The Mask

The Mask

We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. 

Kabir had certainly forgotten the person he used to be – the twelve-year-old who had stood up for his timid classmate taking on the class bullies who just wouldn’t leave him alone. He could never have imagined that someday his priorities would be so completely shuffled forcing him to be who he had become. The college-going Kabir would have cringed at the glimpse of his future self.

While we may completely lose touch with our previous selves in the grind of time, a chance encounter jolts forward the memories that were lost to us. This is exactly what happened to Kabir when he saw Seema that night. 

Kabir

Kabir was going to call it a day. He started the engine of his black sedan and reached for the gear when he saw Seema go into the building. Kabir was stunned. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It was probably someone who closely resembled her but it couldn’t have been her. Not possible. She should be in the USA with her husband who was a financial accountant on Wall Street. He changed the gear and drove away. 

The next day he had completely forgotten about her. It was a Sunday and he was waiting in his car for Ayan to return. Kabir had assumed that he had gone for personal work as there was a woman with him, probably his wife, whose face was not visible to Kabir from that angle.  At first, he wondered if he should follow Ayan, but the instructions were not clear about it so he noted down the time and waited for him to return.  

He saw her coming in the rear mirror of his sedan. She was carrying a baby in her arms. Soon Ayan came into the picture, carrying grocery bags. Kabir felt as if the world around him had come to stop. He sucked in his breath looking at the dainty figure approaching the apartment entrance. His mouth was dry. His heart raced like the winning horse about to touch the finish line. Seema still had this effect on him. Kabir squinted his eyes to make sure it was Seema and not another woman who resembled her. His mind was bombarded with questions. It was clear to him from the body language that they were both intimate with each other just like a family. 

Ayan Malek had been the subject of his surveillance for the past few days. He had to take notes and report on Ayan’s daily routine and habits. Ayan was a cardiologist in a premier hospital that had a patient list, which included high ranking officers, celebrities and other famous personalities.

Kabir looked down at the package lying on the passenger seat beside him. He had orders to leave the package on Ayan’s doorstep, unobserved. Kabir had done it many times before for the others. But Seema’s appearance had created confusion. He couldn’t do it before he found out what was Seema doing there and her relationship with Ayan. 

He swiped his mobile and searched for Ayan’s Facebook profile. He knew enough details to easily find his Facebook profile. Thank goodness it was not locked. A big mistake that could make you and your family vulnerable. If you happen to have access to a sensitive job situation that might be of interest to the wrong kind of people. 

A voice in his head told him to switch off his mobile and deliver the package just like he had done many times before. A sane voice. But his heart was hammering in a different rhythm that was much louder than the voice of logic. 

Ayan’s Facebook profile confirmed Kabir’s doubts. Seema was married to Ayan and they had a child too. Seema looked happy with Ayan in the photographs. She seemed more beautiful than before, if that was even possible. There were videos of family get togethers, Aira’s birthdays and other occasions. 

Kabir clicked on the album titled Shadi Abadi (Marriage is a bliss). Seema looked ravishing in sky blue pleated ankle-length skirt (lehenga). It could have been him seated next to her in the photograph. 

Seema, his college sweetheart, whom he loved with his life. They had made many plans for their future but fate had other plans for them. He remembered the moments they had spent together vividly.

Seema

Seema felt a sense of foreboding again as she carried baby Aira in her arms. Maybe it was the weather and the grey clouds. 

Maybe it was the sight of that black sedan with black tinted windows again. She had seen it parked near their building several times in the last few days. She felt the tinted glass suspicious. Why do they need to get their car window glasses tinted so dark; what are they hiding behind the blackness. It couldn’t be anything good.

Seema put the groceries away and put a pan of water on the stove for tea. She took out her mobile from her bag to put it on charging. There were notifications from WhatsApp and Facebook. She swiped the mobile screen and began to check messages if any needed immediate reply.

Someone had liked an old picture. A wedding day picture of her and Ayan posing together had been liked by someone who called himself The Mask and had a weird mask photo for the display picture. She clicked on the picture to go to the profile page but was shown to a locked profile. The display picture was large and clear now. A white mask on a black background. Strange. But it was the cover picture that took her by surprise. 

The cover picture displayed text, a quote: Be so well rooted that the strongest of the storms go away defeated. It was the quote. She had often used it herself. It was a pity that she could not get more information because the profile was locked. Locked Facebook profiles were like black sedans with dark tinted window glass so that only those for whom the doors opened can see inside, and not the uninvited ones. 

“Why do people lock their Facebook profiles?” 

Ayan asked, “What do you mean?” Seema realized she had spoken aloud. Ayan continued, “It’s probably a privacy issue. Some people prefer to keep their updates and photographs private, for the eyes of their family and friends only. They don’t like strangers to go over their personal affairs.”

“The water is simmering. Why don’t I make you my special cardamon tea today?” He said. Seema looked up and smiled. She said, “Thank you – that’s a wonderful idea. I have a few missed calls that I should return now. I didn’t hear the rings in the supermarket. It’s probably urgent. About the wedding shopping. Let the grocery bags remain on the slab. I’ll put these away later.” 

Ma was right she was lucky to have Ayan as her husband. Ayan was a modern progressive man. He did not care much about gender roles and offered to help her whenever he was available. 

She sank back on the armchair leaning on the soft, cushiony back. She felt drained of her energy. Of late, she had been feeling fatigued more often. She ought to get a thorough check-up done just as Ayan had suggested. Probably after the wedding, she’ll find time for it. 

She swiped the screen of her mobile and there the Facebook page was still open. 

As far as she could remember she had heard only one person say this quote before then. And that person was long gone from her life. Kabir. Could it be him? No, probably someone else who heard Kabir quote it and liked it enough to make it a Facebook cover. It was probably a quote by another author that Kabir must have read somewhere. 

She bit her lip. She had not forgotten him yet. “Forget about him. Move on. Just delete it all from your mind like an unnecessary chapter that it is,” Ayan had said when she had first told him about her friendship and engagement with Kabir. 

On an impulse, she went to Kabir’s profile page. There had been no updates even after so many years. The last update on the top of his profile feed comprised of photographs of a play they had participated in to raise funds for an orphanage. Nothing after that. It seemed as if Kabir had ceased to exist. Even though she thought less and less of him, nowadays since she had so much to keep her busy. 

But a single like from a stranger had pushed her back through a maze of her thoughts. She paused momentarily before she clicked on the Photos tab. She browsed carefully through the pictures and at last found it. In one of the earlier plays, Kabir had donned a similar mask. But not quite. She realized she was letting a coincidence overwhelm her. She browsed some more. Kabir had often joked that if he didn’t find a decent job, he’ll join a drama company. Memories

Kabir was not just her fiancé, but her childhood friend as well. They were good friends before they got engaged. The way he had cut ties with and kept away from all his friends bothered Seema very much even now. It is true friends often lose touch with each other in following their better prospects. But not this way.

Even his parents had been disturbed by the change in him. They had said that he got a job abroad, Saudi Arabia. But he never connected with his college mates there. He sent money to his parents on a regular basis, but he hardly ever visited. He had not even attended his only sister’s wedding. They had been quite upset about it. His friends had hoped to meet him there but he did not show up. 

Later when she had spoken to Aisha, she had said, “I had known him in school.  He was my brother’s classmate. Some boys would often pick on my brother, who used to be smaller than the other boys in his class. Once when they cornered him, on the playground, Kabir came to his rescue and took on the bullies. Had some children not reported the matter to the headmaster immediately, I can’t imagine how would it have ended for both of them.”

Aisha listened with patience while Seema had complained, “In the many years that I had known him, he had never shown an iota of unkindness towards anyone. Never. He was the most courageous person I ever knew. It’s hard to believe sometimes that he would vanish, without as much as giving me a reason leaving me in the lurch, waiting and hoping for him to return. Why should anyone behave in such a manner? He had always been so different from the other boys. He was sensitive and the kind of person who never let his friends down.”

Aisha had nodded her head in agreement when Seema spoke about Sameer. “Remember when Sameer’s family was going through a bad phase and he almost had to skip his exams because he was unable to pay the fees. Kabir had urged us all to be there for him. We had contributed the amount and paid his exam fee. Kabir wouldn’t even let him know. Sameer was flabbergasted with excitement. He had brought up the topic many times but we had kept the secret. Do you think he ever came to know?” Aisha shrugged she didn’t know. 

Gradually, Seema had stopped talking about him. She had nursed her broken heart behind the closed doors of her room for weeks, imagining all sorts of stories that may have compelled Kabir to go away. Her mind had refused to accept that he didn’t care about her anymore. Her mother encouraged her to go out with her friends but the familiar surroundings reminded her of the times she had spent with Kabir there. 

However, her mother refused to give up and made it a point to take her to all the functions and weddings where they were invited. She wanted Seema to make new friends. That day Seema had had to drag herself out of bed, yet one more time getting dressed up, to go to her cousin’s marriage. 

Ayan was a guest there. Her cousin had introduced her to him. Although Seema, as always, did not feel very chatty, Ayan’s good nature had prevailed on her sorrow. It also helped that they had common hobbies. Ayan asked her to connect on Facebook. She had accepted. Their friendship grew gradually and eventually, after few weeks Ayan told her he wished to speak to both their parents and take their bond beyond being just friends. 

Seema was brought back to the present by the ringing of her mobile. She took the call, “Hello.”

Kabir

Kabir completely lost track of time as he watched the videos again and again. He could not get enough of it. To say that he envied Ayan would be an understatement. He was bitter. If fate hadn’t intervened it would have been me in those photographs. 

A single mistake had trapped him in this sinister circle of crime and blackmail. How naive and trusting he had been. Or maybe it was just a matter of being at the wrong place, the wrong time. He had been so happy to get that job. At that same, it seemed like it was the first step towards his life with Seema. There were little hiccups in sight but he was confident he could tackle those. They were going to meet that weekend to discuss few minor issues, but that was not to be. 

Fate dealt me a cruel hand from which I couldn’t recover. 

The package that I had received changed my life completely, taking me away from my friends and family, into a dark abyss of deceit. 

With puffy red eyes, he started the engine to go home. He wanted to go home. Not that sterile vacant apartment where ghosts from his past visited him, but a home where his family would wait for him to return after a day of decent hard work. Just as he had once dreamt, in another life. When he used to walk with dignity head held high. 

Kabir made up his mind he had suffered enough for a single mistake. If anything, he had made the mistake of being naive. He had been living an emotionless dead life for too long. But not anymore. Different scenarios played in his mind. 

Scenario one. He leaves the package at Ayan’s doorstep. Ayan sees the package and reads the instructions. He makes a mistake while carrying out the instructions and is arrested. Seema is heartbroken. One day she accidentally runs into Kabir, old feelings are rekindled. They live happily ever after. He fits perfectly in Ayan’s shoes. 

But what will he do about his current profession? Will he expose Seema and her daughter to these criminals he worked for? And if he got caught another time. No that would not do. 

Maybe he could convince Seema and they would move abroad. But even if he did shift abroad, they would find him and punish him eventually. Even if they didn’t find him he would be forced to spend the rest of his life like a fugitive, fearing every shadow that came near and afraid for his family’s safety. 

Scenario two. Ayan carries out the instructions successfully and is trapped. He could run into Seema and tell her Ayan’s secret. That would be the end of their marriage. But would it also mean a new beginning for Kabir with Seema. No that’s not a feasible scenario at all. 

Scenario three. He would not deliver the package at all. Let them be. Kabir could, himself, disappear quietly and start a decent life. Maybe later after he has settled in his new life and he has found his old self again, he could run into Seema accidentally. They could be friends, at least this way he will meet her again. This scenario may work for him but it wouldn’t work for Ayan. They will have another person take his place. 

And he couldn’t do this to Seema. Not just because he loved her so much. But he was grateful to her for motivating him to live a decent life. As far as he was concerned had he not recognized Seema and checked Ayan’s Facebook profile, he would have carried on with his futile existence. She had aroused in him the desire to love and be loved in return once again. 

A year after Kabir’s sister had married a Canadian cousin and moved abroad with him, his parents had passed away. They didn’t have anything to hold Kabir back by force anymore. There was no weak point for them to blackmail or coerce him. Although in such situations, it is not explicitly told always, it is a common understanding that any effort to leave would be rewarded with a bullet. 

But Kabir didn’t try to leave as there was nothing that motivated him in that deep, dark place. There was no place for him to go. There was no home. He endured losing his love. And he also lost the right to a decent life. After his parents passed away almost all his emotions died. 

But while going through Ayan’s family albums he felt as if a mask that he had been wearing had slipped off, exposing him to the bliss of family life, kindling his dead emotions back to life. He was a withering plant on the barren ground with no hope. And it had rained. He was very grateful for that rain that had revived his roots once again. He longed for a second chance at life.

Now there was no way he could go back to living that way ever again. As he unlocked the door of his apartment that night, he was certain that he could not carry on living that life. 

 

Seema

When Seema opened the door the next morning to get the newspaper she found a brown coloured package sitting on the doormat.  It seemed strange because the delivery boys usually didn’t leave their parcels unattended, they handed them to the one who answered the bell. She picked up the package to check if it was for them or someone left it by mistake on their door. She noticed that there was no address on it, however, Dr Ayan was scribbled across the envelope with a black felt pen. Ayan was busy getting ready to go to the hospital so she kept the package for him, on the console table in the entrance lobby. 

An hour later, Seema heard what sounded like a phone ringing. On searching, she realized that the ringing sound was coming from the package. She considered calling Ayan and telling him about it. She realized he had missed seeing it because he was in a hurry. It had his name on it so he was probably something that he was expecting. 

Thinking that it could be something urgent since it was hand-delivered, she decided to call him on his mobile. He did not pick up. The ringing from the package also stopped after two rings. She decided to wait for him to call back. She didn’t want to risk opening the package before asking Ayan in case the package was for someone else to whom Ayan may have to deliver. If that was the case, it would embarrass Ayan to handover a tampered package. However, she found the whole situation unsettling, if not outright disturbing. 

She called him again after twenty minutes, when he did not return her call, this time on the landline. An assistant received her call and informed her that Ayan was in an important meeting and probably had silenced his mobile. She left a message for him with his assistant to call back on an urgent matter. 

After an hour she heard the same ring again. The suspense was killing her. 

When she heard the ring again, she was tempted to open the package and satisfy her curiosity. 

 But her phone rang. The screen flashed Ma. She took the call. 

About half an hour later someone rang the doorbell repeatedly. Seema hurried from the kitchen wondering who could it be and why the impatience. She opened the door to a very panicky Ayan. It seemed after the meeting, his assistant gave him two messages, one from Seema, and the other from an unknown person who said that he needed to hurry back home. He was afraid that there had been an emergency at home. 

Seema was worried. That unsettling feeling returned. She handed the package to him. “Someone had left it on our doorstep this morning. It is addressed to you Ayan.”

Ayan looked surprised. However, he took the package from her and tore at the seal of the package. He turned it upside down and shook the contents out. Out felt an ugly device followed by what seemed to be a charger. The device was a clunky mobile. 

It rang again. The screen flashed: unknown number. 

He took the call. In the meantime, Seema checked the package to see if there was anything else in it. There was a folded note. She saw Ayan turn pale. It was obvious to her that the person calling was not delivering a friendly message. 

She unfolded the note to read it. Now it was Seema’s turn to pale. She knew this handwriting. And the note was from Kabir to her. She read the note. 

Dear Seema,

I don’t know where to begin. I just hope you are able to read this letter on time. 

You probably thought I was dead or worse. But it was neither. I was trapped in a deadly circle of blackmail. Due to a small mistake of mine, I was forced to follow the orders of mafia. 

I couldn’t go to the police since they had strong evidence against me. I couldn’t reach out to the police. So, for years, I did whatever they said. I stayed away from you and my own family to protect you all. 

Read carefully, now. They are trying to trap your husband in the same way like they had trapped me. They will ask him to do something small for now and even save his skin. But it doesn’t stop here, once he does their bidding he will never be able to say “no” to them for they will keep collecting evidence to blackmail him. 

I have a plan not just to save your husband but also get my own freedom. 

Remember Sameer. He has been transferred here as the commissioner of police. I have been following him on social media and news. He has an excellent track record of busting gangs. If you reach out to him and explain to him how they are coercing him to cooperate and show him my letter, he will surely plan and help us out of this. 

If you’re able to do it and everything works out well, give me a signal by hanging a red cloth on your balcony railing. If, however, you read this letter but are unable to reach him for some reason, hang a blue one. 

Tell him once things start moving forward, I’ll courier him some details and evidence. 

You are strong and brave and you can get us all through this. 

You can, Seema. Never doubt yourself. 

For everything, I will always be grateful to you. 

Your friend and well-wisher forever

PS, Red signal if you reach him and get him to agree. Blue if you couldn’t convey the situation to him. 

Ayan got off the call. Seema read the letter to him.

After listening to the contents of the letter, Ayan realized the gravity of the situation. He said to her, “When you had called earlier, I was in an important meeting. I have been given charge of an important witness to a murder. It is a high profile case and any negligence could cost me and the hospital dearly.” 

Seema could sense what was coming. Still, she asked him, “Does this package have anything to do with it? Did they threaten you?” 

“They have threatened me with your and Aira’s life.”

“They want you to murder the witness.” Seema was shocked. 

“They want me to turn a blind eye and facilitate it. They will tell me to let that person through the security. Even if I don’t carry it out myself, there will be blood in my hands, Seema.” 

The air was heavy with misery. It was Ayan who spoke first. “We have no option but to do as your friend says. If you are able to convey the situation to the commissioner, there is a chance we may safely steer out of this nasty situation.”

Seema considered it before saying, “Do you think we can trust Kabir? After all, he is one of them. What if we walk into a trap?”

“Seema, I’m already trapped. And just think about it for a moment. Why would he ask us to contact the commissioner if he was on their side? Why would he write to you giving himself away?”

Seema sighed. In her heart she wanted her old friend to be the good guy even if he had been helping the bad guys until now. It was clear he wanted out and was ready to risk his life.

Every minute counted. Seema asked, “How will I leave without being noticed? What if there is another gang member keeping a check?”

“You can go out with our neighbours. Even if they are keeping a watch, you have a better chance to go unnoticed when you go with other women. Cover your hair so that it is difficult to recognize you. Once the police are alerted they can handle the situation. But it’s important to go as early as you can.” 

After a moment, he asked, “Do you think he will trust you as Kabir has written?”

Seema nodded. “I believe it’s time he knew who had arranged his exam fees that year when his family had fallen on bad times.”

Kabir

Kabir had been waiting in his sedan for the signal. He was beginning to get worried that someone had not agreed to go along with his plan. Seema had not put out a signal yet. There was no way to know. He could not contact her directly; it was not safe. 

If there was no signal for another hour, Kabir would probably have to modify his plan. But what about Seema and Ayan. He looked one more time for the signal and there it was, a red scarf hanging on the balcony railing. That was a clear go signal with everyone agreeing. Seema must have been pretty convincing. It was on. 

Kabir took out his mobile and put it in the glove box. He took out another mobile from the glove box and inserted a new SIM in it. He waited with eyes on Seema’s apartment gate. After twenty minutes, Ayan came and drove away in his car. Kabir checked his watch. 

Fifteen minutes later, he got out of the sedan and took out a backpack from the trunk. He crossed the road and reached the bus stop. 

He could see a bus approaching from far. He boarded it. He had to get away from here as far as possible. As quickly as he could. 

By now Ayan must have reached the hospital. The police must already be there undercover. Commissioner Sameer was a brilliant officer who had successfully busted many criminal gangs in his previous postings. 

He had wanted to see Seema once before leaving. One last time, just to thank her. But that could have been risky and Kabir couldn’t afford anything to go wrong. He looked out the window at the shrinking building as the bus sped away. 

Epilogue

Although it did not become the headline of any newspaper, mostly to avoid a scandal, but also, to avoid general chaos, the police had successfully averted a major tragedy. A prominent member of the extortion gang was nabbed, leading to raids and arrests of other members. Few members escaped, so the case was not closed. 

Commissioner Sameer was conferred the President’s Gallantry Award for bravery. 

Seema found closure in the knowledge that Kabir was safe and on his way to start his life afresh. Ayan was grateful that the plan went perfectly without any major scandal that could have reflected badly on him. They shifted to another residential complex with a better security system in place. They also locked their Facebook profiles and enabled the two-step platform security. 

A train stopped at a metro station around 9 a.m. Kabir deboarded the train with the same backpack that he had taken from the trunk of his sedan. He had packed essentials and some clothes to use immediately. He wanted to carry as little from the past as was possible into the new present. He stood on the platform and took a deep breath admiring the beauty around him. It was a pleasant morning. He could not read the language on the signboards. But he didn’t mind that, he was ready to learn a new language. 

He was ready for a new life. In a new city, far away from his past.

Maybe someday if he accidentally ran into Seema and Ayan, he would thank them properly.
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Author notes:
Thoughts are in italics. 
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