I had never faced such a dilemma in my life. Last Monday I was returning from my office; I was late because of an urgent meeting which had come up needing me giving a presentation there.
While driving my Honda City through the maze of traffic my mind was more occupied with the discussions during the meeting than anything else. I was so preoccupied that the missive of Falguni, my wife, asking me to come back before seven o’ clock as I had invited some of my friends, completely escaped my thoughts.
It was dark, and the street lights were burning when I turned onto the last lap of the road and entered the porch of my house. Switching off my car engine I glanced at the main door and noticed that it was partially ajar. The yellow light of the drawing-room was slanting out on the mosaic floor; it was more visible because the portico light was not burning. I got slightly irritated because I always insisted that the portico should be lighted as soon as the darkness fell.
Without any further thought, I came out from my car, picked up the briefcase from the rear seat, closed the doors through a central locking system with a flash accompanied by a mild beep and started climbing the small flight of stairs to the main door.
I didn’t know why but as I was about to enter my house I got a strange feeling that something was amiss.
Sitting on the large sofa of the drawing-room were three of my friends, Ujjwal, Rithikesh and Sourav; Falguni was occupying the other sofa. There were coffee cups strewn on the table. The overhead chandelier lights were burning bright. Some words of humor were being exchanged and there was laughter around; the mood was genial.
Falguni was first to see me but surprisingly her smile faded away. Others too followed her gaze and turned to look at me; their laughter too died away. All this happened in a few seconds and my wife came to her feet swiftly.
“Hey, who are you? How can you enter my house unannounced like this…?”
At that instant, my mind refused to take her seriously, perhaps it was a practical joke … but her appearance and her tone, at once made me blink in surprise. She seemed to be dead serious and both Ujjwal and Sourav too stood up and walked towards me as if they would throw me out of my house.
I kept the briefcase on the side table and retreated a step in a defensive gesture and blustered out, “What are you saying Falguni? Is it a joke? “
I was about to say something more but Ujjwal moved near me and said, “We don’t know who you are or what you want …. but get out of the house just now….and take your briefcase!”
He gripped my left shoulder and roughly pushed me back and pointed out towards the door.
This was becoming too much; no prank could be taken this far. I shrugged myself free from his grip and raised my voice.
“Have you all gone mad? What are you doing? I am Upendra, can’t you see that? Have you all become blind?”
I strode towards her, “Falguni…don’t fool around with me like this…. I am your husband….” I wanted to take her hand and reassure that it was indeed I and not any stranger.
But her reaction was extreme. With a stifled cry, she side stepped me and moved away with alacrity, “Help me …somebody…!!”
At once Ujjwal caught hold of me and again started pushing me roughly backward. Sourav and Rithikesh stood before me threateningly, the latter calling out to Falguni said, “Dial the police…”
It was getting extremely difficult for me and I thought it was prudent to retreat for now…. it was downright odd, and I had to think as to how to deal with this awkwardness.
Stepping out I entered my car, switched on and engaged the gears. My eyes fell on the main door… Ujjwal was standing there with an aggressive posture and I could see Falguni and the other two behind him. Then, releasing the clutch I propelled the car forward.
Once out of the housing complex I drove ahead for a kilometer and pulled up on the left side of the road below a street light.
Now was the time to think coherently about what had happened in my house. This was unbelievable; totally bizarre! How was it possible that my wife and three of my friends did not recognize me… or were they trying to deliberately play some game?
Somehow, at that instant my sixth instinct was telling me to see my face!
And, I looked at myself in the car mirror!
I was thunderstruck!
Oh, my God!
A total stranger was staring back at me!
What had happened to my face?
My reaction was involuntary! Sweat broke out and trickled down my body… my heart started beating painfully… the fear of the unknown and the unexpected shook me to the core. I closed my eyes for a few moments and opened them with some hope.… it was the same unknown face. Gingerly touching my face, I couldn’t make any difference, but the mirror couldn’t lie. My wife and friends couldn’t also be telling a fib!
Soon my mind became blank.
I didn’t know how long that uncertain state of my mind would have continued; then there was a noise of an approaching car, the headlights of which swept my face and the interiors of my car. I was in no state to focus at anything it but when it stopped, I heard a door close and a man came towards me, then my senses started perceiving.
“Hello Upendra…” a familiar voice was telling me, “Why have you parked here so near the house? Everything ok?”
He was Vipin, my closest of the friends; he was also to join my party today.
Some rationality now seemed to be returning in my mind.
Coming near the driver’s window he peered at me, “Hell! What has happened to you? You look so sick and frightened.”
Initially I stared at him for many seconds, shook my head and looked at the mirror again.
Now, I saw my own face! Not a stranger’s face! This was normal… not a nightmare! I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.
By that time Vipin had opened the front side door and entered and sat next to me. He touched my forehead which was swathed in sweat. He said soothingly, “Something is definitely wrong… tell me!”
Little later, both of us drove back to my house. He was as mystified to hear my ordeal as I had been. With slight nervousness, I returned home along with Vipin.
Falguni opened the door and on seeing me hugged me impulsively. Other three friends were also there who received me with a visible sense of relief.
She said, “Upendra… so good to see you …. a little while ago some stranger had entered the house claiming that he was you! My goodness! It was so strange! So dangerous!” She blinked back her tears, “We couldn’t understand anything…any way we managed to throw him out… Sourav was about to call the Police too.”
I sat down and made her sit beside me. Others stood around us.
Marshaling my thoughts, I explained slowly and clearly my dilemma.
After a while silence descended followed by a sense of amazement all around. It was a very difficult story to believe; in fact, it was downright spooky! Nobody had any explanation…. but we all agreed that till things became clear it would be better to keep this under wraps.
Next day in the office I was in an extremely worried state… last evening’s calamity was too serious to be ignored. I was not able to fathom as to what I should do next.
As I opened my first office file to start my routine, my hands were trembling. But I had decided to take hold of myself.
That file had a memo for me to sign for making the final payment to one Ms. Chaitali, our junior cashier, whose services I had ended about a month and a half ago on the charges of misappropriation of cash. Although her guilt couldn’t be fixed beyond doubt, she lost her job due to its sensitive nature.
While looking through her earlier records I remembered her pleading with me with tears streaming down her cheeks about her innocence and how her family would be financially ruined to become paupers. She had said that her crippled husband was in no position to earn anything. Also, she would become an outcast in her family and friends with such grave charges of fraud. She was worried, too, about her husband’s mental state.
At that time while sympathizing with her I couldn’t help her. I had to take this hard decision of dismissal for the sake of the office discipline.
As I was about to sign her memo in the file, I noticed a photograph stapled below several pages. I understood that It was taken a few months ago in an office “family get together” party. The picture showed her standing at the side of a man who was sitting on a wheelchair, he was undoubtedly her crippled husband.
This photograph was not supposed to be in the official file.
While about to casually return to the memo, suddenly my breath seemed to stop in my chest.
The sense of fear of the last evening again came haunting into my senses!
What did I see? That crippled man’s face in that photo was exactly what my face had turned into, that fateful evening! I had seen it clearly in the car’s mirror! No doubt about it! My God! It meant that although my body and mind were intact my face was that of another man…that of Chaitali’s husband. As if I was wearing a mask of his face!
I felt like fainting, my mouth turned dry, perspiration erupted on my brows and a black curtain seemed to be descending on me!
Just then my subordinate came in my chamber with another file and I turned my face away. I didn’t want him to see me. After drinking a glass of water, I took hold of myself.
After he had left, I thought for many minutes; next I spoke in the intercom to HR chief and the Security in- charge.
That done, I kept the file inside my drawer without signing the memo.
A week had since passed. It was late evening and Falguni was sitting with me at the dining table. The HR file of Ms. Chaitali was kept on it and I had the report of the Security in-charge in my hand. The dinner was over.
I had told Falguni earlier in the day from my office, that I needed to discuss something urgent, after dinner.
With her curiosity aroused, I began, “Falguni, I was trying to find some sense in that unbelievable experience … that really frightened us… I think there is some supernatural answer to this… I can feel it in my bones. I will tell you.”
Then I showed her that office photo in the file of Ms. Chaitali and pointed at her crippled husband’s face. She looked at it for a very long time with nervousness, then cried out, “Oh my God! Your face had transformed into the same face that evening. I am feeling so scared….!”
I was now going to reveal the strangest part.
“Do you know that crippled man had committed suicide about fifteen days ago because he couldn’t bear his wife’s loss of job which seemed unfair, her anguish, rejection by family and friends … the punishing financial blow to them and heaven knew what else? It seemed that he was a very sensitive man and suffering from depression too.”
“So?” Falguni inquired with tremor in her voice, her eyes wide, “How does that affect you and me?”
I leaned forward, my voice was shaky too, “Don’t you see? Chaitali and her husband blamed me for dismissing her wrongly from her job and wanted me to suffer. Meanwhile her husband committed suicide. Even after his death, his spirit must have harbored a sense of revenge on me. So, he somehow began to torment me… beginning had been that evening’s ghostly disaster. His face had substituted my face and that photograph appeared in his wife’s office file to give me a hint about what had happened and that I was responsible!”
Falguni was increasingly looking very worried. She listened in silence then she said, “What will you do Upendra? This is very dangerous!”
I said, “I admit I also feel fearful but that has not stopped me from taking my next step … I got the entire incident of cash theft by Chaitali investigated again from an outside detective agency… here is it…”, I held out the report of the Security in-charge, “…and there is a rude surprise here…. now I need to rectify my mistake.”
Next day morning in my office I called Chaitali. When she arrived, I handed her another memo.
“Chaitali, we are withdrawing your termination letter. On reinvestigating, we have found that you are innocent. I personally apologize for what has happened. It was a genuine mistake on our part. I know it is insufficient, but it is the least I can do!”
I added, “Please rejoin your duties at once.”
Then, I let her know my regrets in no uncertain terms.
She took the memo and broke down completely; with sobbing voice she said, “Sir, I thank you for this, I will join, but this will not bring back my husband…. whose death is such a tragedy.”
My heart was with her for her misfortunes.
That evening in my office as I worked through her file for her job reinstatement and to send it back to HR department, I found that the telltale photograph was missing! Who could have done this? Another spooky intrusion? Anyway, it was not needed anymore!
But at the end of the day, I felt that in some small way I had pacified the saddened spirit and his widow.