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Genre : Thriller
TARGET AUDIENCE: ADULTS, TEENAGERS
Pages : 220

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A QUEST OF SOULS

Book Blurb:

A feeling of ‘strangeness’ begins to haunt Arjun and then his mysterious, story-like dream turns up. He must find a cure.

Young Mani finds himself entangled in the case of the death of a little girl. His future is at stake.

Advita is chained to her painful past. She doesn’t believe anyone or anything can heal her. Her friend Elisabeth needs to re-learn to have faith in relationships.

Arjun must overcome the loss of someone he loves and justify the use of ill-gotten means to a moral end. Mani needs to prove his innocence or be on the run for the rest of his life. Advita’ s journey towards healing demands sacrifice from Elisabeth.

Will Arjun’s dream ever stop haunting him? Is Mani guilty and can he get his life back? Will Advita ever find peace with herself again? Brought together by Arjun’s pursuit to find the cure to his disturbing dream, many lives become intertwined in this journey that is as surreal as it is real.


Sample Chapters:

<p>Even though he had paraded that he hadn&rsquo;t got through to any of the firms near his hometown, the real reason Arjun chose a job in Chennai, so far away from home was very different. It was silly perhaps, but all Arjun wanted was to get away from home. One of the reasons was the fact that some of his friends had been persuaded by their parents to marry, right after graduating. Of course, married life had its perks, yet there was this unshakeable shroud of finality in it. Arjun, on the other hand was simply not ready for any finality in his life, yet. Knowing, that he had little time left before he was made to get involved in the wife-to-be searching process, he came up with an ingenious solution to the problem - find a job far away from home. By far, it meant that it should take at least a day or two to reach by train. That way, he didn&rsquo;t have to bother about traveling back home frequently. Of course, it also meant that he had to forego some of the advantages of staying at home, but in his mind, it was a small price to pay.</p>

<p>When he informed his folks that he had been selected at some small firm in Chennai, the first reaction from his parents was nothing unexpected. After some hullabaloo about not allowing him to work that far away, Arjun&rsquo;s parents caved in. He lied to them - it was question of his career. It was a lie that worked quite effectively. He had thought about another, far worse situation as well- what if his parents didn&rsquo;t budge from their stand. Well, in that case he had thought of a much harsher approach- he could do whatever he wanted. That&rsquo;s what he would tell them. He just wanted to get out and see what it would be like. None of his parents had worked outside, how would they know? Yes, these were some things he thought he&rsquo;d talk about. Thankfully it didn&rsquo;t come to a confrontation.</p>

<p>That was the easier part as he got to know. Almost immediately afterwards, a lot of relatives quite unexpectedly began sharing their concerns with his parents and him- How will he survive alone? Why so far, can&rsquo;t he get a job here? What will he eat there? Will he cook his own food? Where will he stay? What will you do if he falls sick, are there any hospitals there? How will he understand what people are saying? Does he know Tamil?</p>

<p>Not just questions, a lot of important information as well- beta don&rsquo;t stay too much in the sun; don&rsquo;t get into a fight with anyone there, make sure you don&rsquo;t skip meals; and other such life-saving advice. Of course, Arjun smiled, nodded and agreed to all of them as he sat and listened.</p>

<p>The first few days of being in Chennai were an experience in itself. Arjun found himself being glared at and seen with curiosity, wherever he went. People didn&rsquo;t look at him with hostility, yet it was amply clear that he was looked upon as an outsider. People studied him interestingly like an exotic specimen, at work and outside. Intriguingly, when Arjun thought about it, he imagined being asked the same questions and being given the same advice like his relatives had at home.</p>

<p>Work too, was altogether a new experience. Because he was relatively new and it was just the first month of his first job, Arjun had been handed over an interesting responsibility- much unrelated to his qualification. Informally, he was designated as the &lsquo;tea in-charge&rsquo;, an informal role- yet a very important one. It consisted of making sure that some very important aspects were taken care of- like the tea was served on time by the boy from the stall outside, that it was made exactly the way each person liked it &ndash;there was a whole roster of individual preferences (more ginger, less sugar, milky or crisp black), that snacks were served along with the tea, that he manage the billing and submit a monthly report, with full details and finally, as a sacred rule, that he must never let the routine be disrupted. He was told that if that happens, it will bring down the productivity of the whole firm! He was also told that every new employee must complete this informal training. It had its objectives- that he would get to know the people at work, that he would learn the art of maintaining a book of bills and other such details of financial activities. This was the introduction to the accounting and audit job he had come so far for. Of course, other responsibilities involved some actual work.</p>

<p>When he had proven his mettle, the work moved to more serious things. Audit of documents required Arjun to pour over reams of paper, trying to match forms with forms and figuring out mistakes and lapses- both obvious and intricate ones.</p>

<p>The first month went by rapidly; when suddenly sometime during the second month Arjun felt something change inside him. It was difficult to describe the change, but he understood it to be the uncovering of a new feeling.</p>

<p>It was a strange feeling as well. It made him feel gloomy and apathetic. This feeling of strangeness, did not appear suddenly; it did not prick like a needle. It was more like a dull ache that had taken root surreptitiously, like low fever and then, it had risen gradually, until it became apparent. Drop by drop it rose to reach the brim of his consciousness, until it became explicit enough for him to acknowledge it.</p>

<p>At first, Arjun couldn&rsquo;t place the cause of this feeling anywhere. Maybe and most noticeably, the strangeness stemmed from the fact that, for the first time, he was in a completely new city, some two thousand kilometres from his home town near Delhi. The constant and burdening humidity of Chennai heightened by the tropical hotness was novel for him. He had been accustomed to the four seasons up in the north, but here, it remained hot and humid- throughout the year. The food was different too! Instead of wheat based roti and naan, he came across the rice based idli (which looked like a rice cutlet) and dosa. It could also have been the language- he did not understand a word of Tamil and in the first week itself had realised that he had neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to learn it. Often, as he took evening walks near his apartment, he felt quite alienated at not being able to understand what people nearby were talking about. At the grocery shop, he had to manage with convoluted hand signals and broken English.</p>

<p>In his pursuit to find the cause, he thought he had become biased against the language, the humidity and the food. Being from the north meant a vast difference between the two places. For twenty-one or so years, his life had been spent without feeling this unique strain of strange. All previous such feelings had been temporary. They would normally wither away and end up like they had never happened. However, this one, like a cobweb, had spread, and now bothered him continuously.</p>

<p>Arjun thought about it for a while but couldn&rsquo;t decide. These differences were so apparent that he had made himself mentally ready to adapt to them. They hardly seemed the cause for the &lsquo;strangeness&rsquo;. Yet, he was not sure. They could very well be.</p>

<p>Because even after a couple of weeks, this &lsquo;strangeness&rsquo; didn&rsquo;t go away, Arjun decided to dig deeper as to its probable cause.</p>

<p>On Saturday, his first holiday in the work week, Arjun decided to take action. His aim was to find a permanent solution to this &lsquo;strangeness&rsquo;. He had spent a month in Chennai and so preoccupied he had been with the new job that he had forgotten to take some time out. Perhaps it was this that was causing the &lsquo;strangeness&rsquo;.</p>

<p>If it was his bias, he reasoned, it could simply be that he needed some fresh air and a good walk around the neighbourhood. He had thought it to be a clever idea, for he would get to familiarise himself with the area. Perhaps, that would help him get over the prejudice against the city, the humidity and the food.</p>

<p>He mentally chalked out a rough map of the path he could take to know more about the neighbourhood where he stayed. In the evening, when the weather turned a little pleasant because of the cool sea breeze from the Indian Ocean, he put on a pair of blue shorts, a crumpled grey t-shirt and his sports shoes and set off from his rented one room apartment.</p>

<p>The trail he had decided to cover was a series of connected roads, streets and shortcuts that went around in a rectangle, with his apartment at the beginning and end of the path. The path had the least number of left or right turns. If he got lost, it would be easier to trace the way back home.</p>

<p>The first stretch of the walk was a small empty road from his home that ended at a traffic crossing. Arjun had been paying little attention and stepped over to cross the road when he suddenly heard the shrill sound of a policeman&rsquo;s whistle. He froze in the middle of the road and looked back to see a burly, moustachioed traffic policeman gesturing frantically. Arjun stood frozen and confused, while the policeman waved his hands and whistled in short urgent spurts.</p>

<p>&ldquo;Me?&rdquo; Arjun gestured, over the din of the traffic. The policeman spoke something in rapid Tamil.</p>

<p>&ldquo;Yes&#8230;me?&rdquo; Arjun asked again, this time a little louder.</p>

<p>Irritated with the standoff, the policeman gave Arjun a hopeless look and briskly walked up to him. He grabbed Arjun by his arm and pulled him towards the side of the road. Then, momentarily, he ignored Arjun while he cleared the confusion on the road.</p>

<p>When he was done, he turned to Arjun and angrily mouthed something in Tamil. Arjun looked back at him with confusion, unable to either understand or respond. Finally, after many waves and shrugs, the policeman gave what seemed like the look of hopelessness and got back to some more whistling at the traffic. He forgot about Arjun almost immediately.</p>

<p>After some thought, Arjun realised his mistake! He had been thinking so much while walking that he had ignored the traffic signal. The policeman had been trying to save him by calling him back!</p>

<p>When he crossed the road (this time without the furious whistling), he was met by a strong gust of diesel smoke that made him cough and curse. A yellow-brown coloured state corporation bus overtook him, billowing more of the thick, slimy diesel smoke. He cursed again and mumbled an expletive. Unable to bear the smell, he quickly cut across the road and landed into a small, quiet street. He paused for a while, relieved that the foul smell of diesel was gone.</p>

<p>The walk had not turned out as smooth and relaxing as he had hoped, so he took the next right turn in a bid to shorten the route. He was no longer in the mood to familiarise himself with the city.</p>

<p>The quiet road ran past a housing colony and opened into a brightly lit marketplace full of evening shoppers. It sounded like a swarm of locusts feeding on ripened crop. The</p>

<p> </p>

<p> were quite brightly lit, almost all of them with incandescent bulbs that spewed orange light onto the street. There were all kinds of shops- grocery, bakery, clothing, shoes, toys. In almost all of them, the owner or the assistant walked, stood or helped cater to the line of customers with mild urgency. Fruit vendors sat on the ground wherever there was space available. No one bothered with anyone too much, yet everyone was deeply engrossed in what they were doing.</p>

<p>A huge movie billboard, right in the middle caught Arjun&rsquo;s eye. He had seen such posters in the city before (from work to home) but had never bothered to pay attention. The title was printed in gold calligraphic Tamil with prominent pictures of the actors- the hero took the largest space while the heroine, second. All the other cast members were scattered around thematically. It seemed like a family drama, for the poster showed quite a few members of the household- perhaps it was a love story. Arjun had heard that movie stars were often treated like Gods here- with people offering milk to such billboards on movie premieres- just like some people do to idols of deities. The actors too, were a little different as compared to Bollywood, the Hindi counterpart of the movie industry. In Bollywood, looks were perhaps an important factor while here they seemed less consequential here. In Bollywood, the heroines were always a little slim, while here they seemed relatively fair skinned. Or maybe, it was his own preconception.</p>

<p>Just next to the movie poster was another smaller poster stuck loosely to the wall that carried the picture of the current chief minister of the state- who had himself been an actor and script writer of several plays. Arjun had never before heard of actors going on to contest elections or lead a political party.</p>

<p>Now that he put his mind to it, a few more idiosyncrasies of the place and its people came to mind. Many women wore Jasmine garlands around their heads. Sometimes it was Crossandra or Barleria instead. Some women wore turmeric on their faces. The men were not far behind; many of them carried horizontal or vertical ash marks on their foreheads and wore a loose cloth tied around their waists instead of a trouser or a pyjama.</p>

<p>Arjun was about to take the last turn and exit the market street, when he stumbled over something in his way. He quickly managed to balance himself without tripping over. After gathering his balance, he looked downwards and found a dhoti clad gentleman lying care free on the street. He lay facing the open sky and slowly mumbled to himself in an incomprehensible dialect. Arjun bent down to apologise but stopped short. Observing that none of the other market goers paid attention to him, Arjun sheepishly walked away. Disoriented, drunken men were a sight common to both the north and the south he thought and grinned to himself.</p>

<p>Now that he was on to it, Arjun mentally challenged himself to find more such common things before he landed back in his apartment. He got the first one almost instantly in the form of a catchy one liner painted at the back of an interstate heavy transport truck. It read &ldquo;Life is drama, man is actor&rdquo;. Arjun began recalling the ones he had seen on the roads in Delhi and chuckled to himself; translated from Hindi, they read: &lsquo;Don&rsquo;t laugh silly girl, else you will fall in love&rsquo; (the most common), &lsquo;When I grow up, I will become a big truck&rsquo; (behind a small truck), &lsquo;We two, ours two&rsquo; (surely lifted as it is from a government sponsored campaign on family planning).</p>

<p>The remaining stroll till his apartment was relatively uneventful and did not take much time. Arjun felt tired and picked up his pace. Once he reached, he took a quick bath to get rid of the sweat and humidity. He helped himself to an apple and two bananas. That was his dinner. With nothing else to do, he slid himself on to the single mattress that worked as his bed and closed his eyes.</p>

<p>He intended to sleep, but couldn&rsquo;t. He wasn&rsquo;t convinced that he had found the cause of his queasy and unsettling feeling. He felt disappointed and only one thought lingered in his mind- the many inadvertently intertwined lives around him - the furious policeman, the drunken dhoti clad man, the shoppers in the marketplace and the many other things - the shops, the lights and the hustle bustle. Everything was so different and strange that he felt as if he had landed in a new country altogether!</p>

<p>Yet, they all seemed to be at peace, they seemed comfortable where and how they were. Everything and everyone was at ease except him. Perhaps, the feeling of uneasiness was not because of the new place he was in. It was, in most probability, another reason.<br />
</p>

Arjun stood in pitch black darkness, looking for something. Time was important and he sensed that he had to reach somewhere, urgently. He tried to take a step forward but was unable to move. May be he was stuck in the ground he thought. He looked down towards his feet but to his surprise there was no ground underneath; just the same pitch black emptiness. He sensed panic rising inside him but no matter how hard he tried, he could not move.

Just like that and out of nowhere, the scenery began to change; pitch black turned to blinding white. Arjun began to sweat mildly at first, miniscule spheres of sweat rolled down from his forehead and over his arms. Shortly afterwards, he began sweating profusely. After sometime though, the sweat evaporated and cooled his body. Only then he had realised that it was his first sense of feeling in the strange place he was in.

As if in response, the blinding white then suddenly began to ripple. Quite astonishingly, the beads of sweat rose up from Arjun’s skin evaporated into the white. His surrounding turned humid and discomforting. The sense of urgency ticked quietly in his mind.

A few moments afterwards, the blinding white began to twitch as if it were alive. Arjun felt a slow drizzle of water on his skin and quite ridiculously he stuck his tongue out. The air was salty. While he was doing so, the droplets of rain began to cover the canvas around him. Arjun watched as the droplets splattered against the white background. A picture began to form in front of him. Quirkily he was reminded of his arts teacher in school, but he hurriedly put away the irrelevant thought from of his mind.

In a short while, the scenery around him had completely transformed. Colour that was splattered had now seeped into the white. When it finished, he saw yellow sand and a dark black ocean. It was a beach he realised. He stood on the sandy shore, near where the waves crashed against it. He was far enough so that his feet did not get wet as the waves fizzled out just before they touched his feet. He was surprised at the sudden transformation but moments later it was as if he had been on the beach all along.

He stood under a hot overhead sun with his feet slightly sunk in the sand. The black ocean stretched till the horizon. He looked around across the length of the beach in an effort to spot another figure. There was not a soul in sight. There were neither any beach goers nor hawkers selling cheap snacks and eats.

He turned his head towards the other end of the beach but saw the same empty scene. As his eyes looked further ahead though, a clock tower came into view. He thought maybe there was someone inside who could tell him why the beach was empty. He began walking towards the watch tower, his palms pinned against his forehead to shield his eyes from the sun. With each step his feet broke the crusty sand underneath. He realised no one had been here on the strange beach in a long time. There were no other footsteps. As he walked, his steps left a trail in the sand. From time to time, to keep his feet cool, he slid towards the wet sand near the edge of the beach.

As he neared the watch tower, its contours began to turn distinct. Arjun was glad that it had not been a mirage. The tower was a square shaped grey coloured four story building. It looked like a minaret, tapering slightly at the top. He moved his eyes up towards the top and saw the observation deck with a black railing around it. When he reached near enough, he saw a simple boundary wall surrounding it on the sides. There was an entrance towards the right and had expected to find some sort of a guard on duty (like in all government buildings) to prevent ‘unauthorised entry’. To his dismay, he saw no one manning the entrance. Dejected at not finding anyone, he decided to take a look on his own.

As he entered, the pitch black engulfed him. There was no lighting inside the tower and his pupils immediately dilated in response. The only light there was, came from the small door through which he had entered. He stood still for a while to adjust his eyes to the dark.

The inside of the tower was as simple as it appeared from the outside. There was a single staircase that ran upwards along the sides of the wall. The rest was just brick walls surrounding him. He waited for some time in the hope that a guard would spot him or he would spot the guard. He really wanted to know what was happening! Yet, even after a brief wait, no one arrived.

He took a deep breath, held the staircase railings and pushed himself onto the stairs. He felt excited now, as if he knew there was something he needed to do. He began to take two steps at a time. Every few seconds he looked upwards to see how near he was to the top.

As his excitement ascended, he began running. He kept on running and when he grew tired he stopped, sat down on one of the stairs and looked up in even more anticipation. Even though he had this feeling that he need to get there quickly, he was still nowhere near the end. With one final push he raised himself and began to sprint again. It was a huge mistake, as he tripped and fell.

Arjun woke up with a start. He felt his body sweat and his heart racing. He looked around the room and realised that it had been a dream. He felt relieved at having his senses come back. He quickly got up and got himself a glass of water. He drank the first one in a thirsty gulp. He filled another one, but drank this one slowly.

What was the dream, he thought! It seemed so real when he was in it. Was it hinting at something? What was he doing at a beach? He was still sweating and for a moment couldn’t tell whether he had been at a real beach or an imaginary one. He felt a little afraid. It was puzzling, for the dream did not seem to have reached its conclusion. He immediately began to recollect what he had dreamed about.

Before he could think more about it, his pounding heart beat diverted his attention. He took a few deep breaths and tried to calm himself. It didn’t work. Then, he consciously tried to stop thinking. That didn’t work either; in fact his heart raced even quicker.

It was the first time he felt so vulnerable. For the first time he was alone in an apartment, with no one to help, no one to tell that he was not feeling well, that he thought he needed medical attention. Some very dark thoughts raced in his mind. The next moment, he put up some clothes and locking the door behind him, set out for the nearest hospital.

“Your ECG is fine. Nothing to worry about, just anxiety”, the nurse quipped, uninterested. She gave him an injection and guided him to a small room with two beds. She told him to relax, sleep off the night. He was free to leave when he felt up to it. While switching off the lights, she also advised him to do more physical exercise to relieve the anxiety.

Afterwards, as he lay worrying, vivid images from the dream flashed in his head. A scene lit up, stayed briefly and then faded immediately. The whole episode ran and re-ran in his mind uncontrollably. At first, the lucidity of the dream remained. He forced himself not to think, but his mind automatically wandered back to the surreal sequence. Thankfully, the injection seemed to work. As his body relaxed, images from the dream faded. They became less defined. After sometime, the vivid scenes seemed to wither away, the details went amiss. He closed his eyes and fell asleep.

***

He had hoped for some respite in the morning. The new day, however brought more bad news in the form of a letter from his cousin Sudhir. It read:

Dear Brother,

I write to you to share some bad news. Your grandfather is unwell. Even though he had been having health issues from some time now, this time it looks like he has lost the zeal to live. We all can see it; I can feel it.

It started with him complaining about stomach pain. We took him to the doctor- who told us that the pain was perhaps, due to indigestion. Nothing unusual in this age, he had said. The doctor assured nothing was wrong. That was one week ago.

It turns out that grandfather still hasn’t recovered. Because of the pain, he stays confined to his bed. We give him food and his tea there only. He insists on smoking hookah, which the doctor has strictly forbidden. Yet, he pays no heed and asks for one of us to make hookah for him every day.

What is more worrying is that he looks paler than usual. His fingers, which used to tremble, now almost wobble. His skin has turned putty like. None of us here have seen anyone so pale and the opinion here is that the old man’s end is near. Try to come and see him if you can, it seems like you have been gone for so long, but it’s only been what- two, three months?

Your brother Sudhir

***

The letter was unsettling. it made Arjun seriously consider going back home, but knew getting permission from work was difficult. It had not been long since he had joined the firm and taking leaves was frowned upon.

The letter however also brought a sense of nostalgia. Arjun’s memories came flooding back. He always enjoyed his visits to his grandparents’ and to his village. The simple yet delicious meals seemed irresistible now, his favourite being the watery and spicy potato stew curry with dollops of freshly churned butter, and buttermilk.

In the morning, all the cousins would take a walk towards the village fields.  The cool, loose sand made his feet tickle and he loved the feeling of walking barefoot.

In the large courtyard, he remembered playing games in the evening. He remembered going to the main village square to see old men play cards and smoke hookah. When he was old enough, he had even made hookah for them. Arjun remember that he would often sit on his grandfather’s shoulders as the old man smoked and played cards.

It was difficult to not think about such things. Yet, as he pictured his old man with pale skin, shivers ran down his spine.

More such memories presented themselves.

Marbles was an all-time favourite. His cousin Sudhir was good at it. Almost every day after school, the lot would gather in the yard and play it for winner-take-all. Sudhir had a stable hand and a sharp eye; considered a rare gift; and it helped him win almost every time. In a short while, he had collected at least a thousand such marbles, which he displayed proudly on the shelf in his room. It was a collection every one of the lot was envious of.

Arjun recalled how everyone in the mohalla, used to gather at their house to watch TV. It was the only house which had one- a heavy black-and-white CRT. One time, all of the lot had been treated to a fairly competent hockey match between India and Pakistan. It influenced them so much that the very next day, all of them woke up early, gathered and went down to the fields. They broke many a sturdy branch to carve crooked, makeshift hockey sticks. A ball of tightly wrapped cloth was used as the ball and by noon a match between imaginary India and Pakistan teams happened. The match was so intense that it ended only when one of the kid’s mothers found him playing hockey with us. Apparently she had been searching for him the whole evening, worried sick. The beating for being out till so late was motherly and abruptly ended that match. The craze lasted for a solid two months though.

***

Quite frustratingly, the dream returned. It was the same surreal setup; the golden sun fried beach, the black ocean stretching till the horizon. The sequence too was a continuation from the first time; spotting the watchtower, running upstairs and unable to reach the top.

This time though, Arjun felt re-energised and made a fresh attempt to reach the top of the watch tower. He felt calm and never thought too much about reaching there. Interestingly, the less hurried he was, the closer he got to the top, until. Very soon a small door opened on to the square roof. He felt a sense of accomplishment as he reached the top.

Instantly, a slap of the same salty fresh air hit him. He looked around but there was no one there. Out of curiosity, he walked towards the railing at the edge from where he could see the black ocean. The cool breeze was quite relaxing and he felt mildly exhausted. He walked to one of corners to sit and catch his breath. Without him realising, he slept off.

When he woke up, it was already dark. He realised that he had been asleep for quite some time. It was a moon-less, starless night. He walked up to the front and saw the black sky merge seamlessly with the black ocean. It was difficult to make out where the two met.

He moved his eyes downwards and saw that the beach was glowing with a hue of golden yellow. It was glowing rhythmically- like heart beats.

Just then, out of nowhere a beam of similar golden light came and attached itself to his body. The beam then slowly diminished in its intensity and transformed itself into a golden thread. Panicking, Arjun felt the thread with his fingers to make sure it was real. When his hands caught it, he hurriedly began to twist the thread to try free himself. It didn’t break. He yanked it and saw that it was coming from somewhere inside the adjacent ocean. He tugged at it some more and realised it was quite strong. he felt helpless.

Almost immediately afterwards, the thread began to pull him downwards towards the ground.  It jerked at first and then pulled his body slowly towards the edge of the balcony.

As the fear of falling to his death dawned, Arjun’s eyes widened in horror. He resisted the pull. He dug his feet on the floor and tried to hold on to the railing. It was of no use, as he continued sliding towards the edge of the tower. Predictably, he reached the edge and felt his body tumble. He rapidly descended towards the pulsating golden sand.

 

 

 

 

 

Arjun thought he was, perhaps, going mad or he would go mad soon. He knew that he needed something to get his mind off the disturbing dream. Perhaps, he had too much free time at hand to entertain it, he thought.

So when he was deemed fit to take on more serious work by his auditing firm, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The new role was simple but required a lot of concentration, attention to detail and long working hours. He needed to keep himself occupied and this came as a perfect foil.

He felt relieved when he saw his work desk overburdened with an enormous bundle of dreary looking files. The bundle was tied by a thread with ‘Audit applications for loans’- written on the cover page. The cover page also had instructions which consisted of checks that had to be completed before giving a rating to each application. The rating would be used to recommend sanctioning of credit.

Essentially, he had to make sure the applications had been correctly filled. Then the information provided on the form had to be matched with the copies of document proofs provided. He had to make sure that the signatures were in their places. The last part was to check that the proofs provided matched with the ones mentioned in the application. Of course, not all the applicants would get the money. In a way, Arjun was the person who stood between the applicant and the money. Naturally, it was a vulnerable position.

Arjun loosened the thread that bound the bundle and out of curiosity, began glancing at some of the files.

The top one was a certain Mr. Krishnan, a retired school teacher wanting a loan of some fifty thousand rupees, to set up organic farming. Mrs. Lata, who had moved from Kanchipuram with her husband wanted to set up a saree shop. A suavely named gentleman of about thirty-five, wanted some money to go on a holiday. He had been married for ten years. The only reason, his wife had accepted his proposal was because he had promised her to take her on a foreign trip for their honeymoon. That was ten years ago. Her patience was getting thin perhaps; Arjun thought and chuckled to himself.

Then there were some serious applicants- with amounts request in many lakhs. They were all large business applicants. Mr. Oommen, originally from Kerala, but residing in Chennai for the last ten years, wanted to set up a factory for bicycle-parts. He was, perhaps, of the opinion that no matter what, bi-cycles would always remain an essential mode of transport.

Mr. Surya wanted to expand his jewellery business. He already had one shop, but wanted to open another and then eventually form a chain. He was of the opinion that if he placed his new shop next to a high end saree shop, he was sure to get good business. For what else would one like to buy along with new sarees- jewellery perhaps!

The new role had Arjun swamped with applicants of all sorts. He was happy that there was enough work to keep him occupied. His job required one more responsibility. He also had to make ‘site visits’ and check out if some of the things mentioned in the applications, in fact, exist. It served the purpose of taking a call on cases that looked good on paper. He preferred to this part after lunch, till the end of office hours.

Mr. Ramakrishnan, the retired teacher, showed Arjun the large acres of land he had purchased to set up his organic farming practice. He had diligently put together a dossier about what he was going to grow and how he was going to market and sell his produce. It was quite impressive.

On the other hand, Mr. Rao became aggravated when, he was unable to show Arjun his one hundred chicken strong poultry farm (which he planned to make one thousand chickens strong) mentioned in the application. It was clear that he had not expected Arjun to make a surprise visit.

Mrs. Lata had somehow figured out that Arjun was the one with her application. Arjun found her sitting in front of him the next day. She called him ‘son’ all the time and even promised a non-stop supply of sarees to him, if he, of course, found no objection in clearing her application. Arjun chose to stay silent and nod at her. When she explicitly asked him, if he would ‘pass’ the file, he nodded the same way he had for the last half hour. As a last ditch effort, she ‘gifted’ him a saree and hoped that the loan would be sanctioned. For Arjun, it all depended on the merit of the application.

Mr. Surya was a man who believed reputation was everything. The first time he arrived at Arjun’s office, he was clad in a crispy white safari suit. The suit looked as if it was freshly minted. His slippers were made from shiny white fake leather. They made a distinct sound with each step. He had two gold chains around his neck and almost all his fingers adorned one kind of ring or another. It was clear that he believed in the power of money.

The man was full of contrast. Against the white attire, his charcoal black skin and thick bushy moustache that just about covered his upper lip, stood out. One could never make out if he was grinning or grimacing. He had short hair and carried a tense brow, which made him look like he was always in deep thought.

In their first interaction, it was amply clear that Mr. Surya was a clever man with a slightly unusual manner of speaking. Arjun also realised that Mr. Surya was aware of his ample self-importance. The first time he came, Arjun saw almost all his colleagues go up to greet him and exchange pleasantries. It was an odd sight; he had not seen his colleagues behave such coyly with anyone else.

One of the colleagues came up to him and asked Arjun to help Mr. Surya with his application.

“Which application” asked Arjun with apathetic courtesy?

“Under Mr. Surya, me…” he replied.

By this time Arjun was aware that it was not difficult for applicants to know where their application was and who was it assigned to.

“Yes, I have it with me but I’m sorry, I cannot disclose the status to you” Arjun replied curtly. He was direct.

Mr. Surya then turned his head to look back and nodded to one of Arjun’s senior colleague. The colleague nodded back at Mr. Surya. He then walked up to Arjun’s desk and asked him where Mr. Surya’s application stood.

“It’s incomplete” he replied.

The colleague nodded, smiled at Mr. Surya and went back to his desk. Arjun silently fumed inside.

“How can it be incomplete? It’s not the first time I have applied”, Mr. Surya insisted and paused for Arjun to consider his question. Arjun shrugged with disinterest.

“Are you new here?”, he asked. His question reeked of a condescending undertone. Arjun’s attitude had him riled up.

“No, no…” Arjun fumbled, unable to get the context of the question.

“No, no…I meant are you new to this place?”

“Yes”

Mr. Surya chuckled.

“I knew it the moment I heard you speak. What are you doing so far away from home? Aren’t your parents worried?”

Arjun didn’t know how to answer. He kept the conversation strictly towards work. He realised Mr. Surya wasn’t going away until he had some answers.

“Your application doesn’t have any proofs. You have mentioned that you have already rented a place where you will set up your next shop, but there is no address mentioned. Then I see that your sales figures seemed to have dropped drastically a few months ago…I sense something wrong here. I don’t know how to proceed, but right now it doesn’t look…”

“Why don’t you give me the file and I’ll submit a completed one”, Mr. Surya cut Arjun off.

“I can’t return the file. In fact, you shouldn’t even know that I am handling the file”

Mr. Surya controlled his laughter.

“What if I take the file away from you and get it done from someone else…” He said and looked around mockingly. Arjun knew Mr. Surya was toying with him. Had it been possible, the file would already have been assigned to a more amenable auditor. The way it was set up was that applications were distributed quite randomly and once assigned couldn’t be ‘taken over’ by someone else. If it were, there needed to be a reason behind it.

“Why didn’t you do it earlier?” Arjun retorted uncharacteristically, “It would have saved me from this”. He felt irritated with Mr. Surya’s dominating attitude.

“No bother, no bother…” Mr. Surya backed off. It betrayed that he didn’t really care and left after studying Arjun’s face in silence. Arjun felt relieved, that it had not ended in a confrontation.

In the evening though, the same colleague Mr. Surya had nodded to earlier, came over and took the file from Arjun’s pile. He said that he would get it back tomorrow morning. Unsure, Arjun could only protest in silence.

Next morning, Arjun found Mr.Surya’s file back on his desk. He quickly opened it and began browsing. Apart from a few insignificant ones, he barely saw any changes. When Mr. Surya met with him next, Arjun clarified that nothing had changed in the application.

“No bother, no bother…here…as a gift for you…” he said as he held out his arm. It was a planner diary, a common & typical piece of stationary.

Arjun refused to accept it.

“Ok, no gift, think as it is something to help you work better. It’s a diary. You can note down work, use the calendar and write down phone numbers. Quite good, you may never know when it may come in use.” He winked at the last part.

Only after Mr. Surya insisted repeatedly, did Arjun relent. He sheepishly took the diary from Mr. Surya’s outstretched hand.

“Erm, this is for personal use. Take it home…” Mr. Surya emphasised and left.

Without opening, Arjun kept the diary in one of the drawers. In the evening he took it with him to his apartment and casually threw it in a spare box.

***

Arjun found himself on the beach again with the golden thread hooked on to his chest. It continued to pull his body towards the black water. Arjun struggled for some time, but realised it was not going to change anything. He immediately lost his will to fight the pull.

He followed the pull, coming from inside the water. He walked towards the ocean; his feet became wet and slowly disappeared into the ever increasing depth of the water. Not long afterwards, his feet no longer touched the ground. He straightened his body and began to swim.

After the initial few strokes and lunging for breath, Arjun found it relatively easy to swim in the black water. He swam towards where the golden thread pulled him, inwards into the ocean. After he had done so for quite some time, he lost track of for how long had he been swimming; neither did he have a clue about how far he was from the shore.

Things didn’t get better; suddenly the golden thread tugged him underwater. He took one deep breath to inhale as much air as he could, before going underwater. The only worry in his mind was about running out of oxygen, yet he knew he couldn’t do much.

Underwater, he kept his eyes open even though he couldn’t see anything. The black water was cold and his body shivered. As he sank deeper, the air began to run out. His lungs started screeching for air. Yet he held on, his mouth closed. No long after, when he could take it no more, he involuntarily opened his mouth and his lungs began to fill with water. Panic rose inside him and he kicked his limbs in instinct. After a few minutes of struggling, he surprisingly found himself still conscious. To his astonishment, he had not drowned even though he had run out of breath.

Just then a small bright speck of light came into view. He saw that he was connected to it by the golden thread. It looked like an escape vent and Arjun quickened his strokes. To gain speed and direction, he grabbed the thread and pulled it towards himself. The trick worked as he began moving quicker. The glow of the speck became brighter as he neared.

When the light was at an arm’s length, Arjun saw that it was not an escape but a broken piece of a golden disc. He was disappointed. Out of curiosity he grabbed it in his hands. It responded to his touch and began to pulsate in sync with the golden thread.

He held on to the piece and began swimming upwards. At first it didn’t move, so he tried to pull it with renewed vigour and more strength. This time the broken piece nudged from its position. Pulling it further, he paddled his legs with full might and ascended upwards.

When he reached the surface, he took a moment to catch his breath. He looked around for a sign of the beach. The shoreline shone distinctly to the blackness around. Luckily, it didn’t seem as far as he had thought.

He felt exhausted when his feet finally touched the ground. He held the broken golden piece in his hands as he walked towards the beach.

With just a few more steps to the dry sand, he suddenly realised that there was another such golden thread bound to his body. He was sure it had not been there before. Tired as he was, he did not pay attention towards the second golden thread and continued towards the beach. Just as he was about to touch the dry sand though, the second golden thread began to pull him, once again, into the ocean. He realised, he couldn’t get out. He was stuck in the cold, black water.

***


Short Synopsis:


Rohit Kumar

About the Author:

Rohit likes to write novels that explore the ‘coming of age’ theme, when characters are placed in unconventional settings. He has also authored another young adult fiction novel titled ‘Breaking Through the Maze’. He stays with his family in Gurgaon. He can be reached at:
E-Mail: wanderingwordsofrohit@gmail.com
Facebook: wanderingwordsofrohit
Blog: wanderingwordsofrohit.blogspot.com