This short story became SPIXer (Most popular story) on 29 Jun 2013 and won INR 500 (US$ 10)
“Vasu, do you raise questions in your class or just keep listening to the teacher?” asked his mother on the phone.
“I have always preferred listening to asking questions.”
“And that is what teachers used to complain about you, in schools,” said his mother in a varying tone.
“But this isn’t school, it’s college,” he grumbled as he sneaked out in the hallway of his hostel. There were a few boys but they didn’t look at him.
“I was re-reading your college’s prospectus today, it says ‘our mess serves the best food.’ Do they?”
“The food is good, mom.”
“What good food? Do they serve butter?” she asked as if butter was the remedy to his miseries.
“Not yet!” He shifted his phone to the other ear.
“Life is not all about butter, mom. I am adjusting here,” Vasu said, wondering how to change the topic. His eyes peeked outside the door again. They ignored him, so he shut it.
“OK. What about your loose motions? I read a home-remedy for that in a magazine yesterday,” his mom giggled.
“Stop it, mom!” Vasu was losing his patience. “I am not a kid anymore.”
“Yes, you are!” she said, bulging her eyes out.
“OK. OK. I am getting a call from a friend.” He pressed a few buttons of his mobile to make her hear the beep of an incoming call.
“Listen Vasu, study well and stay away from wrong friendships,” she said, concerned. “Don’t bring any shame to our family’s spotless name.”
“This is too much of preaching, mom!” he yelled. “I am disconnecting now.” His mother was the only one he could yell at.
“Wait. Wait. You want to talk to baba?”
Baba. His father. His decision of sending Vasu to a newer place had created a rift in their relation and, hence, he wasn’t willing to speak to him.
Vasu left out a heavy sigh; loud enough for his mom to hear.
“You are a stubborn kid just like your father. Anyway, how are your studies going?” she came back to the correct point.
“Very fine,” he turned his face the other side, thinking about sweeping the dirty floor.
“And how is the environment at your hostel? Have you adjusted there? How many friends did you make? I am worried about you, son.”
Environment. Here. These words pierced him like an arrow. An acute pain hit right in the middle of his head and he pressed few buttons again. “I think my friend needs to talk urgently. Maybe about tomorrow’s assignment. Good night. Jai Shri Krishna!” Vasu disconnected the call before his mother could say anything else.
Creeping through the fluorescent tube to the adjacent wall, his eyes reached the clock. Fifteen past ten. He wasn’t supposed to sleep so early. His eyes scanned the room again. The mustard-coloured walls looked like prison walls to him. Posters of his Lord Krishna, on the walls, were of no use; he had stopped praying to Him. The orange bed sheet had turned brown with all the dirt that was coming in from the window and the trees, bending under the fierce wind, casted a web of shadows on the lawn. Heaping some potential energy in his wrist, Vasu closed the window and sat on the chair. There were few books and incomplete assignments that he had to submit this week.
Seeing them, the ache grew stronger. Without thinking much about studies, he opened the drawers and took out the pills.
He wasn’t addicted to pain-killers before but now, they were a must-have for him.
Environment. Here. The environment here was to be blamed.
He took few pills and gulped them with a glass of water.
He was in solitude and the pill traveling down his food pipe could be sensed. They had kicked his roommate out; the warden had agreed on a bottle of beer only. The doors and windows were locked and everyone was busy completing their assignments in their rooms.
Removing his spectacles, Vasu jumped on his bed and closed his eyes. It was spongy.
All of a sudden, he saw himself riding on an anaconda, climbing on a wrought iron tower; Eiffel Tower. His hands were adhered to the algae-covered body of the dirty creature. Leaving him at the top of the tower, it disappeared in a second and, thus, he was left with no choice but to jump. Scared of height, Vasu closed his eyes and a wave of air swept him on the roof of his house – the same roughly cemented roof where he had spent his childhood. His joy knew no bounds, as finally he had escaped from that dirty hostel and returned back here. Vasu ran downstairs.
But, the lump in his throat remained there only when he saw his profound fear there. Arnab – the wolfhound.
His body had grown like The Hulk and he had a big tail too. Vasu’s mom and baba were being squeezed under Arnab’s gigantic tail and their watery eyes gazed him. You are our only hope, it said.
A shiver ran through his spine as the monster’s hands arrived towards him. His legs twitched convulsively. There was an acrid smell of alcohol as the behemoth spoke. The air in his stomach was running out and his fingers went numb as Arnab grabbed Vasu’s neck.
He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t save his parents. He was helpless. And, he was dying. He could feel his pulses going down and heart losing its beats. Slowly. Slowly.
He struggled to find his phone as it rang the trademark Nokia tune. His neck, his forehead, his armpit and his back were all wet. He was breathing heavily and then realised that it was a nightmare.
He picked up his new smartphone and unchecked the remainder that said, ‘You are brave boy, Vasu.’
It was midnight, exact 12 o’clock, and the ache was still there. Arnab had proved to be stronger than those pills.
Trying to control his breath, Vasu rubbed his chest. He cursed himself, again, for being who he was – an introvert. His self-confidence was long lost and all he was left with was fear. Fear from dark. Fear from strange voice and people. Fear from loneliness. Fear from lizard. And, fear from Arnab.
Vasu tossed on the bed again and snapped up his pillow. With little sobs, he remembered how it all had started.
It was his second day at the college.
The first-year students were called by the third-year students on their floor. Fifth floor.
They, the juniors, were given few tasks by the seniors. Everyone was cherished except Vasu. He had refused to do the first task.
They had tied their hands backwards and asked them to break eggs with their teeth. It was pretty easy but Vasu was against it. He was a son of a priest and had been vegetarian all his life. He refused to commit this sin.
Still, things would have not worsened if Arnab had not entered in between. The third-year ones had agreed to give him some other task but it didn’t go well with Arnab. He was a fourth-year student who had failed in many papers due to his drinking habits. He was the albatross of the hostel.
“Who is this little rebel chicken? Let me see his bloody face,” he hollered as he entered.
A few third-year students tried cooling him down but nothing could stop him. He was like a bear – tall, well-built and had a dense beard. The piercing that he had done of his eyebrow gave him a fierce look. “Listen, you lizard. We all have been through this. You, too, have to follow this tradition.”
“I am vegetarian. I can’t break an egg with my teeth,” he dissented.
Vasu was an introvert with a protruding abdomen and very minimal social skills.
“It’s college. Teachers hump the students. Do you think we like that?” Arnab laughed. “But still, we live with it. Now, go and eat those rotten eggs,” he said as he clenched Vasu’s jaw and threw him strenuously.
As he fell on the ground, beneath his feet, he tugged at Arnab’s leg and they both were on floor.
This brought a pin-drop silence in the hall and everyone was staring them only.
He turned to Vasu, eyes red with alcohol and anger, and caught him by his neck. “You, rascal!”
“Stop it! Or I will complain.” His grip was suffocating Vasu.
“Complain?” Arnab fumed again.
He called his group and they kicked him brutally. No one came to the rescue. They were the most brutal and alcoholic students there. He was beaten till his face dried up like a raisin in the sun.
It had all happened two weeks back.
Vasu rolled over his bed again. His tears wetted a small area of the bed-sheet. A bluish-white streak, coming from the glasses of the window, were falling on his face. It reminded him of the blue sticker they had adhered on his back.
The blue sticker had MR. BEA(TE)N written on it.
So ironical it was; his classmates were greeting each-other with a smile but Vasu was being laughed at. Few had sympathy for him but no courage to step forward for him.
And for Arnab’s gang, Vasu was their new toy. Their new target. All their focus had shifted on him only. They would slap him whenever he would pass by and would whistle at him in public. Puffing cigarettes at his face was a joke for them. He was never spared.
He was mute for others but not his mother. Having those small fights with her would soothe his pain but he couldn’t tell her about this. It was a shame that he didn’t want to bring to her. It anguished him to be away from her.
Vasu closed his eyes to sleep again. He had to face a tough day ahead. His days were theirs but nights were his.
But tonight, it was different. Something unusual.
He heard knocks at his door. Searching for his spectacles, he looked at the round clock that had Lord Ganesha’s picture beneath it. Fifteen past one.
Thinking that it would be a student asking for his assignment, he languidly opened the door. But it wasn’t any student. There stood a black man, taller than him, with hairs remained him of noodles.
Before he could understand it, Arnab and his friends entered the room. Their red eyes showed that they were clearly high. They sat on bed and asked Vasu to shut the door. He had grown too weak to run away, so he followed their words. There were few students sneaking from the doors of their room.
He shut the door and came back with his head hung low. The cow manure embedded in their shoes had dirtied the floor, he saw.
“Chicken, meet Johnson. My new friend from Africa. He paid our bills today.” Arnab laughed as he drove his fingers over his chest-hair. “And you know what does he want in return?”
Vasu’s eyes went the table’s drawer where he had kept his money, “I don’t have money, please.”
“He doesn’t want your money, he wants you!” He high-fived his friends.
The sweats were back again. Vasu looked at Johnson. He was shiny black and very strong. He eyed Vasu from head to toe and stared menacingly. Vasu screamed, “Noooo.”
Arnab slapped him and stuffed Vasu’s mouth with his socks. His screams were reduced to muffled noises of protest. Two of them tied him to his bed and others ripped his clothes off. While Johnson was in the bathroom for a bath, they puffed cigarette-smoke rings on his face again. His eyes burnt as if with chilli and everything went hazy.
In the next moment, his soul was penetrated and it was all being shot on their mobile phones. Johnson swooped down on him like an eagle after its prey.
He cried to his Lord Krishna for help but, obviously, his lord didn’t come to any rescue.
His eyes swelled up at their cruel act. The belief in God and His goodwill, which he had always believed in, had vanished. All he was left was with blood and a sore.
And then, the devil Johnson got up. They threatened their chicken to circulate the video everywhere if he told anyone about it. Poor Vasu struggled to get up and wearing his clothes back was a pain. He couldn’t stand straight.
They laughed at his funny walk and went away.
Endless cries were wanting to break through but he was silent. Silent at his loss. Silent at his helplessness. Silent at his defeat. Silent at his rape.
He looked around the room. It was filled with cigarette smoke and the intoxicating smell of alcohol. The pillow and his books were thrown in the corner and the bed sheet had turned red.
His identity had been ruined. He looked at the bed again. There lied his soul like leaves in a storm – dead.
He closed his eyes and remembered his mom. His baba. His temple. His city. His childhood. He had come a long way in life. And now, it had no meaning left.
Adjusting his spectacles again, he went into the bathroom and saw himself in the mirror. His body was abraded at many places. He saw his swollen eyes and lips and laughed, “This is a nightmare. Baba will wake me up soon.”
A blue thunder flashed in the sky as he came out. He had shed all his clothes off. The dark clouds were shutting out the moon. There were storms and, suddenly, heavy rain started too. He gazed out outside. The world seemed hollow like his individuality. They had excavated the oxygen of his atmosphere and the fragrance of his rose. His life was a ragged tramp now. Directionless. Aimless. Meaningless.
He made an aeroplane with a paper and walked into the hallway flying it. A classmate of him, Ravi, saw him and called for everyone. They covered his bare body with a bed sheet and consoled him. “We are with you,” they said.
The dull body laughed, “If you would have been with me, there would have been no Arnab,” and continued playing with his paper-made aeroplane.