Shalini tightened her grip on the steering wheel and took reassuring breaths.
This was a fresh start. She was safe. So were Riya and Sumi. Things were going to be OK.
She peeked at her daughters in the backseat. Six-year-old Sumi had dozed off, an iPad clutched tightly to her chest. Eight-year-old Riya gazed with awe at the green fields, and the occasional cow that appeared on this scenic route.
“Riya, wake up Sumi. We will reach Rudrapuram in ten minutes.”
The girls had craved a break. The custody fight and the incessant mudslinging had tired them out. Rudrapuram was the getaway they needed. Shalini looked up the main attractions online-a village, a river, and a forest; ideal to keep the children entertained. A homestay by the river Rudrangini nestled in idyllic environs, would be perfect for them to rejuvenate.
Book, pack, and go. Shalini felt strange to be able to decide something independently. No permissions to be sought, no fights, no tantrums. Over the years, she had forgotten what ‘simple’ meant, thanks to Kamlesh, her ex-husband. She looked at her reflection in the driver’s mirror. The scar above her eyebrow was prominent. A parting gift from him.
Stop. He can’t hurt you again.
“Mummy! I can see the sign that says Rudrapuram. Turn right!” Riya exclaimed.
Shalini smiled at her daughter’s enthusiasm and turned into the rundown road that would lead them to their destination. It was easy to locate their homestay; the bright yellow paint and the marigold garden caught their attention. There were a few other houses in the vicinity, as well.
As they alighted, they took a moment to absorb the sights and sounds. The air reverberated with the chirping of birds and the distant bleating of a goat. There was dense foliage everywhere.
“Mummy, I have never seen so much greenery before!” Sumi exclaimed.
“Look, a dragonfly!” gushed Riya.
They were welcomed by a middle-aged man at the entrance.
“I’m Keshavan, the caretaker. The house has all modern amenities. The kitchen is fully stocked. Once you settle down, I can show you around Rudrapuram.”
“Thank you! That will be lovely.”
He helped them with their luggage. True to its description, the house boasted of an old-world charm. It was cosy and comfortable, and seemed to welcome them in a warm embrace. The girls explored the rooms eagerly.
“I live in the village, about five minutes away. You can call me, anytime. Madam, didn’t your husband come?”
Shalini was taken aback.
She didn’t offer any additional explanation. Thankfully, he didn’t prod further.
“I will escort you to the river and the temple, later.”
Shalini took a sip of cool water from an earthen jug. She looked out of the window. Another house faced them.
“Keshavan, who lives there?”
“Tourists. That’s another homestay.”
Did she imagine it, or was someone watching her from the opposite window?
The Man in the Window
She had arrived. He had hoped she wouldn’t. Now, there was no turning back.
Following her around would be a piece of cake, thanks to the thick bushes and trees in Rudrapuram. He had to remain unseen. She wouldn’t believe it was a coincidence.
What if she panicked and took off? All his carefully laid plans would go haywire.
“I will always have my eyes on you!” he vowed.
“Our patron God is Rudra, the guardian of Rudrapuram. This is his temple.”
Keshavan’s heavy drawl sounded over the buzzing of flies.
“We pray to Rudra for good harvests. Whenever a child is born or a wedding is fixed, we seek his blessings. Come, let us pay obeisance.”
Shalini entered the temple warily. She had pleaded with every deity, to keep the threads of her marriage intact, if not for her, at least for her children. Sadly, the Gods had turned a deaf ear as the threads unravelled.
Ahead, carved in stone was a statue, at least six feet tall. A warrior with a thick moustache, and a fierce expression. Something was alluring about his face; it was stern, yet benevolent. Keshavan prostrated reverentially and smeared vermillion on his forehead.
“Legend has it that when Rudra’s devotees appeal to him in distress, he appears.”
Keshavan regaled them with folklore. Soon afterwards, they set off to the riverbank.
“This is the Rudrangini River! She is the lifeline of our land and safeguards our livelihoods.”
The river was magnificent and serene. Still on the surface but teeming with life underneath. The girls wet their feet and splashed about. It was a long time since they looked so excited. Shalini took her phone out and snapped pictures.
Happy memories to replace the scars of the past.
They viewed the sunset over the river. The sky was a vivid palette of hues- saffron, pink, and red. Shalini admired the beautiful sight. It was hard to believe that in this tranquil world, hideous monsters also thrived.
“Tomorrow, you can swim in the river,” Keshavan suggested.
His innocent remark triggered an unhappy memory, one that she had hidden in the distant crevices of her mind.
“Kamlesh, can I go swimming with the ladies?”
He agreed, maintaining his façade of a supportive spouse. After the guests left, he changed his colours faster than a chameleon.
“You want to wear a swimsuit and parade around half-naked? Who do you want to seduce?”
Threats, blows, tears. In that order. Was it because of the alcohol? Or had he always been this way?
The next day, she told her friends she couldn’t join them for swimming.
Allergies. That’s why her eyes were red and bloated.
The Man in the Window
He watched them through his binoculars. She had returned with the children. The lights switched off soon; they had turned in early. He caught a glimpse of her silhouette before she closed the window.
Exhaustion overpowered him, and he decided to rest his eyes, just for a bit.
The doorbell rang, and a girl stood there, harbouring an expression of helplessness.
“Please, end this! I can’t take this anymore!”
“Can you try again?” He pleaded.
This time, she collapsed to the ground. Her eyes seemed to bore into his soul.
“Don’t let this happen ever again.”
He woke up with a start, his face covered with sweat. He mopped his forehead, clenched his teeth, and balled his fist in anger.
A lesson had to be imparted.
Shalini tossed and turned. She couldn’t shake off that unnerving sense of unease that was now her constant companion. Thankfully, the children slept like logs. In the past, she muffled her screams to avoid waking them up.
She mindlessly scrolled on her phone, and stumbled upon an album, from fifteen years ago. Almost another lifetime. No sunken cheeks, no dark circles, no greys, no bruises. Carefree and happy.
Kamlesh entered her life. Every girl’s dream; the life of every party. She could hardly believe that of all the girls, he had chosen her! She was ecstatic. When he proposed, she agreed without a second thought. This was it. Happily, ever after.
Shalini realized her folly soon enough. Marriages were made in heaven but lived on earth. Her Prince Charming gradually transformed from beauty to beast. He controlled her in every way and restricted her financial independence. Papa had died when she was young, and it was her Mama she turned to for support.
“Endure!” recommended her meek mother.
She endured, until she reached the upper limit of endurance. Mama advised her again.
“Have a baby. It will solve everything.”
So, she did. Riya was born. For a while, things were OK. But not for long. The rage resurfaced, and along with it, physical violence. Kamlesh forced himself on her while drunk. Unlike Riya, Sumi was an accident.
Two young children, and an abusive marriage. At thirty, this was her life. Soon after, Mama succumbed to a heart attack. Or was it from a broken heart because her only daughter was suffering?
Shalini stopped scrolling. She had to purge Kamlesh out of her brain.
How do you get rid of bitter memories when they cling onto you like leeches, and suck your happiness out?
The Man in the Window
He spied on her from his perch at the window.
She was up. She looked brighter today. He watched her gathering the girls and setting off to explore.
He grabbed his shades and donned his hoodie to follow them. If the opportunity arose, he would have to spur into action.
They walked through the narrow alleys of the village. Women dried chilies in the sun. An elderly woman strung red flowers into a garland for Rudra. The girls made friends with other children and joined them in chasing a rolling tire with a stick.
“Madam, welcome to my humble abode for lunch!”
Keshavan greeted her and introduced them to his wife. They were served a simple, yet delicious meal of rice and vegetables. The girls were thrilled to squat on the floor and eat; it was a novel experience for them.
Keshavan refused to accept money for the food.
“You are our guests!”
“Thank you, Keshavan. Tomorrow morning, can we go trekking in the forest?”
“Yes. I will accompany you. We have to be careful and avoid the dangerous trails. They are marked clearly since the forest is notorious for its deep ravines.”
Keshavan’s wife placed something in Shalini’s palm. It was a diamond-shaped foil pendant strung on a black thread.
“This is from the temple. May Rudra protect you, always.”
On the way back, Shalini felt someone was watching them. She clutched the pendant, instinctively.
Breathe. You are safe.
The Man in the Window
The skies had darkened. Was it a sign of things to come? As if on cue, his phone beeped. One look at the message, and he knew he had a job to do.
He looked at the photo in his wallet, and stroked it, tenderly.
Riya traced the outline of the scar over her mother’s brow.
“Does it hurt, Mummy?”
“No, baby. Not anymore.”
She tucked her daughters and set the alarms for the next day’s trek. As she watched their sleeping forms, she vowed to protect them. She had stayed in her marriage for their sake. Ironically, she walked out for the same reason. How could she forget that fateful night?
Kamlesh was drunk. He hurled abuses at her. She couldn’t remember why. But then he didn’t need a reason. Little Riya couldn’t take it anymore. She confronted her father. He flung her to the ground forcefully.
Enraged, Shalini launched herself at him. He pushed her against the wall, the sharp ledge cutting her brow, narrowly missing her eye. It gifted her the scar and steeled her resolve to leave. The final nail on the coffin called marriage.
She grabbed both her girls and set off to the nearest hospital. A kind doctor had attended to her. She still remembered his name, Dr. Madan. He cleaned her wound, stitched it, and examined her daughters. He advised her to seek help. Overnight, she shifted to a friend’s house.
When she sought divorce, Kamlesh threatened her. He warned her that he had the money to make it go away. He had never been close to his daughters; this was only about control and power-play. He tried to establish that she was an incompetent mother, a fact refuted by many of her friends. Dr. Madan promised to testify on her behalf.
When Kamlesh sensed that the tide was turning against him, he acceded to Shalini’s demand for custody, provided she withdrew all charges of abuse. Despite being advised to fight, Shalini chose the option of walking away. She couldn’t risk it. Kamlesh was unpredictable. She just wanted closure, so that he would never hurt her or their daughters, ever again.
Shalini heard a noise in the kitchen. Probably a rat. The girls were fast asleep. She set off to investigate.
Was that a shadow?
“Hello, darling! Miss me much?”
She jumped, startled. The monster that haunted her, was right in front. He lunged forward and brought a tissue to her nose. She inhaled the pungent fumes before the world came crashing down.
Shalini opened her eyes. Her hands were bound and there were dark bushes and trees everywhere. Her head felt groggy. Staring at her, was her ex-husband. She winced at his sight.
“Darling, you finally woke up.”
His angular jawline glinted in the moonlight, and his eyes twinkled menacingly. She wondered how she could have ever loved him.
“I missed you, darling. I thought we could have a quiet tete-a-tete in the forest.”
“What do you want?” she gnashed her teeth.
“Did you really think I would let you walk away?”
“Let me go. Help!”
“The village is on the other side. No one can hear you.”
“You know how much I hate losing. First, I lost you, then the girls, and now my reputation. I had to settle our score. It was easy to find you. I installed a tracking software on Sumi’s iPad.”
Shalini tried to untie her hands, frantically.
“I’m going to kill you and push you into one of the ravines. Tomorrow, they will find your dead body. ‘Newly-divorced mother commits suicide by jumping into a deep ravine’. Such a sob story. And who do you think will get custody of the girls? Me! And then, I can do whatever I want, with them.”
“No! Please…Leave them alone. I beg you.”
Kamlesh grinned wickedly. He approached her, reeking of alcohol.
“I am going to have some fun with you before I kill you.”
He slashed her ropes with a sharp knife.
One, two, three.
She lunged forward, punching him in the groin. He teetered for a second.
Shalini tried to flee, but he was faster. He caught hold of her leg; she fell face-down, and he dragged her. She closed her eyes. Her daughters’ innocent faces flashed in front of her.
She heard a crash and a groan. She opened her eyes to find Kamlesh on the ground, pinned down by a man, who had crept out of nowhere. This man was at least six feet tall, and his face concealed by a cloak. The uncovered part of his face revealed blazing green eyes.
Kamlesh tried defending himself, but his attempts were futile. The masked marauder landed punch after punch, knocking him out cold. Where had she seen her saviour before? Of course! The temple by the river.
Rudra snatched Kamlesh’s knife and plunged it into his chest. She screamed as she watched the life ebb away from him.
Rudra turned his face towards Shalini. He pointed his finger in the direction of the mud road. She didn’t need to be told twice. She ran away from there, as fast as she could.
She glanced back one last time to see Rudra towering statuesquely over Kamlesh’s slumped form, blood dripping from the knife.
Shalini spent a sleepless night, sitting by the door with a stick clutched tightly, expecting Kamlesh to saunter in. When the first rays of the sun welcomed her, she felt relief. Daylight was safe. There would be people around. No one could hurt them.
The alarms went off and her girls were up.
“Mummy isn’t feeling too well. I know we planned to trek today, but can we just leave?”
The girls were bewildered by the sudden change in plan, but they didn’t argue.
They headed to the village, to inform Keshavan of their imminent departure due to unforeseen circumstances. He expressed disappointment but hoped to see them again.
It was evident that none of the villagers had discovered anything suspicious. So far, so good. Her premature relief gave way to horror.
Kamlesh was dead! What would happen if they found his body in the forest? Wouldn’t it look suspicious if the ex-wife was there at the same spot? Would anyone believe her if she said it was Rudra? If she went to jail, who would take care of her girls?
She had to leave at once. She loaded their bags into the car, ensured the girls wore their seatbelts, and sped away. As Rudrapuram vanished into the distance, she thought she saw a cloaked figure in the rear-view mirror.
One year later
Shalini admired her reflection in the mirror. She had a new job, a new house, and a new life. The girls were thriving too. Her old glow was coming back. She wore the diamond pendant every day, a reminder that she had a guardian angel somewhere.
Every night she had feared that Kamlesh’s body would be discovered. But the dreaded call never came, and she began to relax. Rumours were abuzz that Kamlesh had embezzled money from his company and fled the country.
This was easier to explain to her girls. Papa was abroad. Not lying dead in some ditch. It didn’t matter. They couldn’t have cared less.
Shalini attended therapy sessions at New Hope Hospital, the same hospital she had been to, the night she left Kamlesh. That day, as she waited for the lift in the hospital lobby, she noticed a familiar face.
“Hi, Shalini! How are you?” he smiled, his green eyes glinting with recognition.
“You remember me? I’m fine now.”
She smiled, and he knew she meant it.
Madan took out his wallet. In it was a picture of Devi, his younger sister. He stroked it fondly.
His family had married her off at nineteen. She returned within a month, bruised, and battered. Their father told her categorically, that this was no longer her home, for she was a married woman. Devi turned to him, her big brother whom she adored; yet he looked away helplessly.
She was sent back. She returned. This time, with third-degree burns.
Gas explosion, they said. Attempted murder, he knew.
Before dying, she made him promise that he would never turn away anyone who needed help. He was supposed to protect her; he had failed. He never forgave himself for letting her down. The least he could do was to honour her dying wish.
Whenever he saw a victim of abuse, he aggressively pursued the case to make sure the perpetrators were punished, and the victims rehabilitated. His methods were not strictly legitimate, but they yielded results. To date, he had saved more than thirty victims. No, not victims; they were survivors.
Shalini had come to see him at the hospital, terrified. In her, he saw Devi all over again. He assisted her with the divorce in discreet ways; ways that even Shalini was unaware of. When Kamlesh finally divorced her, Madan thought it was over. He still felt uneasy, so he hired a detective to look out for her.
When Madan heard from the detective that Shalini was planning a holiday, his radar beeped red. He decided to go down to Rudrapuram to ensure no harm befell her. For all one knew, a seething Kamlesh could still be plotting his revenge. Devi would never forgive him if he slipped.
Madan reached Rudrapuram before Shalini. He occupied the house opposite to her’s and became ‘the man in the window.’ He couldn’t risk Shalini seeing or recognizing him. He remained hidden and kept watching, in case Kamlesh attacked them.
The detective messaged him that Kamlesh was headed towards Rudrapuram. Their suspicions were confirmed. It was then, at that critical juncture, that Madan decided that Kamlesh had to be removed from this earth to save not one, but three lives.
Soon afterwards, he witnessed Kamlesh drag an unconscious Shalini into the forest. He wrapped himself in a cloak and followed them. When he got the chance, he knocked Kamlesh out. Once she had run away, he used the knife to slash Kamlesh’s throat, killing him instantaneously. The hunter had become the hunted.
He carried the body to a distant corner of the forest that housed a ravine. He dug the earth using branches, and buried the body, covering it with soil, rocks, and shrubbery. Here, it would decompose quietly. The forest was his accomplice, burying his secret within her depths. The knife and Kamlesh’s wallet were extracted and expelled to the bottom of the Rudrangini.
No regrets. Shalini looked fine now, a far cry from the shadow of the woman who had come to him seeking refuge. This was what happened when one eradicated the weeds. The plant got a chance to flourish and bloom.
As he went to attend to his next patient, his eyes fell on a poster.
Believe in miracles, every day.
Rudra. That was the name of Shalini’s miracle.
Epilogue: Twenty-five Years Later
Office of Sumi, IPS
Sumi picked up Riya Didi’s call.
“Didi! Let me call you back. Busy with work.”
“My first case in this new posting! Villagers were clearing land in the forest; they discovered a skeleton.”
“Which village is this?”
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