Shankar did not imagine he would be fighting to save his life. He started the journey to end his life and now he was fighting to stay alive. ‘It should not end like this. No, I cannot die here! No, I can’t die!’ The determination ran through his entire being as he struggled for breath.
It was 6:20 in the morning, the city was warming to the monsoon Sun. A little over 5 feet 10 inches, Shankar stood tall beside his Toyota Camry. He checked the tyres and put the backpack he was carrying into the back seat. It contained some Kinley water bottles, biscuit packets, few tea bags, a book, and a flask filled with hot water. He even loaded a fuel can into the hood along with another duffel bag with clothes. His face was devoid of expression.
‘I should be cautious, no one should get a hint of my intentions’ he took all the possible steps to make it appear as a planned round trip. He heart was getting heavy.
At that moment, his long-faced demeanour was in stark contrast to his lively persona during his hay days as a co-founder of an Information Technology start-up. It took a single act of betrayal by his friend cum co-founder to change his outlook on life. Dreams shattered, he lost faith in people and himself. His state of affairs troubled him.
What still kept his employees going was a mystery for him too. They behaved as if nothing had gone wrong even though their two months salaries were in arrears. He had become blind to their faith in him. In his mind, the reputation he had built up as a successful entrepreneur was at stake and more so was his dignity.
With the intellectual property stolen, there was nothing unique he could offer over the competition. Contemplating hard and saddled with debts, many sleepless nights flew by. He needed to act and act fast. The broken man needed imputes yet he allowed none near.
Finally, an idea struck him, his life insurance; it was more than adequate to cover the debts. Thus he devised a plan for his demise. A trip through thick forest to the riverside temple village for a change, this was what he told his near and dear. The route and vehicle were true, only the destination was river bed in his head. He needed to make it look like an accident for the insurance.
Shankar bid adieu to his mother. Looking at her one final time through the rear-view mirror, he hoped his sister would be able to console herself and their parents. Within no time he had crossed the outskirts zooming towards his destination. Melodies were playing at light volume to calm his tingling nerves. The thought of death was becoming more and more frightening.
Shankar drove till he couldn’t control his emotions anymore and stopped for a break. He poured hot water from the flask into a cup and dipped in a tea bag. As he sipped the tea, overwhelming emotions rolled down his cheeks into the cup; he hoped it to end quickly. Losing the reputation he built was out of the question, he had to do this. He shook himself, cleared his eyes and resumed his journey.
Another hour passed with him driving a constant hum, he reached a forest check post. A constable emerged and walked up to the car. Constable checked the vehicle and the car’s documents. After enquiring where Shankar was heading to, he requested him to stay put for a moment and returned to the post. Shankar decided to step out and stretch. He noticed a police jeep with the bonnet open ahead of the check post, and a tea stall.
Sauntering across to the tea stall with his flask in hand, he asked them to refill it with hot water. He noticed someone approach and turned to find a lady dressed in a white tee and khaki pants; her hair tied into a tidy ponytail, eyes gleaming charm and smile radiant.
She stood before him extending her arm and introduced herself ‘Hi, I am Ashita Dhawan, IPS.”
“Shankar”, he replied with a gentle handshake.
“My vehicle broke down, I heard you are headed the same way. Would you be able to drop me off at Kolanukonda? It’s a hamlet on your way.” She requested him with utmost politeness.
He paused a moment to think about it and then said: “Would you mind showing me your ID?”
“Sure, here.” She handed him her departmental identification card.
He examined and returned it with a nod for her to join him, hoping her company may help him distract himself. The journey resumed with her sitting next to him. The trees were starting to assert their presence over the landscape. They were driving through the forest area now. He lowered the windows letting the fresh air in.
He wanted to talk, needed to, but did not.
Taking the initiative, she remarked, “You don’t talk much, do you?”
“I am not sure of what to talk to an IPS officer” he replied with a gentle smile and honesty, which she noticed.
Observing the interiors of the car with a keen eye she remarked, “A well-maintained vehicle. New, I guess?”
“Oh, no! I just like to keep it this way” he answered running his hand over the dashboard. His love for the vehicle was visible in his words and careful driving.
She had a passion for vehicles too, surprising him with different vehicles she had driven. He felt light talking to her. Yet, when she asked why he was travelling alone, he couldn’t help but lie “I like solo trips.”
“Oh? I am returning from a disposition at the court” she stated but her eyes said what her lips didn’t. “You do not seem content with what happened there?” he enquired noticing a change in her demeanour. She shrugged.
“It was in the newspapers, some officers were abusing the tribal and I exposed them, my seniors. After all the pain we went through, the politicians involved are still untouched.” She punched the dashboard finishing her outpour.
“Baka! Control” agitated with herself. “I am sorry” she apologized to him.
After a moment of awkward silence, he cheekily said “That’s some intensity”
She looked at him and both broke into laughter. “Baka is Japanese for Idiot, right?” he asked.
“Yeah it is, you know Japanese?”
“Bits, from Manga. Tell me, how did you manage to go against your seniors? I mean seniority is a big thing in Police, isn’t it?”
She explained to him how she had made contact with chieftains covertly, educated them and helped them rally together. He was surprised knowing they had helped her foil a false departmental coup against her. “How could you continue with the force after the attempted backstab?”
“Not everyone is bad yaar. This is isn’t rice to judge all by one grain!” she proclaimed her faith.
It left him thinking of his team. Were they still with him because they had hope of a better tomorrow? Did they believe in him when he didn’t? Should he abort?
Engrossed in the discussion, she did not notice crossing the last village on the stretch. They continued for some time before he pulled the car aside “I need to stretch my legs. Tea?” he said reaching for the flask.
“Sure, shall I drive from here? I have my license with me too.”
Shankar did not oblige, making her tease him in friendly banter about the possessive behaviour towards his car. Right then, she noticed two people on a motorbike move past them and another approach. Noticing Tamancha on them, she signalled for him to get into the car, Shankar complied without a question. Calm, eyes narrowed and head tucked below the car level, she opened both the left side car doors and took position between them.
The people in the rear opened fire. Terrified, he ducked under the seat with the flask still in his hand. Bullets smashed the car windows, windshield, and body. She returned fire, overwhelming and injuring them; they run for their lives. She thought of going after them but the pair which crossed them had returned, with them the sound of bullets hitting the car.
She assured Shankar that he was safe inside the car. They were using locally made weapons which were not highly effective. Then she tactfully shot at the driver, making them crash to their deaths. Meanwhile, unnoticed, a masked person approached them from the right; took position beside the driver window, ready to shoot. Shankar, who was holding on to the flask with all his might, noticed this. He uncorked the flask and in a flash chucked the hot water at the assailants face making him scream and fall in agony. Shankar sprang out of the car and kicked the flinching guy in the face.
Catching his breath, Shankar managed to say “What was that?” Brush with death was making him feel his heart again.
“I messed with some important people, this must be their handy work.” She replied unruffled, scanning the area for any movement. Her eyes were intense and body alert.
“You are not hurt, are you?” He asked concerned. She laughed off a few injuries from the broken windows, so did he. “I am perfectly fine, sorry about your car…” her voice was filled with guilt. All the windows of the car were shattered and the car had numerous holes in the front and the rear.
“Can always get it repaired, we’d better move from here?” He said checking the tyres, adding “There was a village we just passed it, we can go there.”
“You are right, we need to move but not in the car. The stretch from that village to the next check post, about 20 km is under their control” she explained.
“Then how are we getting out safe?” he wondered out loud.
She gently pulled the backpack out of the back seat and gestured him to follow her into the woods. Out of options, he followed her like a scared duckling. The forest was lush green. Recent rains bought all the tree shrubs and crawlers to life; broken branches lay scattered.
“It was close, wasn’t it?” he asked, his palms were still sweaty and the silence was making him nervous.
Clearing sweat from her forehead, she replied looking at him “Yes, it was. Thank you for not panicking.” A delicate smile graced her lips.
He observed her for the first time since; of the same height as he was, athletic and attractive. She noticed him too, well-kempt, proper jawline and fit enough to keep pace with her. Sensing the need for a topic, he said “How are we going to cross this?” throwing his arms wide, eyes fixed on the forest thickening before them.
“I know the tribals of this forest, they will help us to safety.” She was confident of her allies. He liked how she still kept faith in people. “Let me carry this” he tried taking the backpack off her.
“I am trained for these situations, you are not. Conserve your energy” she did not yield. Shankar liked her rational thinking. She and the experiences he was going through made him look forward to tomorrow ever so slowly.
Out of the blue, there was a loud noise *Thock*, a revolver fired and she fell forward. His instincts kicked in and he scampered into a bush; holding his breath. He heard footsteps closing in; sweat rushed down his terrified face and with each twig crushed under the foot increased, his heartbeat. He could see her from there, flat on her face. His eyes moistened. The assailant stopped moving. He was right behind Shankar, revolver clicked, ready to fire.
“Turn” ordered a cold voice. It was then, Shankar saw Ashita’s fingers move a little, ‘SHE IS ALIVE’. Determined to buy her time, he slowly faced the man. His terror was past him now, fists clenched and eyes defiant. It was the same masked man he kicked.
Not noticing the fire in Shankar’s eyes, the assailant came within his reach. Shankar moved swiftly; slapping the weapon away and caught the assailant by the neck, kicked him in the gut.
Trying to strangle each other, they rolled in a scuffle; rolling over the hard rocks and thorns. The assailant managed to sit on Shankar’s chest, pounding him. Each blow crunched Shankar into the ground and his face bled profusely.
Shankar did not imagine he would be fighting to save his life. He started the journey to end his life now he was fighting to stay alive. ‘It should not end like this. No, I cannot die here! No, I can’t die!’ The determination ran through his entire being as he struggled for breath.
At the very moment when Shankar was about to lose consciousness, his right hand grabbed on to a broken branch. Shankar swung it with all his strength, straight into the assailant’s neck.
The assailant’s veins snapped, blood gushed out all over Shankar covering his face, eyes, mouth; warm and red. Shankar was motionless, with a single thought running through his mind. ‘I must not die’ He wanted to live.
Shankar regained consciousness the next morning and found himself in a small room. Ashita was on a stool beside his bed, her forehead resting on the bed. He found it comforting to see her. He called her, she was elated to see him awake.
“Where are we?” his first words, still concerned of the danger.
She took his hand into hers smilingly, “We are safe.” Then she fetched the doctor, an old woman who told him how lucky he was and how this young lady carried him there. He smiled through her pep talk, for he knew he had been saved in more than one ways.
“Thank you,” he told Ashita after the doctor left.
“If I had not joined you, you would not have gone through the perils of yesterday; ending up in bed here” guilt pained her.
“Yes, instead of this bed, I would have ended up dead in a river; hoping my insurance to cover the dues and bills.” He confessed; an involuntary tear dropped down his cheek.
She remained silent, shocked by what she had heard.
“Should not have said that to a police” he added sheepishly.
“You probably shouldn’t have, especially when you are impaired with a broken arm, crushed ribs and a bent nose. ” she managed a smile, “I have made arrangements to get you back to your city” she added.
“I thought you were gone, did the bullet not hit you?” he recollected his horror.
“Oh! This book in your backpack softened the blow” She replied taking out, ‘A guide to poorly written endings’.
The first words in that book were “Tomorrow is another day.”
Photo By: Nick Brigioni
(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)