APPARITIONS OF CRIME


Somewhere around three o’clock in the night, something woke him up. He wasn’t sure what it was.

He lay in bed for a little while; then got up and went out.

He stood under the night sky with his back to his house. The night was clear and a soft breeze was blowing. Around him, the plains stretched; bare and rolling, broken here and there by isolated clumps of trees.

He crunched up the small path leading from his house to the road in front.

The road was deserted. Nothing was in sight.

He sat down on a milestone by the side of the road; took out a cigarette and lit it.

Time passed by slowly. It was quiet and the dust under his feet moved easily.

His back was to the bare plains behind and in front lay his house looking small and shrunken under the night sky. He glanced around, liking this time of the lonely quiet road.

Some more time passed by and the cigarette was nearly finished. There was an hour still left before dawn. He thought of going back and lying down on his bed.

Just as he was getting up, he saw lights of a distant vehicle approaching from his left side. He sat down again and watched the vehicle approach.

As it came nearer, its lights piercing the dark, he could make out that it was a car. Then it passed him by as he sat by the side of the road on the milestone; its tail-lights disappearing in the dark.

He was just about getting up again when the sound of the vehicle indicated that it was slowing down.

The vehicle stopped and then started reversing towards him. He stood still.

Some twenty feet away from him, the vehicle came to a stop on one side of the road.

The driver’s door opened and a man got out.

The man closed the door and started walking slowly towards him. The man appeared to be watching him carefully as he did so.

Then suddenly the man stopped; his movement uncertain. Abruptly, the man turned around, quickly walked away, started the car and drove off.

The tail-lights of the car started dwindling and its sound faded in the night.

He got up from the milestone on which he was sitting and, shrugging his shoulders, started walking towards his house.

He had walked about ten paces when he heard a loud crash.

He turned around quickly; startled by the sound. The crash had come from the direction in which the car had gone.

Quickly, he started his pickup van and drove up the road in the direction from which the crash had come.

He scanned the road on either side as he drove.

Then he saw the car. It had missed the turn and had run down the ditch by the side of the road; climbing nearly halfway up to the other side before coming to a stop.

He stopped his van and went up to the crashed car.

The night sky, by this time, had been lighted up by the approaching dawn. He saw the man lying face down in the ditch, apparently flung from the vehicle by the impact of the crash.

He stood there, under the breaking dawn, feeling the soft breeze on his face as he looked at the immobile body.

He first went towards the car and looked inside. It appeared to be empty.

Slowly, he walked over to the immobile body and turned it over. One side of the head was covered in blood. He backed away. Then, gathering his breath, he moved forward and checked for the pulse.

The man was dead.

He stood up and looked around. The plains around him were deserted. The road was empty.

He went back to the car and started checking it. In the trunk, there was an unlocked suitcase. He opened it. There were clothes and some toilet articles inside. Nothing else. He put the suitcase back and closed the trunk.

He decided to take one last look inside the car. In the half light, he looked carefully; but couldn’t see or find anything. He turned to walk away. As he did so, something caught his eye.

He bent down and pulled out a thin briefcase from under the driver’s seat. The briefcase was locked.

He walked over to the dead body. In the left pocket of the trousers, he found the key ring. When he tried the keys; one of them fitted and the briefcase opened.

His hands froze. There were wads of currencies lying inside the open briefcase. He couldn’t take his eyes away from it.

It was just at that moment that he heard a small sound from behind him.

Slowly he turned. On the other side of the road, a man sat on a milestone looking at him. A rifle lay loosely across his knees. The man didn’t say anything. He just sat there and looked at him.

It had become much lighter now and he could see the sitting man clearly.

A silent scream rose inside him.

The man sitting by the side of the road looked exactly like him.

His breath stuck in his throat. Slowly he backed away from the car; trying to build up distance between the man sitting at the side of the road and himself.

The man on the other side of the road just kept looking at him.

He was panting now. He darted his eyes to where his pickup van lay a little behind on the road.

Suddenly he broke into a wild run towards where the van lay. Panting and shaking, nearly blinded by the sweat pouring down his face, he somehow managed to start his van and turn around in a swirl of dust and screeching tyres…..

He woke up with a start; frightened by the dream. For some time he lay in the bed; his mouth dry and the tongue swollen. Slowly he regained his composure.

It looked like he had overslept again. Strong light was filtering in from behind the blinds of his window.

He looked at the clock on the side table. Nine o’clock.

He clambered to get out of the bed; and as he did so, he stumbled over something on the floor.

A briefcase lay open on the floor with wads of currencies in it…

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Small Talk

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He opened the window and leaned against it.

The night outside was quiet.

She put the glass down by the bedside and lit a cigarette.

“If you don’t mind, I like to be paid in advance.”

He took out his wallet, counted out the money and put it by her side. She checked the amount and dropped it in her purse.

She looked around the room. Her gaze lingered on the rows of books on the shelf.

“You don’t look the type,” she remarked.

He stretched his arms behind on the window sill.

“What type?” he asked.

“The type who would pay money for women”.

He smiled as he said, “looks can be deceptive.”

She continued looking around the room.

“What do you do,” she asked, flipping the ash off the cigarette.

“I am on study leave,” he answered.

She took another drag.

“Leave from what?”

He looked at her quizzically.

“Why would you want to know that?”

She shrugged.

He folded his arms across his chest and crossed his legs.

The clock ticked on the table nearby.

“I am on leave from the army,” he replied.

She looked at him closely and pursed her lip. Then she picked up her glass and drank some more. She put down the glass carefully on the side table.

“You don’t look the army type.”

He smiled.

“What type do I look?”

She considered him, stretching her legs.

She was wearing one of those knee length embroidered cotton skirts that he liked. The fabric rested on her shapely legs.

She didn’t answer.

“Why don’t you sit down,” she said, after a while.

He pulled the cane chair and sat down on it next to the bed.

She picked up the TV remote and fiddled with it. Then she sat up straighter, tucking her legs under her.

A small silence fell.

It was broken by her asking, “are you married?’

He leaned back and scratched his chin.

“I was married, but separated now.”

She was quiet.

She studied her fingernails, “mind if I ask why?”

He rubbed his face.

“May be because she was very intelligent, highly qualified. I wasn’t offering her much”.

“She is doing well now,” he added casually.

It was quiet again.

Abruptly, she swung her legs off the bed and stood up.

“Mind if I see if there is anything to eat?”

“Help yourself,” he replied with a smile.

He heard the sound of the refrigerator door being opened. After a few minutes, she came back with a plate of green salad.

He got up and switched on the night lamp; turning off the main light. Then he went out and switched off the outside lights. When he came back, he found her nibbling on a tomato slice.

“You are right,” he said sitting down again.

“Right about what?” she asked laconically, still nibbling on the tomato slice.

“Well, not fully right; – but partially right. I am not the hired woman type.”

“Then why did you bring me?”

“To talk,” he answered.

She looked up at him but didn’t say anything.

“Its been sometime since I talked to someone, specially a woman.”

She looked him up and down and then went back to eating.

“I don’t think you would find it difficult to get a woman to talk to – without paying,” she remarked after sometime.

He didn’t say anything.

“You bring in women regularly? ………For talking as you say….,” she added with a little emphasis.

He laughed.

“You are the first one for whom I have paid.”

“Well I am flattered.”

She turned to look at him, putting the plate aside.

“And may I ask what made you give me this honour. I am an ordinary looking girl, aren’t I?” She lifted her eyebrows and smiled.

He rested his face on his palm and looked at her.

“You smile a lot.”

She inclined her face and the falling strands of her hair hid her expression.

“Did it surprise you that I am ….how do you put it…yes; … that I am a woman for hire?”

“Not really,” he answered.

“I don’t have anything against hired women”.

They are often better company,” he added.

She laughed, “Well, you seem to know a lot about hired ones, given that I am your first one!”

He smiled. “I have friends who have been around.”

She looked at him – made as if to say something; but didn’t.

Then she picked up the TV remote again and switched on the TV, toning the volume down, selecting a movie

“I am not a regular,” she said as she watched the movie.

“What?”

“I said, I am not a regular.”

She was still looking at the TV.

“I have a few customers who treat me well and are nice in their way.”

He shrugged.

“As I said, I don’t have anything against the oldest profession.”

He put his legs on the bed, stretching them.

Someone was firing a gun in the movie.

“Have you ever killed anyone??” she asked suddenly

His face changed. He didn’t answer.

“Sorry! At times I say stupid things……”

“I don’t think I should have asked that,” she said after a while.

He was looking at his hands.

“Its alright – maybe even a natural question to a soldier,” he said quietly.

He looked up at her, his eyes veiled now.

He thought of the elite counter strike group that he commanded. A blur of visions and memories passed in his mind.

He then smiled, as if ruefully.

“Killing is bad business,” he said.

He watched her slender fingers working the remote.

Suddenly she slapped her palms together and said in a grave voice, “bad business”.

“Bad business,” she repeated gravely.

He lifted his eyebrows, puzzled.

“What bad business?” he asked.

“See, I killed a mosquito! Bad business!”

He laughed and nodded, “point taken ma’am”.

She got up and walked around the room barefooted, picking up things here and there.

Then she sat down again and watched TV.

He went out of the room and washed his face and hands. He came back rubbing his face with a hand towel.

“You can use the bathroom if you want,” he told her.

“Were you ever afraid?” she asked abruptly.

“What?”

“I said…. were you ever afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

“Afraid of dying, – getting killed in battle.”

He got up and picked a book, turning its pages.

His face was in shadows.

He sat down again.

“Some in the army put it this way,” he said, still playing with the pages.

“There are three types. First is what we call the A types – those who feel fear but often become more careful because of it. They make good fighters”.

“Then there are what we call D types. Not many of these. They don’t know much fear – they may do extra-ordinary in battle, but can blunder also.”

He paused.

“Then there are what we call Q types”.

“What’s a Q type?” she asked.

He looked at the floor, “Q type is difficult to kill; and – finds it easy to kill”.

“Why so?”

“Can’t really say; – maybe because they rely much on instinct. Instinct often finds a solution where none appears.”

She had switched off the TV and was looking at him. Their eyes held.

“What type are you?”

He smiled, “I don’t know.”

She looked long at him and then lay down on the bed.

“I am not a nice person. I can be a real pain; especially to those whom I like,” she said slowly looking at the ceiling; – and then turned on her side to watch him.

He laughed out aloud.

“You should laugh more. You look different when you do,” she said, her fingers tracing lines on the bed.

“Different?”

“You look much younger.”

He didn’t say anything.

“And you have nice eyes,” she went on.

He got up. “I’ll get dinner for you”, he said.

“I am not hungry. Sit down. Let’s talk some more – I am liking it.”

He sat down.

“Tell me; – what would you like to do when you leave the army,” she asked, cupping her face.

“I would like to be a lawyer,” he replied.

She burst out in tinkling laughter.

“Why do you laugh,” he asked.

“A lawyer with nice eyes! The thought made me laugh!”

He grinned.

Then he got up again. “Listen, its getting late. I’ll warm some dinner for us.”

He was away for some time, – selecting things from the refrigerator and taking his time in putting together what he hoped would be a presentable dinner.

When he came back in the room; she was sleeping – breathing evenly and deeply. He stood looking at her; then put a cover over her.

He went back to the kitchen and had his meal there. Then he went to the sitting room and went to sleep in the reclining chair.

Very early in the morning, he heard suppressed, subdued sounds. He pretended to be asleep. After sometime, he heard her passing out through the door.

When she had left; he got up and went inside the room.

On the side table lay a piece of paper.

Something was written on it in bold and capital.

It read, “ALL TALK  AND  NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY!!”

Beneath it, there was something further in a neat flowing hand –  “Q types are dangerous – the money is under the pillow….”

THE BUS WHICH WENT TO THE MOUNTAINS

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The road twisted now – broken here and there. It was narrow with wide expanses of dirt and bare earth on either side. But it was well shaded with branches of densely grown trees hanging over it.

Shaded as it was, it was pleasantly cool and comforting.  He walked along, a tall lean man, his boots leaving imprints on the powdery, padded dust.

His eyes roamed the road ahead, but it was bare and devoid of any human form.

Somewhere ahead, in the distance, lay the mountains.

On either side of the road, between the trees, could be seen expanses of planted fields interspersed with thickets and lines of trees. Hidden from sight, a water pump worked; its regular monotonous sound hanging in the air.

There were squirrels on the road, nibbling and then taking quick flight as he came near.  He could hear the birds on the trees around and see them swirling over the fields on either side.

He took out his water flask and drank long and deep.

It was a moment seeping into his consciousness and he wished it to prolong.

As he walked ahead, however; suddenly, with a tinge of disappointment, he saw a human figure sitting on the right side of the road on something that looked like a big stone or boulder.  The figure was clad in white and, as he drew near, he saw that it was an old man, wearing glasses,  with a walking stick lying on the ground by his side.

The old man was looking contemplatively straight ahead towards the fields on the other side of the road and didn’t seem to be aware of his approaching presence.

Slowly he continued walking up the road.

He drew close to the old man and thought of passing him by.  Just then, the old man turned his head, looked at him and smiled.  He stopped.

“Lovely day”, he said, smiling back at the old man.

The old man nodded his head.

“Yes, especially this time of the year when the fields are planted and the weather is turning cool, it becomes quite beautiful,” the old man replied, lifting his head to look up at the sky where scattered tufts of clouds lay.

He put his hands in his pocket, looking around.

“The road perhaps could be in a better condition,” he said after a while.

The old man shifted slightly on his seat and looked up and down the road.

“Further on, it gets much worse.  Till this point, it’s still not all that bad”, the old man replied.

He stood there, not knowing what more to say and thought of moving on; when behind him, on the road, he heard the sound of an approaching vehicle.  He turned sideways, watching the road behind.

“It’s the bus.  It passes through around this time of the day.  It’s a little late today,” the old man said, bending forward to look down the road.

The bus was now in sight as it turned the bend.

As they watched, the bus reached them.

On an impulse, he lifted his hand for the bus to stop.

The bus stopped on the side of the road.

“I think it’s better to get on the bus,” he told the old man.

The old man smiled and nodded.

He walked rapidly towards the bus and climbed into it.

The bus was largely empty.  A couple of persons were sitting in the front, their back to him.

A bearded, thickset man of indefinite years, wearing something like a uniform was sitting on the back seat.  Probably the conductor, he thought; which was confirmed when the fellow took out a whistle and blew it.  The bus started forward with a jerk.

He sat down.

After sometime, he noted that the road – if it could be called a road anymore – had become much more broken. The bus lurched from side to side as it tediously negotiated the broken stretches. He bumped and swayed hard on his seat.

He tried looking out the window. The planted crops were much less now and it was more of a growing wilderness. He felt uncomfortable.

He had never come this far on the road.

As the bus bumped hard into a pothole again, he regretted getting on the bus.  For some time he sat undecided and then, finally making up his mind, stood up and walked down the bus to the conductor.

“I’m sorry, but I would like to get down.  Could you please get the driver to stop the bus,” he told the conductor, a little apologetically.

The bearded fellow looked up at him, scratched his chin and took out the whistle again – blowing it sharply.

The bus slowed down and stopped on the side of the road.

He got down and took out the water flask and drank deeply.

The bus started and moved on slowly up the road, finally disappearing from sight.

He turned around and started walking down the road towards where he had come from.

After some time, he felt he was close to the spot where he had seen the old man sitting.  He walked slowly and quietly now, trying to avoid being sighted if the old man was still there.

Then suddenly his saw the spot where he had got on the bus and – with relief – noted that the old man was no longer sitting there.

He walked rapidly down the road now, crossing the spot where he had met the old man.  It was getting on towards evening and the fields on the either side were golden with the evening sun.

As he slowly disappeared down the road; the old man, hidden by a tree, watched him going back as he himself had done many years ago; looking so much the same…….

Standing there silently, the old man wondered if he could still catch the bus – the bus which went to the mountains.

                                           …………..

BEYOND THE MIRRORS

Village fields

“Look, look !” His older cousin excitedly grabbed his hand.

Rahul Bhardwaj followed his cousin’s pointing finger.

About hundred yards away, standing before a secluded bamboo grove was a tall figure in dhoti and ganjee with his back to them.

“See, that’s Bansul Kaka, there!”

The figure did seem like Baldev Kaka, more often called Bansul Kaka by his cousin and others.

“See, that’s his latest lady !” The cousin continued.

As he looked more closely, indeed he could make out the figure of a woman that seemed to be standing in front of Baldev Kaka.

“See, see!”

Baldev Kaka seemed to be touching this woman. At least, his hands seemed to be on her. Exactly what Baldev Kaka was doing, he couldn’t be sure as the distance was too great.

The cousin was older to him by 5 – 6 years, but they were good friends. The cousin had come to live with them in the city where Rahul Bhardwaj’s father had got him enrolled in a prestigious school. But the cousin’s talent for getting into mischief was far too great as compared to that for learning and after a couple of challenging years, the cousin had to depart for the village again. But the time spent together had been some great fun for Rahul Bhardwaj.

“Bansul Kaka is polishing them off at the rate of twice daily”, the cousin snickered. Rahul Bhardwaj found this difficult to believe. Baldev Kaka was nearly 70 years old; but yes, he did look amazingly fit for his years.

Baldev Kaka and the woman were inside the bamboo grove now and nothing more could be seen of them.

“That one is his current favourite. Simariya is her name. But he keeps changing his favourites. This one, Simariya, is really good!” The cousin continued.

“How does he manage that?” Rahul Bhardwaj asked.

“Bansul Kaka is in charge of the store. All these women from the nearby villages who come to work here get their payment through Bansul Kaka. That makes it easy for Bansul Kaka. He will give them 5 kg of extra grain and polish them off in return. That’s how he does it.” The cousin replied.

“Had never imagined Baldev Kaka to be such a scoundrel ! He’s bloody raping them for their poverty ! Rahul Bhardwaj angrily retorted.

“What about Baldev Kaka’s family ? Don’t they mind it ?” Rahul Bhardwaj asked again.

“Baldev Kaka’s family doesn’t live here. But wouldn’t have mattered a fuck even if they had lived here. Such happenings are not uncommon. Most of us here grow up on these women. Once I had tried with Simariya. But you know, they are surprisingly strong ! She just held my hand in a vice like grip and I couldn’t do anything. So strong was the hold.”

Later in the day, as they were walking around in the joint family holdings; a group of women was coming down the path from the nearby village.

“They have come to work on the corn that has come from the fields and there, there, the second one from the front, – that is Simariya ! ” The cousin, walking alongside, said in a low tone.

Rahul Bhardwaj looked. And he was impressed.

Rahul Bhardwaj was in an elite university in a big city. Grandmother’s death had brought him, along with his father, to the ancestral village. Rahul Bhardwaj was finding the stay tedious, with hardly anything to do and the heat unbearable minus the air conditioner. The only saving grace was the small library, which along with a miscellaneous store was housed in a single floor building which stood to one side; – somewhat isolated from the rest of the randomly scattered low buildings housing the joint family.

It was there in this library the next day when, early in the morning, Baldev Kaka came in.

“Babua, I have to go suddenly to the town on some urgent business. If anyone comes wanting anything from the store, then tell that person that I shall be back by evening,” Baldev Kaka told him with his usual affectionate smile.

Baldev Kaka was a cheerful person and always affectionate to him.

“Yes Kaka,” Rahul nodded his head.

“Just in case if anything is urgently needed from the store, here are  the duplicate keys. But be careful before letting anyone take out any stuff from the store,” Baldev Kaka added.

Rahul Bhardwaj nodded his head again.

Rahul Bhardwaj looked at the departing back of Baldev Kaka. Then he read for some time, but started feeling sleepy as the heat mounted with the day. He slept for some time, but then couldn’t sleep any more. He got up to forage in the library, hoping to find something to his taste.

The cousin had left yesterday.

“Going to get some stuff. Will be back in a couple of days,” he had told Rahul Bhardwaj before leaving.

Rahul Bhardwaj’s father was to come back again in 3-4 days. He hoped the cousin would be back in time and wondered about the “stuff” that he was going to bring.

He was rummaging in the shelves, when he heard someone coming up the steps to the verandah of the building.

“Is Baldev Maalik here?” He heard a woman’s voice asking, and came out to see who it was.

It was Simariya.

“No, Baldev Kaka is not here. He had to go to town on some urgent business this morning. He’ll be back by evening.”

Simariya looked uncertain and made as if to go.

“Is it anything important,” he asked her.

She turned back slightly. “Baldev Maalik had said that the store required cleaning and as I didn’t have any work today, I thought I would clean it today.” Simariya answered, holding herself sideways, not looking at him.

Close up, she looked even better.

He stood looking at her.

She turned as if to leave.

“Wait, Baldev Kaka has left the store keys with me. You can clean it if you want,” he told her.

She looked hesitant.

“Maybe better to wait for Baldev Kaka to come back,” he said, pursing his lips.

He turned to go back to his room. He came out again quickly.

Simariya was walking away.

“Wait, come back.”

Simariya stopped and came back.

“There’s an old broken pitcher lying in my room. Pick it up and throw it somewhere as you go.” He told her.

She slowly nodded her head.

He entered his room and as she came inside, caught her hand.

Simariya froze, resistance and protest growing on her.

“……….I had once tried with her. She just held my hand in a vice like grip. I could hardly move my hand and had to let go of her.”

Rahul Bhardwaj quickly put his left hand also on her hand which he was already holding by his right hand.

The new currency note of rupees thousand – which was clearly visible when he had briefly taken his left hand away – now lay pressed on her hand by his left hand.

Simariya’s hand now stayed – limp and passive – in Rahul Bhardwaj’s hands.

______x_____

  1. Dhoti is often worn by Indian men, particularly village men, as a lower body garment.
  2. Ganjee is a kind of vest.
  3. Kaka refers to uncle.
  4. Babua is a term of endearment for a young boy or male.
  5. Malik refers to the employer or owner.

A NIGHT ON THE ROAD

It was a strong sturdy vehicle. Its headlights pierced the darkness ahead as the vehicle steadily moved on.

The vehicle was empty except the driver.

The night was quiet. The fields on either side of the road were bathed in moonlight. No other vehicle had been met with for quite sometime now.

The road ahead was broken and he slowed the vehicle; pulling it to the side to avoid the rougher patches. The night wind drifted in and the headlights cut through the fields as the vehicle angled across the road negotiating the broken surface.

On an impulse he stopped and pulled down the window to his right while keeping the engine on. The headlights looked strange and isolated in the night. He switched the engine off; keeping only the parking lights on.

The cool breeze played upon his face and bare forearms. He sat quietly looking at the fields on either side. Slowly as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could make out the landscape. Much of the fields were bare, lit by the moonlight. Clumps of trees stood in pooled shadows.

He looked long at the shadows; then shook his head and looked away.

Opening the door, he got out and went around to the back of the vehicle. He stood looking down the road. Nothing was to be seen. He went back to the front of the vehicle. The road ahead, after some distance, was lost in darkness.

The usual night sounds were missing. It was quiet and empty; except for the occasional drift of wind brushing across his face.

He walked around in an aimless manner; his shoes crunching the surface underneath. Of a sudden, he realized he had walked a considerable distance up the road. On turning, he saw the shadow of his vehicle; the moonlight glancing off its metallic grillwork. Under the open sky, it stood perched on the nook of the road, somber and silhouetted.

He looked up at the sky, watching the full pale moon.

Then he walked back quickly to the vehicle; got in and turned the ignition on. The engine revved in; its measured confident sound assuring him. He switched on the headlights and moved ahead.

The road was isolated and he increased the speed.

He felt it now. About 20-30 minutes further on it should be.

Thoughts meandered in his head. The image of a late winter afternoon came again and again; when, as a child, he sat reading a book alone in the secluded, tree shaded rear balcony of his home.

He sensed it nearer now.

As the road straightened out, he saw it.

In the desolate bareness, it sat; a small roadside eating place on the right side of the road about 500m ahead.

Though it was late in the night – 12.45 exactly as he looked at his luminous dial – the place appeared quietly alive.

On both sides of this place, the road was bare; except for a single tree whose spreading branches lay a little to the back and side of it. A glow of yellow light tingled in front of it; possibly that of a lantern.

It was a low structure. He could make out bare fields on either side; barren and uncovered. Yet as he looked more closely, the vehicle nearer now; he could make out, after about 50m behind this eating place, a dark shadowy patch stretching behind in the distance and lost in the night; as if made by dense clump of trees.

He was upon this place now. Slowing down, he looked in the rear view mirror. The moonlit road was silent behind. He crossed over to the right side of the road.

It was a small place. Not too long. In front of it, the bare earth had been packed down and on it some small round tables and chairs lay. The end further away from him was in shadows. At the nearer end, a large lantern hung illuminating the front where the tables and chairs lay.

He eased the vehicle over to the far end; parking it on the side of the road in the darkness.

He sat in the vehicle, watching the place. In the corner where the lantern lay, some food utensils were sitting on a counter and, separated by a distance, a coal fire was glowing. There didn’t seem to be anyone around.

As he watched, the shadows behind the counter, where the utensils lay, seemed to shift as if someone was moving behind it.

He opened the door and got out; shutting it behind him.

He moved across to the front of the place. As he did so, the darkened corner seemed to come alive with a presence.

He walked to where the lantern hung and stood standing in front of the counter, facing the shadows.

Out of the shadows emerged a figure. A thin old man.

“Would there be still anything to eat?” he asked the old man.

The old man nodded and pointed to a table in front.

He went to the table standing on the packed bare earth; illuminated by the lantern and pulled out a chair. He checked for dirt on the chair and, surprisingly, found none, either on the chair or the table.

He sat down with his back facing the vehicle.

The thin old man walked across to his table and put down an empty glass and a jug of water. Then he went back and got busy getting the food ready.

The man from the vehicle for a while watched him. Then his eyes shifted to his left and he studied the shadows in the other half of the place which had come alive as he had crossed it.

He could make out nothing in the shadows but there was presence, or presences there. Shifting presences, which seemed to grow even as he watched. But he saw nothing.

The old man was walking towards him and set the food before him.

The smell was good and the food wholesome looking.

He started eating. The old man came out with further servings. Everything was normal; except that once when he lifted his eyes to ask for something, his eyes locked suddenly with that of the old man.

An abyss opened somewhere; dark and fathomless.

He breathed easy and deep. The old man abruptly turned away.

He called for tea and sat sipping it; turning once to check his vehicle.

The man behind the counter, as he stood handling the utensils, no longer looked thin. Somehow his face and frame was fuller now and a kind of shadow seemed to fall over his face concealing his eyes.

The shadowed corner to his front and left was fully alive now; as if trying to touch him.

He let everything go in his mind and soul and stood up stretching like a wolf. He opened his mouth deep as he did so, as if in a yawn, but no sound came and the teeth bared in a snarl.

From the darkened patch behind the place, as if from the thick grove of trees, started a wail, soft low and sweet at first; then lifting and building in a strange howling melancholy.

He leapt down the bare fields at the back of the place and started running towards the grove of shadowed trees. As he did so, he felt a multitude of teeming mass surge down pursuing him.

He ran, leaping and twisting and then abruptly turned. The surging seething mass stopped; a fury reaching out to him from it. He threw his head back and laughed; a deep cascading laugh which spread out in the darkness.

Then he walked towards the seething mass; smiling as he did so. The black shadows stood their ground and at the last moment, pulled back and receded. He stood still.

Then in deliberate steps and manner; he turned back and entered the darkened grove.

Someone or something hit him then. He could not see what or who. It was a stunning blow and he lay on the ground, trying to recoup.

He willed the pain to the back of his mind and climbed to his feet.

The air was oppressive and he was having difficulty breathing. All round him, the darkness seemed suffused with a dark cold fury.

He wet his lips. From nowhere, the image came again, of himself as a child, sitting in the late winter afternoon in the rear balcony with sound of birds around and noise of his mother calling out to someone in the house behind.

He started singing. A song, whose words he loved and the melody of which caressed his mind whenever he heard it. The song came easily and naturally and he moved ahead in the darkness, singing softly.

The cold dark pantheon around him grew till it was all total darkness and he could see nothing.

But the song was on his lips and he moved singing it. In small steps, feeling the ground, he walked, as he had walked when he held his mother’s hand as a child, and moved forward.

The lifting darkness watched; then erupted in fury.

Dark writhing tentacles of shadows seethed; seeking to hold him by the throat. Surging wails and moans filled the night.

He walked, still softly singing. He let it come out which lay inside; desolate empty barrenness.

His emptiness stretched as it was inside him. Now and then he stumbled; but corrected himself.

The seething fury touched and engulfed him.

He felt himself growing numb and infinitely tired.

But his emptiness around him kept growing and abruptly the dark swirling, seething, snarling mass moved as if in a cataclysmic frenzy; lifted itself from him and vanished.

He turned back and looked at the road. It was all dark now. There was no lantern light anymore. The eating place was still there but emanated lifelessness and silence.

The still of the night was broken by a phone ringing. His cell phone; left behind in the vehicle.

Stumbling he ran towards the road; hastily opened the door and lifted his cell phone.

“The child is still breathing and they say there is hope”, the voice at the other end told him.

He breathed deeply and put the phone down on the seat.

After a while, the phone went silent; as was the night outside.

—–0—–

THE WELL ON THE HILL

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The sound seemed distant, yet near.

A rhythmic, low sound – mingling with the sound of crickets and the breeze – and constantly pulsating in the depth of the night.

He walked to the window of his flat on the second floor and looked out. Beyond the boundary wall of the apartment building, lay a park. Adjacent to the park, was a large enclosed plot in semi-wilderness. The sound seemed to be coming from this plot.

It was a strangely soothing sound; like the sound made by winches on old-fashioned wells, when they were worked to draw water from the well.

As he stood at the window, listening; his eyes fell on the security guard – the Nepali, Thapa – sitting at his usual place. After a thought, he came out of his flat and went down to where the security guard was sitting.

The guard got up as he approached.

“Can you hear, from that direction, any sound resembling that of water being drawn from a well,” he smilingly asked the guard pointing in the direction of the semi-wild plot.

The guard listened intently for a while; then shook his head in the negative.

–2–

Next day, on his morning walk; he worked his way to the plot from where he had heard the sound in the night. There were no approach roads to it and he had to cross a number of plots – where building constructions were going on – to reach it.

It seemed to be a large plot, enclosed by a boundary wall broken in a number of places. The space inside resembled a mini jungle; thickly covered by bushes, trees and shrubs. He found a spot where the boundary wall was broken. Two women were cutting grass near it.

As he was entering the plot, one of the women called out, “There are snakes in there sahib. We have just seen a big, old Cobra.”

He smiled and nodded; and went inside.

Carefully he worked his way to the spot from where he had thought the sound had come last night.

At first, he did not see anything. But as he searched; he saw it – a small, dilapidated well hidden by thick shrubs. He walked up to it.

It was a monsoon month. The day was still young. The air was heavy with the damp pungent smell of the earth and the greenery around. Butterflies flitted around in the soft breeze.

As he stood there, looking at the old broken well; a strangely soothing, yet desolate, feeling enveloped him. He cleared out a small space at the edge of the broken well and sat down.

He sat there for a long time, his reverie finally broken by the sound of a heavy vehicle starting up in one of the construction plots nearby.

Slowly he got up and left.

In the afternoon, on an impulse, he went out and bought a small bunch of flowers. He made his way to the old, broken well – this time no one was around – and placed the flowers on the ground near the well.

After about a month, he left to join his special unit in the Army. But while he was there; he heard that sound – as when the winch is worked to draw water from old-fashioned wells – often in the dead of the night and, frequently, he would walk up to the old, broken well and sit there; drawn by that strangely soothing, yet desolate, feeling surrounding the well.

–3–

He scanned the hillside through his night vision binoculars. Nothing suspicious could be seen.

Scattered around him, as per his instructions, were the men from his special strike unit. The target lay in the valley ahead.

The valley was too narrow and the surrounding hillsides too close. An ideal place for any ambush, he thought.

It was time to go in to hit the target. Everything seemed to be in clear.

Yet he delayed.

From time to time, his second-in-command looked at him but said nothing.

There was a sense of uneasiness in him; making him delay.

And as he waited; suddenly, he heard it, again; – the sound made by the working of the winch on a well. It seemed to be coming from a number of spots on the hillsides.

He listened intently. There was no mistaking it. The sound was the same.

He turned around to his second-in-command and asked in a low whisper, “Do you hear any unusual sound from the hillsides ahead?”

The second-in-command took his time listening.

“No Sir”, he replied in an undertone.

But the sound was there, same as he had heard it before – pulsating rhythmically in the night, mingling with the other night sounds.

He took his decision and gave the command to withdraw. His men looked puzzled but no one said anything.

As he withdrew with his men, the message came from the base.

“WITHDRAW IMMEDIATELY. ENEMY ALERT AND SITTING IN AMBUSH ON THE HILLSIDES.”

He had the message shared with his men.

Back at the base, he asked his men if any of them had heard anything unusual on the hillsides that enclosed the target valley.

No one had.

–4–

Next day he met the mission commander.

“You know something interesting? Those buggers have cleared out from the area and they seem to have done it in great hurry”, the mission commander started.

“We have it from our source that they got spooked badly in the night by some strange sound and being highly superstitious; they have cleared the area in a jiffy,” the commander continued.

“Any information as to what kind of sound it was Sir?”, he asked.

The senior officer stroked his chin, “The sound seemed to be that when water is drawn from old-style wells and it seemed to be coming from all over the hillsides. At least this is what as per information given by our source.”

Both of them were quiet.

“Strange that none of you heard any such sound,” the other man then remarked.

He did not say anything.

In his mind’s eye, he saw that old broken well, hidden by shrubs, and wondered when next, if ever again, he would hear that sound…..

–x–

THE THIN LINE

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On the road ahead, he saw nothing but a building haze and dense trees on either side.  It was still early evening, but the growing mist or fog,  whatever it was, had considerably reduced visibility.

He switched on the headlights – and then, the fog lamps.

Driving was becoming increasingly tedious.  Not only was visibility bad; but the road was also narrow and twisting.

And then, a slow drizzle started, which made it worse.

The haze had come quickly and unexpectedly.

He had planned to pass through, but realized that he would have to find a place to stop at, and find it quickly.

He remembered the place and took care to locate the turn when he came to it.  An even narrower road, more uneven and broken, branched off to the left.  He took this turn and after driving for another fifteen to twenty minutes, came to a wooden gate on his left.

He stopped the vehicle and got out to open the gate.  After putting the vehicle inside, he carefully closed the gate and drove up the path.

The tyres crunched the gravel.

There were grass lawns and flower beds on either side of the path; well lit by a number of lamp posts.  Up ahead, there was an open portico herding a cheerful looking ambling cottage.

He drove up to the portico, stopped the vehicle and got out.

Flowerpots lay all around.  A wide door, painted white, framed the entrance to the cottage.

As he was in the act of walking up to this door, – it opened and a man came out, looking vaguely familiar.

“Hello, good evening,” he addressed the man who had come out, “the mist came down suddenly thick and heavy and I had to stop.  Is it all right if I park my vehicle near your house for the night?”

The man crossed his arms across his chest.  He was tall, somewhere in his mid-fifties.  He was wearing a light-coloured tweed jacket, dark trousers with a silk scarf knotted at his throat.  He looked distinguished.

“Of course, I would be sleeping inside the vehicle,” he added.

The man continued to look at him and then gave an imperceptible nod.  “Come on inside”, he said quietly with a smile.

Inside, it was warm and cheerful, almost like home.

The host was courteous with a demeanour which was infectiously relaxing.  He was shown a washroom and, after he had finished, found himself in a comfortable sofa in the front room.

The conversation was routine.  It came out that the house belonged to the host and that he had been living there for a number of years.

Sitting in the sofa, he found himself feeling pleasantly tired and must have nodded off; for the host suddenly insisted that he should take his dinner and then retire for the night.  He mumbled a polite refusal, but the host was insistent.

After dinner, he was shown to a small bedroom, – again warm and cheerful.

From the window of this bedroom, he could see the night outside – dark and cold.
“Thank you, it’s a cold night outside.”

The host was in the act of leaving the room, but hearing this, he paused and turned around. He smiled, “No need to say thanks. Just a thin wall from the night outside.” Then he turned and went away after wishing him good night.

He stood near the bed, alone in the neatly furnished room – slightly uneasy. The parting remark of the host, as also the host himself, seemed vaguely familiar.

But he was tired and quickly fell asleep.

He wasn’t sure what woke him up.
Suddenly, he was awake.
It was quiet.
The house was peaceful.

He lay in the bed, then looked at the window. Curtains were drawn across it, but not fully, and the night outside was visible from a slight gap between the drawn curtains.

On an impulse, he got up and looked outside – and instantly froze.

A number of persons were moving outside. But there was no sound. Only one or two lamp posts were burning now and it was dark – so dark that it made the figures look like silhouettes.

But then, there was no sound. They moved in total silence, randomly, like shadows and he found himself holding his breath.

It was a dream like sequence outside; peculiarly soothing.

He sank down on his knees, his chin resting on the window sill.
He didn’t know exactly when he fell asleep again. The cold woke him up and he stumbled to his feet with a start. Hastily he peered outside – but there was nothing out there – just the fog hanging heavy and dimming the one or two lamp posts that were still alight.

He looked at his watch. It was nearly morning now. He tidied himself up, put on his shoes and then, treading slowly, came out of his room.

The house had an empty feeling. Slowly and carefully he made his way around. The place had a different look now – though still quiet, but as if empty – without anyone living there.

He stood in the front room, looking around; and as he did so, it grew to be morning. He parted the curtains and let in the morning light. Somehow, he was reluctant to switch on the electric lights.

A book lay open on a side table. He picked it up.

Two lines, heavily underscored, caught his eye.

It read, “The line between the good and the evil is thin, surprisingly thin. Both are compellingly driven, and therefore so much more close than we think.”

He turned to the title of the book and looked at the name of the author.

He put down the book.

He came out of the Cottage, closing the front white door carefully.

To the side of the wooden door, which he had somehow not noticed in the night, hung a wooden placard which gave the information that the author of the book that he had picked up a while ago had lived in this house – and the place had been converted into a memorial house after the author’s death.

As he walked away, idly he wondered why he had not recognized himself the other night – for the name of the author was his.

Was it because of the thin line in between………………