimmy approached him.

       Jimmy became very frightened and insecure for the first time in his life. He decided to go and wake up Ram Bahadur sleeping under the earth.

       The helper from the cemetery came to the secretary’s office with a message that Jimmy was attacked near Ram Bahadur’s grave and was bleeding profusely.

       The veterinary officer on duty ushered the secretary and his flatmates to the ward where Jimmy was lying sedated on a soft bedding. The wounds were thankfully superficial, the vet had remarked. However, the flatmates realized that Jimmy was still bleeding from his heart while missing Ram Bahadur.

       Jimmy’s new kennel looked better than the security shed. Jimmy chuckled in joy while drooling at the tray of his breakfast placed below the portrait of Ram Bahadur.

       Tej Pratap quit within a few days.

       Devi Apartment did not look for his replacement.

 ____________________________________________________________________________________________

                                                                           FEAR NOT

                                                     BY SARVESWARI SAIKRISHNA

Death flashed his arresting smile at God.

God, despite Her supreme control, could not help but redden.

“Flatterer!” She said and hoped that Her pretended annoyance was bought.

“Go on, what brings you ‘up’ here,” she demanded, her smile never leaving her ruby lips.

“But it’s no exaggeration, ma’am. My words! I stand by them. I would die a thousand times, for one kiss on your lips.” Death swore his solemnity and with the same nonchalance, began discussing their business.

“Now, as for what brought me here, the usual ma’am. I come to seek 456 from the city of K. Cholera has fixed his stake at 241. Plague, bless her arrogance, will not settle for anything less than 200 and Fear begs for a few.” Death went through his list and finding it in order, looked at God.

God wondered how such a strapping fellow could be the harbinger of misery. She scanned the list.

Then, as was wont, the haggling started.

“Can you spare the one-year-old?”

“No, ma’am. He had it coming, thanks to his father’s ‘adventures.’”

So on and so forth the dialogues were carried on until late and surprisingly with no changes to the original list. Death was never a negotiator.

With that, it was agreed that Death would join God for a lunch after the harvest to brief her on the state of affairs.

                                                   ***

Many days later,

Death was ushered into the verandah overlooking the sprawling garden.

God joined him fashionably late, in Her finest attire. Soon, lunch was served.

The spread was delightful, a decanter of full-bodied wine, the eclectic spread of cheese and fine bread, and of course the juicy fruits.

After the pleasantries, the harvest was discussed.

“All went well?” God enquired munching her apple.

Death, now asking for a second glass of wine, began his narration.

“Cholera was to take the spoils first, followed by Plague, quite scientifically so.  Finally, a portion was granted to Fear. But then there was a turn of events. Cholera had to be happy with 56 lives. Fatalist that he was, he had convinced himself he’d have a better harvest next time around. However, Plague was inconsolable.”

“43! A pittance for my crafty efforts!” she was heard lamenting.

Rolling the succulent olive in his mouth, Death continued, “You see ma’am, the night before their harvest, while the duo of diseases were drinking and making merry, Fear sneaked off and entered the town of K before them.”

 Death stopped to refill his glass.

“300 and odd fell for Fear. Under pretense of warning the citizens, he crept into their skin, grated their nerves, entered their blood and took their shortened, last breath away as his own.” Death mulled, staring at a distance and sipping his wine.

The above story is inspired by one of the many stories that the writer has come across as a school student. In fact, the character, Cholera, and Fear are in the original story, though it is written from a gate keeper’s point of view. The writer had been in search of that story for a long time and would be much obliged if someone could help her locate it. If found, or even otherwise, the writer duly credits the original for inspiration.   

____________________________________________________________________________________________

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