Bimal Bakshi was uneasy in his rickety armchair – the one with a missing bolt. The Chinese-made armchair came with no warranty. On the very first day itself the unconventional sized bolt simply slid off the hole and no Indian ingenuity was able to fix it.
But his uneasiness had nothing to do with the unfixable armchair.
In his decade long career as a detective novel writer, this was the most intriguing story he had penned. He was almost halfway through writing the exciting story. But the story was threatening to trespass into his own life story.
How could this be happening?
Bimal labored to continue writing his story:
Gangadhar Ingle stepped into the psychiatrist’s office at Girgaon. He did not know why Prajakta, his wife, insisted on this particular doctor whose office was far away from his home in the suburb at Dahisar. But he loved Prajakta and could not argue, so he went along with it.
Dr. Vivek Chaudhary adjusted his glasses and bent forward to listen to Gangadhar.
“So tell me, what is the problem?” the doctor said, stealing a glance at Prajakta.
“So tell, na. It is ok. I know Doctor Chaudhary. Don’t worry,” Prajakta prodded her flustered life-partner, quickly cutting through the proceedings.
Gangadhar tried to hide his clumsiness but still managed to spill the glass of water on the table. “Doctor, I don’t know how to put it in words properly.”
“It is ok, sir. Tell me.” Dr. Chaudhary pressed the bell to summon his peon Gunaaji who came in to clear the broken glass on the table. Addressing his patient as ‘sir’ was his magic trick – it would put him to ease – or so he thought.
Gangadhar cleared his throat. “Doctor, someone is out to kill me,” he blurted out hastily, looking at Prajakta as if to seek her approval.
“Why on earth would some one want to kill a nice person like you, Gangadhar ji? Don’t worry, tell me everything.”
The detective storyteller paused, wiped the sweat from his forehead. His modest one BHK apartment in Dahisar was smelly and hot.
He lived alone. No one knew if he had any family. His neighbors considered him to be an enigmatic character, smiling to himself and sometimes scolding himself during his morning walks.
He had been researching a new mystery story for some time now and had found in Ratnakar, his neighbor, a potentially good character for a story.
Ratnakar, a stocky man with a perpetually creased forehead, lived on the third floor one-room apartment just across ‘Krishna Park’, Bimal’s own abode. Both of them often traveled together in the overcrowded suburban local train from Dahisar to Charni Road.
Bimal was not a regular though. He accompanied Ratnakar whenever he had to meet Apurva Joshi, the owner of a publishing firm, about five kilometers from Charni Road railway station. Ratnakar worked as a clerk in a Government office, about five minutes away from the station.
Ratnakar rarely, if ever, talked about himself. He just talked about the lousy life in Mumbai, the daily grind of going to work, often having to travel on the footboard of the local train, working at the same old desk for years, his vain attempts to please his bosses who kept changing every three years.
He always complained about the scourge of diabetes that he was practically born with.
He talked about his devoted wife, Sunita, and worried that he had not been able to give her a happier life.
Once, at a function organized by a local group of enthusiastic boys, he had introduced Sunita to Bimal, instantly igniting a much-needed spark in the life of our storyteller.
What a shame for this Ratnakar guy to have won over this beauty? There was nothing much that Bimal could do except to occasionally fantasize about her.
Go on Bimal, go on with your story.
Prajakta again took over from Gangadhar, to the relief of both the doctor and her husband.
“In short, my husband is finding it tough to cope with the pressures of his work and the travel that he has to go through daily in the local train.”
“Go on, madam” the infatuated doctor smiled and took a deep breath. Wasn’t there some magic in her voice?
“He keeps getting nightmares almost every night. He has this recurring dream that he is traveling on the footboard of the crowded local train and that he is slowly losing his grip from the handrail and… he wakes up suddenly, yelling “Oh, oh, help, help, help, I am slipping!” Prajakta’s eyes strangely sparkled as they darted from Gangadhar to the doctor.
“Then…?” asked the doctor, unabashedly staring at her face.
“I comfort him and say, ‘don’t worry, relax it is just a dream, ok?’”
“And then both of you go back to sleep.” Dr. Chaudhary completed the sentence with a smirk, stressing on the word ‘both’.
“That’s right, doctor,” Gangadhar finally spoke. He looked tired and scared as if reliving the dream in his tired eyes.
It was almost 11 pm when Bimal allowed himself to take a breather. As a passionate writer he found himself thinking about Sunita, who, he imagined, must be sleeping next to the poor Ratnakar at this time of the night.
Bimal knew that he was too timid to pursue the object of his fantasy.
But creating a story was almost like playing God. He could dream up the characters and make them go through the grind of life through sheer force of imagination. Who cares if a character gets a raw deal and some other character triumphs – it is all God’s will, isn’t it?
“Dirty thoughts,” Bimal berated himself. “How can I even think of any harm to Ratnakar just so that I could get Sunita?”
“Whatever will be, will be” – he hummed the popular song, with a smile that betrayed his confidence. He had the power to make things happen for the characters of his story, just like God does. Would he make his character Gangadhar lose his life to let the doctor and Prajakta live happily ever after?
But could he also play God for the real Ratnakar, the real Sunita and the real Bimal ?
Ratnakar always kept some chocolate in his pocket. The diabetes, right?
My poor Sunita, Bimal thought. What you must have gone through and might still be going through with a diabetic patient like Ranakar beside you in the bed. My heart bleeds for you.
Sinful thoughts. God will never pardon me for this. But can I not play God for them?
What if the hypoglycemia strikes suddenly while he is traveling in the crowded local train, on the footboard?
Don’t, don’t, for heaven’s sake, be a devil. I am a God-fearing gentleman. Whatever will be will be….
It was close to midnight and Bimal could no longer hold back the bouts of drowsiness. He shut the laptop, lay down on his unkempt bed and soon started snoring.
In his dream, he was with Ratnakar at Charni Road railway station ready to board the next train coming from Churchgate. But who is this lovely lady with him? She flashes an amorous glance at Bimal, leads her husband to the railway tea stall and buys a packet of biscuits for him, just in case. Aha!
But why is she leaving him and joining me for the train journey? What is she up to? This is pure sin. No, no, no.
Ratnakar trudges towards them as the train whistles into the platform. He is looking pale and is trying to motion them to stop for help. As the train halts he sprints to catch the handrail, the packet of biscuit falls off from his packet, as Bimal and Sunita laugh and get into the adjoining first class compartment. Poor Ratnakar, hangs precariously to the handrails as the train quickly gathers speed…. Grant Road, Mumbai Central… someone fell down… the shrieks… the merciless train keeps running… Kandivli, Borivli, and finally, Dahisar.
“Whatever was to happen just happened, relax now,” Bimal tells Sunita lying beside him in their flower-bedecked bed…
Bimal fell off his smelly, slovenly bed, perspiring heavily.
“Oh, that was a terrible dream!”
For Bimal, the morning brought no relief. He got up too early and resumed writing right away.
“Gangadhar ji, you really have no problem. It is just that you are stressed out due to the pressures of work. Prajakta, you are doing a great job. Just make sure that he takes these medicines I am prescribing. These will help him calm down. Take them twice a day and hopefully the frequency of nightmares will reduce. Ok?”
“One more thing, sir. If at all you get a nightmare pay heed to what Prajakta says – it is just a dream. Just loosen your body and relax. Promise me that you will repeat to yourself – ‘this is just a dream.’”
“Thank you, doctor. I will remember your advice and take the medicines exactly as you prescribed.”
“Here, I have this strip of the medicine that some MR gave me as a free sample.”
Gangadhar looked at Dr. Chaudhary like a chastened schoolboy and popped the unfamiliar tablet that the doctor handed him. Prajakta exchanged silent glances with the doctor who placed his right hand on her shoulder a bit longer than necessary while patting Gangadhar’s back reassuringly.
“Why did she bring me all the way to this particular doctor, so far away?” The confused man wondered.
Prajakta, was humming an old Hindi film song as they entered the platform for the train journey back to Dahisar. It was the peak hour. Gangadhar, scared, confused, drowsy and already drained of much of his energy, wondered how he would help his wife get into the train during this rush hour. May be he should not have popped the tablet just before the train journey.
Why not let her board the special ladies compartment? But the idea of leaving her to board the train all by herself into the ladies compartment did not appeal to him.
It was 8 am. It was time for Bimal to get ready and accompany Ratnakar to the station. He quickly zipped through the motions of shave and shower and called Ratnakar.
“Kasa kaay, Ratna? Ready? Mi aataa yenyaa saathi tayaar aahe. How about you?”
From the other end he heard Sunita’s honey voice. “He is just coming out of the shower. He says he will meet you downstairs at 9:15 am. And how are you Bimal ji? You are attending the function this evening at our building, no?”
“I am fine, fine, ok. How can I not attend it when you are there?” Bimal regretted the flirty tinge in his reply. Hope she didn’t notice it.
The dream sequence he witnessed last night was fresh in his mind. “May God forgive me…”
Actually, Bimal had no real work at the Charni Road office. “Why not go and meet Apurva and sit in his air-conditioned office all day and finish my story?”
Ratnakar appeared at the gate, waving at Bimal and motioned him to join him for the autorickshaw ride to the Dahisar station.
“Dada, you look tired today” observed Bimal, as the three-wheeler halted with an annoying rut tut rut noise of the engine.
“No, no, it is nothing. Just a spike in my sugar today; had too many sweet motichoor laddoos last night,” Ratnakar covered his nose as he got into the three wheeler first –the goddamn exhaust gas from the vehicle.
It was impossible to talk in the noisy autorickshaw. The driver constantly let off expletives at other vehicles on the way.
The dirty path to the Dahisar railway station, the adventurous crossing of the track to the other side of the platform, the tea stall, the smell of vada-pao filling the air, the group of ladies at the spot where the ladies’ coach would halt, almost all of humanity agonizingly deep in conversation with their mobile phones stuck to their ears, the noise of the local train thundering past the opposite platform, the sex-starved young men hanging by the hand-rail of the train, making lewd gestures at the ladies, all familiar, too familiar, and the maximum city pulsating with miserable lives – the writer turned up his nose and resumed plotting the end of Gangadhar’s story.
He didn’t pay attention to the long train ride to Charni Road. The tired-looking Ratnakar stood there along with the crowd in the reeking coach, his head occasionally resting on the back of a tall man absorbed in animated conversation with a petite girl pressing close to his body.
At Charni Road they got down while the train was still in motion and used the momentum of the train to keep running to the exit gate of the platform, came out in the open and then stopped.
“Burr, aataa aapan punhaa kevhaa bhetu?” Bimal asked. What time do we meet?
“Bus, mi phone karto, paach vaastaa,” Bimal heard Ratnakar respond.
Bimal hailed an autorickshaw, reached the publisher’s office and settled down on a chair. No one noticed his arrival, as he was a regular face. Apurva Joshi was not to be seen. He ordered a sandwich and a cutting tea and settled down to finish his story.
The train slid into the platform. Prajakta held out her hand to lead Gangadhar to board the train. There was a maniacal rush to board the train, people pushing, shoving, Somehow they managed to just get into the train, but unable to push further into the comfort zone of the compartment.
Gangadhar however was trapped right at the footboard, while the more nimble Prajakta stood next to him inside the coach.
The train gathered speed. One foot of Gangadhar was precariously dangling in air. His hand started slipping. Prajakta surreptitiously loosened her grip as the people surrounding them paid little attention.
“Oh, Praaaj….” gasped Gangadhar. “Don’t worry, Ganga, relax. It is just a dream. Relax. Relaaaaaax,” she murmured just so that Gangadhar could hear.
Bimal paused a second. Time to play God again. Should I let Prajakta lead him to his death or make her realize her duty towards her husband and pull him in with the help of co-passengers? Now is the time, Bimal. Make the right choice. Am I scheming for Ratnakar’s fall to death as well in the garb of my story? Sin. Pure sin. Oh God.
The sudden waft of perfume made him turn his head up to see Apurva’s secretary, Sharmila, with a packet of snacks in her hand.
“It is boss’s birthday today, Bimal ji. Here, have some chocolate. Chivda and gulab jamun also coming your way soon,” Sharmila almost cooed in his ears.
In the midst of his turmoil regarding the story, Bimal mechanically pocketed the chocolate and watched the secretary waltz away from his desk.
It was almost quarter to 5 pm. He remembered Sunita’s loving reminder to attend the evening function at the apartment complex. Ratnakar had not called yet, as promised. No time to finish the story here. At the thought of Sunita’s sweet voice, he hastily picked up his stuff and took the elevator down to the ground floor.
The collapsible grill door at the ground floor had been malfunctioning for some days and today it was worse. He struggled to open it but it wouldn’t budge. He called out for help but it was not even 5 o’clock and nobody was around to help.
At the stroke of the hour, an old but energetic looking man stepped out from the staircase. He seemed like a regular employee in one of the offices in the building and seemed to know the trick of how to open the collapsible door. The rescue operation was a success.
Bimal ran to the street and quickly got into a three- wheeler that was already packed with two more occupants.
Arriving at the station, he shot out of the vehicle, handing the driver a 10-rupee bill and bolted onto the platform. Where is Ratnakar? Why hadn’t he called? He was not well in the morning. Had something happened to him? Should I call him? He may not hear the ring in the melee of people around.
There was still some time.
Bimal’s dilemma of playing God took over his thoughts again. Go ahead and let Gangadhar fall to his death and let the two love birds unite? Too sinful, Bimal. Prajakta must remember her duties towards her husband and save him. Kill him – save him – kill him – save him?
There! Ratnakar finally materialized at the gate. He looked extremely haggard and could barely walk.
“I had a bad day at work. Had no time to have my evening snack. Let us stop by at the railway stall and buy something before boarding our train,” Ratnakar’s voice was feeble.
In one minute the train would arrive.
Suddenly, Ratnakar’s mobile phone rang. He whipped out the phone from his pocket, checked the caller’s name. It was Sunita.
“Ho ho, mi yetoy. I’ve just left. Tu kaalji karu nako. Don’t worry, I’ll be there before the function begins. Bimal is also with me. Chal.” Ratnakar shoved the phone back in his pocket.
Both of them ran to the spot on the platform to take their positions, passing by the railway stall. There was no time to buy anything now.
Bimal easily managed to get into the first class part of the coach but Ratnakar fumbled his way to get in at the last moment before the train started moving. The coach happened to be the one specially designed for both first class and second-class travelers. A simple metal screen separated the two parts within the compartment.
“Now, how is Ratnakar going to spend the next 30 minutes on the foot board of the crowded coach? What if something happens to him?” Bimal recalled the dream he had last night.
“But there is no Sunita with us. She is at home, waiting for Ratnakar. Or for me?”
He heard a commotion in the adjoining second class section. “Arrey hato hato. Ye aadmi gir jaayega. Make way, this man is going to fall off. Kaise log hain yahaan?”
From the narrow space between two people standing in that section Bimal could see Ratnakar gasping for breath. He was losing consciousness.
Oh God, he must have something sweet to raise his sugar level right away! And we didn’t even buy any snacks.
“Should Ratnakar die? Should Gangadhar die? If they die, no one will know why and how. It will be just a case of accidental death like so many accidents occurring on the railway track every day.”
The God in Bimal sprang up. He took out the chocolate from his pocket. He held it out to the good samaritans who in the meantime had succeeded in pulling Ratnakar into the compartment to safety and had laid him out on the floor of the coach.
Bimal managed to pass the candy on to the other side through the metal screen.
“Here, I know him. Make him eat this. He will be ok.”
This God had prevailed. Lust was won over. Sinful thoughts waved off. Bimal smiled. Would he change the ending he had in mind for his story? Would Gangadhar survive? Would Prajakta also awaken the merciful God within herself? That would mean no need for any detective investigating Gangadhar’s “accidental” death. Prajakta and Dr. Chaudhary will not be arrested.
The evening function at the apartment hall came alive with songs and dances.
God looked on, and smiled to himself.