Flickering dim lights swam in before his eyes…now pooling with tears. He was running in a tunnel. Wind gushed past as his flailing hands tried to cut through, his legs achingly dragging him forward. Was he in a tunnel? The darkness encompassing all fear, his heart thudded… He was being followed. Hot balmy air brushed his back as he stopped and panted, all in his well-dressed attire. It was then he saw it. The ball of fire…the fiery orange monster was extending its hot limbs touching him from the back as he stood paralysed with fear. He was on fire… He opened his mouth but a voiceless scream filled his being as he saw the fire swallow someone near him… a human being. Who was it?
The sirens of the police van, blasted through the silence making him hopeful. But respite was not for him it appeared. This was just a prelude… and was being detained. What was his fault?
The bars of the prison came into focus and along with it the tormentor’s hand. The silence was now filled with a cacophony of laughter. The hand pulled his hair back and slammed his face long into the bars. The maniacal shrieks continued as his entire being throbbed…
Suddenly it was cold… he was on the frosty floor all bleeding and bare. He couldn’t move as he was spread eagle by pairs of rough hands even as his body groaned in pain. And he was …violated again… The angry pulsating mass of flesh made its way up his rear. It tore him apart… broke him totally… shattered him to the extent that he didn’t feel anything anymore… he couldn’t breathe… Where was the prison guard? He couldn’t see anything as his vision blurred with tears of agony flowing in vain…
He was pulled up, beaten and subjected to the same agony…repeatedly. The invasion increasingly agonising in each attempt… he couldn’t take it anymore. The chill of the floor was getting into him. He screamed with all he had.
Gaurav chocked as he sat up on his bed. His bedspread wet with his profuse sweating. The nightmare had claimed him yet again. He had had it many times but it affected him just the same. He shivered as the AC breeze hit his wet body. He touched his cheeks. They were wet and… his voice was hoarse. He must have been screaming. He checked the time. It was 3AM…
He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore. He got off the bed and saw himself in the full length mirror. He was a far cry from the youthful personality he once was. Clad in only his track pants, he used the bathroom walked to his little arena where he liked to exercise out his frustrations and could only manage to sit on his wooded crate filled with his dumbbells, but today they didn’t recon him. He was still trying to calm down his racing heart… they always said, you couldn’t remember your dreams, then why were his nightmares so vivid, that they still sent a shiver down his spine. He got back to his study and sat up with the hospital accounts like he always did whenever he traveled through the purgatory. They always took him through the remaining of the night. He shook his head placing the ledgers on the table in front of him as he sat back on the cushioned office chair. He switched on the music as his therapist had recommended, though he wasn’t religious there were certain numbers that gave him the solace he craved especially after what he went through some nights.
But this time, he couldn’t focus… neither on Rahman’s melody nor on the numbers crunching on the papers before him. The pair of kohl rimmed almond eyes smiled at him. Oh… It was such a calming vision. It was…no...correction… ’she’ was a balm for his injured soul. The song played out as he stopped the player and thought about her…the more he did, the more he relaxed on his revolving chair and before he knew, he was asleep again.
He didn’t visit the tunnel and the flames this time…
“Hey Ria, you are attending the party tonight, right?” Prachi asked with excitement in her voice as she waltzed her way to the canteen.
Ria Narsimhan looked up from her file. A glance at the cabin clock told her it was close to 5 PM and she had to get dressed before Prachi would force on the war paint too. The party began at 7PM… Oh Lord, she barely had time. Her reports were to be submitted today before she left for the day; else the monster would give her hell. If she could allow it, she would never want to face him. Why was she even continuing in this job she wondered? But she knew the answer… it paid her, way better than anywhere else for her qualification and experience. And she needed every penny to help her appa… her father, prepay his loans. She thought she owed it to him and then there was the down payment for that dream home yet to be conjured… So till she got something better she was stuck with this job.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like the work. In fact she loved being a rehabilitation consultant and the chief counsellor. She worked for the Chopra group of hospitals. This was the largest hospital in the chain and the only hospital branch which gave the needed space and funding, exclusively for rehabilitation. She loved working with children which formed a majority of her case load here. Her colleagues were amazing and her earlier supervisor Dr. Mishra was an amazing lady, very open to her suggestions. Ria was recruited straight out of college following her Master’s degree and she was proud of the positive changes she had brought about in the department. All this was possible only because of the co-operation of her colleagues and supervisor and their trust in her abilities.
Ria sighed as she thought of her journey. She had been born and brought up in a strict Coimbatore Brahman household. Her parents had tremendous expectations from her right from the go. The elder of two daughters she excelled in everything, be it studies or acing extracurricular activities in school. However, her sister Pooja two years younger to her often had the better deal. Pooja had barely scrapped through her tenth grade while Ria had slogged her guts out to top the school. Considering the numerous accolades she had received throughout her academic life… she had thought her parents would be impressed, every single time. But that was not to be. Every time her father had only a standard grunt of a response to her success and he would get immersed in his business which would be as trivial as reading the newspaper. Her mother too would retreat to the kitchen not wanting to face the father-daughter face-off. Though they never spelt it out she knew what the elephant in the room stood for. She had a wheatish complexion, slightly on the darker side and she was short, with a height of 152 cms.
In her household, physical attributes mattered a lot especially if you were born a girl and all the more if you were different than the norm set by generations of the family bloodlines. It didn’t help that her parents were fair so were her grandparents on either side. In spite of her sharp features, her colour was always the bone of contention at home and was the talk of the event everywhere she went. Be it family functions or a simple family get together every conversation would eventually veer towards the dark horse of the family…figuratively.
It marred all her scholastic and other achievements and now at twenty four she was used to be looked down upon by her appa’s myopic archaic views. Pooja however was blessed with porcelain fair skin and with a flawless complexion not to mention, stood tall at 165cms. That with her long flowing tresses and an hourglass figure made her a hot pick in the marriage market. In fact almost every prospective groom who agreed to come to their house for a visit to ‘see’ Ria often landed up liking Pooja instead. That was another topic on which she had to face her parents’ ire as if it was her fault for being born like the way she was.
Her parents had been looking out for alliances for Ria ever since she was eighteen as if they couldn’t wait for her to leave home and more like they wanted to prove a point to their relatives. But there wasn’t success for last five years mainly because every alliance that came in rejected her for her skin tone. It had hurt her tender heart to a point of making her hate her parents for giving into social pressure. Finally, it had snowballed up to the increasing bitterness fueled by the taunts of her pathetic relatives who left no stone unturned to put her down. She had the good fortune of staying in the hostel during her studies though her college was in city limits as she wanted to save on travel time. But she knew the true reason and even hated coming home for weekends. Her parents too gave in to their relatives’ whims and often resorted to silly run in the mill routines for Ria, like certain skin specialist visit or certain miracle potions from their village or scrutiny of her horoscope to find any fault they would have missed. Ria had been so overwhelmed by these experiments and omniscient sneers which only kept grading up in intensity that she preferred to spend a lot of time outside home even today, much to the chagrin of her strict parents.
Ria had a lone supporter in her thatha… her grandfather. He had passed away last year after a prolonged illness. He was her only fan and always encouraged her to pursue her dreams. He was a retired literature professor and always told her ’don’t be pushed by the fears in your mind… be led by the dreams in your heart’. This often helped her keep her sanity intact during the heart breaking jibes thrown at her by so-called hypocrite close relatives or whatever she was subjected to by her parents… and that hurt the most.
Her father was an employee with the SBI Pune main branch and they lived in the allotted staff quarters. Though he was a few years shy of retirement, they barely had savings. Though Appa rarely spoke about finances, Ria knew the grim reality of their situation and hated it when he didn’t want to discuss finances with her. He was an officer so they had a large three BHK allotted to them. The staff quarters comprised of about 14 buildings each with two wings and they stayed in the units meant for the officers. Here everyone knew everyone and gossips spread like wild fire. Ria usually stayed away from all that brought attention to her and her family and fortunately Pooja was very social and so no one noticed her. Being in the hostel during her graduation and post-graduation studies she had been obscured from her probing neighbours.
She had now immersed herself into her work in the hospital. Just yesterday she had handled a family who’s new-born was severely malformed and the relatives were fuming and blaming the hospital for negligence. Things were getting out of hand when she had intervened and spent hours counselling the shattered parents and the upset relatives. By evening the parents had broken down and she and her team had counselled them to help them cope up with the sad reality. Today she had spent half the day following up with the family and the parents were now relaxed and the relatives too had taken up the responsibility of handling them from then on. Everyone on her team, had applauded her for her work… she hoped the person in charge would do too. Her reporting boss…
There were many such cases which she had resolved with her grit and compassionate nature and she was often asked for by the patients who knew about her, who came back for their follow-ups.
Her hard work had finally paid off. She was recently promoted and at twenty-four, was the youngest ever counsellor to be appointed as one of the three lead rehabilitation consultants for the hospital group. The money was definitely good.
About four months ago her parents prayers were answered and she had finally been engaged to Vikram Iyer, an alliance arranged by her elated parents. She barely met him or even spoken to him before they were engaged. He too didn’t seem to be interested and the only few times they met he treated her like a fly on the wall. However he came with a glorified family resume which impressed her father. At 5’10”, fair and handsome, Vikram was a techie and worked with a software firm in Hingewadi. He had been trying to move abroad and she didn’t agree with him on it though they never discussed about it after he made a passing mention once. She didn’t want to go ahead with the alliance but her parents had literally pressurised her to get into the relationship, if she could call it one. She was relieved when Vikram barely called or spoke or texted her. She wasn’t active on social media, in fact hated it and was glad to be left alone. However, following her promotion, her fiance though usually indifferent towards her was happy these days. He had even agreed to settle in Pune itself and she knew her job had played a major role in his decision, not to mention her eventual plans of buying a house in the elite Viman Nagar. She should have been happy as everything in her life had settled into place… Vikram had started calling her or texting her daily these days and they even had a date recently to celebrate her promotion. She shuddered as she thought about the evening… It was a disaster. She should have been deliriously happy according to Pooja and her parents, but did she really want this?
Ria sighed coming back to the present. She frowned as her phone buzzed with an incoming message. The picture on the caller ID showed Vikram with his trademark beard and goggles. he had texted her he wouldn’t be in town for the following week as he was going to Delhi and would be busy with office work. It didn’t make a dent in her feelings for him, rather lack of them. She shook her head, almost wanting to tell him to break off the engagement but then she pictured her parents and landed with a pounding at her temples. She visited the phone gallery and clicked on the picture of her parents and she couldn’t get herself to cut ties with Vikram… she had to be happy for the sake of her parents and finally for once in her life she wasn’t the butt of jokes or torments from her relatives. Not that she cared anymore but she often felt for her parents.
As she finished the final touches of the report pertaining to this case, she hoped it would be approved…except there was an obstacle, her reporting boss…The monster