(This Short Story was first published in CLRI October 2013 issue. However, the link is now not operative. That is why thought of reposting it in my blog for interested readers)
“How on earth can anyone fall in love with a vampire?” Disgust was well writ in my tone.
“Well! Love is blind”, was Mann’s usual sardonic reply.
“Writers!” Sanjeev shook his head in amazement,” Their imagination knows no bound. Thank God it’s a vampire and not a Rakshasa.”
“What difference would that have made?” I snorted.
“Guys! Don’t criticise without reading.” Ritu was offended. She had read the book and was heading for the sequel.
We were gathered in the Club after a hectic game of badminton. It was mid- December. The thermometer had touched an all-time low of the season – four degrees. It was a kind of crippling cold this year. But that wouldn’t prevent us from ganging up in the Club every evening for a game or two of shuttle and an after-the-match follow-up on the latest happenings in our lives and around. However, all our discussions had this disturbing quality of degenerating into vociferous arguments. This evening the apple of discord was Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling novel “Twilight”.
Ritu had ventured to give us the outline of the story that had started off the debate. The heroine, a ‘normal’ specimen of the human species chooses to fall for a guy of the vampire clan. There was much brouhaha when the novel and its sequels hit the bestseller’s list and were later made into successful movies. Neither had I read the novel nor seen the movie as the theme itself repulsed me.
Sanjeev, with his much flaunted fetish for Management Theories, hardly had any interest for fiction.
“Vampires! Those nocturnal creatures surviving on human blood!!!” Mann scoffed at the very idea of their existence which Ritu was inclined to lay a wager on. She even supplied some dubious historical data in support of her claim.
“How can you even think of believing such things?” I was incredulous. Ritu insisted that we lacked imagination and an innate sense of drama. We agreed that it wasn’t in us to let our imagination run riot and that even the most ridiculous should have some remote resemblance to realism.
On this agreeable note of disagreement we parted for the day.
In the middle of that night…
An odd dream startled me up.
Strangely, I remembered it later only in parts.
A dark, dilapidated castle…its turrets almost tearing through the sky…cold floors and corridors leading nowhere…and then this squalid room full of gigantic cobwebs and a window with a broken pane drawing in the chill from outside…faded moonlight streaking in through cracked glasses…and this odd feeling that I had been there before…a long, long time back.
After that blank…
But the feeling stayed on even after I was wide awake.
A hard-to-describe-uneasiness, something I had witnessed in that room but couldn’t recollect now…Deja vu?
Next morning I was late for my tutorials.
I pulled the strings of my hood in a tighter knot around my neck. Our maid, Malathi, had smugly predicted a snowfall in the Capital this winter. We had had a good laugh over it during dinner. However, the day next it rained preceded by a hailstorm. The temperature dipped to a degree less. Malathi had this grim satisfaction that her prediction was at last coming to pass. The days were somehow tolerable but the chill grew as the evenings deepened. A boisterous wind made things worse. I found the interiors of the over-crowded Metro cosier during these times.
But with a shoulder bag straining with the weight of thick volumes and fat registers and two tomes precariously positioned on my arms, it was extremely difficult to maintain balance inside the coach. It was the peak rush hour. A tap on my back made me turn around. A dour, pale, almost anaemic face of indeterminate age with a pair of bulging eyes peering through thick lensed glasses, signalled me to the seat next to her. It was not vacant but she motioned the other occupants to shift and make space on the elongated berth so that I could squeeze in. I thanked her. She nodded in acknowledgement.
The next station was a junction where the crowd thinned considerably. A station later, my considerate co-commuter got up to de-board. I noticed an emaciated frame which even layers of woollens and warmers could not disguise. The dark, old fangled cloak draped on her protruding shoulder blades looked positively outlandish. But in a city obsessed with individualized style statements I attributed her sense of dressing to her personal idiosyncrasy.
She suddenly looked back sensing my eyes on her. Yuck! That crimson shade on her lips! It heightened her pallor – a ‘dripping’ red as though her mouth had just found way out of a bowl of sticky tomato ketchup. How could she even think of applying that regressive colour? Her choice of make-up seemed a little outmoded, summing her up, I instantly felt guilty. Here was I silently picking on her attire and looks while she had so kindly accommodated me next to her. Ungrateful! I castigated myself. With a shake of my head, to shoo away those wicked thoughts, I bent low to concentrate on the latest amendments to Company Law. In doing so, I missed her piercing gaze on me and the slow tantalizing way her tongue licked her lips in a lazy, circular motion.
The train came to a halt at the next station. The door slid open, to admit out a swirl of black, and then closed with a soft thud. As the train moved on I looked up through the huge glass windows lining the compartments. Amidst the crowded platform the quaint figure had managed to vanish like a whiff of smoke.
The Club was empty. Sanjeev and Mann had left early. Ritu was the only one available. But she was too engrossed in her book. Taking a chair beside her, I exclaimed. “Why, you haven’t finished reading that trash yet?”
“Exams!” was the succinct reply. If she was angry at my retort she did not show it.
I wanted to ask her what she was doing in the Club then. But she was too pre-occupied. I shivered involuntarily. The room felt a little cold. Perhaps one of the windows was not shut tight enough or one of the several doors left slightly ajar – a draught sneaked in through a truant slit. But Ritu seemed impervious to the environ around. So deep was her concentration that not once did her muscles twitched, limbs moved or gaze veered from the book. It was only the intermittent rustle of pages that warranted movement breaking the silence of the room. I decided not to disturb her any further.
“Carry on girl,” my voice echoed in the emptiness.
Ritu was reading at the table where usually the carom board would be placed. The overhead lamp hanging low from the ceiling was the only light that glowed in the room. It was a big room, nay, hall which on other evenings would be flooded with light and buzzing with cheers and chatters of the players and onlookers.
Tonight shadows hugged the walls and an uncharacteristic, stifling calm prevailed. I looked over my shoulder. Ritu sat still, covered in a woollen shawl, head bowed and eyes glued to the book.
A ghost under the spot-light!!!!!
No, a phantom with a fancy for vampires! I grinned to myself and left.
A blind alley flanked by tall white pillars….No, it was the winding corridors of the castle again. At the far end a light blinked. I moved towards it. There, I knew, would be all the answers to my query. Though I gathered speed the distance never seemed to lessen. “Run along! Speed along! It’s just a few paces away! Oh, yes I am almost there,” said a voice within. But just then, flapped in, out of the blue, a black drape of immense weight and settled on my face. I clawed at it ferociously but could not wrench it off me. I wanted to call out to my mother but was gagged out of breath. With flailing arms I tried to grab a support. There was none around. Blindfolded I fought with an invisible enemy. Somewhere, a train whizzed past. If only I could catch it. But my feet felt leaden. I had lost my way and was about to fall when a pair of clammy hands gathered me up. I wanted to thank my friend. At that moment the veil slipped off. And ten long, gnarled fingers closed in on my neck choking my breath out.
I woke up to find that I had broken into a cold sweat.
“Are you studying too late into the night?” My mother looked concerned, “ You have dark circles around your eyes.”
“No! Just bad dreams and fitful sleep!!!”
“You need a stress buster” said my father looking up from his Daily.
“Yes, me think so too!” I agreed.
I left the breakfast table with a hasty bye.
I was late for the 7.30 train.
Metro is the microcosm of urban-scape! The thought always struck me whenever I entered the building. The concourse and the platform pulsated with life. Crowds milling around with purposeful strides, minds focused on their respective destinations.
It would predominantly be an animated throng of students like me this early morning. There would be others too, nameless strangers. Not exactly, I corrected myself. As we travelled together for an hour and a half, each day, these anonymous men and women, boys and girls, children and aged became very much an integral part of our lives. Just like the ‘woman in black’, yes, that was what I had secretly nicknamed her. I often wondered whether it was by coincidence, accident or a pre-ordained plan, that we bumped into a person, more than once, if not regularly, in the course of our life’s journey.
It wasn’t always that we sat together. Our proximity depended upon how crowded the Metro was or which coach we were fortunate enough to jostle in. But mostly it was the Lady’s Coach where we spotted each other occasionally, no, I think almost daily, waved, said a casual ‘hi’, smiled or just briefly nodded at each other. Coming to think of it, it was I who smiled and mouthed a ‘hi’ more often. She preferred to nod. But her eyes always shone in recognition.
She had once told me her name, a strange one, which I didn’t quite get at first and chose to forget as easily. She had explained to me the meaning too. Something like the Night Farer?
I presumed she worked for an MNC. “Mostly night shifts” she had said. I had to stoop close to listen. An odd way of talking, she had, through pursed lips, and a hiss of a voice. She smelled a little musty.
But I was quite surprised when she said that she didn’t mind burning the midnight oil as her energy level was quite high after night fall. “Feel top in form as the moon settles down”, were her exact words. Day schedule did not suit her temperament. Usually, my friends in BPOs cribbed the night long working regimen. She was an exception!
So, it was generally in the evenings, while returning home from the University, that I saw her in the Metro all perked up for work. Sometimes she brought her six year old daughter along – a miniature of the mother – right down to the scrawny built, high powered glasses, drooling eyes, unsmiling, colourless countenance and the signature black cloak (I often wondered what their summer uniform would be). Those were the days when her husband would be gone on prolonged official tours. His business made him tread on far flung soil. Moldavia she had mentioned once, I remember.
A typical urban, nuclear set up with all its travails and triumphs, a little strange perhaps, but kind, friendly people was my personal conclusion.
After a series of these meetings, I decided to include her in my list of regular acquaintances.
It was a bad, bad day. I had had a disturbing dream again the previous night which still rankled.
This time it was me and my acquaintance from the Metro at Coffee Café Day for a cup of piping hot coffee. But when the beverage was served there seemed to be a horrible mistake. The liquid, a blood red in colour, stank. When I complained, the counter boy said that it was red wine, a special order by my companion.
I almost puked on the bed.
I was late for my classes, had a splitting head ache and could not concentrate one bit on the intricacies of Forex Management. Later, helping Mrs. Bose, my lecturer, in the Library, I absentmindedly slashed my little finger with a paper knife. A small cut but the gush of blood would just not stop. As a result, I had to be rushed to the Medical Room, where having administered First Aid, our Medical In Charge, Doctor Rane, insisted that I left for home early for a good rest.
Dr. Rane at times overdid her part but today…
I gave in.
Finding a seat in the 4.30 Metro I closed my eyes in sheer exhaustion.
“I say hullo”, a cold touch on my arm made me jump.
“Oh! Sorry to have woken you up.” My nose creased at the dank smell of her cloak.
It was not her travel time. A ‘slight change of schedule’ she informed.
“I too have called it a day.” I showed her my bandaged finger.
She visibly cringed and then went deathly pale.
“H…how?” She pointed a shaking finger, long and bony, with sharp well-filed nails. (The fresh quote of scarlet nail paint was quite expected)
There was a tinge of blood on the bandage which felt wet to touch. It was bleeding again.
I made a mental note to visit Doctor Uncle as soon as I reached home.
My friend however seemed extremely distraught by the sight. The beads of perspiration on her forehead and upper lip and the way she kept on inhaling long and hard at the same time wetting her parched lips with her tongue worried me.
“Are you okay?” I asked with concern.
Without answering she got up, neared the door and turned sideways to stare at me intently through the glass partition bordering the seat – an ashen face but her eyes had an odd spark to them.
She de-boarded abruptly at the next station which was not her usual stop.
I found that decidedly funny.
Thereafter, I saw very little of her.
“Ritu’s getting married,” announced Sanjeev.
“Check the antecedents of the boy first,” said Mann.
“Why?” I asked innocently
“Could be a distant relation of Count Dracula” answered Sanjeev
We broke into peals of laughter.
However, the groom turned out to be more than human, an IITian, who smiled a lot and jelled with us well. He was highly amused when we filled him in about Ritu’s ‘Twilight’ addiction. In short, we had a rollicking time and wished the newly wed our very best.
The ruins beckoned me once more. This time I stood right in front of the broken window staring at an ancient peepul tree. A thin human form in a dark cloak hung upside down from one of its branches. A shaft of moonlight illumined a pale face with red lips. I asked her what she was up to. She said she was in a yogic stance. I wanted to know the name of the posture. “Jatukasana” was the prompt reply…
Au revoire to Winter…
I got busy.
Campus recruitment followed by exams.
Sporadic visits to the University…
Spring, a hurrying guest, left no address behind…
Time flew by…
Having bagged my first job, a lucrative one at that, a new chapter of my life was just about to begin.
Maa was a bit reluctant since the posting was outside Delhi but Dad ultimately got her around to give her consent.
I mailed my acceptance to join the next month.
I was super excited and had almost forgotten her till we ran into each other once again in the Metro.
A shroud of black…
She apologized for her last behaviour. The site of blood always made her sick. I told her not to worry as I had quite forgotten that episode. Her daughter was also with her. She was finding it difficult to take care of the household all by herself during her spouse’s long absences and had, therefore, made up her mind to shift base to Jaipur, her ancestral home.
“We are a joint family and my daughter will be well looked after there” she said. Moreover, Delhi was too hectic and rowdy. They wanted some place quiet.
It was a transfer in her present job. So the night shifts would continue. When I told her that even I had got a job in Jaipur, she suddenly became quiet, and then “Oh Good. If you need help contact me any time after ten.” Night, of course!
“And don’t worry about accommodation. We have a sprawling haveli a few kilometres from the city.” I wanted to ask whether it had a dusty room with a broken window and a peepul tree brushing its dangling panes but changed my mind at the nick of time – it would require a whole lot of explaining – an unnecessary exercise, wastage of time, she might find me queer in the upper storey…
She gave me her mobile number and got up to go.
“Oh yes!” She stopped suddenly to add, “I am often bugged by network problem. But do try on. You might get connected, if you’re that much lucky.” An optimistic afterthought!!!
The train took a curve. Mid-summer evenings were generally long in the Northern part of the country. The sun was still strong and at this point hit the snaking tube like a dart of fire. The blinding rays streaming in through the side windows refracted against the glass panes dazzling my sight. As she moved towards the door, drenched in that vast pool of light, her contours appeared almost ethereal, like a nebulous mass, which might evaporate into a curl of smoke any moment. I squinted hard to have a last look at her receding figure.
At the exit, she turned around, one last time. Here the train took another turn just before entering the station. The sun was left behind. I could see her clearly now. Hardly any distance from this corner where I stood and the compartment wasn’t that crowded either. She raised her hand and slowly her lips parted in a “sayonara” kind of smile, yes, smile, baring a row of slender yellow teeth with sharp, jagged ends, the canines unusually slenderer, sharper and longer than the rest, grazed the corners of her mouth. The cheap, hideous, liquid-red of the lipstick, that she preferred so much, had smudged on these giving them bloody edges. I was sure her child would be having similar set of dentures. It probably ran in the family.
She waved at me.
But I forgot to wave back.
I was too busy watching her toothy smile.
A week later, I visited old Mr. Khatri’s second hand book shop and bought the entire “Twilight” series.
Last night I Googled the word ‘Jatuka’ – it was the Sanskrit for Chiroptera – bat in simple English.
And last but not the least, to the utter disgust and astonishment of my friends and family, I declined the job offer in Jaipur.