The dark, dank, dingy corridor of the dilapidated mansion – an abandoned factory, actually – could have scared a normal person but not Dhiraj; he seemed to be familiar, very familiar, with the sinister ambience. Head bent and swaying on wobbly feet, he walked unsteadily into the bowels of the creepy edifice and reached a small room that was worse.
“You, again?” The contemptuous, husky voice of a diminutive African, sitting behind a rickety wooden table, resonated in the small room. He was called ‘Frico’ in his ‘circles’.
“Yeah, I need stuff, Frico.” Dhiraj was finding it difficult to stand steadily.
“Lemme see some bucks.”
Dhiraj silently handed a thin wad of one-hundred rupee notes to Frico. The African counted and pocketed the money, reached into a small backpack, came up with a tiny Ziploc bag containing a small quantity of white powder, and dropped it in the palm of Dhiraj.
“Gwan, man, have fun,” the African said and laughed raucously.
Dhiraj looked glassy-eyed at him and wobbled out of the room.
With great difficulty, one could see one’s own hand. Such was the atmosphere in those two large, dingy rooms. It was smoke, smoke, and more smoke and an overpowering stench of alcohol and drugs, not necessarily in that order, though.
There were twenty to thirty youths of both sexes lost in the numbing combined intoxication of alcohol and drugs – acid, meth, coke – you name it, it was there. The youths were drinking, smoking, snorting, sniffing, injecting, and whatnot, in their ‘pursuit of happiness’.
Oblivious to the world at large, Dhiraj sat in a corner. He was mumbling unintelligibly to his skinny mate sitting beside him, also lost in the world of intoxication.
It was past noon. Dhiraj was still lying in bed. Even the shrill buzzing of the doorbell could not penetrate through the layers of slumber.
“I tried, Ganesh. He wouldn’t wake up. What’s wrong with him? Usually, he is an early riser; he has been acting strangely of late; doesn’t eat well; comes home at odd hours. Always keeps his room bolted from inside.” Dhiraj’s mother, Savitri, was worried.
“Aunty, he must be tired. I’ll wake him; you get some strong coffee.” Ganesh gave her a light hug and sent her packing to the kitchen. The expression on his face was anything but light; it was sombre.
“You are destroying yourself, Dhiru,” Ganesh said to a half-stoned Dhiraj.
They were sitting on a cement bench in a nearby park. It was early evening and the park was slowly filling up with people.
“Look at you, crumpled dress, dishevelled hair, drowsy, red-shot eyes. You are stinking. When was the last time you had a bath or even brushed? You are thin and wasted. When was the last time you had a proper meal?”
“Leave me alone, Ganu.” A vexed-looking Dhiraj.
“The hell I’ll leave you alone, you idiot. Aunty was beside herself in grief at seeing her only son this way; spoke to me at length about you. After your father’s demise, she is helpless; she is unable to cope with her own life, without your adding to her woes.”
“What have I done?”
“What have you done? Are you serious?” Ganesh paused. “It is that den, isn’t it? You are on drugs, aren’t you?”
Dhiraj panicked. “No, no, no…I’m just…I just…I had a few drinks with some friends…”
“Which friends? Names?”
Dhiraj did not reply.
“There aren’t any friends, are they? Some of our friends told me they saw you going to that mansion. What the hell are you thinking, Dhiru?”
“Nothing…nothing of that sort. They are lying.”
“The drugs will destroy you and everyone close to you…”
The futile discussion degenerated into a futile argument and ended abruptly with Dhiraj leaving in a huff.
Ganesh was sitting on the lawns of his college with his friends. One of them pointed out, “There, that’s Rocky; saw Dhiru hang out with him. We warned Dhiru, but…” he shrugged helplessly.
Ganesh nodded gravely.
Savitri was frantically rummaging through her clutch, her handbag, and her steel cupboard. Dhiraj watched it for a few moments and started moving towards the main door. There was something sneaky about his movement. Savitri confronted him.
“Where is the money, Dhiru?”
“The five thousand I kept aside for your clothes and fees.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
He made to move towards the door. Savitri stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Look into my eyes, Dhiru. Don’t you really know about the money?”
Dhiru replied looking at his feet. “I swear, I don’t know. Now, can I go? My friends are waiting.”
“Who? That Rocky? He is good for nothing.”
“Don’t abuse him, mom, he is my friend,” Dhiraj said angrily.
“True friends must inspire you towards a good life. Look at Ganesh…”
“He is a pain in the ass…”
“I will not tolerate such language in this house.”
Dhiraj mumbled something and left the house in a huff. Savitri dumped herself on a dining chair helplessly.
“Ganu, Ganu…” Ganesh’s mother yelled.
“What happened, mom?” Ganesh rushed out of his room dropping the textbook on the study table.
“Savitri called. Something is wrong with Dhiru…”
Ganesh sprinted to Dhiraj’s house even before his mother finished the sentence.
Savitri almost dragged Ganesh by hand to her son’s room, to a frightening scene.
Dhiru was on the floor writhing, convulsing in impossible postures, and trying to yank his hair away. He was obviously in excruciating pain. He was shouting, “Aaah…Go away. Mom, mom…ask it to stop…”
Savitri and Ganesh tried in vain to hold his friend down on the floor.
“What is it, Dhiru? Who is it?”
“Mom…it is a monster…make it go away…going to kill me…Mommm…”
Dhiru convulsed for a few more minutes, drenched Ganesh with a jet of vomit, and went limp fainting in his arms.
Savitri, Ganesh and his parents were sitting in the lobby of a hospital. Dhiraj was whisked away on a gurney to the ICU.
“Drugs!” The three elders could not believe their ears.
Ganesh nodded silently.
“My Dhiru won’t do any such thing.” Savitri covered her face with her sari pallu and wept silently.
“I know, Mrs. Savitri, it is difficult to believe; they are our children, you see,” Ganesh’s father murmured. He looked towards his son and nodded. Ganesh understood.
Five minutes later, they were sipping hot, steaming tea brought by Ganesh from an all-night tea kiosk near the hospital.
“Drug-induced gastric problem and hallucinations; he is lucky, it was mild; if untreated, it will get worse. We’ve given first aid. He is on sedatives; will probably sleep until noon tomorrow. Admit him immediately in a rehabilitation centre. They are better equipped with experienced doctors in the field. Mrs. Savitri, do not delay. Good night.”
The treating doctor left, shaking his head ruefully.
The next day…
“I won’t go, mom. I’m all right.” Dhiru was adamant.
“The doctor said it was mild and you were lucky this time.” She paused. “Why, Dhiru? Why alcohol, drugs? You weren’t like this…”
Dhiraj interrupted her brusquely. “Oh, come on, mom. Don’t lecture me. I am not going to any of those hell holes.”
“I am not requesting, Dhiru. You are going to the rehabilitation centre before it worsens. That’s that.”
The next day, Dhiraj was duly admitted in the rehabilitation centre. The doctors asked Savitri and Ganesh to go home for the night since the hospital staff would take care of the boy. Savitri and Ganesh left, promising to return the next day.
Two days passed by…
“What do you mean you can’t find him?” Savitri was alarmed.
It was just before noon. Savitri carried lunch for Dhiraj and found his bed empty. Assuming that he had gone to the washroom, she waited for a few minutes. When he did not return even after fifteen minutes, she raised an alarm and asked the duty nurse about Dhiraj’s whereabouts.
“He was here an hour ago, madam, when I brought him tea. Oh, the tea is lying here untouched!” The nurse pointed to the bedside table.
A frantic search for Dhiraj yielded no results.
Ganesh joined Savitri at the hospital. While the search was on, his cell phone rang. He spoke for a couple of minutes and hung up.
“Aunty, it was mummy. Dhiru is in our house. He walked out of the hospital; went back home. He didn’t have your house keys. So, he is waiting in our house. Come let’s go.”
They reached home after informing the hospital authorities.
“I am not going back there, mummy, whatever you say. If you want, I’ll take the medicines at home.” Dhiraj went into his room and bolted the door from inside.
Seeing Savitri weep silently, Ganesh hugged her.
Time trudged heavily for Savitri’s family. Dhiraj’s health gradually deteriorated.
Two weeks later.
“Where is my necklace?” Savitri demanded.
“Why are you asking me?” Dhiraj defied.
“I saw you near my cupboard two days ago. I didn’t take it seriously at that time. Today I looked for my golden necklace but couldn’t find it. Where is it?”
“You couldn’t find it and automatically you assumed that I took it? Do I look like a thief to you? Steal things from my own home?” Dhiraj’s righteous indignation sounded hollow.
The argument degenerating to name-calling and abruptly ended when Dhiraj rushed out of the house angrily.
Dhiraj did not return home in the night. Savitri’s frantic search with the help of Ganesh and his family did not yield any result. They lodged a missing person report with the police. The police inspector registered the report, and collected relevant information and Djhiraj’s photograph from Savitri.
“We will look into the matter, madam. Go home. We will call you when we know something.”
As Savitri, Ganesh and his father were leaving the police station, the inspector called aside Ganesh.
“This Dhiraj…he is your friend?”
“He was admitted to the rehab centre, the report says. Drugs?”
Ganesh hesitated for a moment. “Yes, sir.”
“Hmmm…do you do drugs, too?”
“No, sir,” Ganesh replied angrily.
“I was just asking, young man. No need to get worked up,.”
Ganesh did not respond.
“Do you know wherefrom your friend gets his stuff?”
Ganesh hesitated. His father shook his head. Ganesh looked helplessly at the inspector.
“Sir, if your son knows something, he better inform us. It will be helpful in tracing the missing boy.”
Ganesh did not reply.
“Nobody helps us, the police, but everyone wants us to catch the criminals,” the inspector said angrily.
“Please, Ganu, whatever you know, inform the inspector. Help me; save my son, I beg of you.” Savitri cried uncontrollably.
Ganesh revealed the sketchy information he had about the den and Rocky.
“Hmmm…, we received unconfirmed reports of that place. Who is this…Rocky? Studies in your college?”
“All right, you people go home. We will make inquiries. I have a strong suspicion your son must be in that place.”
The daemons were at work once again, clawing with their long, sharp, pointed nails the woolly inner walls of his mind. The peripheries of his mind’s horizon were ragged. Every nerve was taut like a bowstring. Every nerve end was tingling. Every breath was laboured. The insidious chemicals were tickling every cell of his brain. The sensation was intolerable. It was plain, raw, and undiluted agony. The unseen walls of his mind were pulsating with the sensation. He was slowly going insane. Desperately trying to pull out his hair, Dhiraj collapsed on the dusty floor writhing and convulsing under the effects of the drugs he imbibed.
“Help, help me…Mom…drive the daemons away…Oh God! Help me.”
‘Is it police siren? Is it the sound of police boots? Mom…mom…’
“Your son is safe, madam. He has been taken to the hospital. Please take care.”
“Thanks, Inspector, and…the…the fellows selling the drugs…”
“We’ve rounded all of them but…”
“Frico, the kingpin, has given us the slip.”
“Oh my God!”
“No worries, madam. He’ll be rounded up soon; his followers are singing like canaries.”
“Thanks, again, Inspector.”
“Just doing my duty, madam.”
The night was cold. The streets were almost empty and dark but for a couple of lamps fighting a losing battle with the ambient all-engulfing darkness. It was not a night to laze around.
…and Ganesh wasn’t…
He was returning from his computer classes. Alighting from a bus, he was walking briskly on the sidewalk to share a hot dinner with his parents.
A motor cycle turned into the street. Not sensing anything amiss, Ganesh kept walking. The motor cycle came to a screeching halt a few feet ahead of him. A diminutive figure in a hooded jacket alighted from the pillion while the driver kept the engine revving.
Moments later, the diminutive figure stood in front of Ganesh. Startled, Ganesh tried to sidestep and avoid dashing into the person.
The figure pushed back the hood of his cotton jacket revealing curly black hair. It was the face of the African, Frico. His eyes displayed implacable vengeance.
“You brought police to my hideout? You ruined my business. Now, face the consequences.”
Frico whipped out a short, sharp, gleaming dagger from his jacket pocket.
“No, no…” Ganesh’s screams abruptly ended when the blade of the dagger plunged into his stomach, once, twice, thrice.
Moments later, the motor cycle sped away from the scene.
Ganesh lay on the pavement whimpering, “help, help…” blood gushing out of the deadly wounds.
No help came his way.
A few days later…
Rico was apprehended while trying to board an International flight out of Chennai on a pseudonym. His gang and his drug racket were completely busted.
Ganesh’s parents were squatting on the floor in their son’s study, in front of his garlanded photograph. The illumination from a small oil lamp was dancing and bouncing off the picture frame.
Dhiraj and Savitri slowly walked in and sat beside Ganesh’s parents. Long minutes passed in silence. Finally, Dhiraj spoke in a sad, trembling, guilt-laden voice.
“Ganesh died because of me. I am alive because of him. Saying sorry will not bring him back. I cannot be a Ganesh, but I promise I’ll try. I’ll follow the path shown by him; will fight this menace at personal and societal levels. Aunty and uncle, I promise you. As the first step, I will get admitted to the rehabilitation centre tomorrow.”
Ganesh’s parents looked at Dhiraj. Their eyes were bereft of all feeling. Ganesh’s mother took Dhiraj into her lap and caressed his hair, as Savitri looked on, sadly. All four of them looked at Ganesh’s photograph, as if seeking redemption.
Ganesh smiled beatifically at the world.