By Vishaal Pathak
He is looking for a girl, who does not know he exists, or the story that has brought him here. He has no reasons to be discreet but still he has to be careful. He is standing near the doorway and surveying the golden banquet hall, which is filled with refined bodies in saris and jackets, and beautiful young women with straight hair who never make facial expressions. But they will, soon. Any moment now.
Dazzled by the radiance of the women and the riches, Achint took slow, mindful steps – careful not to trip on the velvety carpet. He proceeded towards the open bar, where the girl from the picture stood, accompanied by other beautiful women. “It has to be when she’s alone”, he remembered the instructions. He had never seen the insides of a banquet hall as majestic as this, let alone such grandeur. The lights, the jewellery, the gold, the diamonds – beamed like a thousand stars put together. It repulsed him. Seeking respite, he sat down at the counter and put the bouquet aside. The bartender customarily offered him shots and he gulped them down real quick to let it all sink in. The drink soothed him. Less aware of his own existence, his sheepish glances turned into eyefuls. Elegant men and women drank and danced and talked and flirted. Achint sized the women with his gaze intently even as sophisticated men did accidentally.
The girl, he noticed, continued to nod abruptly, and listened half-heartedly while still surrounded by women who continued to chat amongst themselves without any emotion, as though it had been rehearsed several times over. She looked far beautiful in person – almost angelic. Must’ve been in her early twenties. Dressed in a glittery gown and decked in jewellery, she could’ve been the bride, or a close friend, or just next in line. ‘What does it feel like to have the love of someone like her in your life? And what does it take to earn it? Do the rich, or can the rich feel love? Is it more comforting than the luxuries they were born with? Are they – do they dream, and about what?’
“It is a surprise, after all”, he recalled the conversation he had had, and waited patiently for the women to leave her side. He grabbed another drink, but decided to take it slow. With every sip this time, Achint dissected his own life, and his one-sided love stories.
He had often wondered if the swanky skyline, gleaming motorcars and massive bungalows must delight or disgust him. When he was young, none of it had existed – except in cinemas and his dreams. His family lived in what was then the centre of the town, and Achint, true to his name – one without worries, had the world in his palms. But soon, wealthy invaders rode the opulence wagon to the town, found it unfit for living, and built gated colonies on its periphery. Achint and his family, and several other families found themselves gradually drifting by miles without moving an inch – to the outskirts of the city. The world began slipping from his palms, his dreams crawled out of his unconscious and found abode – or was it hostage – in the city. But wealth, generous as it is, trickles down. Achint grew up to deliver wishes the masters commanded – gifts, books, flowers, cakes, gadgets and whatnot. Perched on his scooterette, he also delivered to the darker, dingy alleys, but craved to go back to the city, even if the skyline seemed to look down on him, the motorcars blinded his vision, and the bungalows stonewalled him. Content is a middle-path; a comforting bargain achieved by sleeping with the enemy. And often, as it would dawn on him, by being taken advantage of.
When in the city, Achint stared at his dreams from afar, like that one woman he may have once loved, and believed that it was only a matter of time when they would or she would, magically, come rushing into his arms. For now, that stretch was strewn with monthly instalments and taxes and bills and the many women who he had sneaking in at night through his window for contractual love. At any rate, his dreams, like his love, were a long shot, and he had virtually resigned himself to fantasizing about them both in bed with strange women.
Last year, after putting in eight years of his youth as a delivery boy, he had been relieved off his duties. His employers had sold the firm at an attractive price to a giant. Young men were doing the job at half the cost, were better cultural fits, and brought in the right energy to the team. So old men like him, that weren’t resourceful enough to be a managerial asset, were off the road and on the streets. Achint grew increasingly pained by the citywide rejection – it was as if the city had devised novel ways to reject him. On cold starving nights, he bickered with the city and demanded of it, reasons for its deep-rooted hatred towards him, wondering what else it wished for him to see.
Following months of sinking depression and rising debt, one night, he gave in to the city’s provocation. The young, the rich, the reckless wanted strange things delivered at stranger times, and he knew the city too well to see it through. Smuggled, pirated, prohibited, illegal; liquor, contraband; hungry hostellers pulling off all-nighters for exams; and sometimes it was just young hearts who wanted to send each other gifts late in the night, where no other men could reach. He had only been accosted twice by the police, and had been lucky on both the occasions – something he acknowledged and was grateful for. The news of his resourcefulness spread by word of mouth and serving the requests rewarded him well. On the long solitary drives he took around the city, the city offered him an olive branch and Achint sensed a union around the corner.
Shaken out of his stupor by the bartender offering him more drinks, Achint looked around to find the girl alone. He reached for the bouquet, double-checked the gift-wrapped parcel in the side pocket of his rented jacket, and walked over to her. Bowing gently, he contorted half a smile and stopped for a second, dazed by her beauty.
“Umm, yes?” She queried, tilting her head sideways, passing a confused smile back at him.
Interrupted, he instantly remembered, and offered her the bouquet, while she continued to look puzzled. He then gave her the gift-wrap that she hesitatingly accepted.
“For me?” She asked, trying to study the gift-wrap and the man who had brought these to her.
Achint could only nod his head, dumbfounded as he was. He then signaled with his hands to roll the parcel over, suggesting it had the name of the sender. Her eyes immediately lit up; she looked up smiling heartfully at Achint, and then extended her hand to thank him. Taken aback by her genuine, almost innocent gesture, he took a moment to receive her hand, and could manage to touch it only fleetingly as she promptly went back to the parcel, and then called out for someone, waving at them enthusiastically. The women looked as excited, he noticed. Achint took that as a cue for him to leave, and at first walked backwards with slow steps, then turned around and paced towards the door, hoping to capture the moment steadfastly in his memory. He shook his head, as if to correct himself. Of course, there is love – this – what he just witnessed, could only have been out of love. For some strange reason, Achint found himself falling in love with the moment, and with the girl and her innocence, even though momentarily. And then, as though synonymous with that moment of love, he fell to the ground with a thud, as blaring alarms, commotion, a loud cheer, and the sound of an explosion went off almost all together.
It was hard to tell which came first. Even as smoke began to incapacitate thinking, Achint picked himself up, glanced over his shoulder to find the girl dropped dead to the ground. Unsure of whether he was himself alive or not, and come over with a brain freeze, Achint shoved and jostled and ran in any and every direction possible. He spotted an elevator in the alley, hit all the buttons, and then leapt down the staircase instead. At one point he stopped and thought of jumping out the window, and couldn’t remember which floor he was on, but still took the plunge and fell safely into the back garden. He ran for another ten minutes until he exhausted his lungs, and then got into a bus that he didn’t care which part of earth it was headed to. He begged the bus conductor to take him home, and then collapsed the next instant, overpowered by a strange slumber.
The next morning Achint woke up past noon with a throbbing headache. He leapt up and sat in his bed as the happenings from the last night trickled down his memory. Sweating frenziedly, his heart began to pace. He jumped out of his bed and ran out the front door, only to find the scooterette had been parked in its regular spot, and breathed a sigh of relief. But wait, how did it get here? How did he get here last night? The rented jacket was not to be found at his place, and neither was his phone.
“It’s an imported rock, what do you care?” he remember being chided when he had quizzed them what it was. So, a smuggled gemstone, he thought. The money promised wasn’t enough for him to suspect it to be anything else. “Here, take her picture.”
In the days that followed, the details of the case gradually emerged. She was the only daughter of a filthy rich industrialist – young, engaged, and set to get married in a week. The explosive was in the form of a rock that had been smuggled from outside the country, details of which were kept confidential. Every single person on the guest list had been questioned, the CCTV footage had been inspected and thorough investigation had been conducted. Strong links to solving the case had been found, and it was only a matter of time when the perpetrator would be behind bars, he heard the television reporters say.
At first he dreaded, then denied, then pleaded, then denied and then pleaded again to be picked up from his place, locked up, and thrashed. The wait was killing him. He’d stay locked up in his room, inside his own head during the days. At nights, he’d confront his demons. ‘You killed her’, ‘No, I didn’t’, ‘What if it had exploded in your hands?’, ‘Don’t be a fool, it had to be unwrapped’, ‘Oh, really, how do you know that? Are you an expert at these things?’, ‘Shut up, it’s the newspapers that say that’, ‘Are you sure it was the right parcel? What if you had mixed up and picked something that was meant for someone else?’, ‘That – that – no – please don’t say that – stop interrogating me, for God’s sakes’. He begged for mercy, and each night mercy meant a different thing. Some nights he’d convince himself that it wasn’t his fault, he hadn’t meant to harm her, and if he had any inkling of what was about to come, he’d have never signed up for it. He assured himself that people die – the rich too, and it was probably no big deal. The next morning he felt weak again, and stopped short of turning himself in.
The world outside, oblivious of his struggles inside, continued to function.
A suspect of the sketch was prepared and released, a culprit had been nabbed and sent to trial, and conflicting stories were propounded, debated, debunked and accepted with equal fervour. It was the work of a jilted lover one day, a revenge attack by one of their enemies the next, even as the family and sensible voices in the media begged the people to be kind to the deceased. The evidences were immaculate and the suspect had been duly and swiftly convicted. There were no appeals, no questions raised, no fingers pointed; and everyone from the media to the machinery had been lauded for their work.
With that over, Achint began to gradually return to life, but at odd times snapping right out of it. He’d question his own memory. Was he too drunk that night? Did it really happen? Did he even go there? On better days, he thought of making a joke at his own expense. The city had ridiculed, denied him his existence yet another time, he’d tell himself. It could have momentarily validated him, even if for the wrong reasons, and he found it both absurd and concerning at once to go down that trail of thought, but feigned it was funny.
On bad days, Achint prayed for the memory of that day to go away. The beaming innocence of her face, however, haunted him. It sickened him to think that anyone in their right minds would want to kill someone like her – someone so pure and virtuous. Was it hate, or anger, or greed – or wait, was it love? He would sneak in a woman at night, and in the middle of it, it was her he was making love to. She would look up at him innocently and then explode and drop dead. He would howl, terrifying the woman away. But after several such episodes, he had to get himself together, so he told himself repeatedly that he had no part to play in it; it was all either a nightmare or a figment of his imagination. He started taking long drives again, and told the city, with nonchalance, that he no longer wanted anything to do with it or his dreams.
Funnily enough, that wasn’t to be. Soon, Achint’s fortune started to arrive in small parcels full of cash that did not explode, and cheques written in several hands. His father had won a lottery that necessitated them, for their own safety, to move out of their dingy excuse for a house and into a bungalow that he had always eyed. It made no sense to him, but then it also did. It was undeniable.
The city welcomed him with festivities, lay down a red carpet and called for him. It maddened him; he wanted to run away from it yet the city followed him everywhere he went. Invitations to parties that were held at such banquet halls quietly poured in in their mails, where no one would question what he did for a living – that he was there was proof enough of his riches. He had begun to hate the city, yet it pined for his love.
Achint started to snap again. His body ached and itched and burned. Strange ailments have stranger prognosis. At one such party at the banquet hall where it had all started, Achint took the elevator to the 18th floor of the building, and walked up to the open terrace. The city unleashed, unfolded itself – all its colours at brazen display.
The skyline made him dizzy, the motorcars were all blurry, and the bungalows – miniscule as they looked from up here, seemed to suffocate him. Achint stood at the edge of the terrace, made his palm into a fist, and began to spit frantically.
Unfazed, the city invited him with open arms, and waited with bated breath for a leap, a step – towards love and acceptance.
Bio: Vishaal is an emerging writer. He writes short stories and poems, some of which have appeared in literary magazines and as part of anthologies.