By Akshay Narendran
July 23, 2017; 9.57 PM; The Present...
“Hello, this is Natalie.”
“Well, hello Natalie, what song would you like me to play?” “Could you please play Slim Shady by Eminem?”
“Sure, to whom do you want to dedicate this song?” “It’s not someone, its something… special.”
“And… what would that something special be?” “It blows me off my feet,” she replied.
Ashish noticed his hands tremble as he pushed the fader up the sound panel. The music began playing. His mind began racing.
His thoughts took him exactly twelve months back…
July 20, 2016; Jagatsinghpur, Near Paradip Port, Odisha
Thunder boomed in the overcast sky. Suddenly, it began pouring. The raindrops were large, like inkblots, and the rain showed no sign of abating. Man, it had attitude. Ashish was baffled. Had scientists miscalculated the path of the cyclone? He didn’t want to lose his life, let alone his job as a famous radio jockey. The cyclone’s predicted path was supposed to be more than sixty miles away, barely kissing the pretty beaches of the Paradip port. The port was built at the confluence of the mighty Mahanadi river and the Bay of Bengal. But Ashish and his wife were in Jagatsinghpur, sixty miles inland, and supposedly safe. Under normal circumstances, Jagatsinghpur would only have received some heavy rain, that’s all. However, those weren’t normal circumstances. The storm did not take the calculated path. It came barrelling down on Jagatsinghpur.
Crash! Something broke on the floor above. The next instant, a short circuit plunged the hotel into complete darkness. Ashish grabbed the door knob and opened it. Big mistake. The water rushed in at full force, dragging him and his wife, Katyayini, out of the window. More than see, he felt Katyayini being washed away, and there was nothing he could do. His head hit something hard and he blacked out. He woke up in hospital the next day and went searching for his wife. But Katyayini- Katie, as he lovingly called her- was long gone. Rescuers searched high and low for the missing. But after a month, the search was eventually called off. No one could have survived that long.
People thought that Ashish was a rich man but the truth was something else. Addicted to gambling, he had burned all his own money, and his wife’s. Naturally, their marriage was on the rocks. So, even though he wasn’t the murdering kind, he was inwardly happy his wife was missing. He played the part of the grieving husband rather well.
July 15, 2017—nearly a year after the accident
When it became amply clear that Katyayani wasn’t coming back, Ashish processed her insurance claim. After a lot of going back and forth, he was told that the claim would soon be settled. It was no mean sum. It was actually four crore rupees.
Among all the people who commiserated with him over the loss of his beloved wife, there was someone in whom Ashish developed a special interest. The interest turned into like; like into love and love into a pact to marry. Ashish hadn’t told the new love of his life that he was bankrupt and that the insurance money was his only lifeline. But with the promise of the money coming in soon, he decided he would quit his job, apparently to write a book. But the truth was different. Even though his wife was gone, the community would never accept it if he married another woman so soon. If he had to marry her, he would have to leave the city, and if he had to leave the city, he had to quit his job. It was as perfect a time for it as it could ever be.
So, as a thank you gesture to the city, he started his last show- The Final Salute. The hugely popular hour-long show started at 9:00 every night. Many people called and thanked him and expressed their sympathy for his wife. One day, as he was wrapping up the night’s show, he got a call: “Hello, this is Natalie.”
“Well, hello Natalie, what song would you like me to play?” “Could you please play Slim Shady by Eminem?”
“Sure, to whom do you want to dedicate this song?” “It’s not someone, it’s something… special.” “What?”
“It blows me off my feet,” she replied.
Back to July 20, 2016—the night of the accident
Katyayini was indeed swept away that night. But, luckily, she got thrown onto a huge floating station- probably a ship or even a house. She didn’t remember much because she was flung and tossed around and dunked in the surging nightmare like a rag doll, and was drifting in and out of consciousness.
She did not even know how long she had remained that way. All she remembered was being thrown down on a hard surface. Then she lunged at something – it was a steel railing or a staircase, she wasn’t sure. She clung to it like a limpet and stayed that way all night while the flood raged beneath. She kept drifting for a long time, perhaps days. She was in a lot of pain. Her head hurt, both her ankles felt like they had snapped and she could hardly breathe on account of a searing pain in her chest. She thought she had probably a few fractured ribs. But she was alive.
She had no idea how may days had passed. After what seemed like an eternity, the barge she was floating on, stopped. She was lucky to be alive. But she was far from her hotel and husband. A gentle pair of hands helped her off the barge and on to hard ground. She tried speaking to her rescuer— an old woman, probably in her late sixties. But the woman could not understand her, nor could she understand the woman’s language. Still, Katyayani was overwhelmed with gratitude. Indeed, she had fractured both her ankles, a few ribs and both the bones on her left wrist, where she usually wore her watch.
She was in no condition to move; her saviour did not speak her language and there was no phone or any other means of communication available.
She realised she was probably hundreds of miles from the hotel and somewhere in a swampy jungle where no one spoke her language. But they were nice people and she felt safe there.
Soon she also realised that no one was looking for her there- they had no idea she was there. It took her months to recover from her injuries- in fact, she had lost track of time. But it seemed like months. She still walked with a painful limp and her left hand was slightly misaligned.
Her saviour was herself a kind of village doctor and bonesetter but her surgical skills were at best crude, she had no medical equipment. She did use an anaesthetic but it was a nasty-smelling herbal cocktail of wild ferns, roots and leaves. It dulled the pain during the excruciating bone setting sessions but it also gave hallucinations. Katyayani was grateful for whatever she had—she was alive and getting better. And she was among people who cared for her wellbeing.
But she was stewing inside, and kept repeating to herself: “Did he search for me in reality? No. Am I going to let him get away with it? No. Even if I have to die, or come back from the dead, I will not let him get away with this.”
She knew that Ashish would definitely be interested in her insurance money. After all, four crore rupees was no small amount. However, she had to know whether or not Ashish had already started processing the money. She remembered the phone number of Ashish’s radio station.
Now, all she needed was the policy number, and this, she remembered like the back of her hand.
“Fixo-Fixo-Footo-Nai,” she said, laughing. In their better days, it was a common joke between her and Ashish. The number actually was six-four-six-four-two-four-nine, but their young maidservant had pronounced it fixo-fixo-footo-nai, when they were trying to teach her to count one day. Thinking about it, she smiled distractedly, but soon, the lines of her mouth curved downward into a grimace.
Her body was more or less back in shape- as much as it could be. But her soul was still far from fixed. She had to begin somewhere, so she decided to finally make a move. It was painful bidding adieu to a person and place that had literally brought her back from the dead. But both her saviour and she knew that it had to be done, sooner than later. So, one morning, Katyayani said a tearful goodbye to her and the place that had brought her back to life.
She first called the insurance company. “Hello, this is about my policy number 6464249.”
“Yes, what may I do for you. Is that Mr Ashish?” The attendant on the other side was a bit unsure as the voice sounded feminine for a client who was male.
“Oh, no, I’m calling from Mr Ashish’s office. May I know if the processing has begun?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t divulge that information to you.”
“Mr Ashish just wants to know if the processing has begun.” “Yes, it has. But I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything else.” “That’s okay, thank you,” she said, and hung up. She knew that
he was going to get the money soon. But, she had more things to do. She called his radio station: “Is Ashish there?”
“I’m sorry, but he’s unavailable at the moment.” “Why? I thought his show started at 8:30?”
“Oh, he has begun a new show; it starts at 9:00.”
“Ok, thank you.” Now, she had only one last thing to do.
July 23, 2017 —At the end of the night’s radio show…
Ashish’s cup of hot choco had gone cold. Normally, at every interval, Ashish had a cup of hot choco, and if it wasn’t at the right temperature, he would blast the person who made it. Today, he hadn’t even touched it. He was troubled. A lot. He couldn’t stop thinking about the last caller: “It blows me off my feet,” she had said. He was sure.
He was very restless that night. After all this time, what could she want? He had to get it sorted out the next day itself.
So, the next morning, he went to the studio and transferred the recording of the previous night’s show on to his pen drive.
He also asked the IT head of the station to print out a full list of the callers into his show the night before. Scanning the list, Ashish read the number of the last caller, and found out that the caller in question had called from a land line. On Google, he found out that the call had come in from Bhopal.
To double-check, he called the number: “Hello, I had received a call from this number last night.”
“No, nobody call. Don’t call again.”
“Ok, I won’t call again, but can you tell me which place this is?” “This is STD booth,” said the person, in broken English. “Where, I mean, which city?”
“Bhopal.” The person at the STD booth slammed the phone.
Ashish now knew for sure that she was in Bhopal, or had at least been there the previous night.
July 24, 2017—The next day…
“Welcome to The Final Salute. What is your request?” “Could you please play Lying Eyes by The Eagles?”
“That’s my favourite song, too. Why do you want me to play it?” Silence.
“Hello? Are you there?” “Yes,” she replied.
“Why do you want me to play this song for you?” “It’s irritating, but interesting in a strange way.”
He was now convinced. After the show, he traced the call- this time it was from Gwalior. Now, he knew that she was on the move.
For the next seven days, she didn’t call him. He lingered around his cell phone, hoping that she would. On the eighth day, she did, from a land line again. He said: “Hello?”
“10:00 pm, Monday, CCD Near JP,” she said in a calm voice and put the phone down. The phone had been replaced on the cradle but the line hadn’t gone dead. Ashish heard noises of all sorts- vehicles, people, the shuffling of feet, doors closing and opening. At the STD booth, when its owner saw that the phone had not been disconnected properly, he kept it back on the cradle.
The next instant, Ashish called the number back. But she was not there, and the booth’s owner banged the phone angrily- it was a busy time for his business and he couldn’t keep it engaged even for a second.
The next Monday, Ashish parked outside the new Café Coffee Day, staring at it. For, he knew that inside it, somewhere, was an angry wife.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and he was desperate. He took in a deep breath, and pushed the café door open. Ashish saw her sitting on the first couch, sipping a frappe.
“Come, sit,” she said, without looking up.
“What do you want?” he asked, sitting down opposite her.
“I know you were happy when I was washed away, and I also know that you are collecting my insurance money.”
“You still haven’t told me what you want.”
“Half the money. I know that you have found the woman you love. I don’t want to ruin your life. I just want half the money.”
“What’s to say that you won’t reveal yourself to the world?” “There is no guarantee. You will have to trust me on this.” “Trust you? No way. I want a guarantee,” he insisted, at first
raising his voice, then calming down.
“There is no guarantee.” She was firm, unflinching. “Then…” He was beginning to flap a bit.
“Then what?” she challenged him, knowing he was trapped.
Cupping the frosted coffee glass in her hands, and looking him straight in the eye, she spoke in a voice so cold, it fell like ice cubes on him: “What are your chances, dear loving husband? I know that you don’t love me, and I don’t love you, either. I don’t want to live with you. I want to live my life, and to live my life, I need money. And you are getting the money on account of my death.”
“Forget this, I will go to the authorities and tell them you are alive,” he bluffed, not even believing his words himself.
“Then why haven’t you already?”
He had no answer. “If there is no guarantee, there is no deal.” “And if I come back? You have already quit your job, people have
cried for you and the station has already hired another guy. You also can’t marry the woman you love. You think you know loss? Wait till you lose everything you hold dear- your money, name, the woman and life as you know it. And don’t even think about divorce. If people find out you are going to divorce a woman who has had such a bad trauma, they would hack you to death. They’ll call you a monster.”
She had him in a cleft stick. He had no choice. If Ashish said he didn’t know she was alive when he got his insurance money, she had evidence to prove it- the coffee shop CCTV footage. Since she had her back to the camera, not even the best lip readers could find out what she was talking about. Ashish couldn’t sleep that night. He sat on the sofa all day next day, thinking about the offer: “Should I do it? Should I not?” He couldn’t think of anything else.
The sound of a car engine made him stop thinking. He parted the curtains and saw a big burly man step out of the car, walk up to the front door and knock on it. Ashish opened it.
“Well, you don’t look happy to see me,” said the man. “Oh! No, no, there is a lot of work. It’s just office pressure.”
“Sit down,” said the visitor with such authority that Ashish flopped into the nearest sofa. Ashish had to buy himself some time. He brought the man some water and pretended to search for something. The man looked around the house and saw that the paintings were down and a lot of books were off the shelves.
He said: “Going somewhere? When a man pulls down his paintings, it means he is going somewhere.”
“No, no, no. I have to get the walls painted.”
“I was just asking. I don’t think you’re going anywhere. Because you know you can run but you can’t hide. Be that as it may, you were supposed to call me this afternoon. This visit is about that.”
A very sheepish Ashish spoke with hesitation: “I was goin…” “There are no extensions in my business. When you cross the
deadline, the line goes dead,” said the man, dead pan serious.
Ashish was a compulsive gambler. He owed a lot of money to Happy ji, and now, a very unhappy Happy ji had come to collect on his debt. “No, no, no, I will write the cheque and give it to you, first thing in the morning.”
“By this time tomorrow, if I haven’t got my money, dig yourself a hole in the ground, because dead men can’t dig their own graves.”
Happy ji left. Ashish saw his retreating frame and imagined the many different ways in which he would love to put a bullet in the man’s back. But he neither had a weapon nor the courage to point it at anyone, least of all fire it. He knew he had to take Katyayini’s offer, guarantee or not. Because now the solid threat was bigger than a solid guarantee. He didn’t have 60 lakh rupees of his own. He waited for her to call next. He had no way of contacting her.
The call came later that evening- from another STD booth somewhere in town. He answered it: “Hello, I’ll take the deal.”
Standing in the dusty telephone booth, she smiled, knowing she had him on the ropes. “Send the money, and you are a free man.”
Ashish looked up at the screen. It was the last day of the show, and the next day, he was going to start a new life in Darjeeling. He checked his bank account. The insurance money was coming
in. He had to give two crore to his wife, and she wanted it in cash. Ashish had to contact a hawala operator, to send the money. He would write a cheque of two crore and 20 lakh rupees in the name of a company, ostensibly for starting a new fishing or rope manufacturing business with them. The company itself was a fake front of some kind, owned by a crime syndicate, but holding a genuine bank account. Once the money was transferred into the company’s account, they would deliver the two crore rupees to Katyayini, at a place she indicated. The hawala operator’s fee for making cash available: twenty lakh rupees. Ashish tried arguing with Katyayini that she should bear equal burden for the hawala operator’s fee. But she flatly refused.
“But we are both in the deal together,” he insisted. “But I’m the one who is dead, remember?”
Ashish was livid. He yelled: “But you only put me in touch with the hawala operator Why should you not pay half the fee?”
“Keep your voice down- I’m not your wife. If you have a better idea for delivering the cash to me, then do it. Otherwise shut up and pay the fee.”
Ashish did exactly that. He also paid Happy ji. By the end of it, his four crore rupees were down to 1.6 crore. But he reasoned that it was a good place to begin. He would make more money in life. There was a long way to go.
That night at the studio, many calls came in, people were crying for him, because it was his last day. Ashish felt happy. He was finally going to have a new life. A call came in…
He said: “Hello?”
A little out of breath, the caller said: “Ashish, is that you?”
His jaw dropped to the floor. That was the last straw. “Yes,
but…?” He wanted to hit the fader and cut the call out.
Katyayini knew he would go for the fader. So she spoke quickly: “Ashish, it’s me, Katyayini. Don’t you recognise my voice?”
It was all over. Grinding his teeth, he said in a voice laced with honey: “Yes, darling, are you safe? Where are you?”
“I’m coming, Ashish, I’m coming. Please don’t hang up.”
“I won’t, darling, I’m so grateful to God.” His life had come crashing down on him. He felt shipwrecked.
“Then please play that song, please, please, please…” Ashish gulped, sweating profusely. “Which one, darling?” “Our favourite… Love Will Keep Us Alive by The Eagles…” Ashish cross-faded the song and the song started playing: “I was standing, all alone against the world outside;
You were searching, for a place to hide…”
Ashish knew there was no place for him to hide.