The Long Lost Returns Home
The Long Lost Returns Home1 min 4.4K 1 min 4.4K
When Sameer had stepped out of his house on the fateful evening of 17th December, he had expected to be back in 30 minutes, max 40 minutes. He had to meet his friend Saurabh in the corner canteen. His excuse to his wife Malti was that Saurabh needed some advice and he had to meet him in the canteen and that he would be right back. His real reason was that he was dying to smoke and because he had promised not to smoke at home or in the presence of his son Viru, he had no other choice but to step out of his house to get that much needed puff. Saurabh was his office buddy and even though he did not like Saurabh that much, he thought Saurabh was an insufferable fool, he had agreed immediately to his request for a quick meet over tea. Even now as he was hurrying towards the meeting point, his thoughts were already on the cigarette caught between his fingers, its bluish smoke curling up, burning his nostrils. He turned the corner and found that there was a huge wall of fog. He could not see anything at all. The fog had hidden everything, the buildings, the trees, the sky, even the ground. He panicked. He hated the fog. He had faced something really awful in the fog when he was a child and his father had found him terrified and whimpering. His father loved him very much and he had been very surprised to see his son whimpering and crawling on ground while the fog hung around them like a white sheet. His getting lost in the fog was a cause of endless ribbing at the hands of his cousins and his friends and ever since Sameer hated the fog. No one knew the awful truth about it and nobody would have believed him either. He had not realized that there would be such a fog when he stepped out of his house or else he would have cancelled the meeting. While he stood there gaping, the fog swirled around him, enveloped him and took him away.
When Sameer did not come back even after one hour, Malti tried calling him. The phone buzzed on the TV cabinet. Sameer had not taken his phone with him. There were 11 missed calls from Saurabh. She redialed Saurabh's number, who picked it in one ring.
"Where the hell are you, man? I am frozen stiff here." Saurabh shouted at his phone.
When Malti explained that Sameer had left the house one hour ago, even Saurabh was surprised. The canteen was hardly 5 minutes walk but Sameer had not come to the shop. It was very foggy and very cold and Saurabh had frozen his backside there, waiting in the canteen for Sameer to arrive. But Sameer was nowhere to be seen.
After some calls to and fro from Malti to Vikram, a cousin of Sameer and between Vikram and Saurabh, Vikram came over from his place, some 10 kms away, driving dangerously in the fog (he kept on saying that he could not see anything, he drove instinctively). He met Saurabh at the canteen itself. They went from the canteen to the house and back. But Sameer was nowhere to be seen. Vikram knew the story of how Sameer had managed to get lost in a fog when he was a kid. So he was the only one who believed that Sameer had managed to lose himself again and that he would be back soon or that he would call soon. But after 4 hours of waiting, Vikram, accompanied by Malti, lodged a police complaint about a missing person. The police men were courteous but it was so foggy that no search operation could be conducted. When Vikram and Malti came back, it was very late in night. But there had been no call from Sameer, no message from him, no sign of him coming back.
The search party arrived next morning. There were 3 policemen, Vikram, Malti, Viru (even though he was just 4 years old, they had brought him along, wrapped up in woolens), Malti's father, some neighbors and Saurabh. Initially the police had suspected that Saurabh was involved in Sameer’s disappearance but when on sustained interrogation, Saurabh stuck to his story and when the canteen helpers maintained that no one came to meet Saurabh, they had let him off the hook. Now to prove his innocence, Saurabh had joined the search party. They searched every nook and corner. They went around knocking at the doors, asking for any help, looking for any clue. Vikram even tried turning left instead of right and going in circles, but there was no sign at all of Sameer. He was gone, just like that and nobody had seen him. It was very strange. They were right in the middle of the city. How could someone manage to just vanish without a trace here? The search party was called off after 6 hours of marathon walking in the very severe cold.
"This winter season has been the coldest in the past 40 years or so" The police man had informed Vikram.
When they came back to the house, Viru kept asking about his father but no one had any answer. Malti had started crying and her mother was trying to console her. When Vikram asked gently if everything was all right with Sameer, whether he was happy with the marriage, Malti had got very annoyed. But these questions were being asked by the police men. Would Sameer have any reason of running away from home? It was very clear that no foul play had taken place. That led to the conclusion that Sameer had run away on his own. Was it because of financial issues? Was it due to marital stress? Was it something to do with any extramarital affair? There were so many questions but Malti had no answer to them.
And so one week passed. Sameer had not come back and there had been no news about him. The police were trying but there had been no progress. Life had to move on. Malti was asked to be strong and everyone kept asking her to forget the past and to move on. But could anyone move on just like that? No one understood Malti's pain or shared her confusion. Viru had cried himself hoarse about his father not being seen around. He was very close to his father and when his papa did not come back even after so many days, he had started rebelling. The whole house was in a mess. If Sameer had run away on his own, there was absolutely no question of his developing qualms and coming back. If the police were able to find him, then and only then they would be able to question him. If something untoward had happened to him, nothing could be done in any case.
Gradually one month passed. With Vikram's efforts, Malti got a job in a school. They moved out of that place from where Sameer had disappeared. Malti shifted to her parent’s house and tried to find some meaning to her life. She stopped asking questions. She stopped praying that Sameer would come back. Her hands were anyways full with her new job and with Viru, who had now become very obstinate and headstrong. But Viru was just a kid, he would forget Sameer in time, he would move on. And with that hope, Malti went on with her life.
And one day, after 36 days to be exact, Sameer just walked back in their lives again. He was unkempt, his saffron clothes were dirty due to travel, his beard had covered his face. But his eyes were twinkling and he was so much at peace. He had initially lied to them all that he had run away to become a "sadhu" and that explanation was good enough for the police to close the case and for other busybodies, the so-called well-wishers of the family. But Malti knew he was lying. Sameer had apologized profusely for his absence and Viru had been so happy to have him around that he did not get off his lap the entire day. He had found his father back and he was not letting him go this time. By the time all the calls were made and everyone had given their piece of mind to Sameer, it was late in the night. Viru had gone to sleep with his small leg over Sameer’s tummy and Sameer lay there with his eyes closed and with his right arm slung across his forehead. When Malti started weeping softly, Sameer got up, untangled himself from Viru and hugged her closely. They sat there silently, Malti weeping and Sameer just sitting there, holding her, not saying anything. Finally when Malti stopped weeping, Sameer told her this strange story.
When the fog hid everything from him and the stench of rotting flesh hit his nostrils, Sameer was instantaneously transported back to that day when he had lost his way in the fog when he was 11 years old. The terror that had paralyzed him that day sprang up from his belly and just like that hated day, incapacitated him again. He began whimpering. His nose went cold and he began gulping the cold air which started hurting his chest. He sat down right there on the road and relived his terror. Nobody had bothered to ask him about that day and in fact he himself thought that he must have imagined it so. But today was just like that day and the monstrous image came rushing to his mind. His head swum.
That December day, when he had turned 11 years old, he was at his uncle's place. It was a big house, they called it the "Haveli" and it was located just off the city's limits. Their grandfather had built this mansion away from the city because he had begun to abhor any human interactions. He had lost his wife in a terrible accident and ever since he had hated the world and its inhabitants. His father had told him about the lengths that his grandfather had taken to avoid talking to anyone, including his servants. The orders were hand written and kept in a tray and a bell would be rung. The butler would fetch the command from the tray, which was kept outside the door, and the door was kept always locked. The food would be placed outside and a bell rung. His grandfather would take the try inside only when the servant had moved on. The water bottles, the medicines, the clean clothes, everything was kept outside the door. No one could spy upon him. He would always find out if someone was snooping around and that erring servant would be fired. If it was Sameer's father or uncle who were caught lingering around the door, he would come out and beat them silly. After one such beating, they had sworn never to disturb him again. Soon both were sent to boarding schools and they were mighty glad about it, to be away from all that madness. They all saw him the day he died. When the food was not touched three times that day, the servants had broken the door and found him dead, all shriveled up and bony and not at all the frightening monster that everyone had assumed him to be.
The Haveli had vast grounds all around and every winter there would be fog. It was Sameer's first visit there in the winter month of December and he found it to be so pleasant, so beautiful that the first two days were spent in exploring the mansion, then two days more for the grounds, then the next four days for the forest on the north corner of the estate. He was always out, whether it was foggy or sunny and he was always happy. His cousins, Vikram and Chandan, were older than him but they were nice to him and took care of him. That blasted day was again very foggy, so foggy that they could not see anything outside their windows. Chandan had been down with fever and Vikram had to complete his assignment. Schools were going to open in another week and Vikram would always postpone things till the very last minute. And so, it was only Sameer who had walked out of the house, right in the arms of the fog. For some time he amused himself by checking on the nests of the birds in the different trees close to the house. While he was near the guava tree, he heard someone call out to him. It was more like a whisper. It seemed like someone called out to him from the forest. But it was foggy and he could not see anything. He strained his ears trying to catch any other sound. When he was convinced that there was no one, he turned towards the house and then again he heard his name. Sameer's first reaction was anger. He was not scared. Or maybe he was. He was angry and he wanted to find that person who was teasing him, trying to scare him. And so he stomped his way towards the jungle. He had taken some 30 steps forwards when the fog had swirled towards him. It was like an animal jumping at him, hidden from his view because of the fog and now finding him all vulnerable, it had risen and lunged at him. The fog overwhelmed him and the stench overpowered him. Sameer had never smelt anything like that. The only smell that came close to it was the stench coming from a dead mice. It was horrible and Sameer was left retching. He was paralyzed with fear. Only when he had felt someone touching his head, that he had let out a loud yell. The yell had momentarily loosened the grip of the nameless, faceless enemy and Sameer had started running. He was certain that in another two minutes, he would be near the guava tree. But even after five minutes, when he did not see the tree, he had turned left and kept running. He was now running directionless, nevertheless running and shouting at the top of his voice. Whatever it was that had called out to him and that had touched him was behind him now and Sameer was gaining distance. For Sameer could smell that stench and he could figure it out that the smell was falling behind, that he had overtaken it, that he was free from it. He had kept running till the time his toe crashed against a stone and he was sent sprawling on the ground. He waited for that entity to come closer to him again. But nothing happened. He was still whimpering and crying when he was pulled up from the ground. It was his father who had come out to find him. There were other people looking for him too and they all came rushing towards him. Sameer wanted to tell them about that thing in the fog but he was scared that they would not believe him. And so he had lived with the constant ribbing of how he lost his way in a fog just outside the Haveli and how he was so near to the house but instead of walking towards the house, he was weeping like a sissy. He could never bring up the courage to step out again especially if it was foggy and he had been very glad when he had left for the city with his parents. The only question that he could never resolve was how that thing learned of his name.
And now after all these years, he had walked into the fog once again and once again that overpowering stench of rotten flesh had hit his nostrils. He was still whimpering with his head down when he felt someone touch his hair. His neck whiskers rose in fright. He was so scared that he could not even lift his head to look behind. This time that entity spoke :
"Sameer beta, did I spook you? Sorry beta."
It was a whisper, the fog carrying the message to his ears. How did this entity know his name?
"who, who, who" that's all Sameer could manage to speak.
"You can't look at me. I had a face long time back, a body too. Now I have nothing. I had a name too. Come to think of it, what was it? Oh yes !!! Narasimhan Prasad. Do you remember this name?"
Sameer's head automatically shook a no.
"You don't recognize your own grandfather. Has no one spoken of me?" Was there regret in that voice?
This time Sameer was so surprised that he turned around. He saw only fog and the smell hit his nose with renewed vigor and it doubled him up.
"Ha !! So you recognize the name, beta. Good, good !!!"
When Sameer was able to look up, he again saw empty air, just the fog. But the voice was more powerful now. It was still whispering but the words were being delivered forcefully.
"Do you know what happened to me? No, you don't know. How would you know?."
Sameer could just stare at the fog speechlessly.
"Let me go back some years. Your father had not even married. Heck, he was still in school. I was very much annoyed with my fellow human beings. I saw them as parasites. In fact, the truth is I hated them. I had disliked them even when I was young. But by the time I had grown old, I began hating them so badly that I could not bring myself to even speak with them. I hated the world and the world hated me. I did not want to look at any human being, not even my own sons. They were like other humans too. Always greedy, always looking to hurt others, always hoarding, always eating, always stealing. "
The words were furious now, they were being spat out.
"I hated them so much that I stopped going out, stopped meeting other people, stopped reading books, paper, magazines. I loved walking but I would walk only in foggy weather. The fog would hide me, give me a place to be outside yet not feel violated by other people's gaze. Very rarely I would see other people and it would always be easier to skirt them, to be on my own, to be all alone. I would be happy only when I would be enveloped by the cold foggy clouds. They gave me solace, they comforted me. Gradually I grew old. I could hardly move without protests from my creaking bones. But when it would be winter time, there would be fog and there would be me, walking in it, soaking in it. Then that awful year came. I was falling sick every now and then. I could hardly move. I could not even eat properly. But I kept everyone at bay. I would keep the door locked and everyone else locked out. One cold day, I was so sick I could hardly get out of the bed. I lay there on my cot, looking outside the window where some birds were frolicking in the pale sunlight. As I looked on, the clouds came on, there was a light drizzle and when the rain stopped, I had a smile on my face. I knew the fog would be arriving soon and I had to be ready to welcome my friend. That evening was dark and moist. From my cot, I could see the fog coming in, walking so gracefully that no one could hear her steps, no one except me. I had waited for it for so many days and finally it was here. I got up, I don't know how I managed, but I dressed myself and went out to meet it, to bathe in it. I was so happy that evening. I did not see anyone, only some birds and some animals. When I walked back after the long walk, it was very late in night and all the lights were out in the house. I had a side door through which I used to go out for walks. When I reached that door, that night, I found the door locked from inside. Someone had sneaked in my room and had bolted the door from inside. A mindless rage filled in me. I tried to kick the door open when to my utter surprise I found myself inside the room. I had floated inside the room, through that door !!!!! And who do I see on the cot? It was my dead body, all shriveled up. My hated human body lay there, like a discarded piece of meat and I marveled at myself. I now had time to examine myself and I found that I was made up of fog, small spider like webs held my body together. I tried to look myself in the mirror and all that I saw was a swirling foggy cloud. Oh, I was so happy!"
The entity paused for some time now while Sameer continued staring in the fog, like he was in some sort of trance.
"Was I dead? I no longer cared. I had no need for any food, any dress. In short, any kind of dependency that I had on this world had been cast off. For so many days, I was so happy. I walked along with the fog. I visited so many places, always hidden by the fog. For a long time (there was no concept of time here) I believed that I was the only one in it. Then I found others in it. There were so many of us there, but all of us shared one common thing. We all hated the world, we all hated company. In short, it was a great time. Over a period of time, I learnt some rules. I found that someone inside the fog could speak to his blood descendants only. He could not approach anyone else. I had no desire to speak with anyone. This would have continued endlessly but some time back, I realized that even though I did not have a body and I did not need food, I needed energy. Slowly and steadily, my energy had trickled away, maybe this god awful fog sucked it away, but I had lost it all and that severely impacted my movement. I had no strength left. I had to be dependent upon the wind. It took me hither and thither and I could just be flung, from one place to another. This was not how I wanted it to be. I had become a shell, an empty shell. Worse, I could not even die. I closed my eyes and let the wind throw me around. The others had told me that I could suck the life force out of living things to get the energy. But I could not do it. I was able to grab some energy out of things that died in the fog. Their spent life force can be grabbed. It used to very less but I started hoarding it. I had myself become a hoarder, a thief, worse than a thief. It is the battle for survival that make some people lose their moral compass. I could sympathize with them now. But it was too late in the day.”
“One fine day, I realized that I had again reached my home. I was again on those slopes. I was among the trees in the forest. And I was again filled with happiness. That euphoric homecoming feeling gave me strength. The wind could not knock me around. Oh, how it howled! I had no idea of time, of what year it was. But there, hidden in the fog, I saw you. You resembled my elder son. I did not know who you were, but I knew that I was looking at my descendant. I felt so guilty at that time, so full of remorse. I had not even spent proper time with my sons. And now even if I wanted to, I could not. That regret prompted me to hang around you but at a distance. I heard the other boys speak out your name. I learnt your name, I wanted to be with you. I wanted to play with you, to be a part of your life. I wanted to love you, I wanted you to love me."
Here the voice trailed off again. There was complete silence. Sameer just sat there.
"Oh, how I wished I would have been sensible back then. I could have done something, now I could not do anything. I tried approaching you. But the moment I touched you, I carried you to my cursed world of fog. This fog is a greedy one. It wanted to consume you too. I was so scared that I had done something wrong, something irreparable, that I had carried you over here and now you would not be able to leave this goddamned place. The regret tore me apart. I ran away from you, trying to get away from you, hoping and praying that the fog spare you. From a distance, I saw that your father had found you and that you were safe, that you were with people who loved you and cared for you. Their love had pierced the haze. The power of love had scattered the fog away. Standing over there, feeling unloved, unwanted, I must tell you I felt like a very ungrateful swine at that time. What would my sons think of me? What would they tell their children about me? I cursed at everything that day. The wind laughed at my face, like it was telling me that this was all I had wished for and that I should just shut up. I did not see you after that. When the fog cleared, I tried very hard to stay there in the forest, hidden in the shadows, near my house. But I could not hang behind. I had no strength left to fight the fog and it took me along with it. For so many years, I have been led through ravines, caves, cities, villages, rivers, seas. I have seen others hidden inside the fog. Some of them are still unrepentant. But most of us admit we made a huge mistake and we are sorry to be in this state, but powerless to do anything. I was just along moving in this part of the world, hopeless, bored to death, full of regret, when I saw your son. He resembled his grandfather a lot and I knew that my salvation was at hand. I hung around, it took me so much effort but I waited. And today finally I have found you."
It went silent again while Sameer just sat there blank. He had been listening very carefully at what this entity, his grand father, was speaking but there were no reactions at all from him. He was shocked but not scared anymore, like he believed that this entity did not want to hurt him.
Finally the voice picked up again.
"I don't have much strength now. The wind would take me along with it. You have a lot of energy in you. Look, they have all come, to feast upon you, to steal your life force. Stay away from him, you lot !!! Stay away."
Sameer could see some shimmering shadows in the fog but the words and the way the stench intensified made it very clear to him that he had unwanted company. He stood up and asked
"How can I fight them?"
"Atta boy, Sameer !!!. You have indeed inherited our fighting genes. You have to block them away. They will want to scare you to weaken your resolve, but you can block them away."
Sameer thought about it for half a second and felt that he really did not know how to go about blocking these entities.
He addressed his grandpa again
"Can we move along? Will that be helpful?"
The voice was now hissing.
"You will have to run, boy. Start running now.”
Sameer felt that he was being suffocated with all the dead, rotting flesh enveloping him. But his grandpa had pulled his left hand, so he took off in that direction. He kept running and after some time realized that he was not getting out of breath. He had left those interlopers behind and it was only his grandpa who was with him. This was exhilarating. He could jump above smaller trees. He was even able to walk over a river. Then on the other bank, he stopped and waited. His grandpa had slipped out of his hand, so he did not know where he was and exactly what was he supposed to do here. Then the stench started coming closer. Who was it who was coming towards him? Was it his grandpa? Or was it someone else? He called out to that thing. He heard the very satisfying reply of his grandfather. The voice was very hollow now, like all the strength had been sapped. He waited for him to come closer.
Sameer asked him “How can I help you? Do you know of any way?”
The entity did not reply immediately. Then he heard the whisper.
“Temple ahead. Get help there” And there was silence. Sameer would have waited longer but then he felt that his hand was pulled urgently.
Sameer did not wait now. He hoped that his grandpa would not lose his grip this time and he ran again. He kept running over hills, through forests, over a very wide river(it could have been a sea, it was so big), through villages dotted along its river bank. Finally he was in the mountains, with less and less vegetation around him. When he stopped, he was on top of a hill, but the view was hidden by the clouds or perhaps it was the fog hiding him from the world. He stood there waiting for direction from his grandpa. Some time elapsed (minutes or hours, who knows), when finally the answer came. He was led to a cave.
“Do I go in?”
No answer came. It was like his grandpa could not speak again till the time he got his strength back.
After pausing for some time, Sameer walked in the cave. It was dark inside but Sameer could still see. Wherever he would walk, a thin cloud of fog would spread around him which would create a twilight kind of ambience around him. He saw that he was walking over scorpions but they were not harmed, just agitated. The more he walked in, the more cave shrunk, so that in the end, he was crawling on his arms and legs. After crawling for some time, he reached the very end of the cave. He paused for some time there and then he heard something beyond the cave wall. Surprised by that sound, he pushed his hand out and immediately the wall disappeared. He saw that the cave had opened up in a big crater. It was a hollow hillock, probably the remnants of a spent volcano. And there was a Shiva temple right there in the center of the crater. He could look at the Shivalinga from where he was. How beautiful it looked. So serene, so silent, so peaceful. He tried to move forwards but his whole body started burning. Alarmed, he stepped back and the pain subsided. Confused, he stood there. Then the voice whispered again.
“That is how I can get salvation. You need to go through it, beta. I will tag along with you. Once I am there, I get another chance. Please, beta”
Sameer was stunned. Was it really his grandpa? He had been told that his grandfather was a very proud man. He never begged for anything and he would not apologize for anything. His tongue was acidic and many people have been whipped by it. Could he really beg him to do this? While he stood there debating over the next course of action, he heard a loud roar in his head.
“Who is there? Don’t you know you cannot bring those things here?”
Alarmed, Sameer turned around but he did not see anyone.
The loud voice again demanded of him.
“Don’t you know those are evil things? That it is their lot to suffer there, forever and ever.”
Sameer mustered up some courage and answered“But what if someone wants to be forgiven? Should we not forgive them for their mistakes?”
“Fool, who do you think you are to forgive? In any case, I have had enough of your insolence. Try breaking that barrier again and you will be burned alive. So will be that fool who is riding on your back.”
And all the voices went silent. It was the moment of truth for Sameer. He could always back off. He knew that his love for his family would be more than enough to help him get out of the fog. But he could not leave his grandpa in this state. He thought of his father and his kind, loving ways. His father had loved him a lot. Maybe the coldness and aloofness from his father had prompted him to become something different than his father. His uncle had followed in the steps of his own father. He had been strict, aloof, uncaring. But Sameer’s father had loved him and given him fond memories of childhood. That was probably why Sameer loved his son so much. Surely his grandpa should get another chance, the thought kept racing in his mind and Sameer decided to move ahead. The pain rocked his body, his skin started peeling away. He began to lose consciousness but even in that pain, even in that state, he kept his focus on that Shivalinga that he could see now. He was now on the steps of the temple, every step was like a stab in the body, and each step hurt him. But he kept on dragging his body and then fell down on the very top step of the temple. He had not crossed the threshold. He lay there burning for God only knows how much time but all the sense of time and space had left him. Finally someone helped him. His strong arms helped him cross the threshold when at last he collapsed with the name of Shiva on his lips.
When he came around, he was being treated for his wounds. He was alive. He had been burnt very badly but he was still alive. His questions were answered by the head priest. It was he who had thundered in his head, warning him to go back. It was he who had helped him on the stairs. It was he who was treating him. He was an old priest, with a flowing white beard and yellow cloth wrapped around his body and his eyes were always twinkling. His answers were very brief and Sameer did not recall much as he kept on passing out. Any exertion on his part would knock him out. To his query about his grandpa, he was told that his grandpa had crossed the barrier and had been sent to a place to make a fresh beginning. That was all he could ask that day. He felt happy that his grandfather would get another chance and he had seen the head priest smile too. That same night Sameer realized that he was being carried on a cot. There were some young priests who carried him all the way down to a village where they left him and went back. Sameer was taken to a ramshackle hospital in the village and after some days he was declared fit by the local doctor. He was given train tickets to go to Delhi and he was handed some food prepared by the village people. They were very friendly and helpful but they never questioned him or answered any question about that temple in that cave or about the priests over there. On the day of journey, he was taken to the railway station on a bullock cart. When he boarded the train, the village headsman requested him not to tell anyone about this experience. In any case, the village was going to move on again so that even if some people would come inquiring, they would not find anyone. During the journey, he had bought a newspaper which brought him back to reality. It had been close to one month of his disappearance. He looked at his clothes and carefully crafted a story of how he ran away to try out the life of an ascetic but after one month of penance, he had decided he had had enough and he decided to run back to his home. He knew that his actual experience would not be believed by anyone. But he still shared it with Malti because he knew she would believe him.
When he finally stopped speaking, he was very tired. But he had to do one thing more. He took Malti’s hands and sought her forgiveness. Truth is he never wanted to hurt her or Viru. Malti did not even let him finish it. She whispered in his ears.
“You were amazing and you did the right thing. I am very proud of you. Like a bad dream, these days would be forgotten. I am very glad that you are back with us.”
Sameer smiled with his eyes closed, glad to be home again.