Flames

The concrete corridor was turning a horrid black as the flames ate their way towards him. He ran harder, lungs choking with every long stride. Breath was painful; his eyes were watering from exhaustion and all the smoke. The corridor just didn’t end. His hair caught fire. He could feel the tongue of the flames licking his ears, but he could do nothing but run, as the fire pranced around him, mockingly near his swinging arms. There it was, finally, the end of his misery, the door out! But he knew he would not reach it… the fire enveloped him now, burning his face, boring into his straining eyes. One instant he could see the door, in another it was lost in the fiery orange again. He wasn’t running anymore. He felt his legs melt as he began to lose height rapidly like a wax statue finally giving in to a hot plate. Down he went, eyes now where the hip used to be. The charred floor rose to eye level, just his head still above the ground. And then, just as the eyes would have joined the rest of his body in liquid state, he woke up, sweating and panting.

It was getting worse now, and he could remember each successive nightmare more vividly than the last one. This morning, each blazing whip was seared across the palette of his memory. He held his cell-phone up to see the time – 6:00 AM. 6th of June too, he mused. The shower was his first stop: he didn’t feel fully safe after one of his nightmares unless he stood under the ice-cold water for a few minutes. He leant on his hand, resting it on the wall in front of him, and let the cool droplets hit the back of his head and trickle down his back gently assuaging his tension. It was another long day ahead. He hated leaving Mumbai, but summons could come for anyone, anywhere, and he just had to go serve them. Today it would be an eccentric drug-dealer far out in Thane. Long drive in the terrible heat, he fretted.

He never delved into the details of his assignments, if only to keep his mind free from additional stress. He had enough on his small mind anyway. His girlfriend had dumped him recently after 6 years of being together. She just showed up one day and dropped the bomb.

“I’m sorry Shri, we have to end this right here.”

That’s it. No prelude, no games, no mincing words, not even an ‘I’m sorry’.

“What? Why? Is it something I did? Why are you doing this to me?”

He just kept pleading, knowing well enough that she wasn’t even hearing most of it.

“Is there another man?”

“Yes there is Shri, and there has been for 2 years now. You are just never here: Lonavla, Thane, Pune, Khandala, you’re never here Shri! Still you don’t earn enough to feed yourself. And Rakesh is wonderful, he is always there for me, and he loves me.”

A more pseudo-romantic/blackmail retort like ‘But do you love him?” might have worked better, but the dig she took at his salary had hit home.

“So you’re going to dump me for some rich-ass sixties-ka-hero called RAKESH? What’s his brother called, Shammi?”

“Grow up!”, she said, and that was the last he ever heard from her.

Since then, he didn’t really enjoy his job either: it just seemed too little. When he told his mother about his heart-break, she too seemed to care more about the remark on his pay-check. It’s in my blood, he thought wryly. Then, in her “most excellent” English, she in-forummed him for the thirty-sixth time that his father had a most excellent reputation at the bank, and that he could get Shri a real and somewhat more excellence job, even though his collaze degree would never deserve ji, never.

He calmly told her Excellency to keep her most excellent mouth shut and stormed out of his parents’ house. He had refused to call her since. When she called, he would not answer, his ego bloated over nothing in particular and everything in general.

And then there was that nightmare. Anything orange made him jumpy these days, even the amber traffic signal. He was finding it impossible to lead a normal existence with little or no sleep, perpetual loneliness, and nothing but encounters with criminals to look forward to.

He dressed in silence, still shaken after another torrid night, and prepared morosely for another torrid day. A few CD’s, two bottles of mineral water, a book to read if he had time to kill waiting on Mr Dope-peddler, and his cell-phone. He lugged himself into his modest car, drove round the bend outside his flat’s housing complex, and joined the main road leading up to the expressway, already sweating badly. Peak-hour traffic was terrible as usual. Waiting in a long traffic light, he noticed the orange Lamborghini three cars diagonally behind and to his left. The physical reaction was immediate: sudden palpitations, the hair on his forearms and neck sprang-up. He fiddled with the buttons in front of him, and finally got the air-conditioning working at full blast. The sudden draft from it made him sneeze repeatedly, but he was too focussed on the car to care. Miserable, good-for-nothing, rich-ass punks, he cursed. Why can’t they just buy something in silver like the rest of the god-damn world? Or is it too subtle to go with their fluorescent personalities? He checked to see where the flamingo was turning. Left. Flustered further by the orange flickering of the monstrosity’s indicator lamps, he quickly switched indicators from left to right. He had no idea which side-alley he would enter, but it would be away from the fireball, and that was all that mattered.

The light turned green, and he turned into the cramped street after much jerking and honking through the stubborn traffic. If a traffic police officer saw him switch lanes like that, he would surely be booked for violation of rules. He began looking around frantically for the white overalls of a traffic-police officer to avoid, but all he managed to spot was the orange all around him. 5 alight beedis around the paan-stall to his left, the reflection of the sun from the car right in front of him, the burnt-brick house to his right.

His neurosis was quickly taking hold of him. His left eye started flickering madly. He swerved left into another by-lane. Heart thudding with inexplicable fear, he moved through the packed street at a meagre pace, unable to speed-up because of the overloaded Maruti in front of him. The man sitting at the rear window seat in the Maruti was literally leaning out of the car’s window. Unfortunately, he was also smoking. Every time he would tap the darned cigarette on the edge of his window’s glass, the hot burning cinders would come flying backwards. It was excruciating; by the third time tap-tap, Shri went berserk with paranoia.

The next turning was still some way ahead, and he had absolutely no way of overtaking; there wasn’t enough space. He was making his car do bizarre things: swerving wildly from left to right, only just missing alarmed bystanders, and honking like a mad-man on the loose. There they were again, those meteorite showers of glowing tobacco, threatening to devour him in their wake. I’ll never make it to the end of the road. Tap, tap went the man in front, sending another round of searing particles towards him. My hair must be on fire by now. He could feel the tongue of the flames licking his ears, but there was nothing to it but to run, no, drive. Inside the car, his legs started doing an insane kind of circling, as he would do if he was pedalling a bicycle. When one foot went down, he would hit the accelerator and the car would lurch forward, and then suddenly slow down again as the other hit the brake. I’ll melt if I don’t run harder. Tap, tap. There it comes again, the hellfire! I won’t survive it this time. He sent his right arm straight through the window, smashing the glass to bits and felt hot blood oozing out of his hand. Oh my God I’m melting.

In the split second before Shri would have reached the turning, the smoker took one last puff, and tossed the smouldering cigarette butt out the window. Shri let out a scream of terror and pinned the accelerator to the floor. His left arm got stuck in the steering wheel, veering the car to the right. The car shot forward, missing the car in front by a whisker as it turned left. The car was still gathering momentum when it smashed en-masse into the brick-and-cement corner of the house at the intersection. His head hit the steering wheel with an audible thud as the car came to a crashing halt.

Half an hour later, the ambulance found him unconscious in the drivers’ seat, along with shards of glass and blackened blood.
***

The concrete corridor was turning a horrid black as the flames ate their way towards him. He ran harder, lungs choking with every long stride. Breath was painful; his eyes were watering from exhaustion and all the smoke. The corridor just didn’t end. His hair caught fire. He could feel the tongue of the flames licking his ears, but he could do nothing but run, as the fire pranced around him, mockingly near his swinging arms. There it was, finally, the end of his misery, the door out! But he knew he would not reach it… the fire enveloped him now, burning his face, boring into his straining eyes. One instant he could see the door, in another it was lost in the fiery orange again. He wasn’t running anymore. He felt his legs melt as he began to lose height rapidly like a wax statue finally giving in to a hot plate. Down he went, eyes now where the hip used to be. The charred floor rose to eye level, just his head still above the ground. And then, just as the eyes would have joined the rest of his body in liquid state, he woke up, sweating and panting…

…and wondering how he had come to be in this white room, wrapped-up in white bandages, wearing light blue clothes that were not his. A woman in white overalls looked at him kindly.

“Are you feeling alright dear?”

“Er, yeah, what happened?”

“You had a car accident, remember? You drove straight into someone’s house! Our ambulance got to you just in time. We’ve been wondering what put you up to it though; haven’t found the slightest trace of alcohol in your blood!”

He just sat there staring at the black TV’s screen right in front of him playing another IPL match. Deccan Chargers vs Rajasthan Royals. Blue uniforms, both. Thank God.

“Your mother’s here to see you, shall I send her in?”

“Yes, yes, of course, send her in.”

He looked wide-eyed at his mother walking in, ashen-faced, and carrying the most beautiful bouquet of roses.

“How are you dear? I’ve been worried sick. Your sister is outside sleeping. She was here all night, Hare Ram, how isscared we were! I was praying to Lord Ganesha to spare you! What did you do? Kya hua? You haven’t answered to my calls, any of them at ol, and then, what is this, straight to Lilavati Hospital! You have no idea what a shock you gave to myself and your family. You must rest well beta. Here hold these flowers, and keep them close to your excellent nose so you can inhale their most excellent smell. I chose them especially for you mera raja, you better love them very much. You don’t know how expensive orange roses is in Mumbai. Red roses, cheap, yellow and white roses is also cheap, but orange roses, baba, what a lot more price! How much I had to struggle to find them! And what a big hole in my purse pocket! But it’s all for you, raja, here keep them on your chest and go to sleep. Here, let me help you. There. Excellent. Feel so much better now, na?”

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