Shyamlal & Kanaka were travelling through the vast featurelessness of central India.
The clock on the dashboard of the car said 11:26. Shyamlal was driving at a furious speed to reach the next pit stop; before they could continue their journey to reach their ancestral home in Agra.
Shaymlal was annoyed after two hours of high beam lights shining in his eyes from the on-coming cars as well from cars behind him in the rearview mirrors. High beams should be banned.
But now there was no such disturbance.
There was no car for miles in both directions. The road was flat & straight and the vast desolation on either side of the road sent a chill down Shyamlal’s spine. There were sparse babul trees lining the road but not much else.
It was getting cold. It was getting windy and the scrawny trees were swaying in the moonlight. Shyamlal wondered if Kanaka was also feeling the same unease that made her so quiet.
She was never this quiet.
Maybe it was the landscape that was making her morose or maybe it was her impending marriage to a distant and unattractive relative in Agra which was doing the trick. In any other scenario Shyamlal would have been thankful for the silence; but on this road, on this windy starless night; on this expanse of nothingness and darkness he wanted the chattering.
But Shyamlal wouldn’t admit to something so simple. As far as he was concerned his sister was dumb and didn't listen to his advice and should not resist getting a good deal in marriage.
What else was there for girls like her to do? It’s not like she is some MBA with a high-flying job offer. She had recently graduated from Kirori-mal college with a measly 45%. Who was going to give her a job? Of all things, she had graduated in Botany. He had asked her to do accounts but she wanted to study trees.
It was literally the stupidest major you could select if you were not in research. His sister was dumb and it was best if she got married to that pimpled fool Hitesh and they both continued their witless existence out of his hair.
“I know what you are thinking”, Kanaka said in a humourless drone voice
“You think ‘i am doing the right thing for my sister’, but you are an idiot”
Her voice sliced through the silence of the night, the you are an idiot part was nothing new. They always called each other that. It carried no meaning other than the comfort of familiarity.
“Look who’s talking,” Shyam Lal said in a voice devoid of any warmth.
He hated his sister. She considered herself some new-age free spirit artist after wasting his hard-earned money on doing a botany major of all; meanwhile, he was stuck on a job where he couldn't progress because he lacked a college degree.
He should have put that money on himself, instead of wasting it on her.
Whatever was good and familiar in his heart for her was smothered by the sticky prickly resentment which covered everything.
“it's the truth, you don't know what's good for you,” He said for the lack of something better to say.
He looked out and saw the trees had possibly blotted out the sky. The moon was no longer shining and stars were hidden by a dense layer of clouds and the tall trees were swaying in the mighty wind. And there was no light anywhere other than his headlights.
He was a very fearless kind of a guy and would never hesitate in any situation but the mere thought of stopping here gave him an ungodly terror. Something nasty burdened his heart. It felt strange as if the air was thick with something nasty.
Shaymlal couldn’t help but feel that they had passed through a portal somewhere and were now in an alternative world where everything was weird. The darkness was overpowering. There was nothing for miles and there was nothing above or below other than the road illuminated by his car's sad headlight. If not for that they might as well be in space.
He looked at her. Her feet were on the dashboard and she was chewing gum incessantly. But a slight change in her demeanour was apparent. She was not so relaxed now. Even she felt it.
He looked ahead and there was nothing, but at any moment something might emerge from the swirling dust on the road and eat them alive. How long they were stuck like this there was no telling. The only thing that told the passage of time was his increasing dread and Kanaka’s decreasing nonchalance.
A point of light in the distance appeared. He was shocked and then relieved. Was their ordeal already over?
He was then relieved, maybe it was some tea shop. They would stop there and shake off their blues with some hot tea and some new faces other than each other. They would tell the shop owner of their brief scare who would then nod along sagely stating that yes indeed the road was scary.
Just as he was self-soothing with such imagery he knew that nothing like that was going to happen.
The closer he got to the point of light which now started showing shape he realized something was incorrect. It looked too bright for a Chai-Thela. It looked like a fallen star.
He continued to drive. Blocking out the unease in his heart which had just picked up the pace a little.
When he started to get closer the atmosphere itself changed a little. It became lighter, he couldn’t make out any colours.
“This place would look colourless even in the light of the day”
That thought, which had come from the depth of his mind, had simply erupted without any precedence and it didn’t even surprise him. He just accepted it like in a dream you would accept that you are about to get married to your long-dead history teacher.
“Huh, my thought exactly.”
His sister said, suddenly sitting upright and looking sharp.
Something was rotten in this place. They smelled it before they saw it. The stench of Death.
“You remember Minnie developed an abscess in her broken leg, and the ants tried to eat her?”
His sister said in a small voice.
“Yeah, this smells exactly like that”
“Oh, Minnie....” His sister suddenly started crying, which was weird because Minnie was his cat, and she had not shed a single tear when Minnie died of the terrible abscess. Why was she crying in that horrible whining noise?
“STOP YOUR CRYING! WHY ARE YOU CRYING?”
He yelled hysterically, Feeling as if his heart was ready to burst out of his body. Feeling as if he was in a time bubble and everything else was happening much faster than he could process. His own thoughts ran at breakneck speed, slamming into one another.
“Kanu what’s happening?” he said breathing hard and through his mouth; he saw his breath condense. It was only September. It never got that cold. His teeth started chattering.
His sister continued to sob for the long-dead Minnie, her sobs were horrible, terribly unbearable. He half wanted to comfort her and half wanted to strangle her.
From the corner of his eyes, he saw thick black smoke in the endless fields of Madhya Pradesh. The Smoke moved close to the ground in a manner that belied some sinister intelligence
He knew he had to outrun the smoke. He HAD To. He would die, they would die if the smoke touched them.
He saw the point of light from earlier grow and take the shape of a makeshift shed. The setup looked similar to the roadside vegetable sellers. But why are they selling vegetables here?
“Can’t they see the smoke?”
Shyamlal whipped his head to see Kanu if she was serious or if it was her idea of a sick joke.
Her now-dry eyes were set on the makeshift vegetable stand
“Surely they have tea,” she said in a deadly calm voice.
Shayamlal looked at the vegetable shed and slammed his brakes hard. He hadn't meant to stop but it was his reaction when his brain was too overheated, overwhelmed.
He saw mania.
If Mania could take a form it would take the form of those beings carrying crates & crates of oranges “Like em’ Oranges” was written on the crates.
The oranges were rotten.
The beings were long & thin with faces that were not faced at all; they had black holes for eyes and darkness in the mouths when their lips widened and parted; and two tiny black holes where the nose was supposed to be. The skin was paper white and wrinkled.
Surely these beings were not alive
“I want oranges,” His sister screamed in manic delight.
He looked at her and for a split second, he wanted to open the car push her out and speed away. Her eyes met with his and he saw a flicker of fear and panic tide over her eyes which was quickly replaced with unnatural mania
“ORANGES,” She screamed and her mouth split wide open in a hideous grin
He floored the car. The creatures were walking toward them
“No, no no no”
A hellish noise entered their car as his sister opened the window in an apparent attempt to grab one of those rotting oranges. It was the sound of a million flies, feasting on death.
The sound combined with the stench was gagging Shyamlal and he closed the windows with the control on his side. Not one fly should enter this car.
His hand twitched to push Kanaka out of the car. It would feel so good. Good riddance, no marriage to prepare for, no dowry to give, no headache.and anyways she had crossed over to the other side. She already wanted those oranges.
It was like being spilt in Two. One part of him had taken control of his hand and was intent on pushing kanaka to the approaching creatures better her than me and the other helpless one was screaming and crying.
A sudden pothole made him jump and his hands caught and tangled up in the tassels of a little dream-catcher that was hanging over the car dashboard. Kanu had made it, a long time ago. It was for him when he got the car for the first time 10 years ago. He never had the heart to throw it away. It was dirty and falling apart but still, he had kept it.
Stupid 11-year-old Kanu had said “I have weaved a sacred thread in it, that will always bind us” At that time he had chalked it up to an anxious Kanu worried about her increasingly distant brother going off to working 18 hour days.
WHAT was he doing?
The spell of whatever was holding him hostage broke, The creatures were now close and Kanu was trying to open the door
at this speed, if she fell out she was sure to die.
He heard the horrifying telltale sound of a door opening and grabbed hold of Kanaka’s neck in noogie with one hand and with the other he closed the door.
The creatures were still running and apparently laughing
Kanu closed her eyes and screamed
But this scream was familiar. It was their scream of Kanu when she was too scared to jump in the pool on the first day of her swimming classes.
“Bhaiyaa! I hate oranges” She half sobbed
“Mee too” Shyamlal smiled wide and laughed “Mee too Kanu”
He floored the car to maximum capacity. They whizzed by and the orange stand disappeared from his rear-view mirror and it felt like someone had lifted a dead weight from his body.
The whirring of the flies and the stench reduced and he felt it in his bones that the point of maximum danger had passed.
He looked back in the rearview mirror and the creatures were running and jumping after the car carrying oranges and laughing maniacally; making hooting noises.
“don’t you dare to slow down, we aren’t stopping till we see a temple. Any temple” Kanaka said uncharacteristically religious.
well, it sounded like a good idea
“Yes, temple it is” He breathed out.
To his surprise, he felt much lighter than before starting this journey from Hyderabad.
The stars and the moon were out and twinkling and the atmosphere was warm again. Only the smell of heat baked earth and the noise of the engine was there.
“Yea good” Kanaka agreed
It was at dawn that they finally saw a temple. Lonely and tiny. From far they saw the saffron flag at the temple pinnacle and took a detour from the highway
They entered the temple premises and sat down. Both unsure of what to do they simply closed their eyes; joined their palms in an offering of thanks.
“Bhaiyaa I don't know what happened but I know you wanted to push me out”
Shyamlal exhaled loudly. He wanted to cry. He had no defence.
“I know you were not you and something had possessed you, when you touched me I could finally feel the blackness in our souls. I had a glimpse in your mind, It was as if you and I were both trapped in our bodies and a tempest of black smoke was swirling like a giant tornado and we were helpless and blinded. We couldn't fight it.”
Shyamlal opened his eyes to meet his sister.
They were brown and crackled with a genuine smile, after so many years he felt the long-forgotten flutter of fondness.
“But we did”
“We fought it”
“I don't hate you” Shaymlal stuttered
“I had forgotten that,” Kanaka said smiling beatifically
Then her smile became something goofy with raised eyebrows she continued
“So you won't be pissed if I run away on the day of my marriage?”
Shaymlal laughed and before long kanaka joined him
Of course, she could run away and have great adventures for however long she liked.
“Just don't come running to me for money”
Earlier he would have asked her how would she support herself.
But he had now seen in her soul, it was large and vibrant and would die if put in the shackles of convention.
Kanu attempted to tickle him and they laughed on the ground till a sleepy priest shushed them