Saturday, November 22, 2014

Aunty


One evening my brother and parents decided to go out to watch a movie at Amber-Oscar, a theatre close to Kripanagar, where we lived.  They insisted I join them as they would be comimg back home late, and there wouldn't be anyone at home till they returned. I said I wanted to play outside with my colony- friends, and would  take care of myself. Worry not. After all, I was bold, wasn't I? I was 10 years old then. They left. But, only after an hour of play, the  mothers of my friends began calling them home to study for their upcoming exams. One by one my friends returned home. No choice. And, I was stranded alone in the middle of our playground with nobody to play with. I held my hands, looked around, and tears started streaming down my cheeks, sobbing.
Just then, aunty who lived on the second floor, came out in her balcony-  probably to take a breather from her little brats moving around in the house. She saw me and shouted , "Hey Rahul, what are you standing there crying like a baby?"
Whatever little pride was left, evaporated. And I started howling. Aunty screamed at one of her brats in the house and told him to bring me up. Tears rolled down faster  sensing some sympathy around.
As soon as I entered her house, she said , "Go wash your hands in the bathroom and sit till the dinner is served ."
Nothing else was asked nor was I allowed to disagree. She ordered one her sons, Tessio, to set a carrom table and to play with me till such time.  Tessio gladly agreed.
"I am making some potato sandwich since I know you dont eat non-veg". Her loud voice echoed from the kitchen to the hall. I bit my lips. Oops! How did she know? I looked at Tessio but he was concentrating on the game as if it was a routine thing his mom did.
After some time Mario entered the scene. " Oye Rahulbhai, kya hua?"
"Kuch nahi hua," snapped aunty from the kitchen, "Now set the table. Dinner is ready."
Mario smiled obediently and left to set the dinner table.
Others joined. We sat, laughing, chatting,  gesturing, and poking fun at each other. Though aunty sat straight-faced , I knew the source of the humour around the table.
Our colony watchman rang the bell. My parents were back home and were looking out for me. I looked at the clock hung on the wall. Almost 10. Late. I hadn't realized the time. I got up to leave, and before I could thank aunty, she waved her hand in dismissal and said , " Go home naughty boy. Whiling away your time doing nothing. Your parents are worried."
I smiled, got up and left.
Now, after all these years, her memory is still fresh in my mind as she watches from a different, higher balcony.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Seashell


Sprung from the depths of the sea-
lay half-buried in the sand.
Shelled with stories and mystery
of the deep, brought to the land.
Often unnoticed remain,
mingled with pebbles ashore.
Adrift in the soft terrain
the relics roll and unfold.
Should I pick up to picture
or let it nestle, linger?


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Deluged


Water shed with unbridled fury
over the heavenly land.
Swamped the terrain, left no memory.
Just bold faith now could abate the irate fate-
Drifting amidst the helter-skelter,
some stand gallant and withstand.
Soldiers turn the scales, shield and shelter.



Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Back To School


Pictures spring up as memories unfold
of braided hair and oiled crew-cuts each morn.
The brown canvas shoes and long socks unroll.
A badge of truth broached on beige uniform.
With a khaki bag strapped, trudge the lazy
to the gates where our pillars of fate stood.
And, if school bells not awake the dozy,
shrills of the short-fused gardener surely would.
But when a white chalk squeaked on wide black board-
a hush screened the class, now filled with riddles.
Silent and shy we sat - in pretense bold
until the teacher defogged the scribbles.
Tho years fly by, the knowledge not age-
mischief remains, laughter still the language.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Knotted


Fate recalls a face remained unnoticed time ago.
Loose threads of memories stitch up the past and mellow.
But I know not when they wove the naughty knots of love
that adorn this rag - now wakes with an embroidered glow.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Dolphin Dance


In deep waters of her kingdom she whirls,
darts around in pairs, and sometimes alone.
She swings and spins creating much ripples-
lights up the underworld that lives in gloam.
Suddenly she leaps and cuts thru the surface.
Her tail appears as if clothed with wings.
A glistening gray airborne, unmatched in grace.
Then dips, torpedoes with her doll like fins.
Enchanting eyes twinkle to a whistle.
A mischief widens the imprinted smile.
Her turn and a flip presage a sizzle
of a waltz in water - an art sublime.
And if ever fate the pleasures divides-
I shall ask of this beauty for long rides.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wiles Of Wine (Shadow)


Wits laden the incensed wine.
Over mulled, unbraced.
Pits deepened with now sourer wiles.
Slower tolled clinks - fazed.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Bespectacled Boy


Cry not boy for your fallen heros.
Their yellow flame torched and touched.
Lacked no vigour - but stronger the foes.
It’s just a game for a name that juggles fame.
Shed a tear and agonize brief.
Trust not much a hope, and fudge.
It alters no fate, prolongs the grief.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Dribble


The game brings a heady buzz,
stadium swarms with human-bees.
The players shuffle and fuss,
butterflies flap royal wings.
Dice wobble as the ball rolls,
colours dazzle in the wave.
Flags flutter amidst uproar,
emotions dribble, enslave.
And, tho for pride friendships cease-
warring nations would find peace.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Checkmate


Michael lay on a bed. He was fully clothed but his head was shaved. A small machine, like an ancient radio was kept on a table next to his bed. All kinds of wires jutted out of it and were plugged to his head. He felt no pain but anxiety kept him awake. He was in a tiny room which was bare except for a fridge and a folding stool. An air conditioner hummed over his head.
A door hissed open and a man entered.
“ Morning Michael. How are you feeling,?” he asked.
Michael tried to reply but his mouth felt dry so he just nodded and smiled. The man smiled back.
He was a short, balding, middle-age man, and wore gold rimmed glasses - Dr. Jacob.
Michael didn’t know where he was. He was sedated before being brought here.
“ Thanks Jacob,” he finally managed to say.
“You are welcome,”  the doc said, “ It will take a few hours to complete and then you can leave. You might feel a bit dizzy but don’t worry, it would be just the drug wearing off. For now, rest”.
Michael closed his eyes. Dr. Jacob adjusted a few switches on the machine, fussed over Michael and left.
After, what seemed like ages, Michael woke up. He could hear some soft music played somewhere. And felt some movement. Then a voice floated in the air.
“ Aha! You are awake. It’s done. I am dropping you home.”
Michael looked around. The machine had stopped blinking, and his head was free of any attachments. He got up, felt a bit dizzy as if waking up after a hangover.


He was in a big van that Dr. Jacob drove. But for a slight disorientation he was feeling fine. He looked out the window. It was quite dark and he realized he had been away almost for the whole day - not that anyone would be looking for him. He lived alone in a comfortable apartment. It had a beautiful view overlooking a river and rugged mountains in the background. They were approaching his house.


“ I will get down here and walk home,” he informed the doctor.
Dr. Jacob looked at him thru the rear view mirror and shrugged. He stopped the van.
“Take care Michael,” he said, “ and call me if anything,” added affectionately.


The van drove away as Michael stood on a pavement with his hands in the pockets. His head seemed lighter now as he started walking slowly.


Michael was a professional chess player - exceptional. He had sufficient income rolling out of his chess wins. He didn’t need lot of money as he led a simple yet high thinking life. Next month he had an important title match coming up against his long time rival, Agnus - a genius. The stakes were high and so was the tournament money. But for Michael it was a grudge match. He wanted to win this badly, and he was sure Agnus felt the same. He had been preparing for it for the past six months and was confident. But of late he had been having a nagging intuition that he wasn’t finishing the game well. Michael relied heavily on instincts and took each one seriously. Finally he decided to do something about it.


He spent occasional weekends with his long time friend Dr. Jacob. They would play chess - doctor being a reasonably good player but not a professional. And after a game or two would retire to the porch, relax in big leather chairs, and share a couple of Jack Daniel’s.


Jacob held a doctorate in biotechnology , speciality - human cell development - a new  found technology which he himself had introduced to enhance  human brain. He had been doing enough research on it and was quite successful. And now all he needed - Michael knew - a willing brain to implement it.


One evening as they sat on the porch, Michael, with courage in form of bourbon in front of him, broached the subject. He decided to be direct as he was aware his friend disliked solving riddles which weren’t riddles in the first place.


“Doc,” he started as casually as he could, and immediately Dr. Jacob sensed they were approaching his professional territory since only then Michael would call him “Doc” , “I want you to create a cell which will contain all possible chess moves, and insert it into my brain,” he shot.
The doctor stared. Bull’s eye. The dart had hit the mark.
“Like a computer chip that contains all data,” he continued.
Dr. Jacob didn’t say anything. He nodded, smiled and then brushed it off.
“Come on doc. I know even you are as eager to experiment.” Michael persisted.
The doctor sighed. Michael was right. He needed a human. But Michael? He was his best friend. What if something went wrong?


“I will take full responsibility.” Michael pressed on as if reading his thoughts.
“Let me sleep over it.” the doc said finally.


They chatted for an hour, and Michael didn’t bring up the subject. They promised to meet the next week. It was going to be along one, thought Michael.


The weekend arrived. They sat on the porch skipping the chess game ritual. Dr. Jacob had puffy red eyes, clearly he hadn’t slept much but there was an unmistakable twinkle which Michael detected to his satisfaction. They began the conversation with some hiccups. First, Jacob made absolutely sure what Michael wanted him to perform, and whether he was still willing. Michael said he had never been surer.


“This is a complicated process,” Dr. Jacob began,” and tho I am pretty confident, I may have to consult my friend and colleague, Dr. Paul, and ask him to be devil’s advocate to keep me grounded and true. In that case, I have to divulge some information to keep this operation error proof. I have known Paul for some time now and I respect his judgement. The actual procedure and the implantation will take one full day. And, at the end, I assure you, you will not feel much different. I ask you one last time Michael - are you sure you want this so badly?” said Dr. Jacob.


“ As badly as you want it.”  retorted Michael. Doctor smiled.
“ What about this Dr. Paul? Are you sure you want to involve him? I am comfortable with only two of us knowing about this but if you have to share this…”  Michael continued but the doctor interrupted,
“ Your safety is more important to me than the discovery of our little adventure.”  said Dr. Jacob.
Michael nodded.


When everything was pretty much agreed upon, Jacob concluded,
“ Next thursday you come to my house at our usual hour. You will be sedated, and after a long rest, the next morning on Friday, taken for cell implantation.”


And so, now, here he was, incepted, walking on the pavement fully equipped for his upcoming battle against Agnus.


He approached a small bridge that connected to his house. He felt fine and was eager to test the chip inserted into his brain, or somewhere around it. The grudge match was a week away. He crossed the bridge looking at the small stream that ran below it. Calm. He reached his house and unlocked the front door. It was pretty dark now. Suddenly his mobile vibrated in his pocket. He flipped it open. A text message from Jacob - hope u r feeling ok. call once you settle down -
Michael smiled and responded - yes, thanks -
He went to his room and booted his computer. Surprisingly he wasn’t feeling hungry. Time to play.


“ Good evening Michael,” the screen came alive, “ are you ready to get beaten?” It teased. He was playing against the computer. Michael smiled - Morning Monica . We shall see - He called his computer Monica and had programmed her for such random banters to get the feeling that he was playing against a human. But these exchanges were not really random as they were also based on previous games. Monica, the computer, at times, also voiced during a game - never about the game tho - and Michael loved the way she came up with teasing repartees.  He set the play level at ‘standard’ and began. Few moves. The game went on. He didn’t feel the chip inserted inside his brain was aiding him. But again, he wasn’t sure how he would feel if it was. He continued playing and defeated the computer without much problem.
“ That was a quickie. “ Monica grunted. Michael laughed.
He thought of calling Dr. Jacob but then decided to give one more try. He set the play level at ‘difficult’ and began his next game.
“ Now you are acting like a real man. Let’s see what you got, eh?” She purred.
Michael ignored her and began. As the game progressed the position of the board grew complex and he was completely absorbed, forgetting he had a powerful computer working inside his brain. Then came the first sign of it’s existence.


Blip! Then a sort of tingling somewhere inside. He was on high alert. He changed his next move almost automatically - as if driven by a powerful force. Again the next move was in a trance. In the third move Michael thought for a while and deliberately made an error. Immediately he started getting strong vibrations, a loud bell rang inside which he thought only he could hear or sense. He had to make that move which the chip inside his brain was directing - and then a series of moves. In no time he had defeated the machine which otherwise he would have taken much longer to defeat or probably the match would have ended in a draw. He was amazed. This was it.
“ Oopsy! That was something!” Monica responded.
He wanted to call Dr. Jacob but realized that it was pretty late. He would call him first thing in the morning. Michael was unable to control his excitement. He wanted to play more but remembered the doctor’s advise to go slow the first few days after the implantation. He was hungry. He got up, yawned in satisfaction, and made coffee and sandwich. He went back to the last game to see if he would have made those final moves independently. Yes. May be he would have with an effort tho. He stared at the screen. Tomorrow he would play a more difficult game and check. He finished his sandwich and gulped down the coffee. Picked up a paperback but fell asleep within a few minutes.


The morning chirps woke Michael up. He went into the bathroom and checked himself in the mirror. He wasn’t sure why he did that but felt reassured when his face looked fine. No disorientation. He laughed. After a quick shave and shower he sat down with a hot cup of coffee and called Dr. Jacob, and told him about the previous night’s events. Michael was elated and congratulated the doctor. Dr. Jacob listened and tried hard to suppress his excitement. But Michael could sense that his friend was equally jubilant tho sounding anxious. After the technical chit chat, Dr. Jacob felt a bit easy. He told Michael to go slow but Michael was already plotting his next game. Dr. Jacob grunted in mock and told him to drop by in the evening.


Michael refilled his coffee, drummed his fingers on the table as the computer was booting up. The screen flickered to life.
“Good morning Michael.” Wished Monica.
Michael set the level at “toughest”.
“Oh my!” responded Monica,” You are certainly on.”
They began cautiously. On the 25th move, when the game was intense, Michael heard the, now familiar sound.
Blip! Tingle!
The chip was churning moves. And this time strongly.
On the 35th move, Michael was about to make a tactical error when, again, the chip forced him to make a different move.
“Ah!” exclaimed Monica.
He won after 45 moves. It was tough battle but Michael didn’t feel drained.
“ You were hot today, Michael.” Monica flirted.
Michael smiled. He was immensely satisfied with the chip save for the control it had over him.
He called Dr. Jacob, replayed the game, and confirmed their weekend ritual.


Michael and Dr. Jacob were sitting on the porch. Michael with his feet up, a drink in hand. Dr. Jacob was fidgeting. He wanted to make sure Michael was fine - the game didn’t matter to him since he was certain of the result. When Michael related the entire event, he began to relax. But one thing nagged him - the force with which the chip directed Michael to make his moves. Of course, he had programmed it that way but even he was surprised at it’s power. He sat in contemplation. Next week was the big match against Agnus, a two-games match series. He looked at Michael. He seemed to be in a different world. Dr. Jacob couldn’t help but smile.


“So, is Monica upset?” he asked.
“Not really,” replied Michael,” she is enjoying it. She will be okay.”
“Michael,” said Dr. Jacob, “ I want you to call me after each game and give every small detail. Don’t leave anything out, however trivial.”
Michael promised he would and resumed his day dreaming. They sat muted for a long time. Finally Michael got up, patted his friend’s back, and left. Dr. Jacob sighed and prayed silently.


Dr. Jacob was busy the next week with some assignments. But he attended each of Michael’s phone calls. Michael dutifully called after each game. Dr. Jacob recorded each event in his computer and made a mental note.
Friday evening, the day before the match, Michael called and said that it was the last practise match and after that he was going to do nothing but relax before the big event. Dr. Jacob jotted down all the subtle changes. He wished Michael good luck and told him he would be there tomorrow to watch him play. It was a day event with three hours break after the first game. When Michael put down the phone,  Dr. Jacob fed the data in his computer and studied the progress of the week. The graf pattern gave no alarming bells. He was satisfied. He looked at Dr. Paul, his colleague and confederate, and nodded. He packed his bag and left for the day. He was on a mission. And it was successful. Now all he wanted was to watch Michael play. On his way out he remembered and called Dr. Paul to shut his computer down.


Michael was shutting down his computer when his phone rang. It was Dr. Jacob. He looked at the computer, fluttered his eyelashes - love you Monica. Wish me luck - and switched off the screen. He told Dr. Jacob he was ecstatic and eager to play the tournament. Dr. Jacob gave him the green signal.


Saturday morning. Battle lines drawn. Brains oiled. Horns sharpened. Bulls ready. Arena full.
Agnus - white armour. Michael - black armour.
They shook hands and pulled their chairs to sit. Too eager for blood. Too eager to perform. Dust of ego puffed up and settled in the air.
Dong!
Swords clanged. First attack launched. Few exchange of pieces after ten moves, and the heat was on. Agnus was playing beautifully but Michael was up to the task. Both took a long time to complete the next five moves. Agnus looked relaxed and pleased with the proceedings. Michael was so immersed in the game that he completely forgot about the chip implanted.


Then on move 20 - Blip! Tingle!
Michael felt the vibrations. He looked up at Agnus to check if he detected any change in him, but he seemed too absorbed. Michael searched in the audience for his friend. Dr. Jacob was sitting in a corner. Their eyes met. Locked. And the doctor understood. It was the first time he was seeing Michael in action with his chip alive and active inside him. He smiled nervously.


Michael made the next move. Agnus raised his eyebrows. He thought he knew Michael’s style but this was new. He looked at Michael but Michael was staring the board. Innocently. After the next three moves Agnus blew a low whistle. He was clearly bemused, and showing it openly. Michael closed his eyes - not guilty.


Next five moves were savage. Agnus stumbled, fell, but held on. A carnage, and he wasn’t going to take this lying down. He launched into an offensive which would have wavered Michael under normal circumstances. But he didn’t know it wasn’t against Michael he was playing now. Michael defected each ambush so deftly that Agnus looked perplexed. He scratched his head number of times, more times than Michael ever remembered. Bull’s eye - thought Michael. Still looking innocent.


Agnus resigned after 38 moves He almost ran to his room without bothering to shake hands with Michael. Michael looked at Dr. Jacob and smiled. He smiled back satisfactorily. Michael stood up and went to hs den. Dr. Jacob followed. They congratulated each other. Dr. Jacob checked his pulse. Normal. He fussed over him. Michael told him to relax. One more game. He made coffee for both of them. Michael gulped down his and informed Dr. Jacob that he was going to take a short nap, and excused himself. Dr. Jacob finished his coffee and joined the audience. To his surprise, he saw Dr. Paul walking in. Funny, he thought. Since when was Dr. Paul interested in chess? He looked a bit edgy. Dr. Jacob brushed the thought aside and busied himself with some reading material he had brought along to read during this break.


Couple of hours passed. Dr. Jacob checked his watch. Next game would start soon. He looked up. No sign of Dr. Paul.
Dong!
Bulls entered. One fresh. Other ageing, probably with the wounds. But enough clout to hold the head high. Raring to charge. They pulled their chairs in a hurry, not shaking hands, nor looking at each other. The dust-ego settled over their heads - now a familiar territory.


Michael just needed to draw this game to snatch the title from Agnus. But in present euphoria, he would go for a kill. An outright victory, but more importantly, humiliation. He wanted to break Agnus.
Agnus, on the other hand, needed a win which would then tie the score. He would retain the title since he was the defending champion.
Michael donned white shining armour. Agunus, black and velvety. The battle of the bulging egos began.


Michael made the preliminary moves. Agnus responded with solid defense. Exchange of pieces and the game cruised along. Evenly matched.


Move 25- Blip! Tingle!
Michael looked up and found Dr. Jacob in the audience. Their eyes met and he resumed the attack vigorously. Agnus was calm. A fox with enough hunts to his credit.  Suddenly, he looked up and stared at Michael. Michael appeared even more innocent. Agnus almost laughed and turned his head in the direction of the the audience. Both, Dr. Jacob and Michael, followed his gaze. And to their astonishment found Dr. Paul sitting in the front row smiling back at Agnus.


Now, Agnus made a unique move. Michael froze. His chip froze, tho momentarily. And then began a series of vicious, bold moves which experts in the audience watched with their jaws dropping. And dropping further with each next move. There was rustle and more whispering among the audience. This was a matchless performance. Nobody had witnessed such artistry. They dissected and debated each move.


The bulls had finally locked horns on equal terms.
“Now we are chipped from the same block” Agnus remarked so slowly that Michael had to stretch his ears. Michael couldn’t help but laugh.
The board was on fire now. Stakes changed. Emotions high. Game - robotic.
Michael resigned after 48 moves. He looked at Dr. Jacob dejectedly who smiled in reassurance indicating it was all right. Michael sat stunned. Dr. Paul pumped his fists in the air. Agnus was triumphant and all ready to talk to the reporters.


Dr. Jacob approached Dr. Paul.
“congratulations Paul. You stole my data.”
“Thanks. You shared.”. replied Dr. Paul.
“Not entirely.”  countered Dr. Jacob.
Dr. Paul nodded.
“ How did Agnus win if both the chips were programmed the same way?” Dr. Jacob demanded.
“Not the same way.” Corrected Dr. Paul.
Dr. Jacob looked confused so Dr. Paul continued.
“ Okay Jacob. I shall explain. I owe you that much atleast.”
“Kind of you.” Dr. Jacob shot back.
Dr. Paul ignored it.
“I was thrilled when you confided in me the working of the chip you implanted in Michael’s brain. We were making good progress. And you gotta admit that I gave you good insights. But last week you shut me off completely. And that piqued my curiosity. So I borrowed the data from your computer, which you occasionally leave it on.”


Dr. Jacob cursed under his breath.
“ Yeah, like last evening,” continued Dr. Paul, “ I made a similar chip. But I improvised. I added, or rather injected ‘Mega’, my new recipe , a new drug which I have been working on for some time now. It’s a drug which adjusts itself to the new environment and has the ability to develop on it’s own. So in this case - Agnus - it resided in the chip, got used to the environment and helped develop the cell. With the result, the cell grew, and created thinking power without any additional help from outside. Basically, the chip grew intelligent with each additional chess move, in this case. Stronger. And the result was for all to see.” Concluded Dr. Paul.


Dr. Jacob was impressed, “ When did you inject ‘Mega’?” he asked.
“ During the break. The chip was implanted but activated when ‘Mega’ was incepted.
“ What about repercussions?” Dr. Jacob was agitated now, “ Is that not dangerous? Does Agnus know there is somebody actually living inside him, in all practical sense? Is he aware of it?”


Dr. Paul shrugged and looked at Agnus, who was busy talking to the reporters, impressing them.
“ I have explained to him to the best of my ability and he is prepared to take a chance,” he said, “ look at him now. Look at the attention he is getting. He wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Dr. Paul evaded the real question and smiled.


Dr. Jacob shook his head and left.
Michael still sat in the same position with his eyes closed.
Checkmate.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Kapi


An aroma fills the air
when coffee beans grind at dawn.
Laze of the morn in-repair
as filtered Kapi is born.
Senses kindle with each slurp.
The hot decoction streams thru.
And it sails around to flirt-
emoticons of the brew.
Energized for the long day,
the thoughts ensemble, array.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Fear Figure




Michael awaited the last bus to his house. It was 1 A.M. It had been raining the whole day and the night had turned dark as coal. He had had a couple of wines to stay warm but the cold wind made a mockery of it. Tho, wrapped in a thick rain jacket, he was shivering. He looked up at the street lights to gauge the force of the rain. Still strong. It faded the glow of the lamp. He shook his head and sighed.


A blue van was approaching. It’s wipers whooshed steadily. When it passed by, his eyes fell on a lone man standing opposite side of the road. It looked as if he had been standing there for a long time. He was hooded, and was looking straight at Michael. The rain didn’t seem to affect him at all. He had pale green eyes which bored into Michael. And Michael flinched. The man nodded and
began crossing the road without checking the traffic. Michael looked around to see if there was any life around, including his own. None. The man kept coming. Michael shivered, and now not because of the rain. He gritted his teeth, determined not to show his fear. The man was just two feet away. And michael saw his last bus, the last straw approaching. It’s tyres moving ever so slowly. Michael managed to mumble something in between nervous laughs. He again looked at the bus urging it to speed up. When he turned, the man was standing next to him. The bus was close and Michael started towards it. The man tried to hold Michael by his sleeves. Michael somehow managed to brush him off and run. The man smiled but didn’t try to pursue. The bus stopped and Michael got in. He bought a ticket and plunked down on a seat with relief. He looked out of the window. The man was looking at him - hands in his pockets, disapproval in eyes.


There were few passengers in the bus. A dozing late-night worker, a young couple and an old lady who was sitting at the far end. Michael fished out a paperback from his inner pocket and tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. The bus braked at the next stop jolting the worker awake and he got down. Michael tried to shake off the memory of the hooded man. Something was amiss. Two more stops and the couple got down. Michael looked out to check where he had reached. It was still raining. He flipped open his mobile to send a message home but there was no signal. Funny. He turned. The old lady was sitting right behind him now. Walking stick by her side. She smiled and Michael smiled back. She was frail but the twinkle in her eyes made her look young and mischievous. It was her son’s birthday and she had spent the whole day with him. Her son had told her to stay back and leave the next day. But she had insisted on returning home however late, and hence, was on the last bus. She owned a small apartment where she lived alone.


Michael’s mind was still occupied with the hooded man, But strangely, slowly, he began sharing his family history with the old lady and she listened with great interest which prompted him to open up. Michael looked out. It was still raining and he couldn’t make out where he had reached.
He thought they had been talking for a long time and he felt easy in her company. She was getting down at the next stop and invited him home. But he thanked her and politely declined. He
realized the bus hadn’t halted for some time now. He wasn’t wearing a watch so he flipped open his mobile to see the time. The battery had died. Odd. It was fully charged when he had left. When he looked up the old lady was looking at him intently. She smiled and once again invited him home, and once again Michael declined. She shrugged and got up as her stop was coming. She was trembling a bit.


The bus dinged to a stop. The old lady alighted. And before Michael had a chance to say goodbye, the bus started. He looked out but she was nowhere to be seen. He bit his lip. The rain had stopped. The surrounding looked familiar. Suddenly his mobile beeped. He was startled since his mobile had been dead. He fumbled and took it out. There was a text message - “ hope u r safe”.  Number unknown. The time on the screen flashed 1 A.M.- the time when he had boarded the bus. But he had been travelling for hours. He told the driver to halt. The driver stopped, nodded and smiled. Michael got down and stared at the driver. It was the old lady looking at him. Before Michael could utter anything- which he was anyway finding it difficult- the bus took off.


Michael stood perplexed, alone on the road. He had arrived at the same place from where he had boarded the bus. His phone beeped a message , “Welcome”. He looked up. The same blue van rolled by. When he passed he closed his eyes, dreading to see the hooded man opposite side of the road. With effort he opened them but the hooded man wasn’t there.


Now, the last bus approached. He got in. The later-night worker, the young couple but no old lady. Michael abruptly turned to look at the driver. He saw a young man with a long mustache.
He breathed easy and  shook the driver’s hands with relief. The driver was puzzled and looked at Michael. Too much to drink? But he smiled back and started the bus.


Soon, Michael’s stop arrived. His house was just a few minutes walk from there. He got down and removed his rain jacket. A black object fell from his pocket. He picked it up and examined. It was a sharp, shining  triangle. He flipped it around but found no engraving on it. It was made of some heavy ore. He wondered where it came from and how it landed in his pocket. He felt eyes on him and saw the hooded man staring at him from a distance. Michael looked at the object, looked at the man, and threw the triangle at him. It clanked on the sidewalk and landed at his feet. The man smiled, shook his head and picked up the object. It turned yellowish green and dissolved in his hands, and he walked away. Michael was agitated. He was fuming. He tried to run after the man but suddenly felt old and weak.  He saw a police car cruising along. The car stopped as it neared Michael. An officer got out and asked what Michael had been doing so late in the night and if there was anyway he could help. Michael told him about the strange looking hooded man and pointed him in his direction. To his dismay, the officer said he didn’t see anyone where Michael was pointing. Michael persisted. He could see the man walking away. The officer shook his head again. And then offered Michael a ride home. Michael refused, with a little irritation in his voice.


The officer said, “You seem a bit tired. It’s late night. Why don’t you go home and rest, old lady? And oh, by the way, here is your walking stick. Looks like you dropped it.”


Michael didn’t understand what the officer meant. He gave him a confused look. The officer smiled, offered him a ride again. When  Michael refused, he drove away. The hooded man had disappeared. Michael walked home, slowly, trembling - with a walking stick.