Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Just A Story series: JAS1- That Red Object

It sounded like those serial crackers rattling on and just as the petrified puppy pitter pattered in front of our car, the driver bent double forward on the brakes.
A red coloured object rectangular in shape popped out of Mandira’s hand bag as she was fiddling for some paracetamol. She quickly retrieved the object & before the car came to a perfect halt, she had already shoved it inside her bag.

“What’s that?”, asked Aashant , not sure whether he was getting personal because for a nanosecond he felt that the object was actually a coloured condom pack. It looked somewhere similar to the one he was holding for the last one year in his bachelor accommodation. Aashant was secretly respectful of Mandira’s boldness in carrying a condom in her hand bag, ready for use in extreme situations of intimacies with quasi strangers. But Aashant’s gut feelings said that she too was carrying the same pack for more than one year. Hence he had already settled into a state of quiet reassurance before Mandira replied , in a somewhat hurried tone, “Its Chicklet!”

A procession was winding its way up the hill in this market town with its band of garish-coloured turbaned clankers & bangers. Fire crackers were being tossed about by the revellers & the dogs were disappearing out of sight in a flash. The puppy in front of our car was nowhere to be seen . Living on the streets, they mature mentally quite fast.

Aashant thought whether he should ask for one of the Chicklets but prudence ruled otherwise.

In the meanwhile the car had already moved past the revellers & was approaching the only government hotel in this hill city . A sleepy receptionist at the hotel handed over two sets of keys to Aashant & Mandira.
“We’ll meet at 8 p.m for Dinner at the restaurant..” , Aashant said at the lift gates.

Exactly at 8 p.m Aashant was at the table feeling fresh after a warm shower. Quite uncharacteristically Aashant had also brushed his teeth with his mint-flavoured toothpaste tonight. In his mind , he brushed it off as a freak longing for mint.
The soft click-eti-click of the falling door keys on the table signalled the otherwise quiet arrival of Mandira. Mandira looked slightly tired. She did say she was feeling feverish in the evening.
Aashant called the waiter & quickly ordered a light dinner with a pork side dish. Pork in hilly areas such as these is extremely fresh & soft. Aashant chitchatted for a while eating, signed the bill at the end and headed off after Mandira towards their respective rooms. On their floor as they alighted from the lift, Aashant offered her a mint Chicklet from his shirt pocket.
“Care for an after-dinner mint ?”
“Thanx. I’ll be ready by 9.00 a.m tomorrow. Good night”

Was he secretly happy that she has taken the chicklet ? Did it mean she actually didn’t have any with her? So that red object must be……..Will she discover the connection ?
Aashant quickly banished those thoughts from playing truant with his mind.

Stacy & Ms. Zhasa , two government officials arrive with their department jeep & an attendant in tow exactly at 8.30 a.m. By 9, Aashant & Mandira are off to Monokha , a village where women self help groups are pretty strong & active. Aashant’s boss wants organic farming to be introduced in the village as a livelihood option. The produce can then be certified by international agencies for marketing to discerning consumers in Europe.

It takes almost an hour to reach out of town & another quarter to take an un-metalled road towards a second hill. After a gruelling 45 minutes of roller coaster ride , the jeep stopped at the entrance of the Monokha village. A SHG meeting is quickly organised at the local community hall which gets slowly filled up by women, young & old along with old men The meeting was inaugurated by a village elder who was in his full costume. Tragopan feathers in head , thick coloured bangles all over etc. etc. A village elder (whether by age or power) is always identified by the hand knit shawl that is flipped over his left shoulder. The meeting was over after some promises made through interlocutors & acceptances from the community elders. Then it was time for inspection of existing farm produces. Pineapple, tamarind, passion-fruits seemed to be full of exciting potential for organic farming. All through this time, Aashant noticed the complete absence of any male adult between the age of 18 to 35.

Were they in the farm? Or have they deserted the place for better opportunities in the plains of India? Aashant had heard about the menace of militancy in this area. Have the youth then gone underground with the militants for a cocktail life of money, booze, arms & power?

Aasant wanted to take a leak and was shown a village pathway among two rows of houses to a secluded corner. Just as he was leaving that pathway, a huge black-skinned animal-head with blood oozing from its neck appeared to be looking straight into his eyes. It took almost a few second for Aashant’s heart to stabilise before he noticed an old man carrying the severed head of a Mithun on his shoulder. Looks like today is also the feast day in the village.
Next stop was to be the village school . The school was far away on a down slope , barely visible from the community hall.
As Mandira hurried downward alone ,she was taking in the scenery of a beautiful valley towards the right side of the road . Almost ten paces behind , Aashant was transfixed as his gaze fell upon her swinging shapely bonbons. For some moments Aashant was overwhelmed by a feeling of discovery of the feminine form in its full glory. To realise that he was accompanying a woman who possessed such form made him feel humble at his inadequacies in spotting it at the first meeting. Aashant spat out the gum that he was chewing & headed downward before he heard that sound again & this time almost from behind his shoulders & very very loud.

Rat-tat-rat-tat-rat-tat rat-tat-rat-tat ………………….

Four men in army uniforms carrying Insas assault rifles were firing in a circle at a fleeing figure of a youth in black uniform . The youth fleeing had a LMG in hand. They all seemed to be hurtling down the bushy hill on the left. The youth was in no mood for a straight combat and he was running as fast as he could.
Looked like the youth was an insurgent.
The firing happened again & Aashant , in a flash , was spread-eagled on the road . Mandira too had noticed the firing and she was running down when suddenly the insurgent caught up with her , held her by the neck & then pulled her down with him , into the valley on the right side.

Everything happened in extra rapid time . The firing has stopped . Aashant along with the army jawans were peeking at the valley down below. It was a bushy downhill with a gradual slope and they could see nothing. Two jawans rushed down the slope while two kept guard asking Aashant about “Mandira”. One of them turned out to be a Colonel leading the pack. Almost fifteen minutes had passed before Aashant could collect himself from the incident & narrated the background of their visit. By this time the two government officials had come down & Aashant was identified. But still no sign of Mandira.
After almost half an hour, the other two jawans were found ambulating back with their rifles slung on the shoulders.
A chill of fear passed through Aashant’s spine.
Where is Mandira? Have they found her ? Dead or alive ?
The jawans walked upto & reported back to the Colonel . The Colonel turned towards Aashant and said that he thinks Mandira has been taken hostage & the next course of action would be to wait for more information on her whereabouts from either the militant or other villagers. It might be a while before the army can launch a ‘search & rescue’ operation . But for that to happen, formalities have to be executed, FIRs lodged etc. etc. And that can only happen in the town that he was staying.

Aashant decided to abandon the SHG visit then and there. He accompanied Stacy & Ms. Zhasa on the government jeep. While on the way back towards the main town, he finished off making his calls to his boss, her colleagues & other administrators in his office. Aashant decided not to call up Mandira’s home before receiving at least some information on her present location. Fifty minutes back she was talking excitedly with Stacy on making passion-fruit squash for the export market from the village. Now she had simply disappeared from among them. For the rest of the journey Aashant was completely quiet. In between he was trying to close Mandira’s handbag, which he had found stuck on a bush, with flaps open. Aashant had noticed the red object peeking through but now he had completely lost interest in that. As the sun quickly set, the only light visible inside the silent jeep was coming from the glowing orange tip of his cigarette in the front seat.

“I don’t even date with smokers”, Mandira had once casually informed him on her attitude towards smokers. Aashant was praying that Mandira was safe. “Forget dating, I’ll celebrate by burning hundred packets of cigarettes just to see you break into your characteristic mirth ,again”, Aashant seemed to be ruminating .

Around 8 p.m, Aashant was lighting up another cigarette at his hotel room. He had taken a quick shower . He was feeling completely fagged out after the gruelling two hour drill at the police station completing formalities and remembering to note down the phone numbers of the OC as well as the Colonel. Stacy was trying to use her departmental connections to ring up the Home Minister but in spite of all efforts , ‘search & rescue’ operation seemed to be postponed for next day morning.

There was still absolutely no information on Mandira. Aashant hoped that the militant would not harm her if he wanted to capitalise on the hostage. Militancy , thought Aashant, is eighty percent of playing cops and daggers, running from one shelter to another before one realises that the youth has been wasted. Who would have hoped that they would get stuck in this?

From his balcony, Aashant saw the valley all lit up & then ,all of a sudden, darkness appeared to engulf the entire town.
Power cut. Load shedding!
Precisely at the same time there was a knock on the room door.
A few moments of silence & another knock, this time louder.
Aashant felt scared , vulnerable & indecisive all at once. Dragging his legs , he gathered enough courage to open the door.

“Hi! I’m back.” cooed Mandira from just outside.

A huge sense of relief overwhelmed Aashant as he spontaneously clasped both her hands, held them tightly & in the same momentum of gratuitousness , Aashant hugged Mandira.
“ I am so glad to see you!”

Aashant lights up a candle & takes Mandira by the hand on to the sofa . The candle lights up a side of Mandira’s face . Aashant prepares a brandy for her as Mandira recounts the story
since her capture upto the release.

Aashant calls up Stacy, his own boss & finally the Colonel and communicates the brief story of her safe return. The Colonel informs Aashant that they can’t leave town before Mandira is debriefed next morning at the police station .

“Go for a wash , I’ll order dinner”, Aashant tells Mandira while handing her the handbag in the candle-lit darkness.

Aashant caringly serves dinner to Mandira in his room , while going over the story of her release once again in detail. The power had come back & suddenly the world seemed bright & hearty to Aashant.

Mandira said she was rolling down the slope towards the valley along with the youth before they hit another small un-metalled road. The youth hitched her up & pushed her from the back with the barrel of his LMG. She immediately started running on the road, guided from behind to take the correct turns through jungles & slopes & other un-metalled roads for almost 40 minutes before they reached a crowded village market on the other side of the hill. In a flash, the militant pushed Manidra inside the crowd shouting “You are free” and ran away towards another downhill. Mandira noticed 3-4 men also running behind him, presumably to collect & hide the weapon ( a fact that Mandira had to remember not to recount in her official story otherwise the village would be traumatised by the onslaught of army interrogations & harassments). But the villagers turned out to be smarter than Mandira thought. Mandira was first calmed down with a mug of local tea & some womanly care. She told her hotel’s name & the purpose of her visit. As she finished her tea, few village elders ushered her into a trekker & then proceeded to blindfold her for her journey back to the hotel. Mandira had to again remember to add the blindfolding part to her story right from the time she started running. That would prevent further police questions on the locations of the village. Anyway after about two hours , the driver of her trekker left her 100 meters away from the hotel and before she could remove the blindfold on her own, the trekker had already sped ahead .

There she was now in front of Aashant, free from captivity!

Aashant recounted his own story with the Colonel & police station although he skipped the discussion with the colonel on the scenario of her “possible death”. He told her not only everyone was worried at the office when they heard the news but also Aashant could hear some colleagues sobbing on the phone.
Mandira looked up at him, her eyes glistening just so slightly.

Will Mandira come back again to this town?

“Why not ? The same thing could have happened to me in Bengaluru”
“Yes, but the probability of such an event in much less in Bengaluru”
“I don’t know. I just want to sleep very well now and leave for home as soon as possible.”

Can Aashant manage to skip the debriefing session tomorrow at the Police station?

“ I am not sure, how”
“ Let us leave a letter for the police stating what happened. And then we can always have a talk later on the phone or even on video on internet1”
“ I doubt whether these guys will agree. The best thing would be to slip out of town catching the early morning flight to Delhi! Once we reach Delhi, I’ll speak to the Colonel” opined Aashant.

“Okay,” cooed Mandira as she fiddled with the hook of her handbag and shoved two of her fingers in.

Out popped the mysterious red object held between her two fingers.
It was a strip of sleeping pills.

Mandira tore three red pills out of the strip & popped them straight in her mouth while helping herself with the water jug kept on Aashant’s bedside stool.

“Zolam does come handy, once in a while”, smiled Mandira all the while teasingly looking at Aashant to hint him that she had already read Aashant’s mind as to what he thought
the red object was. As they bid “good night” with promises to be up at 4.00 a.m. , Aashant had mixed feelings.
The shame of being caught for fantasising on the red object as well as the elation of being that much closer to her for knowing that she was as much as an insomniac as he was.
This is a story written by Salty is completely fictional. Any resemblance to actual person is only coincidental. The copyright belongs to Salty & is protected. For permission to reproduce, please send an email.