The atmosphere inside the bus was lively. Or rather eventful. The driver had engaged in rash driving pertaining to his evening mood swings. He was hell-bent on reaching the destination- Marushur. The conductor was old-fashioned; he still used the tinkling bell to announce the arrival of bus stands. When asked, he would reply that he had developed a sore mouth due to whistle blowing. A middle aged man was snoring away in the last row. Probably, he had got into the bus right from the Shreenagar terminus. A guy in a casual checked t-shirt tucked inside a low-hip jean was animatedly conversing into his Samsung Galaxy Core Prime. Behind him, there was a young couple oh-so in love, exchanging sweet-nothings to each other. An old lady smirked at their behavior from the seat opposite to them. Occupying the front rows were a group of Nepali labour boys who were speaking in a language that was far beyond understandable.
And then there was Nakshathra. She was an epitome of beauty. Her walnut brown skin gleamed when the evening sun rays hit her through the window. Her jet black hair was an hot topic of discussion among her girl buddies. Her perfectly polished nails invoked the jealousy of nail-biting homo sapiens. And her less make-up attitude impressed guys who disliked heavily made-up girls. But it was her kind personality which attracted many a good heart towards her. She was adjustable but she hated traveling in the Pallavan Transport Corporation buses. She preferred the share auto as she could alight in front of the street where her house was situated. Taking a bus meant that she should walk for ten minutes to reach her home. She had occupied a window seat and was browsing through Facebook newsfeed when she was interrupted by a tap on her shoulder. She turned back and noticed a Japanese girl smiling at her. Speaking with a foreigner was a rare opportunity for Tamilians. So, Nakshathra returned back the smile.
“Where will you be getting down?” asked the foreigner.
“The last stop Marushur,” replied Nakshathra.
“Okay, can I borrow your pen for a minute please? I will return it when we reach the last stop.”
“Sure”. Nakshathra fumbled through her college bag to find a pen. “Here it is,” she said, handing the pen over to the Japanese.
Minutes ticked away. The bus was taking a diversion towards a popular multiplex when the Japanese girl tapped once again on Nakshathra’s shoulder.
“Thank you, what’s your name?”
“Nakshathra,” she said, contemplating whether to ask back. “And yours?”
“I am Hitomi. Are you a college student?”
“Yes, of course. Engineering. Final year.” Nakshathra scolded herself mentally for pouring out too much detail about her.
“That’s great! I completed my bachelors from Annie Women’s College last year. I am currently traveling to visit my sister in Marushur. I stay at Ice House.”
Nakshathra was taken aback that Hitomi had revealed even more information about her. She relaxed herself and felt comfortable with Hitomi.
“Do you love music Nakshathra?”
“Yeah, I do. Who doesn’t?”
“Voila! Then I have bumped into the right person. You see, my sister and I are independent Japanese artists. We create low budget music albums in English. We have only a small fan base in Chennai. That too most of them are our relatives and friends of friends. So, I would like to spread a word about our work. Do you have college on Sundays too?”
“No! We don’t. Do you want to see me tortured even on a Sunday?”
Hitomi let out a small laugh and continued, “Okay, then you can pay a visit to our concert on Sunday at Skysplash Mall. What say?”
“I..I will try to make it. I don’t know what will come up as I am busy with my project.”
“Okay, do try to come.”
The bus arrived at Marushur terminus. Nakshathra got down and to her surprise, Hitomi was even then expecting the conversation to go on.
“If you don’t mind, can I have your number Nakshathra? Or is there any other means of contacting you? I would like to keep in touch with you and update you about our concerts.”
God! Where is this leading to? Should I trust her? Even though she is a girl, she is still a stranger. I have been brought up by telling that I should not speak to strangers. But she seems believable from our two minute chat. I can’t suspect her for no reason, thought Nakshathra.
“Why not? You can save my number. It’s 98******10.” Hitomi’s fingers typed the number on her smartphone.
“Okay, I will save it. What are your other hobbies?”
“Writing. That’s my passion. I have authored some short stories and I am currently working on a novel.”
“That’s awesome! Nice meeting you Nakshathra. Will keep in touch with you. Bye,” said Hitomi, surprised by the fact that she was speaking with an upcoming author.
Ha! Foolish girl. She has given away her number to a stranger. She doesn’t have an idea of what she is getting into, thought Hitomi wickedly on her way back to a shabbily constructed old building named ‘Red Label’. The building was hidden away from the main road and it was situated on one of the forbidden streets in Marushur.
But Nakshathra was walking back with nonchalance. She held her head high even though she was aware of the cons of giving her number to a stranger.
“Good catch ya dude! You could have asked her Facebook profile link,” said a burly African, smoking a pipe and forming rings with the puffs. He had plaited numerous strands of hair on his head which hung before his eyes. His teeth were slightly protruding and he appeared like a perfect hooligan. His gang of ruffians were playing poker at a far end of the dingy room.
“I thought to ask. But these Tamilian girls are intelligent. She would have refused to give me the link,” replied Hitomi, minutely irritated that her efforts were not being appreciated.
“But good job Hito! Contact her after a few days. If you are lucky, befriend her and click a pic with her.”
“There is not a need for that. Let me check whether she is in WhatsApp. If so, I can save her profile image.”
Saying so, Hitomi refreshed her WhatsApp contacts.
“Luther! She isn’t on WhatsApp.”
“Damn it! What’s her name?”
“Nakshathra. That means star right? She will be a star after a month.”
The entire room roared with devilish laughter.
“Nakshu dear, what are you looking at?” asked Nakshathra’s mom, worried by her daughter’s behavior for the past few days.
“Nothing Ma. I am looking at a friend’s profile pic in Facebook.”
“Why is your face displaying sorrow for the past two days?”
“Ma, that.. I had…” Nakshathra put down her smartphone and faced her mom.
“Why are you stammering Nakshu?”
“I have committed a mistake Ma.”
“A mistake? What kind of?”
“I have given my….”
“I have given my number….”
“Given your number? Nonsense! Tell it fast. Why are you dragging?”
“I have given my number to Rohit Ma. He is calling me continuously and disturbing me.”
“Oh God! It’s Rohit only na. Does this count as a mistake? He is your cousin. There is no wrong in speaking with him. Attend his calls.”
“Okay Ma, but don’t try to marry me off to him.”
“Never. I wouldn’t do such a thing. I am a modern mom. Don’t categorize me as antiquated.”
“Thank you Ma.”
How can I tell her that I have given my number to a stranger?
Red Label held an awry atmosphere that evening. The air smelled a mixture of alcohol and tobacco. Luther was scurrying from one end of the room to another. He was speaking on the phone in a business-like tone.
“Okay sir, sure. I will tell her.” Then he ended the call and turned towards Hitomi who was looking after a tied up girl.
“Hito, can you believe this? Mr.Shimasu Kakru has chosen Nakshathra. He told that he liked the girl’s name and he would like her to be traded immediately to Seoul. Now, you have to get down to business. Call that tramp and fix a meeting with her in Skysplash Mall. You have to convince her by saying that it’s an important concert. Then you know what to do. Whisk her away and drug…”
“Okay, okay, okay Luther. I understand. I will call her right now.”
Saying so, Hitomi fished out her mobile phone and selected Nakshathra’s contact. The dialing screen appeared seconds later.
Please check the number you have dialed. Neengal dial seidha tholaipesi ennai seri paarkavum. Please check the….
Oh my god! Did I save her number correctly? Hitomi panicked. Her fingers trembled as she tried calling once more.
Please check the number you have dialed. Neengal dial seidha….
“Luther!!!!” cried Hitomi.
“What?” he asked, hoping that Nakshathra would have given her consent for a meeting.
“We have been deceived.”
International high-profile prostitution racket busted in Chennai.
The headlines caught Nakshathra’s eyes. And she raised an eyebrow as she noticed a familiar face amidst the gang of pimps.
Hitomi! What the hell!
She continued reading the news which said about the hidden Red Label building and how the hoodlums were capturing young girls. Hitomi was the catalyst who used to befriend the girls. She would ask their number. After a few days, she would set up a meeting with the girls in a mall. Later, she would drug them and bring them to Red Label. Then the girls were traded to different countries and they were given away to big-shot politicians.
Nakshathra couldn’t believe her own eyes. She was horrified to the core. She felt a pit inside her stomach. She hurled the newspaper away and ran to the bathroom. Minutes later, she violently threw up.
“Nakshu, what happened? Why are you vomiting?” Her mom came running inside the bathroom. She held her daughter’s head as she was puking.
Then, Nakshathra had some water and settled down on her sofa.
“What happened Nakshu?”
“I am not feeling well Ma. Let me sleep for sometime.”
She was unable to digest the fact that she was being traded away. And also she could not believe that she was saved by God just at the nick of the moment.
She headed for her mobile phone to set the alarm. She looked at the two missed calls from an unknown number three days before.
What if I had attended the calls? That mere thought shuddered her entire body.
Rohit was planning for a grand proposal. Finally, he was going to speak out his heart to Nakshathra. She would be blown away by his arrangements. She would instantly accept for a happily married life with him. He smiled at her photo which he had saved in his mobile phone. He felt that he should call her at that very moment. Thinking so, he dialed her number.
Please check the number you have dialed. Neengal dial seidha tholaipesi ennai seri paarkavum. Please check the….
What? This is ridiculous! Has she changed her number within two weeks? Let me try again.
And the second time also he received the same tone.
Please check the number you have dialed. Neengal dial seidha tholaipesi….
“Hello!” It was Nakshathra’s voice. Rohit gasped at the other end.
“Nakshu! Is this you?” He checked the screen to ensure whether the call has been attended.
“What Rohit? Have you gone mad? You have called to my number and you are asking whether I am Nakshu.”
“Hey! This is unbelievable. I would have not called you the next time.”
“Because I heard a voice telling ‘Please check the number you have dialed’. Can you believe this?”
Nakshathra’s heart skipped a beat. She stood still with her eyes transfixed on the wall in front of her. Out of the bolt, everything became clear to her. She got the answer for her probing queries. She had wondered why the unknown number hadn’t made any calls after that evening. She got the answer. She had a miraculous escape from an horrible racket.
“Hello Nakshu, are you there? Why did it happen? Anything wrong with your phone? You can change to another network if you want..hello…”
“Rohit! That voice you heard is…”
“Yeah, what about that?”
“It is my hello tune which I had set from the Funny Hello tunes series . And you know, it saved my life.”