by Charles G Chettiar

I wouldn’t have taken the expressway exit, if it hadn’t been my head nodding after an all night drive towards Mumbai. The exit was obscured by a tree and the board indicating, that it was there in the front, was ramshackle and dilapidated. I wondered how the expressway officials allowed such a thing to be when this was one of the best maintained expressways in the country.

I turned my Swift Dzire, and lumbered down on a slope and a sleepy village which had a glass façade building and all other single storey buildings nearby. As I could see that the glass façade building was the hotel and it was three storeys high. There was a canopied eating area away from the main building, and after parking it was here that I headed, as I was famished.

First eating and after that bathing.

The waiter was a thin young man in the hotel’s uniform, with a tinge of pride in his words. These village types, I mused, don’t know how to be differential and give proper service. I ordered an idli wada sambhar, as I always ate light whenever I travelled. Anyways home was just a couple of hours away, and I was only going to take a nap till the sky lightened and I was fit enough not to sleep on the wheel, and not cause any accident.

“There’s no salt in it,” I complained.

“Here,” said the waiter handing me the salt shaker. How he had managed to get the shaker without moving from the place baffled me, but I put the salt and the food became palatable, at the least.

The reception to my phone was erratic and so I wasn’t able to connect to the news.

“Can you get the newspaper?” I asked.

The waiter turned, and when he faced me he had the paper which was the times, in his hand. He deposited it on my table, and slowly retreated. I put a hundred on the table and went to the reception area.

A girl was standing there with her garb of a lady’s suit, and she smiled a plastic smile.

“I need a room for the night,” I said.

“Very well sir. Please fill out all your details,” she said handing me the form. I was putting all my details, when a whoosh sounded behind me and I saw a knife embedded just on the table beside the form I was filling. The knife had narrowly missed my head, and I turned to see a man in a dhoti and white shirt ogling at me.

“Stupid,” said the girl receptionist staring at the man.

I turned and started walking to the man.

“Hey, you! You threw that knife,” I shouted. The man had gone totally rigid and I brought my fist to bear on him knocking him. As I was going to put a second punch on him, my hand froze in mid air and I couldn’t bear it down on him.

“Don’t get violent,” I heard the receptionist say. “This can be sorted out in a non-violent way. There are many gandhians in this village, and my grandfather went to jail during the 1942 Quit India movement.”

“This bumpkin just tried to kill me!” I shouted.

“Just leave around,” said the girl. “Come and go to your room, Mr. Pandit.”

Just then a couple of youngsters came into the hotel. They were wearing jeans, and had a crew cuts and had lanky ropes jutting from their necks.

“Your time is up, Swapna,” said the shorter of them.

“No it’s yours,” said the girl, and surprisingly, both the young boys flew through the air as if something clubbed them, and hit the far wall near the gate. I saw that only a bead of sweat appeared on the girl’s forehead with a crease on it.

“Just go,” said the girl. “Now!”

I could move my hand I bolted for my rucksack I had left below the reception desk. I had barely reached it that I lost contact with the ground, and starting floating.

Oh shit! What is this? I thought.

“Perumal,” said the girl, “it’s not the time for this bullshit.”

“No it is my friend,” said a man’s voice. I looked to see a darkish man with a mustache standing at the place where I had knocked down the dhoti clad figure. The knife started to vibrate and then it was free.

“It had been decreed,” said the girl, “that we do not harm passersby. We allow them a safe passage.”

“That is where you are wrong, my friend,” said the man. “We have to get out and teach the killers lesson. Tell that to my brothers and sisters in Jaffna, where they were murdered and ravaged. It is our time to go out and kill and demand justice.”

There was a shattering sound and I saw that the mirror behind Swapna had cracked into a thousand pieces and its shards came raining down on her and she collapsed. Meanwhile the knife which had just broken free was no longer stationary, and it had rotated itself and was coming straight towards me…

I opened my eyes to see that I was in the reception area still. I turned around and felt my body for the knife embedded in my skin, but I was not able to find it. I sat up disoriented, to see that the knife was being held in mid air and a grotesque looking Swapna, with glass shards sticking from her face was standing behind the counter looking straight at the dark man. Beside her was a man about her age and they were both looking straight at the dark man. The dark man was staring down at them, but it seemed that he had gone rigid.

“Spoiled my girl’s beauty Perumal,” said the man, “look how you get it. We shouldn’t have allowed you bloody LTTE to get in our village. Knew that you are a sick folk.”

“The people should not be allowed to know,” said Perumal.

“They wouldn’t have been you fool,” said the man, “now you have told them yourself.”

The man whom I had knocked down stirred and got up. He stood with Perumal, but still the knife continued to move towards the dark man’s group. And then the rowdies, whom the receptionist had knocked down stirred and joined in the fray.

“Now you have no chance, Swapna,” said Perumal, “in spite of you being the stronger one.”

The knife started to totter towards Swapna and her boyfriend.

“Can you hold them much,” said the young man to Swapna.

“Not much time, Harish,” replied Swapna.

Just then people started coming from behind Swapna, and some people from the entrance to the hotel. They either stood with Swapna or with Perumal. Soon there were close to ninety people in the confrontation. The waiter I had seen was standing behind Swapna.

An old man spoke,

“Enough is enough Perumal. We had agreed in the Panchayat that we shall keep everything hidden, and then use it for our betterment.”

“What is the use of this gift when we can’t wreak vengeance?” said Perumal.

The knife freed itself and I couldn’t help myself. I had to pickup the knife and I started to bring the knife closer to my neck. But just before I would slit my throat, it stopped.

“You can’t win Perumal,” said an old man. “I have more people than you.”

“No you don’t,” said Perumal.

A throng of people entered from the entrance and stood behind Perumal, and the knife started inching closer to my neck. But a foot from my neck it stopped.

“No it can’t be,” said Perumal. “You can’t always be stronger.”

“Even if we are not, you have equaled our strength,” said the old man.

A little girl came and stood in front of me. She had a doll in her hand, and she stood staring at me.

“Deepa,” said the receptionist, “come to didi.”

“No child,” said Perumal, “come to uncle.”

The child stood there, and when I saw in her eyes I saw that her eyes were different. Yes they were different. There was a marked redness in her eyes, and her pupils were some colour which could only be possible if a person wears contacts.

The knife started inching closer to my neck, and then it started going away.

“Come to didi,” said Swapna, the receptionist. “Oh! I can’t lift her to bring her here.”

“She is all too powerful,” said the old man, “as I suspected before.”

Perumal, his concentration broken tried to bring his total power on the little girl, and I could hang my hand on my side, but I couldn’t let go of the knife. The ‘killing’ group which was intent on killing me was still not totally weak.

I could see his face, this Perumal’s as he locked into the child’s eyes and tried to bear his consciousness on her. Even if it was silent, I could feel the struggle going on between the minds. It was a tug of war of sorts. A tug of war in which I was the bob in the middle.

“Come little girl,” said Perumal. “Come to uncle. I will give you many chockies.”

And then it happened. The face of Perumal grew wrinkled and even more wrinkled, till it was a mass of folds, and it exploded, raining everybody with its grotesque redness.

The little girl kept smiling her beatific smile, and then the glass windows of the hotel exploded, and everything was thrown out helter skelter. All around me the bodies tumbled and the face off was no more. I realized that I could move my hands and my body.

The little girl looked at me and said, “I want my doll!”

No time to waste. I scrambled for the door, with all thoughts except that of escape in my head.

Starting my car I got up to the ramp connecting to the expressway. In front of me stood the little girl with her beatific smile.

In the silence of my car I could see her mouthing the words…

I want my doll…I want my doll…I want my doll…

As I slammed on my foot on the accelerator, and as the car’s windows exploded driving the shards of glass all into me…the last thought in my head was…what beatific smile….what demonic hate…