Prompt: Your MC gets a new job at a new place in a new city. The tight-knit family running the place welcomes them with open arms and then invites them to take part in an eerie cult ritual when they close at night. Your MC is scared but overwhelmed by curiosity. What happens next?
The Taurean Candour
She dashed through the darkness, the petrichor boscage, joining a gusty drizzle at whipping her delicate skin.
Aai* will be there soon…
Ambewadi Police’s head constable, Kashinath Shelke, and Crime Branch, Mumbai, were waiting for her to make it out safely before striking.
Vrishabh Dwar* would now cease to exist.
She felt the sharp sting on her thigh and fell headlong, the prickly bramble piercing her arms.
Gasping, she looked up and saw the blurred images in their all-familiar cloaks, sandalwood paste smearing their visages; their foreheads adorned by the bull’s head tilak.
Just like the tattoo on their right biceps.
Fear engulfed her like never before. She was caught.
“Hand it over, wench” The leader bellowed in the eerie silence.
“Rot…in…hell…” she muttered.
Her fading corner vision saw him signal. It was all over.
Aai loves you, darling Swara…
Fifteen years later
The milk swelling up to a boil beckoned Swara even as soft chuckling Mumbai rain clattered on the kitchen parapet. Barring that traumatic year in Satara, Mumbai was always home.
She loved misty daybreaks, but that morning anxiety clung.
She hadn’t heard from Hitesh in the last three days since he had left for one of his ever-increasing official tours. Why was he desolate these days? Even their year-old son Vivaan’s cherubic chatter didn’t entice him anymore.
Orphaned in childhood and struggling during her growth years, Swara’s college senior, Hitesh Khopker had evolved as her ray of hope. She later found he belonged to Ambewadi, in Satara close to where she had once lived. They had fallen in love and despite opposition from his strangely elusive family, they had eloped, breaking all familial ties.
For the umpteenth time, Swara dialled Hitesh in vain. She missed him, his humour-laced banter, his favourite ‘Black-Jack’ citrus scent, his coquettish bedroom antics that bewitched her aplenty… In the past year, she had been busy multitasking, to notice anything uncanny with Hitesh. Clutching her ‘mangalsutra’, she wondered how little she knew her husband.
Moving towards the study she picked up the envelope containing the transfer letter. Providence had played its cards. She had been promoted as the head of the Ambewadi branch. Vivaan would finally meet his grandparents while she got her closure.
But would Hitesh agree?
That night waiting for Hitesh’s call, she fell into a fitful sleep. The phone ring jolted her awake.
“Hello, Mrs. Khopker? This is Virar police station. The Railway police found a body…” The remaining words faded away.
An hour later, Swara was in the morgue.
The body was mangled beyond recognition, but for the right arm. She recognized Hitesh from the tattoo… the bull tattoo on his right bicep.
The train chugged into a lazy Ambewadi-junction. Under the sanguine daybreak, the station seemed antiquated in the absence of enthusiastic porters. As Swara alighted with a sleeping Vivaan strapped to the carrier, dragging her luggage, the soft draft sent a chill down her spine.
She had lived close by and fifteen years weren’t enough to alleviate the disquietude imprinted upon her tender psyche.
At the exit, a cycle-rickshaw creaked its way towards her.
“New, Madam? Welcome, Ambewadi….” The balding elderly man’s pan-stained teeth matched his dhotar* but at the moment he was God-sent.
“Thank you, kaka. I want to go to…” She had to stay at some B&B since office accommodation wasn’t available for another day. An idea struck right then.
“Um… kaka, do you know the Khopkers’ residence? My father-in-law is a plantation owner.” She crossed her fingers.
“You are…?” Kaka looked shocked. “… Hitesh chi bayko*? Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Let’s go.”
Soon the rickety rickshaw wailed its way out of the acuminated pathway. In the next half an hour she learned the elderly man was Dagdu kaka. A septuagenarian, he had lived here all his life.
Eventually, they entered a pathway under a huge canopy of bougainvillea creepers, lined with marigold bushes. The security guards at the gate seemed to know Dagdu kaka and even waved a greeting. The rickshaw screeched and halted at the entrance of a massive bungalow. The lone structure comprised of the finest architecture was surrounded by lush greenery. The rising and falling tree covers in their denseness raised her ethereal spirits.
Vivaan chose that time to stir awake and, finding himself in unfamiliar territory, began to wail.
“What is this ruckus?” A deep baritone sounded behind her instantly quietening Vivaan.
“BHAUSAHEB” Kaka rushed towards the tall man, in a spotless dhotar-kurta probably in his sixties with lush grey hair aristocratically combed backward, with a rugged face and stern eyes that slit and bored into her soul.
“Aaho, kon aalay*?” A harried woman in a traditional navvari* rushed outside. Swara gasped. The woman had Hitesh’s attractive brown orbs.
Kaka made the introductions and there was a stunned silence.
“Why are you here? Where is Hitesh?” Bhausaheb asked unperturbed.
In the next hour, all mayhem broke loose with Hitesh’s extended family gathering on the property. However, Vivaan’s presence seemed to lighten the blow of losing their only child and heir.
“Soonbai*…” Bhausaheb spoke later. “… I know our relationship didn’t begin well. But let bygones be. Vivaan is our blood. You can have your free will here. Please stay with us.”
Swara’s heart soared in delight.
Later that night as she slept with Vivaan next to her, she felt a presence in her bedroom. She woke up with a start switching on the night lamp but there was no one.
Only a mild whiff of a lingering citrus fragrance….
The following morning, her in-laws left no stone unturned in pampering them. Her father-in-law even arranged her transport to work.
The branch office was ill-equipped, unlike Mumbai. But the limited staff was efficient and looked up to her expertise more so because of her surname.
The same evening as she entered the kitchen, her mother-in-law held her hand gently.
“Soonbai, we couldn’t do the rituals for newlyweds, but our family has a tradition. For a fortnight, we have a ritual, followed by the Mahapuja on the full moon night. Tonight, we would like Vivaan and you to join us.”
“What puja is it, Aaisaheb?”.
“We worship the bull in the Vrishabh dwar’, behind the bungalow.It keeps away the evil eye and bestows prosperity”.
That night Swara strutted outside in the semi-darkness with an excited Vivaan. They approached a cavern-like structure lit by torches; she saw a wooden bull-head embellishing the entrance. A group of people were gathered around logs of wood arranged in a pyre. Her in-laws, seated on the high chair near a fire pit, presided over the proceedings. Pyramid-shaped tiny sand-castles were placed around the pit. Everyone had coated their faces with what seemed like sandalwood paste and had a red mark of a bull adorning their foreheads. Just like Hitesh’s tattoo. Many other men had identical tattoos on their right biceps. They were dressed in black cloaks and chanting hymns…
On the pyre were two young girls seated cross-legged and as if in a trance. Their clothes were wet leaving nothing to the imagination. Swara was repulsed.
What kind of ritual was this?
She wanted to move away but couldn’t. Despite the olfactory overload she got the unmistaken whiff of the overfamiliar citrus fragrance. Chaos prevailed in her fudged mind.
After a while, everyone stood up and the chanting stopped. As the crowd dispersed, the girls disappeared as well.
The next couple of nights she saw, the girls seemed drowsier. One of them even had a bruise under her eye. Swara read about the deification of animals in ancient Egypt but this seemed ominous.
The next morning, a frail old man sat across her table in the bank, wheezing copiously.
“Swara? Dr. Gauri… Deshmukh’s… daughter?” He managed to spew before a bout of coughing spells hit him petrifying Swara further.
“Sir, did you know my Aai?” It was overwhelming.
“I am… Kashinath Shelke… former constable… Ambewadi Police when… she was here….” He panted. “…good lady… gave up her life for… women … sadly…. all in vain…”
Swara’s heart pounded.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“They… silenced her… and now you… danger… Swara…go back.” He coughed again and the peon entered with a cup of tea. He held the old man, patting him on his back.
“Shelke kaka… that’s enough. You will be sick.”
The older man slapped his hand away. But Swara didn’t miss the fleeting fear on his wrinkled face.
“Be careful…” he muttered as he turned around to leave.
Swara released a shudder.
That afternoon she visited the Shelkes’ planning to return before the official sign-off as her transport would be waiting. As she walked towards the modest structure in the village corner, she was frightened. But her resolve to unearth the truth about her mother inundated every other rational thought.
Shelke’s ramshackle home reeked of dire poverty. He indicated her to be seated on a cot that shook by a mere breeze.
“Swara, Gauritai*… helping… investigation… for Crime Branch…”
“Something sinister… happens in Vrishabh Dwar. Young girls… from outside … brought here to… that area… disappear.” His voice was barely audible as he struggled to breathe.
“What about my Aai?” Swara’s heart paced.
“She treated… those girls…developed trust. They revealed … torture. She wanted to complain… Crime Branch got to her. One of the girls… runaway from Mumbai… daughter of a political honcho….” Shelke halted to let the breathless bout pass. “…Gauritai infiltrated dwar … gathered evidence … over six months. But… caught. They… killed her, ransacked and… burnt… nursing home… along with her body… homicide evidence destroyed.”
Swara’s forehead throbbed. “Do they know me?”
“Khopkers are… powerful… untouchable… without evidence… they must know… you. But it’s puzzling… why… they want you… here.”
They remained silent as Swara tried absorbing the clobbering promulgation. Were the Khopkers traffickers?
“Swara… did Gauritai… leave behind… anything…?”
“No.” Swara whispered heartbrokenly.
“Swara, these people… ruthless. They want…. something… so you… here. We all doubted… trafficking… but some girls… found alive… returned home… some… were never found. Survivors… didn’t speak… their parents too didn’t want… to pursue anything. Stigma…. But…. there’s something… we don’t know.”
Later that evening, skipping dinner Swara nervously pondered over everything. It was difficult to process and she was losing her mind over the cult ritual. Egyptian bull cults mummified the bulls after embalming the carcass. But this didn’t make sense.
She opened her handbag and took out the lone framed picture of her mother, her only keepsake.
Aai, what did you find?
Was Hitesh also involved?
Suddenly Vivaan hugged her from the back startling her. The photo frame fell from her hand to the hard floor with a crash. The frame splintered and something peeped out of the crevice.
Seeing that the door to her bedroom was locked, she moved the glass pieces away from Vivaan and picked up the object. It was a small-sized CD. ‘Evidence’ was written in her mother’s flawless handwriting. Her palms trembled in fear.
Faking illness she sent Vivaan ahead for the ritual, knowing he would be safe for now. When alone, she opened her age-old office laptop under her thick blanket and tried the CD. Thankfully it fit.
She played it.
She was chilled to the core…
Her mother was dressing wounds of the young girls announcing the medical symptoms into a hidden camera. The words, ‘rupture’, ‘laceration’, ‘tear’, ‘haemorrhage’, ‘needs immediate suturing’, ‘damaged beyond repair’, were used but the most common ones were ‘forced and repetitive sexual intercourse’.
The camera next zoomed unsteadily into a posh studio. There was a four-poster bed in the center with hanging mics and cameras. There were belts, whips, scarves, ties, vibrators and handcuffs of different types and materials. It struck her then. The girls were used as porn stars… as BDSM submissives.
Next, the camera focused on a computer monitor indicating transactions. These were payments in dollars from certain porn sites abroad.
Finally, her mother came on screen.
This is a porn industry in the guise of a cult. The men led by Bhau Khopker are considered bulls who have canonical rights over the female. The girls, all minors are defiled and ‘trained’ by the highest bidders. Later they are drugged and forced into submission videos. After a series, they are sent back to their homes with money and the distraught family is forced to shut up for life. Some girls had miscarriages from unprotected sex or severe sepsis and trauma from the forceful insertion of objects. In my presence alone we lost five girls to haemorrhage. The transaction printouts are hidden in my nursing home. This video is a backup…
The screen went blank and a sense of trepidation engulfed Swara.
She first heard it faintly… someone was trying to break into her bedroom. Shutting the laptop, she scampered under the cot. Her heart stopped momentarily as the door creaked open and the silhouette of a man entered the room, along with the citrus fragrance.
‘Swara, are you there?” Someone whispered.
What the hell?
She slid out and rushed to switch on the lights. But he was quick and pulled her close to him, hugging her from the back.
“Thank God, Swara you are safe, I almost died seeing you both here.”
She turned and in the soft glow of the penetrating moonlight, saw his face. Hitesh had lost weight. The very next moment, she slapped him.
“You asshole, this was all planned from the start, wasn’t it? You were a pawn for your parents.” A psychedelic array of emotional onslaught barged in.
He gently held her cold hands.
“I am sorry Swara, I know nothing will convince you but I was forced to go to Mumbai for studies, to trap you. But I… fell in love with you. I severed ties with my parents, to start a fresh life with you. But last year they threatened to kill you and bring Vivaan here if I didn’t return to the cult. So, I… I faked my death. Swara, I am also a party to their wrongdoings directly or indirectly. And I deserve every punishment.”
He palmed her face and continued.
“Swara, I promise you I shall turn myself in… it will corroborate all the evidence you have. But your safety is of utmost priority. I have been collaborating with Mumbai Crime Branch in secret. They will raid the place tomorrow night to catch them red-handed….” He rubbed his face. “…My parents threatened to kill you immediately if I revealed myself but, at least I could stay away from the ritual…” He looked away sighing. “…I must go now. Keep the evidence safe. Stay low and tomorrow night tag along with them. I shall handle the rest.”
Before disappearing, he hugged her and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead just the way she liked it.
The next day Swara feigned illness and stayed at home. Was she still safe here? Swara was about to leave for the ritual, when the bedroom door broke open and Bhausaheb barged inside with two well-built men. One of them dragged Vivaan away, even as Swara watched helplessly.
“SEARCH EVERY NOOK AND CORNER.” The man bellowed. But despite ransacking the room they found nothing.
“Soonbai, I know you have found what we want. Your foolish mother betrayed me and paid for it. My dimwit son too strayed because of you. This is your only chance to atone. Give me what you have and you shall see Vivaan. In ten minutes, bring it to the ritual. Otherwise…”
Swara stood in a daze as they left the room. Extracting the CD, she had hidden under a loose tile in the corner she walked out of the house.
A kaleidoscopic display of fireworks bejeweled the night sky as loud chants eclipsed all other sounds. The two young girls, dressed in lewd clothes fit for the video shoot were seated on decorated chairs. But Vivaan wasn’t around. Swara’s blood boiled.
Suddenly everyone grew silent and she could hear her heart pounding.
“Soonbai, did you bring it?” Bhausaheb walked towards her.
“Ye…yes. But where is Vivaan?”
“You are in no position to bargain. If I can arrange for a transfer to get you here, you must know to what extent I can go to protect what’s mine…” A burst of throaty laughter pierced the eerie silence and Swara’s panic shot through the roof.
“Please baba, don’t punish Vivaan.” She pleaded, holding up the CD.
Bahusaheb gestured towards someone. A laptop was brought and the CD played. Satisfied, he threw the CD into the holy fire pit.
“Soonbai, I can’t trust the wrong person twice. I know, you met Shelke. You, my dear, are a loose cannon. And it’s time to let you go.”
Swara found herself staring into the gun barrel. She closed her eyes….
Suddenly there was a buzz and Bhausaheb wailed in agony holding his bleeding hand, the gun fallen somewhere. Men dressed in black overalls surrounded the crowd gathered. One of them held Bhausaheb.
There were flashes of lights and buzzing sounds soon replaced by screams of the people running helter-skelter.
Suddenly out of nowhere, Hitesh pulled her aside and handed over a sleeping Vivaan.
“It’s time Swara, leave right now. I will call soon.”
“Hitesh, do you remember the email account we had created to document Vivaan’s developments and achievements? I mailed the CD contents….” She screamed over the nocturnal cacophony.
Hitesh nodded as Swara, blinking back tears, ran towards one of the police vehicles. Finally… it was over.
Three years later, Mumbai
“Aai, hurry up.” Vivaan squealed.
The media had been busy despite the pandemic and the entire country was shocked out of its slumber including many in Ambewadi. Bhausaheb had not left traces. But her mother’s evidence and Hitesh turning into a crucial witness for the prosecution resulted in an airtight case.
Hitesh, currently an undertrial was waiting for them.
Holding Vivaan’s hand Swara left for Arthur Road jail.
- Aai: mother
- Vrishabh: bull
- Dwar: door (entrance)
- Dhotar: Dhoti
- Hitesh chi bayko: Hitesh’s wife
- He kay: what is this
- Aho kon aalay? : (addressed to the husband) who has come?
- Navvari: nine-yards saree
- Soonbai: Daughter-in-law
- Tai: older sister
(Word count: 3000 excluding the title and glossary)
Superb story, Priya.
Thanks so much Chandra