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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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