The Deserter

January 7, 2019

The couple got married in a simple ceremony in Kanjurmarg & left for Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Rahul was supposed to report immediately to the US office & so they left directly after the wedding. The drive through the densely wooded & empty streets of Aarey during late night was smooth & pleasant. The gentle breeze blowing through the open windows & the day’s fatigue lulled Pooja to a peaceful sleep.

January 8, 2019

Pooja’s parents received a text from her : “I have abided by your terms for far too long. I wish to live my life by my rules. I don’t want to get bogged down by marriage and its responsibilities. I am going away to live my own life. Please don’t try to look for me. I will contact you when I want to.”

Rahul was devastated.

Pooja was born in an ordinary middle-class family. She was an average kid at school, but even as a kid she was highly considerate and mature for her age. Whether kids around her wore better clothes, ate better food or anything else, she was unaffected. She was always content with what she had and never complained. As a kid, she loved to play ‘ghar-ghar’ – a game played by little girls in Indian households, where the kids would enact playing a housewife and cook food for their ‘husbands’, clean and decorate their dollhouses, dress up the dolls with beautiful ornaments and accessories, etc. Growing up, she took up Commerce studies after High School and graduated B.Com. with honours. She was highly excited to take up an MBA course after her graduation. However, for her parents and relatives, her graduation meant time for marriage. So, when she was told to look at a prospective groom suggested by her paternal aunt & not think about further studies, she agreed. After all, she never complained. 

His name was Rahul. He belonged to an ordinary middle-class family as well. Through sheer determination, he slowly excelled in his studies. Once he set his mind to something, he would do anything to achieve it. He was even called the ‘Ideal’ son. He never refused his parents, even though if it meant repressing his wishes. What he lacked in intelligence, he covered it up with determination and his ‘charm’. His charm had always helped to get things in his favour. Slowly at first, but he soon realized it and started using it to his advantage. As such, he was always popular with women. After graduation, he joined an MNC and within a few months was selected for a transfer to their team in United States. For his family, this meant as the perfect time to get married. The strong nexus of his relatives & the transfer to US, ensured a speedy match and very soon he was hitched to Pooja. After all, he never disobeyed.

The marriage date was fixed for January 7, 2016. 

January 6, 2019. 

He was riding his newly bought Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ on the roads of Powai. He had recently emerged back from a rough phase of life and was trying his best to move ahead. He wasn’t overly fond of the Royal Enfield, but he’d heard this motorcycle was quite popular nowadays, so he’d bought one. It wasn’t long before he’d started cursing the vehicle for its weight. The bike felt like an overweight whale in the heavy rush-hour evening traffic. Twice, he missed out on turns because he couldn’t maneuver the vehicle on time in the traffic. He cursed himself for buying a motorcycle so soon after coming back. He cursed the city traffic. The traffic had worsened since last he remembered. He was not in a good mood. However, he had to meet his friends in Goregaon. He soon brightened up thinking how they’d curse him if didn’t reach on time.  

He reached soon after. His friends were quite sympathetic towards him for what had happened. But he asked them all to not worry about it. He had moved ahead. After that, he had a blast with them. He hadn’t had so much fun in a long time. One of his friends was getting married. Another one was going to become a Dad in a few months. Many things had changed, but their silliness still remained the same. They drank, cracked dumb jokes and finally, he left their company around 12:30am and started back for home. 

He hadn’t drunk much. He had to ride back home. The night air was chilly in Aarey colony. But the alcohol in his system was keeping him warm. He was enjoying the ride, since the roads were almost empty at that time of the night. It had carried him into his own world. He started thinking; “I should talk to mom-dad about marriage too. It would be a bit awkward, but I’ll convince them about how I am ready now, unlike… I don’t want to think about all that now. Let’s enjoy the moment, why think worrisome thoughts. I should replace the exhaust soon, with that full bass sound one like Ashish has …acts as if he’s a stud… well he is a dude, but still… I’m goin to put a bigger one than him… I’ll put a Khalidaro Cobra or a Red Rooster exhaust…

He was jerked out of his thoughts and had to bring his bike to a screeching halt. There was a woman standing in the middle of the road. For a second, he was forced to think about the most common horror story about how ghostly women haunt empty roads and kill travellers going through those roads. He didn’t believe in ghosts. She didn’t look like any witch or anything,. Besides, though he couldn’t see her face, the pink saaree that clung to her body showed she had an alluring figure. “Who knows, I might just get lucky, 😉” he thought. He approached her and asked what’s the problem. 

She: Please just drop me outside, I’m really afraid of this place. I’ll pay you as much as you want, I just wish to get out of here. I’m really scared. 

He: Hey… hey… calm down. Hop on. It’s alright you don’t need to pay me any money. I can understand why you would be scared. This place gives me the heebie-jeebies.

She: Thanks a lot. 

She climbed onto the back seat of his bike. He started riding and tried to make small talk.

He: So, what’s your name, beautiful?

She: Am I?

He: I can tell that you’re beautiful from as much as I’ve seen.

She: Hmm.   

He: By the way, you really don’t need to pay me any money, you can just treat me to a cup of coffee. 

She: Sure.

He gets vexed by her short one-word answers. He couldn’t understand how his ‘charm’ wasn’t working on her. After riding in silence for a few minutes, he tries a different approach. 

He: Hey, how come you were stranded here all alone? 

No answer. 

He: Hey, are you comfortable? Hope you haven’t fallen off.  

Still no answer. He wonders if she’s fallen asleep. He tries to look in the rear-view mirror, but the streetlights are off and he couldn’t see anything. 

He hears her stir and again tries to talk to her.  

He: Heyyy… come on.. talk to me. I’m not going to eat you up. So, where were you coming from? 

She did answer this time. And her answer sent a chill down his spine.

She: My wedding.  

Little alarm bells start ringing in his head. Then he notices the bangles on her hands. Even though he was feeling uneasy, he couldn’t put his finger on the exact reason. He saw he was approaching a stretch of road with the streetlights on. He again tried to see her through the rear-view mirror. And he’s stumped. F*ck! She can’t really be… why isn’t she visible in the mirror? Is this because of the alcohol?I don’t care if it’s the alcohol or not, I have to stop being tharki and get rid of her, its not worth the risk – he started thinking. However, he’s smart and he doesn’t show his shock on his face but decides to use his brains. He kills the engine switch and the bike comes to a halt. He asks her to get down for a second, acting as if there’s some problem with the bike. 

He asks her to get down and she gets down. Then he acts as if he’s trying to kick-start the bike a few times and then shrewdly turns the engine switch on again and starts the bike with electric start. He immediately accelerates away before she could climb back onto the backseat. 

She shouts at him to please stop, and he almost stops, not wanting to leave her alone, but then remembers what he had seen (or not seen) and just doesn’t want to risk it. 

He goes some distance and turns around to see that she was still trying to run behind him, though she was quite far. He increases his speed to 60kmph to increase the distance between them. 

He continues at that speed steadily for a few minutes before he hears her voice yet again from behind him and is shocked but doesn’t dare to turn around. 

He increases the speed yet again going onto 100kmph. He’s having all kinds of thoughts in his head – ‘the mechanic had told me not to go above 60kmph before completing 500kms, as it could harm the bike’s engine…f*ck why am I even thinking all that now, I’ve got to save myself first, not the bike’s engine…why can I still hear her voice? and why am I not out from Aarey colony yet? It doesn’t take more than 20-25 minutes to cross this stretch generally. I’ve been riding in Aarey colony since the last 40 minutes. What the hell is wrong here?  

He comes out of his thoughts and finds to his pleasant surprise that he’s stopped hearing her shouts for him to stop. Still he’s quite terrified and doesn’t dare to turn back to look behind and confirm whether she’s actually given up pursuing him. He just wants to get out of Aarey colony. He tries to focus on the road looking for some familiar landmarks but finds none, and even the exit seems nowhere on the horizon. His bike’s going at a speed of approx 60kmph, he thinks of slowing down. He thinks he’s finally left her behind and turns back to look back one last time…

He sees her racing behind him and catching up with him. He almost suffers a mild stroke looking at her running behind him at that speed… its inhuman.. he decides to increase his speed, now he’s going at 80kmph, she’s getting closer & closer…he’s going at 90 now & she’s still gaining on him….95…100kmph.. he looks back to check, she’s vanished.. he relaxes for a second thinking the nightmare’s passed..

Too soon…

He turns to his other side… And comes face to face with her.

She: Why didn’t you take me with you?

He saw her face very clearly this time. And he recognized her.

January 7, 2019.

A localite alerts the police of a motorcycle accident. The police find a bike crashed with the trunk of a tree in the middle of Aarey colony. The bike is quite unharmed, except for a few scratches, but the rider is dead. Even in death, there is a look of abject terror and utter disbelief on the face of the rider. The police-officer in charge scoffed as the locals attributed the accident to some ghost. The personal effects of the rider revealed his name to be Rahul. The last message sent from his phone was to “P’s ma” ;it said – I never left.

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