Category Archives: कल्पित
I looked into his eye. My own eye. I was up next. RJ was speaking about his play and what it was all about. I had to do the same. I could hear him articulate what was the underlying idea and why he thought this story should be told. I closed my eyes, inhaled. Diaphragmatic breathing, a technique every actor practices. “It improves the throw of your voice,” Nilabh sir had told us several times
With my eyes closed I turned away from the mirror, RJ was still answering the questions that the guys from the theatre company that organized the event asked. The thought of speaking into a camera kept haunting me. Performing on stage is fine, but camera! A bloody camera which could zoom into and focus on the single hair that stuck out of my nose. My body shivered in a strange way. I slowly opened my eyes. She stood there, right in front of me. Her bosom rose and fell with a deteriorating frequency as she caught hold her breath.
“Narmada, you are in the frame, back off.” I had heard someone shouting when I was looking in the mirror. She was forced back into the green room by her colleagues. Maybe she had just climbed the rather steep flight of stairs to the floor of the stage and before she could catch her breath she was shoved away from the stage and into the greeo room.
I had talked to her once, with regards to the availability of the light arrangement during the competition. And the moment she picked up the phone and greeted me, I knew hers was the most alluring voice I had ever heard. I wanted to tell this to her on the phone, but couldn’t. There she was, standing in front of me. Just the two of us in the green room, that was painted black so that no lights bounced back on stage when an act was going on. Only one tungsten bulb did lit the room. The light was just enough for her to see me. She turned her gaze towards me and saw me looking at her. She was wearing a very basic outfit. Black denim and a green spaghetti top. Climate in Pune during the monsoons is very pleasant, eliminating any need of warm clothing. The top hugged her body, accentuating it. She looked into my eyes for a moment and turned away.
I cursed myself, mentally, and turned away from her. I looked up in the mirror and found her looking at me. I felt a sudden urge to tell her that she had a beautiful voice and that she, indeed, was beautiful. I could hear the intensity of my breathing rise. Out gaze met in the mirror. She shifted her weight such that her hips slanted at bit. I so wanted to turn away and speak to her, but I knew that a video was being shot and any noise will ruin the take. I had to get closer.
She turned towards the stage again. RJ kept on blabbering and I had long stopped paying attention to that. A cold fire rose through my spine. The more I looked towards her the more it grew. Narmada, it said that the river Narmada is an eternal virgin. No one can and no one will ever conquer her. It flows through the rocky terrain of central India and thus has been given the name Rewa, the one who leaps. The movement of her hand to tuck a fluttering lock of her hair brought me back from the plateaus of central India to the green room, where she and I were alone.
An unknown force pulled me towards her. I slowly walked, unconsciously. She kept looking at me. Her eyes blinked in quick succession and for a moment she looked towards the floor. And when she looked back up I was still moving towards her. I could see the fright in her eyes, but that didn’t deter me. She straightened up as I reached close to her, close enough to feel her intense breath on my neck. She kept looking in my eyes, perhaps with an anticipation. I was resolute to tell her what I had wanted to since I first heard her voice. I leaned towards her. Her lips trembled. I could feel my heart pounding at a never before rate. My lips parted but I could hardly speak. Everything seemed to be slow, like a marble dropped in a pot of honey. She closed her eyes and before I could say something, her lips touched my lips. What followed was something that could never be done with a predetermination. I felt the metallic tinge of a chewing gum that she would have had earlier in the day as my tongue moved over hers. Her tooth lingered a while over my lips, nibbling and biting. I felt dizzy, maybe because of the camera fright that I had in back of my mind.
Her hand slowly made its way through the back of my hair. She kneaded my hair as her tongue investigated the insides of my mouth. I took a sigh and gave in to the indulgent pleasure. She came closer. Her body now touched mine and I could feel her thumping heart, beating in unison with mine. I hugged her with all my remaining strength and she leaned all her weight on me. I was floating in a sea of cotton balls. Everything around me was as soft and as brilliant as cotton. Suddenly weightlessness took over and I was falling down a never ending abyss.
“You are up next,” She spoke to me. I opened my eyes. She was still standing at the gate of the green room looking at me. I was trembling, thanks to the unexpected daydream I had. I turned towards her. She had the same look in her eyes. As I walked towards her, she backed off a bit. Her eyes looked down towards the floor for a moment and then turned towards me. I was now standing close to her, close enough to feel her intense breath on my neck…
मीठे नींद में डुबे शंकर के आनंद में तब खलल आ गया जब उसके चेहरे पर हलकी हलकी पानी की फुहार आने लगी। आधी कच्ची आधी पक्की नींद में जब उसने आँखे खोली तो देखा कि झोपडी की खिड़की खुली हुई है और उसमे से हवा के साथ बारिश का पानी भी अन्दर आ रहा है। नींद टूटने से शंकर थोडा सा झुंझला सा गया था। उसने जैसे ही खिड़की बंद करने के लिए उठना चाहा, बाहर टंगे लालटेन की ज़मीन पर पड़ती रौशनी में उसे एक परछाई दिखी। और अगर वो एक साधारण परछाई होती तो शायद शंकर की सांस ऊपर की ऊपर और नीचे की नीचे नहीं रुक जाती। परछाई एक लाश की थी जो झोपडी के छप्पर से लटक रही थी, हवा उस लाश को अपने साथ दाये-बाए हिलाए जा रही थी । कुछ क्षणों के लिए शंकर समझ न पाया कि क्या करे! फिर उसने धीरे से खुद को खिड़की के पास खिंचा तो पाया कि जो छप्पर से लटक रही थी वो कोई लाश नहीं थी। बल्कि किसी ने खेत से ला कर काकभगोडे को टांग दिया था।
“कोई पागल ही ऐसा कर सकता है!” शंकर ने बुदबुदाया
शंकर अब भी आश्चर्यचकित था, मगर अब उसके दिल से वो दहशत जा चुकी थी जो परछाई को देखते ही उसे महसूस हुई थी। वो आस पास का जायजा लेने जब पीछे मुड़ा तो उसने पाया की चूल्हे पर रखा वो बर्तन गायब है। उसकी समझ में आ गया कि जब वो सो रहा था, जरूर झोपडी का मालिक वापस आया होगा। काकभगोडे को टांगने वाली करतूत भी हो न हो उसी की होगी। शंकर उसे धुन्धने झोपडी के बहार आ गया। हवा अब और उग्र हो चली थी। लालटेन की लुपझुप करती लौ देख शंकर को दिए और तूफ़ान वो पौराणिक संघर्ष याद आ गया। जाने क्या सोच कर उसके परेशान चेहरे पर हल्की सी मुस्कान आ गयी।
शंकर ने उस काकभगोडे को नीचे उतरने के लिए जब पकड़ा तो देखा कि काकभगोडे के आँख, नाक और मुंह बना दिए गए थे। जिस लाल रंग से उन टेढ़ी मेढ़ी आकृतियों को बनाया गया था वो अभी तक सुख भी नहीं था। शंकर ने काकभगोडे को उतार कर ज़मीन पर धर दिया। ओटले के किनारे पर ही वो बर्तन भी रखा था जो पहले शंकर ने चूल्हे पर रखा देखा था। जब शंकर ने ध्यान से देखा तो पाया बर्तन में अभी भी कुछ रखा हुआ था, पास जाने पर उसने जो देखा उससे उसे एक लघु हृदयाघात आ गया। बर्तन के अन्दर एक कुत्ते का सर था। शंकर वही का वही ज़मीन पर बैठ गया। यह सब क्या हो रहा था उसकी कुछ समझ में नहीं आ रहा था। उसकी तार्किक शक्ति उसका साथ छोडती सी मालुम हो रही थी। जो कुछ आज रात उसके साथ हो रहा था, उस सब की व्याख्या शायद ही कोई विज्ञान दे सकता था। पर यह सब हो तो रहा था, वो चाहे मने या न मने। कुत्ते का सर देखते ही उसे लगा था की ये उसी कनकटे कुत्ते का सर होगा। न जाने क्यों आज रात घूम फिर कर शकर का सामना उस कनकटे कुत्ते से हो रहा था।
उसने हिम्मत जुटा कर अपने दर की पुष्टि करने के लिए ज्यो ही बर्तन में झाँका, एक अशांत से अट्टाहस ने उसकी रूह को कंपा दिया। कुत्ते का कान तो कटा हुआ ही था, लेकिन यह हंसी किसकी थी। पहले तो उसे लगा कि लक्कड्बग्घो की आवाज़ है, लेकिन तुरंत ही उसका यह कयास असत्य सिध्द हो गया। सामने से एक अधनंगा व्यक्ति हाथ में कुल्हाड़ी लिए पागलों सी चाल में शंकर की तरफ बढ़ा जा रहा था। वो पागल आसमान को ताकता बेतरतीब सा शंकर के बिलकुल पास आ गया। जब शंकर ने ध्यान से देखा तो पाया कि वो तो पागल रामकृष्ण ही था। तो क्या वो अपने गाँव के इतना करीब आ गया था, कि रामकृष्ण के खेत में पँहुच चूका था? रामकृष्ण को देख उसके खोये होश वापस आये। मगर कुत्ते के सर को पकाने का वाली बात उसके समझ न आई। रामू पागल तो था पर ऐसी हरकते गाँव में तो नहीं करता था।
“तूने उसे बचा लिया?” रामकृष्ण ने चीखते हुए शंकर से पूछा
“इसे, तेरी भाभी को।” पगले ने काकभगोडे की और इशारा करते हुए बोल
“अरे, ये लक्ष्मी भाभी नहीं है। बस एक काकभगोडा है, बस। लक्ष्मी भाभी तो मर चुकी है ना ।” उसने रामू को समझाने की कोशिश की
यह सुनते ही रामू फिर अपने भयावह अंदाज़ में हँसने लगा।
“तू भी बाकी सब की तरह पागल हो गया है, शंकर” उसने कहा
यह सुन कर शंकर को क्षण भर के लिए हँसी आ गयी। खुद पागल हो कर यह पगला मुझे पागल बोल रहा है। उसने सोचा कि जाने दो इससे बहस करके कोई फायदा नहीं है, मैं कुछ करके यहाँ से निकलता हूँ।
“माफ़ कर दे भाई, मैं इसे वापस टाँग देता हु” कहते हुए शंकर ने काकभगोडे को वापस छप्पर पर टाँग दिया
रामू सर हिलाने लगा। “अब कोई फायदा नहीं। वो तो चली गयी ना।” इतना कहते कहते रामू ने शंकर का हाथ पकड़ लिया। शंकर पूरी तरह सतर्क हो चूका था। वो रामू की और से आने वाले किसी भी प्रकार के हमले के लिए तैयार था।
“चल, आ मैं मिलवाता हु तुझे उससे।” रामू ने उसे खींचते हुए कहा
“नहीं नहीं, मैं घर जाता हूँ ” उसने कहा
“नहीं” रामू चिल्लाया “अब तू नहीं जा सकता, वो तुझे जाने नहीं देगी, इतना आसान नहीं है।”
शंकर रामू के ऐसे बर्ताव को देख कर घबरा गया। इसके पहले रामू को कभी इतना उग्र उसने नहीं देखा था। सीधा सादा रामू, गाँव में रोज सुबह हर आने जाने वाले को ‘राम-राम’ करता था। गाँव के बच्चे उसका मज़ाक बनाते कभी उसका सामान छुपा देते तो कभी उसके पीछे टिन के खाली डब्बे बांध देते। मगर रामू बस उन उत्साहित बच्चो को देख कर हँसता रहता। लोग ज़रूर कहते थे कि कई साल पहले उसने अपनी बीवी, लक्ष्मी को मार दिया था। लेकिन शंकर को इस बात पर मुश्किल से ही यकीन होता था।
रामू अब शंकर को खींचता हुआ अँधेरे में ले जाता जा रहा था। शकर ने हाथ चुदने की पुरजोर कोशिश की पर न जाने कहाँ से उस पागल में उतनी शक्ति आ गयी थी कि शंकर जैसा हट्टा-कट्टा युवक भी हाथ नहीं छुड़ा पा रहा था।
इससे पहले कि वो कुछ समझ पता, रामू उसको एक आम के पेड़ के पास ला चूका था।
“यही रहती है वो। रोज़ मुझे यहाँ बुलाती है।” आँखें मटकाते हुए रामू ने हौले से शंकर के कान में कहा
“वो जो घर में खाना था न, इसी के लिए बनाया था। इसी बहाने तो इसको घर तक लाया था। पर तूने उसे भगा दिया। नालायक।” ये कहते हुए रामू की आँखें अंगारों की तरह जल उठी, नथुने फूल गए। पूरी रात में पहली बार शंकर बुरी तरह से डर चूका था। उसने अपने हाथ को एक झटके से रामू की पकड़ से छुड़ा लिया।
“वो देख” रामू ने लालटेन पेड़ की ओर की और अजीब सी भाषा में कुछ बोलने लगा। पेड़ उन दोनों से कुछ गज की दुरी पर था, अँधेरे में लालटेन की रौशनी जैसे ही पेड़ पर पड़ी कुछ सरसराहट सी हुई। शंकर न चाहते हुए भी उस ओर देखता रहा। पत्तो की आड़ में शंकर को दो आंखें दिखी, जो लालटेन की रौशनी से टिमटिमाने लगी थी। बिना कुछ सोचे शंकर वहाँ से भाग। पीछे से रामू के चिल्लाने की आवाज़ आ रही थी। कुछ दूर जा कर जब उसने देखा तो रामू पेड़ पर अंधाधुंध कुल्हाड़ी मार रहा था। उसने वहाँ से भाग जाना ही बेहतर समझा। जैसे जैसे वो दूर जाता जा रहा था, रामू की आवाज़ हलकी और भ्रामक होती जा रही थी। उसे लगा कि रामू किसी से झगडा कर रहा था, शायद किसी महिला से।
बेतहाशा भागता हुआ शंकर वापस रामू की झोपडी पर आ पंहुचा। उसने अपनी साइकिल ली और बिना वक़्त गंवाए रवाना हो गया। बारिश तो अब थम चुकी थी, ग्रहण भी छुटने को था। चन्द्रमा की हलकी हलकी दुधिया रौशनी से थोड़ी दृष्टता लौट रही थी। शंकर अपनी पूरी उर्जा से पैडल चला रहा था। भूख प्यास से बेहाल हो चुके उसके शरीर में अब कुछ ख़ास ताक़त बची नहीं थी। ये तो उसका निश्चय ही था जो उसे जिलाए हुए था। आँखों की पलके अब कई मनो के भार के नीचे दबती जा रही थी और सोचने की शक्ति अब क्षीण हो चुकी थी।
एक बार फिर शंकर को दूर कुछ रौशनी सी दिखाई पड़ी। वो उस ओर बढ़ चला। लेकिन इस बार वो सतर्क था, कि कही फिर किसी सरफिरे के घर न पहुच जाए। झोपडी के बाहर लालटेन आँगन में रखी हुई थी। जैसे ही उसने झोपडी के बाहर साइकिल रोकी, अन्दर से एक चितपरिचित आवाज़ उसे सुनाई पड़ी। इसमें कोई शक न था कि वो आवाज़ रामू के हंसने की थी। मगर शंकर को इस बात पर अब भी विश्वास न हुआ। वो जब रामू की झोपडी से निकला था, तब से अभी तक उसने नाक की सीध में ही साइकिल चलायी थी। घूम कर वापस वह पहुचने का तो सवाल ही नहीं उठता था। इतना सब हो जाने के बाद भी उसके अन्दर कहीं एक तार्किक जीवित था। वो साइकिल रख कर दरवाज़े की ओर बढ़ा।
“मैंने कहा था, कि इतना आसान नहीं है।” रामू ने अंदर से अट्टाहस करते हुए कहा
शंकर की नींद अब पूरी तरह उड़ चुकी थी। उसने साइकिल उठाई, फिर से उसने पूरी ताकत से पैडल चला शुरू कर दिए। वो यही सोच रहा था कि अगर इस दिशा में जा कर वो वापस शंकर के घर पहुचता है तो शायद वो सीधे नहीं एक चक्कर में जा रहा है। इस बार उसने इस बात का ख्याल रखा कि वो साइकिल सीधी, बिलकुल सीधी चलाये।
काफी देर बाद, उसे फिर से एक झोपडी दिखी। वो मन ही मन यह मना रहा था कि इस बार तो वह किसी और की झोपडी पर पंहुचा होगा। मगर उसके सारी धारणाएं एक ही पल में चकनाचूर हो गयी। इस बार तो रामू बहार आँगन में ही खड़ा था और उसे लगातार घुर रहा था।
“मत भाग, वो तुझे जाने नहीं देगी।” उसने कहा “चल हम दोनों उसको ख़त्म कर देते है।” ये कहते हुए रामू उसकी ओर बढ़ा।
“देख रामू, तूने अगर एक कदम भी इस ओर बढाया तो अच्छा नहीं होगा।” उसने रक्षात्मक रुख अपनाते हुए कहा “इससे मेरा कुछ लेना देना नहीं, और उप्पर से मैं इन सब चीज़ों में नहीं मानता।” शंकर ने अपनी दलील दी।
“तुझे क्या लगता है कि लक्ष्मी मर गयी है, और उसकी आत्मा मुझे परेशान कर रही है?” रामू ने अपने सड़े दांत दिखाते हुए पूछा “वो नहीं मरी है, और न ही उसकी कोई आत्मा है। वो तेरी मेरी तरह नहीं है रे।” अब बात शंकर के समझ से परे जाती जा रही थी।
“ये बात तो मुझे शादी की पहली रात ही पता चल चुकी थी। मगर किसी ने मेरा विश्वास ही नहीं किया।” वो बोलता जा रहा था और शंकर बुत सा खड़ा सुनता जा रहा था। कुछ जाने की जिज्ञासा मनुष्य में एक ऐसा जूनून उत्पन्न कर देती है कि हर डर, हर खतरा उसके आगे छोटा लगने लगता है।
“हर रात वो मुझे खेत पर ले आती, फिर न जाने क्या क्या करने लगती। उसकी करतूतों से ही मेरी ज़मीन बंजर होती गयी।” रामू की आँखों में एक शोक सा भर आया था। “कितनी कोशिश करी मैंने उससे पीछा छुड़ाने की। तुझे भी बोल था मत आ, नहीं बचेगा।” ये कहते हुए उसके चेहरे के भाव अचानक वेहशी हो गए। वो शकर की और बढ़ा। शंकर ने उसे एक जोरदार धक्का दिया, जिसके चलते दोनों ज़मीन पर गिर गए। रामू का कन्धा पीछे पड़ी उसकी कुल्हाड़ी पर जा लगा। वो चीख उठा।
शंकर ने आव देखा न ताव। अपनी साइकिल उठा कर वो निकल पड़ा उस जगह से दूर। पीछे से अजीब सी हंसने की आवाज़े उसकी हृदयगति को बढ़ाये जा रही थी। वो आवाजें और तेज़ होती जा रही थी। पहले तो केवल रामू के चीखने की आवाज़ थी, पर धीरे-धीरे उसमे किसी और के रुदन और फिर लक्कड्बग्घो के रोने की और कई सारे उल्लुओं की आवाज़ें मिलते गयी। शंकर पसीने में तरबतर निरावाकाश साइकिल चलता जा रहा था।
उस आवाजों को वो नज़रंदाज़ तो नहीं कर सकता था, पर उसे पता था कि अगर वो वहाँ से नहीं निकला तो उसके लिए अच्छा नहीं होगा। इस सब में एक बात तो उसके समझ बिलकुल नहीं आई, वो ये थी कि रामू ने उसे कब मन किया था कि इस ओर मत आ। और फिर उसको वो वाकया याद आया जो इन सब अनहोनी घटनाओ का अगुवा था। वो कनकटा कुत्ता। और कहीं न कहीं घूम फिर के उससे शंकर का सामना हो ही रहा था।
जो कुछ भी हो रहा था, वो सब उसकी समझ और उसके ज्ञान की व्याख्या से परे था। अब शंकर का शरीर जवाब दे रहा था, मगर उसका जज्बा उसे आगे बढ़ने को प्रेरित कर रहा था। रात का आखिरी पहर चल रहा था, दूर क्षितिज पर हलकी मधिम लालिमा दिखने लगी थी। उसके पेर पैडल पर ढीले हो चले थे। शरीर के कोने से शक्ति को खींच कर वो जैसे तैसे आगे बढ़ता जा रहा था। उन आवाजों ने उसका पीछा नहीं छोड़ा था। जाने क्या चल रहा है, और इस सबका अंजाम जाने क्या होगा। लेकिन एक बात तय थी, हार मान लेना उसके लिए एक विकल्प नहीं था। अगर वो आज हार मान लेता है तो, माँ का क्या और उसके छोटे भाई-बहनों का क्या।
नहीं। मुझे घर पहुचना ही होगा। उसने खुद से कहा और फिर एक बार साइकिल पर अपनी पूरी ताकत झोंक दी। पता नहीं कब, यूँ ही संघर्ष करते-करते वो ज़मीन पर गिर पड़ा। माँ का परेशान चेहरा उसे उप्पर बादलो में दिखाई दे रहा था। वो चाह रहा था कि माँ से कहे कि घर पहुच रहा हु, पर उसके शरीर ने होंठ हिलाने की भी शक्ति नहीं थी। धीरे से उसके मस्तिष्क ने भी उसका साथ छोड़ दिया, और वो वही मूर्छित हो गया।
शंकर की आँख खुली तो उसने पाया कि सुबह हो चुकी थी। रोटी सिकने की खुशबु घर में फैली हुई थी। उसने एक गहरी सांस भरी। कुछ क्षण के खालीपन के बाद अचानक उसके दिल में उस रात का ख्याल आया। और वो गया! क्या वो जिंदा था? उसे तो यकीन था कि वो नहीं बचेगा।
“उठ गया तू…” माँ ने उसके सिरहाने दूध का गिलास रखते हुए कहा। और फिर आँखें बंद कर कुछ बुदबुदाने लगी। “…ले दूध पी” कह कर वो चोके की ओर चली गयी। दूध का गिलास होंठों से लगते ही शंकर को एहसास हुआ कि वो कितना भूखा था। शंकर ने एक घूंट में सारा दूध पी लिया। माँ अन्दर से कुछ लाल मिर्चें मुट्ठी में बाँध कर ले आई और शंकर की नज़र उतरने लगी। शंकर को अभी भी यकीन नहीं हो रहा था कि वो जीवित था। लेकिन जो कुछ उसके सामने हो रहा था उससे तो यही अर्थ निकल रहा था कि वो सही सलामत था।
“क्या कर रही है?” शंकर ने पूछा तो माँ ने इशारे से उसे चुप रहने का आदेश दिया। माँ ने कई बार मिर्चियों को उसके सर से पाँव तक घुमाया और फिर अन्दर चोके में चली गयी और उनको जला दिया। मिर्ची जलने की तेज़ ढान्स से शंकर खांसने लगा।
“तू अब ऐसे किसी उटपटांग काम के लिए बखत-बेबखत इधर उधर नहीं जाएगा।” माँ ने गुस्से में उससे कहा
“मेरी तो जान ही निकल गयी थी। न जाने सारी रात तू कहाँ था। वो तो भला हो उस लड़की का जिसने तुझे गाँव के बहार बेहोश होते देख लिया।” यह सुनते ही शंकर का सर चकरा गया। किस लड़की ने उसे बेहोश होते देखा? उसने तो उस वक़्त आस-पास किसी को नहीं देखा था। वो हर पल आश्चर्यचकित, और ज्यादा आश्चर्यचकित होता जा रहा था।
“कौन?” अनायास ही उसके मुंह से निकल पड़ा
“अपने गाँव की नहीं है। पर बहुत भली है है। बहार झाड़ू लगा रही है।” माँ ने हल्की सी हंसी के साथ कहा
तभी एक सकुचाई सी आकृति कमरे में दाखिल हुई। सांझ के ढलते सूर्य की किरणे उसके ताम्ब्र वर्ण को और भी स्वर्णिम बना रही थी। दिन भर के काम से शायद उसके केश जो सुबह एक स्पष्ट छोटी में गुंथे हुए थे, अब स्वतंत्र हर ओर हवा में डोल रहे थे। और उसकी आँखे झिलमिलाते दीपक सी, जैसे ही शंकर की दृष्टि से सम्मुख हुई तो छुईमुई सी सकुचा गयी।
शंकर अपने होश खो चूका था । वो भूल गया था कि एक रात पहले ही उसके साथ क्या हुआ था, वो भूल गया था कि कुछ पल पहले उसको अपने जीवित होने पर भी संदेह हो रहा था। उसे याद रहा तो बस उस युवती का शर्मीला चेहरा।
“लग गयी झाड़ू?” माँ ने उससे पूछा तो शंकर को एहसास हुआ कि कमरे में उसके और उस लड़की के अलावा कोई और भी था।
“बेटी, देख शंकर को होश आ गया। अगर तू नहीं होती तो न जाने ये नालायक खेतों में कब तक यु ही पड़ा रहता ।” माँ ने वक्र दृष्टि से शकर की और देखा। ” इसलिए ही बड़े-बूढ़े ग्रहण के वक़्त निकलने से मना करते है।” ये कहते हुए माँ फिर चोके की और बढ़ चली। शंकर अभी भी एकटक उस लड़की को निहार रहा था। और वो वहाँ कड़ी शर्म में डूबी जा रही थी।
कमरे में एक बैचैन सी ख़ामोशी थी। “हमारी भैंस कैसी है माँ?” उसने बात पलटने के लिए माँ से पूछा
“बेटा उसने तो रात में ही दम तोड़ दिया।” माँ ने धीमी आवाज़ में कहा, शायद वो शंकर की चिंता को कम करना चाहती थी। लेकिन शंकर के दिमाग से सारी फ़िक्र, सारी चिंता काफूर हो चुकी थी। उसे प्रेम हो गया था।
वो लड़की शंकर के घर में ही रहने लगी। कुछ महीनो बाद शंकर ने उस लड़की से अपने प्यार का इज़हार कर दिया । और उसने भी शर्मा कर, लजा कर एक रुकी सी हामी भर दी। शंकर को तो लगा जैसे उसके जीवन को अपना मतलब मिल गया, शायद ही गाँव में शंकर से ज्यादा खुश व्यक्ति कोई होगा। माँ को तो वो पहले ही पसंद थी, पर शंकर के बाबूजी इस रिश्ते से नाखुश थे। लेकिन उनका मत शंकर के लिए कुछ ख़ास मायने नहीं रखता था।
कुछ ही दिनों में दोनों की शादी हो गयी। शादी के पहले ही महीने में शंकर की माँ चल बसी। बीमार तो वो कई दिनों से थी, और इसीलिए उसने जल्द से जल्द शंकर की शादी करा दी थी ताकि अपने रहते वो शंकर की शादी देख ले। शंकर शादी के बाद से गाँव के लोगो से कटा-कटा सा रहने लगा था, और माँ के बाद तो उसने किसी से भी मिलना बंद कर दिया था। दिन हो या रात, बस खेत पर ही काम करता रहता था। और वहाँ भी उसे लगातार निराशा हाथ लग रही थी। जिस साल पुरे गाँव की फसल अच्छी होती उस साल भी शंकर के खेत में बमुश्किल कुछ पैदा होता।
लोग कहने लगे कि शंकर पागल होता जा रहा था। नहना धोना उसके छोड़ दिया था, घर में रहना भी एक दी उसने छोड़ दिया। गाँव के चौक पर पड़ा रहता था। और एक दिन उसकी बीवी भी न जाने कहाँ चली गयी। लोगो ने आखिरी बार उसको शंकर के साथ एक रात को खेत में जाते हुए देखा। और फिर अफवाहे उड़ चली। शंकर ने भी रामू की ही तरह अपनी बीवी को मार डाला। या, उससे तंग आ कर उसकी बीवी भाग गयी। सच कोई नहीं जानता था। शंकर के भाई-बहिन भी नहीं। वो तो जैसे-तैसे इधर उधर काम करके अपना पेट पाल रहे थे।
रात होते ही शंकर खेत की ओर चल देता। वहाँ एक जामुन का पेड़ था, उसी के नीचे वो सोता था। उसके साथ एक कनकटा कुत्ता भी रहने लगा था। कुछ लोगो का कहना था कि हर रात शंकर उस पेड़ से न जाने किस भाषा में बात करता था।
फिर एक दिन किसी ने कहा कि शंकर के खेत में उसकी पत्नी की आत्मा भटकती है!
बात उन दिनों की है जब न TV था, न कंप्यूटर, न ही आज की तरह मोबाइल फ़ोन हुआ करते थे की कहीं भी हो एक नंबर घुमाया और मनचाहे व्यक्ति से बात हो गयी | बात है १९४० के दशक की, भारत आज़ाद हुआ ही था | पुरे देश में, खासकर के नौजवानों में एक नया उत्साह था, नयी उमंग थी | ऐसा ही एक उत्साही नौजवान था, शंकर | वैसे तो शंकर ने इंटर पास कर लिया था, जिसके आधार पर उसी कहीं भी अच्छी नौकरी मिल सकती थी| मगर उसने अपने गाँव में ही रहना बेहतर समझा| ३-३ छोटे भाई बहनों की परवरिश का बोझ उसके कन्धों पर ही था| वैसे तो उसके बाबूजी अभी तक चलते फिरते थे, लेकिन कमाने का हुनर उनमे न था| वो तो मलंग थे | गाँव के नजदीक ही एक खेडा था, उसी खेड़े की सीमा पे एक प्राचीन शिव मंदिर था | कहते है उस मंदिर को कोई १२०० साल पहले बनाया गया था, और जब से वो मंदिर बना है तब से शंकर के पुरखे उसके पुजारी हैं | शंकर के बाबूजी भी अपनी पुश्तैनी परंपरा को आगे बढ़ाते हुए मंदिर से लग गए | पहले तो सब ठीक था लेकिन शंकर के सबसे छोटे भाई गणेश के पैदा होने के बाद से पता नहीं क्या विरक्ति हुई कि शंकर के बाबूजी, मुरली ने घर-बार छोड़ दिया और मंदिर में ही ठिकाना जमा लिया | दिन भर वहीं, कभी गांजे तो कभी भांग के नशे में पड़े रहते | जिस तरह भारत में साधुओं की कमी नहीं उस तरह ही उनके मानने वालो की भी कमी नहीं है | जिस खेड़े की सीमा पे वो मंदिर था वहाँ के लोग मुरली बाबा को बड़ा मानते थे | शंकर के गाँव में भी कई लोग उनके भक्त हो गए थे | पर शंकर को यह बात बिलकुल नहीं जँचती थी | जब से मुरली घर छोड़ गया था पुरे परिवार का बोझ उसकी माँ शारदा के कंधो पर ही था| शारदा की सास बहुत खडूस थी| खैर सास तो मिटटी की भी बुरी होती है मगर सास के साथ ४-४ बच्चो का बोझ और उनकी पदाई-लिखाई, फिर भी शारदा ने कभी अपना मन छोटा नहीं किया | अपनी जमीन किराये पे दे दी क्यूंकि अकेले उससे खेती होने की नहीं थी| दुसरो के खेत में मजदूरी करके शारदा ने जैसे तैसा शंकर को बड़ा किया |
शंकर ने अपने बाबूजी की तरह मंदिर का रास्ता नहीं किया | मंदिरों से तो वो बचपन से ही बिदकता था| एक बार उसके बाबूजी ने उसे मंदिर के लिए फूल तोड़ने भेजा| फूल तोड़ने के लिए जब शंकर झाड़ियो में घुसा तो वहाँ कोई जंगली कुत्ता सुस्ता रहा था | जैसे ही शंकर का पैर उसकी दुम पे पड़ा उसने पलट के शंकर की जांघ में एक जोरदार बल्ला भरा| तब से शंकर मंदिर और मंदिर के कामो से दूर ही रहने लगा | बाद में बाबूजी के इस तरह परिवार को छोड़ देने से मंदिर से उसकी दूरी और बढ़ गयी | वैसे इश्वर से उसकी कोई दुश्मनी नहीं थी मगर वो खुद पर और खुद के कर्म पर ज्यादा विश्वास करता था | धुन के पक्के इस लड़के ने अपनी तरुणावस्था में ही मन बना लिया था कि वो अपनी पुश्तैनी जमीन पर खेती करेगा | इंटर पास करने के बाद वो गाँव वापस आ गया और वहीं खेती करने लगा, शाम को वो गाँव के बनिए-महाजनों के बच्चो को पढ़ा दिया करता था |
शंकर जब घर से निकला तब उसे अंदाजा नहीं था कि आज वो क्लास नहीं ले सकेगा | “आज ग्रहण है, रात होने से पहले आ जाना ” शारदा ने कहा था उसे जब वो अपनी साइकिल लिए आँगन से बहार निकल रहा था | शारदा को मालूम था कि मना करने से शंकर रुकने वाला नहीं | काम भी कुछ ऐसा ही था| ३ दिन पहले शंकर की सबसे दुधारो भैंस का पाड़ा ठण्ड के मारे परलोग सिधार गया था| पाड़े की मौत का सदमा भैंस को ऐसा लगा कि उसके थन सुख गए | दुधारू पशु का अगर दूध नहीं निकालो, या दूध देते देते वो अचानक बंद कर दे तो जल्दी ही वो बीमार पड़ जाता है यु तो जाने अनजाने सारे इलाज़ आजमा के देख चूका था अपनी भैंस पे लेकिन कुछ असर नहीं हुआ| अगर इसी तरह चलता रहा तो भैंस की जान को खतरा भी हो सकता था | अगर भैंस का सही इलाज़ नहीं हुआ तो जो महीने के महीने दूध बाँट के घर में पैसे आते है वो बंद हो जाएँगे, खेती से तो साल में सिर्फ दो ही बार कमाई होती है | नयी भैंस खरीदने के लिए उसे अगली फसल के आने तक रुकना पड़ता , इसी चिंता के चलते शंकर ने आज तहसील में बने जानवरों के अस्पताल जाने का मन बना लिया था|
अस्पताल गाँव से कुछ २०-२५ मील दूर तहसील में था, घर से निकलते समय शंकर ने सोचा था कि दिन ढलने से पहले वो वापस तो आ ही जाएगा | साइकिल चलने में वो अव्वल था | मगर सरकारी अस्पतालों का हाल आज जैसा है उसे देख के यह अंदाजा तो लगाया ही जा सकता है कि तब कैसा होगा | वहाँ पहुच कर शंकर को पता चला कि डाक साब तो अस्पताल का चक्कर महीने में एक-दो बार लगाते हैं | उनके पीछे एक कम्पाउण्डर है जो वहाँ का काम काज देखता है और उस दिन तो वो भी अस्पताल नहीं आया था | मगर शंकर दवा लिए बिना जाने वाला कहाँ था | लोगो से पूछ के कम्पाउण्डर को ढूँढा, फिर उसकी बड़ी जी हजुरी करके उससे दवा ली | ये सब करते करते सूरज पश्चिम को प्रवास कर चूका था| अगर शंकर कि जगह और कोई होता तो एक बार सोचता भी, लेकिन उसको तो धुन चढ़ गयी सो चढ़ गयी | उसने सोच लिया था कि आज भैसी को दवा दे के रहेगा, उसे न रात कि फ़िक्र थी न अँधेरे की| फिर उन दिनों संचार के इतने साधन नहीं थे की शंकर रात को वहीँ रुक जाए और माँ को खबर कर दे, माँ तो चिंता करेगी ही|
शंकर के गाँव जाने का रास्ता बहुत टेढ़ा था, सड़के तो उन दिनों सिर्फ शहरो में हुआ करती थी| और ऊपर से ग्रहण वाली रात | कोई कमजोर जिगर का होता तो रुक ही जाता | मगर शंकर ने बिना सोचे अपने साइकिल उठाई और तेज़ तेज़ पैडल मरने लगा| जानवरों के अस्पताल से लग कर एक कच्ची-पक्की सड़क जाती थी | जो आगे जा के एक पगडण्डी में बदल जाती थी | इसी पगडण्डी से होकर, खेत-बड़ियो को लांघते हुए शकर को अपने गाँव पहुचना था |
जब से शंकर अस्पताल से निकला था, एक कनकटा कुत्ता उसके साथ हो लिया था | शंकर ने दिन में भी इस कुत्ते को देखा था, वो दिन भर अस्पताल की पेडियो पे सोया पड़ा था| पहले तो शंकर को लगा कि शायद थोड़ी दूर तक आके के वापस लौट जाएगा, मगर कुकुर महोदय का लौटने का जी ही नहीं कर रहा था | एक बार तो शंकर ने सोचा कि पलट कर इसको भगा देता हूँ, फिर उसे लगा कि मेरा कुछ बिगड़ तो नहीं रहा साथ चलता है तो चलने दो | जल्दी ही शंकर गाँव कि सीमा से बाहर आ गया, पगडण्डी छोड़ के उसको खेतो कि मेढ़ो पे से निकलना पद रहा था| कभी साइकिल पे तो कभी साइकिल हाथ में लेके, नाले-बावड़ी पार करते करते वो बस्ती से बहुत दूर आ पंहुचा था | अभी तो पूर्णिमा का चाँद पुरजोर रौशनी फैला रहा था मगर बीच बीच में बादलो के टुकड़े उसे ढँक कर राहगीर के लिए मुश्किलें बढ़ा रहे थे | पोश माह चल रहा था और बादलो को देख के कहा जा सकता था कि मावठा किसी भी पल आ सकता था | ठण्ड तो पहले ही बहुत थी और खेतो में गेहूं की फसल के लिए छोड़े गए पानी से उसका पैनापन और बढ़ गया था|
अभी खेतो की कच्ची मेढ़ो के एकदम नए रस्ते पर शंकर ने चलना शुरू ही किया था की उसकी साइकिल के पहिये गीली नर्म जमीन में धंसने लगे | शंकर ने साइकिल से उतर कर साइकिल को कंधे पर चढ़ा लिया, और गीली जमीन पार धीरे धीरे चलने लगा | जो कुत्ता इतनी देर से शंकर के पीछे पीछे चल रहा था वो अब उसके आगे आगे हो लिया | चाँद और बादलों की लुका छुपी के चलते रस्ते का सही अंदाजा लगाना मुश्किल हो रहा था, कुत्ते के आगे चलने से शंकर को एक फायदा तो हो ही गया कि अब उसे ठीक ठीक मालूम था कि कहाँ पैर रखना सही है | कुत्ता थोड़ी देर चलता और फिर जब उसे एहसास होता कि शंकर पीछे रह गया है तो वो रुक कर शकर के आने का इंतज़ार करता | ऐसा करते करते दोनों मुसाफिर खेतों की कतार के अंत में पहुच गए | वहाँ से आगे एक खोदरा था, जो खेतों को बीच से काटता हुआ निकल रहा था | खोदरा इतना चौड़ा था कि दो बैलगाड़ियां उसमे से आराम से निकल जाए और गहरा इतना कि ऊपर के खेतों में खड़े आदमी को २ फिट दूर से यह न दिखे कि अन्दर कौन है | इसी खोदरे के रस्ते सुबह शंकर आया था | धीरे से उस खोदरे में उतर कर शंकर ने इधर उधर देखा तो पाया की कुत्ता जो अभी तक उसके साथ चल रहा था अब नदारत है | दूर दूर तक कोई नहीं था | यहाँ वहाँ रह रह कर जुगनू चमक रहे थे और झींगुर प्रेमालाप कर रहे थे | शंकर ने सोचा जानवर है उसका क्या है, एक मन थोड़े ही रहता है | खोदरे की जमीन में पत्थरों की अधिकता थी, यहाँ नरम मिटटी नहीं थी| शंकर साइकिल पर चढ़ गया | आस्मां में बादलों के ठ्ठ के ठ्ठ आ गए थे | बादलों के पीछे से चाँद की रौशनी कुछ धुंधली और बिखरी हुई सी आ रही थी | हवा में ठण्ड बढ़ गयी थी लेकिन खोदरे के आस पास की जमीन के नीचे होने से शंकर का हवा से तो बचाव हो रहा था | खोदरे के दोनों और खेतो के किनारों पर बबूल और नीम के पेड़, ऊपर आसमान पर पर्दा डाले हुए थे और बड़े बड़े पेड़ो का संरक्षण पा के उनके नीचे जंगली झाड़ झंकड़ उग आये थे|
शंकर अपनी मस्ती में मगन और थोडा उनींदा सा साइकिल पर चला जा रहा था | तभी खेत के किनारों पर उगी हुई झाड़ियो में उसे सरसराहट सुने दी | पहले तो उसे लगा की कोई साँप-वाँप है | उसने पैडल तेजी से चलाना शुरू कर दिए | सरसराहट की आवाज़ भी तेजी से आगे बढ़ने लगी | शंकर ने साइकिल धीरे कर दी, और वो जो भी था आगे निकल गया, आगे जा के झाड़ियो में कुछ जगह थी वहाँ पर वो आवाज़ रुक गयी | अब तक शंकर भी पूरी तरह रुक गया था, वो साँस थामे उसी जगह को देख रहा था जहां वो अवाजुक गयी थी| फिर से कुछ सरसराहट हुई और एक थूथन वहाँ से बाहर आया| देखते ही शंकर पहचान गया की यह तो वही कनकटा कुत्ता था जो उसके पीछे पीछे आ रहा था| शंकर ने एक गहरी सांस ली| कुत्ता खोदरे के अंदर उतर गया और शंकर से कुछ दूर ठीक उसके सामने खड़ा हो गया| वो सीधे शंकर की आँखों में देख रहा था | एक क्षण के लिए तो शंकर के शरीर में सिरहन दौड़ गयी, उसे लगा मानो ये मूक जानवर अब कुछ बोल पड़ेगा | शंकर इसके आगे कुछ समझ पता उससे पहले कुत्ता उसके पीछे की ओर आके खड़ा हो गया | शंकर ने इस सबको भूलना ही बेहतर समझा और फिर से साइकिल पर पैडल मरने लगा|
बादलों से छन के आ रही पूर्णिमा के चाँद की मद्धिम रौशनी अब शंकर की पीठ पे पड रही थी | उसके पीछे चलने वाले कुत्ते की एक धुंदली सी परछाई शंकर को जमीन पर दिख रही थी | अब उसके मन में जल्दी से जल्दी घर पहुचने की योजना चल रही थी | यह खोदरा आगे जा कर एक मौसमी नदी में मिल जाता था | गाँवों में हर चीज़ के अनेक उपयोग होते है | जब बरसात होती है तो यही खोदरा खेतो से पानी निकल कर नदी में पहुँचाता था , और जब बरसात का मौसम चला जाता है तो येही खोदरा बैलगाड़ियों की आवाजाही के काम आता था | इसी प्रकार वो नदी जिसमे आगे जा कर यह जुड़ता था, बाकी मौसमो में एक सड़क का काम भी करती थी | शंकर के पास आगे जा कर दो रस्ते थे, या तो वो नदी पर कर के दूसरी तरफ की पगडण्डी से अपने गाँव जा सकता था, या फिर नदी के रस्ते सीधे अपने घर के पीछे निकल सकता था | नदी का रास्ता छोटा था और वो सीधे उसे उसके घर तक ले जा सकता था, मगर सूखी नदी के तल में साइकिल चलाना आसन काम नहीं है | पगडण्डी से जाने पर आसानी से साइकिल चलाई जा सकती थी| मगर लम्बा रास्ता होने के साथ साथ पगडण्डी के रस्ते जाने में एक और परेशानी थी| वो परेशानी थी, रामकृष्ण का खेत| अपने गाँव में घुसने से पहले शंकर को रामकृष्ण के खेत से होकर गुज़ारना पड़ता | गांवे में मशहूर था कि रामकृष्ण ने अपनी जवानी में अपनी बीवी को इसी खेत पर ला कर मारा था | क्यों मारा, इसके बारे में कई बातें मशहूर थी, जितने मुंह उतनी बातें| और इस सब के साथ यह भी मशहूर था कि उसी खेत में रात को रामू की बीवी की आत्मा भटकती है| रामू अब पागल हो चूका था, लोगो का कहना था यह भी उसकी बीवी की आत्मा का कमाल था| जो भी हो अब रामू का खेत बंजर था और गाँव के बड़े से बड़े बाहुबली की हिम्मत नहीं थी कि वो रामू के खेत पर कब्ज़ा कर ले| शंकर के सामने दुविधा थी कि वो जाए तो किस रस्ते से जाए|
यही सोचते सोचते शंकर खोदरे के मुहाने तक आ गया, अंततः उसने पगडण्डी के रस्ते जाने का मन बना ही लिया | उसे किसी भूत वूत का डर नहीं था, बस वो नदी के पथरीली तल पर साइकिल नहीं चलाना चाहता था | शंकर नदी पार करने लगा, कनकटा कुत्ता अभी भी उसके पीछे पीछे चल रहा था | उसकी धुंधली परछाई अभी भी शंकर को जमीन पर दिख रही थी| नदी के तल में माहौल आस पास से शांत था | यहाँ झींगुरो की आवाज़ और जुगनुओ की रौशनी नहीं थी|
शंकर अब यह सोच रहा था की जल्दी से जल्दी घर पहुँच जाए, माँ उसकी राह देख रही होगी| नदी के पथरीले तल पर साइकिल चलाना आसान नहीं था| फिर भी शंकर पुरे जोर से पैडल चला रहा था| अचानक वो कनकटा कुत्ता दौड़ते हुए उससे आगे निकल गया| आगे जा कर नदी में एक मोड़ था, वो कुत्ते उस मोड़ के बाद शंकर की दृष्टीसे ओझल हो गया| यह दूसरी बार था जब इस तरह कुत्ता, उसके अलग भाग निकला था| शंकर ने ज्यादा ध्यान न देते हुए अपने रस्ते चलते रहना ठीक समझा| जैसे ही शंकर ने नदी के साथ-साथ मोड़ लिया, उसे कुत्ता आगे खड़ा हुआ दिखा| कुत्ता ठीक उसी अंदाज़ में खड़ा था जैसा वो पिछली बार खड़ा था, उसकी आँखें शंकर को एकटक देख रही थी| शंकर को फिर लगा कि वो कुछ बोलेगा| शंकर अपनी गति से उसकी ओर बढ़ा| जैसे ही शंकर उसके पास पंहुचा, कुछ ऐसा हुआ जो देख कर शंकर के पैर जम गए| एक क्षण के लिए उसकी सांस रुक गयी ओर उसका मुंह फटा का फटा रह गया| उसने साफ़-साफ़ देखा कि उस कुत्ते ने शंकर से कुछ कहा| ठिठक कर रुके शंकर के मुंह से अनायास ही “क्या?” निकल पड़ा|
कुत्ते ने उस प्रश्न का उत्तर भी दिया| “इस रस्ते से मत जा| नहीं बचेगा” वो बोला|
शंकर को काटो तो खून नहीं, शरीर पर जैसे उसका अधिकार छीन लिया गया हो| आंखे फाड़े वो कुत्ते को देखता ही रहा, फिर उसके पैर कांपने लगे ओर साइकिल से वो गिर पड़ा| जब तक वो कुत्ता वहाँ से भाग चूका था| शंकर वहाँ पड़ा हुआ था, वो होश में तो था पर उसका दिमाग अचेत हो चूका था| कुछ लम्बी सांसे लेने के बाद जब उसके होश ठिकाने आये तो उसने पुनर्विचार किया| उसे अभी भी विश्वास नहीं हो रहा था कि कुछ ऐसा हो सकता है| उसने पढ़ा था कि कई बार अधिक थक जाने पर इस तरह के छलावे होते हैं| जैसे-जैसे समय बीतता जा रहा था, उसका इस वाकये पर यकीन कम होते जा रहा था| जल्द ही उसने इसे भूल कर आगे बढ़ने का मन बना लिया था, वो था तो बड़ा हिम्मती| मगर जो कुछ हुआ उसने थोड़ी देर के लिए उसकी हिम्मत को डिगा दिया था, उसके दिल में कहीं न कहीं एक भय घर कर गया था|
अभी भी नदी के तल में साइकिल चलते हुए वो यही सोच रहा था कि वो कुत्ता आखिर उसके साथ क्यों आया, ओर आखिर उसने उसे ऐसे बोला क्यों| अँधेरा और बढ़ गया था| कुछ देर पहले तक जो चाँद अपनी दुधिया रौशनी से नहला कर बादलो को कपास के फोए की तरह बना रहा था, अब उसकी रौशनी मद्धम पड़ने लगी थी| ग्रहण शुरू हो रहा था| रातों का अपना अलग जीवन होता है| झींगुर, जुगनू, गिरगिट, गीदड़, लोमड, चूहे जैसे कई जीव जो दिन में अपने-अपने ठिकानो में चुप जाते है, वो रात में खाने की तलाश में निकल आते है| इन सब में सबसे अजीब और घिनोना प्राणी होता है लकडबग्घा| मुख्यतः मरे हुए जानवरों के शवो से अपना भोजन जुटाने वाला यह जीव एक बेहद ही ख़तरनाक आवाज़ करता है| जो कई मील दूर तक सुनाई पड़ती है| कमज़ोर दिल वाले तो बस उससे ही डर जाते है| और अगर यह किसी के सामने आ गया तो, इसका अजीब रूप देख कर तो होश उड़ जाना पक्का है| आगे पैर पिछले पैरो कुछ बड़े होते है और गर्दन से लेकर पीठ पर घोड़े की तरह बाल|
रह-रह कर शंकर को लक्कड़बग्घों के रोने की भयावह आवाज़ शंकर के कानो में पद रही थी| जैसे जैसे वो आगे बढ़ रहा था, यह आवाज़ तेज़ और तेज़ होती जा रही थी| उसने अपने आप को लक्कड़बग्घों से सामने के लिए मानसिक रूप से तैयार कर रखा था| चाँद कि घटती रौशनी के साथ ही, रात कि आवाज़ें और तेज़ हो गयी थी| दूर कहीं, शंकर को कुछ आकृतियाँ चलती हुई दिखी, जिस तरह से वो चल रही थी, लग रहा था कोई जानवर ही है| चमगादड़ो का एक छोटा सा झुण्ड शकर के उप्पर से उड़ कर गया, एक चमगादड़ तो शंकर से बस बाल भर की दुरी से निकला| पास पहुचते हुए शंकर को यह साफ़ हो गया कि वो आकृतियाँ लक्कड़बग्घों की थी|
कहीं से उन्हें मारा हुआ कोई जानवर मिल गया था, जिसको वो चीथड़े-चीथड़े कर खा रहे थे| शंकर की साइकिल की आवाज़े सुनते ही वो सतर्क हो गए| वो रुक कर शंकर की ओर देखने लगे| शंकर ने तो पहले से ही इस सामने के लिए खुद को तैयार कर रखा था| वो बिना रुके उनकी ओर बढ़ रहा था| कुछ देर शंकर को देख कर लक्कड़बग्घों को समझ आ गया था कि शंकर रुकने वाला नहीं था| यह समझते ही उन्होंने वहाँ से भागने में ही भलाई समझी| अजीब से, किसी पागल के हंसने के सामान आवाज़ करते हुए, वो वहाँ से भाग निकले|
शंकर उन पर ध्यान न देते हुए आगे बढ़ना चाह रहा था, मगर के कोने से उसको कुछ ऐसा दिखा कि वह ठिठक गया। जिस जानवर को वो लक्कड्बग्घे नोच नोच कर खा रहे थे वो वही कनकटा कुत्ता था। पहले तो शंकर को विश्वास नहीं हुआ, क्यूकि कुत्ता तो उलटी दिशा में गया था। और तो और उसने लक्कड्बग्घो और कुत्ते के बीच किसी संघर्ष की आवाज़ भी नहीं सुनी। लेकिन उस क्षत-विक्षत शव का सर, जो एक बाबुल के पेड़ के नीचे पड़ा था, उस सर का भी कान ठीक उसी तरह कटा हुआ था जैसा की उस कुत्ते का था । शंकर की साँसों की गति तेज़ हो गयी थी। उसका ह्रदय जो बड़ी बड़ी मुश्किलों को झेल गया था, अब थोडा डिगने लगा था। वो मूर्ति के सामान खड़ा हो कर उस शव को देख रहा था, कि अचानक कही दूर कोई उल्लू बोलने लगा। उल्लू की इस ध्वनि ने शंकर की धुन को तोड़ दिया। शंकर ने पाया कि उसका कुरता पसीने में पूरी तरह भीग गया था। हवा तो अब पहले से भी ठंडी चल रही थी, लेकिन शंकर के सर से तो किसी बरसाती झरने की तरह पसीना चू रहा था। ग्रहण अब अपने चरम पर था, सोमदेव रहू के पाश में करीब करीब कैद हो ही चुके थे।
ग्रहण का सम्बन्ध भारतीय मान्यताओं में कभी भी सुखद कहानियो से नहीं रहा है। आज भी कई घरो में ग्रहण छुट जाने के बाद शुध्दिकरण की क्रियाएँ संपन्न की जाती है। मगर शंकर नए विचारो वाले भारत का नागरिक था, ऐसी पुरातनपंथी मान्यताएँ उसको मंज़ूर नहीं थी। यह रात उसके इन विचारों की परीक्षा की रात थी। पार्श्व से निरंतर एक ताल में आती उल्लू की आवाज़ अब अँधेरी हो चली रात को एक स्थायित्व प्रदान कर रही थी। आसमान में बादलों के पीछे के उस सफ़ेद गोले को पृथ्वी की परछाई ने पूरी तरह ढँक लिया था। रात का तीसरा पहर शुरू हो रहा था। भूत प्रेत के किस्से सुनाने वाले लोगो को इसी पहर में सबसे ज्यादा पारलोकिक अनुभव होते है, क्यूंकि इस पहर में ही रात सबसे गहरी होती है।
शंकर के पेर साइकिल पर लगातार एक मशीन की भाँति चल रहे थे। उसने अपने अन्दर की सारी उर्जा, साड़ी शक्ति और साड़ी हिम्मत को इकठ्ठा कर अब बिना किसी पथांतर एक लक्ष्य की और बढ़ने की ठान ली थी। अँधेरी रात में खुद ही के भरोसे यह नौजवान आगे और आगे बढ़ता ही जा रहा था। उसका शरीर पैडल चलने की एक लय में आ चूका था। साइकिल के चैन कवर से रगते हुए पेडल आवाज़ एक नियमित ताल में आ रही थी। पहले से आ रही उल्लू की आवाज़ अब दूर और दूर होती जा रही थी। शंकर को महसूस होने लगा कि अब शायद कुछ विचित्र, कुछ अजीब नहीं होगा। लेकिन शायद भाग्य को ऐसा मंज़ूर नहीं था, अगला पैडल मरते ही शंकर की साइकिल की चैन उतर गयी और उसने अपना संतुलन खो दिया। वो पगडण्डी के किनारे वाले खेत में जा गिरा। और उसके दुर्भाग्य को शायद सिर्फ इतने से संतोष नहीं हुआ, कि आसमान में एकत्रित मेघों ने वर्षा का सूत्रपात कर दिया।
एक पल को तो शंकर झुंझला ही गया, उसे लगा कि वो क्या कर जाए। शायद इससे बुरी रात उसके जीवन में पहले कभी नहीं आई थी। धरा पर बरसती पानी की बूंदों के शोर ने आस पास की सारी आवाजों पर एक पर्दा सा दाल दिया। शंकर कीचड से भरी उस ज़मीन पर खड़ा अपने खोये दिशा ज्ञान को पुनः स्थापित करने की कोशिश करने लगा। उसे तो यह भी पता नहीं था कि उसकी साइकिल कहाँ पर गिरी थी। बारिश के साथ तेज़ हवा भी चलने लगी, अब शंकर के सामने समस्या यह थी कि ऐसी बारिश में वही रुक रहे या आगे बढ़ने का जोखिम उठाये। रुके रहना तो उसे वैसे भी मंज़ूर नहीं था, तो उसने अंदाज़े से साइकिल दूंदने की कोशिश शुरू कर दी। काफी देर कीचढ़ में टटोलने के बाद साइकिल का पहिया उसके हाथ में आया। उसने अँधेरे में ही साइकिल की चैन वापस चढ़ाई और उसपर सवार हो गया। पगडण्डी पर कीचड तो काफी हो गया था, अब शंकर को पहले से कंही अधिक जोर लगाना पड़ रहा था। उसकी गति मंथर हो चली थी। शंकर अब अपने हर उस फैसले को कोस रहा था जिसके चलते वो इस वक़्त इस हाल में था। तभी उसको वो वाकया याद आया, जब उस कनकटे कुत्ते ने उसे इस रास्ते जाने से मन किया था। उस बात को तो शंकर एक भ्रम मान कर भुला चूका था, लेकिन शायद उसी भ्रम ने शंकर को एक चेतावनी जरूर दी थी।
बारिश अब थोड़ी थम सी गयी थी। और शंकर की ख़ुशी का तब ठिकाना नहीं रहा, जब उसने दूर एक लालटेन जलती हुई देखी। उसी पल शकर ने निर्णय कर लिया कि जैसे भी हो हाथ पैर जोड़ कर आज रात वो यही आसरा ले लेगा। उसने साइकिल रौशनी की दिशा में मोड़ दी।
“भाई कोई है?” शंकर ने पूछा
जहाँ लालटेन तंगी थी वही एक पुरानी झोपडी थी, जो एक खाली खेत के बीचोबीच बनी हुई थी। अन्दर से हल्का-हल्का धुँआ भी उठ रहा था। कुछ देर रुकने पर भी जब किसी का जवाब नहीं आया तो शंकर दुबारा आवाज़ लगाई। लेकिन परिणाम वही रहा। शंकर ने दरवाज़े को जब हलके से धक्का दिया तो दरवाज़ा खुल गया। अन्दर कोई नहीं था, बस एक छोटा सा दीपक चूल्हे के पास जल रहा था। चूहे पर एक बर्तन रखा था और नीचे एक थाली में दो रोटी। भूख तो शंकर को बड़े जोरो की लगी थी। और सामने थाल सजा था, मगर उसका शिष्टाचार उसे इस बात की इजाज़त नहीं दे रहा था कि वो किसी के घर में घुस कर बिना पूछे कुछ खा ले।
शंकर चूल्हे के नज़दीक झोपडी के उस गर्म कोने में बैठ गया। दिन भर की भागदौड़ और रात की घटनाओ से उसका शरीर और मन दोनों थक चुके थे। उसने अपने कुर्ते की जेब में हाथ डाल कर भैंस की दावा की शीशी का होना सुनिश्चित किया। यही वो चीज़ थी जिसके लिए उसने सारी मुसिबत मोल ली थी। उसने खुद को दिलासा दिया कि अगर वो सुबह सूर्योदय के साथ ही निकल पड़ता है तो सुबह के चारे के साथ वो भैंस को दावा खिला सकता है। इसी उधेड़बुन में उसे नींद कब लग गयी उसे पता भी नहीं चला। शायद शंकर के लिए इस रात का सबसे सुहाना पल वही था।
…शेष अगले भाग में/To be continued
What I am going to tell you is a true story. So, every time you read something (in this post) that excites, enthralls, amazes, shocks or disgusts you keep in mind that has happened with real people. It is all real. I have withheld the original names (of places, people and products) for obvious reasons. And please do not ask me how I know all this. Vikrant was moderately successful neo urbanite. Being moderately successful was something that he dreaded, for him either there was complete success or total failure, nothing in between. He was avid fan of Black and white cinema, and worshiped Gurudutt. Somewhere, when in high school he had read Gurudutt had once said in an interview that “What is there in life, friend? There are only two things – success and failure. There is nothing in between.” This had profound impact on his teenage mind. He related to this immediately. It happened on a chilly December night. Vikrant with his Fiancé, Nikita was watching a movie at a theatre, which I refrain from naming. The movie was a story about a troubled musician who has tough time balancing his life and his passion. The protagonist was a charming personality. There was no scene when he didn’t have a cigarette between his lips. The cigarette stuck to his lips gently at the edge as he played the guitar. Every time he would close his eyes and inhale the dense smoke, to play the high notes. Seeing these images Vikrant started feeling an upsurge in the urge to smoke a cigarette. He waited till the cup was full, he wanted to smoke and smoke then. He got up. “Where are you going?” asked Nikita. “Washroom” He answered. “Don’t smoke” Instructed Nikita. She knew him well enough to guess what was in his mind. He gave an angry stare to her and quickly moved out of the hall. In the lobby there were signs everywhere saying ‘No Smoking’. He went inside the washroom to find smoke detectors everywhere on the ceiling. His restlessness grew, he had to smoke. He went out in the lobby again and moved to a secluded corner, there were no one and no smoke detectors. He fetched the packet of his favorite brand, McKnight. McKnight came in a White box with beautiful blue stripe running in the middle, with the trademark crest in the center. Just one remained in the pack of 15. Each carried the distinct aroma of slightly wet tobacco. Vikrant ignited the lighter, lit up the cigarette and inhaled the rich tobacco smoke. He felt a relief; he closed his eyes and felt the hot smoke go down his throat. “Sir” A coarse voice interrupted his trance. He turned back to find out a man dressed in the quintessential security guard uniform stood behind him. “Sir, this is strictly a non-smoking area. Please put off your cigarette.” He said. Vikrant liked no interruption while he was doing something for himself. But the obligations imposed by the civilized society forced him to put-off his cigarette. He smashed the burning end of the cigarette against the inner side of the packet, put the half spent cigarette in the packet and threw the packet in the steel dustbin kept at the corner. It was against his liking but the one puff had made him feel better. “You smoked?” Asked Nikita as he took his seat. “Yes, but only one puff” Vikrant clarified. “You know, doc has asked you to stop, your acidity will aggravate.” Nikita was agitated. Vikrant didn’t find her words worthy of a reply. He kept staring on the screen, again the cigarette in the actor’s lips attracted him, allured him. He barely sat through the climax. As soon as the show was over he rushed to his SUV in the parking. He always kept a backup packet in the glove compartment. He went so fast that Nikita could hardly follow, he didn’t care. Like a leopard leaping onto its prey he leapt on the glove compartment before he got into the car. There was no packet there. He felt enraged, disturbed. How could this happen? There has to be a packet here, where did it go? “Did you see my McKnight?” He asked Nikita, who was clueless about why Vikrant was so restless. She was bit annoyed by his indifference to her that he showed at the theatre. She reciprocated it, without answering him. “Answer me” Growled Vikrant. “Well I smoked it.” She screamed sarcastically. This irritated Vikrant. There had been moments in their relationship that had provoked Vikrant to almost hit Nikita but his self control always triumphed over the rage. This time too he closed his eyes and covered his face with his hand. His fingers still smelled of McKnight. He craved for it more. It was quarter past fifteen, Chandu would still be open. Chandu was his reliable cigarette vendor who kept ample supplies of McKnight for Vikrant. His car scorched the roads, which were empty, bit unusual for this city. General elections were 3 days away and due to some political unrest a stronger code of conduct was being enforced. This created apprehensions in his mind whether Chandu would be open or not. He pressed the throttle. “Would you mind slowing down? It is scary.” Asked Nikita with the anger evident in her voice. This time Vikrant mellowed to her plea and dropped a few Kilometers. He knew that even if Chandu would have closed the shop he can call Chandu to get the cigarettes. To his evident dismay, Chandu had closed the shop, probably due to the strict code of conduct. Vikrant was frustrated, for few seconds he couldn’t think. Then he picked up the phone and called Chandu. “Chandu, McKnight.” He asked. “Sir, Manny sir took the last carton, I will order for more tomorrow.” Chandu replied. Manoj or Manny as his friends called him, was an aquintance of Vikrant. They first came to know each other because of McKnight only. Both were lovers of the brand. Vikrant’s irritation grew. He closed his eyes and talked to himself for few minutes; it was only the matter of this night. The next day was a Saturday and he would get up only after 11 in the morning, by that time Chandu would’ve got his McKnights. Bit calmer Vikrant drove back to his flat, which was two apartments away from Chandu’s shop. Nikita was to stay at his place that night, but now she was revaluating her stay. Vikrant switched on the lights and went straight into the bathroom for a shower. The smell of McKnight in his fingers was driving him crazy. He needed to get rid of it, if he couldn’t have the cigarette itself. He stood under the shower for few minutes letting the warm water drench his body that was experiencing palpitations at various places. It settled him; he took a few deep breaths. Before going out he brushed his teeth, it was his childhood habit to brush before sleeping. He wanted to get away from consciousness until he had his McKnight. He came out of the Bathroom to find Nikita sitting on his bed, wearing blue lingerie that he brought her on her birthday. She had taken a shower in the other bathroom. He was in no mood of any adventure, but she seemed undeterred by his cold looks. Nikita got up and placed her hand around Vikrant’s waist. He turned his face away from her; she placed her lips on his. He got drawn into the trap, and it was a good distraction from the craving of cigarette, which was exploding his mind. They made love for next few hours, and soon Nikita fell asleep. Vikrant was exhausted, but he still couldn’t sleep. He had to get the cigarette. To distract himself he switched on his computer and logged onto a social networking site. He was checking through the status messages of friends when he found something that destroyed him. One of his friends in UK has written: “McKnight files for bankruptcy; production stopped; will have to switch to other brand” Vikrant couldn’t believe what he was reading, he read and reread. It was not long before the dark clouds of disappointment and hopelessness engulfed him. How will he make though the day without his favorite brand. No other brand came closer to McKnight, the quality of filter, the fresh tobacco and the smooth taste. He couldn’t think of anything, for once he thought to try and get all the packs of McKnight in the market. That would be the first thing he will do in the morning, he thought. But then the unfortunate afterthought struck him “What if there is none in the market? Chandu was never out of stock, this was the first time he said McKnight was exhausted. Maybe they had stopped production weeks before filing for bankruptcy. Maybe Manoj knew this, and that is why he brought the carton from Chandu.” He again felt the sudden urge to smoke one McKnight, but stronger this time. “Manoj, he bought the carton from Chandu, atleast he can spare me one pack.” He thought. He picked his phone and called Manoj. There was no answer, Vikrant had no hesitation in calling him again. After 5 tries Manoj answered. “It is 1:30 Vicky, what is it?” Asked an irritated voice from the other side. “I want one pack of McKnight.” Stated Vikrant. “What!” Manoj was astonished. “You called me at 1:30 in night for a pack of cigarette. Are you out of your mind?” He was almost shouting. “Look, just one pack.” Vikrant pleaded. “First of all, I am travelling to Mumbai. So you can’t have it. And even if I were there, I would not have given that to you.” Told Manoj. He disconnected Vikrant was enraged. If Manoj would have been in front of him, he would have knocked Manoj out. Vikrant felt convulsions in his muscles and twitching in his brain. He knew he needed a cigarette, but not any cigarette, he needed McKnight. He made a mental note to take care of Manoj when he returns, as getting a cigarette was more important at that time. Vikrant got up from the chair. He longed for a McKnight, and it beckoned him like an old girlfriend. An old girlfriend who was always near to the heart but you could not reach for her. At this thought he recalled something that electrified him. Devyani, she was the one who always keeps McKnight in spare. He called her, but her phone was switched off. He picked up the car keys and rushed down the stairs. Driving as fast as he can, he was at Devyani’s place in minutes. Devyani was his first girlfriend, they were together in college. She was the one who first introduced him to McKnight. At that time he could not afford the expensive imported cigarette. She was rich and they were in love, with each other and with McKnight. He cherished each cigarette shared with Devyani. He pressed the elevator’s button which was at 12th floor. The descent of the elevator was painfully slow. He took the stairs instead. His heart was thumping the hardest when he reached at the door of her flat. He turned up the doormat and took the keys. It was his second nature to do so. He had never knocked the door to enter Devyani’s flat. He opened the door and entered the living room clad with darkness. Before his eyes could adjust to the darkness, he was in the kitchen. Devyani kept her cigarettes in the kitchen racks, Vikrant knew it. He flipped the light switch and started searching. He was disappointed and frustrated that there were no cigarettes. “Has she started keeping them somewhere else? Should I look in the bedroom? There would be a pack certainly by her bed.” He thought to himself. He turned towards the bedroom to find Devyani standing there. She looked at him in amazement and was holding up a bed sheet to cover up her naked body. “Vikrant…what is this?” She asked widening her eyes. Vikrant didn’t expect her to be there, this shocked him and already he was feeling nauseated in his yearning for McKnight. He jerked to his side as a natural reaction and tumbled the set of crystal glasses kept on the platform. He stepped back and a piece of broken glass pierced his foot. He had forgotten to put his shoes on before leaving. He also realized that he was wearing just his boxer shorts and nothing else. “What has happened?” Asked Devyani, she was clueless. Her bed sheet now lied on the floor and she moved forward to pick up the glass pieces from the floor. “Don’t move or you will hurt yourself.” She instructed. Vikrant stood still but the chill started to get him. It was cold and really cold. But only after he realized that he was almost naked he felt the chill. Soon another silhouette walked from the bedroom to the kitchen. Vikrant recognized him, it was Tony, Devyani’s boyfriend. He had the same look on his face that Devyani had a few minutes ago. “Would you tell us what has happened?” Asked Devyani mopping the glass pieces from the floor. “I want a cigarette.” Answered Vikrant looking into infinity through the floor. He was blank and numb. Devyani held him and helped him limp out of kitchen. “Get that glass piece out of his foot and give him something to wear” She told Tony who was still trying to understand the happenings. “Look at you, you are naked, bloody hell, in front of him” Tony said to Devyani pointing to Vikrant. He didn’t like it. “For God’s sake, Tony. He was my boyfriend for 5 years. He has seen it all.” she almost shouted as Tony took Vikrant to the living room. Few minutes later all three of them were sitting in the living room. Devyani poured a glass of brandy to Vikrant who was wearing a Kurta-Payjama. Devyani was dressed in her bathroom robe, a bit more conservative then her earlier appearance. “You have brandy in the house? How many times have I told you to get rid of this stuff.” Asked infuriated Tony. “Come on. I don’t drink this anymore. It is for the guests.” She placed the glass infront of Vikrant. Tony was red with anger; his male ego was severely hurt at several places. He wanted Vikrant out as soon as possible. But then for ladies he was like the ideal chocolate boy who was a perfect gentleman. He was someone whom a girl would want to keep as a trophy on her mantle. He contained the fury. “You came all this way, for a pack of cigarette?” Asked Tony. “Yes…” Answered Vikrant and turned to Devyani “Devyani, please give me one, just one pack of McKnight.” He asked. “Sorry Vikrant, but I do not smoke anymore. I thought you knew that” She said placing herself on the sofa. This unsettled Vikrant. He had his hopes on her. “I know it would be here somewhere.” He said getting up from the sofa. “Please let me have…just one cigarette will do” he moved towards the bedroom. Puzzled Tony looked at Devyani in amazement. He wanted her to stop Vikrant, he would have done that himself, but then he had to be the matured man, who stays out until absolutely necessary. He had to give Devyani a chance to set things straight. “Vikrant, I told you, I had stopped smoking. There are no cigarettes in my house.” She screamed as she held Vikrant’s hand to stop him from going further. His temper was already on rise. This was second time that night, that he was about to hit a women. Tony thought it was enough and he must step in. “Vicky, she smokes no cigarette, so chuck it and get lost” Tony dictated. “But, why did you quit.” Vikrant was almost bursting with the mixture of emotions. “It is because of Tony, he wants me to get rid of all this stuff. And actually it is good, for a healthy lifestyle.” She released Vikrant’s hand. He was now looking down at the floor which had few drops of blood on it. His foot was still bleeding. “You quit because of Tony?” Vikrant could not believe what he just heard. His longing for a cigarette increased with every blow to his hope of getting one. And then, like lava bursting out of volcano, his emotion burst through him. He picked up the metal rhino on the table next him and hurled that to Tony. The rhino missed Tony, who had already started charging towards Vikrant. Tony took Vikrant head on and both crashed, first against the wall and then against the floor. “Tony!!!” Screamed Devyani. Tony grabbed Vikrant’s neck with his strong fist. Vikrant moved his knee to hit Tony on his genitals. This undid Tony and he rolled to the other side. Enraged Vikrant stood up, Devyani tried to contain him but he easily pushed her over the sofa and onto the floor. While Tony rolled on the floor in pain, Vikrant lifted the glass and metal table and smashed that on Tony’s head. Although Tony was fitter and stronger than Vikrant, but now he lied at Vikrant’s feet. Vikrant picked up large piece of broken glass from shattered table and slashed Tony’s throat. Devyani sulked sitting in the corner, she was also bleeding. She had got her phone and was trying to dial a number. But she was trembling too much to hit the correct key. Vikrant leaped in front of her and held her by her hair. Phone fell from her hand. He banged her head several times against the wall, before he realized she is dead. The flat was soundproof so nobody heard her shrill screams. Vikrant searched the house and turned every single article but did not find a cigarette. The clothes he was wearing were stained with the blood gushing out of Tony’s throat and Devyani’s head. And then the revelation struck him, he had killed them. He went blank once again. He cried and cried hard. Images of him with Devyani flashed in his mind. When they were in college they used to go for long drives in Devyani’s car, made love, drank and smoked. He was free at that time, away from his family. His family always doubted his ability, because he was the youngest. He remembered how he smoked his first cigarette. It was a challenge thrown to him; he smoked the whole cigarette in less than a minute. It liberated him, he felt like he could do anything. It lifted him to newer heights. He felt more respectable among the average college students. It got him his first girlfriend, who was also the hottest girl in the campus. Now she was dead and his tears flowed down his cheeks to blend with her blood on his body. He couldn’t come to terms with what has happened. Fear clouded his remorse. He understood the need to leave that place as soon as possible. But even if he left, he couldn’t escape the law. His prints on the two corpses were enough to convict him. He opened all the windows, switched off the AC, poured the brandy over the living room carpet. He went into the kitchen, opened the valve of cooking gas regulator. Removed the clothes he was wearing and drenched them in brandy also, and changed to Tony’s suit after a shower. Before leaving he lit up his brandy drenched kurta with his favorite Lamington lighter and threw it on the carpet, closed the door and wiped the door knob. He felt a relief when he turned the keys and the car started. Pushing the throttle paddle hard he drove away from the crime site. Soon the craving for a cigarette got back to him; it was still there while he was weeping at Devyani’s place. He felt his hands were trembling. The blood slowed down in his veins. His finger started getting numb. It became hard for him to turn the steering. The street lights blurred in his eyes. He was convinced he needed a cigarette or he will die. And moreover soon McKnight was out of market, he could not imagine himself smoking anything else. His heart ached with this thought. It was like his beloved was parting forever and he was denied her last sight. He wanted his last McKnight. Driving the car became harder with every tumbling thought, he passed the theatre where he was few hours ago. It was this cursed theatre where he was about to smoke his last McKnight, and the damn security guard spoilt the union. He had to put that off. And suddenly his car braked the hardest since it was built. He recalled that he hadn’t smoked the complete cigarette and it would still be in the dustbin. Running, no panting he reached the dustbin. It was a steel dustbin with a usual black plastic bag. His desperation grew as he found the dustbin was empty. They had cleaned it up after the last show. He broke down, and then the same sound fell on his ears which had asked him not to smoke. It was the same guard. Vikrant was squatting on the floor infront of dustbin. Guard was not habitual of visitors so late and in this situation. “Any problem sir?” Guard asked. “Where is the trash?” Asked Vikrant in reply “Housekeeping took it out.” Explained the guard. “Where do they take it?” Vikrant was growing desperate with each answer. “I am not sure, a truck comes every night to collect the trash, but what are you looking for?” He was really puzzled now. “You are saying, you do not know where they take it.” Confirmed Vikrant. His desperation started giving way to anger. With guard’s each word the memories of that dismal moment came to Vikrant’s mind. He picked up the steel dustbin and banged that on the Guard’s head. Blood started dripping from guard’s mouth. “You said no smoking here” Shouted Vikrant “I will show you what is smoking” He claimed. Vikrant dragged the guard to the parking and along the way kept hitting him with his leg. He inserted the chubby exhaust pipe in the guard’s bleeding mouth. The pipe was so big in diameter that it almost tore the guard’s cheeks. Vikrant turned the engine on. Pressed the throttle hard, guard’s body jerked in convulsions as the black diesel smoke filled his lunges. After pumping enough smoke into the guard’s lunges to suffocate a room, Vikrant drove away. He didn’t even care to wait to see whether the guard was dead or alive. He was on the roads again; he decided to break into the dealer’s shop in the central town. This was the dealer who supplied McKnight to all the vendors across the city. And then it happened, something which was bound to happen and he knew it would. He ran into a police check post. Considering the present circumstances, it was a miracle that till now he hasn’t came across one. He stepped onto the breaks and rolled down the windows, just enough to reveal his face. “Can I have your Driving license and vehicle registration?” Asked the officer who was much polite, maybe due to the machine Vikrant was driving. It underlined where Vikrant belonged in the social pyramid. Vikrant handed over the papers and waited patiently. But this patience was only superficial; inside he was becoming more and more desperate to get his McKnight, probably the last few. While the officer checked the papers a constable as part of the routine check circled the car to look for any suspicious signs. “Sir” called the constable from the rear of the vehicle; he had spotted the blood on car’s exhaust pipe. The officer went towards the rear to see what the matter was. Vikrant considered this the perfect opportunity to escape, but his papers were with the cop. He could’ve escaped but rather tried to maintain his calm and waited for the officer to come back. “Can you explain the blood on the exhaust?” asked the officer now with a harsher tone. Vikrant looked towards his foot for a second and then opened the door so quickly that when the officer realized that he has been hit by the gate, his stomach and ribs ached like a bullet has pierced him. His grip on the papers loosened, Vikrant grabbed those with his right hand, while his left hand turned the key to start the car. Before the cop or the constable could understand anything, Vikrant was at the far end of their visible horizon. He knew that he would be chased for sure; he turned the vehicle in the maze like alleys of the old town. With a lot of twists and turns he reached the dealer’s shop. He knew this was his last chance to get a McKnight; if it is not here then there is no way he could lay hands on one. His hands trembled with the urge and he felt blood withdrawing from his finger tips. His vision had started blurring much earlier. Every breath that he took, took him closer to suffocating. He believed for sure that he would choke if he doesn’t get any McKnight soon. Without waiting he rammed his 2 ton SUV into the shutter gates of the shop. The first blow sent back recoils and the air bag opened against Vikrant’s chest, the shutter gate still held good. Vikrant punctured the air bag with his Swiss army knife as it blocked his vision. He reversed the car and smashed the shutter with a harder blow. This time the steering wheel went deep inside Vikrant’s chest and he heard some kind of cracking. But what he saw drew a veil over all his pains. The shutter gate was ripped from the ceiling and there were cartons of McKnight inside the shop. Vikrant opened the car gate. He wanted to run to the cigarette but was not able to do so. He almost crept towards the cigarettes. His trembling hands opened one of the packets. He pulled out one McKnight out of the packet. It carried the same grace and beauty, which drove Vikrant crazy when he first held it years ago. It was also the same cigarette which Vikrant had thrown away a few hours ago without even smoking a complete puff, without any care. He pulled out his Lamington lighter, placed the cigarette between his lips which parted with much effort. His joy had no bounds, he wanted and he got his last one. He ignited the lighter and brought it to the tip of the cigarette. He tried to inhale the smoke, to get the joint going, but he couldn’t. He tried again, and again. His vision blurred even more, but he could see the cigarette burning like a piece of paper in his hand. He could not part his fingers to let go off the burning cigarette. Soon everything turned black; he heard few sounds which were like sirens. Police had chased him down. It was the last thing he heard. His ribs had cracked and punctured his lung. That night he killed 5 people, including 2 innocent kids who were sleeping in Devyani’s neighboring flat. They got killed by the LPG cylinder blast. The sixth person to be killed was he himself. He died because he was a smoker and the reason was also a cigarette, but he died because he could not get one to smoke, contrary to what happens usually. And yes, as I told you this is all real, it has happened to real people. P.S. – While all this happened Nikita slept and was informed only in the morning.
She was there again. Every now and then she will come up to this manager sitting next to me and talk about senseless things. She was about middle age 35 or something. The manager was a bit younger, I don’t know what exactly was his job but most of the time he would be free to entertain this regular guest of his. She was talking about some problem in her newly bought i-phone. I was trying to concentrate on reading the project document but her voice was a distraction. Since I have got into IT industry I have developed this strange ability to read without understanding a word. I wonder how this happens in the brain, but I was doing the same thing. I had read the same page three times but not even understood a single sentence. I felt like getting up and slapping her, she talked about the silliest and the most senseless things. It was very frustrating. I finally decided to give up. I locked my desktop and got up to go to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee or tea or whatever. I was standing in the lift lobby, I was on 8th floor. In the IT industry the architecture and the scale of the building presented the reputation of your company, ours was a 13 floor building. It had a capacity of 8,000 employees; this was what we were told. Nobody would bother to verify the correctness of the figure. In the industry you are told one thing from the management, the other from your boss and what you experience is completely different. Sometimes I thought even the number of floors can differ from what we are being told because no body actually goes from one floor to another using stairs. We all work a part of a large machine. We have our fixed coordinates of time and space; we fit in at the correct coordinates to keep the machine working properly. The only places we go apart from our workstation are restrooms and cafeteria. Waiting for the lift is an irritating experience and it aggravates when one after the other lifts pass in front of you without a place to squeeze in, and even if there is space the ones inside would never accommodate. Finally giving up on lift I took the stairs to the 13th floor. Thankfully the floors I had to climb were 5, which verified the number of floors, at least between 8 and 13. It was rush hour; 5 o’clock was the time that saw the peek crowd at the beverages counter. There was a queue. I hate queues, but either you take it or you don’t. It took me 10 minutes to just take a cup of the hot beverage. I didn’t know whether it was tea or coffee. I didn’t care; I took the first cup handed to me by the vendor. As I took the first sip in I felt that sugar was less in the drink, but I would have to go back to the crowded counter to put sugar in so I drank it like that only. Wind was blowing hard and I could see stretches of the industrial area of Bangalore. As far as I could see there were offices. Lakhs of professionals daily went to these offices and get absorbed. They get absorbed like they don’t exist only thing that exist is the building, what works inside it, you may never know. The ones which were under construction exposed what exactly were these structures. They were just a set of pillars, a floor that serves as a ceiling for floors below and a ceiling that serves as floors for floors above. This structure concealed in a cage of reflective glasses made an office, some companies need a departure from this so they change the shape in which the floors are made but the basic floor, pillar and ceiling pattern is always there. Most of the building sported a set of antennas of different shape. They connect the things that are inside to the outer world. The outer world comprised of clients and their networks, company portals, mailboxes, online forums, teleconferencing and what not, not forgetting the quintessential Google. These buildings were like teleporting terminals. The time you get in you will be teleported to a different world, a world which is not present exactly as you perceive it. Its all like a big illusion and nobody questions its existence. My drink was over sooner than I had expected. I wanted to spend more time here but work was calling. I went back to my workstation, to my right coordinate – 8th floor 6th ODC 55th cubicle 9 AM to 6 PM. Thankfully she was gone. It was already 5:32. Soon I will leave to get back to my temporary abode. It was a painful job to travel from point A to point B in a city like Bangalore. The problem here was intensified by the complete dependency on the road transport system. There was no other option. Although the city authorities are coming up with metro rail, but it addresses the needs of the areas which are central to the city, not these areas which are situated on the outskirts. Here daily a mob of software professionals raged the streets in their daily quest to get back to their dwelling places. I was no exception. But I had to sit at my office till 6 o’clock. I sat there without any real work to do. Last week the traceability matrix was sent to review to the customer and I am waiting for the approval. My manager (not the one who sits besides me) is demanding some kind of productive work from my side till the matrix is approved. “You can’t sit like that for whole day” he said. I sat on my chair watching at the coconut trees. My cubicle was just next to the large cavity in which glasses were fitted. This glass window marked the periphery of the floor. Glass is such an amazing substance. You can see everything on the other side, but can’t hear or say. Sometimes I wonder why they have put glass in building. As I was watching at the trees, without thinking anything just then an eagle flew in front of me. The eagle was a regular visitor; it came daily in search of its prey in the coconut grooves. Sometimes it would come early in the morning but mostly mid noon was the hunting time. It would keep flying till the last ray of sun shined. It would soar high then suddenly dive down as it has spotted a prey but came back empty-handed. I had never seen it with a prey. I was watching it flying there from the other side of glass. I think it was making some kind of noise but glass prevented any transmission of sound waves between the sides. But I could imagine the sound made by the eagle. I had heard it before, when I was young there used to be an eagle that came near our house to hunt. I still remember the shrill sound it made. The coconut groves were swinging, it was clear indication that wind was blowing out side but inside nobody could feel it. The air conditioning cleverly eliminated any disturbances produced due to change in the weather. The people working inside were least bothered about the outside weather. The things that mattered the most were client, deadlines, man hours and billability. As long as they were inside, hell may break on the outside they don’t care. They were departed for the time being. But as soon as they came out of the offices, they would start getting affected by the outside world. Some would comment about the traffic, some would get irritated by the weather and some by the distances they have to travel. The roads at rush hour looked like a marching line of ants. It’s like the ants are vacating their one colony and migrating to the other. A long never ending trail of vehicles was formed on the roads; Busses, cars, cabs, bikes and what not. This time was soon approaching. As I looked around I noticed that most of the people had left the office and there was only this HR guy sitting in the far corner of the ODC. I collected my things and started putting them into the bag. I was in no hurry, I my motions were sedated. I knew even if I hurried through this the traffic would get the better of me. It was a long walk till the gate of the IT Park. It consisted of 5 humongous structures which hosted several company offices. There were lots of ways to go out but the management had defined a specific path which was to be followed while exiting the IT Park. As I got out the park I saw a swarm of professionals waiting for busses. Most of the people took city busses for coming to and going back from the park. I waited there for a suitable bus to come. An air conditioned bus stopped in front of me and the automated doors opened, a breeze of cool air brushed my face. I got into it; here in Bangalore there were categories of busses available. Majorly two categories existed. First ones were the simple busses with ordinary fare used by the common people. Second ones were the air conditioned busses targeted to the professional gentry. The fares of these could be as high as three times the ordinary ones. But at that cost they provided more comfort, better travel, air conditioning which would seal you off from the traffic, chaos and hostile weather of the outside. I had no reservations about any of the two. I just get into the one which comes first to me. It has been like this since a long time. The company which I am working for was the first to recruit me, I never tried for another job, and presently I was in no position of doing so. I had a legal bond of 2 years with this company before which if I left I will have to pay a huge sum of money. Out of the 2 years more than one year had passed away and I wasn’t bothered about the rest of the time. It would also pass as it had; the best thing about time is nothing can stop it. Good or bad it will pass. As I was settling inside the bus the weather started changing vigorously. The wind that was blowing had stopped and the evening sky was engulfed by the thick cover of clouds. It was going to rain. Sun still registered some of its presence through the horizon, from where the dying rays of light were coming out. I felt bit lucky as I boarded the bus well before it started to rain. It made me feel good for sometime. The bus was now going in a wild fashion with breaking, stopping and then accelerating every now and then. The traffic was mounting and it was not too far that the bus went before encountering the first of the jams. There would be many more, bigger and nastier than this one. Fridays and Mondays saw a larger number of jams and it was a Monday. I could see the other vehicles through the large glass windows of the bus. The seats were at a higher position which helped in a clear view. Some of the drivers would’ve turned the engines of their vehicles off but I was not able to make out as the no sounds from the outside reached me. I was thinking about what I will do when I get back to my flat. Lots of pending work was there to be done. Loads of clothes remained as this weekend I spent most of my time sleeping and watching movie. I had to finish the book which I had borrowed form the library its due date was nearing. I had lots of messages from friends on various social networking sites. The rain had already started. It was a heavy shower. The water trickled down the window glasses and the lights of the vehicles outside came sieved through the flowing water making abstract patterns inside the bus. In a cab, standing just next to the bus, there were three girls. They were also going back from work as I was. But they were happy, they were chatting about something and having fun. One of them turned towards me and saw me looking at them. I was too involved in thought to notice that and I kept looking at them. Perhaps I noticed it but I was too lazy to let my mind comprehend that. As she saw me looking at her, she told her mates and one of them smiled looking at me. This time I able to react and turned around. The person sitting next to me was listening to some songs. He had the earphones inserted and his i-pod in his hand. One characteristic of software professional is that you will always find them equipped with gadgets. May it be the latest phone or the latest music player Most of the people travelling in the bus were listening to music, all of them had earphones inserted in their ears. As I turned around to face the person sitting next to me he gave an annoyed look. He didn’t like me encroaching his personal space. It was better I looked out side the window. The girls were again busy talking. The driver driving their cab was dressed in white attire and was least worried about their talks, maybe be because he didn’t understood the language. In Bangalore there were enough numbers of people speaking almost all the languages spoken in India. Kannada, Hindi, English, Telegu, Malyalam, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, Orriya were to name some of them. It was not necessary that you knew all of them so there was a healthy probability that the driver didn’t understand the language the girls were talking in. Perhaps he was not interested in it; he looked too annoyed from the traffic jam. The traffic jam was clearing up and vehicles started moving. My stop was nearing I had to get off the bus. The rain had stopped. Finally I got back after getting stuck up in more than 4 or 5 traffic jams. After getting home the biggest question is about the food. What do you eat? I had a cook previously but discontinued him. Off late I have developed this ability to go without having dinner. And now I was frequently practicing this. I had some of the bread slices left from last night’s meal. I also found a little butter so it was enough to satisfy my appetite. After I finished my meal I made a mental list of the works which were pending. I first soaked the 2 shirts and then took out the book which I had to finish before Saturday. It was a collection of short stories of Rabindranath Tagore. His stories are so simple, yet so intriguing. They are mostly set in old Bengal but are true even today. As I started reading the book I lost the sense of time, it was just before 11 o’clock that I realized that I have to wash the shirts and go to bed. My day started at 7:30 in the morning. Unwillingly I closed the book and got up to wash the shirts. The clothes were done. I brushed my teeth and lied down on the mattress. I tried to sleep but the pictures of the girls sitting in the cab kept coming back to me. They were friends, and they were together. I was a bit jealous. When I was in college I too, like them, used to have fun with my friends. But all that is an old story now. I was here in Bangalore with almost no friends. Initially when I came to Bangalore the loneliness haunted me. I was in a mental shock. I thought of running away from all this. I was in a breakdown. No friends, new place and first job all these things together took the better of me. But slowly I got used to all this. Now I was acclimatized with the things. But a slight desire to get back along with my friends and family still remained. I was trying hard to get over it and was largely successful as now I hardly had any friends here and caught up with my old friends very rarely. I didn’t visit my home since last 5 months and was not even feeling like going. I was completely molded into the person this city wanted me to be. But when I saw the girls having fun amongst them it brought back the feelings that I was trying to win over. I didn’t want to be overcome by them. I didn’t want to loose. But the memories of those times flooded my mind. I can remember the fun we had back in college and even in school. The happy life I had back home was enticing me to go back, the same feeling that I had when I came here was coming back to me. With this maelstrom going in my mind I didn’t realize when I feel asleep
If the ending confused you then following explanation will be helpful. ‘Love is death’ if one has a cursory view over this it seems as a foolish thought. If you die then what will you love? But there are deeper meanings to it. Not one but many. Two of them have been incorporated here. The first meaning is that when you love someone truly your own identity perishes. Your ego, your arrogance goes away. You surrender completely to the one you love. You surrender to such an extent that you become he or she. That was what happened to the girl. The boy was confused with this concept but the girl dissolved her identity in the boy’s. So in a way she is the personification of this very concept. When it is said that she turned into the boy, it means she was absorbed by her love towards the boy and finally lost her identity.
The second meaning is much more spiritual. The most divine love exists between the soul and the creator. Death is the divine confluence of the almighty and our soul. The true aim of love is realised at the time of death when the soul disappears into the most powerful force in the universe. This concept is personified through the boy who does not understand the way of the world and has few attachments to this perishable world, just like the soul. When he dies he realises the true aim of his existence and that’s why he is not sad. He also states about passing away to the one you love, it’s no one but God.
Also the tendency of humans to classify things is proved vain, as the boy says that death is not a sad affair at all, what it is considered usually. All the feelings are relative, what matters is the reference we take.
I have made all the efforts to make the message clear at the same time preserving the mysterious treatment of the story. Hope you enjoyed it.
Rahul asked me that what % of the story is true. So i tell you that all the places mentioned actually exist and my relation to them is also true. the girl and everything about her is fiction inspired from true charecters, the end is also imaginary. above i have given some pictures of the place. thank you
We ran for about 10 minutes, but we never seemed to find our way back. The bells were now silent and we were exhausted. She had a mysterious smile on her face. “I told you we’ll have to stay here if we don’t catch this boat.” I explained in panic. “So let’s stay here. We’ll get back tomorrow morning.” She said with ease. “Well we don’t have any arrangement for shelter and do you know how cold it is going to get in the night.” I was irritated with her attitude. I knew how cold it would be. This was an island and due to the water all around us the wind gets colder than the mainland.
Finally we got out of the forest and the temple stood in front of us. I ran towards the river but the boat was long gone. I was agitated. Now what stood in front of me was the sight of a distant village where smoke rose from various houses, most of them lit by a single light bulbs. These were the homes of the poor fishermen. The reflection of the village in the river created a magical scene. I stood there; it looked like a huge painting of a brilliant painter.
“How beautiful it is.” She said. She was climbing down the slope. The atmosphere was so calm and peaceful, that all my panic and anger was gone. The wind blew through my hair. It was truly divine. The fishermen were moving in and out of their houses on the other side. They were involved in their daily works. We, on the other side of the river stood secluded from the outer world. There was no light on the island so they could not see us, but we could see them. It made me feel that how far we have come from this world yet how close we are to it. I turned to her “thank you.” I said. I realised that if it would not have been her we would have gone back.
The river was calm and placid. It reminded me of her eyes. As I looked into them I fond them to be a bit more damp then the usual. The water in her eyes moved and a small tear rolled onto her cheek. She ran towards me; I hugged her. It was soothing; it felt very light. I felt like…. My brain went dead I had no thoughts. There were just she and I. We stayed there for a while.
“You asked me, ‘do I love you?’. I don’t know much about love but if this feeling that both of us share is love. Then yes I do love you.” I told her as we moved towards the temple complex. We decided to spend the night inside the temple near the altar. There were still some embers left in it, so it would provide some warmth. We lied on the temple floor and kept talking.
“You know when I was a kid, I was afraid to come to Bet after sunset. There were stories about ghosts roaming here.” We decided to restrain ourselves from any philosophical discussions. “Really? But we are in a temple now. I don’t think there is any reason to be afraid,” she said smiling. The naughtiness in her eyes was clearly visible. “When I was a kid my father used to tell me that we have a body and a soul but the ghosts have no bodies. So we are more powerful than them. This was enough of a reason for me for not getting afraid of ghosts.” I could easily make out from her face that she missed her childhood. “You love your father a lot, don’t you?” I asked though I was still not clear about love. “Yes, actually dad always teased mom that I love him more than I loved her.” Her eyes lit up as she said this. “What does he do?” I asked. “He runs a transport company.” She continued “he is my best friend.” She was in a different world now. “Do you know who my best friend is?” I asked. “I think I know. The trees at your farm aren’t they?” she guessed. Although they were among the best friends of mine, but there was some one else who was the best of them all. I took her outside and pointed towards the sky. She was puzzled. “Do you see that? Orion, he’s my best friend.” I said pointing to Orion, a constellation.
She was puzzled. “When I was a child I had very few friends. We had this big mansion in central Indore. There were lots of trees in our house. Many birds and animals dwelled on them; we even had a small pond full of fishes. The trees and plants, the birds and the squirrels, the fishes and the flowers were my friends. During the daytime I spent most of my time with them. But at night I was not allowed to go there. At night after I had my meals I used to go to the backyard and watch the stars. There were these three stars arranged in a line that I thought of as a stick. In class 5th or 6th I came to know it was the Orion’s belt. It was then when our friendship started. Few years from then, we left our house and moved into a flat. I lost all my friends. The trees were chopped down and eventually the creatures dwelling on them moved elsewhere. But the one friend that remained with me was Orion. The best part of our friendship is that he travels with me wherever I go. Apart from him I have the trees at the farm.” I went deep into my childhood, memories of leaving our home and separating from my friends came back to me.
“Each star in that constellation is so many light years away from each other.” She said with an explanatory tone. “Yes-yes, I know everything about Orion, even the mythological part of it. The Greek, Indian and the Chinese.” I said, after all we were the best pals. “In Chinese philosophy they believe in two principle forces of nature yin-yang.” She said. “Yes. Yin represents female force and yang represents the male.” I added. I had read about it somewhere I don’t remember. “There’s another explanation for it. Yin, which represents the feminine force, also represents the night. It is amazing the way you are fascinated by the night sky. Surely, you are attracted towards yin.” She was on to raillery me.
“One more thing, this may sound foolish to you. Listen, my initials are KR and yours are RK. So in a way we both are opposite and complementary to each other. Just like yin and yang.” She was sounding childish. “And this suggests that we both are made for each other.” I said jesting and both of us broke into laughter.
We went inside the temple. Although the serene settings provided freshness to our minds, the bodies were experiencing fatigue. I fell asleep. A thought about everyone at home kept reoccurring to my mind. I realised how tensed they would be to find out that I was missing. And what about Mrs. Rajput? They might take a boatman and come looking for us here. I must go to they riverbank. As I opened my eyes to go to the bank I saw a face staring at me. It scared me; I was not able to recognize it. I thought of running but found that I could not get up. My body was paralysed, maybe due to fear. I felt the pumping of my heart in my ears. As I tried to gather all my energy to get up, the haziness due to the exhaustion was wiped away. My vision got cleared. I found that the face looking at me was none but hers. I breathed a sigh of relief. She was looking at me.
“What happened? You look terrified.” She asked me. I got up. The words were not coming out of my mouth. Her face was placid contrary to the excited one; her eyes were lit up contrary to the peaceful eyes, her hair…. Suddenly she started changing. Her face turned into that of a male. I knew to whom she turned into, it was me. I was scared to death. The chill in the air went through my spine. I ran, I ran into the woods. The leaves cracked beneath my feet. The branches bruised my arms. I was running; it was a moonlit night. After few minutes my body gave way and succumbed to the fatigue. I fell on the forest floor. I could not move. Blood was flowing through a dozens of holes, made by the thorns, all over my body.
What was it? Was it a ghost? Yes it was surely a ghost. It couldn’t be her. Suddenly a thought struck my mind; what about her? Where is she? I have to retreat for her. I laid there for a while trying to lift my ailing body and then I heard a cry. Somebody was calling my name; it was she. I ran towards the voice. It was coming from the bank. As I reached there I saw a silhouette standing there calling my name. I thought it was her, but when it turned I saw, it was not her. It was the other I. I was confused, terrified and devastated. I turned back to run. A cold sensation jabbed my left leg and then a sting.
It was black and long. The cobra venom kills in less than 12 seconds. Already I was on the ground. The other me came closer and the snake went into the bushes. He was crying; he sat besides me. And then I realised it wasn’t any ghost it was actually her who turned into me. Now I knew what she meant when she said ‘love is death’. Her words echoed in my mind.
It felt light, very light much like it did when she first hugged me. I could see my body lying on her lap. She was still crying. It took me some time to understand that I was dead. I was not feeling sad or mournful. For most of the people death of a loved one is a very painful experience, but what about the one who dies? If you ask me it is the most heavenly experience. It feels like a long lasting thirst is about to be quenched, an eternal quest is about to end. I will soon achieve my love. I felt fortunate, for who would be so fortunate to die in the hands of the one who loved you and to pass on to the one you love. If death is like this, I would like to die everyday.
She was still me and I was now nobody.
At the farm I showed her around the different places and at last we reached a place covered with trees; Teak, Tamarind and Rose Apple. The trees made the spot a little island of shadow where only little of the sunlight penetrated during the daytime. “In summers when I came to the farm, this was my favourite place. It was almost like a sanctuary to me. The harsh summer heat dared not to penetrate through this protective covering of nature. I sat here and thought for hours. When all the children sank into the safe refuge of their homes avoiding the scorching heat I used to come here.” As I said this I pulled her between the trees.
These were my friends, among the best I ever had. They always supported me. Just the sight of these trees standing there infused a confidence in me. They gave me a feeling that some things in life are best if kept unchanged.
“William Wordsworth once said ‘Nature never disappoints her lover hearts’.” When I said this she blushed. “Jealous?” I asked. The question annoyed her. “Why would I be?” she replied. I knew she was jealous.
We returned to the village. I promised her to take her to Bet tomorrow, but no later then 1 o’clock because one needs time to explore the place. I started experiencing a feeling of attachment towards her. I was confused what that was ‘do I love her?’ the question occupied my mind the whole night. I was confused.
Next day we reached the banks of river Narmada. From there we had to take a boat to reach Bet. “I have never taken a river boat ride.” She was stirred up as always “although I have been to Bhopal where I have taken boat rides in lake but this is first time in a river.” I tried to recall my first riverboat ride, but probably I was too young to remember the ride.
We reached Bet in ten minutes. The island was covered with heavy vegetations. The wild grasses with blue and red flowers greeted every passing person. There were stairs to climb up the slope of the island and a large temple of lord Shiva at hilltop. Ghat was situated on the other side of the island.
“It’s so peaceful out here.” She said looking at the butterflies flying around the wild grass. The settings of that place isolated you from the sounds of the outer world, as if a curtain has been pulled over. Ever word spoken carried a different tone. The place had different sounds, the buzzing of dragonflies, the chirping of birds, the chirring of insects and a distant trill of a peacock. We climbed up the stairs and the temple complex stood in front of us. We entered the complex and went across every temple situated inside. Then we went to the ghat and sat along the river. The small waves in the river moved up and down and the sunrays falling on them created an illusion of twinkling stars in bright daylight.
“I am so bad. I have engaged you for two whole days. By the way if you were not with me what would you generally do?” She asked. The question surprised me. I was not expecting such a self-accusing act from her. It was also surprising to find out that, despite of the time we spent together and the amount of discussions between us, the two of us knew very little of our daily lives.
“Well If I was in Indore I would spend half of my day in college and rest half is unplanned. If I come here I visit Naageshwer, Bet and my farm, which we have been doing since yesterday. So there is no question of my routine been disturbed. Apart form this I have only missed soccer, which I play whenever I come here.” I finished explaining her my routine. The part of my routine at Dharampuri was unchanged since very long time. “What would you do, if you were not here?” I asked. “I would attend the classes. Then at home I spend some time with Jimmy. Actually a lot of time. If I have any time left, I study. Then I have my dinner and sleep. It’s as simple as that.” She answered in one breath. “OK so who is Jimmy?” I asked the very instant she finished explaining. There was a hint of anxiousness in my voice. For a second I thought, it would be better if I don’t know who is Jimmy. “Why are you jealous?” she asked with a mischievous smile “don’t worry. He’s my pet dog.” I was embarrassed. I kept looking at the river. “What did you thought, who he was?” now she started to take on me. I didn’t answer her.
“Hey look at that.” She was pointing towards a peacock. It had come to the river to quench its thirst. It was quite far from us. “Don’t move or it will run away.” I told her. “It’s so beautiful. Is it going to dance?” she asked it with innocence as of a child. “Do you want to see more of them?” I asked her. She nodded in reply. “Stay low and let it drink. When it goes back we’ll follow it.” I instructed. This was one thing I had mastered. Since my childhood I had spent a lot of my time following peacocks to their musters, here in Bet. It is a tedious job and takes patience. I was not quiet sure she would be able to do this. “Look you need to be very patient and no noise at all.” I told her. “OK” she said.
We waited till it started back for the jungle. Its legs made clear and deep impressions on the sand. It was quiet easy here but the tricky part was when it goes into the jungle. Dry leaves and splinters of wood spread all over the ground crack with a noise when you move on them. Also the bird turns its head randomly to check whether a predator is following it. If you move at that time, the bird will fly away. Although, peacocks are not the best flyers, but in a forest a jump of 20 feet comes in very handy. Once the bird knows about your presence it’s unchasable.
“If you make any noise the bird will fly away.” I warned her once again. “But peacocks don’t fly.” She came in with a trivia that irritated me. “Yeah, I know that. But when they flap their wings, they can make it as high as 20 feet. Once they are on the tree top, you can’t chase the damn creature.” I explained.
Next half an hour went by as we reached the muster of the peacocks. There were 2 or 3 peacocks and peahen twice of that. They flocked quiet deep into the jungle. We were very cautious in moving. It took us very long to reach there because we had to maintain a distance from the birds. We crept slowly towards them. “Is it going to dance now?” she asked. “No that’s mostly in the rainy season. You know why do they dance?” I asked. “Yes, they want to impress the females for mating.” She answered as if she was going to do a mischief. “Let’s get a closer look.” I said. I waved my hand signalling her to follow me. As she moved a dry splinter cracked underneath her body. The sound was enough to alarm the muster. The birds flew away blowing a gust of dust all around.
The Sun was now declining towards the west and the shadows started stretching. It usually sets early in winters. It was then when I realised that as the sun sets temperature will drop and we have no arrangement of winter. “I think we should leave.” I suggested. “As the Sun sets it would get cooler and also the last boat leaves after the evening Aarti.” There was a panic in my voice.
“OK, we have more than an hour for getting back. So meanwhile show me around.” She was very casual about this entire affair. “But, there is nothing except this jungle and the temple …”I tried to convince her. “So let’s explore the jungle.” she moved deeper into the woods as she said this. I was very annoyed by this attitude of hers. I didn’t understand why she was that reluctant in going back. “You don’t want to get back, do you?” I asked her angrily. “If we get back you’ll go to your place and I to mine. I want to spend more time with you.” I went speechless at this reply of hers.
We were deep into the woods. “Why is it that always male has to persuade female into a relationship?” She asked me. We were talking about the male female relationship existing in nature. Our encounter with the peacock led to this discussion. “No it’s not always true. Yes but in case of birds and most of the mammals it is true. I suppose it is because of the fact that the female knows that if male wants his gene pool to survive, which is the primary motive of any species, he needs her. Also that the female makes the choice of the best father for her children which gives her the upper hand in choosing the partner.” She had very cleverly shifted my focus from the problem of going back to the village to the male female relationship. I was now into explanatory mode. This was my biggest weakness. If you ask me to explain something, I’ll leave everything aside to make you understand that. She knew this.
“If we look at human society the converse is also true. I mean if you look at the scenario fifty or so years back mostly the male was the one who made the choice, especially in Indian society.” She questioned. Her question drew me deeper into it. “If you see initially at some early stage of evolution, say in case of big cats and apes, the social structure emerged with the dominance of male. What led to it was the fact that when a male is not allowed to mate with the partner of his choice, he goes violent. This led to insecurity of females. Then females started looking for a stronger companion, the one who can protect them from most of the other males. This was when the ball came to the male’s court. If the female needs protection it has to abide by the male’s charter. Now the stronger males started picking up the females for them. You can see that in most of the apes like chimps have leader who is male and has a harem of females. Same is true with the lions and the tigers.” I thought it was enough to appease her query. “The basis of your explanation is that female is weaker of the two. Is it true? Your are being biased in your opinion.” She opined. The Sun was setting and the light started to get dim.
“What I feel makes the female weaker is her responsibility towards the offspring. On the other hand males are hardly bothered about the children. Or you are right I might be biased.” I was a bit submissive in front of her, had it been another person I would have never admitted my biased opinion.
“According to you what is the thing that drives a males towards a female?” she asked another question. And during the conversation I had lost my sense of direction and now she was leading the way, through the woods. “The thing that drives a male to a female is the need to reproduce. Every species wants to bring a new generation to survive in this world. This is why and how we have reached to this stage of evolution. This has led to our evolution. If this tendency was not there the only creatures on this planet would have been microbes.” I was a bit arrogant in answering to her. “So according to you the basis of relationship between a male and a female is sex, right? So what about humans? Where do our emotions stand?” she was agitated by my answer.
“As far as I think, the emotions which we carry are the representations or rather manifestations of our instincts developed during our course of evolution.” I was now stepping into an uncomfortable territory of thoughts. Emotions have always distraughted me. “So what about your emotions?” she was questioning me and I to myself. “For you love is just a manifestation of your sexual desire?” she was kind of furious to know my opinion on emotions. All this shook me. Before I could answer her previous questions she fired another one. “Do you love me?” she asked. It didn’t surprise me because I knew at some point this was coming our way.
It was this question that has unsettled me the most throughout my life. I was never able to figure out what exactly is love or any emotion. The best answer that occurred to me was the one explaining emotion as manifestations of our instincts. Fear, for example is due to our instinct to avoid any fights with the one who is stronger. It saves our life. “I don’t know. I’m confused. What do you think about love?” rather than answering I asked a question. I thought the best way to avoid the answer is to ask another question. “For me love or any other emotion is what makes us connect to each other. Love connects us to God. It is giving all that you have, even your existence. For me love is death.” Her face shined and sparkled as she said this. Then she looked down at me. Her expressions suggested that she was disappointed with me. I was not able to comprehend what she said. “Love conquers all; let us too yield to love.” I tried to lighten the mood by saying this. She smiled.
“Look its dark already we should start back.” As soon as I finished saying this the temple bells started ringing. They made such a great sound that you can hear it from a mile. This meant that the Aarti was about to end and soon the last boat will leave. I grabbed her hand and pulled her with me. We started running towards the sound of the bells.
Next day I woke up at 10 and hurried to get ready and reached Mrs. Rajput’s residence by quarter past 11.
“Hey, so you are here. I was just going to call at your grandfather’s place.” The girl was standing in the veranda wearing a blue Salwar Kameez. Her hair were left open. “Let me knot my hair and than we are ready to go.” She said. Her hair were curly and dark, not very long. “Shall it be OK with you if we walk or should I take the bike?” I asked her. “No-no we can walk. Leave the bike here only.” She said smiling. When she smiled dimples came up on her cheeks. “So where are we headed to?” She asked. “Today, we will go to Naageshwer. Its just 2 kilometres from here.” We were already walking. While walking one thing I noticed about her was the way she carried herself. She was a tall girl. Her height was nearly equal to mine.
“You know” I started “this whole place was once the property of my mother’s grandfather, but he donated it to the municipal corporation because the well situated there was the main source of water supply for whole village.”
The path to Naageshwer was a trail amidst the vegetation mainly consisting of acacia and neem. Very few people visited Naageshwer at this time of day so both of us were almost alone. One noticeable thing about her was that she was always concerned about her hair. Maybe because I was around or she was like that only. She kept touching the knot of her hair and would tuck back the locks of her hair behind her ears.
“You know 8-10 years ago this place was covered with lots of mango trees and was full of snakes.” I told her. “What happened then?” she asked with a childlike innocence in her voice. “This place is identified as one which would be drowned by the backwaters due to the Sardar Sarovar dam. So the government decided to chop down the trees, as they would die if water flooded the area. Eventually it was done 15 years in advance. There is still no sign of backwaters. You know how it works in this country.” I explained her, the situation. I still remember when I visited this place as a kid the huge mango trees seemed as giants to me. The cover of the trees was so heavy at some places that sunlight didn’t reached the ground there, just like the rain forests. But all that was turned into a wasteland. “So sad, it could have been done much later.” The concern in her voice was very clear.
“That’s the way government works. Now most of this place is leased and majority of tenants don’t use it. But some others have put it to a very good use.” I told her as we made our way along the trail through the shrubs to a clear open field in front of us.
The sight in front of us amazed her. Her eyes were wide open. The expressions on her face were like that of a child who just got the whole toy store as a birth day present.
This part of land was used to cultivate sunflowers. Rows of plants, with flowers pointing to the Sun, seemed like children asking for blessings from their father. She ran into the field. Beyond the fields stood a tower worn out by the tide of time and a temple complex to its left. What made the temple look apart from the surroundings was the vegetation around it. No mango tree from the temple was cut down; hence even from a distance one could differentiate the temple complex from the fields and arid wasteland around it. Life giving river Narmada flowed on the other side of the temple.
I crossed the field to reach the temple. She was still among the sunflowers. The yellow sunflowers, against the background of her blue dress, presented spectacle of a sky on which numerous suns have came out to celebrate the joy of life.
She came running towards me. “I have never seen such a sight in my whole life.” She displayed enigmatic excitement. “There’s lot more to see.” I pumped up the excitement in her as I said this. Curiosity was evident from her radiant face. She stood there for a while as I said that. I noticed that a curly strand of her hair was hovering around her eyes and yet she was not even bothered. It was the first time that I noticed the colour of her eyes; they were green. Green and ornate, as emeralds would be. Her eyes were damp all the time, but this dampness did not reflected any sorrow or grief. Her eyes were placid and deep. They reflected the depth of hers. The dampness in her eyes presented a serene sensitiveness. They seemed as brilliant green emeralds immersed in a sea of tranquillity.
The temples were dedicated to lord Shiva. They were built about a thousand years ago. They were not ordinary temples. Instead of the standard dome, one of the temples had 2 pyramid like structures above its central chamber. One exactly above the lingum and other above the place where the devotee would sit.
“This is amazing. And what’s that tower?” she asked. “This tower was built for Rani Roopmati. You see those hills out there.” I said pointing towards east. “That’s Mandu. The Rani was from Dharampuri and when she was married to Baz Bahadur, the king of this region, she had to move to Mandu. It was his capital at that time. But she would not eat her meal before worshiping her beloved goddess ‘River Narmada’. To fulfil this wish of hers the king built this tower at the bank of the river and appointed a staff. Each day when the Sun would set a huge lamp kept at the top of the tower was lit. The light of this lamp was visible from Mandu. The Rani would worship Narmada every evening.” As I told this to her we were already climbing the stairs of the tower. “This is the place where the lamp was kept,” I said pointing to the raised platform at the top of the tower.
“Hey Rohan, what’s that?” she asked pointing to a large landmass surrounded by the river on all the sides. “Oh that. Its Bet, an island. It’s about one and a half kilometre long and half that wide. It’s covered with forest and there’s a ghat on the other side.” I was thorough with my information about Bet, as I loved going there. I knew what was on her mind so I answered even before she asked. “We’ll go there tomorrow.”
The Sun was bright and exactly overhead. The breeze picked up a little pace and at the top of the tower it was even faster. The two of us stayed there for how long, I don’t know. We talked about each damn thing that we could. Politics, Philosophy, Arts, Science, Culture and God knows what more.
“You know, there is always a cause and effect relationship for every creation. But thinking of God, I always wondered who created God?” I asked looking towards the sky. The Sun was now behind the western wall of the tower top against which we were sitting. I was looking at a faint body in the sky, which was Moon. It was visible in day during this time of year, although it was very dull.
“Even I was baffled by the same question sometime ago. But I found a very convincing answer in a book written by Swami Paramhansa Yogananda. He says that when you’re inside something you cannot make out how it would appear from the outside. Just like a fish living in pond cannot realise what does the pond looks like from the outside similarly we live in a world governed by the rules of causation, that you just stated, and due to the fact that we are governed by causation we cannot imagine anything that’s beyond causation. This is why we ask questions about the creation of God.” She explained. It was amazing how she had the precise answers to all my queries. We kept talking and talking…
“One thing that I always think is, what draws line between sadness and happiness?” now it was her turn to ask. “This is very much related to what I told you yesterday. What I think is that there is nothing as being sad or happy. These are relative terms. The thing that makes the difference is the reference you chose. Like in ancient times the Earth was considered to be the centre of the Universe and stationary. Now the Sun is taken as the point of reference for the motion of the Earth. But even the Sun is not stationary. Similarly with time and spaces the definitions of happiness and sadness change.” I explained her. She went ahead with it “Ya, that’s what you said yesterday. ‘We tend to classify things’ but there exists no such classification.” “Exactly” I said. The understanding developed between her and me overwhelmed me.
Since neither of us had cell phones or watches, the time seemed to have stopped for us. The light was getting dimmer and the sunflowers were now about to bid goodbye to their father. The breeze dropped to a zephyr. I asked her to leave for the village. She was not ready to go back. She asked me to take her to my farm, which was near by. We walked to the farm as the huge yellow ball of fire turned orange in the western sky. Now was the time when you can directly look into the eyes of the Sun. We walked through the farms, some of them were just ploughed others, sown with wheat. A smoke was rising on the horizon as someone was preparing the fire for the dinner.
We crossed the dry river bed of river Khuj, a tributary of Narmada to reach the farm. We kept talking all along the way. Some people would say that she lacked the spark or being more precise she was not cool and sexy. But if you ask me she was sexy in her own way. When she spoke, her voice, the way she used her words and the minute modulations in her voice were like poetry to the ears. This was what made her sexy.