Short Story Suspense – The Last Bus
The pain was excruciating! Been that way for quite a few days now. It started generally in the centre of the chest, right where he had a red birth-mark beside his left nipple, and then it spread all over. Must be the heart! He should have married when there was still time and energy to nurture a family. But now it was too late. His hairs have started turning grey. Then first the bifocals, and now this nuisance, the heartache. He would rather have preferred a heartache of a romantic kind, but that was not to be.
He thought as he trudged his lonely way home, not sure whether he would get a bus or taxi at this unearthly hour. He should have gone home straight from the doctor’s chamber. But no! He had to dally! It began to drizzle. Not a steady downpour, but a drizzle nevertheless. By the time he reached the main road, he would be thoroughly wet. Not even a rickshaw was in sight. The rain gradually increased in tempo.
The doctor took a pretty long time in examining him thoroughly. He looked at his last ECG, the X-ray, then banged his chest with fingers, closely listened to his heart, made him cough and listened, made him sit-up and listened, made him lie back again, took out a fresh ECG, ‘ahemm’ed and finally pronounced that nothing was wrong with him. As he was the last patient on the list, the doctor could afford to take all time in the world.
So, nothing was wrong with him. That was what the doctor said and the doctor knew best as he was a fully qualified cardiologist to boot. When he had declared that nothing had happened to him, there could be no place for any doubt. But he, as a patient, was very finicky. At the bottom of the prescription he had noticed that the doctor had scribbled something in the strange scribbling sort of handwriting that only a drug-store person could decipher. It began with a question mark. The doctor said that he had noted there that the case could be that of an ‘Unstable Angina’ and had prescribed a Treadmill and a Halter Test, or whatever they were supposed to mean. But he was not going to die today. So the tests could wait.
The tests could wait, but his friend could not. As he was coming out of the doctor’s chamber, he was accosted by an old friend of his. That the man was a failed poet, was immaterial. He could not help it, neither could his friend. But, today, the friend had reasons to celebrate. His poem has been published in a little known journal. So he dragged him over to a large bar behind the tram depot, that specialized in country liquor. The night suddenly had become young and the environs mellow.
The unearthly hour, together with the rain, had served to keep all vehicles away. Luckily he had the fortitude of asking the serving girl at the bar for a piece of water-proof wrapping. His doctor’s prescription was safe. Otherwise the ‘unstable’ something would have been transformed into paper pulp! After waiting for five minutes or so, he gave up the idea of getting a means of transport and began to walk, shoulders hunched against the driving rain.
Suddenly, out of nowhere a bus came up, headlights blazing, with the conductor calling out, “Last bus, last bus.” Without even asking about the destination, he clambered aboard and plumped into the nearest window seat and looked about him. It appeared that he had the bus all to himself. He took his ticket from the conductor and snuggled into his seat, thoroughly miserable.
The bus sped on and on without stopping anywhere. There was no reason for it to stop, because there was no other passenger and the wet roads were deserted. Rain slashed against the pane of the window. The world seemed dark, mysterious and lost. A few streaks of light flashed by denoting that the city was not all asleep.
He must have dozed off. Outside it was pitch dark. Rain was still battering the window pane. He tried to see the time, but his watch had stopped. He took his cell phone out of his pocket, but that too was defunct. The rain had soaked it thoroughly and had put paid to it altogether. He turned in his seat and found the conductor huddled in a seat near the door, apparently dozing too.
“Haven’t we reached?” he asked the conductor.
“Almost there,” came a guttural reply.
He settled down again to wait for a while, till at long last, the bell clanged. The bus slowed and he stood up.
“Mind your step, the footboard is all wet,” the conductor cautioned in a sepulchral tone. “Drat this rain!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll manage,” he replied, getting down from the bus with cautious steps. No matter how much he had tried, he had not been able to make out the features of the conductor. It was as if a handful of the night’s darkness had been smeared over his countenance, rendering all features indecipherable. This was strange, thought he.
The bus started up as two bells were rung as soon as he alighted, and sped away, spraying muddy water from the wet road all over. He jumped back to avoid being drenched, as if he could get any further wet!
The bus sped away, obviously along with its blazing head-lights, plunging the area in total darkness. It was still drizzling. It was so dark that all sense of directions was lost. The overcast night sky precluded the possibility of any star-light to show him the way. It was as if the entities, north, south, east and west were put inside a mixer-grinder and whirred at a speed of three hundred rpm. But he could hardly stand rooted there till dawn. It would look dashed foolish!
So, he put one foot before another and made his way forward. The only information at the back of his mind that got him going was that the lane which led to his house, started off at right angles to the main road, towards the left from where he stood. After proceeding confidently for a few paces, he stopped, unsure of himself. The ground underfoot felt strangely muddy and slippery, but his lane was a metaled road. There must have been some mistake somewhere. The drizzle stopped at that moment and a glimmer of light came to his eyes.
It felt like a hallucination at first. He felt, rather than saw the light. But, it was something to latch on to. So he went forward, one step in front of another. Soon the vague illusion of light grew to become a real flare. A bonfire was burning merrily in a clearing in the surrounding jungle. All the while he had been traversing a jungle track! But where did this jungle come from? Something was far too weird! He moved up ahead, stealthily this time, taking care not to make any noise. Cicadas buzzed to accentuate the wall of silence.
A number of men sat around the bonfire. Rustic men, from their looks! Their bare torsos gleamed in the glare of the bonfire. All wore dhotis, bound tight about their waists, up to their knees. Their foreheads were adorned by vermillion tilaks. At one end of the clearing was an awesome image of the Goddess Kali, resplendent with a garland of human heads and a skirt of severed limbs. Assortment of gleaming steel weapons were piled up near the image. About eight to ten feet away from the image was a Harikath, a sacrificial altar, complete with two raised limbs of timber and besmeared with old blood. Nearby, a young man was lying, apparently asleep, but gagged and bound.
Dacoits! Thought he. About to perform a human sacrifice! But did these things happen in real life? He had read about such things in story books when he was a child. A roar sounded from far away to break the silence. A tiger? Where was he? Somewhere in the Sunderbans? The dacoits laughed as they drank. He crouched further down in the shrubbery as he watched the scene in front of him, mesmerized. Mosquitoes buzzed all around him enjoying their free banquet.
Maybe an hour or so passed, he had no means of knowing, when one by one the dacoits fell asleep, soused by the alcoholic beverage that they had so liberally consumed. He waited for some time more. Soon their sonorous snores filled the night air. They had left no sentries. He now broke cover and crept out towards the sleeping, gagged and bound man. He could not very well sit here idly and smugly watch a human sacrifice taking place! He had to set the man free.
Very cautiously he inched up to the sleeping victim. It was a relief to find that his own clothes had dried up by now, in fact so dry they felt that he was astounded. It seemed as if they had never been wet! But further surprise awaited him. As he was creeping towards the gagged and bound man, His bare knee got scratched by a thorn of some jungle shrub. It hurt, but bare knees! He was wearing jeans, to the best of his knowledge, which had been utterly soaked! But now, in the wash of light from the bonfire, he could see that he was wearing a short dhoti and tough leather sandals. Along with the jeans, his sneakers appeared to have vanished! He was absolutely bowled over at this turn of events. What was happening!
However, he did not get time enough to ruminate over the strange things that were taking place, for one of the dacoits turned to his side, mumbling to himself in a drunken stupor. He froze in his tracks. If the dacoit opened his eyes, then he would be done for. But soon, the dacoit began snoring and he inched closer over to where the gagged man lay.
As he reached the bound man, he moved over to his far side. Then hurriedly touching his head to the ground in the direction of the image asking pardon for stealing the goddess’ quarry, he began to untie the knots securing the man’s wrist and legs. Only when he was done, he undid the gag. The victim was a young man, maybe still in his twenties, wearing clothes of exquisite finery. Muslin, possibly, from the feel of it. Four heavy gold rings, each inlaid with a gem, flashed from his fingers. He shook the man by his shoulders, but the man was insensible to any physical stimulus. He seemed to be drugged. The bonfire was dying out.
Now, he could take no chance. He hefted the lanky frame on his shoulder and ran off into the jungle. Another roar from the depth of the jungle mercilessly cut through the veil of silence. It was closing in. Something slithered in the undergrowth nearby. But he was, by now, beyond caring about these trivialities. He knew that he probably had about half an hour or so before the dacoits woke up. Then, seeing their victim gone, all hell will break loose.
He was panting by now, and sweating profusely as he ran. He had been running along in the forest for more than half an hour at least. The young man on his shoulder, despite his lanky frame, appeared to be one ton deadweight. He could not carry on unless he rested awhile. So, he gently put the man down on a patch of grass, nearby, with his back supported by a thick tree trunk and dropped down beside him.
Here, the trees were less dense. The canopy of foliage overhead was broken a bit. Star-light filtered down making forms vaguely discernible. The young man sat where he was put, head lolling on his thin chest. Now it was time to break his spell of insensible slumber. No water was at hand which he could have splashed on the guy’s face. So he took recourse to the next best option. He grabbed the long hairs of the man with his left hand and began slapping him hard across his face with his right, repeatedly. First a moan escaped from the youngster’s lips. Then he began to struggle. After that he opened his eyes, fully awake.
“Who are you?” the hapless young man asked. “You are not one of them?” His voice was a mere whisper that was barely audible.
“No, I am not,” he replied. “But who are you? How come you are here in such a state?”
The young man heaved a sigh and shifted his position where he sat. Then he gently massaged his wrists. The binding cords had been very tight!
“You can’t get me some water, I suppose? Ah, well! My story! You see, it is a long story.”
“Be brief. We haven’t got the whole night. The dacoits are probably awake by now.”
As the young man took in a deep breath and made to begin what could be a long story, he was cut off.
“Before you begin, I’d like to ask you another question. It all seems very odd to me, as if I am in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Could you please tell me what year it is and what’s the month?”
“Why? It is 1240, and the month is Ashwin! Or didn’t you know?”
“Wait, wait. What is that by the English reckoning? Julian calendar, I mean.”
The young man peered at him, utterly unfazed at the weirdness of the question. He knew the calendar the Englishmen followed, but it was very unusual for anyone, not in the payroll of the English, to opt for the English calendar and not the Bengali one.
“It is 1833 A.D., and the month is September!”
Our man emitted a low whistle. By some vagaries of fate he had flipped back 179 years in time.
“So, the British East India Company is now ruling the roost? Are they?”
“Of course they are with Lord William Bentinck as the Governor General.”
“William Bentinck? Then Raja Rammohan Roy…sati…” The pages from his school history book seemed to come alive.
“Yes indeed! You have heard of the Raja?”
“But who are you, friend? You look like us, speak like us, yet you seem to be coming from a foreign country”.
“That can wait. Now tell me your story.”
The young man was a zamindar who lived in the so called Black Town of Calcutta. He had his own palatial building in the Baghbazar area, overlooking the River Ganga. At this, the listener drew in a sharp breath.
The youngster had his zamindari in the Birbhum area of Bengal, but they were absentee landlords, staying in Calcutta. Three to four times every year he visited his zamindari to settle all administrative and financial things. This time, he, with a few of his employees and bodyguards, had been to his village about a fortnight ago. Three days ago he was on his way back to Calcutta, with the money collected as taxes from his tenants and subjects.
This jungle, about fifteen miles from Calcutta, was their last hurdle and they were in a hurry to get across this hazardous stretch in daytime. But, as luck would have it, they were waylaid by a band of dacoits. It was total massacre. Most of the bodyguards had fled, and all who could not, were mercilessly cut down. The collected taxes were looted and the zamindar was captured alive. A message was sent to his wife and mother in Calcutta, demanding a hefty sum as ransom. If this ransom was not paid within the week, the young zamindar would be sacrificed on the altar of Kali on the next new-moon night.
At this, our man stood up and stretched, stifling a yawn.
“Now we must be off or the dacoits will be coming after us.”
The young zamindar stood up and caught hold of his hands in gratitude.
“All my life I shall remember what you have done for me.”
“If we do not start now, ‘all your life’ would mean nothing much,” he said, starting to walk away in long strides. The young man trotted up from behind and caught hold of his arm.
“But you didn’t tell me your name or where you come from,” said the young man.
“Oh, I am Hari Singh from a small village near Calcutta, called Barasat.” How effortlessly it all came out. But who was Hari Singh? Certainly not he! He was someone else! But why did it feel that he was Hari Singh? Why did the vision of a tiny hut in a quaint village flash in his mind’s eye? Why did it feel that his wife and little daughter were waiting for him? “But you didn’t tell me your name.”
“I am called Birbikram Sen.” The name struck a chord somewhere, but where?
Suddenly from afar a cry arose. A human cry it was, a blood-curdling, spine chilling wail of a doomed man together with the thunderous roar of an enraged tiger. This was immediately followed by a din of several voices yelling together. The cry, “Kill” was heard above all other cacophony. The tiger roared again. The bonfire must have died out. A tiger had found its victim. Then all was still. The tiger had become the victim.
“Run,” cried Birbikram and they ran like men possessed. At last they came upon a clearance in the forest. By this time they were exhausted to the point of breaking down as they stood panting. This unaccustomed exercise was killing them both. Both of them now stood with their hands on the waist and doubled over as they panted. Birbikram retched and tried to throw up, but it was an ineffectual, dry effort. It was the effect of drugs on empty stomach, compounded by the intense struggle to stay alive.
A noise startled them. It was as if several people were spread over a wide area and they were advancing steadily, calling out to keep in touch with each other. The escape of the victim had been noticed. The chase had begun. Hari pulled back Birbikram’s hand to make him stop as he listened hard with all his senses attuned to catch the faintest of sounds.
“They are closing in,” he whispered. “They have spread out to search wider areas. Something has to be done.”
“But what can we do?” Birbikram’s voice was tremulous.
“Separate. Each of us must go in a different direction. This will confuse them. We stand a better chance of escape this way.” They could now vaguely make each other’s features out. The eastern sky, unseen from where they stood, was shimmering with the the pale fingers of the first light of dawn.
“See that trail?” Hari pointed. Indeed a narrow jungle trail, probably used more by animals than man, could be discerned in the undergrowth. “Take that. Run as fast as you can. You may chance upon the main road. It should run along that way.” The young man had to be saved!
Birbikram looked at Hari. He came up to him. Wordlessly they hugged. Then Birbikram turned and ran along the trail without a second look back.
Hari stood there for a while, undecided as to which direction he should take. The slowly increasing light made travel through the jungle easier, but it would also make spotting easier. He turned to the opposite direction and jogged along.
The cries could now be heard quite close by. There was a concerted yell. He had been spotted by his hunters! He swerved in the opposite direction and ran as fast as his tired feet could carry him. Another shout! This time from his front! He was surrounded and the noose was tightening. He swerved again and ran on. He was not giving in that easily. Then he saw the stone lying in his path. Swooping low, as he ran, without breaking his step, he picked up the heavy stone one-handed the fingers closing in tightly in a throwing grip.
“Catch him alive! Don’t let him go!” a voice bellowed from behind him, too close for comfort. He swivelled on the ball of his left heel with the grace of a ballet dancer; saw a hefty figure with a large moustache and a larger scowl, carrying a spear in his left hand and a huge sword in his right; bent back his body and in one fluid movement, he threw the stone straight at the grimacing face. He threw with all his might as if his life depended on it, as it indeed it did. There was a mighty thud and a sickening crunch of bone breaking. A cry arose,
“Sardar! He has killed the sardar! Kill the bastard!” He turned and ran again.
The figure in front of him stood still as if carved in ebony. Time was caught as if in slow motion. Slowly the man unslung the bow from his shoulder and fitted an arrow. He pulled and released it with a twang! The arrow whirred along straight towards Hari. He could see the feathers stuck to the shaft. It whirled rapidly as it cut through the air. A golden ray of the rising sun fell on the merciless arrowhead. It struck Hari on the chest, to the right of his left nipple. A searing pain ripped his chest apart. Then all went black.
He woke with a start. The dazzling light of the morning sun hurt his eyes. His shirt had dried up only to be drenched with sweat. His jeans were still damp, so were his sneakers. In his right hand he held on to the polythene packet. He was still sitting in his seat in the bus. Sheepishly he stood up. There was no one about, neither the conductor, nor the driver. He alighted from the bus. It was an old run-down bus that had seen better days, parked at the side of the road, perhaps waiting for the tow-van to come to tow it away to some junk-yard.
All around him the city had come to life. He took his prescription out from the wrappings. It had his name printed clearly on the top. “Mr. Sandip Sen” it read. Yes, that was his name. His age too, was recorded. Forty two, it said. He now felt a burning sensation in his chest. Will the excruciating pain return? But it did not. There was only a burning sensation. He hailed a passing taxi and climbed in, telling the driver his home address. “Baghbazar,” he said, “near the Ganga”.
As he settled in the taxi, he unbuttoned his shirt to look at his birthmark. It was angry red in appearance. Birbikram! Suddenly the name came back to him. He had heard the name from his grandmother. In his old books he had come across a diary. In the first page, was a beautifully calligraphed signature, ‘Birbikram Sen’. He was one of his illustrious forefathers. His grandmother had said. She had died three years ago, his last remaining relative. The sprawling mansion was kept under lock and key as he only used a couple of rooms and one bathroom. The rest of the mansion, (or should he say, palace?) were occasionally rented out to film groups for shooting. This at least provided maintenance.
Reaching home, Sandip went straight to the cupboard and took out Birbikram’s diary. He leafed through the pages till he came upon the entry he was looking for. It read:
“10th Ashwin, 1240 :- Had a narrow escape from the hands of dacoits. A man, Hari Singh, from Barasat village, saved my life. Where is he now? How is he? I hope he could escape. I am here today, just because he had risked his own life that I may live.
Sandip put the diary down, immersed in thought. He kept it back to where it belonged. As he undressed for a bath, he noticed the birthmark again. It glistened red.
He never had that pain again.