This short story is selected as Story of the Month November’2016 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
Palash was standing before the check – in counter of the Airways India at IG Airport, New Delhi. It was a Saturday morning in November. Time was about 6.40 am. His destination was Mumbai. Usually the early morning flights to that City were brimmed to the capacity and that showed in the queue before the counter.
Although the movement was at a brisk rate, it was taking time. Palash waited patiently. He had seen thirteen passengers before him and he knew that it would take at least ten more minutes. He took out his mobile and started browsing through it when suddenly on an intuition he glanced back. There were about a score of passengers behind him; an assortment of men, women and a few children.
Suddenly he caught his breath, not believing his eyes. How could it even be possible?
The girl stood just next to the last person.
She was Piyali!
But, how can she be there? He thought disbelievingly. Was she not killed in a car accident in USA, it was Los Angeles, during late winter last year? He remembered, there was a general shock in the College over her untimely death; the reaction was more acute because she was so lively, friendly and popular. Her departure had evoked widespread disbelief.
But then she was standing there! He was sure that there was some mistake. Definitely. It had to be clarified.
Without much ado, he came out of the line and walked towards her. It seemed that Piyali hadn’t seen him initially and was looking away, but as he was nearing her she turned to face him.
Looking at her, his heart skipped a beat. It always used to happen in the past. That beautiful girl from his College days; that stunning appearance attracting so much admiration and adulation; was still fascinating him. He understood in those moments that his romance for her was very much alive.
Seeing him, her face lit up in recognition.
Palash said, a little breathlessly, “Is it you Piyali? I can’t trust my eyes…”
Spontaneously he held her hand.
Piyali smiled, a gentle smile, and said, “Yes Palash, it’s me! How can it be anybody else? I know you are so surprised to see me alive, are you not?”
He nodded wordlessly.
Piyali continued, “I know all of you thought in the College that I was dead… but…I am very much alive … before you.” She smiled again. “ The road accident in LA was a pretty severe one, but timely help had saved me. It took about two months or so to recover. Meantime, all of you here thought that I was gone. I too didn’t inform you people about my recovery… Well, my fault perhaps… Sorry!” She shook her head in sorrow.
Palash who taken hold of his emotion by that time said, “ We, friends were at fault too… we didn’t try to get in touch with your family.” He added, “You don’t know what I had gone through during those days.”
She looked at Palash for some seconds and touched his face, “Well bygone is bygone… Now you know about it…. let’s forget the past and tell me… can we meet in Mumbai tomorrow and talk about the old times?”
Next day, in Mumbai, Palash was in Blue Diamond Hotel with Piyali where she was staying.
The room was on the eighth floor overlooking the blue sea across the Marine Drive with gentle waves rolling in from far away towards the shore and breaking into white sprays. It was an enthralling view. Both of them were standing near the window and looking out; the coffee cups were lying on the center table and the cool whir of the AC in the five star ambiance presented a tranquil atmosphere.
Piyali said, “More than a year has since passed after the final days at the College, so much has happened, but I can’t forget my friends… so many of you… Hirdesh, Rahul, Lokesh, Manash… Rupali… Mahak…! Where are they all now? What do they do? I specially remember Lokesh… are you in touch with him?”
Palash nodded, “ Yes, he stays not too far away from my house in Vasant Vihar in South Delhi. He had gone to USA last year for about six months for taking care of his father’s business. He came back during this year’s February only.”
Piyali listened without any words and then took a deep breath. Sitting down on the bed she rubbed both eyes with her hand, “For some reason I have been thinking about Lokesh… For many days now… I don’t know why, but it will be nice to meet him sometime.”
Palash frowned slightly, he never knew about Piyali’s soft feelings for Lokesh… was she in love with him?
But he could merely say, “Why not?”
This brought a hint of sparkle in her eyes. Leaning forward, she said, “It will be a surprise. Please call him for a get- together after we return to Delhi…I will be there. Don’t reveal my name beforehand.”
In Delhi, the next Sunday, Palash fixed up a picnic in the grounds of Feroz Shah Kotla Fort. When Palash called up Piyali she said, “Fine. But don’t mind… I will not meet Lokesh before your presence. I will be in the rear part of the Fort where you will send him to meet me. Alone. It will be a surprise for him. Assure him that. I have so much to tell him.”
Lokesh agreed to come; he was keen to know who was the common girl friend of the College whose identity was not revealed. On hearing that it was meant to be a surprise, he relented.
By now Palash had almost believed that some romantic affair was brewing between Piyali and Lokesh. Wasn’t that the reason for her to meet him alone? Although he had no say in this matter, it made him feel bad.
It was about 10.35 am when Palash and Lokesh reached the Fort in the car. Palash was driving. Piyali was to arrive separately.
It was a sunny early winter morning with clear blue sky and golden sunshine. The vegetation around the Fort was bathed in the sunlight. There were a few people around. It was an environment fit for a picnic.
However, parts of the Fort were in shades of various intensities where the sunlight could penetrate partially or not at all.
They walked in, looked around and sat on a bench. Lokesh said in a gruff voice, “Where is our mysterious girlfriend? Why this hide and seek? Why this surprise?” He shook his head in some annoyance. He had a short temper.
Palash’s mind was wandering… he loved Piyali but she seemed to be inclined towards Lokesh. What loving emotions would she reveal to him? Did she not remember about Lokesh’s notoriety during the College days? He was a disreputable womanizer; umpteen serious scandals were linked to him. But somehow he had a charm which many girls couldn’t resist. Was it because of that Piyali had fallen to his enticement? Is she desiring him now?
Palash scowled. Who was he to question her love preference? He tried to change his thoughts…
About half an hour had passed with only perfunctory dialogues between both when Palash’s mobile rang. Piyali was on the line. She said that she had reached and asked him to send Lokesh to the rear of the Fort as had been scheduled. He turned towards Lokesh and said, “Dear… our girl friend has arrived… Go to the rear of the Fort… that side….She will meet you along the way. ”
It was apparent that Lokesh was eagerly waiting for this meeting. His curiosity had increased about the girl. Without saying anything he got up and walked briskly away. Palash looked at his retreating figure, his mind heavy, then as a diversion settled down with his mobile.
The day was glorious with cool winter wind blowing and soon enough Palash became totally engrossed with his mails & messages.
About fifteen minutes had passed when suddenly Palash heard a blood curling male scream coming from afar. He was jerked out of his reverie and looked intently towards the source of sound. It seemed to be emanating from the rear part of the Fort. A sense of foreboding hit him; he felt that something was horribly wrong with Lokesh; but what was it? He got up in a tearing haste and rushed towards the area where his friend had gone. There were others too, who followed him.
Once inside the rear part of the Fort; it was a very large area and lonely; Palash couldn’t see anything at first. He paused for few moments to get his eyes adjusted to see a shaded area near a broken arch, at quite a distance. There he noticed a body lying prostrate on the ground. Then, virtually running he reached the spot and stopped abruptly. What he saw turned his mouth dry in dread, his legs became weak and sweat erupted on his forehead.
He saw that Lokesh was lying on the ground, upturned, his eyes had bulged out as if in extreme horror and his head was in an unnatural position. White foam was coming out of his half open mouth. With shaking hands Palash felt his nostrils. There was no doubt that Lokesh was dead.
Piyali was also not to be seen anywhere.
The world was turning upside down!
About an hour later Palash was in the Police station. The body had been taken away.
Meanwhile, he had tried to contact Piyali but she was not responding to his fervent calls.
The Police were making the preliminary inquiries. Palash told the facts as he knew them. Even after sustained questioning, he could not add anything more, so the Police allowed him to go. He was told that he would be called again for further investigation.
While returning, Palash again went to the Fort and searched extensively for Piyali, but in vain. Nobody seemed to have even seen her, at any time.
That same night Palash got a call from his Uncle, Mr. Umapati, an IPS officer, who was in a very senior position in the Police Headquarters. He asked Palash to come to his house in Greater Kailash – I.
It was around 9.15 pm, dinner was over, Umapati and Palash were discussing the day’s incident. Umapati said, “This is a very unusual case. Initial reports tell us that the cause of death of Lokesh is due to cardiac arrest… this may be because of sheer fright or scare. We don’t know how it has happened. Can you throw some light on it?”
Umapati was puzzled. Palash was equally in the darkness.
How could Lokesh get so scared in broad daylight, in a public place, which was so extreme that death happened by heart seizure? He was a young man. All these were beyond the comprehension of Palash.
To add to the mystery was the total disappearance of Piyali. She was not a resident of Delhi and Palash didn’t have any address except her mobile number, calls to which she was not responding. An extensive search by Police during the day didn’t yield any results.
They both remained silent for some time. Then Umapati said, “This needs further investigation… especially the backgrounds of Lokesh and Piyali”.
Two days later Palash again got a call from Umapati. He reached his Uncle’s office in the Police Headquarters around noon.
Still there was no information about Piyali.
Sitting before Umapati and hearing him explain the details of a year – old case in Los Angeles, USA involving Lokesh and Piyali , Palash was trying to assimilate the facts.
There was an horrific car accident on a highway outside L.A . The car had three occupants; Piyali, an American male who was driving and Lokesh. Piyali and the driver were killed instantly, but Lokesh had escaped with minor injuries.
There was a suspected assault on Piyali during the drive, before the accident, but that could never be established due to her badly mutilated body.
The dead body of Piyali was brought back to Mumbai, where her last rites were performed. Lokesh had also returned to India.
The Police in Mumbai had the details of the case which they passed on to Delhi Police Headquarters. The case seemed to be closed. But Umapati was now more mystified and had extreme doubts.
Meanwhile Palash began to realize what could have happened. He was sure that there was a sexual crime at that time. Knowing Lokesh and the facts recorded by the Police, Palash was also sure that it was Lokesh who had committed the dastardly act on Piyali. But there was no proof. In spite of that, strangely, his sixth sense was telling him that he was correct.
That night, in bed, Palash was unable to sleep. It appeared that his mind was in flame. This was the fate of his Love? After, tossing and turning for some time he decided to get up and go to his garden to cool his feverish thoughts.
Opening the main door he came out and sat on the “Jhula” in the garden… contemplating.. when suddenly he heard a faint noise in the rear. Turning with alacrity he saw a female figure… Piyali walking towards him! He didn’t know why but he was expecting her arrival..a premonition!
She came near him and stood wordlessly. There was a faint smile on her face. Palash got up and came near her, but she moved away, it seemed as if she floated away. She didn’t look to be human… She was definitely not!
That night in his garden, with darkness encompassing all around, some illumination from the house and street breaking the black monotony and partly lighting up her face, Palash was staring at Piyali unblinkingly. He was not scared and his heart was pulsating for her.
He took a deep breath and asked, “Did you kill Lokesh to take revenge for your rape in USA? Did you meet me in the airport, that day, to support and help you for this? And also to feel my…my…love for you?” He choked on his voice.
She nodded silently in affirmation and gradually faded out in the night. No further words were required.
He could only stare at the emptiness, teary eyed and emotionally drained out.