Fade In, Fade Out!
By Chinmay Chakravarty
We checked into a guest house of the academic institution after eight in the evening. Somehow at that particular moment, I couldn’t remember the exact details of our prior journey, just concentrating on getting settled there. Why I was there that too, I didn’t quite bother about. However, since my colleague came along with me I was confident enough that it was an official trip. That it was a bit odd not to remember anything about the trip or the purpose of the visit didn’t cross my mind either.
The room was rectangular and looked fine, a little more spacious than standard rooms. From the entrance on the left segment of the room, there was the double bed; on the left side of the bed there was a sliding glass-paned window giving a view to the front side of the guest house; a cupboard at the corner opposite the bed; on the right there was a table with three wooden cushioned chairs and beyond that, there was the door to the restroom. I got curious when I saw another closed door on the left side of the restroom door, that is to say, on the farthest right-hand corner from the entrance. From the design of the floor, I was sure that the additional door couldn’t connect to another room. I decided to find out later what that interesting door led to. There was one more window on the right side from the entrance; all curtains were drawn across since the AC was put on.
My colleague Srijay asked me repeatedly if I was comfortable and if I needed something more. Getting assured by my answers he left for his room reminding me to order supper positively before ten o’clock at which time the limited dining facility closed down for the night. I saw him to the door thanking him for his concern. As I closed the door suddenly I felt someone’s presence in the room. I whirled around to my left, and for a moment I was paralyzed with an uncanny feeling.
Standing before the drawn curtains of the window a short, stocky, and dark-skinned boy smiled up at me. I stared at him, nothing coming out of my frozen vocal cords. The boy grinned at me and said, “Sir… you must’ve forgotten me! Why… I was the room service when you came here last time!”
Yes, I came here earlier too, but somehow I couldn’t place that boy, not able to remember if I met him last time. More than that I was very much occupied with the thought of how he got in. The attendant left after putting my luggage in order, and no one came after that; I was there with Srijay only. The fact that my mind was already a little blurred I took special care now to put things in proper focus, and my mind started racing which was interrupted by the boy again.
“Sir, don’t worry… you’ll remember later, of course. Please call room service if you need anything… and I’ll come again” With that the boy unlocked the door, went out, and closed it from outside, all in a languid motion.
I stood there motionless for some time. Finally, I forcibly put it out of my mind, and at the same time, I decided to explore everything about the room. Immediately I headed for the interesting door past the restroom. I moved the doorknob giving it a mild push to know if it was locked from the other side.
No, it wasn’t. I pushed further and the door opened into a sizable space giving the impression of some storeroom. But, why a storeroom was attached to the main room? Such a facility was never offered in any hotel or guesthouse where I stayed in the last few years. The room had some old wooden furniture and a few wooden racks scattered here and there. Straight ahead there was another door, and immediately I moved towards it to find out what was lying beyond, my curiosity at its peak now. As I neared the door something moved on my right. There was a big old wooden rack covered fully with a white sheet from top to bottom, and below the bottom shelf, the cloth was hurriedly pulled inside. Someone must be hiding under it! I got really scared now, a chill running down my spine.
“Who the hell is there?” I shouted at the top of my voice. Nothing happened for a few moments. And then, the cloth was thrown aside, and there emerged the frame of a frail old lady with unkempt hair, sunken eyes and protruding cheekbones glaring at me, and in a flash trying to jump on me. She called out in a sick shrill, “Give me money… give me food… now… or… I’ll devour you up, you wicked man!” More in fright than the danger of a physical assault I instinctively rushed towards the door as the sickly woman charged after me. In a flash, I opened the door, pushed the rushing figure through it, and locked it from the inside. I had no time to see what lay beyond that door as I planned to earlier. I’ve locked this door, and now I’ll keep that ‘interesting’ door of my room permanently locked never bothering about it, but I’ll surely report this matter to the manager, I promised myself.
Outside the door, the shrill rose to a crescendo now, and I hurriedly turned around heading back for my room. I took only a few steps when I heard a scratching noise slowly rising in volume. I whirled around again looking at the door. Someone was trying to crush open the door. Who could it be? That frail lady couldn’t possibly emit so much force? I stood there transfixed. The scratching became a hammering now. The door started shaking violently.
My God… it was given away, I watched in horror! The top door hinge was almost gone; the middle one was getting jerked uncontrollably. If that gave away the single-piece door would come off. I must do something now… and fast.
Instinctively again, I rushed towards the door. I planned to push the door out along with the intruder to the other side, possibly crushing her or him under the door, then rush back to the room, locking the ‘interesting’ door securely, and call reception. Only one factor was beyond my control I didn’t know what lay beyond that door, and what was the number of my foes, only the lady or more…
I did as I planned. I managed to push the door free of its hinges to the wrong side outside. However, the falling door failed to crush anyone under its weight. To my surprise and horror, there was only that frail old sick lady outside, and she dexterously succeeded in wriggling herself out of the falling door.
Eyes blazing, breathing venom, hair, and hands flailing and shrieking wildly the woman was dancing in a seizure of insanity. “Give me money… give me food… you crooked fool!” I failed to retreat inside as if paralyzed by the spectacular dance of insanity in front of me as if trying in vain to analyze what it was all about. I lost a few precious moments in the process.
In those seconds the wild cavorting spectacle in deadly throes took hold of a small iron table and came rushing to hit me. I pulled my mind out of wondering about how she could come to possess so much energy, so ominously potent, and concentrated on my next crucial move.
My self-defence mechanism now turned to attack mode as I moved out in the open trying to run around her eluding her, trying to tire her out and catch the most opportune moment to deactivate her. For the first time, I was aware that it was an open space, like a backyard, and there were few building blocks surrounding the space.
There were some heads and voices too in the lighted balconies of some blocks, but no one tried to intervene or help either of us. You cannot expect anything from these zombies; at the most they will take out their mobiles, take selfies and enjoy, I mused bitterly as I ran around the space with the spectre giving a relentless chase. “Give me money… give me food… you wretched devil!”
Perhaps there came divine intervention. In that seemingly endless run and chase, one moment came to me when she was close enough to me my right about to turn around to confront me. I accepted that moment like the proverbial straw; caught hold of her and the iron table using both of my hands gave her an almighty shove and ran headlong towards my room through the broken door and through that enigmatic door.
Unnaturally powerful as she was, the frail lady could not take it this time reeling, cursing, and falling with a thud at the farthest side of the space, the iron table on top of her. That gave me good enough time to seal my protection.
I activated all the locks available on that mysterious door and sat down on the bed panting with a rush of blood to my head. Shrill shrieks of the insane woman could no longer be heard now.
However, at this particular moment, things again got a little blurred, and I had no idea at all why. At that particular moment, I should have done the most obvious thing-call-up reception, report that emergency, and urge them to take immediate preventive steps. But instead, I only felt pangs of hunger in my belly and thought about taking preventive steps for that only. I looked at my watch.
Oh God… it was quarter past ten, no point calling the canteen now, I thought despondently.
My mobile phone rang. In the commotion, I forgot about my phone which was lying abandoned on the bedside table. Now that lively gadget somehow brought me a little closer to reality, it seemed. It was Srijay flashing on the screen as I answered it.
“Sir, have you taken your supper? Are you already in bed?”
“Neither. I forgot to order on time. Few odd things happening here that I’ll tell you about tomorrow at leisure. For the moment I am famished and I don’t know what to do! No vehicle available to venture out to the town.”
“Sorry to hear that, Sir. Anyway, don’t worry. There is a joint, reasonably good, nearby. From the main entrance of the guest house turn right and you’ll find it a hundred meters away.”
For good or bad I was not sure at that time, my hunger pangs got the better of me submerging my earlier queer experiences into an understanding of reality. How I came out of the guest house without confronting anyone in the reception I didn’t give a thought to that time and neither could I remember now. The whys and hows in my narrative were still refusing to reveal themselves, to my utter helplessness.
Anyway, I exited from the guest house gate and turned right as instructed. The scenario puzzled me quite a lot. As I remembered from my earlier visit or visits the guest house was located in a small township of the institution with only a main road and classroom and administrative blocks and staff quarters scattered around with open spaces lined with trees.
Coming outside now I found several other roads connecting to the main road, and lots of lighted shopping or eating enclosures all around. However, there were lonely stretches of maybe a hundred meters each on either side of the guest house. I even found distant hills silhouetting a dim skyline opposite the guest house which was not there when I came last. Queer thoughts creeping in again I quickened my steps towards the eatery…
The eatery seemed to me as an Italian food joint with largely fast food items most of which were not even known to me. People were crowding, leaning, and craning over the counter for buying order coupons since it was a self-service restaurant. However, to my surprise, there was hardly any noise, and an eerie silence prevailed.
As I approached the counter for a look-in at the items available the nagging thought came to me again; since checking in I didn’t call my even once wife to inform her of my whereabouts, even though I wanted to tell her first thing after arrival; but somehow, I never cared to take up the mobile and dial her number. Let me order the food first and then I’ll call her, I assured myself again.
I looked for the menu, but there was none; only the names of some dishes were scribbled on the blackboard behind the counter. I squeezed my eyes to focus on the items, but could not read properly, and the real problem was I was not at all sure what ingredients those dishes were made of. I looked here and there for some kind of help and guidance.
My eyes were riveted on a small boy, in his early teens, standing in front of a table in the eating area beckoning me to come to him. I found him too young for a waiter and immediately warned myself that he could be part of a racket to fleece vulnerable customers. So I decided to ignore him and pushed my way through to the man behind the counter.
I asked him for a menu card or to tell me about the ingredients used in making various items on display. He looked at me a bit oddly, called someone from the backside, and instructed me to follow the man for the advisory. The man was tall and had an athletic build with bulging biceps and chest muscles threatening to tear through the light T-shirt he wore. He sized me up haughtily and ordered me to follow him. Is he going to take me to the kitchen, I wondered.
I followed him obediently as he walked by the side of the restaurant that led to a wooden staircase. He climbed briskly up the stairs and I had trouble keeping track of him as lots of people were either going up or coming down the stairs, I failed to understand why. We arrived at a broad spacious wooden platform crowded with people scattered here and there. I froze as I managed to take a closer look.
Most of the people there were physically deformed or poor beggars or both. I guessed some of them could be leprosy-affected too. They were lying on the floor in helpless sprawls making odd noises. Some of them were moaning, some crying and some shrieking out in agony, ‘Help us… help us… help us… !’ Some other able-bodied guys were trudging through the fleshy spread of human bodies, examining them, taking photos… but making no effort to help them in any way.
My moment of paralyzing shock cost me dearly. I lost track of the muscular guy. He seemed to have vanished into thin air. How is it possible, that a bulky bodybuilder like him can vanish like that, I had a sense of panic rising within me. There was no exit from the platform on the other side as there were brick walls around with a few wooden windows strewn here and there, mostly closed; any visitor must use the staircase for departing too. Now, the disfigured, the agonized, and the helpless bodies on the floor suddenly became aware of me standing there uncertainly, and their noises began to be directed at me. I shook myself out of the paralysis and started looking for a quick escape.
Luckily, I did not lose my way and the staircase was still there. I almost ran towards it and plummeted down the steps like a cursed shooting star. An overwhelming sense of relief flooded my whole self as I arrived back at the front side of the restaurant.
With relief, the hunger pangs returned too. As I contemplated my next move I noticed a person, dressed in a civilized manner and bespectacled, taking a lot of interest in me and coming towards me. I took him for a professor at the institution and was not at all opposed to meeting him. I thought a local professor could be a very good guide for me. I waited for him to join me.
He was lean and of medium height; with smiling eyes behind the glasses and black curly hair. He said to me immediately,
“Hello, you seem to be a stranger in this part of the globe, I suppose! I’m Akhter, a businessman from Mumbai.”
So he was not a local professor and an equal stranger like me, I thought dully. I said to him loud,
“Well, not exactly. I visited this place earlier, but this time I’m finding it a little strange. Anyway, I’m Hridayesh from Kolkata. Nice meeting you!” We shook hands.
“You look a bit ruffled up, are you in some sort of trouble?” he asked. “I know this place well. Tell me, I can help you out.”
I told him about my predicament in finding supper. He took me to a nearby shop, bought cigarettes, lighted him, and offered me one. I politely refused. He relaxed, making me relax too. We continued our conversation, but I lost track of the thread apart from the fact that he promised to take me to a good food joint. After finishing his fag he asked me to come with him.
We hit the main road and walked in the direction which I thought took us farther away from the guest house. This time I felt confident about finally quashing my hunger protests. A few yards on the main road we turned right towards a lane, at the end of the lane I could see an illuminated restaurant. His steps became quicker as I followed him in…
The one-storied longish block housed a store on our right and a restaurant cum bar on the other. The kitchen was most probably located behind the store because I saw several waiters coming out with loaded trays and some going in perhaps for more food orders. My friend seemed to have locked his eyes with the big-bellied elderly manager at the cash counter which served both the bar and the store. Suddenly, Akhter began shaking in excitement.
“This is a decent place, have your drinks and food in comfort,” he said to me. “I must go now. Sorry not to be with you. Because I must have a one-night-stand with my packets… ” and with these strange words he vanished behind the store…
I stood there for some time, not knowing what to make of the words just uttered by my erstwhile friend, and what to do next. However, I decided to do the most sensible thing at that moment. I went heading for the bar. As I pushed my way through the revolving glass doors I came to a standstill again looking at the spectacle.
The bar was spacious, rectangular in size, with a full glass wall giving a view of the street outside and a wood-panelled wall on the other side. To my utter surprise and shock, the whole interior was filled with thick layers of smoke rising to the false ceiling.
How on earth they were allowed to smoke inside, I thought in dismay; my mind took an overview of all the steps taken by the public authorities in recent years to save people from exposure to passive smoking. What amazed me next were the customers there.
Most of them were young boys and girls. Almost everyone was smoking, throwing out rings of smoke upwards. Some were looking up squealing in ecstasy while a few others were bent over the tables, jerky, and sneezing; some were staring around with total disinterest and glazed eyes; some were either howling or moaning or plain crying and some others were swaying from side to side in their merriment with their bodies hitting or brushing against other bodies. I didn’t take long to understand what was going on.
It was a drug bar, and I was astounded as to how this could be done so openly and in such a brazen manner. My first impulse was to dial the police if any in this strange place, but somehow my mobile phone and I became poles apart in the happenings so far.
A few addicts became aware of me standing uncertainly in front of the entrance, and they stared at me as if trying to evaluate me; a few seemed to jeer at me while some others communicated to me pitifully, ‘give us sustenance… give us sustenance… please!” My amazement fast gave way to fear I made a hasty retreat.
Out of the bar, I walked disoriented and aimless for a few minutes, not at all bothered about the streets or the landscape or the skyline. Suddenly again, I found myself in front of a restaurant which, to my great relief, looked like a traditional one with two rows of neatly arranged desks and chairs and normal-looking waiters moving around taking orders from customers and scrutinizing the menus. However, something else was waiting for me inside.
As I entered the open doorway heading for an empty table the manager behind the cash counter moved around at great speed, and walking past me slapped a waiter busy taking orders unawares; he repeated his unprecedented acts on three other waiters, slapping them with fury and vehemence. As I was destined that night I stood transfixed there, one more time. Now, the manager was shouting like a madman.
There was a moment of absolute silence in the restaurant following the manager’s acts with customers and staff alike stunned and immobilized. From the incoherent words of the manager, I surmised that sometimes back the hotel owner’s daughter and a few of her friends visited the restaurant for dinner, and one or more waiters misbehaved with them, not knowing their credentials or simply ignoring them. The daughter and group left in a huff and the manager got a resounding bashing from the owner over the phone. So he acted upon it immediately. However, before his action fully justified his fury something more dramatic happened.
Three goons with guns ready and pointed in their hands entered the restaurant. One of them stood guarding the entrance, one aimed his gun point-blank at the manager’s head and the third one took a position at the rear end. And I was like a duck sitting pretty amid the strangest scenario. This cannot go on any longer as far as my safety is concerned, I decided. I was an accidental bystander and therefore there was no reason why I should compromise my safety. I started moving towards the entrance slowly as a heated exchange of words was taking place between the manager and the gun-toting goon.
I almost made it. But unfortunately, just at the final moment of exit I accidentally brushed against the goon standing there, and his gun fell to the ground. Before the goon could react to that I acted impulsively and with a good presence of mind.
I instantly stooped down, picked up the gun, and handed it over to him with a sweet smile. The bewildered thug also managed a grin, and as I made my last move to exit he said to me in a rather paralyzing perplexity, “You gotta be a good man! But many good guys gotta die sooner than others! Nah..?” he hollered in great merriment over his humour. “Enjoy the night, goodbye!” I smiled weakly back at him and slowly moved out. The goon leaned out of the entrance to watch me, still giggling.
About twenty yards ahead the road turned right, and if I was able to round that corner I would finally move out of his sight. I watched many movies and read many thrillers where the villains appeared to be very suave, sophisticated, and benevolent, but at the climax, they used to murder the victims mercilessly.
Those twenty yards seemed to be an eternity as I started moving slowly ahead measuring every step and at the same time keeping an absolute outward calm. The imminent probability that he might put a bullet through my back at any time was a horrific thought that refused to leave my mind.
Nothing happened for about ten yards. I quickened my pace only by a fraction now so that it didn’t get noticed, suppressing my extreme desire to break into a dead run, and just vanish around the corner… and escape…
Two yards more to overcome… and I would be a free man, at least for the time being. I could no longer hear his laughter and dared not look back. Perhaps he appreciated my gesture in not using the opportunity offered by the falling gun; that he was only joking about ‘good guys’ and that he was not going to shoot me down at all.
On the other hand, had any murders taken place at the hotel afterward I would have been a prime witness as I had seen all three thugs from close quarters. In that eventuality, I would remain a marked man for eternity. But there was no way to know it for a certainty. Anyway, it would be very clear very soon.
I nearly stopped at the final point of the curve, gripped by persisting tension and fear. Taking an instant resolve to make the final dash to escape I rounded the turning successfully. No shots rang out in the air. And then I ran… I ran like a rabbit in pursuit, releasing the built-up tension and relishing my escape.
Surprisingly, I never got out of breath; running at that kind of break-neck speed seemed effortless for me. I didn’t bother about that. What I was bothered about was foregoing my supper, getting back to the guest house at any cost, and sleeping out that horrible night.
And I lost my way. The landscape was entirely different; it seemed to be a forest road with dense overgrowth on both sides, and I had no indicators to find my way back to the guest house. Suddenly, I confronted a steep rise in the road ahead. I stopped running and started climbing, again effortlessly. As I reached the highest point of the incline I stopped and looked ahead expectantly. However, a new world was waiting to greet me.
There opened before me the vast expanse of modernity, a big city with multi-lane brilliantly-lit streets, flyovers, high rises, shopping malls, and hundreds and hundreds of vehicles moving both ways. I was stunned, utterly failing to react. Because I never expected such a spectacle, and after being confronted with that I found absolutely no clue to recognize that city which seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. I never knew the existence of such a big city so near to the town of our known guest house.
Keeping raging my mind in control I moved along the street controlling my intense urge to ask the faceless pedestrians the name of the city. Perhaps my ego prevented me from doing that, because I was supposed to be a frequent traveller, at least within India, and it was utterly insulting for me not to have any idea about a huge city just a walk away from my latest destination. I also reasoned inside my mind that I would find out very soon.
My expectations soared as I saw a sprawling bus stand on my right which to my mind seemed to be an inter-state bus terminus. I quickly crossed over to the other side of the road and entered the campus looking for ticket counters with possible names of stations or destinations. I got angry, frustrated, and depressed not being able to find any indicator that could have satiated my quest.
I stood still in the middle of the expansive concrete floor, not knowing what to do. I thought of queuing up at a counter and talking to the booking clerk; but what would I ask him having no idea where I was or where I was to go? I could be an absolute laughing stock; I decided to drop the idea.
Somebody called me out from behind sending a cold chill down my spine. For some time I froze not daring to look back, not able to move a muscle, such was the shock and surprise inherent in that sound. Because the sound was very familiar; it had been an integral part of me; it was inseparable from me; there was no way not to recognize that sound. It was my wife, my dearest life partner of more than twenty years calling me out in her sweet tone.
Finally, I whirled around, and there she stood, smiling sweetly at me, with no mark of any tension or surprise or anxiety or indignation or sentiment. It was I who started having most of these emotions. What she was doing there? Why she was there? I left her at home hale and hearty only last evening, and suddenly she stood there before me like an apparition.
Again I had to apply full control so that my already tortured mind did not go raving out. Her calmness and naturalness also had an impact on my future course of action.
I decided to act normally too. Of course, I asked her what she was doing there to which she gave some incoherent reply, and I decided against pursuing it. Instead, we walked together towards a marble bench carved out of the sidewall of the building and sat down talking about nothing in particular.