Two days ago…
I was on my way to work and got stuck in an awful traffic jam. A drive that usually takes an hour and a half at 8.00 am, from Goregaon to Lower Parel, took me more than three on that day.
3 hours to cover 21 km? A disastrous waste of productive working hours.
My blood pressure was shooting up. I am an achiever and always like to be a part of the solution, and here all I could do was sit in my car and fume.
I, Sebastian Mitheu, had vowed never to return to India when I left 20 years ago, but the offer – Asia Head- Investment Banking, was too good to refuse. India was the center of all action, and an experienced hand was needed here.
One year, that’s all it will take to have a reliable team and streamline the processes.
With that thought, I consented to return to Mumbai, the financial capital of this godforsaken country, where chaos is a part of everyday life.
Someone said, “A Mumbaikar has anger and frustration in his veins instead of blood, and Mumbai would ensure a steady supply of both.” I understood the true meaning of that statement on that day, one month after I landed in Mumbai. I had a vital deal to close, my first in this country. Instead of sitting in my office, I was seated in a car competing with a snail. Was I angry? I was exasperated.
Maybe I should just get off the car and walk to work.
I did what most Mumbaikars do in such situations – I got on a conference call with my team members, barking instructions over the phone, to ensure work continued undisrupted in my absence.
When we approached the Santacruz flyover, my driver said, “Sir, it looks like a bad accident. I can see the police from here.”
I got off the car and headed to the accident site; I was shocked to see two badly mangled vehicles on the extreme left. The police had cordoned off a large area. Only one car could pass through the otherwise three-lane flyover. Efforts were being taken to clear the road. I turned towards my car. It was in this chaos that I saw her, standing a few feet from the accident site, lost in her thoughts. She looked ethereal. I felt a strange flutter in my heart when she brushed unruly strands off her face. I don’t know what got over me that day, and I did the unthinkable for someone who usually minds his own business. I approached her.
“Hello. Do you need any help?”
She looked at me with a strange smile on her face.
“Well….I was on my way to Bandra,” she began. I cut her off. “I am on my way to Lower Parel; I can drop you. You wouldn’t get a taxi here. It will take hours for the traffic to regularize. My car is right here.”
“Thank you for inviting me,” she said in her sing-song voice. We walked to the car, and she got in after me. I noticed she was sans makeup and her skin glowed like she had powdered herself with gold dust. There was something familiar about her, I tried hard to recollect, but I failed.
“Hi, I am Sebastian Mitheu, and I am a banker,” I said, trying to make conversation.
“Hi, I am Vinita.”
“Another accident! Traveling on roads in this city is crazy,” I said.
“Some things are beyond us,” she replied.
She wasn’t interested in continuing the conversation, so I stuck to my phone.
“That’s it. I will get off here,” Vinita said a few minutes later. The journey was quick because the snag in traffic was lifted. I was disheartened.
I noticed my driver giving me odd looks. He didn’t acknowledge Vinita’s request by slowing down, so I instructed him to steer the car to the extreme left and stop right after the next signal. She alighted, and I watched her disappear into the sea of humanity. My driver kept staring at me through the rear-view mirror, waiting for further instructions.
“What are you waiting for? I need to get to work.” I said, visibly irritated with his behavior.
Does he need instructions for everything? Stop. Go. Absurd!
I reached my workplace, and the rest of the day flew by quickly. The all-important deal was concluded without any hiccups. Days of late nights had borne fruit. On my way home, I couldn’t help but think of Vinita. When we crossed the Santacruz flyover, I thought I saw her at the same place, but a moment later, she was gone.
My brain has become fuzzy. Why would Vinita be here at this time?
Instinctively I looked to my left and jumped out of my seat when I saw her next to me.
“Sir, are you okay?” my driver asked.
“She…she…,” I said, pointing to my left. There was no one there.
So now I can see her everywhere.
“It’s nothing; just focus on the road,” I said.
It was past 1.00 am, and I couldn’t get a wink of sleep. Whenever I closed my eyes, I fantasized about Vinita. She had taken over my senses. I took a glass of whiskey and walked to my balcony overlooking the Aarey colony. The vast expanse of the Aarey forest was shrouded in mist. A lone cloud sailed along, revealing the shy moon. A sudden burst of incandescence added a silvery tinge to the forest land.
I never knew that Aarey looked so alluring and mysterious at night. The Aarey I knew was a forest land frequented by lovers for solitude and wildlife enthusiasts for its biodiversity.
A soft breeze caressed me, and I heard a faint whisper S-E-B-A-S-T-I-A-N. I faltered, causing the glass to slip from my hand and crash on the floor. The balcony lights flickered, and I heard it again; this time, it was loud and clear. S-E-B-A-S-T-I-A-N, come to me. Beads of perspiration slid down my face and landed on the floor, sounding as loud as gongs.
The voice? No, it can’t be. It’s over 20 years.
Shivering, I looked around for the source, only to be greeted by the howling of canines. I rushed inside, shut the sliding door, and locked it securely. I went to the bar, pulled out a bottle of whiskey, and gulped it down till my fraying senses calmed down. I hid the bed and passed out.
Echoes of the past
I woke up with a splitting headache. My work was my panacea, so I headed to work. On the way, I accepted the friend request of Raghav, my batch-mate and close friend, during my days at IIZ Mumbai. I left my friends and my past behind after moving to Singapore. Had it not been for Facebook, Raghav could never have connected with me, but he did, and that too three months back. I ignored him because I wasn’t keen to reconnect with him. After arriving in Mumbai, I learned that Raghav was the head of a construction conglomerate. Networking always helped an Investment Banker, and I needed friends at the right places if I had to leave this country in one year. So, I changed my mind. Raghav was obviously thrilled. He pinged me on Messenger immediately after that, and we decided to meet for dinner in Powai later this evening.
I reminisced my days at IIZ. John, Raghu, Raghav, Smriti, Binu, and I were a notorious lot of the 1999-2002 batch – adventurous and brilliant. We had a great time jumping the campus gates for adventures. Binu and Raghav were the least daring and used to chicken out when we had atrocious ideas. Our professors had nothing to complain about because we were good at our studies. We never got caught in any of our misadventures. The four years were fun-filled, except for that one incident in the fourth year when two freshers were found hanging in their rooms. The whole campus had become forlorn because of the suicides. Campus life was not the same after that.
I was on my way to Powai. At 6.00 pm, the traffic was as bad as ever, this time because of the work-in-progress on the metro line. It was frustrating. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to calm myself.
A smiling Binu appeared before me. The face that I once idolized looked grotesque, her eyes bulged out, and she gasped for breath. I jerked my eyes open.
Some memories are better buried and obliterated.
When I reached the rendezvous point, Raghav was already there. I had mixed emotions about meeting him, but he hugged me with longing. We chose a quiet table in the farthest corner of the restaurant. We had a lot to speak; we had to fill up on 20 years.
I kept it crisp and short.
“I did my MBA from Singapore and joined a bank in Hong Kong. I am now posted in Mumbai as Asia Head. I was married, now divorced. And you? Did you marry Smriti?” I asked.
“It’s a long story, Sebastian. I wish I could sum up my life in a few words like you did. Professionally, I am doing well. I am heading a construction conglomerate. I wish I could say the same about my personal life. Things are pretty complicated,” he replied.
He probably doesn’t want to share it with me. We were best friends once, but a lot of time has passed.
“How are the others? John, Raghu, Smriti… and Binu?”
“I thought you didn’t want anything to do with us after you left for Singapore. You never attempted to stay in touch. Do you care enough to ask?”
“Oh! Come on, it’s better late than never,” I replied.
“Things were never the same after that day; remember that afternoon after the convocation? We had a blast celebrating our success at Powai Lake. You left early because you had to take the late-night flight, remember?”
“Of course, I do. How can I forget?”
“Smriti and Binu also left after you; they had some shopping to do. John, Raghu, and I stayed back for an hour and headed back to our rooms. We saw Binu rushing out of the gates and boarding an auto on our way back. We called out to her, but she didn’t see or hear us. Obviously, she was upset about something. That was the last we saw of her. She never came back.”
“What? What do you mean by she never came back?”
“Binu went missing that evening. Smriti came to us the following day stating Binu hadn’t returned at night. This was not like her; we all knew she was a stickler for rules. I waited till evening, and when she didn’t return, I filed a police complaint. We all knew Binu was an orphan; she had no one but us. She was in IIZ because of her brilliance and scholarship.
The police visited the campus, and the preliminary sleuthing revealed nothing suspicious. A message was written on Binu’s whiteboard – I am the beast in us. Nobody knew what that meant. The police traced the auto and found it crushed beyond repair in the Aarey forests. It was an accident. The driver’s body was found, but Binu’s was not. Binu became one of the many missing police cases which went cold.
“What! This is spooky,” I said, massaging my temple.
“There is more to come,” Raghav continued.
“The next few days were awful; I was running to the police station every now and then because I had filed the complaint. John and Raghu left after a couple of days as originally planned. Fifteen days later, Smriti slipped and fell from the fourth floor of her apartment and rolled down the stairs hurting her head in the process. She developed a blood clot in her brain and went into a coma. She died a few days later. I never married; I couldn’t get over her.”
“What the hell! That’s tragic,” I said, feeling sorry for Raghav.
Smriti is dead? She fell off the stairs?
My heart was beating fast, my palms had become sweaty, and I was palpitating. I called for another round of whiskey; I needed something to calm my frayed nerves.
Could there be more bad news?
“What about John and Raghu?”
“John returned to his home in Goa and Raghu to Delhi. We stayed in touch; they called every day because they were concerned for Binu. But after Smriti’s death, something changed in them. They did not attend her funeral; they said Mumbai was never the same without friends. They didn’t call me after that. I knew they were disturbed, and so was I. We spoke again on the first death anniversary of Smriti. It took us a whole year to get back to normalcy. After that, we stayed in touch. I am still in touch with them and their families. All along, we were concerned about you, but you never connected with any of us.”
“I am sorry,” was all I could say. I ordered another whiskey for myself.
How I wished things were different.
We ordered food and ate in silence.
“I am glad we met,” Raghav said. “It took me years to get in touch with you on Facebook, but you didn’t respond. I lost hope.”
“Oh! Don’t mind that. I am not a Facebook person. I accepted your request as soon as I figured out,” I lied.
“You missed the reunion of the 1999-2002 batch. It was held last week. You could have met the whole class. John and Raghu were also here. They returned the day before.”
“Oh shucks! My luck,” I managed to say.
Just then, Raghav received a call.
“I have to take this. It’s from John’s wife.”
I gulped my whiskey, recollecting that day, 20 years ago. Secrets that were buried deep in my heart resurfaced. None of them knew about Binu and me. We had been lovers since the second year. We had managed to keep it a secret for 3 years by keeping a distance around people. We could never keep our hands off each other when we were alone in my room or in the wilderness of the Aarey forests.
I noticed Raghav turning as pale as a ghost.
“No, they are not here with me,” he managed to stutter before disconnecting the call.
“Sebastian…John and Raghu met with an accident yesterday morning on their way to the airport!”
My jaw touched the table, and my head reeled with this information.
The accident yesterday morning? The same accident that caused the traffic jam?
I took a deep breath to calm myself. “How is that possible? You just told me they left Mumbai the day before.”
“According to John’s wife, the police called sometime back; they got delayed because the cell phones were badly crushed in the accident, and it took time to retrieve the sim cards. The women didn’t believe the police at first, but John and Raghu have been unreachable since yesterday. She wanted to know if John and Raghu were with me. The police have asked them to come to Mumbai to identify the bodies.”
“Unbelievable,” I managed to stutter.
“There is more! She informed me that John and Raghu had called to inform them they were delaying their return because they saw Binu!”
“That’s absolute rubbish. How can it be Binu? I….”
Raghav gave me a strange look. I composed myself…
“You just told me Binu went missing 20 years ago. How can anyone see her now, after so many years?” I clarified.
I felt uncomfortable. Too much had happened in the last couple of hours.
“I think we should call it a day. I am overwhelmed; this is too much to digest,” I said, calling for the bill. I rushed out of the restaurant soon after.
Binu? Did they really see her? How is that possible?
“Driver! Take me home soon,” I said, getting into the car.
My head was pounding, so I shut my eyes. That was just the beginning of the torture. I became delirious when I heard the whispers again. S-E-B-A-S-T-I-A-N, come to me.
This time I knew who it was. I shut my ears to block the sound, but they wouldn’t go. I waved my hands to ward them off.
“Sir, are you alright?” my driver asked, jumping out of the car to help me.
“Move aside, you idiot, I need to get out of here,” I pushed him aside, rushed to the driver’s seat, and drove away, leaving him behind. He ran after the car…but I wasn’t going to stop, not for him, not for anyone.
I didn’t get very far. The traffic was as bad as ever; I cursed under my breath. I decided to take the familiar road through the Aarey forests. Was it a good decision? Of course, it was. The road was clear, with no vehicles to stop me. It was pitch dark; the headlights provided me just enough light to keep going.
I stepped on the brake to avoid a collision when I saw someone on the road. As my car screeched to a halt, my eyes grew wide in recognition. Vinita! Here?
I stepped out. The car engine shut down, and headlights went off as if on cue. I couldn’t see anything; I started to shiver.
“Vinita,” I called, only to be greeted by silence. I groped towards my car when I heard screeching laughter.
The hairs on my body stood up in response.
“Who? What?” I mumbled.
I ran forward, managed to open my car, and turned on the ignition. Vinita was seated beside me. The contours of her face changed, and my eyes fell off their sockets when I saw Binu next to me.
I ran out of the car, but where could I go? Binu was everywhere. I ran, tripped, and fell. I pleaded with her, but I knew nothing mattered anymore.
I should have stayed away from the Aarey Forests. I should have stayed away from Mumbai.
There was no doubt about John and Raghu; they were dead in an accident caused by Binu. But Smriti?
That evening, 20 years ago, Binu had followed me into the Aarey forest. She had figured out that I was involved in the deaths of the freshers. They were not suicides but murders. Raghu, John, and I had made it look like suicides because they had caught us stealing the final year question papers from the dean’s office. One of them had scribbled ‘I am the beast in us’ on a piece of paper. Binu had worked on it for days and figured it was an anagram for me – Sebastian Mitheu. The idiot that she was, she confronted me instead of going to the dean. She wanted me to come clean. She saw the real me that day – cold, calculating, and self-centered. I strangulated her in our favorite spot, away from the prying eyes of the world. Later, I realized there was a witness to my crime. Binu had come here in a rickshaw, so I had to kill the driver. I dumped the bodies in a safe spot and returned to the campus. I took the help of John and Raghu. They were hesitant, but they had no choice. They knew if I could kill four, I could kill more. We buried Binu deep in the Aarey wilderness. The process was time-consuming, and I had a flight to catch, so we staged an accident. The auto was crushed beyond repair, and so was the driver’s body. I left for Singapore without a glitch.
“Finally, after 20 years, I get my revenge. Do you know how it feels to stay when you are meant to go?”
“Why Smriti?” I asked.
“I confided in her about you before I left. But she kept quiet. She let me rot here.”
“You, Smriti, John, and Raghu were my friends, my only family. I loved you all. I had to change my appearance to get to all of you amorous fools. You called me into your lives willingly; I needed that to get free.”
“Now, you will do as I say. Drive and drive fast.”
I refused to comply. She possessed me. I felt excruciating pain in my head when she commanded my every action. I pulled my hair out, screaming all the while; I banged my head on the steering wheel and scratched myself till blood oozed. When I was half dead with excruciating pain, I started the car and rammed it into a tree at full speed; I could feel the blood draining from my body and life slipping away minute by minute. I knew I was going to cause another traffic jam the next day.
Aarey Colony/ Aarey Forests: 800 acres of greenery, now declared urban forest land by the state government.
Goregaon: A suburb in Mumbai on the western line.
Powai: An upscale residential neighborhood in Central Mumbai.
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