The hall was brightly lit and crowded. Crowded, of course, was an understatement. It was bursting at the seams, and despite the fact that the weather gods were pleasantly disposed towards mankind that day, the people in the hall could feel beads of perspiration breaking out on their faces.
“How long?” a lady whispered to her husband.
“It could take the whole day,” he muttered.
She grimaced. “There is a pile of washing left to be done at home. We oughtn’t to have been forced to attend this meeting.”
“Shh,” he said. “There are people listening to our conversation. We could get into trouble.”
She cursed below her breath and glared at the people in front.
Minutes later, a lady in her mid-forties got onto the stage. She was short and slender with pretty eyes that were hidden behind a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. A hushed silence descended over the hall. She cleared her throat and began.
“We are here today to protest against the construction of a mall in our locality,” she announced. “And that is why I have asked all the residents in the area to attend this meeting. Are you all here?”
“Yes,” a volley of voices rose in unison.
“Jai ho, Simran Madam,” a voice called out.
She glared in the direction of the voice and began her speech.
The bus drew to a halt. A middle-aged man with a slightly bald pate, and a rather prominent bulge in the middle, hopped out. He possessed an air of confidence that came with age and experience. The sunlight made him squint, and he quickly put on the dark glasses that had been nestling inside his breast pocket.
He grimaced. Another weekend ruined. He hated these official visits which, for some reason, always coincided with the weekends. In any case, life sucked. He plodded on, a backpack slung over his shoulder, looking out for the hotel that the company had booked for him. The road ahead wore a strangely deserted look. He walked a little further and reached the main road. What he saw next took his breath away.
It was the most beautiful town he had ever seen, with quiet houses arranged in neat rows along its sides, just like the vacant shop fronts along the quaint Main Street nearby. In the corner was a playground that was silent and empty. Not a soul could be seen, not a voice heard, save for the fluttering sound of a single leaf being tossed around by the soft breeze before it landed on the ground.
Strange, he said to himself. The place was charming, but where the hell were the people? He looked around. It would have been great if he could throw up his job and settle here, he thought. It would serve the boss right too if he dumped him at this critical juncture when they were onto such a major project.
His cell phone beeped. A message. “I hope you had a safe trip, Mr Raj,” it read. “Welcome to our town. I shall meet you at the hotel in a couple of hours.’’
The meeting at the hall had just got over. A highly motivational speech by Simran Rai had kept the listeners riveted to their spots. She had a way with words, and by the time she had finished, a majority of the listeners, including the lady with the piled up laundry, was convinced that a mercenary capitalist had no business invading their territory. It was also announced by the firebrand speaker that she was going to settle that upstart of a Project Manager who was to arrive that day.
“I shall teach them how to mind their own business,” she declared in vociferous tones. “This is our home. No infiltrators will be allowed.”
She left the stage amidst loud cheers, followed by two young men in their early twenties, who obviously adored her.
Raj’s mother was worried that day. She was convinced that he was in a godforsaken place, surrounded by marauders who were after his blood. On other days, she had other worries. For instance, she wondered how long her precious son would have to remain a bachelor. He was 48 years old and yet to set a female heart fluttering. The poor lady had left no stone unturned in her quest for the perfect soulmate for her son. Her search had led her to places, both far and near. She had even visited a family in the Chambal region with a marriage proposal. Alas! The girl turned out to be an erstwhile dacoit’s daughter.
Desperation drove her to meet an astrologer, a man half bent, with piercing eyes and a grim demeanour, as if he was weighed down by the cursed lives of those who sought his help.
“Mars,” he announced in broken English. “Terrible impact. Only girl with Mars will do. Otherwise– fight, divorce, death.”
The mother went into a frenzy and began to search for ‘the girl with Mars’. To no avail. Meanwhile, a famous star had taken on the ill-fated bachelor’s name in a film and got more than half the female population to drool over him. Not our Raj, though. He was doomed to a state of what seemed like eternal bachelorhood.
After having spent an hour, placating his mother, and assuring her that the town was not haunted and the gangsters who were arrested last week did not belong to this area, he got down to work.
“Congratulations,” Prashant said, handing him a copy of the agreement letters. “We are officially business partners now.”
“A pleasure indeed,” Raj smiled. “I must say, this place is wonderful, but do tell me something. Why were the streets empty this morning?”
Prashant grinned. “Well, for one thing, it is a Saturday and people over here, take their weekends very seriously. But more importantly, all the families in and around Main Street had a meeting this morning. The locals are not liking the way the corporates are investing in these regions. The meeting was called by a local activist. A lady. Everyone in the locality had to attend it.”
Raj nodded thoughtfully. “Anyway, there isn’t much these people can do. The corporates have the government backing them.”
Several meetings and a drink later, Raj headed back to his hotel. It was dark, and the trees were silhouetted against the darkening skies, looking formidable. The road wore a deserted look, as it had in the morning.
Suddenly, a car screeched to a halt just beside him, and before he knew it, a sack was thrown over his head. He struggled hard to break free, but the fingers clasped around his arms seemed to be made of steel. He was shoved into the back of the car, and as soon as the doors were slammed shut, the car began to glide through the darkness. He immediately burst into a volley of expletives.
“Damn you, stop the car,” he yelled.
“Shut up,” a voice shouted back.
He stopped, shell shocked. God, that was a woman. A woman had abducted him!
“That is better,” she remarked.
“Who are you?” he finally managed to blurt out.
“Didn’t I ask you to shut up?” she snapped.
He was quiet. He began to weigh the situation. She was a woman. Could she really do much harm? She seemed to be the one in the driving seat. Who was the one holding him? Oh, Lord! What would his mother say if she got to know that a woman had kidnapped him?
He decided to remain quiet. He would wait and watch. They drove in silence for a while. The wind was humming away, and he could hear her talk in a low whisper to someone over the phone. He strained his ears to listen but couldn’t catch much of the conversation.
The car drew to a halt some ten minutes later. Someone pulled him out of the car and shoved him forward. He was then led into what seemed like a house and up a stairway. The sack around his head was removed, and he was pushed into a chair.
“Here, tie him up,” he heard her say as she flung a rope in his direction. “And take his phone.”
The light hurt his eyes, and he blinked a couple of times before he could see the faces of his abductors. A lanky fellow stood before him, holding a rope. Someone was standing behind him, pinning him down to the chair. He couldn’t see her. The lanky fellow was blocking his view of her. When he did move, he saw her. There she stood, leaning against the door, small, petite, and grim. Her hair was gathered in a high ponytail, and the pale cream shirt that she wore, accentuated her dusky complexion. A pair of spectacles sat perched at the top of her head.
She was too damn attractive to be a criminal, he thought to himself. He wanted to keep looking at her, but the lanky fellow came in the way once more. Bloody idiot!
“Give him some food,” she instructed as she turned around to leave the room.
Maybe she really wasn’t a criminal, Raj murmured to himself.
“We will talk tomorrow,” she added before disappearing.
Dinner was a frugal affair- chapattis* with a vegetable curry and pickles. Nothing like the parathas* slathered with butter that his mother served him every night. A few more dinners like this would ensure a flattening of the curve below his midriff, he thought.
The night crawled its way through a never-ending maze of minutes that ticked away in the dark. His mother would be in a state of panic. He had promised to call her after dinner. He found his thoughts wandering towards his captor. He wondered what she was doing? Why on earth did she abduct him? She didn’t seem too inclined to kill him. Why then would she have done this?
He groaned. He had a battle ahead, that too with a beautiful woman.
The lanky fellow appeared the next morning with a cup of tea.
“Madam will meet you after breakfast,” he announced.
Raj felt a tingle of excitement but quickly reprimanded himself. He was allowed a quick wash and breakfast of toast and jam before he was led into a room downstairs.
It was a well-furnished room with a row of bookshelves lining the wall. There was a huge photograph of a genial looking man, hanging on the wall. She was seated behind a desk, which had a computer and a set of files, neatly arranged at the side. She looked up at him. Her eyes were a deep shade of brown, he noticed, and her lips were pursed. She indicated a chair that stood a little distance away from the desk. He sat down.
“I believe in straight talk,” she said. “Leave the land alone.”
“What land?” he looked at her in bafflement.
She slammed a fist on the table and bit out, “Don’t act smart, you get it? I am talking about the land you are taking over!”
He scratched his head. She just wasn’t making sense to him. By now her eyes had turned into dark, enticing pools of rage. He had a sudden urge to go up and kiss her. He wondered if she found him attractive too. He had just had a haircut recently, and he did believe that he looked pretty good with a stubble. Of course, she didn’t look too impressed with him. Now, what land was she talking about?
“Madam,” he began, “Err, by what name may I address you? Mrs…?”
She gave him a frosty look while the lanky chap balked at the audacity of the man.
Raj cleared his throat hastily. “Madam, I am not sure I know what you are talking about? I haven’t taken over any land.”
She looked at him suspiciously and then at the lanky fellow. She summoned him closer and whispered something into his ear. He looked at Raj a little uncertainly and murmured something back.
She went out of the room with her phone, made a call, returned and settled down in her chair. She leaned forward and spoke slowly, enunciating every word. “You have taken over our land. You are from the KT Group of Industries. You want to set up a mall on the land near the playground, right? You have cordoned off that land, and our kids are no longer able to play there.”
He stared at her, mesmerised by the way her lips moved. She clicked her fingers, and he jerked back. “I am sorry. You were saying something. I am Raj.”
“Raj Sharma from the KT Group?” she asked.
“No. Raj Anand from the Singham Group.”
“Give me some ID proof,” she barked out.
He looked at her rather uncertainly and then pulled out his wallet.
“Here it is,” he said, as he handed her his driving license.
She studied it grimly and then turned to glare at the lanky fellow.
“You got the wrong guy.”
The young man dropped his head in shame.
“Check your facts next time, before you act,” she told him sternly. He nodded, almost in tears.
“And you, Mister,” she said, looking at the smitten man in front of her. “You can go. Here is your phone. Your mother kept calling last night. Call her back. She must be worried. And let me warn you about something. If you dare contact the police, there will be hell to pay!”
He rose and extended a hand. She gave him a cold stare. He picked up his phone and the driving license and giving her a bright smile, moved towards the door. Then as an afterthought, he turned around and said, “I am Raj. From Delhi. I am a bachelor. Here is my business card.”
The story had a happy ending. Soon after the accidental abduction, Raj got down to the business of procuring her phone number. It was a Herculean task, but determined men are never deterred. He managed to get it eventually and called her one Sunday evening. She was busy framing a letter to the Prime Minister and told him to jump off a cliff.
After exactly twenty-three aborted attempts by him to woo her, she thawed. Five phone calls later, she melted. Two visits later, she was in his arms. Needless to say, the mother was elated. She was now sure that if the gods had found her a daughter in law, a grandchild would follow too.
The wedding took place, one autumn afternoon, in the beautiful little town with its pretty houses arranged in neat rows. Russet leaves floated down on the wings of a misty October breeze. There was celebration everywhere, and as the music flowed gently, the sunset hues rose to bless the couple.
Chapati: A flat Indian bread made without yeast.
Paratha: A flat Indian bread fried on a griddle.
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.
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