The Long Sho(r)t by Varun Bhakay: The Novelist of the ‘H’ Order

Shiv Chinappa is the author of two best-sellers. He is also heartbroken, high, and perhaps even hallucinating. This is his story.

Advertisements

Based on a step-outline (for a conceived screenplay) ‘THE NOVELIST’ by Varun Bhakay


CONTENT ADVISORY

All characters, places and events are fictitious. Though you will find a few pop culture references.

Contains Profanity and Drug Abuse, neither of which the writer endorses or promotes or whatever.

“You’ve been warned!”


A massive thank-you to Nikhil Bhagwat for his much-appreciated help. And to those of you who unknowingly serve as inspirations for certain characters.


1

JOINT

The neighbourhood was filled with estates. Huge ones. Their estate was the largest on Elm Street. The boundary wall was covered in ivy. The gates were painted black and the lamp pillars were a pure white. The plaque on the left pillar said ‘5, Elm Street’ and the one on the right pillar said ‘Chinappas’. A well-rolled dirt track, lined with neat hedges and flowerbeds on either side, led to the bungalow. The track was about three hundred metres long. Daylight couldn’t penetrate the tree cover over it. The bungalow was a sight in itself. It dated back to the times of the Raj, something the architecture made clear. The exterior was of dark stone, uneven yet solid. Wooden brackets, painted grey-blue, formed part of the structure between the outer walls and the roof, which was lined with reddish tiles and had two chimneys on top. The lawn was brightly lit by little lamps whose light showed off the wonderful assortment of plants and flowers.

On the way to the bungalow, the track split into two. The right fork led towards a small hut. It was actually an old store room that had been redone for its occupant. It was exactly like the bungalow in its look. But it gave off a different vibe. Mysterious. There were a few stone steps leading up to the door, which had a metal ‘S’ hammered to it. Inside were a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchenette. The bedroom was a rather spacious one, given the size of the hut. It seemed a lot smaller than it was, mainly because of all that was crammed inside it. A plasma TV was mounted on the wall, facing the double bed. Above it was an old-fashioned clock and beneath it was a cabinet on which sat a home theatre system and a Wi-Fi router whose lights were flickering. The cabinet had two little cupboards, one labelled ‘Movies’ and the other labelled ‘Music’. There were two small cupboards mounted on the wall above the bed, labelled ‘Books 1’ and ‘Books 2’ respectively.  Facing the yellow-painted outer wall of the room was a rather cluttered desk. It had on it the weirdest assortment of objects one would expect to find on a desk: a black laptop lay in the centre; on top of it lay a pair of grey earphones, entangled; the end of the table had a line-up of motorcycles and model aircraft; an ashtray with two cigarette butts and a burning cigarette was kept in the corner; next to it was a glass bottle in the shape of a portly-looking monk with a dark red-brown liquid inside and a glass next to it; at the other edge lay a black camera case; next to the laptop was a stack of paper with two fountain pens, a Lamy and a Parker, lying on top; on the other side of the laptop was a small pile of books, The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, Carry On, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse, and Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, on top of which lay a black wristwatch and a Ray Ban case. A green card lay on a hundred-rupee note on the table. Around it were traces of a white powder and a line of it. On the wall above the desk was a piece of paper with an ‘S’ identical to the metal one on the door emblazoned on it.

On the bed lay a tall, thin young man, fast asleep on the blanket. His phone lay on a book, Airport by Arthur Hailey, next to him, face down. As the clock on the wall struck six, Linkin Park’s All For Nothing blared out of the phone’s speakers. His eyes opened suddenly. He grabbed the phone and turned the alarm off. He lay still for a few minutes, his eyes open very slightly. Then, he turned over to look at the clock above the TV. It was five minutes past six. He rose slowly and stretched. His thin frame was almost too thin. His hands shook slightly as he checked his phone before keeping it on the bedside table along with the book. He took long, measured strides to the bathroom and splashed some water on his face. He grabbed a hand towel and wiped his face dry before looking at himself in the mirror over the basin. He touched his nose gingerly: it had been broken many years ago by his elder brother. His hair was messy. His hazel eyes stared back at him, bloodshot. He looked fatigued and somewhat ill. He knew what had brought about the fatigue. The stuff hadn’t been good. And he hadn’t been able to sleep properly for weeks. The beard had grown messily. He wondered what his mother’s reaction would be if she saw him like this. She would definitely freak out. She was obsessed with him looking neat all the time. His father would probably mistake him for a tramp and throw him out of the house. Their dog would perhaps be the only one who’d be able to recognise him, and that too not because of his face. There was hardly any time to shave or anything. In any case, he didn’t expect to bump into his parents that night. He quickly combed his hair and looked at himself in the mirror again.

“Who’s the best? I’m the best. Who’s the best? I’m the best. Who’s the best? I’m the best,” he chanted, widening his eyes as he looked at himself in the mirror admiringly.

Upon completing his daily routine of satisfying his rather over-sized ego, he returned to his bedroom. He opened the wardrobe and pulled out a red hoodie. As he tucked his t-shirt into his shorts, his phone pinged twice. He zipped up the hoodie and opened the drawer of his bedside table. Inside lay a Zippo lighter and a crumpled box with a rather graphic diagram of a torso with sponges for lungs. An old-fashioned fountain pen rolled out as he opened the drawer. He opened the packet and took out the last remaining cigarette. He tapped the tobacco end of it a couple of times before lighting it. He let out a sigh of relief and let the smoke escape from his mouth. He pocketed the pen, threw the empty box in the dustbin and picked up his phone. There were two messages. He opened the first one. It was from his mother.

Making grilled chicken tonight. Should I send some down? –Ma.

He stole a quick glance at the time on his phone. His work would take some time. But his mother made the best grilled chicken in the world. There were some things that had to be sacrificed. Writing could wait. He made his decision and typed a message swiftly.

Hi, Ma. Don’t send anything. I’ll drop in around 20:30. –SC

He always signed his messages with his initials. He opened the second message.

Hey. Give me a ring when you’re free. –Tanya.

His heart skipped a beat and he smiled after ages. He quickly replied with a ‘Will do’. Maybe she was okay now. He did a little jig as he put his phone in his pocket, stubbed the half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray, grabbed his keys and wallet and opened the door. The cold wind took him by surprise. He looked up at the sky. It was murky and clouds were gathering. He locked the door and ran down the steps, covering his head with the hood. In his opinion, he looked more dangerous with the hood on. And dangerous was better. That way, people didn’t bother asking him for directions and other stupid things. It was getting dark fast. He walked up the path to the gate and saw the cook, a short, middle-aged man, enter, carrying a bag in each hand.

Kahan jaa rahe ho?” the cook enquired cheerily.

Doston se milne. Aata hoon.”

Jaate waqt light on kardo. Main kar deta par dono jhole thode bhaari hain.”

He could hear the pitter-patter of raindrops on the leaves as he turned on the lights from the switchboard mounted on the wall next to the gate. He had barely taken ten steps out of the gate when he slipped on a bit of wet mud and fell flat on his stomach. A cyclist swerved past, just about avoiding his hand.

“Watch where you’re going, dumbfuck!” he yelled after the cyclist.

He got up and walked to the light on the pillar which said ‘5, Elm Street’. He examined his hoodie in the light. The torso and arms were covered in mud. So were his shorts, socks, and shoes, not to mention his legs. He looked at his watch. It was too late to go back and change.

“Bloody cyclist. Can’t watch where he’s going. Stupid bugger!” he muttered as he set off.

It had started to drizzle now. He put his hands in his pockets and walked faster. The rain intensified. He started to jog up the street. Just as he passed the last estate, he felt his phone vibrate. He read the name flashing on the screen and groaned loudly. He swiped right nevertheless.

“Hello?”

“Hey, kid. What’s happening?”

It was his elder brother, Rajiv.

“Hi, Rajiv. Nothing. I’m out.”

“Why are you panting?”

“Because I just scaled Everest.”

“Not funny.”

“Good. You know how bad your jokes are now.”

“Seriously, where are you off to? That too at this time of day?”

He didn’t like being asked so many questions. He particularly despised being asked where he was going. The cook had already asked him that. His brother, though, was a person whose questions he could not dodge, try as he might.

“It’s not even seven. I’m off to meet a few friends,” he answered quickly.

“Would one of them happen to be Latif Pathan?” Rajiv’s tone was not inquisitive.

It was accusatory.

“No!” he replied sharply. “Why would you say that?”

“I just thought you may be off to meet him. Won’t be the first time, kid,” the older brother’s tone was now a matter-of-fact kind.

“Rajiv, I’m not off to meet Pathan,” he snarled.

“Okay, fine. I believe you,” his brother backed off. “Can you talk?”

“Not really. I’m in a bit of a hurry. Can I call you tomorrow?”

“Do that. Bye.”

“Hmm.”

He put the phone back in his pocket, punching his brother really hard in his mind.

He had spent three months in that godforsaken rehabilitation centre, yet his brother thought he was visiting his dealer.

“How typical of Rajiv!” he said to himself.

He had been walking quite fast, not paying attention to the road, and found himself in what seemed to be a completely different place than what it looked like usually. The street lights were evidently not working, rather a majority of them weren’t. He started humming a tune from one of his favourite songs: Maut by Lucky Ali. He could hear some dogs barking nearby. He saw some light and narrowed his eyes and spotted a figure lurking around under one of the functional lights. He hurried over to him, jumping over many a puddle in a fashion that made him feel like a participant of Takeshi’s Castle. The figure moved into the light as he saw his friend and customer approach.

“Finally! I thought you weren’t going to turn up at all,” he said.

“Sorry, Vijayan. As you have probably noticed, I had a little slip-up,” he pointed at his torso. “What’s the news?”

“Not too good. Prasad is on the prowl.”

“What did that faggot do now?”

“He’s determined to nail Lance and his men. He is starting to remind me of that Rahul character from Darr.”

“Are you telling me that Pathan is Juhi Chawla?”

“No. He doesn’t quite have her elegance or grace.”

“Come to think of it, Prasad is way behind Shahrukh Khan that way.”

“Of course, he is. What is it that you want?”

“Marlboro Lights. Two packs.”

“Here,” Vijayan handed him the packets.

He pocketed them.

“Thanks.”

“Where are you off to?”

Vijayan was not particularly surprised to receive a glowering glare in response to his question.

“Pathan.”

“Be careful. Prasad has set up naakabandi. You want my bike?”

“Yeah. That’d be great. Thanks.”

Vijayan pressed the keys into his hand and pointed to a black motorbike parked a few feet away. He approached it and started it up.

“Thanks again. I’ll leave it here. With the keys in the ignition.”

“Do that.”

He zoomed off towards town, rejoicing in the cold rain that splashed against his face as he rode against the wind. He avoided the isolated parts of town, thinking it best to mingle with the crowd that was likely to have gathered in the heart of the tourist hub. The rain refused to stop and he was soaked to the bone as he negotiated the dark roads after having passed hordes of tourists, the headlights often being the sole source of light. It took him roughly twenty minutes to reach his destination. The street was dark and the shops had all been closed. This part of town was known for its shadiness. An abandoned building stood on one side of the road. He parked the bike outside the building and looked up and down. There was nobody around. He crossed the road and stood there silently. He had often been accosted by drunks and beggars in this part of town. He approached a row of tin-roof huts. The latest Bollywood numbers were being played at quite a loud volume in one of them, accompanied by some of the lewdest comments he’d heard in his twenty-four years of existence. There was light right at the end of the alley. He hunched down as he entered it. There were lots of puddles and a lot of filth in the alley. He saw bottles and used syringes lying in one corner and plastic packets strewn all over the place. He walked quickly, trying to make as little noise so as to attract as little attention as possible. He passed by a second hut. From it emanated the shouts and grumblings of card players. The third hut had a young boy sitting beside an emergency lamp on a charpoy and studying while his parents sat on either side of him, watching their son frown as he confronted a math problem. Outside the fourth hut sat a middle-aged man who looked like a drifter. He was smoking a beedi.

Bhaisaab, Pathan?”

The man pointed his beedi at the hut outside the alley. The younger man nodded and approached the door. He could hear the sound of a drill being used as he approached the hut, which was larger than the ones in the alley. He raised his fist and banged thrice on the door. The drilling stopped. He heard a cloth being used to dust something off a surface. A few moments later, the door opened and the square, ugly face of Latif Pathan poked out.

Latif Khan Pathan was the de facto boss of the drug circuit in the district. He was an Afghan immigrant who had started out as a farm hand in Punjab two decades ago. He had worked his way up in almost no time and bought his own piece of land five years after migrating to India. That was where he had had his first tryst with drugs. At first, he was a small-time peddler for the drug lords of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh. By the turn of the millennium, he had become a drug lord himself, transforming into one of the major players in North India. However, the Narcotics Control Bureau started investigating him and when the going got too much to take, Pathan fled to Goa. He maintained his contacts up north, which helped him flourish in Goa till 2010, when the NCB officially charged him. However, he was tipped off by a journalist friend and he fled to the town of Madikeri in Coorg, where he had spent the last six years as a peddler. His move had made him adopt a moniker to avoid detection. It was the name of a character, a dealer like him, from a film which he liked a lot but couldn’t understand a word of. Hence, Latif Khan Pathan came to be known as Lance.

He opened the door of his hut to let his most-liked customer in.

“Writer-ji, what going on is?” Lance enveloped him in a giant hug.

“Latif bhai, the stuff you gave me last time was absolute shit. So terrible. Have you got fresh stuff?” he remarked, breaking away from his supplier as quickly as he could.

He hated such display of affection, especially from people like Lance. Plus, Lance, at six feet and four inches, was more than capable of crushing someone’s bones in his eager hugging.

“Sorry, Writer-ji. Good stuff this time. What you will take?”

“The green. Five grams.”

Lance opened a drawer and took out a transparent plastic packet which he threw across the room. It was caught by the customer who examined it in the light before opening it and taking a whiff of it.

“Else what?” Lance asked, his beady eyes dancing around at the prospect of money.

“That’s enough for now.”

“I got good thing. Powder very good, very cheap. How much?”

“Nothing.”

Arrey, Writer-ji. Thoda aur toh banta hai. Kamaal karte ho. How much pill?”

“Nothing,” the tone was commanding and Lance instantly got the feeling that he couldn’t force anything more, at least not that night, down his favourite client’s pockets. “How much do I owe you?” the client asked in a rather surly tone.

“Three and five.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?! Three-and-a-half for five grams?! You’re ripping me off!”

“Kasol it has come from.”

Still muttering, the customer took out his wallet and handed Lance five five-hundred rupee notes. He turned around to leave when Lance caught him by the arm.

“Three and five,” he growled, running his other hand over his massive bald head.

“Get your hands off me, you oaf! In case you’ve forgotten, you owe me some money. I cut that out and paid you for the stuff.”

“I pay back when I want.”

“Latif,” he grasped his hand and pulled it off his arm. “You’re not the sole dealer in Madikeri.”

The light from one of the street lights across the lane fell on the young man’s face. He looked furious. Lance took a step back.

“Okay. Okay. Lance my name is, Writer-ji. You forget always.”

“I apologise,” the voice was laced with sarcasm. “I’ll get going then. Bye bye.”

“Bye bye.”

“Writer-ji!” Lance called out from behind. “Your wallet.”

He walked back and took the open wallet from Lance’s hand. Her picture was there. Lance was staring at it.

“Who she is?”

“Your Bhabhi. Good night.”

He walked back down the alley, once again playing hop-skip-jump to avoid the puddles and the slush. He inserted the keys into the ignition of the bike and turned on the headlights, switching them over to low beam quickly. He took the pen out of his pocket and disassembled it. He held the little ink chamber in his hand with its top open. With the other hand, he drew the small packet out of his pocket and carefully emptied its contents into the little chamber, taking care not to spill even a milligram. He put the pen together and put it back in his pocket. The little plastic packet was thrown onto the ground and he started up the bike. He was in the hub of town in no time. The steady rain had reduced to a drizzle and the electricity was back on. Tea shops were crowded. The little eateries had tourists hurrying in and the more sophisticated food joints looked empty; people evidently preferred tea, bhajjis, and Maggi to the exorbitantly priced hot chocolate and pasta of the swankier, more up-market eateries. He decided to use a by-lane to avoid the haphazardly parked vehicles on the main road. As luck would have it, he heard a whistle blast as soon as he turned. He braked cautiously and stopped on the side. A policeman in a raincoat approached him.

“ID?”

He took out his wallet and handed the man his Aadhar card.

Sahib!”

A portly, moustached man walked over and had a look at the card.

“Well, well, well. Look who we have here. The literary sensation of Coorg himself.”

“Good evening, Mr Prasad.”

Superintendent Prasad looked him up and down with an expression of pure loathing on his face. He despised the fellow, who he knew was hobnobbing with the wrong kind of people. Prasad was angered by the fact that he had never managed to catch him doing something illegal. He always slipped away. What made matters worse was that the boy knew all about his attempts and always had a nasty word ready for him, the local police chief.

“And where are you off to?”

“Going home.”

“This road doesn’t lead to your place.”

“It does. I go straight down, take a left, up the slope, take a right, and another right. Home.”

“Why not take the main road?”

“Crowded. You guys evidently haven’t challaned a sufficient number of those clowns who don’t know how to park.”

“Teaching the police how to do its work?”

“Well, since they didn’t teach you that at the police academy, I suppose I am.”

“Listen, buster. Writing two sensational novels doesn’t make you a superstar.”

“Well, at least they were sensational, which isn’t a word anyone in the right state of mind would use if they had to talk about your work.”

The officer scowled at him, his features clearly outlined in the glare of the street light. He was slightly startled to receive a similar look in return.

“Search him.”

The wallet was handed over to Prasad and two constables quickly patted the boy down. One found his phone and handed it to the officer. The other found a bunch of keys and handed those over too. The first one then found the pen. Prasad examined each of the items with a great deal of interest.

“What is this?” he demanded of the boy, holding up the pen.

“That’s a pen. It’s a tool used for writing.”

Prasad glared at him and held up his phone next.

“Does this have anything that I may be interested in?”

“Mr Prasad,” he smiled devilishly, “I’m really not all that crazy about Savita Bhabhi and the likes of her. I’m sorry that you’ll be sorely disappointed if you look for anything that may interest you.”

A few policemen laughed. The officer, taken aback by the reply, mutely returned the phone and pen. He opened the wallet next and looked through the cash.

“You seem to have quite a lot of money.”

“Well, I have written two best-sellers. They bring in a fair bit of cash.”

“And do you always carry so much of it around?” the police officer found a foothold.

“It’s none of your business how much money I carry. I can carry my entire bank balance and you’ll still not have a right to ask me why I have it. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like my wallet and keys back.”

Prasad threw the wallet and keys at him. He pocketed them and started the bike up. As he was about to ride off, Prasad spoke again.

“I’ll get you some other time. I know what you’re up to.”

“Congratulations. Why don’t you save the story for your Saturday kitty party?” the cheeky retort was delivered with panache and he rode off in the rain.

He left the bike outside Vijayan’s shop and walked back home. He could hear thunder rumbling in the distance and lightning flashed across the sky every now and then. He remembered the look on Prasad’s face, stunned by the last sentence, and laughed. He went into his hut, turned on the geyser, and lit a cigarette after he had thrown the muddy hoodie in a tub. He took out his phone and checked it for any messages. There was one. It was from her. He quickly opened it.

Hey. Can you call me around 10? I’m out right now. –Tanya.

He responded instantly.

Will do.

He brushed his teeth and shaved while waiting for the water to get heated up. He continued to think about what his conversation with her was going to be like. The last time they had spoken over the phone, she had yelled and started crying before abruptly cutting the call. He was determined not to let that happen this time around. He was so lost in thought he didn’t even realise that he had been particularly careless with the razor and that his chin and his jaw had numerous small cuts. He poured the foamy water down the drain and washed his face, wincing as his hands ran over the cuts.

“That’s much better,” he said as he looked at himself in the mirror after having wiped his face dry.

The untidy beard was gone, revealing his thin, handsome face. He showered and dressed quickly. It was almost half-past eight and he knew too well the frowns that would greet him if he turned up late. As he stepped out, he realised that the rain had stopped completely. It was quite cold though, and he shivered as he walked the short distance from his hut to the bungalow. He rang the bell and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. The cook opened the door and he walked in. He heard the paws as they hit the floor noisily. His parents’ Golden Retriever, Bonkers, rushed towards him. He jumped around the boy a few times and ran between his legs, an old habit that he had had since he was a puppy. The boy stroked his back vigorously and fondled his ears. Bonkers gave him an appreciative look and barked loudly, as if to announce his dearest friend’s arrival.

“Bonkers! Come here,” came a firm voice from the drawing room.

Bonkers trotted off and he followed close behind. The drawing room had an intricately carved bar, a fine set of walnut wood furniture and a mantelpiece lined with many a souvenir, trophy and memento. There were two paintings on the wall, both done by Tanya, one a landscape of the Wular Lake and the other a portrait of Bonkers. A Kashmiri wall hanging adorned the wall over the fireplace. The flames licked the wood and danced around, crackling. Sitting in an armchair by the fire and staring deep into it was Brigadier Sanjay Chinappa. He looked up when he heard his younger son’s footsteps.

“Hi. Sit down.”

“What’s happening, Pa?”

“Nothing. Just sitting by the warm fire, enjoying my evening drink,” the retired Fauji held up his empty glass. “Want one?”

“No, thanks. I’m good.”

Brigadier Chinappa limped across the room to the bar, gesturing to his son to stay put as he got up to help, and poured himself another drink.

“What’s up with you?” he asked, closing the bottle of Vat 69 and putting it back.

“A bit of a block. Can’t understand what I want to write next.”

“Hmm. How about something pleasant, for a change?” Brigadier Chinappa asked brightly as he sank back into his armchair.

“No! Nothing pleasant! It seems too goody-goody.”

“People will get tired of your grimy streets and those whackos you call protagonists.”

“Where’s the fun in writing in a good character?” he asked.

“What’s the harm in writing one?” his father countered.

“Nobody likes a good character, Pa,” he said simply. “Apart from you,” he added hastily as his father started to speak. “It’s not just that. They are generally boring guys. You have to give them flaws. A very nice character, shiny as a button, will seem like a fool.”

“And mess with your obsessive realism, I suppose,” Brigadier Chinappa smirked.

“Yes. It would,” was the stubborn reply.

“Come for dinner, you two!” came a voice from the dining room.

“Come on. Before your mother lets Bonkers have our share,” Brigadier Chinappa lifted himself up with a grimace.

He helped his father up and supported him as they walked towards the dining room, Bonkers leading the way yet again.

“Leg aching yet again, Pa?”

“It’s a menace, this artificial thing. Should never have gotten it in the first place.”

Brigadier Chinappa had lost his right leg, from the knee downwards, after his parachute got pulled towards an electrical pole and tore off, resulting in a fall, during a counter-insurgency operation near Gurez in the Kashmir Valley.

“Don’t start that again, Pa. It helps you get around. Would you prefer crutches or a wheelchair?”

“God, no! I should’ve just been blown sky high.”

“Hey! Stop that!”

“Oh, I’ve annoyed the writer. I wonder what his pen will do to me!”

“It will write a very sarcastic piece, FYEO. Stop talking like that, Pa. It’s irritating.”

“Alright, alright.”

He pulled out a chair and helped his father into it. His mother appeared, a glass of wine in her hand.

“Regaling you with a tale of what should have been yet again, is he?” she asked, pursing her lips as she looked at her husband.

“Indeed, he is. Need any help?”

“Yeah. Go get the chicken. I’m going to sit down.”

Soon, they were tucking into a delicious-looking roast chicken and rumali rotis.

“So, how’s your work going?” his mother asked.

“Like I was telling Pa, not too well. It’s a more complicated process now. I’d love to stick to the same genre but I don’t want to exhaust my imagination either.”

“Why not tinker around with one of your shorts?” his father suggested.

“I haven’t really thought about it. I suppose I could do some tinkering here and there but the thing is that those stories are already out there. I can use the same concept but not the same story.”

“How about something like that book by Gillian Flynn?” his mother chipped in.

Gone Girl?”

“Yeah, that one. There was also a film based on it that came out a while back.”

“Yes. Well, Gone Girl is quite complicated. Both the leads have a bad side to them. The balance has to be achieved in something like that and it has to be worked on a lot. It was a very complexly-written book. But yeah, I like the idea of writing a psychological thriller.”

*

Two hours later, he was lying on his bed, reading Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers for the umpteenth time. Just as the men of ‘Easy’, led by Lieutenant Winters, commenced the Brecourt Manor Assault, his phone rang. He placed his bookmark and picked up the phone. His heart leaped when he saw the name. He swallowed and slowly swiped right.

“Hello?”

“Hey. It’s Tanya.”

“Yeah. I saw your name flash on the screen,” he said nonchalantly as he sat down at his desk.

She laughed. His hopes rose.

“How’re you doing?” she said.

There was a hint of something in her voice. He wondered what it was. Was it pity? Sadness? Nervousness?

“Not too great. Struggling to put pen to paper. And to cap that off, you won’t talk to me.”

“It’s not like that-”

“Tanya, I made a promise to you. You know I stand by my promises.”

“It’s not about that. Do you know how scared I feel of you?”

“Scared? Of me? Really?”

“Yes! You should see yourself when you’re not you. It scares the living daylights out of me.”

“Wow. Okay. If it does, I apologise.”

“Apologies aren’t going to do you much good.”

“Come on, Tanya. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone deserves another chance. You’re the one who told me that.”

“Please-”

“Please what?!” he had difficulty keeping the lack of patience out of his voice.

“Don’t make this harder than it is. Don’t I deserve to be happy?”

“Am I holding you back? I’m just asking you to help me out. Be the bigger person.”

“Do you, by any chance, recall what happened in Bombay two months ago, Shiv?”


2

BLUNT

Tanya struggled to unlock the door. She turned the key in the hole a couple of times impatiently.

“Well, that key sure isn’t finding its mark, is it?”

She turned to face him. He was grinning at her, proud of the innuendo.

“What’s wrong with this door?” she said.

“Try the knob. Turn it.”

She did. The door opened.

“Well done, you little genius. You didn’t even lock the room,” he said as he pushed past her into the room.

She followed him in and locked the door. She sank into an armchair by the bed.

“Well, how do you think the meeting went?” she asked him exhaustedly.

“Alright,” he replied as he loosened his tie. “Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about the outcome just yet.”

She smiled.

“I wouldn’t worry if I were you. They’ll definitely green light it,” she said as she removed her heels and massaged her feet.

He removed his dinner jacket and threw it over his suitcase. The shoes were kicked off next and he lay back in his armchair, his eyes closed.

“Shiv?” she spoke a few minutes later.

“Yeah?” he responded without opening his eyes.

“Could you please pass me my nightclothes? They’re in your suitcase.”

“I don’t know why you pack so much. We came for no more than a week,” he said as he got up and walked over to the cupboard, next to which lay his suitcase.

He threw the jacket over his shoulder and opened the suitcase. He took out her nightclothes, shut the lid of the suitcase and kept the jacket back in its place.

“Here. Woah!” he stopped speaking suddenly.

She was trying to unzip her dress.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said, looking at her dreamily.

“Shiv Chinappa, my nightclothes. Please,” the last word was rather forceful as she tried to stop herself from smiling at the goofy look on his face.

He hurled them over to her side of the bed and sank into the armchair once again.

“Thank you.”

“Hmm.”

“This thing is a menace!” she sighed, glaring at her dress.

“Need help with that?” he asked, trying his best to look innocent.

“Don’t you pull that face on me. It has never worked,” she laughed.

“What?!” he feigned offence at her implication. “It was a normal query.”

“Well, then yes. Please unzip it.”

He strode across the room and stood behind her for a moment.

“Shiv, that’s creepy.”

“I’m just figuring out how to unzip it. Why do you jump to conclusions like this?”

“Maybe because you’re a weirdo.”

“Stay still,” he said. A couple of moments later, “There. Done!” he said triumphantly, almost as if India had won the NatWest series and he was Sourav Ganguly.

“Thank you very much.”

He opened a leather case on his bedside table and took out a packet of cigarettes and placed it on the table. He put his hand inside the case again and felt about the insides for his Swiss Army Knife. He pulled it out and placed it next to the cigarettes. The bony hand delved into the case again and drew a small plastic packet out. It had some plant-like green substance in it. He pulled the pair of tweezers out of the knife and took out a cigarette. With his foot, he pulled the dustbin towards him. He got to work, pulling the tobacco out of the cigarette carefully and emptying it into the bin between his legs. With the cigarette empty, he took a small plastic spoon out of the case and kept the tweezers back. He opened the packet and spooned a bit of the substance into the empty cigarette. He tapped the cigarette and put the spoon and the packet back in the case. He pressed the substance tightly with a pen. He then scrunched up the tip of the cigarette to the length he wanted it to be. He moved the dustbin back to its place and closed the leather case. He then put the modified cigarette between his lips and lit it. Just as he took his first drag, Tanya turned to face him. Her dress lay on the bed and her wavy, dark brown hair was no longer tied in a bun. It fell to her shoulders. She glowered at him. It wasn’t until he had taken his third puff that he noticed her coal coloured eyes looking straight at him, devoid of any of the softness they usually had.

“Changed already? That was quick!”

“Shiv, please put that out,” she said exasperatedly, folding her dress.

“Why? What for?” he whined. “I only just lit it.”

“Did you or did you not promise me that you wouldn’t bring any of your rubbish on this trip? I think I recall you uttering the words ‘I swear I don’t have any of that stuff on me’.”

“Promises are meant to be broken, sweetheart,” he said dramatically, releasing smoke rings as he spoke.

Tanya strode over to him and snatched the cigarette from his hand.

“Finally! I thought you’d never take a drag.”

To his utter horror, she stubbed it in the ashtray and tore it open over the dustbin, emptying all of its contents in the dustbin.

“What the hell is the matter with you, Tanya?” he demanded incredulously. “That stuff is expensive. Gosh, it costs a fortune,” he said in a horrified tone.

“Then I deserve a pat on the back for what I did. I hope its monetary value makes you give it up,” his response was rather cold.

“What are you talking about?” he sounded confused. “Back up here a bit. What’s going on?”

“I’m tired of this stuff, Shiv. It’s sickening. It’s irritating. Stop it!”

“That’s a complete turnaround you’ve done from earlier,” he replied, rising from the armchair.

“No, it isn’t. I have never liked this habit of yours. It gets on my nerves. And do you have any idea of what you’re doing to your body?” she stood her ground.

This,” he pointed at the substance in the bin, “is one hundred percent natural-”

“But the coke and LSD aren’t, are they?”

He stared at her blankly, not sure of how to respond.

“There. That’s the expression I was looking for. You’ve run out of excuses, Shiv.”

“Has anything ever happened to me?”

“Am I supposed to wait for something to happen to you? Do I have to wait for the day when you’re lounging in a bathtub, overdosed on cocaine, and probably dead?!”

“Tanya,” he stroked her cheek, “don’t you think you’re overreacting? I mean, it’s just one joint.”

“It’s always just one joint, or one line, or one pill,” she pulled away from him. “You can’t brush this away, Shiv. It’s time we addressed the elephant in the room.”

“Elephant?! Where?!” he said in mock fear.

He didn’t see the hand in the glare of the light. Its movement was swift and its impact stinging. He was shell-shocked. He felt his cheek a few times over. It felt hot. He turned to look at himself in the mirror on the wall. The whites of the hazel eyes were starting to redden. His cheek was scarlet and her handprint was across it. His eyes widened as he turned to face her.

“Did you just fucking slap me?!” he roared.

The whites of her eyes had reddened too. A tear raced down her face. She stood still, looking him in the eye. He looked mad. A vein in his temple was throbbing. He was breathing heavily. The tears rushed down her face in a stream. She bowed her head a little and sniffed, her eyes shut tightly. When she opened them, he was looking at himself in the mirror again. When he heard her crying, he turned around and tried to put his arm around her shoulders. She shook it off and went off to the other side of the room. The lamp on the bedside table bore the brunt of his temper as he flung it aside. It hit the window overlooking the sea and smashed. He looked at himself in the mirror again. His right hand balled into a fist and landed on the mirror. The blow cracked the mirror and blood ran down it. He heard her sniff again. He stormed off to the bathroom. A while later, he returned and cleaned up the broken mirror and the shattered lamp. The lamp on her side of the bed was on and she had her back towards to him.

“Tanya-” he began.

“Go to sleep, Shiv. I don’t want to speak to you right now.”

*

She hadn’t slept the entire night. Her mascara was smeared. Tear marks streaked her face. Her eyes were red. The pillow was wet. When he got up, he could hear her moving about in the dressing room. He got up and went to see what she was doing. She was zipping up her bag when she heard footsteps and looked up.

“Good Morning,” he said in an apologetic tone.

“Hi,” she said shortly.

“Where are you off to?”

“My flight’s in an hour.”

Our,” he corrected her.

“Excuse me?”

Our flight’s in an hour.”

“No. I changed my plans. I’m going to Lucknow to spend some time with my parents.”

“What? Why?”

“Drop the act, Shiv. You know very well why.”

“C’mon. I apologised a million times.”

“Actually, for your information, you didn’t apologise even once.”

“Okay. Then I’ll do it now. I’m sorry. Okay. I’ll give it up. I swear.”

“You said that last time. And before that as well. You can’t fool me, Shiv.”

“Tanya, aren’t you making too big a deal out of this? I have never seen you complain this much.”

“I’m not keeping quiet anymore, Shiv. I’m tired of arguing with you day in, day out. Half the time, I don’t even know whether you’re in a state to understand what I’m saying. You’re either listening to your stupid instrumental music after smoking pot; or you’re sitting quietly in a corner, oblivious to the world around you, after having snorted a line of coke; or you’re off hallucinating on LSD!” there was a tone of finality in her voice.

“Tanya, relax. Please. We can talk about this.”

“Can we? Are you sure you’re not high, Shiv?!”

“You’re stretching it now. Your nagging is getting to me.”

“You remember what you did to that lamp and that mirror last night, Shiv? Your temper is getting worse by the day.”

“You slapped me. What the hell did you expect me to do?” he argued.

“You’re driving me crazy.”

“Why don’t you leave then?” he deployed his defensive tactic.

“You think it’s that easy? To just leave someone high and dry?”

She didn’t care to conceal the very obvious reference to his habits. He didn’t miss it.

“I’m not a drug addict!”

“You are, Shiv. And you know what the worst part about this is? You know you’re an addict but you won’t accept it!”

“You’re so out of line.”

“Am I? We’ve been going out for eight years! Eight bloody years! And this habit of yours has existed for six of. those eight years.”

“It’s recreational. And it helps me write.”

“Are you implying that all the writers in the world are stoners? That they can’t write a line without a joint by their side? Is it fun for you to watch the people around you struggle to understand why you’re like this? Is it? Do you know how many times your brother messages me, asking me how you are? How many times my sister calls, wanting to know when we’ll drop in and see her and Rajiv Bhaiya. Do you how many nights I’ve stayed awake, wondering whether you’re alright? No. You’re so fucking into yourself that you don’t give a damn about others.”

“Why don’t we discuss this later? We’ll go home and talk about this.”

“You can’t keep putting it off. You can run from everyone, Shiv. Everyone but yourself.”

“Maybe you’re right. But I don’t think you are. It’s my life. I’ll do what I want.”

“In that case, from this moment forth, don’t consider me a part of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re done, Shiv. We’re through.”

“You’re throwing away eight years, Tanya. Because of something so stupid.”

“I’m leaving, Shiv. Bye.”

“Tanya, come on. Please. You can’t give up so easily. That’s not the Tanya Saxena I know.”

“I’ve not given up. Six years is a long time. I’ve tried. I’ve considered all avenues. There’s nothing more to be said. Bye.”

With that, she turned her back on him and walked off, wheeling her bag. He stood rooted to his spot, watching her leave. Somewhere deep inside, he knew that she may not be coming back this time.


3

FLASH

“So you’re sticking to what you said back then?”

“Yes,” she paused and breathed heavily. “Yes, I am.”

“Well, just as a regular question: is there someone else?” he couldn’t believe the fact that he was finding it difficult to speak.

“No, Shiv. There is no one else. It’s been only you till now. And I’ve had the time of my life with you. But the changes I’ve seen in you, especially in the last two years, have been too much for me to handle. I feel like I hardly know you, which is saying something since we’ve known each other for ten years. I’ve held on for as long as I could. But we’ve reached, in some sense, a parting of ways.”

“I’m sorry,” he interrupted her.

There was a moment’s silence.

“No, you’re not,” she said coldly. “You’re just afraid that this could be a blow to your ego. You should meet a doctor. You need help.”

Anger was burning up within him again. He felt a deep hatred for her at that moment.

“You have no right to tell me what’s good for me,” he sneered into the phone. “Goodbye.”

He threw the phone on the bed. It bounced and fell on the pillow.

“The bloody slut!” he threw a paperweight at the wall. “Cuddling up in a crowded theatre and getting into bed took her no more than a click of the fingers. And then she goes and does this. Who the fuck does she think I am?” he hurled an empty ink bottle at the wall this time. “Disposing me off like a fucking tissue paper. Has an inflated opinion of herself. Bitch!”

His face had turned absolutely red and he was panting. He slammed his hand down on the desk, smashing a glass and cutting himself in the bargain. He gasped loudly. He shut his eyes tight and grimaced. He hurried to the bathroom and held his hand under the wash basin tap. He splashed the reddish water on his face and looked at himself in the mirror.

“Who’s a bitch? Tanya’s a bitch. Who’s a bitch? Tanya’s a bitch. Who’s a bitch? Tanya’s a bitch,” he chanted.

He opened a cabinet and took out some Dettol and cotton. As he did so, his eyes fell on a bottle of cologne she had given him a while back. He just stood there, staring at it for a while, before he realised that his hand was still bleeding and cleaned up the cut, and returned to his room. He hit the bed with a thud and just lay there for a while, picturing himself drowning in thoughts. He sat up and opened the drawer. A few minutes later, he lay on his stomach, a pair of tweezers in one hand and a cigarette in another. Rock music played from the surround sound system as he carefully used the tweezers to pull the tobacco out of the cigarette. Satisfied with his work, he took the small packet he had bought from Lance out of the bedside drawer. He opened it and sniffed at the green substance inside. It was the best variant of it that he had smelt. He took a small plastic spoon out of the drawer and dipped it into the packet. Holding the empty cigarette over the packet, he scooped a bit of the substance into the cigarette. He pressed it in with a pen and then scrunched up the tip of the cigarette to the length he wanted it to be. As he did this, he recalled the first joint he had smoked.

It had been six years ago, in the twelfth grade. It had been him and a couple of friends in a corner of the school grounds. His friends had not been able to get rolling paper anywhere and had decided to make do with an empty cigarette. It had been thrilling. He had never thought of drugs as something cool but the prospect of doing something illegal was too inviting to be ignored for the lanky eighteen-year-old. The first high was surreal. Majestic. It transported him to a different place altogether. A place where he was the one in control. Tanya had been furious that evening and they had had their first major fight, which resulted in a fortnight of mutual cold-shouldering. He had apologised and promised never to do it. Of course, he had no intention of keeping his promise. She knew and they had arguments about it all the time. Soon, he was introduced to substances like cocaine and LSD. He got hooked to them too. He preferred the latter over the former. It was a more exciting experience, the influence of LSD. He managed to cover it up quite well though and nobody but Prasad and his brother had ever suspected him of any wrongdoing. She knew about it but he had spiralled out of control in a way such that no amount of fighting or arguing with her made him see sense. Despite what she termed his ‘madness’, she stuck by him. For a long time.

Just the previous year, his brother had found out. He had forced Shiv to shift base to Bangalore for six months and admitted him in a rehab centre. He had no access to any illegal substance for three months, which nearly drove him crazy. After being discharged from the facility, he had convinced his brother to let him enrol in a screenwriting course. Rajiv relented and soon, Shiv was busy writing step-outlines that he hoped to turn into full-fledged screenplays. The soberness didn’t last long and soon he was back to his old ways, though he was more careful now.

The packet was resealed and put into the drawer along with the spoon. He turned the music off and hunted for a different CD in a cupboard labelled ‘Music’.

“Aha!” he thought out loud when he found the CD he was looking for.

He stopped the violent drumming which his parents termed ‘noise’ and changed the CD. He heard his phone ring as he inserted the other CD. Groaning, he strode across the room and swiped left without even looking at the caller’s name or number.  He picked up the modified cigarette up and lit it. With a sigh of relief, he drew a deep puff. After a few puffs, the speed of the music started to increase. He hummed along, moving his head to the beats. After an hour, he started feeling hungry. He rose slowly from the armchair and walked over to one of the shelves on the wall. He picked up a stack of takeaway menus and pulled out the one he was looking for. He walked heavily up to the desk, picked up his phone and slowly dialled the number printed on the menu. It was picked up in half a ring.

“This is the All Nighter Diner. How may I help you?”

“Hi. I want to place an order,” his voice was low, as if he was discussing something top-secret.

“Yes?”

“I want two Chocolate Brownies, two Clucking Burgers and two servings of Triple-Fried Fries. Got it?”

“Yes, sir. Your address?”

“5, Elm Street.”

“Alright, sir. Your order will be there in twenty minutes. The billed amount is fifteen hundred rupees.”

“I’ll keep it ready.”

“Sir, just a moment. Could I please have your name?”

“Shiv Chinappa.”

*

He was lying on his stomach on a rocky surface. Far below was a long, narrow inlet, surrounded by steep cliffs. What was this place? She was lying next to him, looking down into the inlet. He looked at his watch. The date was April 15th, 2018. He frowned. She turned to look at him. She looked a little older and a lot more beautiful.

“What happened? Why are you frowning?” she asked.

“What year is this?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No. It’s a genuine question. What year is this?”

“2018.”

“But just yesterday we were in ’16. How come we’ve jumped to ’18 in less than twenty-four hours?”

“Okay. Joke’s over. You must’ve been dreaming. This is 2018. You released your fourth book three days back in London. I guess so much writing has taken its toll on you.”

“And where are we? What is this place?” he peered over the edge.

“We’re in Norway. This is a cliff called the Preikestolen. It overlooks the Lysefjord.”

“Rajiv?”

“Yeah.”

He was sitting across a table from his brother. Rajiv had bits of grey in his hair.

“I think I’m going to get married. What do you think of that?”

“I think it’s a brilliant idea. Congratulations.”

The phone at the other end was ringing. His heartbeat was going through the roof. He felt tired. Exhausted. Yet, at the same time, he felt oddly excited. The person at the other end picked up after nearly ten gut-wrenching rings.

“Hello?”

“Good Afternoon, sir. This is Shiv. Have I disturbed you?”

“Hi, Shiv. No, no. I was getting ready for my afternoon round of golf. Are you not able to get through to Tanya? Shall I call her?”

“No, sir. I actually wanted to speak to you.”

“Me? Okay. Go ahead. What can I do for you?”

“Sir, I wanted to ask you if you would have a problem if I married Tanya.”

There was a roar of laughter at the other end.

“Well done, son. Go ahead. You’ll have my vote. Wow. This is good news. Well, I’ll speak to you later. Bye.”

“Good afternoon, sir.”

He did a jubilant dance around the room and performed a series of gymnastics that he had never even thought of doing.

The car sped along the highway. It was a right-hand drive and he was sitting in the backseat. Tanya was sitting next to him. He couldn’t see the driver. He was wearing a polo shirt and jeans. She was in a white shirt and jeans. The diamond on her ring finger gleamed as the sun shone on it.

“I can’t believe we got married,” she said happily, leaning against him.

“Nor can I,” he held out his hand.

She squeezed it as they sped away.

*

His eyes opened at half-past ten the next morning. He lay in bed for a while, looking out of the window through which the sun’s bright rays entered the otherwise dark hut. He got out of bed after fifteen minutes of lolling around. He slouched over to the bathroom and brushed his teeth, still moving a lot slower than he normally did. He went into the kitchenette to make coffee and breakfast, hunger making its presence felt inside him despite the meals from the previous night. He sat down at his desk with a plate of tobacco and mustard sauce-splattered scrambled eggs with buttered toast and a large, steaming mug of coffee. He opened a small black notebook and read a couple of pages as he shovelled food into his mouth. It was the book in which he penned his short stories, which he put up on his blog: Shiv Chinappa Writing. He had written two in the last fortnight.

The first of the two had been similar to a certain genre of horror stories with the all the overused yet classic elements: a bunch of youngsters, old people, rainy day, scary stories. To him, it had been something that had been fun to write. Something cool. Something that his fellow writers weren’t writing. The response to it had been a decent one, his mother being the sole critic of it. His friends had enjoyed it, some of his relatives had liked it, his sister-in-law had called it ‘his kind of story’ and his brother had deconstructed it painfully at first, only to tell him that it was fun. The one person whose response he had wanted had not said a word about it.

The other however, had collapsed. In his own words to a college mate of his: “It bombed worse than LoC Kargil did at the Box Office.” He had not seen the criticism coming. It was like a lot like her slap, only a lot more hurtful. The story of a child born out of an estranged marriage having a child with his girlfriend at the age of nineteen, it had failed spectacularly. The majority of his readers were a lot older than him. “Oldies don’t understand the youth” was what he had said. His parents also had some not-so-good words for it. The only good responses he had received were from people his own age. A few of them had gone on to say that they had ‘loved’ it. When his cousin told him that it was his powerfully written characters that made more of an impact than the actual plot, he had decided to read it once. He burst into a fit of laughter by the third chapter and couldn’t go any further.

“The oldies were right. This is crap!” he had yelled.

The mockery of his own work did not prevent him from understanding one glaring point. There was no way he could write something emotional. It would not work. He had regarded himself as someone cold and empty, a characteristic many people seemed to notice about him, for the longest time. The failure of the short only drove his point further home. He returned to the drawing board with one central theme in mind for the next short: a thriller. Privately, he considered thrillers and mysteries as his strength. He knew exactly how he had figured out that those were the two genres he could write very comfortably.

His first book, titled Spies In The Mangroves, had been set in Sri Lanka in the late 80s. The premise of it was an exciting one. A team of R&AW operatives working within the LTTE to bring it down. He had written it with the classic elements of a thriller and it had been a moderate success. It had been over five years since Spies had hit the bookshelves. His second book had been more of a quartet squeezed into one book, written over a period of four years. Bombay Noire had been spread over four decades in Bombay: the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, and the 70s. It followed the careers of a police officer in the Bombay Police and that of a small-time goon-turned-mastermind mafia boss from 1949 and 1973. He had documented four decades of the city’s happenings in the book, inserting important events and blending them with the storyline as he went about it. The book had released a week before director Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet, which was similar to his book in more ways than one. Though the film bombed, much to Shiv’s dismay because it was, in his opinion, a fine film despite the flawed script, the book became a best-seller. The feeling of four years of hard work having paid off was euphoric.

He had not tried his hand at romance and he didn’t plan on starting anytime soon. Recent events only made him more determined to not touch that genre for a while. His humour was mainly dry and sarcastic, which was why he had refrained from putting up a short of the kind. His humour was never obvious. It couldn’t be understood easily but could be misunderstood with a click of the fingers. And in any case, there were dozens of people waiting for an opportunity to jump at his work. He scratched his head with a pencil. An idea struck him and he started scribbling on his notepad. After about having scribbled for half an hour, he switched on his laptop and typed out all that he had scribbled, improvising along the way. He stopped typing after an hour and looked up at the clock on the wall. It was almost two. He cleared away his breakfast dishes and threw away the boxes from his post-dinner meal. After finishing his bath, he wandered around the room.

“What to do? What to do? What to, what to, what to do?” he hummed to himself.

He opened the cupboard labelled ‘Movies’ and browsed through his collection.

“Aha! Let’s watch this.”

He inserted the DVD of a film he had intended to watch a long time ago, the Bryan Singer-directorial, The Usual Suspects, into the home theatre system. He opened the drawer as the police arrested each of the five men one-by-one. He got to work with the spoon, the pen, an empty cigarette and the little plastic packet. Soon, he was laughing real hard as each of the actors- Kevin Pollak as Hockney, Stephen Baldwin as McManus, Benicio del Toro as Fenster, Gabriel Byrne as Keaton and Kevin Spacey as Verbal- spoke the lines they were told to in a police line-up. By the time the clock struck four, he was back at his desk. He was surfing the Internet when something caught his eye. He noticed a picture of a bald man with a beard. The title of the article was ‘Shakespearean Adaptations in the Twenty-First Century’. As he read the article, a thought struck him. He opened a few windows and read the summaries to each of Shakespeare’s works. Deciding that Macbeth was perfect for what he had in mind, he wrote a brief outline of his idea, adding and removing characters and plot points as he went about it. By the time he was done, only the skeletal bit of the idea seemed to be from Macbeth. He read it a couple of times over and jotted down points on a pad. After he had finished reading, he snipped off bits and pieces of it again, giving himself what he considered the ideal framework for a plot. Outside, it had started to rain again. He smelt the pleasant wet mud again. Hearing a cloud burst in the distance, he got up from his desk and opened the door of the hut. It was like a waterfall out there. He couldn’t see a thing. Not even the bungalow. Feeling cold all of a sudden, he went into the kitchenette and made himself a cup of extra-strong coffee. He sat on the steps of his hut as he drank, letting the cold rain drench his legs. He had a sudden urge to dance in the rain but reigned himself in just in time. He smelt the scent of wet mud and smiled. He went back inside after a while. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Outside stood a man in a dripping raincoat. There was a brown package in his hand.

“Yes?”

“Shiv Chinappa?”

“That’s me.”

“Package from Amazon.”

“Oh. Thanks,” he took the package from the man. “Where do I sign?”

The man took out a rather large phone from his pocket and fiddled around with it for a few seconds.

“Here,” he held it out.

Shiv signed it with his finger and the man left. The racket created by the rain was so much that he couldn’t even hear the engine of the man’s motorbike. He sat at his desk and opened the package. Daniel Craig adorned the cover of the box in a white tuxedo. It said ‘SPECTRE: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’. He unwrapped it and put it with his collection of the other James Bond film soundtrack CDs. He threw the packaging in the bin and opened the cupboard marked ‘Books 2’. At the end of the lower shelf was a fat book- The Spectre Trilogy: Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service & You Only Live Twice. He was midway through Thunderball and was of the opinion that it was the most snooze-fest of a thriller he had ever read. As he read the part where Emilio Largo receives the news of the arrival of the atomic weapons on his yacht in the Bahamas, his mind wandered to the freezer in his kitchenette. He got up and went to the kitchenette and opened the fridge. He forced open the freezer. There was an ice bucket inside. He took it out and returned to his room. He listened closely for a few moments. The rain seemed to have reduced. He then struggled with the lid of the bucket for five minutes, trying all different types of stances and grips in an attempt to get it off.  He grabbed hold of the lid and tugged on it in an action that resembled a Frisbee throw. The lid flew off and landed on the bed. Just then, he heard someone step on one of the steps outside and quickly hid the bucket. There was a knock on the door. He opened it. His mother stood outside.

“Hi!” he said brightly.

“Hi. We’re going out for dinner to the Uthappas. Do you want to come along?”

“No, thank you.”

“Are you sure? Aunty did say that you should come.”

“Ma, I get bored. And their daughter is highly irritating.”

“Don’t say that,” his mother said sharply. “She just likes to talk.”

“Well, if that’s the case, she should shut up once in a while. Thanks, Ma. I’m not coming. Will you be passing by the market on your way?”

“Yes. Do you want anything?”

“Ummmm…Dark chocolate. And not any of that Cadbury or Amul stuff. The Morde one.”

“But that’s cooking chocolate.”

“That’s the point,” he said simply.

“Alright. Anything else?”

“No, thanks.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow. Bye.”

“Bye.”

He closed the door and heaved a sigh of relief. He moved over to the window and looked out of it. He could see his mother approach their Ford, a gift from their sons, and get in.

“Close one,” he said to himself.

He opened a drawer and pulled his wallet out. He opened it and felt the notes. He pulled a crispy hundred rupee note out and kept the wallet back in the drawer. He sat down at his desk and retrieved the bucket from its hiding place. Then he bent down and lifted one of the floorboards, under which was a small cubical wooden box. He opened the top and pulled out a stone slab and a hammer. He closed the wooden box and put the floorboard back in its place. He placed the slab on the desk and kept two credit cards on it. He opened the ice bucket and got the full blast of the icy mist. Laughing, he pulled out a small plastic packet which contained one small pill. He closed the ice bucket and kept it back in the freezer. Back at his desk, he got to work quickly. He hit the pill in the packet with the hammer a couple of times. It broke after four strikes. He quickly hammered it into powder form and kept the hammer aside. He opened the packet and emptied the powder onto the slab. He grabbed the credit cards and shifted the powder around a bit to make it into a line. He picked up the hundred rupee note next and smiled at the man whose face was printed on the right corner of it. He rolled the note up and held it under his nose. He brought it close to the powder and in a swift movement, snorted the line of powder. He shook his head vigorously and then took a deep breath.

An hour later, he lay on the bed, holding a photograph of her in his hand. The light was most certainly brighter, at least for him. The light emitted by the CFLs had hints of orange and pink to them. He covered his eyes with the photograph. The light was almost blinding. The intensity of its brightness reduced and he peered out from behind the photograph. The room looked a little funny. He got up and scratched his head, wondering what to do. He decided to go out for a bit. He pulled on a jacket, tucked the photograph inside it. He went to the kitchenette and thought that going out through the window seemed a good idea. He opened it and wriggled out after a bit of a struggle, landing outside with a thud. It had started pouring again. He walked around the hut and then set off towards the bungalow. He looked at his clothes as he walked. Somehow, despite the rain, they weren’t getting wet at all. He went around to the backyard of the bungalow. There was a gushing sound emanating from the well there. He went closer to have a look. He went up to the well and peered in. As he did, he started to feel hot. Very hot. As if he were in Delhi during the peak of summer. Without a moment’s thought or the slightest hesitation, he leapt in. The water was an icy blue. He found the experience of being underwater rather pleasing. It was silent. The water was mysterious. As if it was hiding something. He looked up and saw light shining into the water. When he reached the level of the water, he found himself in something that resembled an oddly familiar forest. He looked around him and there was hardly any water. He was lying on his back in a puddle. His clothes were completely dry. He was holding her photograph a few inches from his eyes. Her dark brown hair fell to her shoulders. The beautiful eyes. An eye-catching coal. Her friendly, heart-shaped face was glowing with happiness. And those amazingly cute dimples. He placed the photograph on the ground and stared dreamily at the trees overhead. The branches crisscrossed in distinct patterns and the leaves were an odd turquoise blue. The silence was only broken by the chirping of birds. He stood up and pocketed the photograph, dusted his jeans and decided to take a walk. He could see only small bits of the sky through the many branches and leaves. It looked stormy. It turned greyer by the second and a minute later, lightening flashed across it. Somewhere in the distance, a tree fell with a crash. The sudden roar of thunder made him duck. The hair on his back was standing. There was another roar of thunder and it started to rain. The raindrops took Shiv by surprise, given the tree cover overhead. He looked up and the branches and leaves seemed to have disappeared. The rain intensified. He started walking towards what seemed like the edge of the forest. It didn’t look like it would be too long a walk. Ten minutes. Tops. He was passing a particularly dense part of the forest when he felt something run up his leg. It was a spider. He flicked it off and it scurried off. As he watched it run off, Shiv heard a horse galloping towards him. He turned around and saw something that was not exactly a horse. Not fully at least. His body was a horse’s but his heads, torso and arms were a human’s.

“Um…Hello,” he said brightly to the creature.

“Are you a student at the school?”

“Well, no. I finished my schooling from Army Public School, Srinagar.”

“Come again?”

“APS? You’ve not heard of it?”

“No. I’m afraid not.”

“Well, not a lot of civvies have heard of it. Pardon my language but what are you?”

“I’m a centaur. My name is Firenze.”

He knew he had heard the name somewhere before. He couldn’t recall where.

“I’m Shiv. Could you tell me how to get out of this place?”

“Yes. Go straight down for a few minutes and you’ll find a small blue thing crashed into a tree. Take a right from there and walk straight. You’ll be out in no time.”

“Thank you. By the way, what is this place?”

“It’s called The Forbidden Forest.”

This name also rang a bell but Shiv once again couldn’t remember where he’d heard it.

“Thank you.”

He walked off, deep in thought. Where had he heard the name ‘Firenze’ and the term ‘The Forbidden Forest’? Where? He was so lost in thought that he almost passed by the landmark from where he was to turn. He saw a blue car which had crashed into a tree. It was at least twenty years old and covered in dust and twigs. It had a few dents and a gaping hole in the rear windscreen. Keen on cars, Shiv stood there and examined it for a while, wondering which one it was. Suddenly, he remembered a film in which two boys flew a car to their magical school. It was a Ford Anglia! He stood there, admiring it for a few more minutes before deciding that he should get going. He turned right and the density of trees soon reduced. He approached a familiar looking fence and leapt over it, only to find himself back on his family estate. He squeezed through the kitchenette window again and went back to his room. Exhausted with his expedition that seemed to have lasted a few hours, he kicked off his shoes and fell onto the bed. He woke up after a while. It was dark outside. He put on his shoes and went out the front door. The estate lights were on. The intensity of the rain had not lessened. He tried to check if his parents were back but he could hardly make out anything near the bungalow except for a fusion of lights. He clutched his head. The pain was hellish. He sat down on the steps. His vision didn’t seem to be getting any better. Frustrated that he couldn’t see anything properly, he looked at the gate, hoping that the sharp lights there would be of some help. It worked. He was able to see clearly now.  He could see someone standing there. Waving. He got up and looked more closely. Was it her? Fairly tall. Dark brown hair that fell to the shoulders. It had to be her. It just had to be! He got up and stumbled down the steps. The rain was much colder but he didn’t care. He started running towards the gate. He didn’t watch his step and fell. Splattered in mud, he went on.

“Tanya,” he mumbled as he ran.

As he finished climbing the slope, he stopped for a moment. As he squatted, he could see her.

“Tanya,” he mumbled again, panting.

Having caught his breath after a minute or so, he looked up. There was no one at the gate. She was gone!


4

LINE & LOCKUP

“We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Thank you so much for a wonderful evening.”

“Oh, you’re most welcome. And please tell Shiv that he must come the next time around.”

“I’ll tell him that.”

Brigadier Chinappa started up the hatchback and they drove off in silence. There were no lights on the road. The wiring had taken a hit. The incessant rain had worked itself into a storm and the electricity supply had been cut. It was past 1 o’clock in the morning. The car was moving swiftly along the wet, winding roads. Brigadier Chinappa sped along the road, negotiating the numerous turns with ease.

“Be careful,” she said.

“Please keep quiet and let me focus on the road.”

Mrs Chinappa fell silent. The wipers were working fast, clearing the windscreen for no more than five seconds before it was blurred by water again. There was a rumble of thunder. In the distance, they saw a forest burning. It was gutted. As they neared the entrance to the town, the car slowed down a little. As they went around the last turn, lightening flashed across the black sky and Brigadier Chinappa saw someone standing in the middle of the road. He turned the steering wheel frantically and lost control of the car.

“Watch out!”

It rammed into a tree. Brigadier Chinappa’s head hit the steering wheel and Mrs Chinappa lay slumped against the dashboard, which was covered in shards of glass from the shattered windscreen and had blood spattered on it. Smoke emerged from the underneath the bonnet. The Brigadier stirred. Blood was oozing out of his mouth and nose. Some glass was stuck in his arm. He shook his wife. She didn’t move.

“She’s unconscious.”

He turned the key in the ignition. The engine seemed to start but then spluttered and gave up. He turned the key a few more times, grinding his teeth, praying for the engine to start. Just then, lightning struck a nearby tree and it fell right on top of the car, hammering the cabin upon impact.

*

“Sir, accident situation.”

“Where?”

“Near Langley Corner.”

Prasad took off his peaked cap and sat down behind his desk.

“Car accident?” he asked the constable.

“Yes, sir.”

“Model and registration?”

“Sir, it’s a Ford Focus. The registration number is KOD 01 AXT.”

“Only one person has a Ford Focus in this place. Get the jeep.”

“Yes, sir!”

*

“We’re the fortunate ones who’ve never faced oppression’s gun. We are the fortunate ones, imitations of Rebellion!” Chester Bennington’s voice blared out of the speakers.

The man was inching towards the trees. It was a dark, wet night with the pouring rain adding to the mystery of the shady man. He was massive, burly, and bald. He had some sort of object in his hands. He bent down near one of the trees and dug a small hole with his hands. He placed the package he was holding in the hole and stepped away. He walked up to the road and stood there, bang in the middle. He could see the headlights of the car as it negotiated the winding roads a distance away. The rain intensified. Lightening flashed across the sky, revealing a bit of his face. A long scar, a knife wound, ran down his cheek. He continued to stand in the middle of the road. He took a few steps to the side as he heard the car approach. He could feel his heart pounding. As he saw the car turn, he took another step back, making sure he was not in the radius of the beam of the headlights. He heard a rumble of thunder as the car comes closer. As lightening flashed across the sky, he leaped out from his hiding place into the path of the car. The car swerved off-course and rammed into a tree. He approached it and inspected his handiwork. Smiling, he walked back up to the road and pulled his phone out of the pocket of his jeans. He punched in a number and detonated the explosive in the package, bringing the tree down right on the cabin of the car.

*

Shiv’s eyes opened suddenly. He was panting, as if he had just run a marathon and his face was sweaty. He looked down on the pillow. It was soaked with sweat and saliva. He went into the kitchenette and downed a bottle of water. Just as he swallowing the last few drops, he heard his phone ring. He walked back to his room and picked it up. Not recognising the number, he swiped right nevertheless.

“Shiv Chinappa?”

“Yes.”

“SP Prasad speaking. I need you to come down to the police station.”

“What are you going to try and charge me with? Or are you going to frame me?”

“Listen, kid. This is not the time for jokes. I’m sending a jeep to your house. Get here fast!”

There was an urgency in Prasad’s voice that was a little disturbing. Shiv dressed hurriedly and waited for the jeep to arrive, wondering what it was that Prasad wanted. It was vaguely possible that Prasad had hit Lance’s hideout and busted him. Lance could have ratted him out. He opened the drawer where he kept the weed and took out whatever was inside. He then prised open the floorboard beneath which was the wooden box. He stuffed all the little packets in his hands into the box and put the floorboard back in place. He looked at his desk. There was no trace of anything that shouldn’t have been there ever having been there. He dusted the drawer out over the ‘throne’ and flushed away all the little bits of green that were in it. He smelt it.

“What the hell do I do with this?”

He was looking at the ‘throne’ as he spoke to himself and had a sudden idea. He felt the back of the tank and tugged at a paper bag that was stuck there. He opened it and out fell some magazines, covers adorned with naked women.

“Aha!”

He stuffed the magazines into the drawer and placed it on the floor. He opened one of the cabinets and found what he was looking for. He sprayed some of the perfume on the magazines. He put the drawer back in his place and quickly got ready, wondering what it was that Prasad wanted. There was a knock on the door just as he was pulling on his shirt.

“Shiv Chinappa?”

“I’ll be out there in a minute.”

He switched all the lights off, grabbed his keys and opened the door. A short, portly police constable stood outside.

Main Constable Ravikumar. Mere saath chaliye.”

Shiv locked the hut and followed the constable to the jeep, which was standing outside the gate. He wondered whether he should give his parents a ring but decided against them. After all, he thought, what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.

“Constable, problem kya hai?”

“SP sahib aapko sab kuch bataayenge.”

The drive to Madikeri Police Station was a rather nervous one for him. What was it that Prasad wanted from him? Couldn’t be a regular call-up. He had never been charged with a criminal offence in his twenty-four years. He had never been in trouble with the law, except Prasad, who seemed to have some sort of fascination with getting him on some charge or the other. Had some buffoon of a politician taken offence to something he’d written? He despised those lunatics, radicals and liberals alike. They were all idiots of the highest order in his opinion. Who could be as stupid to forget his own name while taking an oath? And to be reprimanded by the President of India on live telecast should have embarrassed the entire breed but they seemed to be far too shameless. It had to be some politician. Why else would Prasad want him to come to the police station? Unless he’d managed to catch Pathan and that beefy fool had ratted him out. The jeep stank of diesel. The driver too seemed rather edgy. As they approached the station, a tow truck drove in through the gate, dragging a battered blue car. Shiv stared after the car.

Gaadi kiski hai?” he asked as the door was opened by the driver to let him out.

“SP sahib aapka apne daftar mein intezaar kar rahe hain,” came the response.

Shiv followed the man up the steps into Prasad’s office. The short police officer sat behind his desk, moustache and all, with a rather sombre expression on his face. Shiv was on the verge of cracking a joke about it being someone’s funeral but stopped himself in time. The President of India and Gandhi beamed down at him from their photographs up on the wall behind Prasad.

“Hello, Shiv. Sit down. Would like to have something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Milk? Soft drink? Anything?” Prasad spoke extremely fast, almost gobbling up his words.

“Just a glass of water would be fine, thanks,” replied Shiv, observing the police officer with a great deal of interest.

“Swamy,” Prasad called out. “Ek coffee aur ek glass paani.”

Prasad studied the face of the young man sitting before him nervously.

“Well, Mr Prasad. You called me. I’m here now. Might I ask why you wished to meet me?” Shiv’s voice had a certain sense of directness. He wasn’t going to beat around the bush the slightest bit.

The ceiling fan creaked over their heads as there was a pause. A most unsettling silence. Prasad mopped his brow with his handkerchief. Shiv’s gaze was unblinking, one of polite enquiry. Prasad cleared his throat. The constable entered with a tray in his hands. He placed a glass of water before Shiv and a cup of hot filter coffee in front of Prasad. Shiv reached forward and gulped down the glass in no time. Prasad felt a certain dryness in his mouth. He gulped down the coffee and spent the next couple of minutes fanning his burning tongue. Shiv tapped his foot impatiently, waiting for the man across the desk to open his mouth. Finally, Prasad stopped fanning his tongue and drank some water.

“Well?” Shiv broke the silence. “Why is it that you have summoned me here, to your rather humble abode?” he looked around the room, making absolutely no effort to hide the malice in his voice.

“We found your parents’ car crashed into a tree at Langley Corner this morning.”

“Hmm. So that was their car that came in before me. Couldn’t recognise it. Quite brutally hit.”

“You saw it?”

“Yes. Quite a sad state. Worse than Harry’s Nimbus Two Thousand.”

“Who’s Harry?”

“Haven’t you read Harry Potter and the Prisoner…well, never mind. Some other time. So, that was my parents’ car then?”

“The one you saw being towed in? Yes. Yes. That was theirs.”

“Where are they then? My parents?”

Prasad found that all his courage had deserted him. His mouth went dry again. He reached for the bottle of water on his desk. Shiv snatched it away and looked him in the eye with a demanding, fierce expression.

“Superintendent Prasad. Where. Are. My. Parents?” he said forcefully, emphasising the beginning and end of each word.

“They were found dead,” said Prasad quickly. “Lightning struck a tree and it came crashing down on their car. I’m sorry.”

Shiv was stunned by Prasad’s sudden revelation. It was like someone had stabbed fifty knives into his chest together. His eyes started to burn. He shut them tight. The pitch black melted away. His brain zoomed into rapid overdrive and started to reconstruct and project images.

The man was inching towards the trees. It was a dark, wet night with the pouring rain adding to the mystery of the shady man. He was rather tall and beefy bald, a familiar figure. He had some sort of object in his hands. He bent down near one of the trees and dug a small hole with his hands. He placed the package he was holding in the hole and stepped away. He walked up to the road and stood there, bang in the middle. He could see the headlights of the car as it negotiated the winding roads a distance away. The rain intensified. He continued to stand in the middle of the road. He took a few steps to the side as he heard the car approach. He could feel his heart pounding. As he saw the car turn, he took another step back, making sure he was not in the radius of the beam of the headlights. He heard a rumble of thunder as the car comes closer. As lightening flashed across the sky, he leaped out from his hiding place into the path of the car. The car swerved off-course and rammed into a tree. He approached it and inspected his handiwork. Smiling, he walked back up to the road and pulled his phone out of the pocket of his jeans. He punched in a number and detonated the explosive in the package, bringing the tree down right on the cabin of the car.

He kept his eyes shut, making mental notes of the entire incident.

“It was an accident,” Prasad spoke after a while. The car swerved off the road and crashed into a tree before another fell on it.”

“It wasn’t an accident.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“My parents did not die in an accident. They were murdered,” Shiv’s voice was barely more than a whisper.

“What are you saying?” asked a baffled Prasad.

“Last night, there was a man lurking around near Langley Corner. He placed an explosive near the base of a tree and stood in the middle of the road. When my father saw him, he swerved to avoid hitting him and the car crashed into another tree. The man detonated the explosive, which led to the tree falling on the car and killing my parents,” Shiv answered matter-of-factly.

“Are you daft, boy?! Which blithering idiot would go to Langley Corner in the dead of night?” Prasad spoke rather loudly.

“I know what happened, Mr Prasad,” said Shiv plainly. “If only you knew what proper police work is.”

“Shut the hell up and don’t teach me my job! Your parents died in an accident. An accident. Do you hear me? What happened at Langley Corner was an accident!”

Shiv rose suddenly from his seat and kicked Prasad’s desk. The green lamp fell down and shattered. The files and pens all fell to the ground. Shiv walked around the desk and pulled a startled Prasad out of his chair.

“It was murder, you bloody fool!” he yelled as he threw the Superintendent up against the wall. His eyes were wide with fury and danced about madly. He was trembling with rage. He looked at the scared Superintendent with disgust.

“Order a murder investigation. I’m willing to bet my life that I’ll be proved right and you wrong.”

“Swamy! Swamy! Ravikumar!” Prasad yelled.

The two constables rushed into the office and were taken aback by the sight before them. They grabbed hold of Shiv’s arms and pulled him off Prasad. He struggled but they held on to him firmly. A shaken Prasad straightened his uniform hastily before speaking again.

Haraami ko lockup mein daalo. Aur iske bhai ka phone number lao.”

*

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. Thank you. Just one question: have you told my brother?” There was a long pause. “Oh, I see. I apologise, Mr Prasad. I’ll be there by tomorrow morning. Thank you.”

Major Rajiv Chinappa turned to his wife Ria after putting the phone down.

“Shiv’s an idiot. Come on!”

*

The constable pushed a plate of food through the flap towards the boy in the corner. He was sitting against the wall, his knees arched against his chest. He glared at the constable.

Khana,” the constable barked at him, returning the glare.

Shiv looked at the plate of food. The dal was watery, the rice was mushy, the subzi looked old and the rotis looked like they’d been made by someone who hadn’t bothered to wash their hands for three days. He felt hungry but preferred hunger to a terrible stomach ache. He hit the back of his head to the wall repeatedly. His parents were dead. All of a sudden, his world had turned upside down. The thought of having become an orphan dawned upon him. His eyes started burning and tears rolled down his cheeks. He wiped them quickly and washed his face with the water from the earthen pot that lay in another corner. He returned to where he had been sitting and wondered who the man had been. He was sure it had not been a dream. Had he been there? It was possible. He often went for walks in the middle of the night. Why was Prasad not willing to believe him? After all, it was his parents who had died. Did the man not know what it felt like? Perhaps he didn’t. He punched the cement wall in frustration. The man seemed very familiar. Big, burly chap. Could it be Pathan? Shiv’s eyes closed as he tried to connect Pathan to his parents. Or was it possible that Prasad had done this? He felt his pockets, wondering if there was a toffee or something inside either. He felt a packet and pulled it out. Realising that there was nothing for him to do, he took out the pill and swallowed it.

*

Aye!” the constable called out. “AYE!”

Shiv awoke with a start and was surprised to find himself in a prison cell. He tried to recall what had happened. Slowly, all of it came back to him. His parents had died in an accident and he had assaulted the Superintendent of Police. He dusted his hands and looked at the constable.

“What?” he asked grumpily.

Milne aaya hai koi,” the constable opened the cell door. “Madam! Idhar. Sirf bees minute. SP sahib tab tak aa jaayenge.”

“Thank you,” said a polite, lady-like voice.

The voice was very familiar. Shiv looked up to see who it was. A girl, just a couple of inches shorter than him, entered the cell. He sat up quickly. She pulled a chair through the cell door and placed it a few inches from him and sat down. She observed him for a few minutes quietly.

“Who are you?” he burst out after a few minutes of curious silence.

“I’m Crystal.”

“I’m-”

“I know who you are. Famed author Shiv Chinappa.”

“Was it you outside my house last night? At the gates?”

“Yes. That was me.”

“How do you know me?”

“I don’t,” she said simply. “I would however, like to get to know you.”

“Not an ideal place to meet someone for the first time, a prison cell. What’s your name again?”

“Crystal.”

“Haven’t seen you around town before.”

“Oh, I just moved in a couple of weeks back. You know the bungalow at the end of your street?”

“Ivy House?”

“Yes. I stay there with my grandmother.”

“This may seem to be a bit weird but might I ask you why you were loitering around my parents’ estate last night?”

“I wanted to meet you. I’ve read both your books and knew where you lived.”

There was an awkward silence.

“I’m not like some crazy stalker of yours, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“No, that’s not what I’m thinking. You just resemble a person I know. A lot,” he said, staring into her coal coloured eyes. “And that’s not a line,” he added hastily.

She laughed.

“I should hope not. It would be a pretty bad one.”

He continued to stare at her, making note of each little movement of hers and comparing it in his mind. Not one mannerism was similar. She carried herself also differently.

“What exactly are you doing in here?” she asked interestedly.

“I punched Prasad, the SP,” he replied casually.

“Really?” she raised her eyebrows. “Why would you pick a fight with the local police chief? Is it some weird writer research thing?”

At any other point of time, Shiv would’ve snapped at her and told her to get lost. Now, he found himself gradually opening up to a stranger for the first time in his own memory.

“No. He told me that my parents had been killed in an accident. I didn’t agree with him.”

“As in?”

“I believe they were murdered.”

He waited for her to respond to his statement.

“Go on. Tell me I’m an idiot,” he said edgily.

“No. I don’t think you’re an idiot. But it certainly intrigues me as to why you believe your parents were murdered.”

He started to explain to her the entire incident. The drive from the Uthappa residence to Langley Corner, the storm, and most importantly, the mysterious figure and the package he planted. She listened to the story with great interest and made for a rather appreciative audience, oohing and aahing at the right places. Slowly, Shiv divulged all the recent happenings of his life to her. The reason was nothing in particular. He just felt that she looked very familiar. And he needed to vent. She sympathised with his anger at Tanya and criticised her for not standing by him when he most needed her. The words seemed to have a good effect on him. A little while later, she bade him goodbye and left.


5

CLEANUP

The wheels of the silver Swift skidded on the gravel as it drew to a halt. Two people got out. A massive, commando-like man in a blue polo shirt and jeans and a significantly shorter woman in a printed, round-neck t-shirt and jeans. They ran up the steps and looked up and down the hallway. A passing inspector’s eyes lingered over them.

“Inspector, where is SP Prasad?” the man asked politely.

“First left. His office is there.”

They rushed to the SP’s office. The constable outside stopped them.

Kahaan jaa rahe ho?” he demanded arrogantly.

“SP Prasad se milna hai.”

Aur mujhe Pradhan Mantri se!” the policeman barked.

The man pulled a laminated card out of his pocket and thrust it in the face of the policeman.

“Major Rajiv Chinappa. PRTC, Bangalore.”

Jai Hind, sahib. Sorry, sahib. SP sahib andar hain,” the policeman hastily pushed the door open.

Prasad was sitting behind his desk and talking on the phone rather loudly. Rajiv and his wife quietly sat down in front of him and waited for him to finish his conversation.

“Why is he taking so long?” she whispered to Rajiv.

“I don’t know, Ria. I came in with you.”

“Rajiv, this guy does not like Shiv. Are you sure…” her voice trailed off.

“Am I sure what? Ria, relax. He’s not stupid enough to mess with Shiv. Wait till I get my hands on that fool, though.”

Just as Ria opened her mouth to reply, Prasad kept the phone down.

“Yes. Who are you?” he asked Rajiv.

“Major Rajiv Chinappa.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I’m so sorry.”

Prasad rang a bell.

“Swamy, ladke ko le aa.”

Swamy returned five minutes later with Shiv in tow. He kept his head low and didn’t meet his brother’s eyes. He stood next to his chair, though.

“Major sahib, I don’t know what to tell you. Assaulting a police officer is a grave offence,” said Prasad slimily.

Rajiv Chinappa had dealt with men like Prasad before. He despised them wholeheartedly. All the same, he decided it would be better not to pick a fight with Prasad in his territory. He smiled coldly at the superintendent.

“I understand, Mr Prasad. I’m very sorry about Shiv’s behaviour. Emotions can be difficult to control for the most hard-hearted people in certain situations. I assure you that such behaviour will not be repeated in the future.”

Prasad continued smiling, shifting his gaze to the lanky young man standing in front of his desk. He was taken aback to receive a grin in return.

“It’s not just what he did to me. It’s his complete disregard for law and for those who uphold it.”

“Oh, is that what you do?” Shiv asked mockingly. “Uphold the law? You’re a rotten policeman, Prasad. You know it, I’m fucking sure of it,” his eyes grew wide with malice.

“Shiv,” his brother’s warning was clear.

“See, Major?” said Prasad, shifting in his seat uncomfortably.

“Ria, take Shiv out.”

She got up and took hold of Shiv’s arm.

“Come on, kiddo,” she said softly, tugging at his arm.

He gave Prasad a maniacal smile and they left the room.

“What’s the surety?” asked Rajiv, taking out his wallet.

“There’s pointless paperwork in the entire bail process. Why don’t you just make a goodwill donation of Rs 3000 to the police fund?” suggested Prasad.

Rajiv’s expression changed to one of calm anger.

“The papers, please, Mr Prasad,” he said.

Ten minutes later, Rajiv walked out of the police station, having signed the papers the police needed. He found his wife and brother already inside the car. He got in and turned the key in the ignition. He opened his mouth to speak as he accelerated but found Ria’s hand on his arm. He turned to look at her. She shook her head. He turned his focus to the road. A few minutes later, they pulled into the driveway of the bungalow. They got out. They could hear the scampering about of paws inside. Bonkers barked loudly. Shiv silently took out the keys and unlocked the door. Bonkers rushed at him and jumped around him.

“Hey, mad fellow! Come on. Let’s go in.”

The dog trotted after him into the living room. Rajiv and Ria followed them. Shiv downed a bottle of water quickly, spilling some liberally on his shirt. He turned around to face his brother.

“Why don’t we sit down, Shiv?” he suggested.

“Fine,” came the rather short reply.

The three of them sat down in the living room. Bonkers had brought an old rubber fish of his and sat with it between his paws on the carpet.

“What happened, Shiv? Why did Prasad throw you into the lockup?”

Shiv stayed silent. He was thinking up a reply. His brother would never believe what he had to say.

“Shiv! I’m asking you a question. Answer me!” Rajiv’s tone rose.

“He said that Pa must’ve been drunk, which resulted in the accident. I lost my cool and hit him.”

“According to him, you threw him up against the wall and pounded him with punches. Is that true?”

“Yes.”

“Is it also true that you cooked up some random story of a vision you’d had?”

“I didn’t cook it up!” yelled Shiv.

His brother continued to look at him as if he were a rather interesting circus animal.

“I did no such thing. Prasad is lying!”

“What would make him lie about something concerning you?” asked Rajiv interestedly.

“He doesn’t like me. And frankly, I have no qualms in saying that the feeling is mutual.”

“Why does he not like you?”

“He thinks I’m up to no good.”

“And why is that?”

Shiv opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by Ria.

“Rajiv, that’s enough.”

“Ria Di-” Shiv started.

“Shiv, shut up!” she said.

“Ria-”

“Yes, Rajiv?” she turned to face him, her eyebrows raised.

“Nothing,” he backed off. “Nothing.”

“Good. This is not an appropriate time for you to interrogate your brother. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?”

“Yeah.”

*

Four days later, after having finished the last rites of Brigadier and Mrs Chinappa, the three of them drove down to Bangalore, along with Bonkers. It had taken a lot of convincing and coaxing from Rajiv and Ria to get Shiv to agree to stay with them in Bangalore for a month.

“I’m capable of looking after myself. Rajiv just wants to keep an eye on me!”

“Listen to yourself talk, Shiv. You’re clearly deranged,” Rajiv shot back.

“Rajiv, keep quiet for a second,” said Ria. “Shiv, listen to me. It’s just for a month. You’ll feel better, believe me.”

“But I can stay alone. Why don’t you guys relax?”

“Look, Shiv. It’s a difficult time for everyone. It’ll be good if you stayed with us for a while. Got away from this place for a while.”

“But-”

“Shiv! Not another word!” snarled Rajiv. “You’re coming with us.”

“You think you can force me, Rajiv?” Shiv advanced towards his brother, who also moved forward.

“Don’t tempt me, Shiv. I’m capable of doing it and you bloody well know it. So shut up and pack!”

And that’s how Shiv Chinappa found himself in the backseat of the Swift, Bonkers snoring in his lap, as he looked out at the landscape of Coorg through the open window. The drive to Bangalore was a silent one but Shiv did notice his brother look at him every now and then in the rear-view mirror. Bonkers was the only one who broke the monotonous silence by barking at herds of buffalos, cows, and goats as they drove past them.

*

“See you, Shiv,” said Rajiv, poking his head through the curtains.

He received a wave from the half-asleep Shiv in response.

It had been a week since they’d arrived in Bangalore. Shiv got up slowly and got ready. Ria seemed to be chatting on the phone as he entered the drawing room. She was pacing up and down it, speaking on the phone. She smiled when she saw him and pointed at the table. He examined the breakfast. His brother, a keen cook when he was in a good mood, had made poha. He shovelled some on to his plate and dug in. Ria finished her conversation a few minutes later and he choked just as she approached the table.

“Why, Shiv, do you feel the need to gobble down food like you’ve been starved for months?”

He shrugged as he hastily gulped some water.

“What do you intend to do today?”

“I was thinking of going for that movie. Amitabh Bachchan one. Pink, yeah, Pink.”

“Change in plans. You’re coming to Star with me.”

“Why?” he whined.

“Because it’ll do you some good to be in a place where there’s some light. And because I need your help.”

“Fine,” he said grumpily.

She laughed and ruffled his hair as she got up.

“Di! Not the hair.”

“Chill, kid, no one’s going to look at you in Star.”

“Why? Have all of Bangalore’s good-looking women become lesbians?” he laughed.

“No,” she slapped him on the back of the head. “It’s because you look like a guy who doesn’t want to be spoken to. Right out of one of those dark, gritty short films you made five years back.”

“That was fun.”

*

“This isn’t fun.”

They were standing in the middle of Star Bazaar. He was holding a loaded basket in each hand.

“I told you to take a trolley, Shiv.”

“And I told you to take it easy, Di.”

“Rajiv never complains like this.”

“He’s your husband. I’m like your kid brother. Big difference. I won’t get the same looks as him.”

“Do you want anything? Biscuits or some Lays or something?”

He shook his head.

“Okay. Then let’s go get this stuff billed.”

They walked out ten minutes later.

“Do you want to eat lunch somewhere here?” asked Ria.

“What about Rajiv?”

“He’s not going to be home before three. He’ll get something from outside. What do you want to eat?”

“Pizza,” replied Shiv, spotting a Pizza Hut outlet down the street.

A little while later, they were sitting in the restaurant, examining menus.

“I’ll have a Fiery Chicken. Medium,” Shiv told the waiter. “And an Iced Tea.”

“Get me a Double Cheese. Small. And I too will have an Iced Tea.”

The waiter returned ten minutes later with their drinks.

“I’m telling you, Di, I’ve not read something as terrible as that,” said Shiv. “Thanks,” he said to the waiter as the latter placed his Iced Tea before him.

“It wasn’t all that bad.”

“It was like a poorly-written comedy,” Shiv took a sip of his drink.

“Does Tanya feel the same way?”

The sip of Iced Tea went down the wrong way and he started coughing. It took him a couple of minutes to get back to normal. Ria was looking at him unblinkingly.

“Okay. Out with it.”

“She told you?”

“Of course. I’m her sister, she tells me everything. Well, almost everything.”

“What is it that she hasn’t told you?” Shiv was curious. “What is it that Tanya wants to hide from her sister?” he said to himself.

“You’re a doofus, kid. If she hasn’t told me, I obviously don’t know,” Ria said cheerily.

“What do you know?”

“All she told me was that the two of you had a big fight when you were in Bombay. And that you guys broke up.”

“Really? That’s it?! Nothing else?”

“Nope. She told me to ask you.”

“You told her I was in Bangalore?”

“Yes, Shiv. We were talking about Uncle and Aunty and you came up.”

“That’s surprising,” Shiv snorted.

“Come on. You know you can tell me.”

“You’ll tell Rajiv. I don’t want a lecture from him.”

“I won’t. Though I don’t know why you don’t want to tell him yourself.”

“It’s not like I don’t trust him. It’s just that I’ve never talked about any of this to anyone.”

“You mean you’ve never been the sharing kind.”

“Yeah. He’s quite open with me. But that’s not the way I do things, you know.”

“Okay. Can you tell me what happened?”

“You, yes. Him, no.”

“Okay,” Ria lounged back in her seat. “Shoot.”

“We’d just finished that meeting with my agent about my next book. We came back to the room and got ready to go to bed. I decided to light up a joint before knocking off and lit one.”

“Let me guess: Tanya blew her top?”

“Pretty much. She yelled at me and slapped me too!”

If he expected a reaction to the revelation, he didn’t get one. Ria just stared at him from across the table, sipping her drink.

“You’re not going to react to that?” he asked incredulously.

“Not yet. Go on.”

“Well, I lost my cool and broke the mirror in the room. And the lamp. I cleaned it up later but she refused to speak to me. I tried again the next morning but there was no response from her. Some time back, we had a chat, during which she said that she felt scared of me and that I should get myself checked up.”

Ria knew about the last bit. Her sister had called her some days back, her voice high-pitched and shaky. Tanya had burst into tears in no time.

“I’m scared of him,” she had said breathlessly.

“Scared of Shiv? Sweetie, you’ve been with him for eight years. How can you be scared of him?”

“He’s not the guy I know. He’s so different. So capable of extreme violence.”

“Did he hit you?” Ria’s heart rate had stepped up.

“No, of course not. But it’s still very scary, the way he behaves.”

The conversation had continued in the same vein for quite a long time. As Ria recalled it, she looked at the tall, lanky boy sitting in front of her. She had last seen him six months ago. He was a lot thinner, his face was sunken, and his eyes had a very chilling, almost scary expression most of the time.

“That’s it?”

“Yep.”

“Okay. My turn to talk, Shiv. And you’re not going to interrupt me. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“What?”

“The drugs.”

“Di, you make it-”

“Just answer me!” Ria made no bones about the tone of her voice.

“Six years,” said Shiv quietly.

“Correct. And what all substances do you use?”

“Marijuana, cocaine, LSD.”

“Nothing else?” Ria raised her eyebrows.

“I-” Shiv coughed, “I have tried crack once. That’s all.”

Ria stayed quiet as she saw the waiter bring their pizzas and place them on the table. She spoke only when he was out of earshot.

“Are you completely crazy, Shiv?! What’s wrong with you?”

Shiv recoiled at the sudden change in her temperament.

“Do you realise how dangerous this stuff is?”

“Di, it’s purely recre-”

“Hold it!” she raised her hand. “Recreation. Do you know what normal people do for recreation, Shiv? They read, listen to music, watch television, go for a walk. What do you do? You get high. And that’s not a compliment.”

Shiv stayed quiet. He didn’t know what to say.

“You look so different. You look sick. Terribly sick. You’ve become thin. And I’m not saying that in a grandmotherly way. Your means of survival are limited to drugs.”

“Di, you make me sound like a drug addict.”

“Well, Shiv, that’s what one would normally think you are.”

“I can’t believe it,” Shiv sighed. “First Tanya, now you. Why is everyone so hell bent on labelling me a drug addict? Yeah. I do drugs. So what?! Who doesn’t, in today’s day and age?!” the pitch of his voice rose with every word he uttered.

“Watch the tone you take with me, Shiv. You also seem to need anger management classes. But I doubt that’ll work, given that rehab was of no use whatsoever. The outbursts are worse than ever. I didn’t say a word in Coorg because I knew you were having a hard time because of Uncle and Aunty’s deaths but this seems to have gotten out of hand.”

“What do you want me to say?” asked Shiv impatiently. “You want me to fucking apologise? Why the fuck should I apologise? It’s my fucking life to fuck around with. What has my life got to do with anyone else, their connection to me being no excuse for interference over here?!”

“Oh, so that’s what you think everyone’s doing. Interfering? Gosh, you’re unbelievable. Have you heard of the term ‘worry’? The terms ‘family’ and ‘friends’ aren’t familiar to you? Everyone is worried about you, Shiv. Your parents were. Your brother is. I am. Your friends are. Tanya is.”

“Was.”

“Pardon?”

“Tanya is not worried anymore, else she’d’ve stuck by me.”

Ria opened her purse and took out her phone. She tapped a few times on the screen and shoved the phone in Shiv’s face.

“Read this.”

Shiv took the phone from her hands. The green bar across the top of the screen said ‘Tanya’. There was a picture of Tanya and Shiv at her birthday party the previous year. The last seen was 11:30.

“Read yesterday’s chat.”

Shiv scrolled up a bit until he saw the previous day’s date. Tanya had initiated the conversation.

Tanya: How is Shiv?

Ria: Can’t say, kiddo. He lets on very little. I don’t think he’s doing okay, though.

Tanya: Do you think I made a mistake by breaking it off with him?

Ria: That was entirely your call, Tanya. Plus, I think it’s mostly thoughts of his parents that are bothering him.

Tanya: I feel horribly guilty for the way he’s ended up. I could’ve held on longer. I had done it for two years. A few more months wouldn’t have mattered.

Ria: I disagree. They would’ve. The way you describe his behaviour, the situation is lot safer the way it currently is.

Tanya: I miss him.

Ria: Then wait it out. If he feels for you as you do for him, he’ll get back to normal.

Shiv mutely handed the phone back to Ria.

“You read that? You see how she feels?” demanded Ria. “There is always collateral damage to what you do, Shiv. Every action of yours has an adverse impact on someone or the other.”

“So, what is it that you’re telling me?”

“I’m telling you to clean up your act. And now. Before Rajiv decides to tick you off. I know you got stuff with you from Coorg. You’re going to go home and once Rajiv goes for his round of golf, you will dispose it all off. Under my supervision. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?”

Shiv didn’t say anything.

“Shiv?” asked Ria.

“Yes. Understood.”

“Good. Now finish your pizza so we can go home.”

They finished their meal in silence and by the time they had made their way through the madhouse that was Bangalore’s traffic and reached home, it was past three. There was no lock on the door. Ria rang the doorbell. There were loud footsteps and the door was opened by a fuming Rajiv. He pushed past Ria and grabbed Shiv by the collar of his shirt.

“Your shit isn’t going to be tolerated in my house, bugger. Get that into your stupid head!” he snarled.

“What’re you doing? Gerrof!”

“What am I doing? What the hell are you doing?! I’ll answer that for you, you moron. Been catching up with Lance Pathan, haven’t you?” his hand tightened around his brother’s neck.

“You entered my room?!” demanded Shiv, incredulous that his privacy had been breached.

“That’s your argument?! That’s it? Why do you have three types of drugs in my house, Shiv?!”

“Rajiv, let him go! He’s gasping,” cried Ria.

Rajiv took his hand off his brother. He turned around and shot Ria a furious look.

“What are you defending him for?”

“Rajiv, just talk to him. There’s no need to beat him up.”

“Should’ve done it when he was younger. The damage is already done,” said Rajiv, more to himself than anyone else. “Get inside. And park your bloody ass in the drawing room,” he addressed Shiv.

Shiv did as he was told. His brother was right behind him. Ria hurried after them. Lying on the coffee table in the middle of the room were a few clear plastic packets with substances of three different colours and textures inside them. Shiv stared at the busted loot.

“Care to explain this?!” demanded Rajiv.

His quick replies had deserted Shiv. He didn’t dare to look up in his brother’s eyes.

“You’re still visiting Latif Pathan, aren’t you?”

Shiv continued to stare at the table.

“Shiv, you’d better start talking before I land a tight slap across your stupid mug!”

“Yes. Yes, I’ve been going to Pathan.”

“So that day, when I called you at around seven in the evening, you were on your way to his den?”

Shiv nodded. His brother threw him a look of disgust.

“What made you relapse? Hadn’t you said you’d dropped all of this? That rehab centre didn’t do anything for you, I suppose?”

“No,” he replied, not volunteering any more information. “The intake has gone up in the last two months.”

“Why is that?”

Shiv looked at Ria. Rajiv too turned to look at her.

“Ria?”

“Tanya left him.”

“Good for her. Why did she take this drastic step?”

Shiv glared at him for a moment before answering.

“Because of the weed and stuff.”

“Really, Shiv. You’re the limit. You’re very lucky I didn’t tell Ma and Papa. I brought you here, put you in a rehab centre for three months, admitted you in that screenwriting course you so badly wanted to go for. And now this. What the hell am I going to do with you, you absolute fool?!”

“Rajiv, I don’t see how this is any of your business in the first place. I am not taking money from you to do it. I bear the brunt of my activities.”

“Shiv, I explained to you the damage it does to people around you. It’s incredibly selfish of you-”

“Yeah, so what? I’m selfish!” Shiv burst out.

Oye!” Rajiv growled. “Watch that insolent tongue of yours when you’re addressing her. This is her house. She could kick you out right now.”

“I’d rather leave,” muttered Shiv.

“I know you’d rather leave, Shiv. But right now, like it or not, you’re going to stay put here. You’re going to keep your temper in check, you’re to behave properly, and most importantly, you’re going to clean up your act.”

“Or what?!” snapped Shiv.

“Or expect yourself to be imprisoned after I file an FIR against you under the NDPSA.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“You’re damn right, I am. Time to get back to the real world!”

*

Three Weeks Later

“Anita, calm down.”

“Shiv, the publishers think I’m sending them an adaptation of Macbeth. Your tricks will get me kicked out of my job. That’s the talk we had in Bombay.”

“You head Penners.”

“Whatever! I told them about Macbeth already-”

“Look, why don’t we do one thing? If they don’t like this story, I’ll send you the Macbeth one to send to them. Okay?”

“Fine!” came an ungracious voice from the other end.

“But you’ve got to push for this one.”

“I’ll try my best but don’t be surprised if they disagree with me. Bombay Noire is still selling like anything. People have loved the concept of it and the story you’ve written. Because of Noire’s popularity, Mangroves is also selling steadily. You’ve got a following. A Shakespearean tragedy would serve your career well.”

“This too is a tragedy. Just not a Shakespearean one. So just send it to them and see if they agree to it. Please.

“I’ll get in touch with them.”

“Thanks, Anita.”

Shiv was sitting at his table in the spare bedroom of his brother’s house, a file lying in front of him. On the phone was his agent, Anita Khanna. She had called him up, agitated at the fact that the story idea sent to her was in no way related to the play by the Bard, which Shiv had said was the idea of his next project. It had taken her quite a while to agree to hear him out about the idea he had penned and developed over the last two weeks. He got up and stretched. His brother passed the doorway.

Jaldi kar. You’ve got to be there before it’s too dark.”

The landline rang. Rajiv quickly picked it up.

“Hello?”

“This is Rajan Balachandran of the Narcotics Control Bureau. Am I speaking to Major Rajiv Chinappa?” the voice was polite but authoritative.

“Yes.”

“Major Chinappa, I’d like to speak to your brother Shiv who, if my knowledge is correct, is currently staying with you?”

“Yes. Just a moment.”

Rajiv went to Shiv’s room.

“There’s a call for you. NCB.”

Shiv’s face froze. The NCB. What did they want with him? He stood rooted to the spot.

“Don’t worry. Just go and speak to the guy. Go!”

Shiv hurried to the living room and picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Shiv Chinappa?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Rajan Balachandran. I work for the NCB. I have been put in-charge of Madikeri Police Station by the State Police.”

“Mhmm.”

“My predecessor Prasad left me a note about you. I’ll be frank. It wasn’t the most complimentary thing I’ve read.”

“Alright.”

“I’ve come to Madikeri to nab a drug lord-turned-dealer called Latif Khan Pathan, an Afghan immigrant. I am told you are a client of his.”

“Whatever Prasad told-”

“This information has been given to me by my undercover men,” Rajan cut him off.

Shiv took a deep breath before answering.

“Yes. I am one of Pathan’s clients.”

“He is running quite a racket here, just like he did in Goa, Haryana, Delhi, and Punjab before this. I have one question to ask you. Please answer in either yes or no. Will you turn approver for the Bureau against Pathan?”

“Could you hold on for a second, Mr Balachandran?” Shiv held the receiver at an arm’s length and looked at his brother.

“What is it?” Rajiv asked him.

“They want me to turn approver for the NCB against Pathan.”

“What are you thinking about?! Say yes!” Rajiv urged him.

Shiv put the receiver to his mouth and spoke.

“Mr Balachandran?”

“Yes?”

“I’m willing.”

“Very good. When are you getting back?”

“This evening.”

“I’d like to meet you in the morning at around 10 at the station.”

Shiv put the phone down. His brother looked at him, his eyebrows raised.

“What did he say?”

“This guy, Balachandran, is after Pathan. He apparently had information about me visiting Pathan. The NCB wants me to turn approver against Pathan. This guy wants to meet me tomorrow.”

“Shiv, keep your cool. Do not lose it. You need to keep calm. Do you understand? Do as they ask you to do. Okay?”

“Understood.”

“Rajiv, can I speak to you for a moment?”

“Yeah. What’s up?”

“I just wanted to say thanks. For putting up with me. And I wanted to apologise. For the stuff. I won’t do it ever again. I promise.”

“I know. Take care of yourself, kid. Come on now!”


6

FALL

Shiv scribbled away in his notebook, muttering to himself as he did so. It had been a week since he’d returned to Madikeri. He had almost finished the first draft of his novel. He leaned back in his chair and smiled sheepishly at the notebook and pen lying on the table before him. This was going to be a good story. He had gone back on the promise he’d made to himself about not writing anything emotional. But he was convinced that this story would work. He called the genre ‘trama’ and ‘dragedy’. He switched on his laptop and quickly typed out the last chapter. It took him about an hour to type two-and-a-half thousand words. He opened his e-mail and attached the file in an e-mail to Anita. Ten minutes later, his phone rang.

“Shiv here,” he said.

“Shiv, this is Roma Chandra from Penners.”

“Hi.”

“Anita got your e-mail but she’s out of office right now, so she told me to give you a message.”

“Yes?”

“She said, “Love the first chapter. Get working on the second draft”.”

“Second draft? Doesn’t she want to give it a full once-over?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, thanks for the news, Roma.”

“Bye, Shiv.”

“Bye.”

Shiv placed the phone on his table and put his hands on his hips, looking up at the ceiling of the hut as he did so. Relief filled him up. He heaved a sigh of relief and picked up his phone. He dropped his brother a text message:

Submitted The Lone Wolftoday. Commencing work on the second draft soon. Cheers!

He had gone and met Balachandran the day after returning to Madikeri. The thirty-year-old officer looked and sounded a lot smarter than Prasad. He laid down the terms and conditions for Shiv, who raised a few points regarding the entire thing. At the end of it, Shiv walked out confident that nothing would happen to him. He had his instructions from Balachandran, which he intended to follow to the ‘T’.

He spent the rest of the day reading Kuldip Nayyar’s Without Fear, a book he loved reading. He immersed himself in it, drinking in the details of the National Assembly Bombing and the Saunders Murder Case, as well as the trial that followed. It was dark outside when he finally put the book down. A he got up from the bed, there was a knock on the door. Outside stood the cook with a tiffin carrier.

Kya banaya hai?” asked Shiv, taking the carrier from the cook’s hands.

Rajma-chawal. Aur gulab jamun bhi hai.”

Aapka khaana hua?”

Nahi. Missus ko lekar picture dekhne ja raha hoon.”

Kaunsi lagi hai?”

Woh Akshay Kumar waali. Rustom naam hai picture ka.”

Shiv held back a scoffing sound, thanked the cook and closed the door. As he returned from the kitchenette, he heard his phone ring. A number was flashing on the screen.

“Hello?”

“Writer-ji, where you are?” asked the slimy voice of Latif Pathan.

“Pathan,” Shiv was taken aback. “What’s with the sudden call?”

“You want something?”

“No, not right now,” Shiv kept the reply as brief as possible.

“Why?”

“I’m trying to put an end to the problem, Pathan.”

“Lance,” the drug peddler corrected him. “Problem?”

“Drugs are harmful,” said Shiv evasively.

“You are from Raja buying?”

Raja was a small-time peddler who operated in the more posh areas of town.

“No, of course not. I wouldn’t betray you like that.”

“You have given me problem. You are not doing correct thing. You buy from me. I give you best quality thing.”

“Pathan, I don’t want anything,” said Shiv forcefully, making his point clear.

The Afghan erupted. He started yelling at Shiv, throwing a lot of expletives in Hindi and in his native Pashto. Shiv broke in during the pause Pathan took to catch his breath.

“This had better be the last call I get from you, you bastard. Else SP Prasad will come knocking on your door. Better watch out!”

He cut the line before Pathan could reply. He blocked the number the call had come from. He remembered his brother’s words from a year ago: You will regret your ties to Latif Pathan one day. He now understood what Rajiv had meant.

*

It was in the wee hours of the morning that Shiv got up with a start. There was a rumble of thunder outside. He sat up in bed and looked around. He felt about in the dark for the switch of the lamp on his bedside table. It came on with a flicker. The yellow bulb glowed dimly. Shiv opened the drawer out of boredom. Inside lay a torch, the Zippo lighter, and the pen. He felt about the back of the drawer and touched a soft, synthetic material. He drew it out of the drawer and held it up against the dim lamp. It was a clear plastic packet in which sat a pinkish pill. Annoyed at his discovery, he chucked the packet back into the drawer, closed it, turned the light off, and went back to sleep.

*

Once again, he found himself on the road. The rain was pouring down all around him. Lightning was flashing across the dark, mysterious skies. Thunder rumbled every now and then. There was a funny orange-pink tint to his vision. It was, in some sense, trippy. Far away, he could see a set of headlights. He went and stood by the side of the road. A few minutes later, the burly figure emerged. Once again, the figure made its way to the trees and dug a hole there. A package was placed inside the hole and the figure returned to the road, taking a lot of care to stand right in the middle. The car came sooner than Shiv expected it to turn up. Once again, there was a swerve to avoid running over the figure standing in the middle of the road. Once again, the car crashed into a tree by the side of the road. Once again, the figure took out a remote and pressed a button on it, causing a tree to fall right on top of the crashed car. Shiv moved towards the figure. The latter noticed Shiv and made a run for it. Shiv slipped as he chased after the figure, allowing the figure to escape into a wooded area nearby. Shiv sprinted into the small forest. He stopped moving and listened hard for a moment. The figure was headed north. He ran straight. The wood ended near Aiyappa Crossing. Suddenly, sunlight lit up the area. He leapt onto the main road and dodged a few vehicles. He could see the figure making his way through the surprisingly crowded road.

“Why the hell is there traffic today?” Shiv said to himself as he gave chase.

The road came to a sudden end. There was a slope going down to a quarry. The figure was rolling down. Shiv followed him, bracing himself for the many sharp pebbles and thorns that would invariably stick to his t-shirt. He didn’t realise when he’d reached the end of the slope. He hit the ground with a rather hurtful thud. As he lay in the mud, he heard the sound of a motorbike. He looked up, still lying on the ground. The figure was speeding towards him on a mountain bike. He braced himself for the searing pain that never came. The bike leapt over him and disappeared up the slope he had just rolled down.

*

“Hello? Lance?”

“Writer-ji?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Look, I’m sorry about that day. Can you drop off some pills?”

“Yes. Of course, Writer-ji. I will evening come.”


7

CRYSTAL

The sun was setting. The cook had turned on the lights of the estate. The pinkish glow of the sky was beautiful, to say the least. Shiv sat on the stone steps of his hut, smoking a joint. He had compiled a file chronicling the death of his parents in the afternoon. He had given up hopes of finding the murderer, if there even was one. As he let the smoke out of his nose, he looked at the sky. It was a deep violet, stars twinkling. His eyes wandered over to the gate. Someone was standing there. He crushed the burning joint and started walking towards the gate. The person standing there didn’t move. He walked a little faster, wanting to make sure that the person didn’t get away. As he neared the gate, the person’s entire body was shielded by the glow of the lamps on the pillars. He quickened his pace and found a girl standing near the pillar, smiling at him. She looked very familiar.

“Hi. Remember me?” she asked brightly.

“I think so,” mumbled Shiv. “Aren’t you the girl who met me in the lockup?”

“Yeah. That’s me. Though that’d be a pretty long thing to call me: ‘THE GIRL WHO MET ME IN THE LOCKUP’.”

“Yeah. Sorry. You’re Meth, right?”

“No,” she said indignantly. “I’m Crystal.”

“Yeah, I know. That was an attempt at cracking a joke. Like Crystal Meth.”

“Oh!” she smiled. “I’m a little slow, I guess.”

“Stalking me again?”

“If that’s what floats your boat, yeah, that’s what I’m doing.”

A cyclist went past them, staring at Shiv as he rode off to the other side of the street.

“What are you doing here?”

“I just saw you sitting on the steps of your hut and thought I’d wait until you saw me.”

Shiv looked at her intensely. How was it that the similarity was so striking?

“They let you out quite early, didn’t they?” she said.

“Yeah. It was a minor charge.”

“Good god, is that the time?!” she said, looking at her wristwatch. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”

“Well, goodnight.”

She turned around and started walking away. She had gone about fifty metres or so when he called out.

“Hey, you want to go get a cup of coffee tomorrow?”

Even from the distance between them, he could see her smiling.

“Sure. What time?”

“11?”

“Works for me.”

“Great. See you then.”

*

Three Weeks Later

Shiv was up by eight. He made breakfast quickly and wolfed it down. The room was a mess. The blankets were piled up at the end of the bed. Books, clothes, and CDs lay all over the place. The drawer of the bedside table lay open. Inside were little plastic packets, some filled with marijuana, others with cocaine. His desk was decked with paper. The only thing that seemed to be in the place where it should’ve been was the file Prasad had given him. He tidied the place up quickly and got ready. As the water from the shower hit him, his thoughts wandered to Crystal.

Over the last few weeks, they had grown quite close, extraordinary as that was. She was a very interesting person. More so because she was willing to listen to him talk. She knew the inside-out and outside-in of his parents’ death and she genuinely seemed to be concerned about who the perpetrator was. They’d talked about the people who didn’t like him.

“SP Prasad?” she had suggested.

“Prasad hates me, agreed. But he held Pa in very high regard. I can’t see him murdering my parents.”

This was the discussion that dominated their conversations. Who had killed Brigadier and Mrs Chinappa? There was no one who disliked his father in town. The retired Fauji was well-liked and respected. Crystal had mentioned a few more names over the next couple of days but Shiv pointed out exactly why he thought they were not in the picture.

He finished his bath and got dressed. The clock struck eleven just as he’d finished tying his shoelaces. He opened the drawer on his desk and popped a pill. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Crystal stood outside.

“Hey!”

“Hi.”

“Ready to go?”

“Yeah. Come on.”

It had become a habit of theirs to go to an old coffeehouse in town every morning at eleven. Though Shiv didn’t quite like the constant stares from onlookers, the place made very good filter coffee, which was the main attraction. They walked down Elm Street, discussing technical aspects of filmmaking, an interest they had in common. Shiv saw Vijayan outside his shop, smoking a cigarette.

“You may want to hang back a bit,” he said to Crystal.

He approached the shop, Crystal falling back slightly.

“Vijayan, a packet of Marlboro.”

Shiv caught the packet.

“Thanks,” he said. “That’s my friend Crystal over there.”

Vijayan peered out of the side of the booth of the shop and waved at Crystal. He gave Shiv a brief smile and turned his attention to another customer. Shiv walked back to Crystal and they continued towards the coffeehouse.

“Cigarette?” he held out the packet.

“Don’t light that, Shiv!”

“Why?”

Shiv had drawn the lighter from his pocket and had held it up against the cigarette.

“You’re not supposed to smoke in public.”

It was a line she had often uttered. Smiling, Shiv slipped the lighter back into his pocket and stuffed the cigarette back into the packet. The coffeehouse was empty. The cleaner was carrying a bucket and mop out through the side door. They ordered two filter coffees and decided to sit on the upper floor, which was usually empty. There was silence for a few minutes as they waited for the coffees to arrive. The waiter arrived five minutes later and placed the mugs on the table. Crystal took a sip from her coffee, observing Shiv, who seemed lost in thought.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked, setting her mug down.

“Nothing.”

There was the characteristic shrug of the shoulders that she’d noticed he did when he wasn’t keen on discussing something.

“Oh, come on! I can make out something’s troubling you. Spit it out.”

He opened his mouth, paused, and then closed it.

“Still thinking about who it was?”

“Yeah.”

“Describe the figure again. In more detail.”

Shiv took a moment to gather his thoughts before speaking.

“Well, tall and burly-looking. With a scar down the right cheek.”

He paused again.

“A thick beard, the kind those Afghans have. I didn’t see a lot of the face, though there was a long scar running down the right side of his face. Like someone had attacked him with a knife or something.”

“Did he say something? Did you hear a word?”

“No. Nothing. He didn’t open his mouth even once.”

“Anything else?”

Shiv closed his eyes and the entire scene flashed in his mind again.

“Yeah. He was wearing some kind of tabeez. A black one. I saw it dangle when he bent down to place the explosive at the base of the tree.”

They sat in silence, both wondering who the person could be. Shiv gazed into the coffee in his mug.

“Shiv, Latif Pathan?”

Shiv looked up from the mug, puzzled.

“What about him?”

“Is it possible that the man who killed your parents was Pathan?”

“Pathan? Why would he kill my parents? What could the motive be?”

“Well, you did stop buying from him for a while. Raja was your supplier for a brief time. That must have angered Pathan. You are his most frequent customer. He must have felt the loss of money quite badly.”

Shiv’s mind started to race about. Pathan. Latif Pathan. That son of a bitch! It had to be him! Shiv remembered his expression when Shiv had refused to pay him a heightened amount of money some weeks back. Latif Pathan was the kind of person who’d do anything for money. Anger bubbled inside Shiv. He started to feel warm inside the coffeehouse, though there was a cool breeze coming through the open windows. The figure looked like Pathan. He walked like Pathan. And he had a scar identical to the one Pathan had, a result of a knifing attempt by the brother of one of his underage customers who’d died of an overdose. Shiv started to tremble with rage.

“Shiv! Shiv!” Crystal shook his arm. “Calm down. Let’s go back to your place. Come on.”

She pulled him by the arm and got up. He followed suit. They walked back to his place at a fast pace. They were there in fifteen minutes, instead of the usual twenty-five. Inside, he collapsed on the bed. She got him a glass of water, which he gulped down hastily. She kept the empty glass in the kitchenette and returned with a pinkish pill clutched tightly in her hand. He looked at her, puzzled. She merely nodded. He slowly stretched his hand out. It fell into his hand. The pill was very cold.

*

He found himself in a vaguely familiar place. Yes! This was the old and abandoned British-era United Services Institute in Nainital Cantonment. It had been a popular haunt for him and his friends when he was in the twelfth standard. That’s where they’d go to smoke up. The once-regal building was a ruin. The walls were crumbling; the roof had caved in in some rooms. But it was the safest place to go and smoke up since no one ever came there. It took Shiv quite a bit of time to realise where he was, simply because the building wasn’t as he remembered it. He was standing in the driveway. He looked around at the surroundings. The area was lit up. The lawn, which had been just a lot of mud six years back, was covered in a carpet of well-trimmed grass. It was lit up by little lamps. There had been no car park when he used to come here but there was a Morris from the late 30s parked by the side of the main building. There were two sentries at the gate with Enfield rifles of the Second World War era in their hands. There were no poles or cable towers nearby. He recognised a telegraph wire running just outside the boundary wall of the Institute. A butler approached him. He was short, fat, and European-looking.

“Sir, the car will be arriving any moment now,” he said.

Shiv noted the British accent.

“I suggest you wait by the steps in the drive.”

Shiv nodded and followed him. The butler turned around once they’d reached the steps and looked Shiv up and down. He reached out and adjusted his bow-tie.

“Excuse me,” he quickly glanced at the name tab the man was wearing. “Alfred, is it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why am I wearing a bow-tie, Alfred?”

“Well, sir, it’s a sit-down dinner. That is exactly what you’re supposed to be wearing.”

“Oh!” Shiv was slightly taken aback. “What’s the date today?”

“It’s the 2nd of September, sir.”

“The 2nd of September?”

“Yes, sir.”

Shiv was about to speak again when he caught the glare of a car’s headlights. He shielded his eyes with his hands.

“Well, sir, it seems that madam has arrived.”

Shiv wanted to ask him who madam was but decided against it.

“How do I look?” he asked the man.

“Very good, sir.”

The car, identical to the one Shiv had seen parked by the side of the building, drew to a halt. The butler opened the door and out stepped a beautiful young lady in a sleeveless, salmon-pink gown, with a fur wrap draped around her shoulders. She seemed to be in her late twenties or early thirties. Shiv had barely recovered from the sight of her that she looked up and smiled at him. It was Tanya. He held out his hand and led her up the steps.

“Wow, Shiv. What a fantastic place.”

“Yeah. I was just about to say that.”

“Don’t joke around now. It’s really cool, what you’ve done here.”

“What I’ve done?”

“Yeah. I mean, wow! Literally! It’s like you’ve turned the clock back. And that car. Ran like magic. You’d think it’d splutter and stop halfway here, it’s so old, but it was such a beautiful drive.”

“Tanya, what’s happening here?”

“Shiv, I told you to stop fooling around. This is the nicest anniversary surprise you’ve given me.”

Shiv looked at her with a scandalised expression. Had she gone nuts?! What anniversary?! He kept a normal face through the entire evening thereafter, letting Tanya do all the talking. They were in a different era, neither of them had mobile phones….it was all very weird.

*

He got up with a start in the wee hours of the morning. He looked at the time and yawned. Then, remembering something suddenly, he opened the bedside table drawer. There was the pill that bitch had given him!


8

OVERDOSE

He woke up feeling groggy. His phone was ringing. He picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Shiv.”

It was Crystal.

“Oh, hi. What’s up?”

“Nothing. Was wondering what you’re up to.”

“Just got up. Where are you?” he could hear a slightly non-local voice in the background.

“I’m in the market. Should we meet?”

“Yeah. Listen, I think I’ve run out of stuff. Can you meet me at Pathan’s in an hour?”

“Yeah. Sure,” her voice perked up.

Shiv jumped out of bed and hurriedly got ready. He had just finished pulling on his jeans when the phone rang again.

“Yes?”

“Shiv, one of my men has called in a ‘Red’.”

‘Red’ was the colour pre-decided by Balachandran in case there was a chance to nab Pathan while making a sale.

“I’m leaving for the place. You also leave with your squad. And don’t forget what you’ve promised me.”

“Yeah.”

Shiv locked the hut and sprinted all the way to Vijayan’s shop.

“Vijayan,” he panted. “Need your bike.”

“Take it,” Vijayan threw him the keys. “Top it up before bringing it back.”

“Yeah.”

Shiv zoomed off towards town. At Town Square, a police jeep started to follow him. He parked by the old abandoned building once again. The jeep had drawn to a halt at the mouth of the alley. Shiv nodded at the policemen and made his way towards Pathan’s hut, two of the men close behind him. As he walked, he slowed down a little, took out his phone, and dialled Balachandran’s number before putting the phone back in his pocket. Outside the front door of the hut stood Crystal. Shiv noticed an impatience about her. And she seemed nervous and edgy.

“Oh, hi, Shiv.”

“Hey. Is he there?”

“I think he is. Shall we go in?” She made for the door.

“No. We must knock.”

Surprised, she rapped on the door. Lance opened it and let them in, once again enveloping Shiv in a hug.

“What will you take, Writer-ji?” he asked, turning his back to Shiv and examining his cupboard.

“A packet of pills.”

Outside, there was a blitz of activity.

“Take position. Over there. Cover flank. Be ready! Quiet!”

Lance opened a drawer. Shiv saw Crystal smiling out of the corner of his eye. Lance turned around in a flash, a knife in his hand.

“How about I give you this instead?”

Shiv was taken by surprise. Crystal moved forward and put her arm around Lance.

“Surprised, Mr Chinappa?” she asked.

“I must say, I am.”

“You must be wondering what’s going on?”

“Not really. I know what’s going on.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. May I?”

“Please do,” she said, gazing at him interestedly.

“I think that when Pathan grows close to a certain client, he tries to make more money off of him. Therefore, he uses you by managing to take a look at the client’s social circle. In my case, he picked my pocket, saw my girlfriend’s photograph and memorised it, and when he knew I was in a bad shape, you entered and helped him make more money off me. You’re not that bad an actress.”

“Fantastic,” she clapped. “Pity nobody will know how smart you are.”

“Oh, they will.”

As if on cue, the door was broken down by two policemen who started yelling at Pathan immediately, making it clear that they meant business. Two stern-looking female constables took Crystal away. The two were handcuffed and taken away. Balachandran took Shiv aside.

“Here’s the document I promised you.”

Shiv took the piece of paper and read it word-to-word. Satisfied, he smiled at Balachandran.

“Thank you, sir.”

“You stayed calm. That was good.”

“What’ll happen to them?”

“Narcotics Bureau will file charges this evening and take them away to either Chennai or Bangalore. Our work finishes there.”

“Great.”

“Can I drop you home?” Balachandran offered.

“Oh, yes, please. Someone will have to take that bike to Vijayan Ram, though.”

“I’ll have someone take it.”

*

His phone was vibrating. It was evening. His bags were ready. He was just waiting for the taxi. The cook and other household help had all dropped by and said bye to him. They would look after the place till the time he made his next visit. He took the call.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Shiv,” came a soft, gentle voice from the other end.

His heart skipped a beat.

“Tanya?!”


EPILOGUE

“Tanya?!”

He turned over in the bed. There she was, on the other side, with her back to him. He looked at the big window to his left. Through it, he had a perfect view of the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea. Slowly, it dawned upon him that he had had possibly the worst nightmare ever. A result of the previous night’s fight. He closed his eyes for a few more minutes as he tried to recall the entire dream. It felt so long. He turned over and looked at Tanya. She still had her back to him. He sat up straight and drew his leather case towards him. He quickly took out all the little packets he had brought with him and placed them on the bedside table. Making sure there was no packet left inside the case, he picked all of them up and marched off to the bathroom. He lifted the lid of the throne and emptied the contents of each and every packet into it. He threw the empty packets in the dustbin under the sink and flushed away the substances. He stopped in his tracks as soon as he’d turned around to go back to the room. She was standing at the door. Her mascara had spread everywhere. Her face was streaked with tears. He tried to look as apologetic as he could.

“I’m really very sorry, Tanya. I am. You were right. I was wrong.”

He walked past her.

“Shiv!”

He turned around. She smiled at him.

“Good job. You’ve finally done what you should’ve done half a decade back. I’m proud of you.”

He walked up to her and held her hand.

“That hand,” he said as he clutched the one that had landed on his face less than twelve hours ago, “can spell magic. Thank you for making me see the problem. And for addressing it so swiftly.”

He brought the hand down on his face a couple of times.

“I’m not the greatest guy in the world, and probably rank very low on the boyfriend scale, but I’ll try and get better at that. And you’re always there to help, aren’t you?” he whispered, slipping his arms around her waist.

“This is the guy I fell for in the tenth standard,” she said, putting her arms around his neck.

“I’m not that stupid, yaar. Some credit. Please,” he drew her closer.

“We’ll see,” she said, straightening her back to reach up to his face. “We’ll see.”



This story was conceived as a screenplay initially before I decided that I’d rather not climb Everest without oxygen on my very first attempt (Even if it were a screenplay, who’d I pitch it to, huh?). I then thought of writing it as a short story before realising that the entire story couldn’t be wrapped up so fast. Hence, this novella, written over a period of 88 days. Thank you for reading it, please share the link around and tell people about it. You can leave your comments in the section below! Adios for now!

Varun Bhakay Writer’s Block (2016)

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Long Sho(r)t by Varun Bhakay: The Novelist of the ‘H’ Order

  1. Had a good read for the weekend have a good flair for writing so continue I am sure you’ll do well for yourself wishing you all the best in all your positive endeavours

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s