Saturday, August 8, 2020
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The baggages

3

Ooh… aah… ouch… I swear, if I had the ability, I would have sued some of these airport staff. I hate to be manhandled. Aah… finally some respite, a smooth ride on the belt. Now I would be picked up by my owner, Tuhin, soon.

Did I see a face I knew from my past? Those brown eyes, curly hair caressing the plump cheeks on a petite frame- who could forget that adorable face? It’s been three years since we met, but she had not aged for a day, it seemed. She wore dark-rimmed glasses, which was a new addition to her round face, and it accentuated her elegance. Trishita, I recalled her name. She was waiting there for her baggage too. Oh, I felt nostalgic. Wish I could enquire her about my twin sister Melissa. “Hey! Wait… wait…” I shouted as I saw her picking me up. Did she mistake me for Melissa?

I shouted, “Hey lady! I don’t belong to you, not anymore. It’s been years that we have met.” But all my pleas fell on deaf ears, or rather phone ears. She heaved me up with one hand, her other hand holding the trolley and a phone pressed between her ear and shoulder. 

Juggling with all these things she kept on talking, “Han Maa… I have just landed… Yes, I know Bijoy da has come to pick me up… Don’t worry Maa, this is the third time you are calling me after I landed… Now, will you please hang up the phone? I have collected my baggage . I will be home soon…”

She finally hung up and hauled me towards her car. Bijoy Da, her driver, opened the boot space and deposited me there while she slumped in the back seat of the car. Then the engine revved up. She was humming a song which travelled to my ears in the dark boot space- 

Jaro laagi firi eka eka…

Aankhi pipasito nahi dekha…

This was her favourite song, she used to sing this a lot. With this, a deluge of memories flooded my mind.

It was six years back. We were fresh out of the factory. Twin sisters we were- Valissa and Melissa, products of a newly launched company. We were kept on a high stand at the outlet, shining in our new colours and fresh smell. A red ribbon tied around us and a board saying- buy one, get one free. That was when we saw this couple, approaching towards us, hand in hand. 

“Trishi, are you sure we need two?” The boy was apprehensive. But Trishita insisted, “Absolutely Tuhin. when you go on a business trip, I will need a separate suitcase in case I need to travel.” Tuhin agreed and we were brought home. Melissa and I were very happy to stay with them. They were a happy couple. Together we went on many trips…

Ah! The sudden flash of light on opening the boot felt like needle prick on my eyes and put a stop to my reminiscence. Trishita’s mother opened the door as soon as she rang the doorbell. 

“O Trishi…come…come. How was your trip?” Her eyes went extra round and eyebrows arched with excitement. 

Trishita hugged her tightly and smiled, “Haven’t I told you, like four times over the phone, the publishers liked this sequel very much? They have agreed to publish it.” 

Her mother touched her forehead and bosom in rapid hand motions in an act of thanking God. 

“All your sufferings are coming to an end, I have a feeling.”

“Maa, stop behaving as if I am a kid. I am thirty-six now.” She said with extra stress on thirty-six.

I stood there silently, yawning, for I knew her mother can chat endlessly. I waited for them, to discover the slip.

“Wait, I have brought something for you” she leaned over me. Now! Now! She might know…

“No. Not now. I have made luchi alurdom for you.  Freshen up and have your meal, then we will talk.” Her mother held her hand.

They both left, I was forgotten and left near the sofa. I sat in the corner waiting for the revelation. At the dining table, food was served. Then after bribing Trishita with a sumptuous meal, she started, “Trishi dear, look at me, I am ageing. And look at you. You are so messed up. Your room was so cluttered, I had to organise everything after you left.”

“Come to the point Maa,” Trishita said brusquely. “I was always this messy, it’s not new.”

“There is this guy. A widower with a little boy of two years. I want you to meet him”

“And you think I will become very organised if I marry him?” Trishita interrupted. Then she held her mother’s hand, “I feel sorry for the little boy who lost his mother, Maa. But, I am not prepared yet…” 

Her mother suddenly broke into a sob, “I know you still love him. All your stories reflect your love for him. Trishi, it’s been four years. For God’s sake, throw that spineless man out of your heart. And what you have lost will never come back.” Trishita didn’t utter a word. She didn’t want to. She was worn, both mentally and physically. After a long pause, she said, “Ok. I will meet him.” 

Her mother smiled and pressed her hands, “Everything will be alright Trishi. This kid will fill the void in your life. Have faith and let go.” 

The day passed and made way for the night, that was when she brought me in her room. She lifted me and placed me on her bed with care. With her gentle fingers, she unzipped me. As soon as she lifted my cover she gaped, “Oh no! What have I done? This is not my suitcase!” 

The meticulously folded shirts, ties and suits attracted her attention. It was one of Tuhin’s little idiosyncrasies. One couldn’t tell whether he was going on a trip or returning from one, the shirts were folded uniquely with cuffs clipped to the button placket. 

Did her heart skip a beat? She brushed her fingers over the neatly folded clothes and tried to swallow a huge lump. Then her eyes fell on the name tag. A drop of tear trickled down her cheeks and fell on me. It was warm. 

She shut my cover hastily. Taking a deep breath, she opened me again. Her hands trembled while picking up the diary inside me. She hesitated at first, but, a few moments later started to turn the pages. Then she gently turned on a page and glanced at it for a bit too long. She placed the diary upside down with the opened page over me and buried her face in a cushion. Muffled sound of sobs filled the room. I read the opened page-

“12th February- Happy Birthday Trishi…

Sorry to let you down. I should have stood by you…” 

Ah! I remembered that day. We were in Pattaya five years ago on this day. She was over the moon when Tuhin had presented her two tickets, a surprise gift on her birthday. A trip to Pattaya. Melissa and I, both of us accompanied them. We were packed light, for our contents were one-piece, two-piece, shorts and beautiful dresses. The days were spent on local visits and nights were passionate. Did we witness anything? Oh! That would be wishful thinking. We were stacked in the closet. However, our ears were glued to the closet door. We could hear the panting and erm…moaning sounds. The rest was left to our vivid imagination.

Ah! Those were some happy days. And it didn’t end then, by the end of that year, they were blessed with a baby boy. They named him Papan. The whole family gathered for the celebrations.

But as the days passed, their luck took an ugly turn. Their happiness disappeared. And ours too. There were no more holiday trips.Trishita used to sob a lot. Tuhin was always in a gloomy mood. We could not comprehend what made them so upset despite having such a jovial child. Yes, Papan was the most jovial child we had ever seen. 

Then one day, we heard Tuhin’s mother lash out at Trishita.

Her shrill voice penetrated through the keyhole of the cupboard, “It must be in your genes. Nobody is known to have Down syndrome in our blood relations.” She rasped. 

There was silence after that. We wondered why Tuhin didn’t say anything? His mother’s taunts and barbs worsened with each day. Sometimes, Trishita would retort, but mostly she kept quite for she looked already battered from inside. All that while Tuhin kept mum.

A few days past Papan’s first birthday, it rained heavily. The sound of splatter on the window pane next to the cupboard was deafening. Still, a lot of people had gathered at their place. Sombre and grieving voices had created a strange atmosphere. The smell from the burning incense sticks and flowers seeped inside the cupboard. It was choking.

After that day we never saw Papan again.

A week later, the cupboard door was opened in thrust and Trishita took out Melissa in a jiffy, packed all her clothes and belongings and started to leave. 

Tuhin who sat all this while burying his face in his palms, rose from his place. He made one last effort to save their strained relationship, “Please don’t leave Trishi. Can’t we make it work? We love each other. Can we not think to begin afresh?”

Trishi stopped in her path and said without turning back, her voice croaked, “Maybe someday you will understand Tuhin. Sometimes love is not enough…” And she walked out.

I felt heavy, more than ever, even when I was empty.

With that my life became dull intervened by monotonous business trips.

 

The rays of sun had been peeping through the window for some time now, but Trishita still lay on her bed. A couple of knocks on her door broke her slumber. She sat on her bed groggily. She was up until early morning, may be wandering on the rough paths of her memory lane. 

“Trishi, otho… It’s already 9:30…” Her mother called.

 

After freshening up, she made a phone call to the airport. She dressed and picked me up. Concealing her swollen eyes with shades, she left her room.

“Where are you going at this time?” Her mother enquired.

“I will be back in an hour.” She didn’t want to go into details. If her mother sniffed whose bag it actually was, I was certain, all hell would break loose then. Her mother’s forehead remained furrowed as Trishita grabbed a toast and left in haste.

She reached the airport ‘lost and found’ department. It seemed she didn’t want to keep me any longer or the bitter memories associated with me.

She had a conversation with the staff. They pointed towards a row of seats. What I heard was, “Ma’am, he has been waiting there. After you called us, we called him too…”

She looked unsettled, her grip over my trolley handle tightened. I could feel a storm in her heart.

She fumbled and uttered, “Mm… ok… I will go and exchange the bags…”

I saw Melissa from a distance. But I couldn’t show my excitement in trepidation of the upcoming encounter. I could see Tuhin’s side face from a distance. The new streaks of grey hair on his temple, made him look ageing with grace, unlike his demeanour, which was still child-like. He was fiddling with his mobile phone and his legs were trembling, just the way he behaved before any important client meeting. Meanwhile, my trolley handle felt wet, Trishita’s hands were clearly sweating.

He didnt see us until we were about a feet away from him.

“Tuhin…” Trishita’s lips quivered.

Tuhin stood up from his seat and smiled nervously, “Hey! How are you?”

“I am fine… How are you?”

“I am fine too.” 

After the exchange of pleasantries there was an awkward silence for some minutes which seemed like years. Meanwhile, Tuhin fiddled with his mobile phone some more and put his hand in and out of pockets multiple times. And Trishita tucked her hair strands behind the ears umpteen times, however the disobedient curls bounced back on her flushed cheeks time and again. 

“Sorry to have picked up your baggage by mistake. I apologise for the trouble.” I was relieved as she took the initiative to start the conversation again.

“It is fine, Trishita.” Then he blurted out nervously, “At least we met again… I saw your name on the tag yesterday at the airport, still I thought of carrying the baggage home…ermm… I am sorry… I did not mean to…”

“It is ok Tuhin.” She looked down, clueless, what to say next.

But the floodgates of emotions seemed to have opened for Tuhin who continued in an intense voice, “You know Trishita, I tried to call you many times after that day. But I think you changed your number.”

Trishita tried to divert him, “So how are your parents?”

“They are fine. They don’t stay with me anymore. They have moved to our ancestral home. I stay here… alone.” 

Trishita’s eyes strayed towards his fingers, her eyes lingered a bit too longer on his ring finger, which still had their marriage ring. 

If she stayed any longer, she might have broken down. She pushed me forward in a hurry, “So… its your bag.”

“Oh, yes. And… this is yours.” Me and Melissa exchanged smiles when we crossed paths.

Then, Tuhin took out a leather folder from his backpack and handed it over to Trishita, “Ermm… this is your manuscript. It was strewn inside the suitcase, so I thought of arranging it.”

Trishita was surprised, she took it with both her hands and thanked him.

“Its a beautiful story by the way,” added Tuhin.

“You read it? But you never used to read…” I could see her eyes twinkle.

“Yes. I did. And the previous two in this series.”

Right then Trishita’s phone rang.

“I am sorry. It’s Bijoy da. I will have to leave.” I saw both their faces turn ashen.

“Ok. Sure,” Take care Trishita.” He said with sincerity in his tone. And a tinge of pain in his eyes.

They both parted. Again.

Tuhin hired a taxi and slumped at the back seat along with me. He wrapped one arm around me. In their longing for loved ones, human beings tend to embrace pillows. This would be the first time when one embraced a suitcase. 

He straightened himself when his phone rang after some minutes into the trip. He received the call in a way one responds to unknown numbers.

But, his next words made me to strain my ears to listen to the conversation.

“Trishi?” His eyes widened.

The soft voice from the other end said, “It is my number… Will you save it?”

I grinned when I heard him reply, “I will… I…definitely will…”

***

Glossary

Han- yes

Maa- mother

Jaro laagi firi eka eka, aankhi pipasito nahi dekha-

For whom I wander around all alone, 

My eyes are thirsty for a glimpse of him. (Lines from a famous Tagore song)

Luchi-Alurdom- a Bengali dish

Otho-wake up

Da- a way of addressing an elder brother

***

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Unsplash

Prompt:The MC comes home from the airport to realize that they picked up the wrong baggage. What follows this incident?

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

Stirring up the hornet’s nest- A reviewing primer

0

Hola Artoons,

Here’s another set of helpful tips that, I hope, will come in handy as you go about reviewing. 

To begin with, anonymous entries are a thing at ArtoonsInn where the writer chooses to be anonymous when submitting an entry until he/she chooses or remains anonymous for 3 days by default. Anonymity gives a chance for newer Artoons to share their reviews without the context of the writer’s past works. 

Coming to the talk of the town, Reviewing, yes, it’s time to stir the hornet’s nest now. 

Reviewing can be termed a cursed and condemned activity because reviewers have (or should have) a sick sensation of bad faith every time they strike the keyboard. If you are placing ‘great writing’ above ‘great story’ on your list of must-haves, you are already on the wrong path. I may sound rude. It IS rude but true. 

I never recognize myself as a writer, I am a proud reader and never once did I pick up any book looking for some great language, grammar, or ‘message’. It’s always an interesting premise, be it Charles Dickens or Chetan Bhagat. Just because ‘great writing’ is not a priority, does it mean that writers need not focus on grammar, diction, and syntax?

No, absolutely not.

Any writer who aspires to pursue a path as a published author, should know the difference between amateur writing and seasoned writing. It’s revision. And what better place than ArtoonsInn for that?

Here are some things to keep in mind if you are serious about reviewing:

You are not a developmental editor

No reviewing involves revisions of writers’ expressions of their faiths or judgments. A developmental editor (akin to pre-emptive editing done by a teammate in ArttrA) might discuss this concern with the respective writer but commonly does not impose on the author’s convictions. If the author wanted to have a particular character arc, say, Adam from Mia Estoria Elpidas; his character arc is Guilt ridden-hopeless-distrust -cynical-hopeful-Guilt free. And each paragraph works towards this. If you question the arc, say you wanted the MC to not be guilt-free at the end (Maybe you feel that it’s hard to let go), then there is a fault in your analysis. A second read would help here.

You’re not a kingmaker

I am sorry for being harsh. Your ideas about how to construct prose may conflict with those of the writer who wrote it. It’s okay to point it out without sounding like it’s some sort of rule unless it’s an actual rule (grammar, syntax). However, having said that, writers need to understand that there is a strong correlation between a good writer and good grace.

Reviewers don’t have any personal gain from critiquing your work. Take reviews with a fistful of salt. Respect the time spent by the reviewer and move on. 

Focus on the essentials

Thoughtful critiques can help the writer focus on essentials. Think about: 

  •  What exactly is the writer’s purpose?  
  • What exactly is the conflict?
  •  Is there sufficient background for conflict and build up to its resolution?
  •  Does each scene advance the plot?
  •  Is there any inherent message the writer wants to convey?
  •  What’s the genre indexing (a boon by ArtoonsInn)?
  •  Is the story following the genre fundamentals?

It’s sad to see that many reviewers are not noticing the essentials and directly jumping onto the advanced shenanigans. Individual style is something you need to be careful about considering. But, that’s not to say that you avoid commenting on the language you feel is improper or over the top. 

Rear-end your opinions.

Avoid starting your reviews with phrases like ‘This is a disaster’, ‘I am disappointed’ etc. Whether you’re writing a long, feature-style review or a short, one-paragraph review, remember this mantra: It’s only in the final two or three sentences of a short review that reviewers should offer opinions. This way, the reader has enough background to understand where the reviewer’s opinion is coming from.

Spend a minute thinking about the consequences.

Be sure that you consider the consequences of your opinions before you decide what to say or how to present your review. There is no point in hurting a budding writer or worse, making them doubt their own skills. If you get ‘God save this story’ feeling, there is always DM (Facebook) or anonymous comment(website). Make use of these. Or better, scroll past.

Find a strong angle for your reviews. 

The only thing worse than a poorly written review is a pointless one. Ask questions to yourself. 

Like,

  • Is this writer catering to the gallery?
  • Did you just read the best story of the event?
  • Why does this writer do such a bad job at representing women?

The point is, build real arguments that will pull the writer to appreciate your review and maybe act on it. Any appreciation by fellow readers is the icing on the cake.

Phew. Six lengthy pointers!

Now, am I absolutely right about these things?

No, even I am a learner. 

And does it mean that you need to do all these all the time?

No. It depends on the time you have for reviewing.

Negative criticism is an obligation of the nervous system, you can’t avoid it but you can try to tame it. It’s also a reason why it’s unfitting for reviewers to beat their breasts in pride over negativity. There’s no particular method to practice reviewing, no technique to prescribe, and no tone to recommend, any more than there is for writing. It’s a matter of sensibility—and of sensitivity.

All the best. Adios.

Boon in Disguise

1

Purnima* day of the present month

It was one of those balmy mornings in the year 1132 in the West Bengal region. 

The bright sun had embarked upon its journey. The daylight fell gently into the hut through the small window. 

Damini was humming a canorous tune. Her long black tresses conversed with the ground, as she sat stirring the porridge. Drops of sweat generated by the cow dung cake’s heat only added luster to her already shiny skin. Her eyelashes fluttered involuntarily, as she made attempts to avoid the smoke from entering her beautiful brown eyes. 

As she was engrossed in some thought, the porridge overflowed from the mud cup she poured into. 

 Rustling leaves and footsteps; jolted her from her reverie. Tapan was back from his night duty at King Vijaya Sena’s palace.

Damini had selected this day of Purnima to convey him the news. But there was something amiss about her disposition, though she forced a fabricated smile as Tapan walked in.

Four Purnima earlier

Damini curled her dainty figure, resting her head on Tapan’s hairy chest, as they lay on the mat.  He planted a loving kiss on her forehead; Playing with her curly locks as she winced. 

“I don’t appreciate this sudden change in our schedule,” she grumbled.

“Everything was going so fine. Both of us used to leave together for the palace and return together, but now…” Her voice almost broke.

He entwined her in an embrace. “I understand your disappointment, but believe me; this arrangement is temporary. 

 Once Jayasimha returns, after winding up his work, I can get back to my morning duty.”

Damini still looked skeptical. 

Damini was the maid of King Vijaya Sena’s queen.  This opportunity had come her way because her husband, Tapan, was a Chamberlain in the palace, and the royal couple knew him very well. 

Now that the night guard Jayasimha had to take off from duty for a while, the king had deputed Tapan.

“I was flattered when the king proclaimed in the court that he could trust only me with this vital duty until Jayasimha returns. You see I am adept at wielding the sword.”  Tapan’s chest swelled a few inches in pride.

Damini made a face to tease him. “Oh, you are the most affable man on earth.” She pulled his nose playfully.

“Do you know how much the queen adores me?”  She swaggered. “I am entrusted with all the important jobs of the queen. She wouldn’t trust anyone with her cascading hair. Only I am allowed to oil and massage it. The other day, Aaruni’s uncouthness angered the queen.  She advised her to take a cue from me in performing the royal duties.” Damini swirled her eyeballs in self-appreciation.

“The queen always compliments, ‘Tapan is a lucky man to have a multi-facet wife. You discharge all your duties with such vigor, and you sing so melodiously.’  She admires my looks too and my dimples.” Damini’s cheeks turned red as she blushed, recollecting the queen’s words of praises.

 “Well, am I, not the best husband too? Come; let us not waste this beautiful night in unnecessary discussions. We may not get to spend a night like this for many moons to come. Cursed Jayasimha,” he winked at her, and they made passionate love. 

Later, when he still lay resting his head on her bosom, he advised her to be careful during the nights that she would be alone. “Ma and Baba are only a call away. If you sense anything eerie, call out to them. If the huts could comfortably accommodate three people, you could have gone over there for the nights until such time I am relieved off this duty.”

“Mmmm,” she whispered as she bit his ears. He screamed, “Ouch.” 

“I will be careful, only if you allow me to sleep now,” she laughed, exhibiting a set of pearl-like teeth.

The ordeal began from the following day. Damini had to leave when the sun touched the Mahua tree and would return only to find Tapan, all set to go. When Tapan returned after work the following morning, Damini would be set to leave for her work. Those were the few minutes they got to cuddle. They consoled each other, saying that it was a transient phase.

The couple was happily married for a good seven years.  The only grouch in their married life was that they had no offspring.

A cozy hut amongst a few dwelling scattered here, and there was their abode. The king’s palace was accessible by foot from where they resided.   Though there was a considerable distance between the huts, one could hear any noise beyond the average decibel level within that stretch.

Ma and Baba, the middle-aged couple, were their nearest neighbors. 

Two days before Purnima of the present month

Tapan came rushing into the hut after his night duty.

“Look, Damini, what I found lying in the bushes.” He was holding a decently, big, black object. It had some circular hollow patterns, and both of them could vaguely see themselves in a center rectangular piece that was transparent. 

“Why do you pick things like this from the ground? Who knows it might be some witchcraft.” Damini’s eyes widened in awe at the sight of the alien object.

“Oh, silly woman, who can dare talk about sorcery under our noble ruler’s auspices?  Be rest assured that this could be nothing detrimental. It may be a toy, dropped amongst the bushes by some kid.” Tapan placed it on the mud platform near the window.

“Is something bothering you?”  Tapan enquired as he noticed that Damini’s face was shrouded by some thoughts.

She shook her head and brushing aside his apprehensions, left in a jiffy.

Her eccentricity had become very conspicuous, since a few days.  Cheerfulness and contentment had always been her spectacular features, ever since they were married. She would giggle at the slightest provocation, but off late she looked too immersed in some thoughts. He was at a loss trying to analyze her taut behavior.

As he was lazing on the mat, his eyes fell on the object he had found in the morning. Fatigue taking a better of him after a sleepless night of vigil, he dozed off, postponing the thought of examining the object some other time.

The object took a back seat in his memory as he got up pretty late, and had enough time only to have a quick bath and eat a morsel of rice and pulse mix that Damini generally kept for him. 

Before leaving, he curiously touched one of those round hollow patterns on the object. Nothing happened to it, and he left, wondering why Damini had not yet returned.

Just then, Damini entered the hut.

She must have walked home with heavy steps. The sun, which would be a few meters away from receding on other days when she returned, had touched the setting point. 

The day before Purnima of the present month.

Tapan found Damini in a somewhat similar bizarre mood when he returned home in the morning.  Surmising that it could be some physical ailment, he decided to take her to the village physician sometime soon.

As he sat alone, sipping his porridge, his eyes fell on the object at the window sill. 

Keen on finding out what it could be, he took it and touched one of those round hollow patterns, out of the few.

He was more than astounded to see Damini through it. After having her rice and pulse, she sat to assemble some flowers that she had got from the royal garden. This was a routine of hers every night before going to sleep. She would sit with a torch lighted by woolen wicks dipped in molten tallow.

Naitrup, the King’s statesman, sauntered into their hut and quietly approached Damini, who was sitting with her back to the door. He suddenly engulfed her voluptuous figure from behind, and Tapan noticed that he had an exquisite pearl neckpiece and a set of matching bangles in his hand.

“Thanks for keeping the door, ajar,” he smiled.”Look what I bought for you.”

Tapan’s body quivered in exasperation as scenes unfolded in front of him, explaining what had transpired the previous night in the hut.

It also helped in unveiling the mystery behind Damini’s quirky behavior.

‘What a treacherous façade do people carry!’ Tapan sighed. 

Tapan realized that it would require discreet perception to handle the matter and something had to be done before the night falls.

He could hardly catch a wink peacefully for the rest of the day.

The sun had begun its retreating journey. The scarlet sky ushered the twilight and heralded the arrival of yet another night. The moon that was to enter the Purnima phase the following day; was already glowing.

Tapan left early and crossed Damini’s path halfway. 

“You are early,” she said, looking vexed. 

“I have some work in the palace to be sorted out before night falls. I will talk to you tomorrow.” A bemused Damini kept staring at Tapan’s receding figure.

Tapan bowed humbly to the royal couple, who were seated together in the main hall.  

“I seek permission to talk to the king and the queen in confidentiality.” 

Purnima day of the present month

As Damini wiped the porridge that she had spilled on the ground, Tapan returned from work.

“I need to tell you something before I leave for work,” Damini toyed with the end of her pallu, looking down and drawing articulate designs with her toe on the ground.

“You are not reporting for work today. I have already taken the queen’s consent.” Tapan declared.

“But the queen is not keeping good health; She had asked all her maids to report for work without fail,” Damini’s intonation expressed worry.

“You are special; you need not go. And look at those dark circles beneath your eyes. It is you who are looking sick.” Tapan playfully nudged her. 

“Now get ready. I have called for the bullock cart. We need to visit the Devi temple. Don’t we have to seek Her blessings for our first progeny that you are carrying?”

Damini was taken aback by what Tapan had said just then. “Today being Purnima, an auspicious day, I had chosen to let you know the wonderful news, but, but….”

He gently closed her mouth with his palm.  “Why did you not confide in me about Naitrup’s menacing behavior? You could have avoided going through the mental turmoil all alone.”

She looked at him with awestruck eyes. Removing his palm from her mouth, she gasped. “How did you come to know about all this?  I had confided only in Ma and Baba. I trust them.  It was deliberately kept away from the realm of your knowledge because I feared you might end up taking some drastic step that will land you in trouble. Please tell me what has happened and how did you learn about Naitrup?”

Tapan slowly removed the object that he had concealed under his garment.

“This unraveled the truth,” he said even as she gawked at it. He pressed one of those round hollow patterns. He had grasped how to sue the object. Damini watched as everything unfolded the same way that it had happened the night before yesterday.

Minutes after Naitrup embraced Damini, she turned and pushed him. 

“How dare you reach here?  I warned you several times not to fool around with me. My door is always ajar, because human beings reside here, not beasts like you. Only thieves and dogs enter an open house. But equating you to a dog is humiliating that faithful animal.” She jeered at him.

“Tales of your spitefulness has still not reached Tapan’s ears. I have kept him in the dark with a purpose.  He might end up with blood strains in his hands. I do not want him to be handcuffed for the murder of a selfish man like you. Just get lost. I will tell the queen about your evil intentions if you continue with your dirty pranks.” 

 Not deterred by her warnings, Naitrup came forward.  “Your complaints will go unprecedented. No one will believe you.  I am the closest statesman to the king and kin of the queen.” Arrogance reeked in his face and intonation.

“For seven long years, Tapan has not been able to give you a child.  I had secretly adored you every day at the palace even when my wife was alive. After her death last month, I have been yearning to have you in my bed.” He looked on with lustful eyes.

“Tapan is not the right person for you. I can provide you with all comforts in life. Why spend your days in this shanty hut.” His lips broke into a malicious smirk as he approached her menacingly.

Damini pushed him with all her might.  He fell to the ground, caught unaware by her action. She proved that when a girl gets down to save her honor, she could be more potent than several men.

“Who said Tapan could not give me a child?  I am pregnant with his baby,” she moved back a couple of steps.

“You are lying, I overheard Tapan lamenting to someone about his childless status, and you think you can get away by saying a blatant lie?” Naitrup refused to believe her.

 “He does not know.  Tomorrow on the day of Purnima, I am to tell him this good news.” Naitrup shrunk at this revelation but relentlessly approached her again. Damini let out a scream.  He scampered to his feet with an impotent fury and took off like a wounded animal but not before warning her that he will attain her by hook or crook before Tapan resumes his day duty. 

Damini’s screams brought Ma and Baba there.  She confided in them amidst sobs. 

“I will be with you every night, till Tapan is relieved of his night duty at the palace, but how are you going to handle this? I see no light at the end of this disturbing tunnel. Only God can find a solution to this tumultuous issue.” Ma caressed her head.

Even though the king was known for his righteousness, pointing accusing fingers on an influential person like Naitrup needed strong evidence.  

“God has sent this object to us to resolve the matter. What can it be termed as other than serendipity. The object fell into my hands.” Tapan said, gratefully looking at it.

“The king and the queen have viewed this and realized the evil intention of Naitrup. The king summoned him last night itself and put him in confinement. The verdict will be announced today.”

Damini wiped her moist eyes.

“I have been instructed to deposit it at the king’s court. Experts will study this object and explore its functionality.” Tapan carefully placed it in a corner.

The latest version of the 21st-century Handycam, with its durable built-in battery and versatile features, proved a boon in disguise for the couple.

 

Purnima—– Full moon 

Disclaimer:  This is a work of fiction. The author has taken the liberty of setting the story in the time of King Vijaya Sena(1096 AD  to 1159 AD) The other characters  mentioned in the story are fictitious.

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Unsplash

Prompt: A modern invention from the 21st century gets transported to the 12th century. What happens next? Explore. 

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A Stroke of Fortune

2

Sudhir Pal suppressed the urge to relieve himself as he rushed towards the baggage conveyor belt to get his luggage. After a wait of ten minutes, he espied his suitcase on the belt and picked it as it came in reach.

In the meantime, his urge turned into agony and he rushed with his suitcase towards the nearest washroom. He kept the suitcase on a rack and banged open a cubicle door.

Deed over, he picked up the suitcase and was out of the airport. Man, it feels a bit light. Oh, the pleasures of pressure relief, even a suitcase can feel lighter, he smiled to himself.

Booking a local blue taxi, he reached his home, almost at 1.30 am. He was returning from Guwahati, after 7 days, back to his rented ground floor flat in Dadar, Mumbai. He had been away to participate in the National Power-lifting championships.

His maid had refilled his refrigerator that morning. Feeling hungry, he decided to eat an apple.

Taking a bite and holding the apple between his teeth, he fished out the keys of the suitcase lock from his pocket. Where’s the damn lock, he thought as he fiddled around the bag. He made a mental note to lodge a complaint with the airlines and clicked open the suitcase. Careless buffoons!

What he saw inside shocked him. It wasn’t his bag at all! All he found were some dirty clothes, a plastic packet wrapped with care and a sheaf of crumpled papers.

He took out the plastic packet and tried to check the contents from outside. It seemed to contain broken pieces of earthenware. Who would pack these pieces of junk? He thought. Archaeologists? he wondered.

Curious, he took out the sheaf of papers. Oh, I will repack them and take the bag to the airport lost baggage counter tomorrow, he assured himself.

The papers seemed to contain some details of an archaeological site. While going through the papers, one slipped from his hands. He picked it up. His interest piqued when he found some symbols and directions on it.

Leaving the other papers, he started studying this particular paper. He saw something written but couldn’t perceive it as it was unclear on that yellowing document. He held it against the light and now some of the words were legible.

The script was Devanagiri and the language seemed to be Sanskrit. Sleep forgotten, he started studying it.

Minute observation enabled him to read some of the words. ‘Hiranyam’, ‘Karunaad’,  ‘Dev avaas’, ‘viniguhit’, ‘tat’, ‘yavya’, ‘desha’, ‘guhya’.

GOLD!” he blurted aloud in his excitement when he saw the word ‘Hiranyam’.

But what were these other words? Were they talking about some gold treasure? Now he was wide awake…

—-

With a knife in his hand Konda glanced threateningly at the man sitting in front of him.

“Professor, you have a long life in front of you. Why sacrifice it for few papers and some information? You just have to accompany me to Mumbai.” The threat in his voice was ominous.

“I have told you; I am repeating it again. I am not going to part with my papers, come what may,” professor Achyut replied adamantly. The professor’s house in Bangalore, where they were sitting now, was in shambles.

Konda rose from the chair and circled the professor. Suddenly he poked the knifepoint into his neck.

“Your papers…or your throat, the choice is yours.”

The professor screamed, “I will neither give the documents nor go with you.” Without warning, he attacked Konda and tried to bite his hand.

A professional assassin that he was, Konda overpowered the short-statured professor with ease. But, in the melee, his knife punctured the professor’s carotid artery and blood spurted. The professor’s life ebbed away as a pool of red spread on the floor.

Motherfucker!

He won’t like this at all, thought a panicking Konda. The instructions had been explicit – ‘Retrieve the papers. Use force if needed’. Additionally, the professor was to be brought to Mumbai. Konda had never known who ‘he’ was but the payment was good.

His rowdies could have plucked the professor from the streets of Bangalore. But, discretion was vital. Hence, the solitary approach. What do I do now?

He gathered all the papers from the table drawer where the professor had kept them. He shoved them into a suitcase which was lying about the house, without bothering to empty it of its contents and closed it. He then rushed to the airport to catch a flight to Mumbai.

Landing at Mumbai late in the night, he had a strong urge to relieve himself. He kept the suitcase on the rack and went in.

After few minutes, he emerged and lifted the suitcase. Why is this feeling so heavy?  he thought. He placed it again on the rack and checked it.

Bloody hell! This is not mine. 

Motherfucker! I have to find the bastard now, or I am dead. Whoever he is, he wouldn’t have gone far. Maybe I can still exchange it.

Lugging the heavy suitcase, he tried to run as fast as he could. Craning his neck as the exit came in sight he thought he saw a similar suitcase carried by a well-built man.

Motherfucker, he is almost out. “Hey…hey…,” he shouted from inside but the man was gone.

Got to run, man. I can still catch him, he thought and paced feverishly. Bloody bastards, these pesky kids playing everywhere. Give way!

A small boy crashed into him. Imbalanced as he was, running with the heavy suitcase, the impact toppled him over.

Bh..c…!

In other circumstances, he would have collared the boy but he was in a rush today. He picked himself up and started running with the suitcase again. When he reached outside, he saw the man sit in a taxi and zoom away.

Shit, shit…why is this happening to me? What do I do now? He kicked the suitcase in rage. It fell, showing him the name tag on it.  Is the owner’s address mentioned? 

He checked and smiled.

Mr. Sudhir Pal, here comes Konda…

—-

He had never burnt the midnight oil, not even in his college days but here he was, studying a yellowing paper as if his graduation depended on it.

Shit, what does it mean? At least the script is Devnagari, otherwise, I wouldn’t even be able to read.

He decided to write down and try and decipher the words which were visible –

Hiranyam – mostly gold

Karunaad -?

Dev avaas – an abode of God? A temple?

Viniguhit -?

Tat -?

Yavya -?

Desha – country? Land?

Guhya -?

And what the hell are these other words in fine print below, he thought.

Sudhir was pretty certain that since the paper talked about gold and had symbols and directions, it had to be a map to a treasure. But, to where?

His nocturnal research not making much headway and tired, he decided to sleep over it. Tomorrow is another day, he thought.

—-

The rains were unrelenting though not heavy. Sudhir walked along the river bank which was slushy and slippery. The steady patter of raindrops and the noise of the flowing river were interrupted by the random ribbits of frogs.

He picked up speed. He aimed to reach the next bend of the river, which was about 1 km. away.

Sudhir had arrived in Bellary district of Karnataka as per the directions in that yellowing document. He had trusted the interpretation of the Sanskrit words by the four Sanskrit scholars whom he had consulted. He had written down the words separately and showed them to different scholars. He didn’t want anyone to understand the full meaning of the entire verses, for obvious reasons.

Once he had the meaning of all the words, his confidence in his interpretation grew. He was on the verge of something which promised to deliver him from his mundane life.

He had deliberated. Should I keep the gold or turn it over to the government? After much thought, he had decided.

So, here he was, alone, walking along a riverbank in the wilderness. He crossed the bend – 

a vast but abandoned archaeological site lay before his eyes.

Bloody hell, now where do I start, he thought. Time to refer the document.

Fetching the laminated document from his backpack, he sat on a boulder to decipher the various symbols and directions.

He soon located the river bend on the document. From that vantage point, he saw four small rectangular blocks on the document, and then, a bigger one.

He followed those directions and soon neared a huge, rectangular pit. Its construction suggested that it might have been a public bath in the ancient times.

Whoopee! Soon I will be rich!

Upon reaching there he referred to the document again. From here, it showed a location marked by a temple shikhara in the north-western direction.

But from where he was standing, there was only thick tree cover in that direction.

Where’s that temple? What do I do now?

Suddenly, he heard a splash behind him. He turned. There was nothing except a big, wild lizard darting across on a tree branch.

Okay. Let me walk in that direction. Take one step at a time, man. Don’t be too hasty.

Soon he came near the thick vegetation. Still nothing.

He fetched the small machete from his backpack and started hacking the shrubbery. 

‘Clang.’

The machete hit a stone. Excited, he extended his hand to check. He felt something hard behind the vegetation.

Yess! Is this the promised temple?

He started clearing the surrounding vegetation with renewed vigour.

The entrance to a small temple was now visible.

The document is right. He was grinning from ear to ear.

He shone his torch inside. It was empty. Taking out a hammer from his backpack, he started hammering at a stone slab at the shrine entrance.

‘Shilapatt tadaghat’ were some of the additional words which the document had revealed during one episode of furious examination of the document.

Nothing happened for a long time but he still kept at it. Then, the slab moved but only just. He started hammering with renewed vigour and the slab moved more.

This is the fruit of my labour, he exulted. He had correctly deciphered a passage in a long-forgotten language, albeit with some external help.

In kannada land (Karunaad desha) on the banks (tat) of a river/stream(yavya), lies a hidden (guhya) temple (Dev avaas). In this temple, concealed (viniguhit) gold (hiranyam) can be found by hammering away a stone slab (shilapatt tadaghat)”

Out of the many rivers in Karnataka, he had identified this particular one by undertaking extensive research in government libraries. He had concentrated his research on abandoned human settlements and archaeological sites on river banks and hit a jackpot with this site.

Splosh!

His head jerked up. He was definitely not alone.

Overcome with fright, he blindly swung the hammer behind him and hit the leg of someone who fell backwards. It was a man.

“Aargh!” the man howled in pain. “Motherfucker, your job is over. Now you can go to hell.”

Konda stood up and whipped out a knife. He held it threateningly and jeered, “You did a good job…for me. That bastard professor died on me, putting my life in jeopardy but then I found you. A greedy man you are, Sudhir. But, no issues. It made my life easier, didn’t it?” 

“But…but, who the hell are you? How did you follow me…why are you following me?” Terror writ large on his face, Sudhir watched the knife in Konda’s hand. He needed to buy time to find a way to defend himself.

“Well, well. Look who is asking. A man who opens others’ bags and steals from them? Your misfortune that you opened my bag this time,” Konda sneered. “Now that I am going to finish you off, I may as well divulge my secrets.” Konda loved talking about his exploits.

Cackling loudly, he said, “I am Konda. You opened the bag of a hired killer, motherfucker. Well, not really. I just borrowed it from a kind professor. Yes, just one of the persons I killed.”

“Don’t be so cocksure, Konda. I too know a trick or two.” Sudhir said with false bravado. Even though scared, he stood his ground holding the hammer tightly in his fist.

Incensed Konda hollered, “Bastard, you almost got me killed so I followed you to kill you. I would have killed you that very night but, I happened to see you through your open window. I saw the bag and your excitement on finding the papers.” Konda smirked at Sudhir’s quizzical look.

“Ha, ha. I heard you exclaim loud and proper – ‘GOLD’ you said, didn’t you? So, I decided to bide my time.”

Think fast, Sudhir. Or this swine will loot your fortune and kill you.

Eyeing the long knife, Sudhir yelled, “No, I won’t let you have any of it. If it is not mine then I may as well give it all to the government.”

Konda blustered, “No, you bastard! It was my decision to let you find it for me. Once I take all the gold, I will go to some foreign shores and start afresh.”

Then he added in an ominous tone, “You will be my last kill.” 

Saying so, Konda swished the knife at his quarry. Sudhir attempted to weave out of harm’s way, but the knife caught his arm. He lost his footing and fell.

Looking for an opportune moment, Konda lunged, raised the knife for a final thrust and swung his arm. The knife dug deep into Sudhir’s chest but the hammer he held in his hand caught the side of Konda’s head, smashing into it.

—-

The following day the rain stopped. A weak sun struggled to shine through the cloud cover. 

Two bodies lay at the mouth of a small shrine.

The laminated paper that had led them to this gory end, had floated away to find its next victim.

In Kannada land on the banks of a river/stream, lies a hidden temple. In this temple, hidden gold can be found by hammering away a stone slab.

But those who are unfortunate (durbhaga) to find it, are cursed (abhishapta) to meet the God of death (niryana) instantaneously. So don’t make haste (tvara) in looking for it

 ***

Team: Chekhov Guns

Prompt: The MC comes home from the airport to realize that they picked up the wrong baggage. What follows this incident?

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By N

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

Déjà vu

1

For the first time, in a long time, the land of the Ashok Vatika resonated with life. Trijata twirled, smiling in happiness. Her gaze sought the birds that sang melodiously in the verdant canopy. 

A day back, Lord Rama’s arrow had pierced the body of King Ravana and slain him. With that, the whole world heaved a collective sigh of relief – flower petals showered from the heavens, Apsaras* descended on the Earth and danced in ethereal splendour. The benevolent sun shone, lighting Trijata’s path as she commenced her walk, to join Sita on her journey back to Ayodhya.

At that moment, the golden exuberance of the skies was enshrouded by a large body that hurtled downwards. It shrunk in size as it neared and morphed into a persona. It alighted on Trijata’s path, startling her. 

The last time when he had come, Lanka had burned to cinders.

‘O Rama doota Hanuman, what made you come here? Did Sita Ma start her journey to Ayodhya?’

‘O Trijata Devi, I came for Sita Ma’s wooden chest. She told me that she had kept it near the Ashoka vriksha* where she rested these past few years.’ 

‘I know what you seek. Follow me, Bajarangi,’ said Trijata, leading Hanuman to the chest.

Hanuman struggled to pick up the tiny chest. He heaved with all his might, but the chest did not move.

‘O blessed Rakshasi*, what sort of enigma is this?’ Hanuman asked, perplexed. ‘I lifted the Sanjivini Parvata* with ease. But, today I am unable to lift a tiny chest the size of my palm?’

‘Anjaneya, might is not the answer to this puzzle,’ replied Trijata. ‘This chest represents the sum total of the sins committed against Sita Ma. Each petal in it accounts for each day that she shed her tears and bore the injustices meted out to her. O Anjaneya, this is the baggage of all the travails endured by her.’ 

Trijata opened the chest for him. Hanuman was aggrieved at the sight of hundreds of shrivelled petals in the chest. He closed his eyes and prayed.

‘O Mrunmayee, bless me with the ability to lift the weight of thy soul.’

***

Several thousand years later.  

2029 AD

Sensorylink Office, California.

‘Welcome to the launch of our most anticipated product – Mbaggage,’ Ceylon Tusk, the CEO of Sensorylink announced. 

He continued, ‘Today, we are changing the course of human history.

God…well, God doesn’t have a plan. There is no plan at all. There is nothing but chaos and pain. Pain…and chaos. Life…life is reminiscent of a spiral…a spiral of pain. But, today…we are going to change that.’

An assistant, at that moment, brought him what looked like an attaché case. He proudly held it aloft.  The hundreds of people gathered there clicked pictures on their cell phones to post on social media. The audience was teeming with renowned personalities from around the globe. World leaders, Tech moguls, Kings, and Princes, everyone wanted to get their hands on the first batch of this pioneering, revolutionary product. 

Among the rich and the powerful at the gathering, sat an aging woman. Clad in an orange saree, her wrinkled skin was ashen, almost anaemic. A cold sweat glistened on her forehead. What do I, an old teacher from a village have to do with gadgets, she thought? Her husband, who had abandoned her long back, had assured her that this product would wash her troubles away.

Ceylon added, ‘This product in my hand will take care of all your troubles. Just open the case, strap these two sensors on your forehead and take a nap. By the time you are done, you will feel as light as a feather.’ 

The crowd murmured. The product indeed seemed unprecedented.

‘But beware, these pieces of baggage get heavier with each of your troubled experiences. You will be aware of the incidents; however, the attached pain will be gone,’ continued Ceylon.

‘Your first transfer will be monitored by us in the adjacent resting room. After that, our company cars will ferry you to the airport. Make sure you keep this case with you throughout your life. You will need to download near the end. You can avoid your baggage while you are alive, but not at the time of your death.’

A few hours later…

After the launch and succeeding transfer session, the beta users of Mbaggage landed in New York to catch their respective flights. 

Rishi Vardhan, entrepreneur and CEO of Flipbook, the world’s biggest social networking site impatiently waited for the passengers to disembark. He picked up his Mbaggage from the overhead cabin. It’s quite heavy, he realized. Do my troubles weight this much?

Back at his mansion, he took a quick shower. Refreshed, he hopped onto his bed and checked his Mbaggage.

I am feeling lighter. Did I, in reality, shed my emotional baggage? I wonder, is it possible for us to escape our demons? Can we shake the shadow of tragedy that stalks us all? Lemme check this…

He connected the Mbaggage to his laptop and browsed the contents.

‘Bloody hell! This is not my device,’ he muttered in dismay.

The decent thing to do would have been to disconnect the device. But, his curiosity swamped his rational thinking. 

Lemme just take a peek, see what the fuss is all about.

He browsed the contents and clicked on a folder. It had pictures and memories of a girl. She seemed to be around thirteen years old, in wedding attire. He clicked on a vision.

Maithili checked her reflection in the mirror. Doe shaped eyes, lined with kohl on a demure, innocent face stared back at her. Beads of sweat glistened on her forehead. She dabbed at them. This was supposed to be the happiest day of her life. But, it didn’t feel so. She was to be married to Rajendra. Her Rajendra. He was a quiet-natured man, but not out of painful shyness. He was the kind who preferred playing larger-than-life characters in his school’s Ram-Leela enactments.

He was a hard worker who helped his father run their tea stall. No work was beneath him. He had joined the Swayamsevak Sangh as a volunteer. He was awed by them and aspired to ascend in the organization. Marriage was the last thing on his mind. 

Maithili, his betrothed yearned to be the cynosure of his attention. But, she knew it was wishful thinking. With sadness, she squeezed her eyes shut, a futile attempt to erase Rajendra’s image from her mind.

Rajendra? THE Rajendra Bedi? 

Rishi’s inquisitiveness made him click on another folder. It had some pictures of a middle-aged woman. He clicked on a vision.

Year after year, Rajendra’s visits dwindled. His political career soared, leaving his marital life parched. His last visit brought gloom.

‘Rajendra, I will miss your presence,’ she said sorrowfully.

‘I wish things were different Maithili…I wish. At this point, my country needs me. I wish I had a choice.’

A melancholic silence filled the room as she bid him goodbye.

What.the.fuck, this is PM’s wife’s Mbaggage! Rishi comprehended.

***

Lord Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita returned to Ayodhya. 

The dwellers of Ayodhya lit earthen lamps to welcome them. Rama, the rightful heir was back and he would ascend to the throne of Ayodhya. The people celebrated this on the night of the new moon of Ashwini.

All was well till one day; a spy witnessed the following:

A washer-man, in anger, kicked his wife who had stayed at another man’s house. ‘Begone woman, I cast you out. Go to the house where you spent your day. I renounce you. You no longer remain pious. You are soiled.’

 His wife begged him to reconsider.

The incensed washer-man retorted, ‘I am not as great as Lord Rama. I will not accept a wife who stayed in another man’s house. Whatever the maryada purushottam* does might be lawful; but, for me, you are a fallen woman.’

Riled, the spy conveyed the conversation to Lord Rama. The news saddened Rama, forcing him to question the honourable path of righteousness that he had sworn to follow. Bharata, his brother, offered counsel reminding him that Devi Sita had been ordained as pure by Lord Brahma. But, alas! His words fell on deaf ears. To prove her chastity, Sita willingly underwent an ordeal – a trial by fire. 

Engulfed by the flames that burned around the lotus blossom platform on which she stood, the chest she held in her hands, burned to ashes. Devi Sita emerged unscathed. 

***

The videos of Maithili’s memories were leaked. They spread like wildfire on Flipbook. While a renowned journalist wanted to discuss the consequences of this on Primetime, another asserted that the Nation wanted to know the culprit behind the leak. However, neither Cybercrime nor Sensorylink could trace the source. Rishi filed a false complaint that his device had been misplaced by Sensorylink staff and requested a replacement. Greed is the root of evil, is it not? 

Rajendra Bedi, India’s Prime Minister was on his way back to Delhi after performing the first puja at the newly constructed Ram Mandir in Ayodhya – his dream. He was aghast at the leak. Elections were due. He was running for the unprecedented fourth term. 

A week back, his wife, Maithili had gone for the launch of Mbaggage. He had received the launch pass and complimentary product for the event. But, intuitively he had known that she needed it more. So, he had gifted it to her, urging her to attend in his stead.

His mother’s death had robbed him of a shoulder to cry on. His native home was the one place where he was just Rajendra and not PM Rajendra Bedi. The death had brought them, him and his wife closer. Their calls had become more frequent. The channel of communication that had opened, had strengthened the bond. He had promised her that this product would wash away all the pain of the sins he had committed by abandoning her. 

A day later, Party Office

‘Sir, you should see this!’ said Party Vice-President, Aakriti Irani pointing at her iPad.

Rajendra looked at the screen where a news channel was streaming a live video of a mob burning his effigies. When the cameraman approached a vile young man, who had a torch in his hand, he screamed, ‘How can a man take care of a country when he can’t take care of his own wife?’

Rajendra’s wizened face paled. The question sneaked up on him, assaulting him with its demand for an answer. He requested Aakriti to leave his office. He wanted a moment of peace. The grief of a tampered legacy surged with every expelled breath, always reaching higher peaks, never sufficiently soothed by his long intakes of the damp spring air. It was the moment of truth for him. He had to make a definitive choice. He had been a good son, was a model citizen, and a great leader. He thought that was enough. It wasn’t.

A few days passed but the heat never abated. While some wanted his resignation, others wanted his life, baying for blood. His close aides banded around him, like a protective wall. A new sect was forming in the party which wanted Aakriti Irani to take up the position and lead India. She didn’t want to. How could she ever replace her mentor?

***

After proving her chastity in the Agnipariksha, Sita offered herself to Mother Earth, her originator and her creator. Lord Rama wept in impotent helplessness. 

‘O Lord Ramachandra, I am neither impure nor unchaste. Pray, tell me, what sin was it of mine that led me to be put to this fiery trial?’ 

Lord Rama could not answer. 

‘Devi Sita, my birth in this life was to be a Maryada Purusha. As a Kshatriya*, my duty is to lead my subjects on a path of righteousness. If my subjects doubt me, tell me, would I not be a failure as a leader?’ 

‘My Lord, today, your subject questioned my chastity; tomorrow, someone else may question something else. At what point will you stop?’

Lord Rama was silent. The tears spilling from his eyes spoke more than he could. 

Just then, the Earth cleaved and a chasm opened up. Devi Sita walked into it, returning to the same bosom from whence she had been birthed. 

***

Rajendra couldn’t overcome his grief. He had always aspired to be the perfect, moralistic man. He wasn’t. He knew it was time to step down. Great leaders had mushroomed under him. It is their time, he thought. His disturbed past would forever haunt him. But, at least now, he knew what to do.

Aakriti Irani was named the PM candidate for the upcoming general elections. The public supported her. Rajendra resigned from the various party posts.

Thousands of kilometres from the Party headquarters, Maithili was resting her head on the windowpane in her home. She blamed herself for all the hullabaloo over the viral videos and posts. It’s due to me that Rajendra had to go through all the trauma, she agonized. Her tears, tethered to her anguish, poured unchecked from her eyes till she sank to the ground, sobbing. 

An hour later, a series of familiar knocks stirred her supine form. She got up and opened the door. It was him. Her Rajendra.

‘Maithili, I am back. For good,’ he said.

Her eyes welled up again. A sole tear streaked a path down from her warm, tourmaline eyes. Others followed, until soon, a steady stream of briny emotions flowed their way down her pale cheek. She sagged against Rajendra’s chest moistening his clothes with the release of her pent-up sorrow. Today was the catharsis she had sought for a lifetime, but been denied. 

‘Maithili, I am your culprit. I feel guilty that I abandoned you. I was only trying to escape my grief. I was in denial. And, because of that, I made you deny your own grief. Forgive me, Maithili. I am sorry.’

Rajendra led Maithili to the couch. Seating her, he opened his bag and pulled out two similar-looking attaché cases.

 ‘This is my Mbaggage,’ he said. ‘I also got your back-up Mbaggage from Sensorylink.’ 

He stowed both the Mbaggages, placing them on top of an old, dusty almirah…out of prying eyes.

‘Let’s start afresh, please…,’ he pleaded. Maithili nodded.

Isn’t this the way of everything? Of all the chaos, the feeling of completeness, the sunshine… and everything else with a sprinkle of destiny.

***

Epilogue

Rishi was in his office chuckling at how a baggage exchange had changed the course of the world’s biggest democracy. He knew that he had a hand in it. He had made the most of the exchange, hadn’t he?  

A text message chimed on his mobile. It was from an unknown number. 

 

‘Deal done. Amount credited.’

 

He knew what it meant. He grinned. 

 

After all, greed is a motivation to err, is it not?

 

Glossary

Apsaras – Celestial maidens/nymphs

Vriksha – Tree

Rakshasi – Demonic lady

Parvata – Mountain

Maryada purushottam – The man who is supreme in honour, a reference to Lord Rama

Kshatriya – The second varna/caste in the Hindu social hierarchy

***

Team: Chekhov Guns

Prompt: The MC comes home from the airport to realize that they picked up the wrong baggage. What follows this incident?

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Raamayanaresearch.com

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

Insidious

3
Thriller Short Story.png

JFK International Airport, Queens, NY. 

Fall of 2019

A man walked briskly towards the baggage conveyor belt and hauled off his huge suitcase – a grey American Tourister*. Drained from the trip, he couldn’t wait to get home. Almost immediately after boarding his Singapore Airlines flight, from Phuket to New York, he had sat downing cans after cans of Budweiser*. A stewardess had tried to ease his mind.

“Flying for the first time?” 

He had looked back at her with his blood-shot eyes and thrown her a feeble smile. 

Now, stepping onto the curb of the John F. Kennedy International Airport, he drank in the morning sunshine. A minute later, he was in the cab speeding through the early morning tranquillity. He rolled down the windows and gulped down mouthfuls of the crisp autumn air. 

Ah…! He mouthed the word in the wind. 

He caught the cabbie eyeing him from the rear-view mirror. He didn’t care. He was home. That’s all that mattered. As waves of relief washed over him, he felt his eyelids grow leaden. Images of his bed back home – with crisp, white-linen sheets – swam before his jet-lagged eyes.

As the breeze began to playfully rustle his hair, he dozed off in the backseat of the NY cab.

********** 

His wife was at work when he got home. 

He left the suitcase in the foyer and dragged his weary body up the stairs. Then, he fell flat on the bed and slept like a log, still attired in his Armani business suit and Gucci leather shoes.

The sound of incessant traffic through the open windows woke him up. Tangerine mellowness from the setting sun spilled into the room. He propped his body on his elbows as he rose from the bed – and groaned aloud in pain.

Damn! I’ve sprained my neck from sleepin’ all wrong! 

His stomach growled, audibly. 

God, I am famished!

He descended down the stairs and entered the kitchen. A vase containing scarlet-red carnations stood in the middle of the kitchen counter.

‘Welcome Back Home, Honey,’ said the scribbled note. He smiled at the gesture; Ella, his wife of eight years still took some serious pains to keep the flame alive. 

Having finished his bowl of cereal, he remembered that he had bought her a present from Phuket. 

Wait till you see this, babe… You’ll love it!

He trudged up the staircase with the grey American Tourister, panting.

I don’t remember stuffin’ it to make it this heavy

He snipped off the aviation security-tag which wound around the lock and proceeded to open it. 

That’s when it hit him: This wasn’t even his suitcase!

Fuck! What-in-God’s-name-is-this…?

Piles of neatly-folded clothes stared back at him. A child’s storybook (The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the 1969 edition) lay nestled between womens’ lingerie, toiletries and a heart-shaped box of liquor chocolates.

He began to fish out a few items in sheer confusion and consternation. Then his eyes fell on a piece of clothing and his hand froze. There, in the heart of the suitcase was a distasteful-looking Superman costume, the kind one buys at a thrift store. It was a kid’s costume. Something about it held him in a trance. He picked it up, gingerly. As he stared at it, the costume began to bleed. Sticky, crimson fluid began to drip on the carpet and onto his shoes.

He flinched in fear and flung it on the floor. 

********** 

Read more such short stories here at writers.artoonsinn

********** 

“That’s it,” exclaimed his wife, “No more business trips without me from now on!” She continued, with a tremor in her voice, “This bloody work of yours is simply wrecking your mind – and mine, as well!” 

The man sat hunched in a corner of the bed. His wide, petrified eyes bore the look of a madman’s. His lips quivered. He had been raving like a lunatic when she had found him, shrieking expletives and then dissolving in sobs. But now he had grown creepily quiet. He sat casting furtive, fearful glances across the room and whimpering to himself.

One look at him and her heart crumbled. “You probably have also not been taking your medicines – for all I know!” She let out an exasperated sigh. 

“Tell you what, honey? You better rest for a couple of days. I will check with the airport authorities regarding this mishap, first thing tomorrow!” Then she softened her tone and said, “I have missed you more than you’ll ever know. Welcome back, Kev.” She reached out and squeezed his arm. He simply sat unblinking, unmoving.

Ella’s eyes glazed over and she made her way out of their bedroom. She stopped in the hallway and dialled a number on her cellphone. 

“Doctor Farris? It’s Mrs. Moore. I think Kevin would do well with another session with you. His neurosis has been acting up, lately. Yes, he returned earlier today – and there had been an accidental switch with the suitcase – and you, Doctor, wouldn’t believe what he told me when I got back from work…”

********** 

Phuket Beach Resort, Phuket.  

A Week Ago

The man lay sprawled like a seal on the beach, sunbathing. His eyes darted to-and-fro from under his straw hat, looking at the deluge of young, naked bodies around him. His nostrils flared in titillation and he licked his lips, lasciviously. 

An older Asian man came waddling towards him. Behind him followed a puny, gaunt boy of about seven or eight.  The  American squinted in the sun, looking up at the approaching figures. He stared at the boy, who looked unsure, shuffling his feet along as he walked with a downward gaze. At length, they stood before him, near his feet. A curt, formal nod and a small black bag were exchanged between the two parties.

The American smiled, slyly. “You can count them if you like.” 

The swarthy Asian grinned back, revealing his crooked teeth that seemed too large for his mouth. Dark stains of tar from the local tobacco lent his grin a sinister appearance.                

“I take what you give me. I believe you, Mister,” he grinned.

Back in the hotel room, the man reached into his grey American Tourister and took out a sleazy Superman costume, the size befitting a child.

“Here, I got you a present, little one. Come and get it.” He said with a ravenous grin.

The child stood rooted by the shut door, mute. His transfixed eyes, like those of a deer caught in the headlamps, struggled to comprehend the situation.

Terrible turpitude came over the man. He began to undress himself, whilst ogling the child before him. 

“Look, I even got candy for you,” he said. He placed a cheap bonbon-candy strategically over his enlarging manhood. 

“Come, get it,” he coaxed, in a voice thick with depraved passion. 

The child, lured in by the piece of toffee, moved closer. A four-fingered hand reached out, shakily, towards his bulging groin.

“Waitaminute…!”  yelled the man, sickened at the sight.

“Ugh, how repulsive you are, you little whore-boy!” Spat the man, in repugnance.

He would have cast the boy out, had not a demon from his deplorable past hissed in his ears, just then. The execrable lust stirred his loins, afresh.

The man leaped at the child, enraged and overcome with sick, feral perversion. “Come here, you bastard…!”

Terrified, the child cowered and crouched upon the floor. As self-preservation kicked in, he scurried across the room on all fours. He didn’t get to go too far; his deviant predator pounced upon him, devouring him. The boy clawed at his predator, sinking his short, bony fingers into his chest. He kicked with his feet in an impotent attempt to escape. In a bid to restrain him, the man held his small head in his large, rugged hands. As the boy violently struggled, jerking his body away from his assailant, the man’s eyes narrowed into a cold, vicious glare. The boy stared back, wide-eyed, at the maw of impending death. 

A loud snap! And all was still.

The boy lay motionless under his massive weight. The man flung himself off him and stared at the small lifeless form, in disbelief. Then clutching his head, he let out a muffled scream.

********** 

Queens, NY

Present Day

“It’s Phobic Neurosis*. Most likely originating from repressed traumatic experiences in childhood. Chances are, your extreme, work-related stress may have triggered it.” 

Doctor Farris paused for effect before continuing in his clinical voice, “I ask you, again – have you ever had any such psychological trauma in your young life, Mr. Moore?” 

Kevin flushed and looked away. He, then, shook his head.

“Possibly one or more episodes of sexual abuse?” Probed the psychiatrist, a little more delicately.

A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Kevin’s forehead. He, however, still shook his head. This time, with more vehemence.

“Let’s schedule a session of hypnosis to unearth a few things, shall we? Many adult-onset psychosomatic disturbances have deep-seated origins in childhood,” droned the doctor.

Kevin wasn’t even listening – he was looking past the doctor and out of the window. His mind was conjuring up a shard from his shattered past.

The man stole into the child’s bedroom. He tip-toed to the bed where he slept. The open window let in the silver beams of the moon; the lone witness. In the silvery moonlight, the ghostly shadows of the tree-boughs seemed to reach out their taloned, menace-dipped fingers towards the sleeping child.

The man slid beneath the covers and groped. The child woke to a familiar face – the face of his supposed protector but assuredly, his tormentor.

The child opened his mouth wide in a silent scream.

********** 

When he returned home, his wife greeted him with a barrage of words. 

“Kev, there you are! How did the session with Dr. Farris go?”

she asked, with concern lining her delicate face. She, however, continued without giving him leeway.

“Oh, your baggage has been traced and is on its way back home! I just got a call from the Airport guys. And yes, they agreed to take back the swapped suitcase, too! Heading to the supermarket, now.”

She gave him a wink and a quick peck. “Let’s celebrate later tonight, Kev. It’s been a while!”

“Sure.” He gave her a half-hearted smile.

His wife away, he decided to take a short nap. The hour at the doctor’s had worn him out. He peered at himself in the bathroom mirror. He looked haggard. Dark raccoon-rings circled his sunken eyes. And, even though he hated to admit it to himself: He perceived there to be an uncanny presence in the house. Terror stalked him in the form of a pitch-black, amorphous silhouette. It seemed to observe him with unseen eyes. He had been waking up in the dead of the night, bathed in a cold sweat, trembling.

If Ella only knew…!

Was it really the neurosis? 

Or maybe it was the stress? 

Maybe I AM going crazy, seeing things…!

His mouth ran dry. Gulping down a glassful of water, he lay on the bed staring at the ceiling until sleep overrode his exhausted mind.

********** 

A nebulous, inky-black shadow floated at the foot of the bed. 

It regarded him like an amorous paramour, watching him stealthily, as he slept. An imperceptible part from its penumbra split away from the rest of the shapeless shadow. It crept beneath the covers. Underneath the duvet, it took the unmistakable form of a figure that snaked its way along his body, ever-so-gradually. Reaching the top of his torso, it reared its diabolical head. The Baphomet*.

He woke with a start. He had felt a strange, icy weight upon his heart.

What greeted his vision, sucked the air right out of his very lungs.

A shadowy apparition of a child sat crouched upon his chest. Its head was bowed. Its body swayed like the pendulum of a wall-clock. Its bare, frosty fists pounded against the man’s chest in a rhythmic tempo. 

The man leapt out of the bed with a shriek. The phantom disintegrated into a dense, black cloud.

You are not really, here…!

You are only a figment of my sick imagination…!

You, you… bloody, boy-whore!

He watched with a sense of foreboding, as the cloud morphed back into the form of the ashen-grey child. It turned its body towards him. Its head remained bent, broken at an angle. Then in slow precision, it started to advance towards him. Dragging its feet along the floor, as it went.

The man began to shake with convulsions. His bladder emptied, involuntarily. 

Seized by a sudden frightful fit, he dropped to his knees. He sobbed and spluttered, incomprehensibly. As his bowels gave in next, he broke into deranged, tumultuous laughter. 

The room resonated with the sounds of his mental decline. 

The phantom child drew out his hand in front of the man’s face. 

No! You are not even real…! 

He cackled like a madman. 

The last thing he saw was the four-fingered hand reaching out towards him.

********** 

Ella Moore breezed her way into the house. She hopped up the stairs, singing. A moment later, she stood transfixed at the bedroom door. What greeted her sight, caused her to gesticulate, gasping for breath. She then let out a gravelly, blood-curdling scream.

Her husband’s corpse sat propped up in their bed, with the head hanging limp.

“Death by manual strangulation,” said the Homicide Detective, an hour later. “Looks like the neck snapped in two from the external application of grievous pressure.”

“Apparently,” said the Forensic Expert. “But what’s interesting are the sets of faint fingerprints found on the deceased,” he continued with a startled expression. “Most likely, a child’s fingers on the raw skin at the site… with no singular, preaxial-digit impression contusions. In other words, a missing thumb!”

**********

                        More short stories  available here at writers.artoonsinn

Glossary:

American Tourister: Popular brand of suitcase

Budweiser: American beer

Phobic Neurosis: Phobic Neurosis, referred to by Sigmund Freud as “anxiety hysteria,” is characterized by anxiety focusing on certain external objects, be they things, persons, or situations. 

Baphomet: Here, to represent Satan or one of his manifestations. (The horned depiction of Satan is with the body of a man and the head of a goat; the satanic deity the Knight Templars were accused of worshipping.) 

References:

https://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/phobic-neurosis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baphomet

https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/conditions/pedophilia

http://www.markwynn.com/wp-content/uploads/death-by-strangulation.pdf

***

Team: Chekhov Guns

Prompt: The MC comes home from the airport to realize that they picked up the wrong baggage. What follows this incident?

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By N

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

Buried in his soul, the California Gold

0

1854, Sacramento, California, USA

Ahiga stretched his hands and stood upright, wiping the beads of sweat as his skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, he continued digging again – his passage to freedom. 

The lacerations on his bronze-skinned back oozed fresh blood. The hot summer sun stung his bruises and pain throbbed through his lean, twelve-year-old body. But he couldn’t stop digging. He had to find that elusive yellow rock before the Smith family came back from Sunday Mass. 

His master, Mr.Smith had called it gold. Having spent two years on this ranch, Ahiga had eventually picked up their language. It was only now that Ahiga comprehended the reason all the palefaces* had flocked to this sacred land: in search of a treasure which would give them more riches. 

When Mr.Smith was showing off the shining rock to his wife, Ahiga had peeked a glimpse. His ears perked up when Mr.Smith commented, “Darling, this land is made of gold. There is gold to be found everywhere; in its rivers, mountains, even in its dirt.” 

In his innocent heart, he imagined the rock to have magical capabilities. He wondered if the rock could grant him his freedom. But even at such a tender age his mind was experienced enough to know that magic only existed in Shima’s* stories. He envisioned other possibilities though.

If I can find gold of my own and hand it to them, they will get the bail amount paid for me to the kidnappers. I can be free then.

With this hope of freedom in his heart, he had decided to dig at the base of the butte surrounding the ranch. 

But where will I go once I am free? What if my tribesmen are all dead? Ahiga’s memory took him back to the horrific incident which had brought him to the ranch. 

“Naat’áanii*, there is danger looming on the horizon.” A well-wisher from another tribe had warned the Chief of Ahiga’s tribe. “We have heard from the tribes who understand the language of the palefaces, that the new rulers of our land do not want our presence here. They have put rewards for our heads and groups of palefaces are searching and killing all the tribes.”

Ahiga’s tribe went into hiding. But one night as they camped in the gulch, they were ambushed by the palefaces. As Naat’áanii approached them with his hands held high, they killed him with a smoke-billowing weapon. Ahiga saw his chest open up in a hole, and dark, thick blood pouring out of it. There was mayhem after that. 

“Ahiga… Run from here as far as you can… ” Shima had shouted as she ran clutching his baby sister in her arms. Her voice brought the killers’ attention to her. Before Ahiga could move, he saw his baby sister plucked from Shima’s bosom and thrown up in the air. Her small body landed with the sound of her skull cracking.

As he stood dumbstruck, unable to move his leaden legs, he was scooped up on the horse of a paleface. Shima’s cries reached his ears with the howling of the wind.

“T’aa shoodi*, let me go. What will you get by taking me?” Ahiga had cried and pleaded with the man, despite knowing well that he would not understand his tongue. 

But to his surprise, the man replied in Ahiga’s tongue, “By selling you I will get lots of money, Yázhí. What can you give me in return for your freedom? Do you have ‘gold’?”

Ahiga had not understood then what the last word meant. But now he did. 

I have to find the gold. I have to be free. For Shima. Two years and she hasn’t seen my face. Where will I look for her once I am free? What if she is dead?

While his mind was still on Shima, his ears caught the sounds of hooves running in the direction of the house. The family was back.

“ALEX! ALEX! …

Where, in the name of God, were you loitering?” A resounding slap preceding his question, Mr.Smith set out to teach Ahiga a lesson with the whip in his hand. More than the physical pain that they inflicted on him, Ahiga was tortured by the loss of his name. He loved it. ‘A fighter’, Shima had beamed proudly while telling him the meaning of his name. But Mrs.Smith insisted on changing it. 

“A heathen word will not be used in my house.” She had declared on the first day of her arrival. 

Ahiga, while bearing the hard thrashing for a reason as insignificant as being moments late to attend his masters, vowed;

I would not let you down Shima… I will fight to live. I will get my identity back.

Mrs.Smith bellowed, “I have been telling you John, this savage boy will bring the wrath of the Lord on us. On the day of God, when we want nothing but peace to keep our hearts purified, he comes up with some reason for you to lose your temper. Look at his eyes. They have no remorse in them. 

“I press on you that we need to convert him into a God-fearing Christian but you care less for my words. Now… enough. Let’s go inside.”  As Mrs.Smith sauntered inside, she shot one last look of disdain towards Ahiga.

*********

Mrs.Smith had arrived last winter, from beyond the mountains. Till that time it was only Ahiga and Mr.Smith on the ranch. He was purchased by Mr.Smith from the market at J street, where the kidnappers had put him up for sale.

On her first day, she had questioned Mr.Smith about Ahiga’s presence and he had replied, “Darling! California is a free state. We are not allowed to keep Negro slaves. But the government of the land has allowed us to take custody of the Native American children under a new law. This is the only way I can keep a servant in this house without paying him wages.” 

Mrs.Smith’s arrival had brought a new hope in Ahiga. He had expected that she would be kind to him and calm Mr.Smith down when he would punish Ahiga. But she turned out worse than him. She looked at Ahiga like he was filth. Every time they crossed paths, her eyes bore in him and he sensed hot coals in there.

 

*********

“Alex! Once you finish cleaning up the barn, come by the front porch. It’s your time for Bible study.” Mrs.Smith had been insisting for him to study the scripture. 

Since the time she had landed in California, she had only heard about the atrocities that these red devils* were committing on the white settlers who had come here looking for gold. They had recently killed the owner of a ranch in the town of Hangtown to steal his livestock. 

News of this kind made Mrs.Smith sick with worry about her family’s safety. She hoped that she would be able to tame this savage by showing him the ways of God. Making him forget his identity, his roots was the first step towards controlling him. 

“Mrs.Smith, I come for the study.” Ahiga murmured, cowering against the wall. He wanted this ordeal to be over before she got a chance to find fault with him. If he made a single mistake while repeating the Psalms, she was quick to bring the cane on his back. It seemed as if she sought some form of vengeance from him for his mistake to be born an Indian.

Ahiga’s living conditions had deteriorated since her arrival. From the time Mr.Smith had purchased Ahiga, he had been starving him by only providing one bowl of gruel a day and making him do hard labor on the ranch. But, Mrs. Smith? She would let him go hungry the whole day for as small a mistake as not wishing her ‘Good Morning’.

“John, I think a whipping is in the offing. This scapegrace here is in no mood to pay attention to the Bible today. It is the second time I see him lost in some thoughts and not repeating after me.”

Mr.Smith had been in a foul mood all day. Gold had become hard to find, all that was there to be found in the river beds had been collected. People kept flocking to California in search of this metal and it was getting more and more difficult for him to find a land where claims had not been laid. 

And so he willingly obliged Mrs.Smith. Thrashing Ahiga second time in a day he yelled,

“Bloody Digger*…you think you can go on taking our instructions for granted. Here we are trying to improve your station in life, and you…thankless rascal! I have been observing you for some days now. Careless scamp…you seem to have forgotten your worth. I will remind you what a scumbag you are.”

The lashes burnt Ahiga’s skin every single time. He had hoped, by now his skin would be hardened with the dried wounds, but Mr.Smith always found some new skin to peel. 

“But…Master…Ma’am… I stutter cause I didn’t understand… Trust me… I paying attention.” His words, hardly breaking through his sobs didn’t reach their ears, let alone their heart.  

Sleeping hungry once again and having no one to nurse his wounds, Ahiga missed his Shima more. He longed for the warmth of her lap and the soothing strokes of her hand on his head which would instantly put him to sleep. But now he only had his pain and whimpers as companions. 

Ahiga wasn’t sure he would be able to survive another day, he wanted to run away the next day.

But without the gold, if I am captured by the palefaces I will not have anything to offer them again. What if they return me to the Smiths? They will kill me. No! I need gold.

Clutching at this little thread of possibility, Ahiga labored through the next week, waiting for Sunday. He kept himself away from trouble as much as possible. He didn’t want any more lashings or days of starvation; for he wanted all his strength intact for the digging. 

But luck wasn’t benevolent on him. Many Sundays passed without him finding any gold.

It was getting difficult for him to escape Mrs.Smith’s wrath. He was trying his best to study the Bible and say the prayers every time she asked him to recite them, but Mrs.Smith had now found a new obsession. She wanted to clear his skin of color. She thought that making him look white and pretty like them would make him feel grateful, thus ensuring his loyalty. 

With the intent of achieving this goal, she made him bathe in bleached water. Sitting in that tub like a piece of cloth, the bleach stinging his wounds and burning his skin, Ahiga prayed fervently. Not to the Lord of Mrs.Smith’s Bible but the Great Spirits of his tribe. He prayed to them to let him find gold the next Sunday, to let him be free or else to finally take him in their embrace. 

*************

No sooner had Ahiga begun to dig at the foot of the butte surrounding the ranch, his shovel hit metal. Getting down on his knees, he scraped out a small box. A box? No Gold? 

His limbs were beginning to get numb and his heart was sinking at the lost hope. But his mind told him to keep going. Using a small stone, as he broke open the box, his eyes welled up at the sight in front of him. Inside there were small coins made of the yellow metal.

His mind jumped into a whirlwind of thoughts. 

The box looks familiar. Ah!! This is Mrs.Smith’s sewing box. This gold belongs to the Smiths. They must have hidden it here to safeguard it from thieves. I can’t get my freedom with this. They will recognize their gold. 

But if I take it and run away before they come, I can use it as and when needed. Yes…this is my only chance. 

There was no stopping Ahiga now. He held the box close to his chest and ran in the opposite direction of the house upwards on the butte. With the skills learned in his tribe, he was confident of climbing the butte and getting down on the other side before the Smiths realized his absence. 

But Ahiga soon figured that he wasn’t as agile as before. The hot summer sun and his weakened body were slowing his pace. As he reached the top of the butte he heard the deafening sound of a gunshot. Taking cover behind a tree he peered towards the ranch and caught sight of Mr.Smith on his horse with a rifle in his hand. He appeared to be searching for him. Soon he would come across the pit dug by Ahiga, where he would find his hidden gold missing. 

Ahiga did not wait to see Mr.Smith’s reaction when that happened.

The sun was beginning to move towards the west as Ahiga reached the bottom of the Butte. There was still enough light and he could not be found loitering around the town. He decided to take cover in the small forested area near the butte before running in the dark of night. He wanted to reach the Sacramento River, following its path he wished to reach the upper regions where he could meet some Indians. They may finally lead him to the remaining members of his tribe.

*************

Ahiga had been on the run for some days now. On several occasions, he caught sight of the government militia patrolling the forests in search of Indians. Hitherto he had escaped their clutches. 

But as he neared his destination, his luck ran out. He was seen by a paleface while he was digging tubers to eat. Ahiga ran for his life. Flashes from his earlier capture came rushing to him as he heard the man shoot. He ducked within thick foliage and lost the man. Inside, he felt a pull and was surprised to see some other Indians hiding. 

He joined them at their camp. As the tribesmen sat around a fire and heard his story, they promised to take him to some womenfolk who they believed were from Ahiga’s tribe. 

As Ahiga slept, feeling protected, and with the hope of a free life, he was unaware of the way his world had changed in the last two years. 

The continuous running from the militia, starvation coupled with battling new diseases, and lack of resources, led the tribesmen on the verge of destitution. And now they found Ahiga who possessed with him the treasure of the land; gold.  

And finally in the dark of night, freedom came to Ahiga.

His head lay cut on the side of his body; his eyes opened in shock and a lone tear streaked down his grimy face.

Glossary:

Palefaces : White Settlers who came looking for gold in California

Shima: ‘Mother’ in Navajo language

Naat’áanii: ‘Chief’ in Navajo language

T’aa shoodi: ‘Please’ in Navajo language

Yázhí: ‘Little one’ in Navajo language

Bloody Digger/Red Devils/ Savages : terms used by white settlers to describe Native American Indians.

Author’s note:

1.The author has used Navajo language to denote the Native American tongue. This is the use of creative liberty. Though Navajos mainly belong to the Arizona region, their language is extensively available for translation as compared to other dialects which were dominant in California during the time of California Gold rush. Most of the native tribes were killed in the California Genocide and  their dialects also died with them. 

  1. In 1850, California passed an Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. Under chapter 133 of this act, the state of California proclaimed Native American children to be ‘wards’ of government and assumed greater say over their lives than their parents. Child kidnappers even became the ‘legal guardians’ of Indian Children.  This law has been the basis of the story told by the author. The proceedings of taking the children into custody was slightly different but again creative liberty has been used to enhance the drama in the  fiction. 

3.https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldrush-act-for-government-and-protection-of-indians/ 

The above link can be checked to understand the full extent of California Genocide. The amount of reward on the heads and body parts of the Indians are also mentioned in this article.

Title Credit: Modified Lyrics from the Song ‘Always Remember Us This Way’ (from A Star Is Born) 

***

Team: Inklings

Prompt: The protagonist stretched his/her hands and stood upright, while the beads of sweat as his/her skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, the protagonist continued digging again- his/her passage to freedom. Take the story forward. 

***

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Felix Mittermeier

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

Pride of India

10

Ranjan Godbole, Minister of Transport, adjusted the Gandhi cap on his head and preened at his reflection, left to right. Pleased with the result, he grinned at his wife who was eyeing him suspiciously. 

“Where are you going on a Sunday, strutting like a peacock?”

“I am on an important mission. They have invited me to inaugurate a top-secret project.” Godbole puffed his 56-inch chest. 

“Pff, another ribbon cutting, bringing home useless shawls and garlands. If you had a lucrative portfolio, I would have had Banarasi Silks every week. How can they entrust someone as stupid as you with a secret mission?”

He scowled at her, “Always nagging! One day I will show you how big I am!”

“I have seen EVERYTHING, and nothing is big!” She sniggered in reply. 

Godbole left in a huff. 

After an hour, he barged into the office of the Chief of Operations, Krishna Menon. Ten minutes and no one to check on him. No refreshments either! This was outrageous. 

Mr Krishna Menon was enjoying his tea and kept sipping it as the minister burst into the room. With an air of contempt, he gestured to Godbole to take a seat. 

“Why have you not come outside to welcome me? I have been waiting! My time is important, you know!” 

Menon raised an eyebrow, “You are early.”

Godbole was almost apoplectic. “I came here at 10 am on the dot!”

“But you are a minister. We expected you at 11 at the earliest.”

Godbole spluttered curses as Menon ignored him. 

I will teach this man a lesson, Godbole thought to himself. But he had headlines to make, and he needed Menon. The minister forced himself to calm down. 

After a long pause, Godbole cleared his throat, “Tell me how are we doing this.”

“We? Let’s go out. The special operation team is waiting.”

The minister watched as Menon marched out without bothering about him.

Menon went up the control room on the portal, Godbole at his heels. His eyes widened seeing the young women present there and thus distracted, didn’t notice Menon taking the dais.

“Esteemed guests, it is a proud moment for all of us. We are about to create history. The passenger pods are ready at the portal. In a few minutes, we will run the first hyperloop test run between Mumbai and Delhi.  A journey of 22 hours by road will be completed in a mere 75 minutes.”

Roaring applause erupted, and photographers clicked like crazy. 

“The work began a few years ago. It was a top-secret project and our country would be the first to reach the milestone.” Menon then walked towards the control panel. 

Godbole was seething. This was to be his moment; he was the transport minister! Suddenly he had an idea. His wife’s scornful face zoomed in his mind, and he sprung up from his seat. Godbole announced loudly, “As the Minister of Transport, I hereby volunteer to undertake the first test journey.” 

There was pandemonium as all cameras turned towards him and Menon tried in vain to salvage the situation. He cautioned the minister on the risks. Godbole had tasted the limelight and wanted to milk it all the way. Menon reluctantly agreed. 

The team of engineers checked the central control and the connection to the servers in the pod. Ascertaining that nothing was overlooked, Menon along with Godbole and his herd reached the passenger pod.

The sleek passenger pod inside the low-pressure vacuum-sealed compartment slid open. Godbole walked in proudly and blinked at his herd who were hesitant to get in.

“Come in, you fools. I will dismiss you all otherwise!”

Circuit, Godbole’s favourite assistant tripped and fell flat as he hurried to get in. Godbole’s eyes teared up, “You are my true follower, I bless you. Get up.”

The rest of the gang scrambled inside.

Menon with displeasure writ large on his face ordered his staff to do the necessary to get the hyperloop started. The passenger pod was finally flagged off.  

The pod zipped away in the tunnel. 

****

The purple sunset streaked the sky, yet the chaos enveloped the battlefield of Tarain. The shrieks of the wounded warriors along with the clanging of swords, rent the air. As the rusty smell of blood assailed his nostrils, Prithviraj Chauhan, the mighty king of the Chahamana dynasty looked above, as if pleading for mercy from the Gods. At every step lay dead bodies and broken weapons. 

Chand Bardai, his most trusted friend, and minister snapped commands at the few surviving generals. 

“Come on, let us move you to safety,” Chand begged the emperor.

“You want me to run away, leaving my soldiers?”

“We need to save you from the Ghurid swine. Please come.”

Prithviraj and a few of his trusted men fled to the caves in the mountains. The emperor had asked his men to dig a tunnel that could be used as an escape route when needed. A massive iron door guarded the tunnel. The army led by Mohammed of Ghor was almost at their heels, and the Rajput men pulled the door. With a clang, it opened wide.  

****

The special team was frazzled. It had been 69 minutes since the passenger pod had left the Mumbai portal when suddenly the central control emitted beeps and red lights flashed. Something was wrong. The team lost all contact with the pod. 

Desperate measures were taken. Connections and wires were checked. Calculations were redone. The engineers yelled terms like ‘escape velocity’, ‘sound barrier’ and ‘wave resonance’. It was a gaping blind spot and massive communication failure. 

“Sir, the pod seems to have vanished. The vacuum compartment is empty, no sign of the pod or the minister.”

The press reporters overheard all this, and there was an uproar. Menon, sought a cup of tea muttering, “Where did the clown disappear!”

Meanwhile, all news channels flashed the ‘BREAKING NEWS’.

Phone calls from the top poured in and pressure mounted in the control room as the technicians worked feverishly. They restarted the computers every five minutes, to no avail.

There were snatches of conversation. 

“We should have tied lemon and chillies.” 

“Sweet curd should have been given to the minister.”

After many deliberations, they realized that something in the vacuum-sealed compartment in which the pod travelled had malfunctioned. 

***

There was a thunderous explosion, and a bright light blinded the emperor and his men. The sound grew louder as a gleaming cylindrical object appeared in the tunnel. 

Prithvi’s men cowered in fear. They had no inkling of what it was, with a million stars glowing inside. Prithvi and Chand were ready with their swords drawn. 

Inside the pod, Godbole and his men were trying to get the doors to open. Finally, Circuit pressed the emergency button. Godbole put on his biggest smile for the cameras again.

“Am I looking good? I know I am photogenic,” he asked. Circuit nodded.

Godbole stepped out, only to find a bunch of people in period costumes standing there in attack mode. 

Circuit clapped in glee, “Sir, we have reached Filmistan. Looks like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film set!” 

“How the hell did we come here? We were supposed to reach Delhi station.”

“Sir, it’s not a station, it is called Portal.”

“You don’t teach me, OK? Who is this? Is it Ranveer Singh?”

Prithviraj Chauhan stared at the men wearing strange clothes. 

“Why can’t Sanjay Leela Bhansali come at once?” Godbole demanded.

“What is this Sanjay Leela Bhansali? Is it one person or three?” Chand blurted.

The babble of voices and confusion reached even higher.

Godbole shouted, “Silence! Nobody respects a minister these days.” He tapped the emperor, “Go, fetch the director.”

Prithviraj lifted his sword to strike. The minister shrieked and tried to hide behind Circuit. 

“I am Prithviraj Chauhan, the Rajput emperor. Who are you?”

“Oh, a new actor? Who is doing the role of Samyuktha? Is it Padukone?” Circuit loved Bollywood! 

“How do you know Samyuktha?” Chauhan was ready to chop his head off. 

“I know my history. Why are you interrogating me? This is the minister for transportation. He can end your career even before it begins!” 

“This is a battlefield. This is no place for a clown. Who else is there inside?”

Prithviraj and his men entered the cylinder to check if anyone was hiding. Godbole with nose up in the air looked at the surroundings.

The emperor looked in awe at the shiny bright interior of the cylinder and walked in. 

“This looks like a tunnel inside a tunnel!” Chand laughed aloud.

Behind him, the Ghurid army screamed and yelled. They had entered the tunnel.  

With a gurgling sound, the gleaming cylinder slid shut, and the emperor and his men were trapped inside. They saw the Ghurid army standing outside along with the strange men. The Ghurid soldiers shot arrows, but the shiny, sturdy exterior of the cylinder deflected them. 

***

“Log into the central system of the passenger pod,” Menon ordered. 

With tapping sounds of the keypad, the technicians tried to resume contact. But the signals were weak, and there were no satellite images. The Chief Engineer was scared and sweating profusely. A drop of sweat trickled on the central signal system, causing a short circuit. The lights in the room flickered. 

“Sir, I have reached the system of the pod. I am trying to retrieve it,” said an enthusiastic pawn. 

An earth-shattering noise ensued from the portal. In a few seconds, the passenger pod reappeared as suddenly as it had vanished. Everyone rushed to meet the minister. The doors slid open. Cameras flashed at the emerging figures from the pod. 

Prithviraj and his men with swords stepped outside. The press thrust mikes into their faces. 

“Where is the minister?”

“What did you do to him?”

“Who are you?”

“I am the greatest Rajput emperor Prithviraj Chauhan.” In a baritone voice, the emperor announced.

Laughter filled the air. “Looks like a film promotion.”

“Who is the director?”

“What IS this director? That funny man also asked the same thing!”

Mr Balram Naidu from the Intelligence Bureau made a dramatic entrance at this juncture. They quickly took charge of the situation and arrested the gang of artists in costumes. 

The name given to the hyperloop operation was ‘OPERATION PRITHVI’ and here were the jokers, one of them claiming to be Prithviraj Chauhan.

The con men were put in a bright room with glass doors. The IB agents tried all methods of interrogation, but the men in costume reiterated the same things. 

“Listen, we have been at this for some time. I will release you if you tell the truth.” Naidu inhaled snuff and sneezed all over. 

“I am Prithviraj Chauhan, the greatest Rajput emperor.”

“OK. I am Amitabh Bachchan, and this is Dhoni! Which terrorist group sent you?” 

Prithviraj and Chand sat stony-faced. If served food, they might talk, Naidu thought. A pizza was ordered. 

The emperor looked at it disdainfully and ordered Chand to eat the gooey triangle stuff first – just in case, it was poisoned. 

As Chand stuffed his mouth, the emperor’s eyes fell on a painting on the far side of the wall. 

“Look there, Chand! I am on a horse!”

Naidu roared in frustration, “Take away these clowns. Now he says he is Chhatrapati Shivaji! Get that Menon in here. He must have been part of this conspiracy!”

 ****

Mohammed of Ghor and his men along with Godbole and team, watched the cylinder get sucked into the tunnel with high speed. Ghor captured the minister and the men. 

“Where is Prithviraj?”

“Hey, keep the swords away, I am a minister. I can get you arrested.”

“Tie these people and put them in the dungeons.” Ghor bellowed.

“Hello, I want an AC jail. I am a minister. There is no change of clothes also.” Godbole was ranting nonstop.

“I told you to carry my black suitcase, always. See, now my baggage is lost in the control room in Mumbai. You are all so irresponsible. Check if you still have your gun?”

“No sir, they stripped us naked and searched. All our guns are gone,” said Circuit.

The minister was soon losing his courage. It was clear this was no film set. Maybe a terrorist camp?

After two days of starvation, Ghor summoned Godbole to the durbar.

“Now, tell me where is Prithviraj?”

Godbole muttered, “This man is asking for Raj. Next, he will ask for Simran.”

The slick politician was able to think on his feet. He changed his stance and flung himself at the feet of Ghor. “Sheikh, Salaam alaikum. I have a house in Dubai. You can take it. Let me go.”

“What are you blabbering? I want Rajput’s head and his kingdom.”

“Sheikh, Rajput is the minister of sports. I oversee transportation. I can tell you his mistress’s address in Juhu. He is always there.”

“What? I want to capture Ajmer, not Juhu. Where is that?”

“Sheikh, you can take Rajasthan and Gujarat also. I will arrange it. I can make calls once I get a signal on my mobile. Jai Maharashtra!”

The minister’s men chorused, “Jai Maharashtra.”

The Ghurid men shouted, “Ghor Zindabad!”

“You speak funny. I like you. Prithviraj is gone for good, I think. I will appoint you as my vassal to rule here.”

“A ruling post! I am happy to serve you, Sheikh.” Godbole bowed his head.

The minister was taken to Prithviraj’s palace to freshen up and rest. The Ghurid ruler planned to leave for Afghan soon. He called his men to bring Samyuktha to take her with him. 

The minister was smitten by the first sight of Samyuktha. 

“Sheikh, you have many wives. I don’t have a wife here. I have given you Rajasthan and Gujarat. Please leave this girl for me.”

Ghor, in an indulgent mood, agreed.

“My baby doll, I want to sink in your pink lips.” Godbole lunged at Samyuktha.

“I belong to Prithviraj. I will kill myself if you come near!”

“If I wear the emperor’s clothes, I will look ravishing.”

Godbole’s lusty singing to woo his queen filled the palace. Tu cheez badi hai mast mast*. 

***

Mr Menon and his men worked nonstop to set right the glitch. 

A reverse operation began. OPERATION GODBOLE. Operation Prithvi ended in bringing back someone who claimed to be the Rajput ruler, so by naming it Godbole they hoped to bring back the minister. The con men were made to board the passenger pod. The pod zipped away in the tunnel. 

 ***

Prithviraj Chauhan and his men dressed in their armour stepped out of the pod. They saw people flying overhead. An iron clad figure marched forward in small steps. It spoke in a metallic voice. 

“Welcome. I am Chitti version 101. Today is Friday, the 6th of September 3020. How may I assist you?”

Glossary:

*tu cheez madi hai mast mast – ‘90s superhit song from the film Mohra.

***

Team: Left to Write

Prompt: A modern invention from the 21st century gets transported to the 12th century. What happens next? Explore. 

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Felix Mittermeier

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

The Waiting Room

0

Dr. Lokesh stretched his hands and stood upright, wiped the beads of sweat as his skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, he continued digging again, his passage to freedom. It was the third spot where Lokesh frantically dug through the pile of dead bodies. First, he had scanned the accident site, then the police station, and finally trailed the dead body to the hospital mortuary.

Authorities had hauled the unclaimed bodies in a truck to the mortuary at Etawah district hospital. Still lying in the courtyard, those distorted corpses were of the passengers aboard the ill-fated train to Delhi. Just another Indian Railway disaster, a head-on collision, resulting in 120 deaths. 

As he shuffled the bodies, a choking stench strangled him, making him retract. The hideously deformed  bodies had still been offered a few meters of dignity and covered in white sheets, while others lay exposed with missing limbs and torn clothes smeared with dried blood.  

Grieving relatives thronged the morgue. An otherwise deserted mortuary premises were suddenly alive with cameras and news reporters’ nonstop prattle. Like most other places in India, the ill-maintained morgue house, too, suffered from overcrowding. 

The putrid odour, the exhausting sun, and the fear of hounding death attacked Lokesh’s senses, knocking him off balance. Leaning against a wall, he squatted with his head resting in his hands. Disgust and regret soaked him as he howled like a child, cursing his fate.

Why did I get into this? Where have my deeds brought me?

I sold my conscience for money. My sins will haunt me till death.

God, my family. No! 

I cannot let them suffer for my mistakes. 

Reaching out for a tap nearby, Lokesh splashed cold water on his face, jolting awake his paralyzed senses and continued searching.

He looked at the only clue he had. A photo of the man.

A short, dark-skinned fellow with average looks. Someone who would blur into the peripheries of society without ever being noticed by anyone. Alas! That insignificant nobody had upturned Lokesh’s life. 

Why did this wretched rag board the cursed train?” murmured Lokesh in frustration.

As the news channels ranted out stinging remarks about the undignified treatment of the dead bodies; the police took charge and organized them in an orderly line. A spark of energy sprinted through Lokesh as he finally spotted the corpse he had been looking for. In a recognizable condition, it matched the picture perfectly.

Looking at the corpse, Lokesh’s mind drifted into the past. Just the other day when the same man lay in front of him. His face was masked. But he was alive. Today he lay dead with a  questioning look. Lokesh shifted his glance,to avoid direct eye contact. A strange fear gripped him. He was scared the dead man would recognise him. The stiffened muscles of his eyes refused to let go of the world yet. The dead man gaped as if nothing had happened. He seemed to be travelling still!

Was he? The question pricked Lokesh’s mind.

No! Taking short, quick breaths Lokesh tried to calm himself.

For God’s sake, he is dead.

Why am I so agitated? I am a doctor, I can do it. I will do it! He convinced his nervous mind.

The place soon quietened, with only a handful of bodies left as unidentified. They stuffed them into the already crowded cold storage. Lokesh was anxious, but waited for the night to swallow the place so that he could dig out what could win him his freedom.

He crouched under a giant Peepal tree in the mortuary compound. The surrounding cacophony soon lulled as he relaxed. The frantic search in the enervating sun had consumed his last bit of energy, and sleep conquered his senses as his mind plunged into a numbed emptiness.

                                                              **********

Lokesh’s father, the much loved Dr. Sahab ran a roaring practice from his ten by ten foot clinic in the bustling BaraBazar market. Strapping six feet tall, dressed in a crisp white dhoti kurta with a long tikka on his forehead, Dr. Sahab was famed to arrest all diseases by a mere press of the veins.

One worry that ate on the senior doctor’s peace of mind was his only son, Lokesh. Premature at birth, Lokesh suffered from learning disabilities in his childhood. Standing at just five feet, Lokesh was easily dwarfed by his father’s towering persona. Societal pressures cornered Lokesh to follow his father’s coveted profession. No matter how ill-suited he was for the job, yet his father had bribed and procured a doctor’s degree from a small private medical college for him. With a degree framed on the wall and his father’s loyal clientele to inherit, Lokesh dreamt of a promising future. He soon married and had a son of his own.

Alas! The paper degree, he got, was only good enough to be rolled for carrying peanuts. Peanuts! That was what Lokesh made on any day. 

What could he do? 

Not everyone can make those serpentine nerves dance to their tunes. After the senior doctor’s death patients eluded him, closely followed by his dwindling earnings. 

Overcome by self pity, Lokesh often wondered who to blame for his condition. His dim wit, his bad habits or his complacent self?

“Going home early Dr. Sahab! Hope your sugar problem is better. Will you clear my dues today?” asked the street side vendor wrapping some sweet jibes with innocent pleasantries as he served golgappas to Lokesh. 

Lokesh’s demeanour and habits both failed him miserably. Strands of hair neatly combed over a bald head, a pot belly balanced precariously over two stocky legs covered by baggy pants kissing the undersides of his dusty sandals. He looked harried and disheveled. 

One usual day at the clinic when Lokesh sat staring at the crowded Bara Bazaar street, a tall man barged inside. He authoritatively announced himself as Khan Bhai.

Taken aback, Lokesh stuttered a salaam, not sure to sit or stand in front of him. Two stout guards waited outside as Khan Bhai settled himself. Signalling Lokesh to sit, he lit a cigarette, took a drag filling his lungs only to empty them dramatically in swirling circles on Lokesh’s face. Surprised by the theatrics, Lokesh barely clung onto the end of the chair.

“Your practice as I see is useless. The only patients visiting you are these flies suffering from dysentery after eating the golgappas from that roadside stall. Dr. Sahab, do they pay you too?” Chuckled the man mockingly.

Lokesh was too stunned to talk. He dragged his eluding strength out to make some inaudible noises. “Hnn….?” stammered Lokesh. Khan’s brusque boldness and his burly frame both kept Lokesh’s anger buried deep inside.

“Bhai… What do you want?” squeaked Lokesh, finding his lost voice.

“You are a Doctor! Can you do small operations? I want you to work for me. I will pay you well. Much more than these buzzing patients of yours, ” said Khan laughing as he smashed a fly dead on the table. “Say yes, and this bag is yours,” offered Khan, unzipping the small leather bag in his hand. 

Lokesh’s eyes gleamed. The sight and smell of crisp currency notes fanned Lokesh’s hunger. A perfect bait thrown, Khan trapped him. He wagged and woofed in servileness.

“Sure, I do operations. You know I am a doctor!” announced Lokesh pointing towards his degree hung on the wall. 

“You don’t need that Dr. Sahab. What you need is a storehouse!” teased Khan. 

Swallowing shallowly, Lokesh gazed at him in surprise. 

“Get one made, Dr. Sahab. All that money you will earn will not fit in a small vault after all!” Laughed Khan showing his betel-stained teeth. 

Aree… doctor Sahab, relax. Just remember one rule.

Why, What, Where and Who, chuck these forbidden words and your life is set.” Declared Khan in a dramatic bollywood movie style.

Lokesh’s life took a complete U-turn after that. Once or twice a week a black car drove him to Khan’s farmhouse, where in the basement room, he stuffed  one or two white pellets into a person’s body. The men he worked on, had their faces masked. For all this body stuffing, Khan paid Lokesh a handsome sum.

Why did Khan pay so much? What was inside those pellets?

Why were those pellets keistered inside those men? Who were those masked men? 

What happened after that?

Initially, these questions fizzed in Lokesh’s mind, but were soon flattened dead by the weight of the heavy bag of notes he carried home. 

Ignorance is bliss only till the time the cat seizes the pigeon’s neck. 

Curse the day!

Khan Bhai’s aide came breathing down Lokesh’s neck. Shoving a photo in his face, he picked him by his collar. Lokesh struggled to breathe while inching his feet towards the ground.

The irked man loosened his grip as Lokesh collapsed, gasping for breath. 

“Khan bhai wants you to get the maal back. That cursed mule you loaded yesterday died in a train accident and never reached his destination in Dubai. You stuffed him. Now you go and unload him. Come to the farmhouse with the maal . Your son would be waiting for you,” barked Khan’s aide.

Maal… what maal? My son…, please leave him” begged Lokesh, shaking with fear.

The hulk stared at Lokesh unforgivingly. His kohl lined eyes widened at the sound of the forbidden question. 

Lokesh regretted asking it. He knew consequences would follow.

“Remember, you are being watched,” threatened the man, driving away with Lokesh’s wailing son. 

Lokesh set off on a frantic search to find the man and dig. Dig out his keistered freedom.

                                                           ***********

A black moonless night, the mortuary compound was pitch dark with only some bats screeching and stray dogs howling. The shirtless guard in chequered lungi gulped down an entire bottle of cheap country liquor. No sane person could ever live in the morgue premises. The guard numbed his senses with drugs and alcohol before he could retire in a room adjoining the main building. 

The drunk guard had left the morgue door open. Lokesh had been tracking the body, and as expected, they had shoved the unclaimed ones inside the cold storage. The lobby was dimly lit, just enough for Lokesh to walk inside unnoticed. 

Death’s cold, rancid breath blasted from the storage room. The unending darkness engulfed him. Fear spiralled through his spine, covering him with goosebumps all over. This was the place where the boundary between death and life got blurred. The spirits that once belonged to the earthly realm waited to pass into the other world. Lokesh too stood at the threshold of the cold storage. One foot in the warm realm of life and the other in the stinging cold of death. 

He approached the body. Its eyes still open, witnessing all of Lokesh’s doings. 

Pulling on a pair of gloves, Lokesh fished out a surgical knife which he had safely hidden inside his vest. He closed his eyes gathering all the courage from deep inside. Beads of cold sweat surfaced on his forehead as he slit open the abdomen with shaking hands. A hollowness drilled right through Lokesh’s core, making him nauseous. This was his first experience of an autopsy. No blood flowed, no tissues burst, just frozen life stood clogging the veins. Lokesh dug through the body parts and seized the pellet he had inserted through the anal cavity of the man. 

The small pellet carried diamonds worth lakhs. Both Lokesh and the man lying dead were mules. Mules with blinders, who had refused to see even with open eyes. 

Argh… What am I doing? What have I stooped down to? The guilt, disgust and remorse jabbed him harder than the overpowering cold.

A scavenger, a sinful rat scrounging through the dead!  Overwhelmed by regret, Lokesh felt like surrendering to death, but the thought about his innocent family gave him the strength to move. 

Sneaking out of the mortuary compound, Lokesh ran heavily. Not once did he turn to look back. He was running away from death, but still heard steady footsteps closing in. A dark shadow was fast closing on him. 

Thud! 

Lokesh fell on his face, hitting the hard gravel road. Someone had pushed him hard.

Lokesh’s forehead split open, with gushing blood soaking his clothes. He soon lost track of time. Hanging between life and death, he swung between alertness and unconsciousness.

What.. what are you doing?” protested Lokesh, as a tall, muscular man scoured his pockets and took out the pellet. Lokesh had seen the man before. 

“It’s mine. Give it back”

Lokesh shouted with all the strength he had. 

Why can’t I hear myself? Wondered Lokesh in dismay. 

Holding on to his bleeding head, he limped towards the man, pleading with him to return the pellet. Feeling weightless, Lokesh soon paced up and tried to catch the man. His hand swept past the man’s body. Perplexed, he glanced at his feet and realised that he was not on the ground. His feet were almost three inches above. 

Why? How? 

Finally, the forbidden words spilled out. Alas! A bit too late.

As realisation dawned, the sphere of hope and life deflated. Gloom and despair quickly filled in that vacuum. Timelessness prevailed. 

Lokesh finally dragged himself home. 

A big crowd blocked the entrance. My son! No, cannot be! Lokesh feared the worst. 

A dead body lay covered with a white cloth. His wife and son cried inconsolably. Relieved to see his son safe, Lokesh seated himself next to them.

Lay before him, his own dead body. His frozen eyes stared questioningly, refusing to be shut. 

Questions he had!

The ones he had never asked when alive now haunted him after death. 

Who? Why? Where?

Police waited to take his body for postmortem. Answers to those forbidden questions were sought. No matter how long it took. 

Lokesh had to linger in The Waiting Room.

Rest in the morgue, between the two worlds. Wasn’t it the last place he checked into? 

A mere coincidence or as destined? 

Glossary:

Etawah: Is a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India.

Sahab:term used to address a man with authority.

Dhoti Kurta:Loose cotton traditional clothing. 

Tikka:holy mark on the forehead, put by Hindus.

Bara Bazaar:Bustling main market.

Golgappas:another word for panipuri, an indian snack.

Bhai:Big Brother.

Maal:Hindi word meaning goods.

Keister:to conceal something in one’s anus. Usually used by smugglers to hide precious items.

Lungi:a sarong like garment wrapped around the waist.

***

Team: Inklings

Prompt: The protagonist stretched his/her hands and stood upright, while the beads of sweat as his/her skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, the protagonist continued digging again- his/her passage to freedom. Take the story forward. 

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Times of India

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

Chronicles of a Death Agent

0

It all started a few years ago. A pandemic had hit the world, followed by an economic recession. People started dying, some because of the deadly disease and some due to hunger. The ghastly chaos weakened many emerging nations. The time was unpleasant and repulsive. The opportunists, however, grabbed the situation. The separatists gained more power. Small battles to occupy coveted regions raised sporadic heads in various corners of the earth. 

Soon these battles turned into wars, with powerful countries pitching in, supporting one or the other encroacher. It was a golden age for the capitalists, with human life turning valueless. Even the religious extremists tried to encash the turn of events in their favour and civil wars ensued in different regions. And all this mayhem increased the work of Death manifold.

The business of Death shot up in the years following the outbreak of the epidemic, and as the situation on earth worsened, his business showed exponential growth. But with great trade came a greater challenge. Death and his team were unable to manage the incoming traffic even after working overtime. There was a dire need for an increase in his workforce. Though reluctant at first, looking at the grave situation, Death agreed.

The recruitment process was initiated, and soon many convicted souls from hell were inducted in the labour pool. There wasn’t much time for elaborate preparation. The interns were placed in teams on an immediate basis with the instruction of on the job training. 

I was one such fresher in the team of Death. Everyone called me DBC132040- my employee code, which was my identity here. Before dying, obviously, I went by a different name. But in the Death company, that name was lost in oblivion. 

My department dealt with soul-delivery. We had to collect the departing souls from the earth and submit them to the inspection department. There they were segregated as per their deeds and dispatched to hell or paradise. The rotten ones like me were thrown into the inferno, and the fortunate ones enjoyed the breezy and luxurious life of heaven. 

Of late, however, the population of the idyll has seen a steep fall, and there were rumours that to compensate, a new promotion scheme might be rolled out. It was heard that the management might elevate exceptional performers from hell to paradise. We, the interns, were thus much motivated to execute our duties to perfection. 

Today was an important day at my job. I was about to start my first assignment. I had to collect a few souls who had lost their lives in a riot at the heart of a busy city. Equipped with a job card and a palmtop to locate the correct coordinates of the casualty, I swooped into the locomotive device with much seriousness. Simple voice command and I was on my way to fulfil the task.

*****

After spending years of captivity in the abyss, I was enjoying this newfound freedom and looked forward to the journey. However, the supersonic speed of the locomotive device did not give me much time to enjoy the tour. With a small thud, I landed in the pre-fed destination. But the location looked different from what I had anticipated.

An eerie silence prevailed everywhere. A soft breeze stirred a leaf that had fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street was tidy and well-maintained, just like the quiet houses arranged in neat rows along its sides or the vacant shop fronts along the quaint Main Street nearby or the vacant playground. Where was everyone? 

I started scanning the streets for my targets. But, nothing worked. The palmtop was behaving in a weird manner. It was designed to track souls stuck within a few kilometers. But there was no sign of any kind of souls in the vicinity of my whereabouts- living or departing. I even tried to restart the device, but still, nothing happened. It was when I revised the job card that the error was detected. Wrong coordinates had been input into the gadget. I struggled hard to recall what was taught in the short training session about handling such a crisis, but could not remember any such mention. 

The locomotive device was built in such a way that it took one back to the base only when some departing human souls were on board. The gadget recognised nothing but the human spirit. And until then, the user was restricted within a predefined perimeter around the inputted coordinates. I pushed the buttons on the machine in vain. High and dry in the middle of nowhere, unable to figure out any escape, it was evident that I was in a big soup.

*****

Never in my life or death had I faced such a trial. All that was needed was a dead human spirit to activate the device. But where could I find one in the ghost town? Dejected, I started strolling across the streets. The town seemed to have been abandoned recently. The skyscrapers kissed the grey sky above. The roads were perfect rivers of tarmac but untouched by any vehicle tyres. Traffic lights blinked to control the non-existent cars, and the air was as clean as the era before the turmoil began.

It was like those sleeping hamlets from the pages of a fairy tale. To kill time, I wandered in and out of the abandoned houses. Even that became boring after a while. So I climbed to the terrace, and that was where I saw them.

Two kids were playing on the roof of a neighbouring house. Intrigued, I closed in. On approaching, some dogs started barking, shattering the long built silence. A boy, not more than twelve or thirteen, immediately came out of the house.

“Bosco, Roby, what happened? Is there some danger around?” He asked with concern, all the while looking around for the impending threat. He couldn’t see me, but the dogs sensed my presence. He looked around. Unable to locate the problem, he went inside. 

“Sana, Riyanshi, come down at once.”

The two little girls I saw on the terrace came down running.

“Papa called?” The little one asked with enthusiasm. The face of the boy turned dark, but he recovered in a moment and reprimanded the two girls.

“No, he has not. But what were you doing on the roof? Are you practising like I told you?”

The children looked at each other and then nodded their heads sideways.

“This is for your safety, now go and start practising.”

“But the water is dirty,” quipped the older sister.

“The dirt may just save us all, Sana.”

Unable to protest anymore, they started moving.

Interested, I also followed them.

The kids took off their clothes and entered a swamp behind the house. The older boy, who seemed to be their guardian at the moment, also came.

“Now try to hold your breath for as long as you can.” He instructed in a stern voice.

At first, the youngest one, Riyanshi, was unable to hold her breath for more than a few seconds, but with time the duration increased. The instructor looked happy with the progress. After practicing for quite a while, the kids moved inside.

I followed. Something told me that these children were also stuck here for some unfortunate reason.

Bhaiya*, why are we doing this?” Riyanshi asked.

“When the soldiers arrive, we must hide in the swamp lest they find us.”

Their conversation filled the rooms. After hours of eerie silence, their chatter seemed like the most precious entity on earth. 

“I am hungry.”

“Soup and bread are ready.”

“Again soup.” Riyanshi made a face.

“We will have other food when Papa comes back. Right, Aarav?” Sana consoled her little sister.

So the boy was called Aarav.

The kids reminded me of my family from another lifetime. My folks, who were perhaps still waiting for me. The loved ones whom I never had a chance to bid a proper farewell because I decided to follow a blind path of violence to seek paradise. One bomb blast and the pretense were exposed. Alas, it was too late.

But what might be the reason for these young siblings to remain stranded in an empty town? I decided to linger around for a while to find out.

*****

Two days had passed since I arrived in this godforsaken town. I was still unable to contact the headquarter, and they seemed to have conveniently forgotten this fallen employee. To be frank, I had started enjoying the stay with these kids. Their queer antics kept me entertained the whole day. Their games, the innocuous conversations, and the squabbles filled the house with life. Like, presently, the two young sisters were fighting over the control of the remote. The funny thing was, the television was showing only one channel. That too some news they couldn’t apprehend. Yet, the ownership mattered. 

They fought until Aarav intervened and turned the television set off. That sparked another fight, but now the two sisters were united against the common enemy. Soon all three of them were rolling over the carpet, giggling. The innocence in their laughter was all that one needed to forget the problems that got them stranded here.

From the bits and pieces of conversations, I could gather that these kids had already lost their mother. The father had gone outstation for some work when the news broke that the troops of the resistance army were approaching this town. Soon there would be bomb attacks. Some nearby towns and villages were already ravaged by the merciless troop. So the townsmen started shifting at once. 

As per the last contact with their father, he asked the kids to wait as he was coming to fetch them. The kids were following his order since their last phone call five days ago. The town was vacated meanwhile, but the kids stayed back. They knew their father would return. He never broke a promise.

*****

Two more days passed. By now, I was well accustomed to the life of the three kids and almost felt like a part of their little family. Their emotion transpired within me in a natural way. As time lapsed, I could feel the anxiety in the house growing. Riyanshi and Sana were impatient. They were too naive to understand the complexity of the situation and kept asking about their father. 

The worst affected was Aarav. He was checking the food stock and the mobile phone every hour. The phone showed no signal, and he knew the ration wouldn’t last for long. 

It broke my heart to see him skip lunch to save food. He kept insisting his sisters to practice hiding. But the children, especially Riyanshi, started throwing tantrums. I could perceive their tension, their anguish, but my hands were tied. I could do nothing to help them. Their struggle made me forget my problem. Even I started looking forward to the return of their father. But I had a feeling, something more sinister was coming. 

It was the fourth night of my stay when the action began. The news on the TV was announcing an attack in the neighbouring town. There had been massacres, rapes, arson, and people driven out of their homes. Some had even eaten the livers of the dead. Aarav turned it off with a sombre face and started distributing bread for dinner in complete silence. The quantity wasn’t sufficient for three, but he tried.

“What is rape?” Riyanshi asked Sana, breaking the silence.

Clueless, Sana looked up to his brother.

He also didn’t know what to explain, so he brushed it off saying, “It is something the bad people do. Now eat your dinner.”

They were halfway through their dinner when the dogs started barking rabid. By now, they were accustomed to my presence. So it must be something else. I hurried outside to see and found the opposition military force was entering the border of the town, torching the houses on their way. They seemed disappointed to see the town already deserted.

I rushed inside and wanted to warn the children to hide somewhere safe. Helpless, I screamed, “Put off the light and hide in the swamp.” But alas, my obscurity, which was my shield till now, was now my greatest inconvenience.

The barking and the sound of marching alarmed the kids too. They rushed to the swamp to hide. The men with guns in the meantime spotted the chained dogs. Without getting a favourable target they started firing on the canines. Bosco and Roby succumbed to bullet wounds after a painful shriek. 

Riyanshi, terrified of the sound of bullets and the dark water, started crying. At first, her cries got drowned amidst the noise of the bullets and the barking. The soldiers started moving away. But the lights in their building within the unlit town got their attention. 

They smashed inside, breaking the door. The loud bang again startled the kids, and this time their sobs reached the cautious ears. Alerted, the soldiers followed the source of the sound, like a pack of hyenas tracking the smell of its wounded prey, and discovered the shivering children.

What happened next was beyond my worst nightmare. The zealots got excited to find new prey. Understanding that their cover was up, Aarav asked his sisters to run as he faced the soldiers himself. The young braveheart tried to resist the gunmen as long as he could. But his defiance was short-lived. Bullets tore without any effort through the soft human tissue, allowing the arteries to split and coated the ground in a slick, thick liquid. Blood. 

Meanwhile, the little feet of the girls could not carry them far. Before long, some assassins captured them. They grabbed the two kids and dragged them inside a caravan. The children yelled and screamed in pain. There was no one to help them. I loathed my incapability as I watched the carnage like a mute spectator, unable to intervene. Their pain pierced through my non-existent heart, and I felt myself bleeding. 

All of a sudden, my device came to life. Duty beckoned as the palmtop detected the departing soul, who needed to be guided out of this earth. In a way, I was relieved I could escape the trauma of watching the girls getting butchered. I knew war treated all women in the same way, irrespective of the age. Still, I prayed for the two young girls and wished not for their safety but an easy death. 

The situation was worse than hell, and I had experienced both. I was thankful to leave this cursed place, the closest thing mankind would ever come to see Satan himself striding over the Earth. As I pulled away Aarav’s pious soul to unite with his mother in heaven, I kept dreaming that soon, this family would reunite in a better world, beyond this cruel abode. 

*****

Glossary

Bhaiya- Big brother 

Papa- Father 

***

Team: Authers

Prompt: A soft breeze stirs the leaves that have fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street is tidy and beautifully maintained, just like the quiet houses neatly arranged along its side. Just like the vacant shop fronts along quaint Main Street nearby. Just like the silent playground. Where is everyone?

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Pixabay

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

Lights, Camera, Action

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The ramshackle bus rattles like a broken toy but manages to reach us to our stopover for the night. You don’t expect a Volvo in this godforsaken area. And even if we did find one, we couldn’t have afforded its exorbitant fare. Unemployed broke guys we are- my childhood buddy and me. And now we are homeless too. Our fathers threw us out of home two days ago, just like that. 

We stretch our tired limbs, pick our backpacks, and start walking. Ah, what for a hot meal and bed.

‘The bus driver raved about the chicken curry in a dhaba* in the main market, Apoorv,’ Dev drools.

‘Oh yeah, your daddy is Paytming the bill naa,’ I kick his butt. 

Ayeee…he fakes a cry. Drama king. 

We march on. The town is not far.

Tomorrow we travel to Mumbai. A friend has promised to connect us with a director. But there’s no guarantee he would give us work. With our meagre resources, we can’t survive very long. We must find work soon. 

But for now, we need to find a place for the night. 

‘The town looks so beautiful with its neat and tidy roads. The residents have maintained it rather well.’ Dev has a keen eye for old architecture. He’s impressed with the neat rows of houses on both sides of the street.

A tiny leaf floats with the soft evening breeze and lands at my feet. I pick it up and roll it between my fingers as we look around the town. 

‘Yes, the town is peaceful. But a little too peaceful. Didn’t the bus driver say this street is alive till late at night? It’s not even night, and all the shops are shut.’

‘Looks like it’s their weekly off,’ Dev speculates.

‘But there must be someone around. At least the dhaba should be open. Let’s explore the town further,’ I nudge him. He shudders as if I am making him a bali ka bakra*. Huh! It’s not a ghost town. Arre shut up, I have not forgotten you. I growl back at my protesting stomach.

We cross the main street. To our amazement, even the playground is empty, the swings still. This silence is eerie indeed. Now it’s giving me the creeps. Where have all the residents vanished? Did we make a mistake coming here?

Wait, what’s that rumbling sound?

‘Listen, brother!’ We run towards the burly man, relieved and happy as if he’s a messenger from God. He’s pulling down the shutters of his shop.

‘You won’t get any room in any dharamshala* here. All the rooms have been rented by a political party. All the townsfolk have gone for a rally in the neighboring town.’

Political rally! Aha, the dole-outs are too tempting to ignore. The 500-rupee note and daaru-murga are old hats; nowadays it’s a free toilet, free gas cylinder, TV, cycle, laptop, and the whole works. I manage to smother the jibe just in time. We can’t afford to offend him. We are famished.

‘Bhai, can we please get some food? We haven’t eaten anything since morning. Listen.’ My stomach growls back obediently.

‘No dhaba open tonight. Everybody shut their shop early because a famous religious guru is also coming to address the rally. They couldn’t let go of this golden opportunity to get his darshan* and ashirwad*.’

Religious guru! 

Dev looks at me, his eyes gleaming all of a sudden. I know that look so well. His Eureka moment. Didn’t Shakespeare say all the world’s a stage? We’ve found our stage too. The empty town square beckons us. 

We plead with the shopkeeper to reopen his shop and give us some bread and namkeen*. A hot meal can wait. We have work to do.

*****

Ouch! The bones creak. Did they make the cement platform extra hard especially for city guys like us? We open our eyes slowly. Damn the harsh sun. But never mind. What looked like a deserted square two days ago is bustling with people. People make us happy. We can’t do business in empty towns.

Two boys are monkeying around on the merry-go-round in the playground. A woman is lighting a lamp under the banyan tree and mumbling prayers. A few men are whiling away time at the tea stall. Such a placid town it is.

‘Hello! Don’t you guys have any fun in your lives?’ I find myself muttering. 

‘But we’ll make sure they have some fun…the kind of fun they love. The kings of entertainment are here,’ the grin threatens to spill out of Dev’s thick beard. I glare at him. We can’t ruin our image before we have even started building it.

Some children stare at us from a distance. Curious yet cautious. We raise our hands towards the sky as if praying to God. And then towards the children, as if to bless them. The elders tell them to bow before us with respect.

We know our job, dudes. The experience of five years can’t fail us. The get-up, the props, the screenplay…everything is done with precision.

Baal dhoop me safed nahi kiye hum ne*. Dev winks, rubbing his bald pate. We are good to go.

Don’t they say atithi devo bhav*, the guest is God. So friends, countrymen, welcome your new friends, philosophers, and guides.

Lights, camera, action.

*****

It’s been just a fortnight. We own the town square now. Well, in a way.

From the meagre tent we set up initially we now have a hut, complete with mattresses, utensils, and plenty of food; all thanks to our newly acquired followers.

Burrrrp! The food is delicious. Well, not as good as Mom’s, but it’s better than what we cook. The townsfolk are quite generous. Delicious meals, fresh fruits, choicest sweets…everything is here without asking. God bless them.

‘But no chicken curry’, Dev howls.

‘No way, Baba Devanand. If you have forgotten, religious gurus are supposed to be shudhh shakahari*.’ He sprints away as I chase him with a stick, laughing.

‘It used to be so much fun, the childhood days.’ He mutters, a little pensively, as we collapse on to the mattress, panting.

‘And then we grew up.’

A heavy silence falls between us. 

‘The public owes us all this. Aren’t we doing our best to keep them entertained?’ Dev changes the topic. Afternoon nap times are not meant for such wistful conversations. 

But I can’t help nodding, even as we doze off. 

Our music and drama teacher has trained us rather well. Our early morning bhajans have enamored the townsfolk. They gather here in droves for their daily dose of religious discourse. YouTube is a real boon for us poor entrepreneurs. And Dev is a pro when it comes to mining gold from the wild web of the internet. Our freshly minted gyan* of the Vedas, the Shastras impresses even the most cynical old men and women.

Evenings see entire families prostrating before us, seeking our wisdom to solve their family feuds. Such dirty family secrets come tumbling out…Ram, Ram, Ram. 

But we have perfect solutions.

‘Do you pray to Hanumanji? I ask as the devotee narrates his problem.

‘Yes. Every week.’ He nods.

Prasad*?’

‘21 rupaye ka laddu*, Babaji.’

‘Make it 51 rupees next time. All will be well.’ 

Babaji ki jai ho*.’ He falls at my feet in reverence.

‘Next.’ Dev calls.

*****

The crowds are surging with each passing day. Word of mouth publicity travels faster. Business is booming. The men we hired to manage the everyday affairs of the ashram are a big help. Now Dev and I can concentrate on preparing better content for the daily sessions. It is hard work, I must admit. My old man was right. Success doesn’t come easy. We had never studied so many books in school and college as we have done in the past month. But it has paid back. And how.

We earned our first lakh yesterday. Wish I could show the money to my old man. He always taunted us for our passion, called it bhandgiri*. He and his typical middle-class mentality…huh. What does he know about acting? And how he screamed at me for quitting that two-rupee job of a clerk for the acting contest on TV. I haven’t forgotten anything.

That arrogant producer-director should also see our performance. He had humiliated us and thrown us out of the contest as if we are dumb asses. 

Wait for us Bollywood, apna time bhi aayega*.

*****

One, two, three…twelve. Dev counts the notes and stashes them away in the cashbox.

‘Our revenue is falling, Apoorv. We need to think of a new business plan or we will go bust very soon.’ His broad forehead is furrowed with worry.

The YouTube content is exhausted. Novels aren’t much help, either. The hafta* of the police and local administration has increased to a daily cut. Our dwindling coffers remind us of our sparse bank accounts, not so long ago.

‘Time to exit?’ Dev has always been chicken-hearted.

‘Naah, not so soon. The stage is still ours.’

*****

The crowds are unmanageable. The police struggle to control them. But those serpentine queues are lengthening. 

Crestfallen people from neighboring towns and villages are flocking over to meet their revered Baba Apoorvanand one last time before he attains salvation. His guardian deity gave him darshan* in his dream. The messengers of death will arrive to escort Babaji to God’s abode at midnight, two weeks from now. 

The last act of our play has begun.

*****

‘Yayyy! The collections have shot up again, Apoorv. We’ve outdone all our previous weeks’ earnings. Why didn’t you die earlier, dude.’ Dev is ecstatic.

The bhakts* have overwhelmed us with their generous offerings. Fruits, sweets, clothes, money, gold-silver…there’s a virtual deluge of gifts.

Now don’t ask why. I know what you’re thinking. 

Babaji is going to leave this world, so why offer him these material objects? And he’s a saint, beyond these worldly attractions. This is only moh-maya*.

Arre bhai*, Babaji is their only means of communication with God. After all, heavens don’t have a free Jio hotline number which they can call any time. Babaji is the one who will convey their requests and prayers to God. So all these offerings are for their God, understand?

*****

It’s a real circus now. Samosa*, jalebi*, tea-sherbat, fruits, clothes, toys… stalls for everything have sprung up around the ashram almost overnight. One enterprising young man is offering a laminated photograph of Baba Apoorvanand with a packet of prasad…free, free, free.

So many unemployed people have found jobs. The town’s economy is booming. And all because of two mere actors who were jobless themselves, until a few weeks ago. From job seekers to job creators…isn’t that some achievement? The prime leader would be so proud of us.

*****

As the day of Babaji’s impending demise draws closer, the roar of bhajan-kirtan booms louder. It’s shaken the local politicians out of their slumber. They also want a piece of the pie. The MLA is doling out money from his fund to erect my statue and rename this street in my honor. All he wants in return is sharing the stage with me for 10 minutes. Politics and religion are a deadly combination for success in any elections. 

Some media-savvy youth take selfies and videos with the Ashram in the background. Facebook, Twitter, Insta stories mean instant fame.

The preying noses of reporters have also picked up the scent and descended upon the town in droves. It’s lights, camera, action time for the public now.

‘How do you feel about this shocking news?’ Mics are thrust in their faces as cameras start rolling for the live telecast. TRP compulsions, you know.

A few TV channels want to capture live the last moments of Baba Apoorvanand. Dev is in talks with them. He’s managing the marketing and promotions quite deftly. Our coffers are overflowing.

*****

The D-day.

The youth are prepared with fully charged mobile phones. Nothing like a Facebook live, you see. They don’t want a ‘battery low’ in the middle of live-streaming.

TV studios are buzzing with furious inputs.

Babaji has taken a bath and worn new clothes for his final journey.

Babaji has come out for his last discourse.

Babaji smiled at his followers.

The face of Babaji is glowing with inner joy.

Babaji this, Babaji that… the tickers sprint across the blue screens. The nation wants to know the last thoughts of Babaji; a prime time news anchor thunders. 125 million excited viewers are riveted to their TV screens.

*****

‘Have you cross-checked the plan, Dev? Why’s the vehicle driver taking so long to arrive? And our hide-out? Is it ready? He’s not going to ditch us naa?’ 

‘I’ve been calling him every five minutes, Apoorv. His phone is unreachable.’ He goes out mumbling something under his breath.

I am getting jittery now. If not for this inordinate delay, we would have driven away to safety hours ago. Damn the crowd. I didn’t anticipate it to skyrocket on the last day. And the omnipresent cameras. Swarming over the entire main street like vultures. They’re scary.

Isn’t this the right moment to die though- doing what we always wanted to do- performing live for a rapturous audience, cameras flashing? But…

*****

The crowds are getting restive. It’s way past midnight. 

‘When is the Baba going to breathe his last?’ they shout. They feel let down. Had they paid for this disappointment? 

The newspaper journos have deadlines to file reports, TV crews have to share live feed from ground zero. Our phones are buzzing for clarifications about the delay.

‘Cheaters. Call them out. We want an explanation.’ Our bouncers grapple with the rampaging mob. It is barging towards the ashram. 

I look at Dev’s ashen face. We dial 100.

What can we do? We are trapped between the devil and the deep sea. It’s better to spend a few months in jail than being lynched by the furious mob.

The sirens are booming. The police have promptly arrived to capture the wily criminals before they make their grand escape. So unlike the filmy police.

As the police escort us to safety, we turn back for the last look. The exit from this vibrant stage is making my eyes wet. I blink hard and raise my hands once again. Habits, they say, die-hard.

*****

The blankets are smelly, the mattress full of bed bugs, meals are basic prison food. But we are content.

The booty is safe in a faraway stash.

We will be out in a few weeks, the lawyer has promised.

Do we have any regrets?

A few.

Many cherished memories too. The way we transformed the staid main street into a happening place…it’s earned us many fans. The big bosses- you know who- have sent feelers. Our art deserves a bigger stage, dudes. 

Mumbai, are you ready?

******

Glossary:

Dhaba- eatery

Bali ka bakra- sacrificial goat

Babaji- holy person, saint

Dharamshala- lodge

Daaru-murga- alcohol and chicken

Darshan- seeing (or meeting) a holy person

Ashirwad- blessings

Baal dhoop me safed nahi kiye hum ne- we are experienced people

Shudhh shakahari- pure vegetarian

Gyan- knowledge

Veda, shastra- Hindu religious scriptures

Hanumanji- a Hindu God

Babaji ki jai ho- Hail Babaji

21 rupaye ka- worth 21 rupees

Bhandgiri- cheap acting

Apna time bhi aayega- our time will come soon

Hafta- weekly payout

Bhakts – followers

Moh-maya- worldly desires

Samosa jalebi- eatables

***

Team: Authers

Prompt: A soft breeze stirs the leaves that have fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street is tidy and beautifully maintained, just like the quiet houses neatly arranged along its side. Just like the vacant shop fronts along quaint Main Street nearby. Just like the silent playground. Where is everyone?

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Pixabay

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

Rare Earth

0

Narsimha stretched his hands and stood upright, wiped the beads of sweat as his skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, he continued digging again, his passage to freedom. 

He glanced into the distance as he heard the revving of an approaching engine. He had to dig out the sand and gravel and clear the way leading up to the tar road. He had to send his truck to the Sunday market. But he was holed up here, locked out from all sides in his own land.

He needed to break free from this strange captivity, which had appeared overnight out of nowhere. He had wondered about it.  He got an inkling as to what must have happened—Anna!

The vehicle screeched to a halt right in front of him and clad in a crisp white cotton Veshti and silk Kurta, Anna stepped out of the imposing Fortuner. He wore multiple gold rings studded with precious stones and a gaudy, thick gold chain dangled down his neck. It announced his authority and power. His two bodyguards got down and opened the door for him, creating an aura of intimidation.

Unfazed, Narsimha continued with his digging. 

Anna roared, “Narsimha, stop! What are you doing?”

Narsimha continued to clear the path, ignoring Anna, which infuriated him further. After a while, he stopped and said, “Can’t you see? I am clearing the path for my trucks to pass.”

“You are trespassing on my property. This is my land and nothing moves from here without my permission,” Anna said with a booming voice.

“I need access to the main road. How can I get to it? You now own the entire land surrounding my four acres.”

Anna slyly smiled at whining Narsimha. Not even a year had passed, when Narsimha had stubbornly denied permission for his sand carrier trucks to pass through his plot. He had since schemed and plotted to get back at Narsimha. Anna purchased the entire forty acres of land along the beach, engulfing Narsimha’s plot like pseudopodia of an amoeba.

Anna’s goons pushed Narsimha and shoved him away violently. Losing balance he hit the ground with a thud. Blood trickled down his temple. He threw an irate glance and dashed towards them. He butted his head into the stomach and pushed back one of the men ferociously. The goon fell on his back and his occiput hit the ground. Narsimha tackled the other with a strong upper-cut that landed on his jawbone. It took them a few minutes to recover from the unexpected retaliation and get back at Narsimha. He was no match for the two musclemen. They brought him to ground in no time and kicked, punched and abused him, as he groaned in pain on the sandy surface. A gooey mixture of sand and blood stuck to the oozing wounds on his brow and cheek.

Pragasam—Narsimha’s teenage son—who was watching the proceedings from a distance— dashed just in time to help his father who lay sprawled on the ground. He tried to resist the beatings and shield his father. Seeing the young lad, the duo hesitated and looked at Anna. He waved at them, signaling them to let him go. He hurled abuses, spit on the ground and screamed, “Stay away from my land. Is that clear? I’ll leave a small passage for you to access the main road.”

Without waiting for a reply, he got back into his Fortuner and sped off.

* * * * *

  Anna’s Beach Sand Mining operations for rare earth minerals gathered momentum. He mined ilmenite, sillimanite, garnet, zircon, monazite and rutile, collectively called Beach Sand Minerals (BSM). It was 2006 and the sector had just opened up for private sector participation. Anna had an inherent advantage of the first-mover.

What was once an idyllic small hamlet on the seashore with a deserted beach teemed with activity. Bulldozers and heavy earth movers were seen lifting tons of sand and scooping earth from the adjacent hillock on the seashore.

The Minerals Separation Plant generated much-needed employment and made the surrounding villages more than happy.

Narsimha looked on as Anna’s business flourished. He still ferried his meager produce of coconuts, cashews, and fish to the nearby market using the tiny gated trail passage that Anna had left for him. 

Narsimha cursed every time he passed the gate for what he had done to him and what he was doing to the beach that he loved so much. He had spent all his life there and it saddened him to watch the green cover gradually erode. Huge mounds of red earth lay scattered everywhere  eclipsing the beauty of the seashore.

“Appa, can’t we do something to stop this?  It used to be so beautiful . . .” remarked Pragasam, now a lad of eighteen.

“I want to . . . but how? He is providing jobs to the villagers and that’s why they don’t mind it. Nobody dares to speak up against him.”

Pragasam vividly remembered the day his father was beaten up by Anna’s men.  The insult and scar were etched on his mind and soul. It would take something more than just time to pacify it.

“Son, you must prepare to study Engineering. Forget about all this and concentrate on your education,” Anna said. 

Pragasam was soon to leave for the city. He felt a surge of emotions as they sat on the beach watching the waves lash at the shore, the huge whale-shaped hillock looming in the background. It pained to watch it getting defaced.

 

* * * * *

 

As years passed by, Anna expanded his business to various beaches, spanning across many states. He controlled a massive 90% of the ‘Beach Sand Mining’ business in India. 

Over the years, the Chinese had aggressively pursued their ambitions and now dominated the world market. Anna gauged the opportunities and collaborated with them. His operations were fueled by the ever-increasing  Chinese demand for raw materials.

Today was a laid back evening for Anna, a rarity for him nowadays. As he strolled down the beach from his seaside bungalow he ran into Narsimha.  

 “You seem to be enjoying the work, doing everything yourself . . . ” he sneered at Narsimha, who was thatching a shack on his land.

“I don’t mind the work. In fact, I enjoy it,” replied Narsimha. His stoic composure bothered Anna, who with his vindictive ways had badly affected Narsimha’s life.

“If you need any help, I can send somebody to do it for you.”

”I am happy with my little land and water. You remain happy in your empire. But try and save the Earth before it’s too late,” he pointed to the hillock, and Anna’s eyes followed. The grotesque sight was now a sore point in the otherwise lush green landscape.

He looked at it but sarcastically smiled and waved it aside by a smug gesture. He walked away ignoring Narsimha thereafter.

 

* * * * *

 

Four years zipped by and Pragasam was on his way home after finishing his Engineering. His taxi meandered along the thickly wooded curvy road as he entered his familiar countryside. Looking at the sea after a long gap thrilled him. The familiar breeze and saltiness of the air hit him and brought back many childhood memories—the strolls on the beach, the fishing boats and their little house by the sea—it all rushed to him in an instant. He closed his eyes and smelt the air feeling his roots.

As he approached his village, he stopped on the final bend which offered a panoramic view of the sea, the beach and the village—and the huge hillock overlooking the beach that appeared like a giant beached whale.

The sight was jarring. Almost half of the hillock was now excavated out, appearing as if some malignancy had nibbled at it. Gone was the green cover of the Palms, Coconuts and Cashew trees. It was replaced with modern concrete buildings, offices and acid treatment wells of the minerals separation plant. He was shocked by the deterioration!

He reached home, shattered by the ghastly sights. But the sight of his father and mother lifted his mood to some extent. He felt his eyes moisten.

“How are you, my son?” asked Narsimha, “Congratulations on being the First Engineer in the family.”

“Thanks, Dad, it’s all because of you . . . ” Pragasam said bending down to touch his feet. 

He hugged his mother and found comfort in her welcoming eyes.

The family subsequently dined together, gorging on his favourite fish curry, especially cooked by his mother to celebrate his homecoming. He ate slowly, relishing the feast as he told them stories about his life in college.

His father appraised him about the developments in the village and how Anna’s business had become omnipotent, dominating the entire coastline and its economy.

“He is a big man now, Pragasam. In a matter of a few years, he has built an empire!”

“It’s too big and too fast! And look at what he has done to our beach and hillock—it’s a shame…” cried out the young man.

 

* * * * *

 

The next few days were spent in lazy walks around the beach and catching up with old friends. Pragasam felt alive and at ease, far from the hustle-bustle of the city. He wandered into the nearby dense plantation and by chance, came across the barricade marking Anna’s territory.

The big blob of Sun was setting on the Arabian Sea, its golden rays caressing the palms as they shone. He hesitated for a moment, but then jumped across the fence into Anna’s area.

The area was surprisingly desolate. Most of the workers had already left. The godowns were on the extreme end of the estate. He approached them as he observed that the door was partially open. The guard was nowhere in sight. He was tempted to explore further.

He noticed a large number of filled up gunny bags stacked neatly onto each other. They were probably waiting to be shipped. Some of them were marked with a ‘Radioactive Hazard’ sign.  Pragasam was alarmed.

On the other side were huge heaps of sand-minerals in different colours. Pragasam assumed that these must be the contents of the bags.

His technically trained mind became curious and he hastily collected samples from various heaps, packing them in small plastic bags. His pulse quickened with excitement. 

“Let me find  out, what exactly is Anna mining and exporting to the Chinese…”

* * * * *

Pragasam carried the samples to the city. Using references from his college professors, he managed to persuade a Geological Lab to run a battery of tests on them. He returned to the village filled with anticipation, feeling like a debutant detective, determined to know what exactly was brewing in his backyard.

A fortnight later, he got a call from his friend who worked at the lab.

“If you were looking for some exotic rare Earth mineral, the results are disappointing. It is all usual stuff—garnet, ilmenite, sillimanite, monazite, etc. Even if it is a tailings sample, the concentration is very low. In fact, it is all raw and unprocessed.”

A disappointed Pragasam stared blankly in the distance.

But how is he making so much money? 

Monazite . . . Monazite . . .

He felt restless.

Monazite can yield Thorium and it can be enriched to Uranium, hence it can’t be exported.

His academic mind was processing this information rapidly.

The monazite tailings have to be kept with care in radioactive protected areas deep underground. It is supervised by the Atomic Energy Regulation Board. 

He thought harder.

And then a sudden brainwave hit him.

“Oh shit! Anna is exporting unprocessed minerals to China. A safe camouflage for exporting fuel for  radioactive material extraction!”

He rushed to discuss the findings with his dad. He explained what Anna was doing and how it was grossly illegal. 

Narsimha smiled in contentment. They had finally figured out Anna’s dirty secret!

They were now all charged up.

“It’s time to screw the bastard. Let’s get our retribution.”

The father-son duo launched a clandestine operation to collect more evidence. They snooped over Anna’s plant, took photographs, samples, and noted details of all the stock held and vehicular movements.

They got all the evidence scrutinized by experts and hired a freelance journalist and a top lawyer to prepare an airtight case against Anna. 

It was time to go for the kill!

* * * * *

A PIL was filed against Anna for illegal Beach Sand mining and exporting unlicensed minerals to China, thereby jeopardising national security. Simultaneously, the father-son duo filed a case to remove the physical blockade on their land in the sessions court. 

The very next day, an article detailing all the evidence appeared in newsprint. TV channels were abuzz with breaking news:

 

Illegal Sand Mining Operations caught!

 

Radioactive Minerals exported to China illegally!

 

Both police and the government agencies swung into action. It was an embarrassment for them too. In no time, Anna was booked and put behind bars. The once-all-powerful man, considered invincible, was humbled and reduced to a lowly indicted mortal in a blip of a moment. The shame and disgrace were total and in full public view.

Although he was released on bail later, his operations came to a grinding halt. CBI took over the investigations, due to the alleged involvement of high ranking bureaucrats and politicians. 

Courts ordered the blockade on Narsimha’s plot to be removed at once.

* * * * *

Pragasam and Narsimha sat on their favourite spot on the beach watching the waves from the shack. They breathed an air of contentment.

Narsimha sighed as he realised that there was something more that needed to be done!

“We have to get our beach back to its former self—rejuvenate it,” Narsimha brooded.

“We will do it Dad, don’t worry.”

Not far from where they sat, Anna too was contemplating—what went wrong? why did all this happen? Gradually, he realized it.  He had failed to tame his ego and greed. The two devils had caused his downfall.

For Narsimha and Pragasam, what started off as a simple digging of the earth for a right of physical passage, culminated in bringing true freedom from Anna’s clutches—not only to Narsimha but for all—the villagers, the country and this RARE EARTH!

 

* * * * *

 

Notes:

 

Monazite is an atomic mineral that occurs naturally in the coastal sands. It yields a number of rare-earth elements, such as neodymium and praseodymium. Both of these are in demand internationally for making high-performance rare-earth magnets – components of power wind turbines, electric vehicles and robotics.

Thorium can also be retrieved from monazite, and thorium can further be enriched to uranium.

For this reason, private firms are restricted from processing or exporting monazite. It remains a government monopoly, extracted under the purview of the Department of Atomic Energy. However, it remains legal for private companies to process and export other minerals mixed in beach sand – such as garnet, ilmenite, sillimanite, zircon and rutile.

These other minerals are separated, leaving behind waste sand containing monazite – or ‘monazite tailings’. These must be stored in areas or yards specified by the AERB, which is mandated to check these areas for radioactivity levels.

***

Team: Inklings

Prompt: The protagonist stretched his/her hands and stood upright, while the beads of sweat as his/her skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, the protagonist continued digging again- his/her passage to freedom. Take the story forward. 

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Curioso Photography

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

What’s in a name?

5

Aren’t we all cursed when we are named? Cursed, because each time our names roll out of our lips, impressions are formed, assumptions are made and judgments are drawn. Our names prophesize our destiny. Our name, our first imprecation. 

This story will not reveal my name and, yet by the end of it, you will know who I am. You may have come across me, surely. A colleague or a neighbour, perhaps. Someone in the crowd whom you heard being called out and immediately slunk away to avoid trouble.

The name that turned my happiest day into a nightmare. I had returned home after working for two years in a strange land. How my eyes had stung and the skin bristled when I saw patches of green, far below the clouds. My home. 

My father would be a proud man, today. His only son, working in Dubai as a driver had come home for a visit. My mother would never let me out of her sight for the next few weeks. I was her miracle child born after several miscarriages and had never been away from her for this long. 

**** 

She continued to stare at the monitor in front of her. Exasperated, I looked around the airline counter where I had been waiting for an hour now. It was late in the night and apart from a few passengers and taxi drivers, it was deserted. My patience was wearing out. Tomorrow was my father’s birthday and we planned to spend the day together. But, here I was fifty kilometers away from home, stranded outside the airport terminal. My father’s advice to be compliant rang in my ears.  

“Appear as much unthreatening and yielding as possible. We people will be in trouble at the slightest of provocation. Don’t try to be right, when you can afford to be quiet.”  

“And what was your complaint, sir?”

This was the third time I was explaining my predicament, each time to a different person. “I picked wrong baggage from belt. By mistake only. It is not mine. My suitcase, same colour, same company. But different.”

“You flew with us in SC9845?”

“Yes.”

“I see you have handed over the mixed-up suitcase and filled in your details. My colleague has already noted down your mobile number. Please wait, sir. I’ll see what can be done.”

The preceding week had been hectic and my four-hour flight in a cramped seat was far from comfortable. And now I had shuttled back a good distance, after realizing that I had taken someone’s suitcase by mistake. Was that why I raised my voice?

 “Look, I am waiting for long time. I pick up someone luggage by mistake. I am sorry. But you people are not doing much. I come quickly from home when I know the mistake. Please, hurry up. I not even see my maa properly after two years.”

It could have looked like an unkempt man in cheap capris screaming at a helpless lady because a CISF jawan manning the security check approached me with a stern face. 

“What happened?” he asked the lady.

“The gentleman here had taken away someone’s suitcase by mistake and now he is hassling us to get his suitcase back.”

My explanations dried up in my throat when he shushed me with an authoritative flip of his hands and commanded me to show my boarding pass and passport. He then caught my elbow and directed me away from the airline counter. Refusing to budge, I said I would not leave without my suitcase. Perhaps it was not a good decision. I did not realize then that somebody had been watching this spectacle from a distance, a police inspector attached to the airport substation. He strode towards us, a twisted grin on his face. 

 “We will take care of this nuisance. Don’t worry,” he said to the jawan, and looking at me, he ordered, “Get into the vehicle.”

My heart began to beat faster and I tried to move away from him, clutching the passport that the jawan had handed over to me.  The policeman wrenched the passport out of my grip and gave it a look. I saw a glint of frustration when he read my name. “Just as I suspected,” he mumbled and flipped the pages.

“Oh, Dubai return? Is that why you are acting all haughty? Let us show our hospitality for the Dubai-return macha here,” he winked at the constable who had now joined him. 

A whiff of alcohol explained his behavior and as I stepped away from him crinkling my nose, he caught my T-Shirt and dragged me to the waiting vehicle. 

“So now you are offended by my smell? Aren’t you Dubai-returns always smelling of cheap perfume and yet you scrunch your nose at me? Get into the vehicle before I break your royal nose, nawab.” the inspector threatened. 

I tried telling myself that it was nothing but a misunderstanding as I climbed into the vehicle. Soon I would be on my way home with my suitcase.

However, an hour later, I was still at the station cowering, staring at the wall as the inspector went about his work.  My last meal had been taken several hours ago and my exhausted sleep-deprived body was giving up. I tried to slip into one of the chairs, but an intimidating look cast in my direction made me stop. I realized I was shaking. 

“So what did you loot from the suitcase you took?”

The inspector’s question froze my blood.

“No, Sir. I am honorable famil….”

“Rascal, speak up in Tamil. Don’t I know the kind of school you would have attended? I can make you holler for your mother in Tamil if I put my mind to it.”

My language instantly swicthed.

“It was a genuine mistake, sir. I took the suitcase in a hurry. That’s all.” 

“You want me to believe that? You think I am a fool? Now tell the truth.”

“I work very hard in Dubai, sir. Sometimes, 20-hour shifts to send money to my old parents. Wallahi, I would never steal.” I tried to appeal to his sympathy.  “I have a gold strap watch in the suitcase. All hard-earned money, sir. That is why I was worried. I am sorry.”

“You filthy rat! Does money give you the right to misbehave with a lady at the counter? Mannerless bastard! The problem is that you, buggers get away with anything  by making a  drama about being discriminated against and all?”

“But I did n….”

“Shut up. One more word and I will shove the baton up your hole. Perumal, put him in the last room. I don’t want to see his face for some time.”

The constable hesitated, “The last room has not been cleaned since that…”

“So what? That will teach this prick a lesson about crinkling his nose at a policeman.”

The room smelt dank. The stench of urine assaulted my nose every time I took in air. Squatting at the far end of the room, I leaned against the wall, hugging my knees to my chest. 

My thoughts wandered. Was my father pacing the tiny apartment, worried about the son who said he would be back in a couple of hours?   Would my mother be waiting for my return to have dinner together?

I am falling through the abyss…somebody help, I scream but I am mute….my limbs refuse to move…I can’t breathe…somebody help me….somebody help me…

The constable shook me awake, “The inspector is calling you.” 

I tried to get up but my legs felt numb. Steadying myself with difficulty, I staggered towards the other room.

“They want you at the airline counter. You come here and report to me after that. You understand?”  the Inspector glowered, and turning to the constable he said, “Go along with this cretin. He might give us a slip.”  

I hobbled slowly towards the terminal building which was at least half a kilometer away. Looking at how pale I was, the constable made me sit on the pavement while he got me some tea.

“The guy is a jerk. That is when he is not drunk. If he drinks, then he becomes an unrestrained monster. He particularly picks on your people and gives them a hard time. I knew he would do that the minute he saw your name in the passport. Just don’t talk back and remain obliging. He might let you go.” 

The constable had tried to be helpful, but the information only fueled my anxiety. 

At the counter, the prim lady was now replaced by another gentleman. I learned my suitcase had been returned. After the formalities, it was handed over to me. When I was about to leave, I heard someone calling out to me from the counter. 

“Sir, sir…..” It was the prim lady. 

“I am …..very sorry,” she said. I understood she was indeed sorry. A resigned smile was all that I could manage as I turned to trudge back towards the station.

At the station, the inspector welcomed me with scorn. “Well, well …looks like our Dubai maccha is back with his treasure.”

“Leave the suitcase open on the desk,” he ordered

He rummaged through my belongings with his baton. “Lemme have a look at the suitcase that is making you so restless.”  After noticing that I had nothing in it except cheap trinkets, he spat on the floor in irritation.

“Did you not say there was a watch or something?” he screwed his eyes at me. 

A lump in my throat came out as a whimper as I reluctantly fished out the watch and handed it over to the inspector. He was still unhappy.   

“You did not get anything from duty-free?” he said inspecting the watch.  

“I don’t drink.”  I regretted my answer immediately. 

“Oh! So you just pass your time marrying many wives and planting bombs, eh?” he said, putting away the watch in his drawer.

I wanted to believe that I was crying because I was exhausted. And, the tear wouldn’t stop rolling. My sobs soon threatened to become a howl. The inspector looked at me with disgust, as if my tears were as revolting as my person. He took the watch out and threw it on the table.

“Get your dirty self out of here before I change my mind.”

I hurriedly packed my suitcase and did not forget to thank the inspector before I left.

As I stepped out of the station, I felt shame grating my nerves. Would it have been different if I had a different name on the passport? I couldn’t help but wonder. Was it not enough that I had been bullied in school? Was it is not enough that I was called a terrorist on the roads? Was is not enough that I had to quit my job in this country, because some customers had insisted on changing their ride, when they saw my name as their driver?  My dignity had to face newer lows every day. Now, I was crying without restraint. A grown man, hurt and helpless.

The only silver lining of this dark day was that my suitcase and its contents were safe.

The sun was creeping up the eastern sky when my abba found me dragging my feet towards the taxi station. He had come to the airport looking for me. 

“What happened?” he asked, protectively bundling me into the taxi he had come in.   

He looked at my face and just like that he knew what had happened during the last few hours. He knew there would be no injuries, nothing external at least. He knew the bleed was from something else that was shattered beyond repair. Neither of us spoke for a long time and it was understood we would not talk about it to my mother.

My eyes finally dried up and I tried to be cheerful, “Abba, I got you a gold strap watch for your birthday.”

“Of course,” said the frail 70-year-old, drying up his own rheumy eyes.    

And we pretended to carry on with life. 

*****

Team: Chekhov Guns

Prompt: The MC comes home from the airport to realize that they picked up the wrong baggage. What follows this incident?

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Sasha Yudaev

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

Dakini

0

Devyani woke up to the shrill sound of the alarm. Normally up at the break of dawn, she enjoyed the quiet early mornings, but today she had overslept. The unceasing pitter-patter of the raindrops through the night was to blame. Did this have to happen today? I hope Sarita and Beena forgive me.

She asked the driver to get the car and left for Chandwara. Joy blossomed in her heart on beholding the beautiful morning and a clear blue sky after the rain. The car entered the town’s main street, washed with rain and clean for a change, a few leaves stirring on the road in the gentle breeze. 

An eerie silence enveloped the town this morning, the streets empty of life. The houses on both sides of the road stood silent with their windows either closed or the curtains drawn. The numerous kids frolicking in the playground down the road had abandoned it for some reason. The General Store as well as the Paan ki dukan*, full of people come rain or shine, had their shutters down. Silence hung heavy in the air. The serpentine head of anxiety uncoiled itself in her gut.

Where is everyone? Did someone die?

Devyani had been recently posted as BDO in Chandwara, a small town near Koderma in Jharkhand. Calling it a town was an exaggeration. It had two main streets running through the town. A post office, a police station, a school, and a small dispensary, all stood on either one of the two streets. She stayed in Koderma and came here when required. 

As BDO, she had initiated many schemes and was proud of her pet project, the Mahila Mandal. The Mandal ensured help in government matters to women from various villages, usually administrative advice or clerical support. She was immensely pleased to see the women who came heartbroken and lost, go back full of joy and laughter. Sarita was one of them, and Devyani had come to Chandwara at her request.

The car proceeded down the path, the silence ominous and disturbing. Just at the corner, a girl dishevelled and wild-looking staggered onto the path. As the car came to a screeching halt, a shaken Devyani rushed out to find an exhausted Beena, lying half-dead at her feet. Shocked, she helped her into the vehicle.

Beena was in no condition to talk. Her indecipherable words and broken mutterings hinted at her traumatic night. Fearing that she had arrived too late, Devyani asked the driver to hurry towards Sarita’s house, rattling off the address from memory.

Fear and helplessness warred in Devyani’s bosom as they sped forward with an urgency unsuited to the narrow road. Sarita’s face, her relieved smile, her hopeful look, flitted in front of Devyani’s eyes as images flipping through a bioscope.

**********

Sarita was barren, as barren as the rock-laden land of Chhota Nagpur Plateau surrounding the little town of Chandwara. Her husband had succumbed to his penchant for local alcohol six months back, leaving her a lonely widow with a small bit of land. She was not short of relatives though, with a huge extended family filled with cousins, uncles, and nephews, who were more hungry wolves than supportive kin.

She was aware of their glances following her while she worked in her fields growing vegetables. Luckily her wee bit of land was quite fertile. It yielded more fruit than she had ever done. She had no children of her own, but she loved kids and was lenient when they came looking for fruits and vegetables on her farm. 

The soil’s fecundity made her generous. But she was unaware what bitter fruit this land was going to bear her in the future.

The land demanded hard work, and her days were spent in the field. Digging, hoeing, planting, fertilizing, picking, and carrying the fresh fruits and vegetables to sell them in the sabzi mandi* at Koderma. Her nights were spent worrying. The lust in the men’s eyes shadowed her thoughts. The words whispered in her ears at her husband’s funeral kept her company even in her dreams. 

“A woman who is barren with land that is fertile. The best combination there can be for someone looking for some opportunity and fun.”

Was that a warning or a threat? 

She would know that loud rasping voice anywhere. It belonged to Pintu Sah, a cousin of her husband. He craved her land like the parched soil craves water in summer. 

Sarita lived in a small thatched hut built in her field. One night she was returning after answering nature’s call, the light of the moon sufficient to guide her sure steps. She heard the sound of drunken laughter and crept to her house, silent as a mouse. Pintu Sah and two of his friends stood knocking on her door. The knocks were loud, and their jokes louder. They left after throwing a volley of insults at the unresponsive door. The echo of their threats reverberated not in her ears, but in her soul.

All her entreaties to Pintu Sah to leave her alone fell on deaf ears. 

“Can’t you leave me alone? Show some respect for your dead relative if you can’t show for a living one.”

His derisive laughter was the reply she got. 

“Within one year I will possess both you and your land.” His boast sent chills down her spine.

The world supports the strong, and the weak are winnowed out like husk from the grain. The village elders and even the Sarpanch dispatched her requests with meaningless platitudes and empty words.

She didn’t expect her neighbours to help. The men looked at her, young and lissome, unclaimed as a wild berry, with open desire. The women witnessed their ogling husbands with mounting jealousy and as one were against her. Sarita decided to call her sister’s youngest daughter Beena to stay with her. Her presence would bring comfort and a stamp of respectability to her lonely existence.

The ten-year-old Beena arrived within a week as her absence meant one less mouth to feed for her parents. Her arrival put a spanner in Pintu’s plans. It was she who found those cursed things which brought untold misery into Sarita’s already wretched life.

Beena helped her pull up the weeds in her fields which sprang up with maddening regularity. They both were busy in their respective corners when Beena gasped. “Mausi*, how did these come here?”

Sarita hurried over to see a few humanoid figures made of black fabric, complete with hands, legs, and facial features, scattered around her feet. Some broken pottery, a few dried up bones, and some red sindoor* were lying nearby.

Who has put them here? What will someone think if they see these things

Sarita was well aware of the danger the figures foretold. 

The villagers didn’t take kindly to magic or those indulging in it. She quickly dug a pit and buried the offensive figurines, hoping no one had seen her. “Beena, don’t tell anyone about this.” 

When she turned, she found a pair of furious eyes staring at her with hate and incredulity. 

Kanta, her neighbour, stood before her. “Dakini,*” she spat and walked away.

Sarita ran after her.

Kanta di*, what are you saying? I don’t know how those things came there. They are not mine, I swear. I am busy working on the farm. Please believe me,” she sputtered in her defence. 

Women don’t give other women the benefit of doubt. Kanta, jealous of Sarita’s youth and independence, threw insults at her instead of showing compassion. 

“I saw everything with my own eyes. It’s you who caused your husband’s death with your unholy magic. What else are you planning in your venomous heart, you childless woman? I know you lure young kids to take free fruits and vegetables from your field so that you can plan their deaths. I tell you, if even one child in this village dies, I will make sure you reap your just rewards.”

Sarita pleaded and begged, but Kanta wouldn’t budge. Sarita soon found everyone avoiding her. Silence was their greeting, and hushed whispers their goodbyes. The children who often came looking for a plump pumpkin or a juicy melon stopped coming to her. She felt ostracized.

Summer departed and brought rains on its heel with increased work and rampant sickness. Pintu Sah began intimidating her with renewed vigour- loud knocks on her door in the dead of night; his thugs following her on her way to the mandi. Things came to a head the day Sarita almost lost her life in Koderma.

She held her basket of vegetables on her head, ready to cross the road when someone pushed her from behind, right in front of an oncoming vehicle. The car swerved, and though she wasn’t injured, her vegetables were scattered around her and squelched to a pulp under the speeding vehicles. Sarita returned home with a heavy heart and a single thought beating a monotonous rhythm in her mind. 

I can’t continue like this.

Sarita now realized Pintu wouldn’t hesitate to even kill her in his greed.

Isn’t there anyone I can turn to for help?

While in bed, her drowsy mind recalled the Mahila Mandal. Sarita had first heard of it from a chatty customer. There was some sarkari* madam in town to whom one could go to with problems relating to sarkari offices. She doubted the madam could help her situation, but she was clutching at straws. At the least, she would have tried.

Sarita made enquiries the next day in Koderma and found that the Mandal held their meetings every Saturday afternoon. The next Saturday, she selected two succulent papayas and went to the meeting with Beena. Sarita liked Devyani at first glance. She was mesmerized by her knowledge as she deftly handled everyone’s problems and her compassion when she couldn’t. After everyone left, she presented Devyani her meagre offering and her reason for coming.

Once she finished, Devyani pondered over Sarita’s words. Then she spoke, This problem doesn’t lie under my purview. Your relative is eyeing your land and means to get it by hook or by crook. However, you have no proof. The elders in your family don’t support you. The most that I can do is talk to the village Sarpanch. I don’t see that helping much anyway.”

Sarita implored and begged, “Madam, it would help a lot. The people are simple-minded. A big sarkari afsar* like you on my side will deter Pintu from his schemes. Even the Sarpanch would have to speak on my behalf. You could even tell them I can go to the police. I have no one else to turn to.”

Convinced and eager to help, Devyani fixed Monday for going to Chandwara. Sarita and Beena left with a smile on their lips and hope in their hearts.

Fate has a devious way of lulling our senses before striking the grand blow. Sarita and Beena returned with a spring in their steps, unaware that two children from the village had fallen sick that day. The two battled valiantly through the next day. Treatment in the village was more superstitious faith than medical knowledge, and faith was a fickle healer. 

With the children on the brink of losing the battle, Kanta remembered the dolls in Sarita’s fields. She lost no time in reminding the villagers of her sinister discovery. Each retelling of her tale added further provocative details, till everyone was convinced the sickness afflicting the kids was Sarita’s fault.

Pintu Sah lost no time and effort in fanning the flames of distrust and hatred. He got the villagers together at the chaupal* and spewed venom.

“There is no doubt that Sarita is a dakini. She goes out at night to perform her black magic. Even I found her missing from her house. Why would she go out in the night if not to perform some evil act?”

He paused to assess the effect of his words. Many of them were nodding, none wondering why he was there in the first place. Emboldened, he continued, “Kanta here has seen her with her own eyes. Do we want our children at the mercy of such a woman? Do we want such a woman living among honest, respectable people like us? I say, let’s make sure none of our children are lost to her hunger. Let’s make sure her shadow no longer defiles our innocent children. Let’s rid ourselves of this evil.” 

The pandit*, a corrupt man in cahoots with Pintu, endorsed his words. He had been promised a huge sum. The gullible villagers shouted their agreement. A mob has no mind of its own. It is above questions of law and considerations of humanity. 

Almost two dozen men carrying makeshift torches and baying for blood, egged on by their women, left towards Sarita’s house. 

Meanwhile, Beena was out in the field looking for some succulent gourd flowers. Sarita was in a good mood after months because of Devyani’s upcoming visit. She had agreed to prepare gourd flowers pakora* for Beena on her insistence. Even though the sun had gone down and darkness covered the fields like a smothering blanket, Beena went looking for the yellow blossoms.

She had just gathered what she required when she heard the resounding cries. Hiding in the nearby bushes, she witnessed her world crumble in front of her eyes. How the men and women broke open their door. How they dragged a defiant Sarita outside. The glee with which they torched the little house. How cruelty trumped humanity. How greed eclipsed goodness. How superstition surpassed sense. When her young heart couldn’t take the terror and the violence anymore, she fainted. 

*********

Devyani and Beena soon came upon Sarita’s little farmland. The destruction and damage left them stunned. 

The vegetables, arranged into neat rows earlier, had been squashed into unrecognizable mush. The little thatched house stood burnt and blackened, the embers doused by the rains, a silent witness to the night’s violence. Not even smoke could be seen emanating from that damaged and desolate dwelling. 

Nearby, from a fruit-laden tree hung Sarita, the agony of her last moments clearly visible in her broken body and tortured face. The leaves of the tree swayed peacefully in the breeze, oblivious to the scene of death and destruction.

Devyani sent the driver to call the police. She knew the culprits would not be easily nabbed. The villagers were sure to shield their heinous crime behind their collective silence, as was evident from the empty streets and closed doors. She decided to take Beena with her until her parents could be contacted. 

As they left, Beena asked her in a low strained voice, “Madam, can some women really become dakinis?”

“I don’t know, Beena. However, I do know that greed can turn some men into rakshasas*.” She replied as they left the town behind them, bowed down under its shared burden of a guilty secret. 

**********

Glossary:

Dakini: a witch accused of eating children’s hearts. Usually, childless women in villages have been accused of the same.

Paan ki Dukan: betel leaf shop 

Sabzi Mandi: vegetable market

Mausi: Aunt, mother’s sister

Sindoor: vermillion, applied on women’s forehead. Used in magic.

Di: Elder sister, a term of respect for older women.

Sarkari: related to Government

Afsar: officer

Chaupal: The village square, where gatherings are held.

Pandit: Priest

Pakora: fritters

Rakshasas: demons

***

Team: Authers

Prompt: A soft breeze stirs the leaves that have fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street is tidy and beautifully maintained, just like the quiet houses neatly arranged along its side. Just like the vacant shop fronts along quaint Main Street nearby. Just like the silent playground. Where is everyone?

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Arvind Sheke

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The Full Circle

1

I woke up to find a chicken staring at me from its lifeless eye. 

I lay still, trying to figure things out. I was on the floor of a room filled with food. Wreaths of onions and garlic hung from the rafters, baskets overflowing with fruit and vegetables were piled all around and I was lying next to what seemed to be the poultry shelf. 

I sat up gingerly, my body hurt all over and my head felt like it was being hammered on the inside. I was dressed in some weird long gown and a ribbon tied box lay at my feet.

 I was still trying to make sense of myself and my surroundings when a door behind me opened and a laughing voice called out. 

“Here she is, the boulanger’s daughter. She is having a nap in the larder.”

Boulanger? Someone was calling me the baker’s daughter in strange sounding French. I closed my eyes as the pounding continued in my head.  

****

News excerpt, September 11 2017, Paris

Ramon Berenguer, CEO of Cémoi Chocolates, today announced the launch of a new type of chocolate- Ruby Chocolate. This is the fourth type of chocolate after dark, milk and white. 

Berenguer said that the unveiling of the new product will happen at a special ceremony hosted at Castle Baux in Provence. The medieval castle has been in the Berenguer family for centuries. He also announced that Sophie Pascale, the world famous pâtissière, will be creating a degustation dessert menu using the new chocolate, for the VIP guests. 

Castle Baux, Provence, France

My grand-maman always said chocolate was the food of the devil. Anything which tasted so decadent had to have some evil in it, she was wont to muse, whilst munching on a handful of bonbons. I thought of her fondly as I poured out chocolate chips in a bowl. It was exciting to be the first one working with a new culinary invention, and I was already in love with the subtle fruity, yet tart, flavours of this ruby chocolate. 

I rested the glass bowl over a pan of water, waiting for the numbers on the thermometer to drop down to 28.5o. Tempering of chocolate was an art that demanded concentration, so I was quite exasperated when Tom Higgins barged in for the fifth time that afternoon. 

“Merde!” I muttered under my breathe. 

“How is it going, Chef Pascale?”

“It would be going much better if I was not constantly interrupted.”

He had the grace to look ashamed. 

“Apologies Mademoiselle, it is an important night. Everything must be perfect.”

Tom Higgins was the marketing director of Cémoi and effectively my employer at the moment.

I sighed as I poured out tiny cups of espresso, and demoulded a hazelnut financier for him to sample. I piped the ruby chocolate ganache on top and pushed the plate towards him. 

“Sit,” I invited. “I have time for a short break.”

I downed my coffee in one gulp and pretended not to watch the always impeccable Tom Higgins almost swoon as he bit into the small cake, butter running down his chin.

“What is this thing!” 

What philistines these Americans were, I thought disdainfully. 

“Its an almond flour cake made with burnt butter. Nuns made it during  feast days in the 16th century.”

He looked suitably impressed. “I had forgotten that you are a food historian too!”

The caffeine doing its job, I briskly gave him a quick rundown.

“The first course is the ruby and rose water macaroon followed by the light madeleines served with a raspberry jam. Then we will have the mint financiers with the ruby chocolate ganache, the cherry clafoutis with the ruby ice cream and finish off with a simple soufflé and mendiants.”

He clapped, “Bravo Mademoiselle! We were right to choose you. You have transformed our humble chocolate into these delectable goodies. And as a historian, you can certainly appreciate the story behind the creation of ruby chocolate.”

I wanted to laugh. 

“You mean the tale that excavators of the castle found an unmarked grave dating back to the 12th century and in it a jewel encrusted box which contained a manuscript detailing the origins of a ruby cacao bean?”

Tom picked up my sarcastic tone easily. “You don’t believe it?”

“No, Mousier, I do not. It is a fantastic marketing ploy though, and I’m sure advance orders of the product have gone through the roof because of the romanticism attached.”

“It is not marketing, Mademoiselle! Mr. Ramon was having the castle excavated when the box was discovered. It had details of a ruby cacao, indigenous to South America. He spent a decade in its research and development. That’s why he wanted to reveal it here, in this castle. It all began here.“

This time I did burst out laughing. 

“Mr. Higgins, food history is my area of expertise and I can assure you that chocolate didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century. I admit it’s a wonderful product but the history you attach is totally bullshit.” 

*******

The pre-dinner festivities were in full swing, the medieval theme evident in everything from banquet table to the guests’ attire. 

Higgins was suddenly at my elbow, pulling me towards the administrative offices. He drowned my protests with a conspiratorial grin and unlocked a door. A small box lay on the desk, solid gold. I bent closer, running my hands over the lid and the inlaid emeralds on it. I opened it. Inside lay a stained roll of linen. 

Higgins stopped my hand from pulling it out. 

“It’s fragile. The CEO brought it with him for the ceremony and I just had to show it to you.”

“It’s beautiful,“ I murmured. “But I still don’t believe your tale.”

He threw back his head and guffawed. “You French women are hard to please. But here, there is something I wanted to give you.”

He handed me a box tied with ribbon and watched eagerly as I opened it. Inside lay slabs of pure ruby chocolate. 

“This is the very first batch we made, not the commercial one you have been using today. I thought you might like it.”

I had it in me to smile at the poor man. He was trying so hard. 

Later, I made my way back towards the kitchen. Maybe it was the exhaustion which made me lose my way. I was debating on whether to retrace my steps when I suddenly stumbled and went rolling down a flight of stairs, plunging head first down a dark hole. My scream echoed inside my ears and then suddenly there was only a dark abyss.

****

It had been two days since I had woken up in the larder. I had been wise enough to go along with being the baker’s daughter, sent to work in the castle kitchens, for otherwise I could not have explained my presence or my confusion. I was certainly in Castle Baux, but not a ruined one. It bustled with activity. Knights rode in everyday to visit with Comté Baux, who had just returned from the holy land, where he had apparently been fighting in the crusades. I felt manic laughter bubbling inside me. I was either in a very vivid nightmare or I had somehow really landed in the 12th century. To keep my sanity, I told myself that when I saw my grandmother again, I would tell her that I now certainly believed in her tales of fairies and goblins and multiple universes. Hell, I would even agree to believe in destiny, just to see her again. 

I came out of my reverie as the cook screamed. She had scalded her hand in the soup. She beckoned me to the table where she had been rolling out the dough for the oublies- thin wafers which were served with cream and honey. They would later evolve into the modern day waffles. 

“Girl, you have a good hand with pastry. Make the oublies today. The Bishop is visiting so make them special.”

I thought of Higgin’s gift, the box of ruby chocolate which had landed along with me in the 12th century.

*****

Comté Baux was hungry and irritated but the Bishop droned on. 

“You must wed the Lady Simone, Sire. As long as you are childless, the bloody Berenguer Catalans will have a stronger claim to the province.”

“I have no desire to wed that horse-faced creature, Bishop. 

Bishop Sugere bit back a sharp retort. The Comté was being too clever. He would have to get a message to Raymond Berenguer. Maybe it was time to make a stronger, more permanent move. There was too much at stake. 

He was still musing upon this when a page entered bearing a tray laden with roast venison. He set the platter on the wooden table and poured out the wine. 

The Comté watched the Bishop in amusement as he tried to conceal his appetite. As a man of the Church, it would be unseemly to display any signs of gluttony. Yet, he had quite a rotund belly. 

The venison had been consumed and a pitcher of wine emptied when the page walked in again with a tray of something strange looking. The Comté stared. It looked like crisp oublies, rolled into cones. A rosy cream filled them and there were pear halves dripping with honey next to each. 

It was extraordinary. He had never tasted anything like it- certainly not in the years he had spent in Constantinople, often sampling pastry soaked in honey and nuts. This was something else altogether, something more exotic. The pink cream  was playfully teasing his appetite, the intensity of its flavours bringing to life taste buds he had never known existed. Every mouthful brought forth a cascade of flavours, sweet as honey, a faint floral scent and finally a sharp fruity tang. The flesh of the pear looked as crisp and white as marble yet when he bit into it, it almost melted into his mouth.

It was hard not to bring the whole plate to his mouth and gobble down every last morsel. 

He summoned the page and asked him to bring the cook who had made the wonderous dish right away. 

The Bishop felt the first stirrings of disquiet when the tall girl with long red hair walked in and the Comté couldn’t stop staring at her

****

“I tell you, he is bewitched!”  Bishop Sugere was livid.

Raymond Berenguer didn’t say anything, letting him rant. 

“He is spending hours with her in the garden, and they talk and laugh together like children! A common kitchen wench! And those things she makes with her pink paste! I tasted it Raymond, and I tell you it is the thing of the devil. It makes me forget my vows of eating simple fare!”

Raymond smiled. “You have already given me the answer to all our problems.”

****

Grand-maman always said that someday I would meet a man who would make me laugh like no one else. It was ironical that I should have had to go back nine hundred years to find him. He asked me where I came from and believed my answer. 

“Ma Chérie Sophie, you could only have come from a different time.”

Life felt strange, yet perfect. I had no Michelin stars to win, no desserts to innovate. I was simply a girl again, with flowers in my hair, sitting under an apple tree. He hung onto my every word. I told him of my time and how the world was already changing. He laughed when I told him the earth was round and that one day everyone would fly inside metal birds. I told him about the ruby chocolate which had entwined our fates. 

One day, he showed me a rolled up linen parchment. 

“I have written about your ruby chocolate here. I shall write about the metal birds too” 

He placed the parchment inside a gold box encrusted with emeralds. I looked at it and knew Higgins had spoken the truth. 

*****

The Bishop has accused me of being a Witch and seducing the Comté with the devil’s food. He says I must be stoned to death. Raymond Berenguer has ridden in with esquires from Paris, demanding my death, by order of the King. I am to be taken to the village square today. Everyone is frightened of me and cross themselves if I so much as glance at them. 

*****

Consciousness creeped in slowly, like the mists rolling in from the alps on an autumn day. I kept my eyes shut, willing myself to remain in oblivion for some more time. 

“You are awake.” 

 His voice came from somewhere above me. I opened my eyes to see his sardonic grin intact whilst his left eye was swollen shut, lip bleeding and a deep gash marked his forehead. I touched the wound with a gentleness I hadn’t known I was capable of. 

“You came to save me. They pelted you with rocks too.”

He caressed my forehead, not replying. 

“You have played right into the Bishop’s hands!” I was almost in tears. “You know he and Berenguer have been trying to usurp your title and lands. Now they have a good excuse for throwing you in the dungeons, you saved the witch!”

He held my chin up with his finger, and looked into my eyes for a long moment. 

“Sophie.” He drew out my name slowly, as if tasting it, savouring it on his tongue. 

“Sophie, my precious.  You appeared in my castle with your strange way of speaking and your magic chocolat. I knew not of who you were or whence you came, only that I would follow you to the ends of the world.” 

I lay quietly in his arms. 

“What are they going to do to us?” 

He replied with a smile, “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

*****

An obscure historical text makes note of the fact that the lands of Baux in Provence, France were handed over to the Berenguer family after the death of the last male Baux – It was rumored that the Count had been consorting with a witch and both were sentenced to death. Though not confirmed in any book, it was believed that both of them were thrown into one grave somewhere in the castle grounds, along with anything the witch had touched. 

Distant family members of the Baux clan continued to challenge the Berenguer claims and their bloody history is well documented as the ‘Baussenque Wars.’

*****

Business Insider Jan 2018 

Cémoi Group has reported a significant rise in chocolate sales above the global market average, outlined in its first quarter key sales figures for fiscal 2017/18. Ruby chocolate continued to gain momentum following its 2017 launch, though experts say the disappearance of famous pastry chef, Sophie Pascale, the first chef to work with the chocolate, was a key element towards its popularity.”

***

GLOSSARY 

Boulanger –  French word for baker 

Pâtissière –  Female pastry chef, French 

Degustation – A tasting of various foods in small portions, focusing on high culinary art

Merde   – Shit, French 

Comté – Count, Title of French Nobility 

Oubiles – Medieval version of the waffle. Made on feast days

LINKS 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_chocolate

https://time.com/4926949/barry-callebaut-ruby-chocolate/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiverse

***

Team: Left to Write

Prompt: A modern invention from the 21st century gets transported to the 12th century. What happens next? Explore. 

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Arvind Sheke

Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.

A Voice of Awakening

1

Gyaneshwara, my adorable father, the most virtuoso musician the Seunas had ever known, was almost in shackles. The imperious Nagabhata, who occupied the throne of Khandela, had just sentenced my father to a life term. He would be thrown into the deep dungeons of Fort Khandwa while darkness and injustice would continue to prevail upon the people in this tiny kingdom.

The harshness of the decision left me in as much dismay as it did the citizens of Khandela, who loved him to the point of reverence. I noticed the courtiers and ministers, envious of his fame and popularity, look on with glee at his predicament, except the noble Yashovarma, who pleaded with Nagabhata to reverse his decree.

‘He has done no wrong, Your Highness,’ he said.

Instead, the evil eyed Nagabhata derided him with scorn and contempt. Sitting astride the ungainly throne that matched him in its inelegance, he bellowed mockingly, ‘Gyaneshwara… O Gyaneshwara…’ I felt disgusted. The music box was in his ugly hands; its surface glowed at his face whenever he pressed hard on it. Nagabhata did not deserve to take its possession. Not only had I surrendered that wondrous thing to the insolent King’s fancy, but also put my father’s life into his hands.  

***

Little had I imagined the tumultuous turn of events since the previous afternoon when I had been to the local fair. 

Treasure box was my favourite attraction. I handed over a coin to the man holding out the box. ‘Dip into it and pull out what you want,’ he said with a naughty smile. ‘Remember – you don’t choose the object. It chooses you.’

I put my hand through the small opening, and after much fiddling, I drew my hand out holding something. It was a small, slender rectangular object with a glass surface and a circular ring with arrow symbols. It was unlike anything I had seen before.

I scrutinised the metal object on all sides, rubbed and scratched at its surface. Its shiny back had an apple figure on it; someone had bitten into the apple. It amused me. But was this a treasure? 

Suddenly, the object came alive. The glass surface shone from inside like a handful of sky washed in moonlight. I marvelled at its transformation, touching the glass, then the circular ring, and the arrows gently. Every touch changed the design on the glass surface. Another touch, and the object burst into a staccato tune. I was taken aback.

‘What was that?’ exclaimed the man. 

I hastily moved away from his sight and tapped on the arrow again. The sound of music first impinged on my ears, then slowly, reverberated with my senses. The music was lilting, more fluid than the ragas I was familiar with.

What kind of an object was it that sang on its own? I must take this to my father.

***

The poignant strains of an alap filled the air when I reached home. Sitting on the floor, with the ektara in his lap, my father was deep in concentration. As he plucked the string, his deep, mellifluous voice rose in tempo to launch into a raga and soon got so absorbed within himself that nothing could perturb him.

‘Do not disturb him. He is rehearsing for the big event tomorrow,’ said Kapila, our cook, emerging from the kitchen.

‘What event are you talking about?’ I asked. 

‘Nagabhata has organized a grand music competition at this court – open to anyone who can engage with his court musician Srngadeva in a duel and defeat him to gain the title of Sangeet Samrat.’

‘Since when has our dreaded King taken an interest in music?’

Kapila said with a sardonic smile, ‘Every King is desirous of having his glory and magnanimity chronicled in the annals of history. Wouldn’t Nagabhata want to be acclaimed as one of the greatest patrons of arts and culture?’  

‘Father will make an entry into the court again!’ I exclaimed.

Kapila hid his excitement in a deliberate nod. Perhaps, this was the occasion that he had waited for, in a long time – to relive the days when artists got their deserved due.  

It was upon my persistent beseeching, one day, that Kapila had recounted the entire episode – that which the people of Khandela refrained from speaking about out of fear.

Twelve years earlier, when Nagabhata ascended the throne – as a vassal ruler under the Seunas of Devagiri – he invited my father, Gyaneshwara, to join a select group of court musicians. My father considered it an honour, but not for long. Nagabhata decreed that those who were granted this privilege could only perform in the court, never in public. His fiat included the set of ragas that anyone could sing – the injunction arising out of his whim and impulse than an aesthetic preference. 

‘Music cannot be confined within boundaries. Let it flow unbridled like the wind in all directions,’ said my father. ‘If the King so wishes to listen to my compositions, let him come to the temple where I perform daily. I sing in deference to the Almighty alone and for the people.’ Saying this, he declined the invitation. Incensed at this show of open defiance, Nagabhata banished my father from the kingdom. 

I was only two, and I did not know what it felt like living without a father. As I grew older, I heard he was travelling in faraway kingdoms to further his proficiency in music. By then, the King had banned every form of music and art from being performed outside the court. 

Years went by, and the legend of my father grew stronger. People around me sang high praises about him. I hoped that he would return home one day. Alas, it happened with the unfortunate event of my mother’s sudden demise. Setting his pride aside, my father submitted a petition to Nagabhata, seeking permission to return to Khandela, and promising he would never perform anywhere within the kingdom. 

Nagabhata had had his revenge; he assented. Musicians and artists welcomed my father with renewed enthusiasm, but he remained confined at home. 

At this moment, as I recalled what had transpired earlier, I sensed why Kapila hoped for my father’s rightful stature to be restored.    

We walked across the street to Kapila’s house to check on his ailing wife, Gangadevi. In her mid-thirties, she was still childless and troubled with her barrenness. I reserved great affection for her, for she treated me like her son. 

‘Keshava, my boy, are you here?’ exclaimed Gangadevi. She rushed out to receive me with a plate of delectable sweets. She seated me next to her and said, ‘Here, eat this sweet, and sing to me the latest raga you learnt from your father.’ 

‘You pamper me too much. If I were to show you an amazing thing, will you prepare more of this sweet?’ I said, biting into a big chunk.

‘What is it?’ 

I pulled out the ‘apple’ object and brought it to life. Her eyes widened at what she saw. I touched the circular ring and the arrow symbols. She keenly watched me, making studied attempts to decipher the pattern I used to get the music I had heard earlier. 

‘Is there a secret code?’ She always liked an element of mystery.

Suddenly, a female voice sang with an ensemble of various musical instruments. To my ears trained on different ragas, the song seemed excitable and high pitched. It sounded strange in the beginning. But with the next song, we were pulled into its mesmerising appeal.

‘Music box,’ squealed Gangadevi in childlike enthusiasm. She was fascinated. Then there was another song. ‘Wonderful music box.’ She swayed gently, then rocked herself, listening to one more song.

‘Where did you find it? How?’ 

Fighting down the temptation to reveal my accidental discovery, I replied, ‘By magic.’ 

‘Magic, indeed. It only happens to a good boy like you.’

For a long time, Gangadevi indulged herself with the music box; then, becoming hysterical, called out to the neighbours. Astonished by what they heard, they called others. Kapila tried his best to be discreet, but speculation grew among the people. Soon, word about the music box spread like fire in the city. More curious people thronged the house to look at it. 

Oblivious to everything, Gangadevi continued to listen in ecstasy. One song had caught her fancy; she found the way to tap the music box to listen to that song repeatedly.

By evening, a small mob gathered at Kapila’s house to get an experience of the music box; it had now assumed a form and existence of exaggerated proportions. I refused to show it to them. There was a hubbub of excited voices. Farmers, merchants, artisans – everyone was interested. Unknown to me, a few courtiers had taken note that an object could produce music without the King’s behest.

Amidst the chaos that ensued, a soldier arrived at the street. I recognized him to be one of the many informers to the King that father had warned me about. 

‘Who has the music box?’ he thundered.

Before I knew it, the music box was snatched away from me. I found no support from the cowering crowd.

‘How does this thing work?’ he asked, staring at it with a blank expression. 

‘Tell me.’ He brandished his sword at me.

I showed him how to make it sing.

Satisfied, he screamed, ‘Nothing extraordinary can happen without the King’s notice. This belongs to the King. It is a gift to him from a divine source. Do you hear me?’

He glared at our faces to elicit obedience. Then he turned and rode away.    

I spent the evening seething in anger and jealousy. The music box was in Nagabhata’s gain. What use could he make of it? The use of force revolted me. 

When he learnt about the whole incident, my ever-inquisitive father asked, ‘What kind of a box was it?’ For a moment, I forgot everything about the object. What it sang paled in comparison with my father’s excellent command over the swaras

‘Nothing better than you, father,’ I replied. 

He continued to experiment with melodic patterns late into the night.

***

Now, as I sat in the viewing gallery of the court, amidst an audience enthralled by their beloved musician, Gyaneshwara, I struggled to come to terms with the scenes since morning.

‘This cannot be permitted, by any means,’ Srngadeva shouted, soon after my father had finished his masterly composition. It was one of my father’s best performances. The large court reverberated with the soulful notes of his singing and the learned audience that heard him in rapt attention gave him a thunderous applause. Even the most senior critics exulted at his unique improvisation of Raga Yaman blended with Persian variations. It filled me with great pride. Nagabhata squirmed in his seat. 

Until then the event had been dominated by Srngadeva, who treated every musician with condescension. But with my father’s strong challenge, he sensed defeat. His earlier performance was no match to my father’s dexterous interplay of intonation and rhythm. For a person who carried more jewellery on his body than humility in his heart, what music could he produce? Shaken by his impending loss, he launched into an unexpected personal attack.

‘Everyone might well respect Gyaneshwara,’ he said. ‘But it does not suit his stature to claim as his own that which is not originally composed by him.’

A ripple of shock went through the crowd. What Srngadeva said was beyond anyone’s comprehension. How could he accuse Gyaneshwara of such a misdeed?

‘Why! Gyaneshwara knew this composition beforehand. Our great King has the divine source that holds the key to all great compositions,’ said Srngadeva, holding up something in his hand. A slender object shone in the streaming sunlight. I noticed the apple shape glinting on its surface and felt a lump in my throat.

‘This is how the mystery is unravelled.’ Srngadeva spoke with a malicious grin. As soon as he tapped on the music box, the singing of a male voice resonated in the pillared hall. The song that echoed off the court’s walls and its high roof bore an uncanny resemblance to my father’s composition in its tempo and rhythm.  

‘How is this possible?’ I heard someone gasp. 

The music stopped abruptly. Srngadeva looked around for reactions. ‘Only yesterday it was stolen by his son, Keshavadatta. And the rest is obvious. Gyaneshwara has cheated.’ Saying this, he handed over the music box to Nagabhata with a touch of drama.  

‘My father never listened to it,’ I almost screamed.

Suddenly, the assemblage broke into a commotion. Voices rose and fell in astonishment and disbelief. It was hard to believe Gyaneshwara could have wronged.

Undeterred, the vile mouthed Nagabhata pronounced – ‘This man shows no penitence. One who disregarded my authority earlier and insulted me now dares resort to manipulative methods for winning a title.’ Turning to the guards, he commanded, ‘Imprison him for the rest of his life.’ 

‘This is preposterous,’ said the dutiful minister, Yashovarma, rising from his seat. ‘Gyaneshwara’s skill is unparalleled. He, who mastered Carnatic music from the Cholas and imbibed Persian influences from the North, can stand on his own. He does not need a music box.’ His plea for my father’s innocence found support from a few other courtiers. 

‘There is no one more deserving of the title than him.’

‘Is there any credible explanation for this, my friend? Is this not the same composition?’ As Srngadeva tapped on the music box again, the music resumed from where it had stopped. Everyone listened in silence. My father looked puzzled as he heard Raga Yaman with the same variations as rendered by him. Was this serendipity?

‘There you go.’ Nagabhata’s face widened into a malicious smirk. The accusation remained undisputed.

I had lost all hope.

‘Gyaneshwara.’ The music box uttered the name at the end. It was heard loud and clear. A voice spoke in a language that sounded more Sanskrit than Marathi. It was a panegyric – I could infer – that kept repeating the name, Gyaneshwara along with newer musical terms like khyal and bandish.

‘The divine object has given its verdict. This brilliant composition belongs to Gyaneshwara alone,’ declared Yashovarma in an exuberant tone. ‘Can’t you all see?’ he stirred everyone. The wise and crafty Yashovarma had saved the day.

‘Salutations to Gyaneshwara.’ The frenzied crowd cried; every cheer getting louder, emboldened by the liberation granted by an authority higher than the King. Nagabhata appeared stupefied by the sudden reversal. His undisputed power seemed to be slipping away under his feet. 

Gyaneshwara rose from his seat, bowed to the court, and turned to walk out. A small group of musicians and high ranked courtiers followed him and exited the royal court. I had witnessed an awakening of sorts in the history of Khandela.     

 

Glossary:

Raga – Rag (in Hindustani) or Ragam (in Carnatic), the basic melodic framework for composition in Indian classical music

Alap – opening section of a Hindustani classical performance, introduction to the main raga

Ektara – one stringed instrument

Sangeet Samrat – literal translation: Emperor of Music. Honorary title granted to musician. 

Swara – connotes a note in the successive steps of the octave

Yaman – a night raga 

Khyal – (or khayal) Hindustani musical form

Bandish – melodic composition in Hindustani vocal or instrumental music

***

Team: Left to Write

Prompt: A modern invention from the 21st century gets transported to the 12th century. What happens next? Explore. 

This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.

This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.

Cover Photo By Shashank Sahay

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