Captain Rahul Joshi stood on the bridge shouting into the radio, wondering if the fear crazed engineer could even follow his instructions. Huge waves lashed the boat as the storm raged. Death the grim reaper was licking his tongue in anticipation. A giant wave picked the ship like a toy and threw it. Its old corroded body broke into two and sank. As Rahul drowned his last thoughts were about his wife Leila.
Rahul arrived at the gates of what looked like a huge railway station. A large mass of people were moving in one direction, matched in speed and purposefulness by another group moving in the opposite direction. It reminded him of Mumbai VT. None of his ship-mates were around. Someone tapped him on his back.
“Hi, I’m Prayagraj. Welcome to Trishanku.”
Rahul gave him a puzzled look.
“Mr.Raj where am I? Can you help me get in? …And what’s Trishanku?”
“You didn’t read your scriptures well young man! It’s the space between heaven and earth.”
“You mean I’m dead?”
“You’re dead right. Sorry, pun unintended.”
“Your English is good for someone from Heaven Mr.Raj. I thought everyone here spoke Sanskrit.”
“That was before the introduction of language programs, by a guy called Phil Bates. You’re in Trishanku, because you’re a dissatisfied soul.”
“I thought insatiate souls became ghosts!”
“In most cases,yes. But there must be something good in you.”
“Mr.Prayagraj, what shall I do here?”
“Call me Prayag, …more comfy. What did you want to do the most, but couldn’t, when you were…you know…”
“Oh, I wanted to be a farmer.”
“Then farmer it is! Let’s start tilling this parcel of land.”
Prayag disappeared. From nowhere a bullock and plough appeared.
“Prayag? Hey… where are you?”
“Come on, let’s get on with the job!”
It was the bull talking to him.
“Is it Prayag? Can I hit you with this stick?”
“Of course not! Violence isn’t allowed. Please be good or you’ll get negative marking. The entrance exam to Heaven is based upon the IITJEE!”
“Very funny! I’m not amused.”
Rahul tilled his parcel of land and harvested wheat. He could feel people around him, but couldn’t see them. PrayagRaj was his only companion. One day Prayag said,
“The crop’s excellent. I shall take it to Lord Vishnu.”
He came back beaming.
“The Lord is happy with you. Ask for anything.”
“I want to meet my family.”
“Alas! Not possible my friend.”
Five seasons Rahul tried his best to please Lord Vishnu. Each time he asked for a reunion, in vain.
Today Prayag had gone with the sixth crop. He returned with a solemn face. Rahul’s heart sank.
“The Lord has acquiesced dear friend. Tomorrow we start our return journey.”
Rahul was overjoyed.
“At last, I’m going to meet everyone. Hey! Why do you look so morose? It’s the best thing that could happen to me.”
“We’ll see” Prayag said mysteriously. “By the way who would you like to meet the most?”
“My wife Leila of course!”
“Listen… Only she’ll be able to recognize you. The rest will take you for someone else.”
Rahul was too excited to pay attention to Prayag. Contemplating meeting Leila, he went to sleep a happy man.
The bed in which Rahul woke up felt strange. So did the room. There was a knock at the door “Breakfast sir”. Before he could speak a loud shout came from the bathroom, “Come in”. A waiter entered with the breakfast trolley saying, “Good morning sir”. His uniform signified he was an employee of the Taj Group. Rahul went to the window and opened the curtains. Yes! The Gateway of India was in place. So was the magnificent statue of Shivaji. The sea was pushing hard at the piers. “I’m back in Bombay” he thought, “but what am I doing here instead being home? And who’s this guy in the bathroom?” The ‘guy’ came out singing, but stopped when he saw Rahul awake.
“Great morning, Rahul? Enjoyed the trip back to earth.”
“Oh it’s you Prayag. But why have you come?”
“Just in case you want to return. I’m the only one who knows the way.”
“Return? Me? Never!!”
“We’ll see. Now get ready. We’ve a function to attend.”
“What? I thought I was going home!”
“Tarry my friend. Everything will happen at its given moment. Finish your breakfast..”
Rahul went inside the bathroom. The face in the mirror shocked him. It wasn’t his. Then he remembered Prayag’s warning. He got ready swiftly and got into a taxi Prayag had arranged for. The Concierge looked familiar, only older.
“It’s been six long years.”
“Malabar hill” Prayag said. Rahul hungrily gulped the strange mixture of smoke and gases that’s called air in Bombay. Nothing had changed except for some new cars. One thing puzzled him. Instead of ‘Bombay’ the signboards read ‘Mumbai’. The taxi stopped. Rahul disembarked on a familiar pavement. His chest welled up at the sight of his apartment building. In a trance, oblivious of Prayag he walked towards the lift, got in and pressed the button for the tenth floor. He was surrounded by familiar faces but none recognized him. “Hi!” he said but none responded. He checked again in the mirror. The face was different. The lift finally reached the tenth floor, opening to a hub of activity. The lobby was full of people. His father was right at the door greeting and directing visitors. With a lump in his throat Rahul approached him,
“Hi, sorry son, I can’t place you!”
“Dad, I’m Ra….”
“Rahul’s friend,” interjected Prayag with a warning glance at Rahul.
“…Rakesh. I’m Prayag, Rahul’s pals from Mazda Shipping, come to pay homage on his anniversary.”
“Please come in. Malini, meet Rakesh and Prayag, Rahul’s friends.”
“Nice of you to come. Are you crying son? It’s alright. Time is a great healer…”
“Oh Mom, you too!!” Rahul said to himself.
The situation was pretty frustrating for Rahul. Prayag took him towards the central hall where everyone was paying floral tributes to a portrait of Rahul in his Captain’s regalia. Prayag conjured a rose bud, placed it in front of the photograph and folded his hands in prayer. Rahul was staring at the portrait; the upheaval inside his chest reflected on his face. He couldn’t digest the scene before him.
“…was one handsome guy!” someone was saying. Realizing these words were directed at him he muttered “Eh? …sure” and moved on to a group of relatives.
“The stock market is plummeting like mercury in Siberian winter” said Ashok, his cousin.
“A particularly severe winter!” agreed Sameer another cousin.
Their conversation then turned towards the vagaries of Siberian winters and the arrival of cranes in India. No mention of Rahul.
“And these are the guys who got the choicest Scotch whiskies from me”
Rahul saw his father, the ex-minister, talking solemnly.
“Must be remembering me” he thought, gravitating towards that group.
“That old man has destroyed the party and must go.”
“Why do we have to replace him by another old man? We should bring in a young leader. That fellow from Rajasthan looks promising.”
“Bah!! He’s just…..”
A dejected Rahul walked away towards a group of friends with whom he had spent many happy moments. Maybe they would remember him.
“Indian cricket is dead. Long live Indian cricket.”
“How can cricket survive with a bunch of jokers at the helm? They should be shot”.
“Hey that’s groovy. I know a film-star with an AK47!” Rahul’s dejection was turning into anger. Everyone had kept the symbolic flower in front of the portrait and forgotten him. He felt like getting out from there, when he saw his brilliant but always drunk maternal uncle, Ramesh.
“Uncle, why have all these people gathered here?”
“My dear boy, it’s my nephew Rahul’s death anniversary. Didn’t you know that?”
“Oh I see but none seem to remember him.”
“Ahh!! You feel hurt? You know for us every function, be it a wedding, birthday, death wake, funeral, is a reason to meet, eat drink and continue what we were discussing at the last meeting.”
Rahul couldn’t fathom the reason for his wife Leila’s absence. His father was still enmeshed in political intrigues; his mother surrounded by high society pals. Angry and dejected he walked down the twenty flights and fell exhaustedly in a taxi that had appeared at the right moment.
“Come in my friend.” Prayag was already in the taxi.
“I don’t understand Prayag. Everyone seems to have forgotten me. And where is Leila? I must meet her!”
“You shall my friend, but today you need rest. Driver, the Taj please!”
They entered their room. Without a word Rahul went to bed. The night passed fitfully for him. Sleep was elusive. Morning saw a subdued Prayag offering breakfast that was promptly refused.
“Fasting won’t solve your problems. We have important things to do. Today we’ll visit an old friend.”
The taxi stopped in front of the latest Hafiz Contractor creation, on Worli Sea face. Rahul wondered who Prayag’s friend could be. The elevator doors opened on the third floor. He followed Prayag. The name plate read Dr.J N.Chitale. A maid opened the door.
“Is Mrs.Chitale home?”
“Yes she is. May I know who wants to see her please?”
She ushered them into the plush drawing room with a beautiful sea view.
“Memsaab will be down soon. Please be seated.”
Rahul walked to the window. The normally buoyant sea was flat and listless. He felt uneasy. He was sweating in spite of the air conditioning. Hearing soft footfalls on the carpet, he turned around and froze. He got the shock of his life (shall we say afterlife?) Mrs.Chitale was none other than Leila. His own Leila, who was not his own now! Leila went white, words choking in her throat.
“Oh my God!! It can’t be!”
She sat heavily on the sofa.
“Who are you?” she could barely croak.
“Leila it’s me Rahul”
“No. It cannot be. Rahul died six years ago.”
“No Leila I didn’t die…Prayag, please tell her”.
Prayag had mysteriously disappeared. They were alone.
There was an awkward silence. Rahul was lost for words. All that he had rehearsed for this meeting was gone. “How could you do this Leila?” was all he could blurt.
“Do what? Marry again? What was I to do, tell me.”
Rahul had no answer.
“Why have you come after all these years?” she asked.
“Leila I was stuck in a no-man’s land. It was only my desire to be with you that brought me back.”
“Your desire is of no consequence now. I’ve married another and love him.”
“But why, Leila? Don’t you remember those oaths of eternal love? You used to say that even death would not part us. Where is that love, Leila?”
“That love has been sucked away by the vacuum created by your disappearance. The ship of our love floundered on the rock of loneliness and was submerged by Jayant, my husband’s, love.”
“You mean everything between us was meaningless? A big zero??”
“I didn’t mean that. I still love you, as a memory. You’re the past Rahul. It’s intruding on my present now.”
“You’re being cruel Leila”
“I’m sorry if you feel that way. Have you ever been lonely?”
“Lonely? If only you knew..!”
Six years in a lonely hut, tilling land with only a bullock doubling up as an emissary of God for company, flashed before Rahul’s eyes.
“Please try to understand Rahul. Dead people don’t come back.”
“So you want me dead…eh?”
“Don’t put words in my mouth Rahul. I don’t want you dead. I don’t want you in my life either.”
“That’s worse than death Leila. I won’t be seeing you again.”
“Wait, have some coffee…”
“You have forgotten I hate coffee…goodbye!”
“Rahul!!Rahul?” Someone was shaking him. Rahul opened his eyes. To his astonishment he saw Leila leaning over him, all dressed up in traditional silks.
“Where am I?”
“What’s the matter Rahul? Had a nightmare? You were muttering, ‘Prayag, she has even forgotten I hate coffee.’ Who were you talking about? Who is Prayag?”
“Oh… I don’t know who Prayag is. Must’ve been a bad dream”
Leila playfully tugged his shirt and said,
“Do you know today is Vat Savitri; I’m observing fast. I’ve circumbulated the banyan tree and prayed to Shivji that we should be together for seven births.”
“Seven births? How about this birth? What if I die early and you marry someone else?”
Leila put her hand on his mouth
“Don’t talk like this on such a holy occasion, Rahul! Come, your tea is ready.”
Rahul was bemused. “So it had been a dream Thank God!” He sighed and stepped into the bathroom. He looked in the mirror in shock. The image was Prayag’s.
“Thought it was a dream? It wasn’t! Well, for once I’ve deviated from rules and put the clock back six years. But what the He…oops Heavens!! I’m God!! I can break my own rules.”
The image changed. Rahul Joshi was now smiling tentatively at Rahul Joshi. Leila’s husky voice in the background was exhorting the maid to be careful with the cutlery.
Let’s leave them in their marital bliss.
Note: This story was shortlisted for the Penguin-Sulekha Blogprint initiative. It was included in a collection of short stories published by sulekha.com under the title ‘Unwind: A Whirlwind of Writings‘