Jyoti suddenly brought the car to a skidding screeching stop. Rishi woke with a jolt as he was thrown towards the dashboard. Anamika also woke up and started to cry, she was bound by seat belt to the baby seat on the rear seat of the car.
Rishi looked across to Jyoti and saw her face. She had a look of abject terror. Her eyes were riveted to something ahead of their vehicle. But in the car’s dazzling headlights, he could not make out what. He heard another vehicle skid and swerve around them as its drivers spotted them stopped.
“Darling, did you hit something?” Rishi asked with concerned. “… or someone?”
But Jyoti was speechless by whatever had happened. She didn’t talk. Her lips quivered as if to open up and answer him, but they didn’t move. Her hands were ashen and locked onto the steering wheel. Rishi’s heart was beginning to pick up pace. What had happened? He tried to look around. It was pitch black outside. Other than the light of their car’s headlamps, the road and its surroundings were shrouded in darkness. He wound down his window and peered out. There were on the banks of the highway they were driving on. Determining it was relatively safe, he unlocked his door and got out.
Gingerly and fearing the worst, he walked around the car, looking for damage or some sign to tell him what had happened. There was nothing. Just the dark line of rubber leading away from their car to the rear telling him where Jyoti had started to brake hard. He retraced the path. He found nothing. They had skidded for about twenty meters or so before she had managed to stop. But there was nothing to tell him anything.
He opened the back door of the car and adjusted the belts and baby seat Anamika was in. He made sure the baby was comfortable before he returned to his seat and shut the door. Jyoti was still staring straight ahead. He took a drink of water. Something had shaken her up. He touched her arm.
“Darling, why don’t you come and sit this side. I will take over?” he suggested, in a calm and soothing voice.
She turned to look at him. The fear was still there, but seeing his face seemed to calm her a bit. She nodded, but when she put out her hand to open her door, she was gripped by fear. She shrank back into her seat.
“Would you feel better if I came over there and brought you back here?” he asked her.
She nodded slowly.
Rishi got out and went to the driver’s side of the car and slowly walked her back to the passenger seat. Then, he returned to the driver’s side and got in. She seemed to be a little relaxed now. She was drinking some water as he buckled his seat belts.
“What happened? What are you afraid of?” He asked, starting up the car and putting it into gear.
“Sneha…” she whispered. “I saw Sneha.”
“WHAT! Where?” he cried, looking around.
“She was there.” She nodded to a point outside his side of the car. “I braked to avoid hitting her.”
“What nonsense.” Rishi said dismissively. “You know she is dead. You know that for a fact.”
“Yes, I didn’t say she was back. It was probably her ghost.” Jyoti whispered, still in fear and shock.
“If that is so, what was she doing here? In the middle of nowhere…” Rishi laughed. “She has had tons of opportunity to come and haunt us these past years.”
Jyoti sat thoughtfully. Rishi obviously did not believe in the spirit world, she guessed. He was not going to understand her fear. In her mind, his ex-wife had come back to haunt her because she had stolen her husband from her. She would have to atone for that sin, she decided.
Rishi drove silently. After some distance, he saw Jyoti relax and slide down into her seat. She was sleeping. He made sure he drove slowly and carefully to avoid waking her up.
Suddenly he spotted something on the road ahead of him. It was the figure of a woman, dressed in a flowing white sari and sort of floating about the road. The figure seemed to match his speed and move consistently at the same distance in front of him. He tried to increase speed and decrease it, but the apparition was still there. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a food plaza coming up and pulled into it.
Visibly shaken, he got out of the car and walked around, shaking his hands and feet. The cold night air bit into him and made him feel even more miserable. He didn’t believe in spirits and ghosts, but what was this apparition? He had no explanation for it.
In the car, Jyoti stirred and noticed that they were stopped. Looking around, she spotted him walking around nervously. She opened her door and stepped out, drawing her woolen shawl about her as she felt the chill of the night air.
“What is it dear?” she asked, yawning.
“I saw it… her… too.” He said confused at his own words.
She ran to him quickly. “Sneha? The ghost?”
He nodded. “Just before I spotted this place, she was weaving around the road in front of the car.”
“I am scared, Rishi.” She sobbed. He put out his arms and embraced her. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out. There has to be an explanation for it.”
They went into the food plaza and woke up the sleeping waiter. It took a long time for the food and coffee they ordered to appear because the kitchen had practically closed up for the night. Not many travellers stopped here during the night time. They were fine with the delay. They were too shaken up to continue anyway.
Soon it was broke daylight.
“We can drive now, without fear of ghosts. Its daylight.” Rishi said. “We’re also coming up on Mumbai in a couple of hours.”
They reached the city of dreams, Mumbai. They needed time to think and plan their next steps.
Early next morning, Rishi left Jyoti and Anamika in the hotel room and went to talk with some travel agents about where they could go from here and how soon.
“Find us some tickets out of the country!’ Jyoti begged him as he left. “That would be one sure way to leave everyone and everything behind cleanly.”
After he had left, Jyoti took the baby and they went out. She wanted to get some fresh air, take in some sights and maybe do some shopping. She was standing in a mall looking at some pretty dresses that were draped on the mannequins in the window when her phone rang.
It was Rishi’s number.
She answered it, “Hello?”
There was no answer from the other end. Just sounds of a scuffle then the call was cut off. She was puzzled and concerned.
She tried to call him back.
The phone rang.
But no one answered it.
What had happened to him? She decided to cut short her outing and return to the room to wait for him.
Soon, it was night. There was no sign of Rishi.
She tried to call him, but she was told by a recorded voice that his phone was either out of coverage area or was switched off. Her eyes teared up. She was in a strange city and she knew no one here.
And now Rishi had mysteriously disappeared.
What had happened to him? She sat and wondered what she could do. Should she go to the police? They would ask her all sorts of questions and she wouldn’t know what to say. She was mortally afraid of the police as it was.
She sat by the window the whole night, curled up, a blanket draped over herself. Her dupatta was mostly wet from her tears, that seemed to flow from an unending source. She watched Anamika sleep peacefully on the bed. The poor little girl had no idea.
A few times, Jyoti had the evil idea to wake up her daughter. How could she sleep so peacefully when her father had disappeared like that!
Far away, Rishi opened his eyes and peered around.
It was dark.
He could make out that it was a dingy workshop of some kind. Tools hung on the walls alongside. There was a dirty sofa to one side, its seat had been ripped up by an unknown person or animal. A dim bulb glowed in its cone-shaped holder, hanging from the ceiling. The air was still, but damp and it stank of stale engine oil. He tried to move his body, but he could not.
He worked out that he was lying on some kind of a table and his hands and feet had been bound up.
As he tried to twist, he felt a gnawing around his wrists. At first, his instincts told him to fight away the furry little creature that was eating at his ropes. Then he calmed himself and let the rat eat away.
Soon, one hand was free. He quickly freed his other hand and sat up, rubbing at his wrists.
His assessment had been correct, he was in a shed of some sort. But who had been his assailants and why had they brought him here? He untied the ropes around his legs and got off the bench and stepped gingerly on the floor.
He sat down on the edge of a large tire and tried to remember what had happened to him. Slowly, his memory returned.
He had just come out of a travel agent’s office when a group of men had approached him with a map. One of them asked him for directions.
“Is your name Rishi?” One of them had asked suddenly.
“I… I am..” He had mumbled in surprise.
Then they had pulled a large bag or sack of some sort over him and thrown him into what appeared to be a van. Someone had sprayed something into the sack as they drove off. That was the last he remembered.
Now he had woken up here.
Looking around, he spotted a shovel. He grabbed it to use as a weapon. Then, he tip-toed to the door. It was a shabbily constructed wooden door. There were plenty of cracks. He peered through. His captors were on the other side, sitting around a table, gambling with cards. He noticed there were plenty of liquor bottles strewn around.
He would wait a while for them to fall asleep before attempting to escape. In the meantime, he needed a good place to hide and observe them. He looked around the room and spotted a rickety metal ladder.
Far above him, but within reach from a ladder was a platform on the roof. Working quietly, Rishi dragged the ladder as soundlessly as he could to an edge of the platform above. A few times, he had run back to the door to check on his captors. But they seemed to be too busy into their card game and did not seem to hear the sounds he was making.
He stowed the shovel back where he had found it and climbed up the ladder. After he had got up on the platform, he tried to move the ladder away, but it was too heavy to move from above.
Rishi noticed that he was on a ledge, just under the roof. If only there was some opening here… maybe he could escape! He searched the roof above him and found a few of the tin sheets that made up the roof to be dislodged and arranged without being tied down.
He moved them gingerly, taking care not to make loud noises or have the sheets fall to the ground outside.
He stepped out.
Immediately, the chilly wind grabbed hold of him. The sudden change of temperature caused him to sneeze violently. He managed to muffle the second sneeze in his shirt. When his sneezes had stopped, he waited silently to see if he had been discovered.
The sound of raucous laughter from the shed below told him that they had not heard him.
It was evening already and the night was falling quickly. He could see the few early stars and the glint of the sliver of the moon in the deep blue sky.
There was a tree nearby. He slid across the roof and got to the ground. He had observed that the shed seemed to be on a hillock. He had seen the bright lights of the city about a kilometer away to one side.
Quickly, he ran away towards where he had seen the city. The shed was surrounded by a rough forest. At first, he took care to make as little sound as possible. After he determined that he was out of sight and ear-shot, he ran with all the energy he could call up.
Suddenly, he heard the sound of water and stopped himself in time.
Directly in front of him was a narrow but deep gorge. A ravine, cut into the soft and muddy rocks of the hillock. A few feet below, a little stream ran. The gorge was not wide, but it was just wide enough to prevent him from trying to jump across. It did not seem deep, but he could not cross it without using a bridge of some sort. He walked around a bit this way and that to try to find a way across.
In the dim light of the rapidly falling night, he found a large tree on his side of the bank. It had a few branches that reached over the gorge to the other side. He climbed up the tree. In the distance, he heard the sound of dogs barking. Had he been discovered? Were his captors pursuing him with dogs?
But he reached the other banks. He ran as fast as he could. He could see the lights of the city now. It was getting nearer with every second. He stumbled on something and fell.
He felt the kick of small sharp rocks bite into his body as he fell down. He fell onto what appeared to be slats of wood laid neatly on top of heaps of small rock. On both sides, he caught the glint of faraway lights on what appeared to be dull grey metal.
Suddenly, he realized what he was looking at. He was lying on a railway track! On the other side of the tracks was a small lake.
He was dejected. The lake appeared to run for some distance along and did not offer him an obvious way across. He did not know if he could wade across it, but it seemed wide too. He had no energy to try to swim it.
He sat down on the tracks, picking up the small stones and flinging them into the lake. He thought about what he could do. Then he felt the vibration of something approaching on the rails he was sitting on.
It seemed too faint, too small a vibration to be that of a train. Besides, he could not see the lights or hear the sounds of a train thundering towards him. He tried to look both ways deep into the night. He could see nothing.
Then he spotted it. The faint light of what appeared to be a dim lantern. It grew brighter as it approached. Rishi realized he was looking at the small cart that gangs of railway workers used to travel on tracks. They saw him too. They slowed and came to a stop a few feet away from him.
One of them shouted something at him. He did not understand their language. The man tried again in Hindi.
“Are you trying to commit suicide here?” He demanded.
Rishi looked at him and smiled thankful that he had been found.
“No, I am trying to get back to the city. I was kidnapped and managed to escape.” He pointed back towards where he had come from.
The man looked at Rishi with concern. He saw his torn-up clothes and shabby appearance. The other men took pity on him. They spoke among themselves and decided to help him.
“Come up, join us.” One of them offered Rishi a hand to get up on the cart they were riding on. He took the man’s hand and clambered up.
They gave him a corner to sit and a sheet to cover himself from the wind. Someone gave him a dirty bottle of water to drink. Thankfully, Rishi took the bottle and drank.
Finally regaining some of his energy, he asked the men,
“Where am I?”
His voice was feeble and they did not hear him in the sound of the rushing wind. He pulled a man closer and repeated his question into his ear.
The man looked at him and pointed to bright lights of a big city a bit far away.
Goa! He had been taken from Mumbai to Goa! What did his captors want! But more importantly he had to find a way back to Mumbai and to Jyoti and Anamika!
“What day is it?” he asked the man again.
The man told him. It had been a month now since he had been taken.
Rishi sunk backward onto the stout metal railings bordering the cart. He searched his pockets. He had no money, all of his possessions were gone.
Their cart reached a small station. It was how far the men were going. He told his predicament to the men. They took pity on him and pooled some money and gave it to him. It would be enough to take a train to Mumbai and try to call his wife. He would have to manage.
He thanked the men and waited on the platform. A train should be along in an hour they had told him. He could ride it to Mumbai. One of the men gave him his unopened tiffin box.
“My wife would kill me if she saw it full, you had better take it.” He had shrugged, handing it to Rishi.
Rishi sat on the railway platform, eating the man’s lunch. Night had fallen now. The station was ablaze with light.
He went to the public toilets. Though a sign said he had to pay Two Rupees to use it, there was no one around to collect it. The stench of stale urine blasted his senses from inside.
He stepped in boldly. There was no light. He made out a dirty washbasin. It had running water. He washed his face. The water was filthy and it stank of stale things and the mess that is usually at the bottom of uncleaned water tanks.
He stepped out to see there was a tap in a corner. Some porters were washing their hands and feet at it. He went up. They saw him and allowed him to share the water. Rishi doused his head. The cold water relaxed him.
Rishi spotted a telephone booth. He stepped into the booth. He tried to remember Jyoti’s number. He remembered a few of the digits. The man in the counter to the side watched him curiously, but he didn’t interfere, there were no other potential customers waiting to make a call, so he didn’t bother.
Finally, he decided on a combination of digits and dialed. The phone rang. It rang a few times. He was about to hang up, when someone answered.
“Hello?” came a familiar sounding female voice.
“Jyoti?” he asked, tentatively.
“Yes…” Jyoti’s voice trembled.
There was a mix of excited anticipation and fear. She did not know the landline number the call was coming from.
“Who is this?” She ventured.
“Jyoti, it is me… Rishi.” He said quietly.
On the other side, he heard her cry.
“Rishi!” she shrieked.
He let her cry. He understood her pain. Her sorrow. And her relief. Tears flowed down his cheeks. But he saw the clock tick away. He didn’t have much money to do this call.
“Jyoti, I am in Goa.” He said finally. “Can you come and get me? I have no money all my things are gone.”
“Where? How…” she began.
“Just come to Goa station. I will be there. I don’t have money to talk longer.” He said and hung up.
She understood. She had a billion questions in her head. All the questions would have to wait.
“I am coming. I am coming!” she yelled and hung up.
Rishi wondered where she was and how quickly she would be able to reach Goa.
He paid the phone booth attendant for the call and trudged along the platform. He went to the ticket counter. The sleepy attendant there gave him a general class ticket and waved him away. He walked to the end of the platform and waited for the train.
A few hours later, he got off the train and stepped onto the platform at Goa station. Jyoti and he had made up a system on how to locate each other if they got lost. They used it everywhere. In malls, in airports. Today they would have to use it here, at a railway station. He went to the spot and waited.
As soon as she had hung up, Jyoti had grabbed the sleeping baby, her handbag and rushed out. She found a taxicab and waved it down frantically.
“Railway Station!” She had yelled at the driver, throwing the baby and herself down into the backseat.
On the ride to the station, she thanked her gods.
The day after Rishi had vanished, she had tried to retrace his steps to attempt to find out where he had gone. At the second travel agency that she had gone to, she had been sent away by the travel agent saying he had not met Rishi. But a girl stopped her outside the door.
“Show me a photo of your man.” She had demanded.
The girl had refused to tell Jyoti anything until she showed him a picture of Rishi. Jyoti had tried to gauge her intentions, but could not make it out. She looked street smart, dressed in casual clothes thrown away by someone. Her accessories made no sense. In short, she didn’t look like someone who would be stepping up to do anyone any good deeds.
But Jyoti had pulled out her phone and showed her a photo of Rishi. She had seen the other girl’s face when she saw the photo. Clearly, she had recognized her man. But there was also an emotion of fear and sense of anticipation of excitement in her manner. The girl had pulled Jyoti onto the building’s wall and into her ear she had whispered urgently.
“Go to Goa! Goa!” She had said, her eyes urging she should go there immediately and search for him there.
Jyoti had wondered if she should take the girl’s words seriously. But that was the only clue she had had. So, they had taken a train and gone to Goa that night. She had no idea what to do next. She took up residence at one of the long-term boarding houses. Every day she used to go around market places and where tourist hung out and showed photos of Rishi to passers-by asking them if they had seen him.
Today, she had just returned from one such outing when her phone had rung and she had found Rishi on the other end!
She asked the driver to wait for her and ran into the station. She looked around wildly for Rishi but could not see him.
Rishi turned around and saw her.
She didn’t seem to recognize him.
He realized she would not. He was dressed like a beggar.
He went up to her.
“No. No alms!” she said frantically waving him away and looking around. “Go away!”
“Jyoti…” Rishi touched her arm.
She looked at him and then recognized him. Her eyes widened in surprise looking at him.
“Rishi!” She cried, hugging him tightly and kissing him all over his face.
Tears of happiness streamed down her cheeks
Passers-by looked at them in wonder. They saw a well-to-do girl kissing a platform-beggar happily. But it was Goa.
They moved on without stopping.
Jyoti led Rishi back to the taxicab and bundled him in. They drove to the hotel in silence. She had brought all their luggage. So, he washed up and changed into clean clothes. Over the past one month in captivity, he had shrunk and his clothes hung about loosely on his gaunt frame.
“Finally, you look like… a pale ghost of yourself.” She teased him, applying some cream on his face. He had cut himself shaving.
Jyoti ordered room service. As they ate, Rishi told her what had happened to him and how he had escaped.
“Who can it have been? Who did this?” Jyoti wondered aloud. “And, what did they want?”
Rishi shrugged. He had no idea.
They put it down as a mystery.