Photo Source: Pixabay
Sudeep Kumar hoped that the day would never end.
It was already evening and the light was getting dimmer. He felt as though the sun was sliding down the slope of the sky a little faster than normal. As if it intended to go explicitly against Sudeep’s wish.
But dark though it was getting, for Sudeep the evening has been pretty bright.
There was a convention of a regional political party held in a nearby auditorium. More than a hundred people had attended the convention—both men and women (though more of them were men). Owing to the time of the convention (held at 3 in the afternoon, it was to celebrate the first anniversary of the party’s existence, according to a flex board that Sudeep has seen), Sudeep got more customers at his small tea shack than usual.
The party was an offshoot of a bigger party with its headquarters in Delhi. They were a staunchly pro-globalization group and the regional party was formed particularly in the backdrop of the state government not doing enough to encourage more number of Big Businesses to enter the Kerala market.
This pro-market agenda was also reflected in the party’s mascot—which too was featured on the flex board for the convention that Sudeep saw.
The mascot was an androgynous looking man with round eyes, broad forehead, sallow skin, his mouth slightly parted, almost cartoonish, looking like an O‑an expression somewhere between glee and surprise.
The net effect was that the man looked artificial.
The androgyny of the mascot represented a new type of human— one that is modern, unlike any of the moderns that have come before. At least, that’s what Sudeep has heard a party worker telling someone else while they were at his shack, having tea and cigarette.
As for Sudeep, he felt that the clenched fists the mascot triumphantly raised in the air not only looked over-large, but also as if he hid something within the fists.
Whereas on a regular day, Sudeep would have trouble selling all the uzhunnu vadas that his wife made‑ there would at least be ten of those left over by the time the stall closed at 9 PM- today, though it wasn’t six yet, Kaumudi was already making the second batch of vadas.
For many party workers who attended the convention came over to the stall just fifty meters away from the auditorium for a light snack and tea (made Sudeep wonder if they weren’t even served snacks as part of the celebration). Cigarettes also turned out to be a hot selling item this evening.
Even though smoking in public was banned in not just Trivandrum but all of Kerala, nicotine apparently lent itself to heated political discussions.
Presently, Sudeep was walking towards his stall, holding a small plastic kit containing cigarette packets of different brands. Having run out of cigarettes‑ he stocked very little number of them since due to the ban, few people brought them anymore- he had to go to a nearby wholesaler, not more than half a kilometer away for replenishment.
The walk to and fro took hardly fifteen minutes, but already, the crowd near the stall was cleared.
Even as he neared the shop, he could hear an announcement spilling out of the speakers in front of the auditorium, onto the street.
An urgent-sounding male voice exhorted the attendees of the convention to “calmly proceed to their respective buses for the buses would leave in ten minutes.”
Sudeep couldn’t help but think how the announcement sounded so much like the one that he heard at his daughter’s school, asking the kids to “move calmly to the assembly hall” when he went there to pay her school fee last month. (Sudeep’s 8 year old daughter- the apple of both his and Kaumudi’s eyes learned in one of the better schools in the city, and Sudeep took particular pride in the fact that though he was a lowly tea shack owner, he was able to send the kid to such a school).
“So, they have all left?” Sudeep said to kaumudi as he got in the stall (barely wide enough for both of them). He couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice. He was looking forward to more business.
Smiling, Kaumudi nodded, though she didn’t take her eyes off the vadas that she was frying in the oil.
“Anyway, I am sure that the regular customers would now begin to come in and we would have plenty more money in the purse before we close for today!” Suddep said with a sigh, as though it was Kaumudi, and not himself who has expressed the disappointment at the political workers leaving.
The ‘regular customers’ he referred to were mostly youngsters who worked at a nearby building that housed about a dozen small offices. Almost all of these companies were IT firms, specializing in one or other form of software development.
And the coding geeks who stopped for a smoke and tea at Sudeep’s stall were given to discussing about codes while they were at the shack.
Neither Sudeep nor Kaumudi would understand a word of what they spoke about. In fact, more often than not, Sudeep thought that they talked an alien language even though he could discern Malayalam words in their speech.
Listening to them, he would feel thoroughly alienated- as though he didn’t have any reason to exist on this earth, which rightly belonged to people like these youngsters who could talk about exotic computer-related things so easily, like how Sudeep and Kaumudi might talk about the rain or the day’s income they had garnered from the shop.
At the same time, he would also feel a swell of pride in his chest, thinking of how Kirtana- his daughter would one day grow up to become a part of the world that the young office goers inhabited- a world in which people spoke in tongues.
“Who is that?” Kaumudi’s voice was filled with equal measure of curiosity and eeriness.
It was past nine in the night. The couple was shutting their shop.
Kaumudi was transferring the cash from the small wooden box that she kept to collect the money into a small plastic pouch which, after zipping it close, she would keep deep within the cup of her bra until they reached home.
She was just about insert her hand with the pouch into her blouse when she felt the gaze of someone watching her intently. At first, she dismissed it as just a feeling, without any basis on reality.
But then, something caught the edge of her eye and she looked up.
Her fist tightened around the plastic money pouch when she saw the man who stood on the opposite side of the street. He stood in front of the small Hopcomps vegetable shop. The shop was shuttered every evening at around seven.
He stood in the shadow of a tree the branches of which blocked the light from the nearby street lamp from falling on him.
This meant that the person in the shadows looked more a part of the shadow itself, barely discernible from the darkness around him, than a three dimensional human being.
But there was no doubt in Kaumudi’s mind that it was a man and not a woman.
He looked bulky, judging by his outline that she could make out. He was also tall- six feet, perhaps more.
But what made Kaumudi afraid about the figure was the stillness.
The man stood with both arms pressed closely to his sides. It was possible that his hands were clenched in fists, though she couldn’t be sure, not from this distance. His legs were pressed close together, as close as possible while he held his head steady, facing the direction of the tea shack.
In fact, aside from the rather horizontal manner in which he held his head, the man’s posture was akin to that of someone hanging by the neck.
Kaumudi has seen one such person- when someone in their neighborhood committed suicide, and she, like many of her neighbors went to see the dead body hanging by a rope through the open window in the house.
A spectacle that you don’t come across every day.
The sight of the man in the shadows put in Kaumudi’s mind the memory of the hanging man.
And this too, she thought, is a spectacle that you don’t see every day.
The absolute stillness with which the man stood, like a predator waiting for the prey to come close enough so that he could pounce on it.
Sudeep, who was busy bolting the latch on the metallic shutter of the stall, locked the shutter with a padlock before he stood up and followed his wife’s gaze, across the street.
At first, when she mentioned that someone was watching them, he thought that it must be a customer who was passing by on a motorcycle who had stopped to see if the stall was still open, so that he could buy cigarettes before getting home. The lane where they had the shop was not traffic-heavy after eight in the night, but they occasionally got such late customers.
But one look at the figure in the shadows and Sudeep knew that it was no prospective customer he was looking at.
“Did you see him before?” Kaumudi said, her voice even more weighty with fear than before.
“No,” Sudeep whispered. He took hold of her hand, pulled her closer to him, as though fearing the predator would pounce on them any moment. “No,” he repeated, trying to keep the fear he felt from his voice.
What troubled him the most was that neither of them had heard the man coming to that spot.
He could see no motorbike or any other vehicle near the man, so he must have come by foot. But even so, there were dry leaves from the trees that lined the side of the street on that end.
Surely, if the man walked over them, they must have heard the footsteps. Sometimes, stray dogs walked over the leaves and owing to the deserted nature of the street in the night, the couple would be extremely sensitive to such sounds.
But neither of them had heard a sound.
What’s more- Sudeep was there on that side of the street just five minutes ago, when he went there to take a leak (the shadows that the trees cast made for a convenient space for relieving yourself).
And he was quite positive that there was no one there then. All he saw then was a rat shaped thing moving along the open sewer line.
“Who is there?” he called out, his voice loud in the stillness of the night.
He hoped that some vehicle would pass by, casting light on the stranger, illuminating his face, if for nothing else, at least so they would know that it was indeed a man, a human being that they were looking at.
As it was, the continued stillness of the body and the eerie calm that surrounded him gave him the appearance of a phantasm.
Sudeep looked to either side of the street. But he couldn’t see any oncoming vehicle. As for the man in the shadows, he remained still and silent, not answering Sudeep’s question, not moving an inch.
Sudeep repeated the question but to the same result.
He was beginning to get exasperated. He had half a mind to go over to the other side and give him a piece of his mind.
Kaumudi, as though reading his mind, whispered hurriedly into his ear, “Come on, let’s just go home…He is probably just a drunk!”
Sudeep stood staring at the man, though he heard his wife’s words. “Come, let’s go… Kirtana would be waiting at home!”
At the mention of his daughter’s name, Sudeep stirred, he looked at Kaumudi. Sighing softly, he nodded at her.
He didn’t let go of her hand as they began walking. He kept looking over his shoulder every now and then, imagining footsteps following them.
But no one followed them.
When they came out of the small lane and entered the main road, the headlights of an oncoming car caught him squarely in the eyes.
He squinted, and once the car passed them by, it took a few more seconds for him to re-adjust his eyes to the dim light of the night.
Immediately, he was possessed by the irrational fear that in the preceding seconds when he was blinded by the light, the figure in the dark had come after them and taken his wife away.
He could feel his grip on her arm, but still he had to look to see that she was still there, by his side.
Seeing the cloud of fear passing over his face like across the moon, Kaumudi threw him a questioning glance. Forcing a smile onto his face, he shook his head.
“Nothing,” he said, though in the core if his heart, fear stirred like a beast from slumber.
The next afternoon, when they came to open the stall, Sudeep and Kaumudi were understandably weary.
Though the bulk of their customers come only after five in the evening- after office hours, the couple opened the stall by three so that they would have time to prepare the snacks and tea and coffee before the customers started coming in.
But even as they went through the motions of preparing the snacks- Sudeep cutting up the onions and other vegetables that would go into them, after readying the flour, she cleaned up the stove and the plates before they were put to use- both of them kept throwing furtive glances towards the opposite side of the street, as though determined not to be caught unawares by the presence of the still persona.
But, there appeared no one there, except for the people who came to buy vegetables from the Hopcomp vegetable stall. An occasional stray dog passed by- the stray dog problem in the city was widely publicized in the newspapers- but no predatory man interfered to ruin the couple’s peace of mind.
And when the afternoon turned to evening and the first of the office workers began to come to the shop for a quick bite and tea before going home, and they began to get busy serving the customers the delicacy that they demanded(in the ten odd years they have been doing business, the couple had become very good with their preparations), Kaumudi and Sudeep began to forget all about the man in the shadows whom they saw last night.
Indeed, as the evening deepened and twilight draped a shroud of darkness over the sky, Sudeep even began to feel that the man in the shadows was just a figment of a dream. A vivid but disturbing dream.
Unlike the previous day, this day, the business was dim.
Nothing unusual about it- business was always dimmer on Fridays.
For on Fridays, a large number of office workers left straight from office to a bar or a pub, where they would drink away the fatigue of the entire work week, ready for a blissfully lazy weekend in which they would do nothing but sleep and watch the television (perhaps, if time permits, they may go out for lunch with family or friends).
Whereas due to the unusually high volume of business that the political convention brought yesterday, Sudeep had hoped that the day would never end and would continue bringing more customers his way, on this sultry Friday evening, as almost a quarter of the snacks were still in the steel containers(with mesh for a bottom to drain the oil away), Sudeep had no such wish.
In fact, as the twilight sky left behind its swatches of colours and the sky turned an even dark blue and then grey, and the Hopcomps opposite was closed for the day and the street lamps came on, once the sound of the crickets began to get louder than the sound of traffic from the main road adjacent to this street, Sudeep suggested to his wife that they might as well shut shop earlier today.
But Kaumudi, taking a look at all the vadas and banana cakes that were still in the containers, said that perhaps, they should wait for another hour-until eight- before they called it a night.
“You know how some kids come out drunk from bars, and would be looking to eat some snacks! They are out greatest customers, for when they are drunk, people eat a lot!” Kaumudi grinned.
Sudeep agreed with her though he didn’t have much hope of gaining too many customers anymore in the day.
It would only be on Sunday, when a large number of visitors came to the nearby Museum and Zoo complex when they would have good business again. He even thought of skipping the next day- perhaps they should take Kirtana to the beach tomorrow?
For the next hour, Sudeep sat in a plastic stool smoking beedis.
He had turned on the radio, an old transistor radio which he has brought when he used to work in Dubai as a manual laborer.
Foregoing the news, he settled on a film music program. In his forty years of existence on earth, Sudeep was yet to find any greater consolation than music and family.
He listened as Kaumudi, sitting beside him, narrated to him how when “Our Kirtana kutti is grown up and becomes a computer engineer, she would take care of us and we would not have to work anymore!” Thinking of his little girl as a working woman brought a smile on his face.
He felt the idea at the same time a little funny and also a reason for pride.
By eight O’clock, most of the snacks they hoped to sell in an hour still remained in the steel plates. But they both decided that it was late enough. They both wanted to get back to their daughter-who would be waiting for them at the neighbor’s home for their return.
Before closing the stall, as Kaumudi was locking up the stove and plates inside the small compartment on the backside of the stall-which had a latch and lock all of its own, Sudeep trotted to the opposite side of the street to take a leak before setting on the fifteen minute walk home. (One among the consolations of being a man was that you could pee just about anywhere by the streets. Not unlike dogs).
It was while he was turning around, after having relieved himself and zipping his pants up, that he saw the man from last night.
Sudeep stopped in his tracks and his eyes widened at the sight of the man.
The stillness of the man, the bulky body, the six feet plus height- it was all the same as last night. The only difference was that this time around the man was standing on the side of the street where they had their stall.
In fact, he stood right behind his wife, who seemed to have not noticed the man behind her.
As there were no trees to block the light from falling on the man this time, Sudeep saw him clearly- round eyes, broad forehead, sallow skin, his mouth slightly parted, almost cartoonish looking like an O- an expression somewhere between glee and surprise- it was the man from the Flex board! The mascot of the political party that had the convention here yesterday!
Sudeep wanted to call out to Kaumudi, but his throat felt constricted as a fear enveloped him like icy cold blanket. He felt sure that the man- if a man it was and not some specter- was about to do something terrible to his wife.
Looking up, Kaumudi saw fear in his eyes.
Sudeep was standing half submerged in the shadows, but his eyes gleamed in the street light, and they gleamed more than with the light.
Kaumdi sensed the man’s presence behind her.
But before she could turn around, the mascot raised its clawed hand and slit her throat.
Red hot blood gushed out of the wound that exposed her naked trachea, a glint of whiteness could be seen, the hint of bone.
Kaumudi went down even as Sudeep angrily ran towards the mascot.
The Mascot disappeared in a blink. It was as though it were never there.
When he reached home late in the night, after repeating his incredible tale to the officers at the police station a number of times, Sudeep knocked on his neighbor’s door. The elderly woman who opened the door told him that Kirthana has fallen asleep, after waiting for him for long.
“Let her sleep here tonight!” the woman, who was a close friend of Kaumudi’s, said with a smile.
However, seeing the haggard expression on his face, the smile disappeared from her face.
Something in his expression told her that he wanted to be with his daughter right then.
But when she went to the room where Kirthana was lying asleep, she saw the child lying in a pool of blood, her throat slit haphazardly, her neck almost completely cut off from the rest of her body.
As the woman screamed, Sudeep hesitated just a moment before rushing into the house, dreading the worst.
And when upon seeing her daughter dead, like a wind invading a house with open windows, came into his mind the words: “The winds of change!”
And he began laughing at that, the craziest sound that anyone in the neighborhood has ever heard.
Dhinoj Dings is a content writer based in Bangalore