“Let me go!” She flew at her attendants, yelling profanities, digging her nails into their faces. But the attendants were way too strong for her. Their hands tightened around her wrists like metal straps and coerced her into the taxi.
Virender adjusted the rear-view mirror to have a good look at the woman and her attendants. The woman was not hysterical anymore. She was scrooched down in the backseat, wedged between the two attendants. But it all changed the next moment.
Even before he could start the engine, the woman had thrown herself at the attendant’s feet. Her voice quivered as she screamed, “I want to go! My child will die without me.”
The desperate sobs and piteous whines ceased as suddenly as they had begun. The woman was now thrashing out, her arms flailing, flogging the air around her. A split second later, the woman jerked forward and fastened herself on Virender’s shoulder. His heart leaped to his throat as she drew close to him and whispered, “Help me! They will take him otherwise!”
It seemed to Virender that the time had stopped.
Her hand seared and stung his skin. He felt her anguish seeping into his bones.
“Jeevan Sagar Mental hospital!” The attendant’s high-pitched voice jolted him back. He nodded and turned to look in the backseat. One of the attendants was leaning down with a tiny needle clasped in her hand. He felt the grip on his shoulder loosen as the woman keeled over onto her side.
He spluttered the engine to life and maneuvered the taxi through the densely packed street, moving past the sea of skyscrapers and scores of pedestrians. Located on the outskirts of the city, the hospital was far away from the mishmash of warehouses and factories.
“What a wretched destiny!” The attendant’s voice rose above the din of the FM radio. “Imagine landing from the life of affluence and plenty to the present state. Her family once ruled the village Bhimgarh.”
The name of the village piqued Virender’s curiosity. It was his wife’s village. He strained to hear the hushed conversations between the attendants.
“She lost everything in one go; not only her child but also all her fortune due to her carelessness. She has carved every single moment of this miserable existence herself.” The attendant’s voice dripped disdain.
At night, as per his routine, Virender sat amongst the fellow taxi driver under the glaring orange lights of the corner Dhaba. But today, he found himself unable to engage in the chatter around him.
The delectable aroma of simmering dal makhani admixed with the distinct smell of phulka, speckling and puffing up on Tandoor, wafted past him. However, unlike other days, it failed to entice him. His mind kept drifting back to the woman and the melancholy in her eyes.
“Babuji… your phone!” The serving boy directed his attention to his pocket. Virender wiped his brow with the gamcha loosely wrapped around his neck. Stepping away from the commotion of loud voices and blaring Bollywood music, he picked up the phone. It was Radha, his wife.
“Listen, something is wrong with our son.” Radha choked back a sob.
His hand tightened around the phone. Fear gripped his heart, and his mind concocted a million mishaps, each worse than the other. Sonu, his son, was the light of his life.
“I will start right away,” he barked on the phone. He sucked in his breath and felt an uncontrollable rage pulsing through him.
Radha, his wife, was an utterly silly, inane woman. While he was burning the candles at both ends, slogging day and night in the city, the least she could do was to keep his son well. A mixture of depression and foreboding weighed him down as he thought about his son.
With anxiety clawing at his belly, Virender speeded on the dimly lit highway to reach his village in the small hours of the morning.
His house was in a terrible state of neglect, with weeds running riot in every nook and cranny. In one darkened corner, sprawled on a charpoy, lay a shrunken wrinkled form. Creaky, laborious moans echoed from that direction every few moments. Expecting to see an elderly man, Virender ambled closer. A sliver of moonlight spilled in through the open window onto the face of the withered form.
His jaw dropped.
It wasn’t an old man’s face; it was Sonu’s face that seemed to have aged decades. Virender stood rooted to his spot as he peered into his seven-year-old son’s face. Deep creases puckered Sonu’s weather-beaten, dull forehead. His eyes, hemmed by crow’s feet, seemed tired and listless. The sound of creaking bones accompanied his movements.
“Make my will, son! Please, I beg you. I don’t have much time left.” Sonu spoke in the faltering, trembling voice of the elderly.
Virender suppressed his sudden urge to flee. Gathering up his nerve, he picked up Sonu and shook him vigorously, hoping to snap him back into his old self. But it achieved nothing except a few grunts and groans.
It maddened him. Not wanting to waste time searching for his wife, he dashed out of the house.
By the time he returned with an ambulance in tow, the sunbeams had glazed the courtyard in a golden light. Amidst the wildflowers and cooing doves, he could see Sonu from afar.
His pulse quickened as he drifted closer.
Wrapped in a tattered red saree of his wife and adorned with dried vines from head to toe, Sonu was dancing to the beats of imaginary drums. A series of complicated foot patterns coupled with rhythmic hand gestures lend him the grace of a trained classical dancer.
The sunrays gleamed over his son’s face; it appeared strikingly serene. All the distress and despair that had shadowed Sonu’s face a few hours earlier had disappeared. It was as if harsh winters had given way to spring.
Virender desperately searched for the playful personality of his son in the feminine form before him. But it was all in vain. Something snapped inside Virender. He fell to his knees and began to sob uncontrollably.
“Your son is only play-acting… you need to enroll him in the drama club!” The ambulance attendants snickered.
Startled, Virender looked at his boy. Was it all a ruse, a facade?
Virender grabbed his son by the collar and dragged him inside. Trapping him in a corner, Virender thrashed him with all his might. With every blow, Virender found a release to his pent-up exhaustion, frustration, and fury. His wrath escalated every time Sonu pleaded for mercy in a dainty feminine voice.
Whacked out of breath, the boy collapsed in a heap. That should set him right, Virender thought to himself. He then shifted his attention to his wife, Radha. All this while she had stood there like a mute spectator.
His anger found his next release in hammering his wife.
It was all her fault.
The idiotic woman was too ill-equipped to handle his son. He was tolerating her only for the sake of his son. But he was sure the foolish woman was incapable of understanding that.
When Virender woke up after his nap, Sonu was missing.
Pell-mell Virender raced across the length of the village. Sprinting through the narrow alleys, carefully avoiding the lumps of excreta stippled across the streets, he looked for him everywhere but to no avail.
Darkness slowly crept around him. Lanterns and torches glinted in the crowded chai and paan shop, lighting up the mudded paths. He was returning home a defeated man.
He had been too harsh. His beloved son was gone.
All his despair and misery melted away in an instant as he strolled closer to his home. Sonu was sitting under the mango tree next to their house. He rushed towards Sonu to hug him. But his excitement fizzled out when his son brushed him away.
“Go away! I am taking a break,” Sonu said in a smug voice.
Virender took a step back to take in his son’s appearance. Clad in an expensive sports jersey that he had brought from the city; the boy was pretending to be a soccer star. The jersey was way too big for him. The shoulder drooped, and the sleeves hung past his wrists. Still, Virender decided to play along and smiled at his son.
But his smile waned off, and he squinted at his son with disbelief. Sonu had started fiddling with a tender coconut. The footwork was top-notch, and Sonu handled the coconut with the expert skill of an accomplished athlete.
How did the boy learn to play that well? As far as he knew, there were no football coaches in the village. Nobody could pretend to be that good. There was something wrong.
The sun had dipped low in the western sky. He felt like a stranger in his village.
Streaks of plum, purple hues stood against the receding red glow of the horizon. A cloud of blackbirds swirled overhead, chattering back and forth as if rallying the troops before nightfall.
The tinkling bells of homeward bound cattle drifted across the air. A shadow of sadness loomed across Virender’s face. Unlike the animals who protected their offspring against misery, he had inflicted ruination on his son. As he gazed at the field of ripe wheat swaying with the wind, his mind drifted back to the past few days.
After witnessing Sonu in multiple avatars many times, Virender had figured out a pattern. The old man always appeared whenever Sonu wore the luxury watch Virender had brought from the city, a year back. Similarly, the dancer and the football star persona emerged when Sonu donned the exquisite bangle and the sports jersey. Both of those articles, just like the watch, were brought in by Virender from the city.
He had tried every trick in the book to get rid of the articles, but they always returned. From digging a hole into the ground and burying the luxury items to throwing them down the well, he had done it all.
After every attempt of disposal, he would find Sonu wearing all the three pieces together. The three personalities would then manifest themselves randomly, just like flickering TV channels. He could see them wrestling inside Sonu until one of them took over, or Sonu collapsed due to sheer exhaustion.
Virender’s face singed with shame and guilt as he thought about the way he had procured those items. His son was suffering due to his sins.
Virender had nicked the luxury watch from an octogenarian who was on his way to the hospital. In the same way, he had helped himself to the diamond-studded bangle and the sports jersey when he had dropped a dancer and a football star at the airport. He could not admit his transgressions to Radha. He could never meet her eyes as a thief who had inflicted such agony on their son.
He had to find a way to return the stolen goods. That was the only way out of the misery.
“He is mine! I had not even made my will when I died,” the old man said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“No, he is mine. I found him first. I have been training under Lucknow Gharana since I was nine. If I had not died in that road accident, I would have been representing the country on the world stage by now. I will do it through him now.”
“Oh, you guys! Shut up! He is mine! If it were not for that blasted heart attack on the pitch, I would have been the most sought-after soccer star the country had ever seen. I was the star striker of the national team. I wandered around for quite a while before stumbling upon him, or shall we say till he stumbled upon me?” The man looking like a professional athlete guffawed.
Virender’s heart battered against his ribs. His belly knotted in a cramp. What was happening?
He rubbed his eyes several times, but those semitranslucent forms did not disappear. Virender gaped at the ghostly figures hovering over Sonu’s bed.
Were they squabbling over taking possession of his body? Were they all dead? Virender immediately recognized that they were the same people from whom he had stolen the articles. Had they come to claim the items back? But they were talking about Sonu and not their stolen items.
He felt anger rising within him.
“He is mine!” Virender yelled at the top of his lungs. It seemed to amuse the wraith-like forms. They flung their heads back and laughed. The cacophony of their cackles shook the air around him. He could not leave Sonu with them. He picked up the sleeping boy and scampered off to his taxi.
Forty minutes later, he was driving past dark towns and villages towards the city. The mist skittered thick and fast, slowly curling and swirling as if it had somehow become alive. The roadside trees swayed, their boughs bending down to entangle him.
That is when he saw her.
It was Radha.
She was hurrying past the paved road towards the thicket. The wind tugged and howled. Virender swung his taxi in a futile attempt to tag after Radha. But she turned from one narrow alley to another. It was a difficult decision, but he had to get to the bottom of it. Virender adjusted Sonu on the backseat and locked the taxi. He trailed behind Radha on foot.
He navigated surreptitiously behind the lanky trees and rangy bushes to overtake her. All the while keeping his eyes clasped on Radha. Soon, he stood in front of her. Radha looked different than her usual self. She looked much younger.
He stretched out his hands to block her way and shouted at the top of his voice. “Stop right there! Where do you think you are going at this hour?”
His bones turned to jelly, and his mouth went dry as instead of stopping, Radha went right through him. What was happening? Was he dead too?
Terror clawed its way to his throat as he looked around. Radha had left him marooned in a dark, unfamiliar place.
The moon had lit just enough of the narrow path for him to follow. Suddenly Virender reached a clearing, and a nursing home came to light. He grappled with a strange unease.
As he stepped inside, he felt as if he had been transported to a different world, a place lost in time. The floor creaked under him. The wind whooshed past him as if eager to depart through the cracks in the window. Something made him carry on. It was as if the building had resurrected itself to reveal some sinister secret to him. And Radha had shown up only to lead him to it.
He stopped outside a door and yanked it open. He felt a cold sweat wash over him as he noticed the calendar. It was the day Sonu was born seven years back. Had he stepped back in time?
A piteous wail reverberated across the room.
“He will leave me! I can’t tell him I lost the baby and my womb too.” A much younger looking Radha was sobbing and shaking, leaning onto her mother.
Wh-what…? Had Radha lost their child?
He let himself be pulled to the next door. A woman was sleeping next to a newborn baby. He stood at the foot of the bed for what seemed a long time. Suddenly the door flung open. His eyes widened as he saw Radha tiptoeing soundlessly into the room. Radha picked up the baby and left. The wind wailed outside the windows.
He felt the walls closing in on him. Sonu did not belong to him. He was stolen goods, just like the other items. As he squinted at the face of the sleeping woman, he felt a cold fist grip his heart.
It was the woman from the taxi.
He had dropped her at the mental hospital. Sonu was her son.
He felt despair wrap around him as he realized that he had much in common with his wife, Radha. They were both sinners. Moreover, he had coerced Radha into it.
Suddenly, he found himself caught up in an intense frenzy. Sepia images of the woman being blamed for the loss of the baby flew past him. Pictures of her scuttling in and out of the mental hospitals fluttered in his face. The wind lashed as pathetic howls filled the room.
He dropped to his knees and cried his heart out.
Six months later
Virender and Radha strode on the narrow dirt path fringed by mango trees and wildflowers.
Sonu was running towards them, his hair fluttering in the wind. Virender could see a translucent figure sitting under the banyan tree. Her eyes affixed on Sonu; a contented smile enveloped her face.
Virender remembered the day when he had placed Sonu next to the woman in the mental hospital. Her eyes had opened for a flicker of a second. At that moment, Virender could perceive the tide of melancholy and gloom ebbing away. A blissful smile had adorned her face as she had proceeded to intertwine her fingers around Sonu’s hand. And just as quietly, she had slipped into a painless, peaceful death.
Virender had placed the stolen articles around the woman’s body when Sonu had lit up the funeral pyre. Neither the stolen items nor their owners had returned since then.
Only she had returned now and then to watch over her precious treasure.
* Prompt- A taxi driver-gets stranded-Village.
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