Are We There Yet?

I briskly walk, my breath becoming more and more heavy. There’s pin drop silence, except the shrill howling of the street dogs. To my relief, I don’t see any recognizable face. I turn back once more. Yes, I’ve come far enough. Clutching my duffle bag closer to my chest, I increase my pace.

I have to be out of this city as soon as possible.

The night is extremely chilly, goose bumps break over my body. Not due to cold, but fear. I shudder. Decision to escape was made impulsively, but I managed to scribble the phone numbers that would come in handy. My phone is in my bag, switched off. I can’t take the risk of getting my phone tracked, possibility is slim but it’s best to be careful. It’s pitch dark, I can barely see ahead, my eyes squinting for a feeble ray of light. The howling of the dogs gets shriller and louder, cutting through the thick, absolute silence. I shuffle hurriedly, half running and half walking. Just a few hours more, everyone would know I am gone. The festive intoxication will wear off and all hell will break loose. Every attempt to find me will fail, because by that time I would be far, far away from this place.

Far away from my beloved home.

After walking for another 15 to 20 minutes, I find myself standing on an endless, two lane road with absolutely no idea where I am. In broad daylight, it’s very easy to identify locations but now, my senses have started numbing. By any means, I have to reach the nearest bus stop or a train station before the dawn. Pausing to re centre myself, I scan my surroundings. The road is lined with huge, green trees but there are no vehicles. Helplessness grips me, I can’t recognize the area at all.

What am I going to do now?

The clock is ticking, my invaluable time to claim freedom is slipping by, just like the white, quartz sand of the hourglass. The option to go back is still open. I’ll change and sleep. And pretend as if nothing happened the next morning. Momentarily, I consider it.

No. No, no, no.

I can’t go back to the fate I am so desperately running from. Trying to calm myself down, I open my duffle bag to retrieve the phone. Only when I hold it I realize that I’ve been shivering. The screen springs back to life, this is against what I planned but there’s no other way. With fumbling fingers, I try searching the closest escape route. I feel the tension leaving my body, even if it’s just a little. Tomorrow I would be free, in some new city. I would be living a normal life or better, my dream life. Relief gushes over me, probably after hours of anxiety. A tiny prospect of freedom too holds incredible power. I stand there, a bit relaxed but not for long. A chill runs through my spine when I hear distant voices.

Rooted on spot, I slowly crane my neck to look behind. Four men dressed in the shabbiest of clothes, their feet unsteady as they walk, have their gaze fixed on me. It doesn’t take the IQ of Einstein to conclude they are drunk, a little too much. I look ahead and start walking as fast as I can.

They wouldn’t do anything, they aren’t awake enough for that.

I turn my attention back towards my phone, taking firm, long strides at the same time. I groan inwardly when I see it receiving no signal. Nevertheless, I can’t stop, I have to keep moving. And fast. Adrenaline rushes through my veins. Stumbling a little, I increase my speed. Though sure of having left those men far behind now, I look back again to double check. My blood freezes at what I see.

The drunkards have been following me.

And they aren’t half as unaware as I initially thought. The knife and pepper spray I packed give me a little sense of security, no matter how false it is. There’s no way I can put up a fight, only one thing can be done. I break into a run, frantically hoping there would be someone ahead, hoping the road isn’t as deserted as it is now. The drunkards don’t run but don’t stop walking either. A streetlight enlightens their faces, they all have scrubby looking beards and dishevelled hair. But it’s their eyes that catch my attention. There’s surprise as well as thrill and excitement shining through those, it’s the same look a hunter gives it’s prey before sucking out it’s life. Afterall, it isn’t everyday you find a young, lost woman on the streets. I sprint, the duffle bag bounces up and down, hitting me periodically. The men begin walking faster, wanting to end the chase as soon as possible. The hair on my nape shoot up. Apprehensively, I check for the signal again, holding my phone in my clammy palms.

 None.

I want to shout but there’s no one to hear my screams. The only sound audible is the thudding of my heart and my heavy breath. I run, and run some more. The men would close up on me any time, I should’ve gone back. At least I would be safe, it’s far more important than being happy. My thoughts are brought to an abrupt halt when I see a white, sleek car pulling up beside me, it’s tires screeching through the silence of the dead night. The car stops and the glass of the window descends to reveal a young, masculine face. His eyes meet mine.

“Get in” the deep, husky voice commands.

“What?” I say with utter disbelief.

He takes a look at his rear view mirror. “I said get in, they’re not very far behind. Come on now, be quick.”

I swallow a lump in my throat. “I don’t even know who you are.”

He lets out a deep grunt. “Look, if you don’t want to get in, it’s okay. But I don’t think you have a lot of options” he says, glancing over the rear view mirror again.

Fear encapsulates me. He is right, I don’t have any option. The drunkards have stopped walking, perplexed. My eyes dart over the place, there isn’t any other vehicle around. Surprisingly, my survival instinct’s voice smothers the one of my reasoning. And before I know it, I open the car door and hop in.

I pull the door to close it, but he accelerates with an alarming speed. I am jerked forward due to inertia, but manage to slam the door shut. In less than thirty seconds, I loose the sight of my unpleasant followers. Still struggling to wrap my head around the latest happenings, I glance at my savior. He’s staring ahead determinedly, driving in silence . His brows are furrowed but his calm demeanor doesn’t exude any worry. Long, thin fingers hold the steering wheel, one of them has a gold ring on. He is dressed in a casual Nike T shirt and blue jeans. Concern and confidence, both span the sharp features. I look ahead, the car headlights illuminate the road, it’s the only thing to be visible in the dark. The realization hits me hard, I’m in a company of a total stranger, perfectly capable of inflicting harm. I don’t know how many minutes pass, but the road seems never ending.

“What on earth were you doing there?” he says with a tone seared with annoyance as well as amusement.

I wish I knew the answer myself, I think. He gives me a sideways, lingering glance and takes in my appearance. I’m wearing a white and red full sleeved tunic, teamed up with black slacks. I’ve my brother’s backpack and the duffle bag. My waist length hair are tied in a low ponytail. His eyes pause on my hands, beautifully decorated with intricate henna designs. I pull the sleeves of my tunic down, suddenly conscious, having no interest in doling out unnecessary details.

“Thank you so much for what you did. Please do me another favour, drop me at the bus or train station” I implore.

“Of course, so that you get brutalized by another group of drunkards. Where do you want to go exactly?” he asks.

I let out a heavy sigh and fumble with my senses, trying to come up with a satisfactory explanation without saying too much.

“Just listen. I have to get out from here, by hook or by crook. Drop me off”.

He doesn’t reply but slows down the car. I peek out of the window, the eerie darkness makes my skin tingle with fear. Gradually, the speed of the car recedes and we come to a halt. The boy unbuckles his seatbelt and turns to face me. Though it’s the second time we lock eyes, I realize there’s much more to his face than what my mind had registered. He has dark brown eyes accentuated by thick brows. The hair is jet black and untidy but very well taken care of. A light stubble covers the sharp jawline and dark circles span the area under his eyes.

“I have no idea who you are and what you’re running from. But I assure you,  looking for a public commute isn’t the best idea at 2:45 in the morning” he says with a stern tone. I would’ve readily challenged him on this if I was sure of his inaccuracy, which I’m not.

“Where are you going by the way?” he questions.

I don’t know, but any place where my opinion is respected will do.

“Mumbai” I say. Lata, my childhood friend’s face flashes before my eyes. She lives there, she can help me.

“I don’t think you’ll find a train to Mumbai, but let’s see.”

For five minutes, he drives without a word. The moment we hit the station, my hopes are crushed. Homeless people lay sound asleep on the platforms, no passengers are to be seen. Upon a little inquiry with the still awake vendor on the main gate, we find out the last train left two hours ago. There are no arrivals and departures scheduled for any place, let alone Mumbai, until the clock strikes six. The vendor eyes us suspiciously, causing the boy to quickly thank him and drive ahead.

“You’re out of luck” he says, parking the car at a considerable distance from the station gate.

My heart shatters into a million pieces as I meet the last dead end. Tears sting my eyes. He looks up and shifts uncomfortably in his seat, thinking what to say next. I conclude he isn’t very good at handling emotional people.

“Finding a bus too is out of question now, I can leave you here with someone trustworthy until…”
“I’m not going back !”

He is stunned at my not so polite gesture and his face hardens.

“Let me get it straight. You’re adamant to not stay here. Also, you want to go to Mumbai at 3 in the morning but don’t know how. If you’ve got any better plans, please let me know ”he snaps.

I avert my gaze. “I had no time to plan. One moment I was lying on my bed thinking about tomorrow where I would walk in as a bride to marry a man I don’t want to marry but have to, and the next moment I was packing my bags.” I say all this very fast and by the time I end, I’m out of breath. The boy’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise.

“Oh, so you’re running away from a marriage?” he asks, bemused.

I blink back my tears. The last thing I want to do is shed big, fat tears in front of a total stranger. After a few moments of composing myself, I say, “I just cannot go back.”

He shrugs and turns off the ignition. “ Because if I go back,” I continue, “my life would change in a way I don’t want it to, nothing will ever be the same.”

The boy’s hardened expressions melt away. He looks at me empathetically and thinks for a few moments, then gives an affirmative nod.

“Okay, thank the stars you crossed my path.” He turns back towards the steering wheel. “ I was heading to Mumbai, you can come along.”

My mouth falls open, setting off an alarm in my head. I stare at him, absolutely astonished. Decent intentions can’t be propelling such extraordinary kindness.

“No, thank you” I reply, a little too firmly.

“Why are you so stubborn?” he asks, genuinely irritated.

“Because I don’t know who you are, what if you’re a deranged serial killer who would kill me and sell my kidneys?”

He tilts his head to a side, gives me a are-you-serious look and smiles. This is the first time I’ve seen him smile.

“I get you” he smirks. “I’ll leave you at the train station, good luck fending off the drunk hyenas, all by yourself.” He buckles up his seatbelt.

Oh, no.

My thoughts drift back to the drunk men, the memory of being followed wouldn’t leave me so easily. Their hungry eyes, lethal expressions and the harm that could’ve been done, everything flashes in front of my eyes. I shudder. As though reading my mind, the boy says, “ Don’t worry. You’re much  safer with me than a deserted train station.”

My head spins with haphazard thoughts.

I do have pepper spray in my bag, he’s alone, I can stab him if he does anything inappropriate, at least he doesn’t look harmful, not on the surface. He’s so unlike those men…

“Decide fast, I don’t have all night” he says, drumming his long fingers on the steering wheel. For the second time in a night, my survival instinct overpowers my ability to reason, causing me to slump in my seat. I hang my head, exhale deeply and say, “ Okay, let’s go.”

“Yes, let’s go” he declares, turning on the ignition. The engine roars back to life. And the next minute, I embark on the craziest, most unexpected road trip with a total stranger.

In my childhood, I loved reading the comic ‘Adventures Of Tintin.’ I dreamt for hours how it would be to go on an exciting adventure, along with a faithful dog Snowy and a cynical, harsh Captain Haddock. Little did I know my wish would be actually granted, that too in this manner. I glance at my companion, who is nothing like Captain Haddock.

What did I get myself into?

There’s no use thinking about it now, the arrow has left the bow. Keeping the duffle bag down, I ease the shoulder straps of my backpack and place it on my lap.

“You can keep your luggage on the backseat” says the boy.

“It’s alright, thanks.” I am already under huge debt of his kindness. I knock off my sandals and stretch my legs.

Now, I’m no connoisseur of cars, but the one I’m sitting in can be described in one word : flawless. I’ve never travelled in a car this expensive. It has a large leg room and comfortable seats. Also, there are no gears. The interior is impeccably designed. I can bet with my life it has been very recently purchased.  I want to ask the boy what company and model it is, but end up asking a more obvious yet neglected question.

“What is your name?”

“Dhruv” he replies after a deliberate pause.

Dhruv.

The name suits him, quite well.

“Yours?”

“Meera.”

He nods. The digital clock on the dashboard shows the time 3:15. I lean back on my seat.

“Wear the seatbelt” he says. I don’t want to, but oblige. After buckling up the seatbelt, I ask, “How much time will it take to reach Mumbai?”

“Six to seven hours” he replies in an instant. I sigh.  

After travelling on a straight road forever, Dhruv takes a right turn. Even though my mind is overladen with anxiety, I simply marvel his sense of direction, there isn’t a shred of doubt on his face. I tighten my grip around the backpack. The muscles of my limbs are sore, the reason being my lack of proper sleep. Between the jollity of wedding preparations and uncertainty about my future, rest became almost non existential. I keep my backpack down on the duffle bag and try my best to relax.

My family would be awake in less than two hours. Afterall, big fat Indian weddings aren’t a piece of cake. I think about how the tables have turned. Until yesterday, I was a demure, obedient Indian bride dutifully marrying someone her parents chose and today, I am a rebel who has broken all the rules and running away with a boy I barely know.

Fantastic, absolutely fantastic.

How would they react to my absence?

My eyelids droop, making me realize how tired I really am. But it’s only my body that’s fatigued; the mind is still hyperactive, alert for any possible dangers. Dhruv’s expressions are passive, not giving away anything. The quietness is becoming too much bear now.

“So, where are you from?” I ask.

“Mumbai.”

No wonder he knows the highways like the back of his hand.

“Do you often travel this late at night?”

“Who’s this unlucky oaf whom you dumped at the altar?” he asks, ignoring my question.

An oaf? I think Akshay was more of a jerk.

I groan, having least interest to answer this.

“I don’t know” I say.

“You don’t know?” he asks, astounded.

“Aren’t you aware of the concept of Great Indian Arranged Marriages or did you land up from the sky right this moment?”

He smiles.

 “Fair enough, but you must know something” he continues.

“A bit, his father is a landlord, just like my father. Nothing special, a typical guy who’s been raised to believe he’s the greatest gift God has bestowed mankind with.”

This time, Dhruv laughs. His features appear much softer and childlike when he does. I don’t know why, I feel I’ve earned something that’s rare.

“You’re amusing” he says, glancing at me.

“Thank you.”

“So your dad is a landlord?”

 “Yes, we have a few acres given on lease, and also a few houses” I reply.

“Damn, you must be rich.”

Look who’s talking. A guy in his early twenties, lucky enough to be driving one of the best cars I’ve seen till date.

“Why didn’t you deny to the marriage if you hated him so much?”

I look at him with raised eyebrows. “What makes you think I hated him?”

“Your words off course, but more than that those expressions of pure loathing.”

He smiles confidently, I undermined his intelligence a little.

“This was an ideal match I guess, our families got along, we too sort of got along” I say, leaning back on my seat.

“Still, here you are running away from your ideal match in the middle of the night.” His nonchalant tone and sickeningly true words prick my conscience.

I knew I didn’t want to get married, I knew I wasn’t happy, hell, I didn’t even like him much. Why did I agree to this marriage in the first place?

“I think he was the least hideous of all the other options” I tell him, reassuring my own self at the same time.

“I don’t even want to imagine what your other options were like” Dhruv says, chortling. I give him a sarcastic smile, he laughs some more.

“But, what would your family do when they know you’ve run off?” he asks. I lift my feet and keep them on the seat.

“I don’t know for sure, but Dad would be really mad” I reply, pulling my knees closer to my chest.

Not just mad, he would be ashamed, insulted and hurt. My cousin brothers would be devastated, confused about how their sister could do something like this. My mother would cry her eyes out, cursing herself for her daughter’s bad upbringing. If anybody had the remotest chance of understanding my situation, it would be my cousin sister.

“Wouldn’t they go to the police?” Dhruv’s eyes bore into me. “ I mean when they come to know you’re missing…”

“They won’t, they’re too protective when it comes to honour” I say, cutting him midsentence.

“Honor?”

“Yes, honor, respect, family name, whatever you want to call it.” I rest my head against the knees.

Dhruv opens his mouth to say something, but thinks better of it. I keep talking.

“And I scarred it” I say as my stomach feels heavy, thanks to guilt. Dhruv shrugs.

“Are you trying to tell me that your family wouldn’t give a damn about you disappearing into thin air just because of honor?”

“I didn’t say this. But yes, they wouldn’t want to face the ridicule accompanying it.”

I can see mild bewilderment clouding his face. “ Don’t worry, they’ll know I wasn’t kidnapped, I kept a note on my sister’s dressing table” I say as I lower my legs. “ So, there will be no police case. Also, there’s no boy with whom I eloped. They can’t put the cauldron of blame on anybody else’s head except mine.”

Dhruv shakes his head in agreement. The possibility of policemen sprawling over the house or coming to look for me didn’t cross my mind. By law, I’m an adult, making me eligible to live on my own terms. Practically like most things, this hasn’t been implemented to a great extent, especially for women. As for Dhruv, he’s at total ease, without a slightest fuss about the hassle he’s got into, all because of me.

“Aren’t you worried?” I ask him.

A look of puzzlement crosses his face as he glances at me.

“Tell me, are you habituated to play chauffeur for random people ? You’re in a company of a runaway bride.”

 “Yes, I know” he replies, grinning broadly. “ Such trivial things rarely bother me, I’ve much bigger concerns.”

I wait for him to elaborate what these bigger concerns are, he doesn’t. I shrug.

“Running away from a marriage, leaving notes. Looks like you’re very much influenced by movies” Dhruv smirks.

“Very funny” I reply grudgingly.

He cocks his head to a side, smiles again and directs his attention back to driving.

“If you don’t mind, can I open the window?”

Instead of responding, he lowers the glass of both our windows. As soon as the cold wind whips my face, I lose the track of my anxious thoughts. We’re back on the highway again, many heavy vehicles can be seen on the wide, smooth road. I see the gleaming headlights of the one behind us. A few minutes later, it overtakes our car. It isn’t a truck or a bus but a larger car. In spite of it’s high speed, I notice the sticker on it’s rear windshield, a roaring lion, coloured in red and blue. I look at the digital clock displaying the time  4:30 and close my eyes.  The sensations triggered by the wind are pleasurable, diffusing the tension being harboured under my skin for days. Tranquillity takes hold of everything, my mind and my body. In this moment, there’s only peace.

“Feels wonderful, isn’t it?” Dhruv whispers. I slowly open my eyes. “ Open windows, road trips, blissful silence, totally my things.”

He smiles. The wind entangles with his jet black hair, making them carelessly droop over his forehead.

“Do you do this often?” I ask.

“Kind of. This is my way of coping up, you can say that.”

Dhruv strikes me as someone who isn’t fond of deep and heartfelt conversations. I nod and go back to looking out of the window. Trees, streetlights, other vehicles breeze by, the vehicle that had overtaken us earlier is directly ahead now. Our headlights flash over it.  I was right, it’s indeed a larger car, a Scorpio. I tuck the stray hair shadowing my face behind my ear. Staring into the oblivion is a dangerous thing, it causes your psyche to mull over things you don’t want to be reminded about. As the minute hand drags closer to the number 12, my nervousness subsequently increases.

I was supposed to wake up at 5 today, get all dolled up and walk to the altar at noon. I was supposed to get married today, this was a special, happy day for all my folks and maybe, for me too. The enormity of my actions dawns on me.

Was this the only way?

I look at my palms. The lady who drew these henna designs was a plump, middle aged woman, extremely skilled at her craft. She worked sincerely for hours, which resulted in these delicate and beautiful designs. I had cursed under my breath when she wrote Akshay’s name at the exact centre of my palm. Though I tried my best to talk her out of it, she stood her ground, saying it was an ancient custom to write the groom’s name on the bride’s palm. Regardless of the stubbornness I showed, I’m actually thankful she did that.

Because it was the moment I understood I didn’t want his name on my palm.

In fact, I didn’t want it to be anywhere near me. Not on my official documents, not on the marriage certificate, not on the nameplate of my house. As his name stared back at me, I felt disgusted. I would’ve washed it out if there wasn’t a risk of spoiling the other designs. It was the precise moment I realized I didn’t desire this marriage. Amidst the dance and music of the Mehndi function, I tried my best to put a soon to be bride face, to convince myself that all will be fine, though deep down in my heart I knew it won’t. My cousin brother Shekhar had danced his heart out in the function, I reluctantly admit he was terrible at it. Akshay was his collegemate, his close friend. He was so jovial yesterday, even causing me to forget my troublesome thoughts. Tears start blurring my vision.

He would be heartbroken, so devastated. The same would go with my father, he had been laughing like a child when Shekhar danced. In my childhood, I was the most pampered kid, I was his darling daughter, just like all girls are for their fathers. Intense pain shoots up my chest as I reminisce beautiful moments spent with my family. A single tear drop escapes my left eye.

What have I done?

I am going to pay the price in the form of my family. It’s almost 5 in the digital clock. They are going to hate me tomorrow, I broke the ones closest to me, I betrayed my people.

What have I done?

I had looked back the last time as I exited the main door of my beloved home, very well aware that if I venture out any further, these doors would be closed, possibly forever. There isn’t any promise of forgiveness, no matter how much I beg. Afterall, I had bruised the honour of my family, I had blemished my own self respect and since childhood, I was taught respect and honour are the most important jewels of a woman. Tears cascade down my face, without any inhibition now. I begin to quiver.

“Hey, you okay?” Dhruv asks, concern written all over his face. I take out my handkerchief from the backpack and dab it over my tear stained eyes.

“Meera?”

“I’m fine…just missing my family” I say, my voice breaking. He looks at me quietly. “ It’s ok, I’m fine.”

“Meera, trust me. Everything will be alright.” His voice is low as he consoles me. “ Wait, do you want to go back home?”

I turn towards him, look into his eyes and say, “No.”

His expression becomes grim, he had been expecting that reply. I cry some more. Through out this time, he keeps stealing glances at me while he drives, looking sad himself, as if somehow my pain was absorbed by him.

“Can you turn on the music?” I murmur. He obliges instantly, not surprised at the sudden request. In a very little time, he’s been used to my non predictability. English songs, the ones I’ve never heard before, slice the silence of our car.

“Don’t you have any Hindi songs? Bollywood music?”

I’m sounding like a fussy, demanding toddler now.

“You don’t like these?”
“I’ve never heard them.”

Dhruv’s completely shocked at my reply, his face would be the same if he had encountered an alien.

“What? You have never heard of Ed Sheeran!” he exclaims, his jaw open, almost touching the ground.

“No” I say plainly. He shoots me more surprised stares, tilting his head. I frown.

“Let’s see, I rarely listen to Bollywood music.”

After pressing some buttons and adjusting few knobs, we finally tune in to a good radio station playing Hindi songs.

“Thank you, just needed it to get my mind off things” I tell him.

“Yeah, I understand” he says, smiling genuinely.

Overall, he’s a nice person. If nothing else, at least I was lucky enough to bump into him. We sit listening to the music for a few minutes. My tears have ceased for the moment. Anyways, I don’t keep the kerchief back, just in case.

“This is amazing” he says after listening to one of the songs.

“I know, some Bollywood songs are still gold. You should give them a chance” I reply, sniffling.

He nods. “Sure.”

We lock eyes, his dark brown ones scan my face, taking me in feature by feature. I don’t look away either. A few seconds later, he breaks off our eye contact.

“You know a lot about me, but I don’t. Tell me something about you. What did you major in?” I ask him.

“I’m haven’t completed my major yet, I’m pursuing graduation” he replies.

“Wait a minute, how old are you?”

“Just completed twenty.”

“No way, You’re two years younger to me!” I exclaim, not being able to believe my ears.  Dhruv grins ear to ear. Until now, I had been assuming him to be my age at least. Remnants of teenage are evitable on his face. But his eyes, they have stories interspersed with emotions, they have traversed a lifetimes.

“What does your father do?”

His brows furrow at my question.

“A businessman” says Dhruv, his voice low.

I had guessed it, his father is some big shot. How else could he be driving an expensive car at this hour of the night, that too at an age most boys can barely afford a two wheeler with their own money?

”Aren’t your parents upset with you for being out this late at night?”

He laughs again. Not his usual warm and childlike one , but a cold and empty laugh.

“Nobody gives a damn.”

My eyes widen with surprise. Maybe he is one of those rich, spoilt kids of extremely wealthy parents who just can’t stop strutting around with arrogance.

But arrogant is the last word I will use to describe Dhruv.

“My mother died when I was fifteen, and Dad is out of the house round the clock to look after his business.”

“Oh” I blurt out.

Oh?  How stupid is that Meera !

I don’t know what else to say, there’s a very awkward pause. Looking at my crestfallen face he adds, “ It’s ok, not as bad as it sounds. Anyways, Mom wasn’t very happy alive either and Dad regularly takes time out to check up on me.”

How do you ‘ check up on’ children? They’re not cattle or sheep to be checked up on. Dhruv strokes his hair, preoccupied with his own thoughts. I look at the speedometer, we’re riding at 100 km/hour.

“Why don’t you get some rest?”

Dhruv breaks the silence, I realize I had been staring at him.

“Yes” I say, quickly looking ahead.

As always, Dhruv switches topics with a praiseworthy speed. I fall back on the seat, realizing our conversation has ended for the mean time. My eyes involuntarily drift shut. Dhruv decreases the volume, but doesn’t turn off the radio. The cool wind brushes my skin, tipping my head back. A few moments later, I feel as if I’m soaring high, high up in the air. Physical reality fades, giving way to strange, vivid dreams…

I’m back in my home, standing at the main door. Dad is in the drawing room like always, sipping his tea and skimming through newspapers. I’m scared, very much. I want to run away but can’t. I struggle desperately, wanting to disappear before Dad looks up. But my legs don’t move. I writhe, exert all the force but my feet have been cemented.

Cemented?

I don’t know what it is. Just then, Dad keeps his empty tea cup on the table and rises on his feet. My breathing stops. I yearn to move, like a fish out of water. Again, I fail. Dad neatly folds his newspaper and starts walking towards his bedroom.

Am I invisible?

He’s almost there when his steps cease. Suddenly, he spins around. His fists clench tightly upon seeing me, his face muscles contorting to showcase mad, wild anger. My heart hammers against my chest, I open my mouth to say something, but just like running, I’m unable to do this too. To my extreme horror, Dad comes charging at me with bloodshot eyes. Shaking my head vigorously, I plead him to stop, to listen to me. He doesn’t. His palm lands on my cheek with a lightening speed and I collapse on spot, the world goes black.

The very next thing I see is the highway where I was stranded. This time, I’m running, running for my life. I can’t muster up the courage to turn around. I keep moving as fast as my legs can take me. After doing so for a few good minutes, I’m back at the same spot I had started running from. I’ve nothing in my hands, my bags are missing.

Where are they?

I start looking for them like a madwoman until a voice asks me, “ Searching for this?”

I look over my shoulder. The drunk men have the most evil grin on their faces, two of them are carrying each of my bags. They walk towards me, their eyes wolfish.

“Give it back” I say. They exchange incredulous glances and start laughing. High, cold laughs ring in the air. With slow, steady steps they come closer. My knees are wobbly, with breath bursting in and out of my lungs. The muscles of my limbs tighten as I get ready to break into another run. Suddenly, a large, strong hand grips my elbow. It’s Akshay, I’m so gratified to see him. The drunk men dissolve, leaving only me and him alone on the road. He’s enraged, staring at me with his protruding eyes. I whisper his name.

“How dare you?” he asks through gritted teeth. Like the last time , my words get stuck in my throat. He pulls me roughly and I slam against his chest.

“How dare you run away?” he thunders. Akshay’s nails dig into my skin as he tightens his grip around me. “You really thought you could run away?” he mocks. “You cheated me, I’ll make sure you suffer.”

 He starts to drag me along the road, his force compelling me to follow him with unsteady, unwilling steps. I resist with every ounce of leftover power. “Women like you aren’t worthy of becoming wives.” He pulls me again and I’m jerked forward like a light feather blown away by the wind.

“BLOODY WHORE! ”

His loud words tear the darkness. I punch and kick in my attempt to break free, but my power is miniscule in comparison to his masculine strength. My body begins to give up, wear away. Again, I’m losing my consciousness, passing out.  Akshay continues to drag me but I’m not walking anymore.

“Don’t worry, she’s harmless.”

I open my drooped eyelids, this voice isn’t Akshay’s. Who’s is this then?

“Take it easy, nothing will go wrong, everything is fine.”

The blurry visions of the highway float in front of my eyes. Is he still here, yanking me?  A human figure is faintly visible. I squint to catch a better glimpse, but can’t. My body is frozen. The figure comes closer. The outline of the figure tells me it’s a man. Numbness takes hold of me, as if all the nervous connections between my brain and body have been severed. I don’t feel any pain or suffering, absolutely nothing exists except a void. The figure looms over me.

Am I seeing a ghost?

Without any warning, a hand shoots out of the darkness. I get no time to scream or react, let alone brace myself. The hand covers my mouth, smothering my already non existent voice. It crushes my face and I begin to lose my breath. Grappling to get a tiny whiff of air, I jerk my head. Just a little air, so that my heart keeps beating, and blood continues to flow…

I’m jolted awake in my seat.

“What happened?” Dhruv asks, absolutely shocked.

Shivering uncontrollably, I look around. I’m back in the car. There’s no highway, no drunk men and no Akshay.

“A bad dream? It’s ok, you’re with me and we’re heading towards Mumbai.”

I want to cry tears of relief. Instead I take deep breaths, never again do I want to be short of air.

“Was I shaking or speaking in my sleep?”

“Not really, but at times I felt you were squirming. Nothing more than that” he assures me.

“Thank heavens.” I put my hand on my forehead. Sweat beads glisten on my neck and head. Even my clothes feel wet, I’d been sweating profusely. Not surprised, I’d been ‘running’. To soothe my scorching throat, I reach out for the water bottle in my bag and gulp down half of it in just three sips.

It’s just 6, I barely slept an hour. Whatever little sleep I could manage was filled with gut wrenching dreams.

“Feeling better?”

I nod meekly, the shivering has subsided. But my muscles keep pricking every now and then. All this time, I was so crippled with anxiety, I couldn’t give much room to fear. As a result, dread has come crashing up on me. Even the drunken men didn’t make my heart race to the extent these terrifying dreams have. I wait for my breath to become rhythmic again. Dhruv must have switched off the music after I dozed.

Was my sleep that deep?

Muscles of my limbs are less sore, owing to the little rest. It’s still pitch dark outside, but I don’t see any streetlights or road dividers.

“Where are we?” I question Dhruv.

“Western Ghats, valley of the Sahyadris.”

This explains the huge rocks I see from the window. We zoom into a giant tunnel It is very well constructed with appropriate lighting. There’s a truck ahead.

Wait a minute.

 I crane my neck to get a better look as we speed past it. The Scorpio with the lion sticker is there yet again, just a little far, two small vehicles separate us.

“Do you see that Scorpio?” I ask Dhruv, pointing towards it.

“Yes.” It can be my mind playing tricks, but I see his muscles going stiff, all of a sudden.

“It has been with us since the beginning.”

“Yeah, must be going to Mumbai too” he replies, without wasting any time.

We cross the tunnel to get back on the road. Dhruv drives with utmost concentration, careful about the sharp turns of the valley. Through my window, I can see the surface of the gigantic mountains and on Dhruv’s side, it’s a steep, never ending trench.

If someone falls in, their bodies would never be found.

Reprimanding myself, I dust off the unpleasant thoughts. Newspapers kept on the dashboard catch my eye. I grab one of them with the hope it would provide a worthy distraction. Dhruv’s eyebrows wrinkle as I start reading the headline on the first page.

Harsh Mittal’s Car Tragedy: Accident or Attempted Murder?

“Attempted murder? Wasn’t it a simple accident?” I ask Dhruv. He doesn’t say anything, his lips pursed tightly. I turn the page, having no intention of reading the complete story. Every alive human being and ghosts too, if they exist, were aware about the Harsh Mittal case, all credit goes to the media. It did an outstanding job covering and then off course, overhyping the car accident of a billionaire. Having occurred just yesterday morning, it became the highest profile case in the country in o time. The media sensationalized it to such an extent that various absurd theories started springing up out of nowhere. Even after being a busy bride, my ears picked them. Some were so dramatic and hilarious, a whole movie could’ve been based on it. I was already fed up of the buzz generated by the whole accident. In past few hours, it had become impossible to scroll through social media or simply watch television without coming across Harsh Mittal’s name at least 51 times. I go through some other news articles and shrug. Nothing interesting. Bored, I fold the newspaper, keep it back on the dashboard and go back to staring out of the window. This is when I see it.

“STOP !” I shout at the top of my lungs. Dhruv slams the breaks, the car stops immediately and the seat belt saves both of us from banging our heads forward.

“What the-“
“Look there !” I say, pointing out my finger at the golden, serene light emanating behind the mountains. “ The rising sun, come on.” I open the door and jump outside.

“Wait a minute, you made me stop for this?” he asks, bewildered.

“Don’t talk about the sunrise as if it’s something very insignificant.”

Stunned, Dhruv parks the car on one side and steps out.

“Meera, you’re crazy” he says, shutting the door. “You scared me out of my skin! I thought I ran the car over someone…”
I don’t let him finish and pull him by the arm. “Come here, see.”

I’ve always had a soft corner for sunrises, to this extent that some days, I solely wake up before the dawn to witness the rising sun, once again. But the one I’m seeing today wins over any other sunrise I’ve ever seen, hands down. The crown of the sun peeks from behind the lush, green mountains, it’s rays erasing the darkness with each passing second. With stars still sparkling in the sky, the blend of night and day is impeccable.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” I whisper.

“This place is known as the sunrise point, many people come here, only to see this” says a voice. A middle aged man, clad in a sweater and a monkey cap, stands behind us. Now I understand why. A rusted signboard with the words ‘ Sunrise Point’ inscribed on it, stands near the safety barricade separating the road and the trench.

“Yes, it’s very beautiful, I see it everyday and never get tired” he says, smiling. “ But today I think there’s nobody except you two.”

Dhruv and me exchange glances. The man walks to the little shop near the barricade and unlocks it. Dhruv lets out a heavy sigh.

“Meera, was watching the sunrise the top priority even in these circumstances?” he asks wearily.

“So what? One shouldn’t miss a spectacular sunrise for bigger life problems, they aren’t worth it” I reply quickly. Dhruv shoots me his are you serious look, with a tilted head again.

“I don’t believe this. Ok, do you want some tea?” He walks towards the little shop, the owner is already busy setting up his utensils. I look at the sky, splashed with the colors of orange and yellow, amalgamating so perfectly that it’s impossible to distinguish the two. The stars and moon have hidden themselves until the next night. The owner puts out two chairs for us, ignoring Dhruv’s protests. I sit on one of them as he waits near the shop. From the corner of the eye I notice something that catches my attention immediately.

The Scorpio.

It’s moving on a high speed, and as it approaches us, I see the speed decreasing. And this time, the windows are rolled down. The driver is wearing sunglasses, the man sitting next to him is bald and fierce looking. His gaze lingers on Dhruv’s back which is facing him and then flickers to me. A chill runs across my spine. In a few seconds, the Scorpio is gone.

What was that?

“I hope you’re not hungry.” Dhruv’s voice breaks the train of my thoughts. He hands me a glass of tea and then sits down on the plastic chair, directly opposite to me.

“No, not yet.” I try my best to appear normal in spite of what I just saw.

I hold the warm glass between my palms, heat diffuses into my body. I smile. Looking up, I find Dhruv watching me intently.

“What?” I ask.

“Shall I ask you something?”

“If I say no, are you not going to ask?” I say, taking a sip from my glass.

“Meera, aren’t you afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

He pulls his chair closer to me, his face serious.

“Of everything. You ran away in the middle of the night, just like this.  Do you realize what could’ve happened if I hadn’t come on the right time?”

“I do” I reply, looking down at my glass.

“Why Meera? Life is very harsh, it’s cruel and brutal. It’s not about sunrises and glasses of tea. You could’ve been raped, tormented or killed. Do you realize this?” Dhruv speaks with deep tone, without mincing any words.

Does he think I’m never scared?

How do I tell him last night was the time when I got to experience fear, in all it’s glory. Not just on the surface, down to the bones where it scalded every cell, every fibre to percolate into my soul. Yes, I was that scared.

“Yes. I’m frightened” I tell him. “ What next?” Dhruv’s mouth slackens, he looks at me disbelievingly.

“Meera…”
“I don’t let my fears overshadow my choices.”
Slumping in his chair, he rubs his eyebrow with his thumb at a total loss of words.

“You can call me naïve or foolish, but I can endure anything except regrets. Regrets of not taking actions at the right time, regrets of having missed the sunrise, regrets of not being brave enough. At any given time, I would choose blunders over regrets.”

Dhruv sits gaping at me as I finish my mini speech.  He straightens himself again and drains his cup of tea. After I’m done with mine, I walk up to the shop and handover my glass, he trails close behind.

“How far is Mumbai?” I ask the owner.

“Roughly around 230 kilo meters, you’ll be there in four hours.” I feel the knots in my stomach dissolve, we’re on the right track. Dhruv too returns his glass and shoves his hand down the back pocket of his jeans to pull out crisp currency notes. I see nothing else, no credit cards, no debit cards.

“Didn’t you bring your license along? What if we’re halted by the traffic police?”

“Nobody has the courage to stop me” he says with an easy tone. I am about to ask him what this means, but can’t when the owner intervenes.

“One more thing, if you shout loud enough, you get an echo” he says, accepting the payment.

“Meera, now don’t go yelling around…”

But I’m already walking towards the safety barricade. I gesture Dhruv to follow me, he groans.

“Why are you so boring?” I ask him as he catches up.

“Why are you so nuts?”

Standing near the trench, I take a deep breath, wanting to fill my lungs with as much air as I can without them bursting.

“DHRUV !”

Dhruv….Dhruv…

My voice hits the opposite mountain’s surface to get reflected back at us, I grin like a Cheshire cat.

“That was a good one” says the owner, stepping out of his shop.

“Your turn” I nudge Dhruv. “ Try it.”

His uncertain gaze darts from me to the owner. At last, he looks at the mountain and makes up his mind. I give him a thumbs up.

After inhaling deeply, he shouts, “MEERA !”

No echo happens.

He runs his tongue over his lips, glances at me and shouts again.

“MEERA !”

Still no voice is heard back. I see disappointment clouding his features.

“You’re not loud enough.” The owner steps closer to us. “ Shed off all your inhibitions, there’s no one to hear you except us and the mountains.”

Dhruv shakes his head. He turns back, cups his palms around the mouth, draws in a lot of air, then shouts in the loudest voice, “MEERA ! “

Meera…Meera…

This time, the mountains answer back. Dhruv can’t stop grinning as he looks at me. I give him a high five, this was better than me.

“DHRUV!” I bawl again.

“MEERA ! YOU’RE SO CRAZY!”

“AND YOU’RE NOT CRAZY ENOUGH!”

“WE’VE LOST OUR MINDS!”

“WRONG ! WE NEVER HAD THEM.”

Our words mingle as they slam against the mountains, and then get reflected back. We gasp, our stomach aching. Dhruv bends down and places his hands on his knees as he breathes heavily, just like a 100 meter race runner. He looks up at me. Spontaneously, we break into a laugh together. Happy tears fill my eyes, ecstasy sparkles in his dark brown ones. After so much laughing and yelling, we both are breathless. Dhruv’s skin is flushed, a huge grin still plastered upon his face.

“We should get going” he says, his breath heavy. I nod.

We thank the shop owner, who waves us goodbye and then walk back towards the car.  The newspapers are lying haphazardly on the car floor, the result of our sudden break. I pick them up and take my seat.

 “We’ll have breakfast shortly, I can refuel the tank too” he says. I close the door. Our journey resumes.

“Why did you buy newspapers?” I ask him as I get busy rearranging the separated pages properly.

“Just like that, I like to be in touch with the world.”

“Even when you’re travelling? By the way, which centaury are you living in? You have the world news at your fingertips in your phone.”  

“Forget about that. Wasn’t the echo thing fun?”

I smile at him, I had never seen him this happy. Should I tell him about the men in the Scorpio?

Automatically, my eyes fall on the side view mirror. I look ahead too, but there’s no sign of that car.

Maybe it was all in my mind.

After I’m done with the newspapers, I fling them on the backseat. The man and his piercing stare keeps popping up in my mind.  There was something very unmistakable about the way he checked us out, I can’t place my finger on it. All I knew is it just wasn’t an accidental eye contact that occurred between strangers, it was much more than that. But what it could be? I was certain I hadn’t seen those men before, does Dhruv know them? I gaze at him, he’s tapping his fingers to the rhythm of the English melodies playing on the music system. Sighing, I pull the hair band, liberating my hair. They cascade down my shoulders and I run my fingers across them and groan upon finding many knots. 

“I’m bored” I say, separating the entwined hair strands.

“So sorry but I can’t arrange any live entertainment for you” says Dhruv sarcastically.

“Let’s play a game.”

“A what?”

“A game. Don’t worry nothing complicated. We’ll ask each other simple questions whose answers need to be given as quickly as possible. For example, I’ll ask you if you like mountains or the oceans. Whoever takes longer than thirty seconds to answer will lose their turn to question.”

“Really? Is this the level of recreation in your hometown?” he asks, laughing.

“Not really, but you said no live entertainment. Tell me, are you in?”

I start thinking of alternative strategies to convince him, sure of his denial.

“Yeah, I think it will be fun.”

My eyes widen with surprise, he’s agreed to do something in the first go.

“Mountains. You had your turn, now I’ll ask.” There’s a mischievous glint in his eyes, very different from the soberness they usually hold. “ Have you ever been drunk?”

I roll my eyes, far easier than I expected. “ No, but I want to.”

“No ! I thought it will be fun listening to your embarrassing drunken experiences” he says, clearly feeling sorry for a wasted attempt.

“Thanks for idea. Tell me about your most humiliating school experience.”

“This is so unfair” Dhruv guffaws.

“You’re losing time.”

“Okay, okay. It happened in class 9th. There was this girl whom I had a giant crush on.”
All of sudden, my interest in the game piques.

“And one fine unfortunate day, I decided I’ll confess. So, I started planning.”
“ Planning?” I see his face changing colour to crimson.

“Yes, I didn’t want to go to her and make a fool of myself. I don’t know in which unlucky moment I got this stupid idea. During the History class which bored me to death, I took one of my school notebooks and decided to write the most amazing, extra ordinary love letter ever written in the history of mankind.”

I fall back on my seat laughing. “Then what happened?”

“I wrote, wrote and wrote.”

“You should’ve used blood for a more dynamic affect” I tease.

“Actually, that was the only cliché left. Everything else was there in the letter. Poems, cheesy pickup lines, all of it” he says, laughing.

“And the teacher snatched your notebook.”

Dhruv shakes his head in denial. “Worse. We had a break after that class, so I went outside. When I came back the notebook was gone. My bench mate had given it for correction along with his own when the class representative came asking for them.”

“Oh damn.” My cheeks pain due to excessive laughter.

“It was an awful and a very busy day, I had to visit the staffroom as well as the Principal’s office, the whole school got to know.”

“You don’t look like someone who would write love letters.”

“I’m not” he says with a sly face. “Teenage blunders.”

Dhruv cringes, I start laughing once again. We exit the mountain valley to enter  a small village. The contrast is striking, mud houses with thatched roofs are so different compared to the tall, modernized buildings of the city. I wave at the little children in school uniforms, Dhruv smiles. The road is bumpy and uneven unlike the highway.

“What about the girl? Did she know about the pain you took?”
“For your kind information, we dated for almost a year.” He winks at me.

“Good, it wasn’t a waste.”

“Enough of my epic embarrassment, my turn now. A hook up or a relationship, what’s your thing?”

“I will prefer freedom.” He couldn’t have asked an easier question. I look at the sparrow perched on a banyan tree, singing excitedly. Like any other village, this one has its own large share of greenery.
“Seriously? This isn’t the answer of my question !”
“Sorry, after the Akshay debacle, I can’t imagine myself with a male companion for ten more years at least.”

“Wow, that was a terrific reply” he says, very much amused.

“Thank you so much.” I bow dramatically. “My question for you is….this is lame but what was your most favorite or strongest subject in school?” 

“Mathematics” he replies in an instant.

“WHAT?” I sit upright in my seat. “ How can someone like Maths? Why do such people even exist?”

Dhruv breaks into a laughter.

“I’m afraid we can’t be friends after this.” I declare, folding my arms across my chest.

“You didn’t like it?”
“Didn’t like it? Oh, I simply hated Math” I mutter. “ Anyways, no sane person likes Math.”

“Hang on, are you calling yourself sane?” he laughs. I narrow my eyes and shoot him a death stare, then flash a fake smile.

We continue our absurd play for a good long time. He asks me about my hobbies, celebrity crushes and weirdest habits. I ask him about his relationships, favourite food and past times, all the time being careful not to delve into the forbidden area enclosing his family or parents. As expected, he’s the one to lose more chances for not answering on time.  An hour later, we mutually decide to end it and listen to music instead. We land back on the Highway. All the while, I keep checking out the mirrors for any sign of the Scorpio. It hasn’t been seen anywhere near us after the sunrise.

It was my imagination, Thank God.

Tiredness must be playing tricks with my mind. It’s almost 8 in the digital clock, hell must have broken loose in my house by now, Akshay must have known. Regardless of how much I justify myself, I’ve put my family in peril. They will have to endure a lot of accusations and reel with their pain at the same time. Coming days are going to be the hardest, for them as well as me.

I crane my neck to look at Dhruv. No matter what I’ve faced, I am very thankful for having him. He is humming again, surprisingly to a Hindi song this time. His head bobs in tune with the music. I smile to myself.

 Only a little time left, then I’ll be walking in through the gates of Mumbai. Butterflies flutter in my stomach as I sit on the edge of my seat, absolutely thrilled by the idea of independence. Regardless of how exciting it sounds, I’ve never lived at a strange place, that too completely alone, having the secure cocoon of my family encompassing me all this time. Hopefully, I’ll adjust.

“We’ll stop for breakfast, you hungry?” asks Dhruv.

“Very much.”

He nods. The car comes to a halt in front of a small roadside eatery found on the highways, commonly known as ‘dhabas ‘.

“Have you ever eaten here?” I ask.

“I love dhabas, but don’t get to visit as often as I would like” he replies. “ Anyways, they make great Sambhar here, the best I have ever tasted.”

I smile. We sit across each other on plastic chairs. I glance around. Most of the other customers are truck drivers relishing their first meal of the day. A family of four sits on one of the tables, the little cozy eatery is majorly occupied. There’s even a small television placed on the counter where billing is to be done. The waiter arrives and we give our respective orders to him.

As we wait for our orders, it strikes me, like a flash of lightening.

I am yet to inform Lata of my arrival. How can I forget something so important?

“Can I borrow your phone?” I ask Dhruv.

“Sorry, the battery is dead” he replies quickly, not meeting my eyes, his lips a thin line. This is when it occurs to me. I’ve never seen him with a smartphone, some people would find this equivalent to seeing a live dinosaur in the twenty first centaury. “You don’t have a phone?”

“I do, but I don’t want to switch it on. Isn’t it possible to trace the location with the help of it?”

Dhruv looks at me , one eyebrow up. I wait for him to say something, he doesn’t. Stretching his legs, he leans behind on the chair, his one arm dangling down. Another one is rested on the table, fidgeting with the car keys.

“I’ll ask the owner if I can use his phone” I say, getting back on my feet.

No response.

I shrug and walk towards the counter. The owner is a tall, lanky man dressed in a white long shirt. He readily grants me the favour and I dial Lata’s number. Her voice is as chirpy as always. Some things really never change. She squeals with excitement upon hearing my voice. We were never much in touch, the reason being her relocation to Mumbai when we were fourteen. I tell her about my short noticed visit which surprises her and she bombards with questions. I promise her to deliver all the answers once I reach. She agrees without much argument upon sensing the distress in my voice. Thanking her profusely, I hang up the call. On reaching my table, I see the breakfast already served, it’s aroma assaults my senses.

“Good you’re back, was waiting for you. Let’s start.”  Without wasting a single second, me and Dhruv start hogging like lost mountaineers who’ve slept hungry for days. I observe Dhruv as he digs in with his spoon. Though he takes large bites just like me,  he’s simply meticulous. There’s a graceful aura around him. For all the time I’ve spent with him, I’ve realized he’s very different from most boys his age. In less than ten minutes, both of us are done devouring each and everything on our plates.

“Just around one and half hour and we’ll be there” Dhruv tells me I wipe my lips with a tissue. We rise up and walk towards the counter.

“I’ll give you my share later” I tell him, referring to the money spent until now.

“Don’t talk nonsense.” He looks at me as if I’ve just uttered the stupidest words. The lanky owner gives us the bill as Dhruv fetches the money from his pocket. Meanwhile,  my attention is grabbed by the news anchor on  the television screen.

Two minors arrested for raping a minor 16 year old girl in New Delhi. The victim has been hospitalized in Red Cross Hospital. The accused abducted her as she was on the way to her college, after which they sexually assaulted her.”

The images on the screen change as the anchor drones on the next big news.

“India won the third test match against England with 5 wickets.”

“Incredible!” Dhruv exclaims with a huge grin, the owner looks happy too. Craze of cricket would never recede. The images change once again to show Harsh Mittal on screen.

“Harsh Mittal’s condition hasn’t seen any improvement since last 24 hours, making doctors increasingly worry about his health. According to our sources, the next 24 hours are going to be very critical for his recovery. On last Tuesday, Harsh Mittal’s car met with an accident while on it’s way to the airport. The tempo driver allegedly lost control and slammed into Mr. Mittal’s car. Despite the safety mechanisms of the car, Mr. Mittal and his driver, both sustained fatal injuries whereas the tempo driver died on spot. Nothing much about the tempo driver is known, he was the resident of Mumbai itself and was on his regular duty. Among the masses, speculations are rife about it being a murder attempt and not an accident. Various conspiracy theories spread like a wildfire following Mr. Mittal’s accident, some of them even went to an extent to say it had the involvement of the underworld or the tempo driver was given a contract of assassination by Mr. Mittal’s contemporaries with whom he doesn’t share any cordial relations.

I slap my hand on my for head, the media is unbelievable, the point that the anchor stressed so much on this news and not any others wasn’t missed by me. Images of Harsh Mittal shaking hands with the Prime Minister and the President popped up on the screen. He is tall and well maintained. Diplomacy shines out in his actions, he was the kind of man who makes the room go silent simply with his presence. Dressed in a three piece suit which probably costs more than the entire wardrobes of most people in India, he smiles at the camera broadly. Few other images of him getting out of his  castle sized mansion, walking out of the car as the driver held umbrella over his head and orating in some important press conference where the most prominent of the country sat as the audience surface in quick succession.

“ Harsh Mittal was named as the eighth richest man in the country for the year 2018, being promoted from the number tenth in the year 2017. He owns the largest chain of five star hotels in India named ‘ Sapphire ‘ along with a real estate business. The hotel business has expanded greatly over the last decade, and the blueprints of two more have already been finalized. He sustained fractures in the limbs as well as a head injury and was immediately operated. Though the surgery was successful, next 24 hours are of utmost importance according to the doctors. ”

This is the 2nd time she spoke about the 24 hour thing. Lastly, the recording of the Commissioner’s press conference is played.

“ We assure everyone that a thorough investigation is being carried out, it’s our top priority for now. The tempo driver was an immigrant of North India and worked as a driver for a furnishing company since 2 years. We scanned his contacts and checked his history. For now, we think he was clean without any criminal records. There’s a chance that safety mechanisms like the airbags just didn’t work due to some glitch, we’ve called experts for that. Soon, we’ll know what happened. And no involvement of mafia or underworld has been suspected, I warn people of all the fake news being circulated. I repeat, no involvement of the underworld has been suspected.”

“Nothing can be said in such cases” the owner comments as he chews tobacco. “ Everybody knows, rich people are never straight. Let’s see how many skeletons are found in the closet as the days progress.”

I nod in response. Wondering what’s taking Dhruv so long to pay the bill, I turn to face him.

His unwavering gaze is fixed on the screen. He looks blanched, stark white, his face ashen. Horror is floating in his bulging, wide eyes.

“Dhruv” I utter his name. He doesn’t move. I look back at the screen, the news about Harsh Mittal is still being played.

“Dhruv?” I say again, my tone shriller. He stares at the screen like a hypnotic without blinking, like a statue. Like a statue who has seen something very dreadful.

“Dhruv?” This time, I hold his arm and shake it. Dhruv flinches as he takes his eyes off the screen and looks at me.

I’ve never seen someone so frightened. His eyes showcase horror similar to the prisoner about to be executed, or an innocent person who knows he’s done something terrible. Accidentally.

“What’s wrong” I ask. His trance breaks. Shaking his head vigorously, he replies, “ Nothing. Come on, let’s go.”

Before I reply, he’s already hurrying towards the exit. I run, trying to catch up with his brisk pace. As soon as he’s near the car, he reaches for the door but quickly withdraws his hand. I stare on, bewildered.

”Can I have a minute please?” he says with a panic stricken voice. “I want to use the washroom.”

I want to ask him if everything is okay, but I only end up shaking my head. The next moment, he sprints back towards the men’s washroom, as I stand rooted on spot. Leaning against the car door, I start dissecting the recent events.

Why was he so disturbed?

Dhruv’s face with frightened eyes boring deep into the television screen, his mouth open with shock and body rigid as if carved out of stone, all of it recur back to my mind. My head feels dizzy as my legs start shaking, I put all my weight on the car as they refuse to support me. After two more minutes, I watch Dhruv briskly walk towards me.

“Get in” he commands. I look at him. “Can’t you hear? I said get in” he roars. I slide on the seat and shut the door.

He turns on the ignition, the roaring engine fills the silence between us. We’re back on road, but this time it looks as if I’m playing a video game. Dhruv is driving at a dangerously high speed causing me to nauseate. I scan his face, the warmth and happiness has vanished. He steers the car, stone faced and close mouthed.

Don’t forget Meera, you didn’t even know this guy yesterday.

I shudder at my last thought. Dhruv takes an extremely fast, sharp right turn, throwing me off balance. I collide against the door.

“What are you doing?”

Total silence.

I look at him incredulously. Chances are high I’m not getting any answers from him. There’s something very wrong with the boy sitting next to me, and I know it. Or worse, he has done something very wrong.

Who is he? A murderer? A criminal? A drug peddler?

Though the car AC is on, sweat droplets trickle down from my nape. I squeeze my eyes shut, desperately hoping this would quieten my mind too.

He told me his name, but not the complete one.

He told me where he was coming from, but not what he was doing there at midnight.

 He told me he’s a college student, but not what he studies and which university he attends.

 He told me a little about his parents, but gave no detailed descriptions.

 He doesn’t have a phone, he doesn’t have any government identifications.

Who is he really?

“Damnit” Dhruv yells, causing me to jump on my seat.

“What happened?”

He steers the car to a side and slams the break, then steps out without a word, shutting the door with a bang behind him. I follow him towards the rear of the car. Now I know what made him yell.

We’ve got a flat tyre.

Dhruv slaps his for head, curses aloud but doesn’t waste any time. He walks to the car boot and opens it.

“You sit inside, this would take some time” he says, without bothering to look at me. He takes out the spare tire and the toolbox. With heavy steps, I go back to my seat. The road is empty, except for some vehicles that may be sighted once every fifteen minutes. Dhruv is crouched near the flat tire, his attention riveted to the task at hand. I grab the water bottle to soothe my scorching throat when my eyes flutter to the rear view mirror.

The Scorpio is back.

My skin tingles with fear and the stomach feels rock hard. I keep my eyes hooked to the mirror when something very unexpected happens. The Scorpio slows down, the windows are open again. The driver takes off his sunglasses upon seeing Dhruv and gives a firm nod in his direction, who in return, to my extreme horror and surprise, nods back. The windows are closed again, and in no time the Scorpio zooms out of the sight.

So, he had been lying the whole damn time, he knew those men. I gulp down breaths in order to avoid screaming. What other clean, white lies has he told me?

The very next moment, I start moving swiftly. Double checking that Dhruv is still busy with the tyre, I turn around. The backseat is empty, except off course my luggage, he had finally talked me into keeping it behind before we got down for the breakfast.

“Hey, what happened?” he asks as I slither towards the rear door.

“Nothing, just need something from the duffle bag.”

I slide inside and begin searching, for what, I don’t know, but I will when I see it. There’s nothing else on the seat, I scrutinize the windows and doors, nothing hidden there. I look under the seat, my hands searching all over the vehicle mat. No luck again. Letting out an exasperated sigh, I step out. Dhruv has successfully removed the flat tyre. Realizing I barely have few more minutes, I open the door of my front passenger seat. The dashboard doesn’t need to be checked, the steering wheel looks fine too. My mind feels like a vehicle, running at 200 km per hour. The glovebox.

I’ve never seen what’s inside. I open it to find papers, some snack packets and toothpaste.

Toothpaste?

There are some other toiletries present too. Clothes in the boot of the car, toiletries in the glovebox, how long has this guy been fooling around on roads? I pick one paper, it turns out these are car documents. Good, car thief is struck out of my who could Dhruv possibly be list. I rummage through the papers when my finger brush against something. It’s been pushed to the end of the glovebox. I grab it and pull it out. My blood chills.

It’s a phone, and a small one, the kind you use only for making calls or maintaining contact, nothing else. I press some buttons, it’s very much charged. Another lie busted, great. There aren’t any contacts saved, just few numbers he had called but no text messages. I throw it back in the glovebox. So many lies, one after another. But why? I scold myself for being disappointed. Ultimately, who cares? After some time, we aren’t going to meet each other ever again, right? It shouldn’t affect me if he’s a normal college student or a criminal, as long as he helps me reach Mumbai. But it is, it is affecting me, that too to a good extent. I’m nothing for him, except the luggage he had to so reluctantly pick. He isn’t under any obligation to tell me the truths, how can I blame him? I close the glovebox and look at Dhruv. Clearly, he’s having great difficulty changing the tyre, maybe it’s his first time. The muscles around that sharp jawline are tensed, his thick brows are furrowed as he tightens the bolts with the concentration of a soldier diffusing some time bomb.

One thing is clear. Whatever on earth Dhruv is involved in, I’m very much a part of it now. I’ve spent last six hours with this person, and if he’s affiliated to anything dangerous, I’ve to take the burn of it. This thought hits me with a force of a giant wave. I glance at the driver’s seat. Then, as if I was supposed to do this all along, I bend down, stretching my hand under the seat.

A minute later, I pull out the cardboard box concealed under his seat.

With trembling hands and a racing pulse, I open it. A navy blue office file, perfectly normal, is kept on the top. My body begins to tremble. Inside, there are numerous paper clippings, very neatly stacked, secured with great care . The first one has a picture of a very beautiful woman. No, she isn’t drop dead gorgeous but there’s something very adorable about the way she smiles at the camera. Her features aren’t perfect but clearly defined. The news headline above the picture reads, “ Anjali Mittal, the wife of businessman Harsh Mittal to set up a non-profit organisation, which is named after her itself, for the betterment of the poor and downtrodden of the country.”

My stomach churns. Bewildered, I start flipping the pages in the file. In the next photograph, Anjali Mittal stands with her husband, clad in an elegant silk saree as she inaugurates the NGO. There are more articles, all of them chronicling the selfless ventures of the organisation as well as the public appearances made by the Mittals. One particular picture stands out wherein Anjali is cradling a poor, malnourished infant, with her expressions so serene, so much at peace. All you need is to look at this picture to know what this work means to her, she looks at the child as if he’s something divine and pure. My eyes flicker above the headlines of the articles and I find all the ones on the very top of the file were published in the year 2007. The years change subsequently as you go deeper.

Dhruv has been documenting the Mittals since 2007?

If I believe his word, he must be just a 7 or 8 year old child back then. What was a kid’s obsession with this billionaire?  Has someone else given this file to him for safekeeping?  I go to the last article in the file. It has another picture of the couple. Anjali sits beside Harsh as they clap in some function. It doesn’t take me long to notice it, but this Anjali is very different from the woman with the infectious laugh on the first page. Looking way older than her age, she’s dressed as impeccably as always but the radiance on her face is nowhere to be seen. This last article is dated as 2011.

No. This doesn’t make the tiniest sense. It’s 2019. If this person was taking great efforts to keep an exclusive eye on the family, why would he so abruptly stop in 2011? My mind is fogged. How is Dhruv related to all this this mess? Keeping the file aside, I pick the cardboard box again. Beneath the file, there’s nothing more but crumpled, discarded newspapers, bubble wraps and Styrofoam chips. I dig deeper in the waste pile. A little later, my fingers collide against something. Without wasting another second, I begin emptying the box. My heart bangs against my chest. I increase my speed, and a lot of waste gets tossed out, finally revealing the thing inside. I cover my mouth to smother a scream, and my whole body breaks into an uncontrollable shiver.

In front of me lie hundreds of crisp, new currency notes, bundled up together with great finesse. I almost faint with shock.

 “Finally, done !” exclaims Dhruv.

 I peek out of the window, he’s keeping all his tools back in the toolbox.

Was Harsh Mittal’s car an accident really an attempt to kill him?

In no time, he’ll know what I’ve done. He’ll know that his game of pretence is up, and I’m no longer ignorant, unaware of his identity. What will he do when he finds out? Kill me ?

Chills run down my spine. Dhruv is already on his feet, keeping the toolbox back in the car boot. I have to do something, now and quickly. For the umpteenth time today, I act without thinking. Without a moment’s delay, I step out of the car. That’s it, it’s now or never. I jerk open the rear door, grab my duffle bag and hurl the backpack over my shoulders. Dhruv is bent over the boot.

“I’m sorry it took so long, but I really haven’t never done it before” he says upon hearing my footsteps. “ I had to change, the clothes got dirty due to soot and dust.”

He doesn’t look up and keeps talking. When he finally does, his eyes widen with shock.

“What are you doing?” he asks disbelievingly.

“Leaving” I say in a plain voice.

“What?”

Without caring to reply, I shut the rear door with a thud and start walking away.

“What the hell is going on? Meera?” he quickly closes the boot and comes running after me. I don’t stop moving.

“Meera…wait.” Dhruv stands directly ahead, blocking my path.

“Move, let me go.”

“No.”

“I don’t want to travel with you anymore, I’ll manage on my own from now on wards” I say in a stern voice. I watch his expression change from astonishment to anger.

“You’re not going anywhere.” Dhruv grabs my elbow, his jaw tightly clenched. I reminisce my terrifying dreams and Akshay dragging me by the arm.

“Leave me.”

His grip becomes firmer. “No.”

“LEAVE ME !” I thunder. Dhruv doesn’t move an inch.

“MEERA DON’T BE STUPID !” he thunders back.

A two wheeler crosses us, it’s riders watching our exchange, completely baffled. They don’t stop and dash ahead.

“What’s wrong with you?” he says, stepping dangerously closer, my whole body is in jitters.

Rounding up all my might, I cry out, “HELP!” Dhruv covers my mouth with his other hand, I dig my teeth in his skin.

“Have you gone mad?” he roars as few drops of blood seep out of the wound.

“Who are you? A criminal?”

“What?” Dhruv stares blankly.

“Nothing, just let me go.”

His grip doesn’t loosen, he pulls me hard. “I don’t see any basis for your absurd accusations, especially after what I’ve done for you” he tells me, clearly annoyed.

“What have you done? Lied brilliantly? And you expect me to merrily tag along even after knowing how dangerous you are?”

Dhruv looks at me with a slackened expression. “What are you talking about? I can never lay a finger upon you.”

I see a glimmer of hurt floating in his dark brown eyes. My chest heaves as I pant. After taking a few seconds to gather myself back, I say, “Please let me go, I’ll forget we ever met.”

Finally, his grip around my hand weakens. Looking at me with a pained expression, he says, “ I never thought of harming you Meera, not even once.”

“ You can’t, but those men following us definitely can.”

Colour drains from his face. For the very first time, I see Dhruv’s confidence crumbling. He looks as if he’s been slapped hard.

“Yes, I know” I say, answering the question he didn’t ask. Dhruv hangs his head and doesn’t look up. Heaviness settles in my chest. I realize my eyes have become wet. We stand silently on the road for another few moments, “You know Dhruv, you didn’t know me and I didn’t know you, the only difference is I was honest and you just pretended you were.” My voice trails off. He doesn’t say a word and purses his lips together tightly.“ Some weird, dangerous looking men are following you, you’ve got heaps of cash under your seat, you don’t have a smartphone, who are you really? ”My tone becomes louder and shriller. “Is your real name Dhruv?”

He simply shakes his head in response. “None of these things prove that I’m some criminal” he says, his voice very low.

“All these things, plus your creepy obsession with Harsh Mittal’s wife, you aren’t like most normal people.” Dhruv shoots me a fiery, piercing stare, I swallow a lump in my throat.

“You went through the file too?” he asks incredulously.

“If you’re not a criminal, what is your correlation with the Mittals, did you cause Harsh Mittal’s accident?”

My words linger in the air, I’ve foolishly jumped straight to the point. If he has really done it, there’s no way he’s sparing my life. At any given moment, I am expecting him to charge towards me with a weapon in hand.

“No, it wasn’t a murder attempt, and even if it was, I can’t do it” he says, his voice barely a whisper.

“Why not?”

Dhruv takes a long pause, hesitating. Letting out a heavy sigh, he says, “Because he’s my father.”

I drop the duffle bag in my hand, the world spinning in perfect circles in front of my eyes. Dhruv stands quietly, his shoulders hunched. As for me, my body is paralyzed with shock. He gives me a lingering grimace, I’m too stunned to speak anything. With great attentiveness, I scrutinize his every facial feature. He doesn’t resemble either of his parents greatly, his features being a good blend of both of them.

But that smile. The smile I saw during our journey, the real one, there’s no doubt it’s the woman’s who’s picture is on the top of the file. That smile is unmistakable, it belongs to Anjali. Dhruv looks at me with sad eyes, his fists clenched. My legs give up and I stagger backwards. He spins around, walks to the car and drives to the spot I’m standing at.

“Get in, you can choose to keep the door open.”

I look at him skeptically. “You don’t want to catch the fancy of those people” he adds, referring the Scorpio men. Very uncertain, I slither on the passenger seat again, but this time I don’t close the door. He turns to face me, giving a vibe that whatever the hell of a story it is, it’s going to be a long one.

 “So, everybody knows about Dad. And I’m pretty sure you’ve gone through my file, so you know about Mom too.”

I stay silent, he keeps talking. “I didn’t plan this, I was certain I’d never have to tell you all this, but you’re much smarter than you give yourself the credit for. Never mind, you know about Dad being shot. Do you remember the anchor mentioning two new hotels to be added to the Sapphire chain?”

“Yes.” I do remember.

Dhruv pauses for a while. He picks up a dry flower fallen on the car seat, probably blown in by the wind.

“Yes. One of those hotels is to be constructed merely 40 km far from the spot I picked you up from, it’s one of the greatest projects Dad has undertaken. Huge investment, mammoth profits. In fact, it is even being speculated that these two projects would propel him upward, making him one of the top five wealthiest men in the country.”

I gape at him, unable to conjure up the image of all of it. “So what went wrong?” I blurt out. He plucks one petal off the dried flower.

“I accompanied him to a very important meeting, taking place in the vicinity of the place where the hotel would stand in the future. Now Meera, you are sensible enough to know that such projects don’t get planned on one day and begin immediately after that, there are hundreds of things involved, many factors should be taken care of.”

I try to digest his words. So far, so good. But I still can’t connect it to the recent happenings. Then, as if reading my mind, Dhruv resumes speaking.

“Barring all the obvious things, taking permissions from the Government and all the official work is also included in it” he says, trying his best to simplify things for me to understand.

“ Yes, off course” I reply.

“ Right. You must be also aware of the fact that getting such things done here isn’t a piece of cake, especially for a project of this magnitude. Sounds ironic, but to get legal procedures done, illegal methods are used. ”

“ What do you mean?” I can’t comprehend where he’s going with this.

“ I’ll give you an example. Suppose, you want an official work done faster. What do you do so that it doesn’t take forever for it to be done?”
I stare at him, I think I have the faintest idea what he wants to say.

“ You’re on the right track. Obviously, you’ll bribe the peon or whoever in the power of giving you the result.”

This explains the box of cash.

“ So you took the help of corrupt officials?” I ask.

Dhruv laughs. “ Who are the honest officials? I’ve never met them.” He throws the flower, which is nothing more than a twig without it’s petals.

“For months, we’ve been bribing people. Not only government officials or employees, but everyone. You won’t believe, a whooping amount is set aside only to give the project an initial push.”

He caresses the bitten mark, the bleeding has ceased but it’s swollen. “I was carrying out this responsibility. For months, I’ve visited various Government offices, from the Municipalities to the Chief Minister and everything in between, giving them various ‘donations‘ and ‘gifts ‘.”

A small smile clouds his lips. “Are you on your way to bribe someone again?” I ask, horrified. The stakes are much higher here than what I thought.

“No” replies Dhruv, shaking his head. “This is the excess cash.”

Excess cash?

The smiles vanishes from his face. “Like everyone in this country, I always knew that this is how the things work, we can’t fight or change them. The system is rotten inside out. But…”

He stops talking, looking ahead, his expression grim.

“Everything changed when I came here with Dad to this meeting. Actually, it’s only my Dad who attended it, me and Amrish Uncle visited the site of our future hotel.”

“Amrish Uncle?” I ask, interrupting him.

“Oh yes, he’s my father’s closest friend, almost like a brother. You can even call him Harsh Mittal’s right hand, he’s been working with us since the time I was born” he clarifies.

“Okay, what happened then?” I question him. Dhruv becomes very quite and turns back towards the steering wheel.

“The site was excellent, I was seeing it the first time. All the research told us that this was a great place, and constructing a hotel here would be very beneficial. However, the only problem was it being closer to a slum area” he says, his voice suddenly very low.

“ A slum area?”

“ Yes, but it wasn’t a huge slum like the ones you have in Mumbai. It was small with over 150 to 200 people inhabiting it” he says, reaching for the water bottle near his seat.

“ You must have seen slums too. One room temporary houses, women fetching water,  half naked kids playing in the mud and unhygienic living conditions.”

I want to tell him I know what a slum area looks like.

“ It felt so strange. I mean, I just can’t explain it. Yes, I’ve seen poverty, I’ve seen slums but this hit me differently. Though I knew the answer, I asked Amrish Uncle about our plans involving these people, if our hotel is to be made, the slum has to be evacuated.” Dhruv takes few small sips from the bottle, being deeply in thought.

 “ Amrish Uncle was a little taken aback because of my naivety, he didn’t expect me asking this of all the other possible questions.” He wipes the water droplets on his lips and keeps the bottle back in it’s place.

“ Slums are either built on the Government land or a place that no one particularly owns, this one was on the land of the Government. I watched the slum children play on the open ground, not one of them was older than 10 or 12.” He grimaces and slouches in his seat. The wind has become considerably warmer since the night time. It brushes against our faces, leaving my hair all over the place.

“The first thought that struck me when I saw them was Mom used to work for them. When she told Dad her wish of setting up an NGO, he didn’t resist. He wanted to fulfil my mother’s every wish. It was great way of evading tax, an additional advantage.”

He leans back on his seat and exhales deeply. The corners of his mouth are downturned. “The memory of my smiling mother doing the work she loved will be etched in my memory forever.” 

I can’t help but agree, I had seen Anjali’s picture with the infant.

“ Those children looked so happy, why wouldn’t they be? They were untouched by the cruelty of the world, they weren’t rich in the true sense of word but their mental peace was intact. Even that was about to be ripped away from them along with their homes. And we were the ones who would be trampling all upon it.”

Dhruv squeezes his eyes shut and covers his face with his hands. “ I didn’t want to be the reason for this, directly or indirectly. So, at the end of the day I went to my Dad and made the most bizarre wish, asking him to not vacate those slum people. And if that was inevitable, at least grant them another place, make living arrangements for them. After all, we were snatching from the ones who didn’t have much to give in the first place.”

My throat aches, I lean closer to him.

“ What did he say?” I ask meekly.

“ Same thing as Amrish uncle, it’s not our concern, the local minister would see what is to be done with those people, every instinct of mine told me nothing much was going to be done, mountains aren’t moved for the poor. Anyways, I argued for a quite long time.” He let out a deep sigh. “ Dad had always been short tempered, he blew up, saying I didn’t have the tiniest sense about running and heading a business empire. I listened quietly, but then he commented I’d inherited my mother’s empathy. In normal circumstances, it was a good thing but for him, empathy is equal to poison in a business. The reason is simple, greed plays a pivotal role in making average businessmen great. I was enraged.”

My lips part with astonishment. Apparently, there isn’t any place of a conscience here. Dhruv’s expression becomes grave.

“ And then I said something I shouldn’t have said at any cost.”

This doesn’t give me a good feeling at all, the muscles of my throat tighten.

“ I told my father this is the exact reason my Mom was unhappy and she died.”

“ Oh no, Dhruv !” I gasp loudly. He rolls his eyes from left to right and then back again. “ And before I knew it, Dad slapped me hard.”

Instinctively, I reach for Dhruv’s shoulder and squeeze it. “ His face had become red due to the extreme wrath, but I could see he was hurt much more than he was angry. The man who had highly trained himself to think in any situation succumbed to his emotions, only Mom could do something like this.”

Dhruv smiles sadly. “ The ear-splitting echo of that slap was such I stopped thinking. I darted out of the cottage where we were staying, got into my car and drove away, leaving my phone, wallet, everything behind. Early next day, my Dad left for the airport, thinking I’ll be coming by car, this didn’t surprise him, I often drive at night like I told you, my way of coping up with things.”

“But you didn’t go back to Mumbai” I say.

“No, I didn’t. Feeling horrible about myself, I didn’t want to face him, not very soon, turns out I wouldn’t have faced him even if I’d gone back…”

Dhruv’s words stop rolling out and he lets out a heavy sigh.

“But Amrish Uncle found this very unusual, I never leave my things behind. Before he could look into it, the news of Dad’s car crash reached him, there was a huge havoc and you know how ruthless media can be, Dad’s fatal accident became hot gossip in no time, with them feeding on it like vultures. As for stupid me, I was blissfully oblivious about all this until the nightfall because I was cut off from the world and driving like a total hippy. When I accidentally stumbled upon a newspaper stand, the pain in my chest was so acute and unbearable, I thought I’ll die..”

Dhruv gnaws on his quivering lip. I rub his shoulder.

“As soon as possible, I bought another phone and got in touch with Amrish Uncle, who went totally hysterical upon hearing my voice. He had been trying to find me, and those men in the Scorpio were a few of the many men he had sent to dig me up. I left for Mumbai immediately after I ended up the call and that’s when I found you, a lonely girl being followed by some creepy looking men, the rest is history.”

He rubs his brow with the thumb. “When Amrish Uncle found out I’ve given you a lift, he went nuts.”

“ Really?”
“ Yes, he has always been overprotective of me. Those men were instructed to keep a keen eye on us. On the other hand, I assured him you’re harmless and you needed help.”

Dhruv smiles.

Don’t worry she’s harmless..

I close my eyes and massage my temples with my fingers. Neither of us says anything for a few minutes. I take his hand in mine and trace my thumb over the wound.

“You’re supposed to be in hospital as soon as possible” I say in a low voice. Dhruv looks at me. “ We should get going.”

He withdraws his hand. I close the door and buckle my seatbelt. In the next two minutes, we resume our journey. Last night was much more eventful than I had anticipated. The occurrences seem so unreal, I’m still trying to soak them up.

 “What are you going to do once you reach Mumbai?” Dhruv asks, breaking the silence. “ You didn’t tell me this.”

I ponder for a minute or two over this question.

“Firstly, I’ve to find a place to stay. I guess Lata would help me with it, so for now I’m not worried about that. After this, I’ve to take up some job. And yes, I’ve always wanted to do an MBA, so maybe I will pursue that too.”

Seeing his distressed expression, I quickly add, “I know what you’re thinking, that this stupid girl hasn’t got any concrete plan, what she is going to..”

“I wasn’t thinking this” he says, cutting me off. “ Off course, I know you’re sort of a rebel but I’m very confident you’ll find some way.”

“Really?” I smile.

“Yes. You’re gutsy enough to run off a day before your wedding, that too in the middle of the night. You travel with a total stranger, leave no stone unturned to find out who he is. All of this, just because you hoped for a better life.”

The smile doesn’t leave his face. He turns to look at me.

“Miss Meera, you’re a hell of a woman” he says, grinning. I laugh, Dhruv joins in.

“You’ve inherited your mother’s smile.” . His smile becomes more broader, more genuine.

“I know.”

“She was a beautiful woman” I say honestly.

“She was. But most importantly, she wasn’t shallow, her soul was seared with beauty, not just skin” he says with a low voice. I notice his voice is usually low when he talks about Anjali.

“Shall I tell you something? I’ve never told this to anyone, not even Dad.”

Dhruv looks deep into my eyes.

“Sure.” It’s amazing to be somebody’s close confidante.

“A few months before her death, my Mom made me sit in front of her and asked me what I wanted to be when I’m older or what my future plans were. And you would be surprised, I didn’t know how to answer that. Nobody had ever asked me this, everyone knew I would be taking over the family business. What else can a billionaire’s son do? My fate was set in stone even before I was born.”

He takes a pause of few seconds and then continues, “But my mother, she was unique in every way, even her thinking was much different from the world.”

“What did you tell her then?”

“Identical words, it was drilled in my system that I would be doing business.”

I struggle to understand if he’s sad or happy about this.

“Her reaction wasn’t very good. I mean, she looked disappointed, probably because I didn’t have a thinking of my own. But, I was just a bratty teenager back then. After silently thinking over my answer, she uttered few words, very impactful ones.”

Seeing me hooked to his every word, he says, “Dhruv, it doesn’t matter what kind of life you live, just be good. Be good and be kind, be a nice human being.”

I take a few moments to grasp those words. He doesn’t cease smiling, reminiscing one of the fondest memories of his dead mother.

“That time I didn’t get it but now I understand. When I came to know about the injustice being done to those poor people, her words came back to me.”

Tears glisten in his eyes, though none of them escapes down.

“They hit me with a force of a comet , propelling my silly actions. Frankly speaking, I still haven’t quite found an answer to her question though I spent a lot of time remunerating over it after I ran away. ”

“It’s okay, not knowing what you want is as important as knowing what you do want, and at times, it’s even more useful.”

“Correct, that is how we have to manage at times.” He smiles. “By the way, where does your friend live?”

I read out the scribbled address to him. “ I’ll drop you to her house” he says after I’m done.

“No, you’ve already taken great pains for me, I’ll be fine” I protest.

“Consider accepting this offer as a way of apologizing for biting me.” He raises his bitten hand for me to see, the wound has turned slightly bluish now.

“I’m so sorry.” I cover my face with my hands to hide my embarrassment.

Dhruv laughs. In less than hour, we enter the mystic city of Mumbai. For the ones who don’t know, it’s famous by the name ‘ City Of Dreams’ across India. It’s said to especially bless people, turning their lives around, granting all their wishes. We close our windows as smoke, dust and noise become too much to bear. Peeking out of the window like a curious toddler, I reminisce the time I’d visited the city with my family when at the age of 12. Like all the traditional tourists, we sincerely visited every ‘ special ‘ place, be it Gateway Of India, The Taj Hotel or the Marine Drive. To be honest, I had found the complete city eccentric. It had a unique identity, it’s own soul, something no other place in India can match. One day, I hope even I’ll have such an identity.

“How’s the feeling?” Dhruv asks with a huge grin.

“On the top of the world” I reply, bubbling with excitement.

Around thirty minutes later, we pull up in front of Lata’s apartment complex.

“MEERA!” she shouts from the balcony on the second floor, she’d been awaiting my arrival. In no time, she’s on the entrance of the complex and pulls me into a rib-breaking hug as soon as I step out. “ How are you? What happened? Is something wrong Meera?”

“One question at a time” I say, trying to calm her down. Dhruv steps out of the car with my luggage. Lata gasps.

“Who’s this? Meera, did you elope with him?” Dhruv’s expressions change to reflect surprise with a tinge of disgust.

“Be quite, it’s nothing like that.”

“Then what?”

Lata’s hyperactivity hasn’t corroded a bit with age. “I’ll tell you everything, you go back inside, I’ll come in 5 minutes.”

She nervously looks at me, then at him, shakes her head and leaves. I turn around to look at Dhruv.

“Your friend will beat my Amrish Uncle in the ‘ Overthinking and fretting for no reason competition.’ Dhruv passes me my bags.

“You can’t call this without a reason, though.”

We look at each other for a few moments, I knew this would be difficult, farewells and goodbyes are never easy. Dhruv runs his hand through his jet black hair, unsure of saying anything. It is very much possible I’ll never meet him the second time. Impulsively, I throw my hands around his neck to give him a hug. Shocked, his body becomes stiff.

“Thank you very much for your invaluable help, I’ll always remain grateful to you” I whisper, my voice thick with emotions. He hugs me back, I pull away a minute later. He keeps his hands on my shoulders.

“Take care. We’ll be in touch.”

I nod, tears accumulating my eyes. “Go Meera, be free” he says in a deep voice. Dhruv leaves my shoulders and takes a step back. It’s my cue to leave, he doesn’t want me to waste any more time, especially when freedom is inches away from me.

“Goodbye Mr. Dhruv Mittal” I say, fighting back tears. He smiles warmly and waves at me, I wave back.

“Goodbye Meera.”

And with those last words, I spin around and start walking towards the elevator, not turning once to look back, for I know if I do, it would become extremely difficult for both of us. And it was as difficult as it could get.

5 years later

I curl up on my sofa with a cup of hot chocolate. In a single sip, tiredness of the day vanishes. Today was especially hectic, I had to work overtime to meet an important deadline. But the presentation was great, so I don’t have any complaints. Though it was my day to do the household chores today, Ahana took over without a single word, my flatmate is an angel and also my closest friend. The calendar is hanging on the wall, nearly marking five years of my terrific escape. Honestly, past five years have taught me much more about life and the world than the 22 years before it combined. Life isn’t great, but yes, it’s good. I’ll give you a quick recap. People such as Lata and her husband, Mukesh restored my faith in humanity by helping me in every way possible. I got a place to stay and also a job through Mukesh’s contacts. But I moved out the first chance I got, I had already been very lucky in terms of people. I met Ahana at work, we rented a single room flat and in no time became the best of friends. For two years, I had to keep the same job because I had bills to pay. A gentle reminder to all the ones still with their parents, running a house is as easy learning quadratic equations, sorry for the weird analogy. Anyways, I was determined to not do something I don’t love. And as there was a lot of confusion on my part, I stuck to my original plan of pursuing MBA. Through long distance learning, I did complete my degree. Yes, it took numerous sleepless nights and endless shots of caffeine, but I made it. Very soon, I had a new job and a much better income. Nevertheless, I’m still unsure if this is my calling and will keep exploring much more. You all must be wondering what happened with my family, keeping the not so merry things last was my deliberate choice. I won’t go into details as it gets really ugly, in short Dad disowned me. Everything happened in the exact same manner as I had thought, as if I’d created my circumstances using my mysterious psychic power. When my letter was read, a volcano erupted in my house. After a few days in Mumbai, I had rung up my sister. First, she thanked the universe that I was safe and then, scolded me for my catastrophic actions. Somewhere in her heart, I knew she perfectly understood why I ran away. My father dramatically declared I was dead in his eyes and he doesn’t want to see my face ever again. It hurt a lot back then and it won’t stop hurting, I’ve learnt to live with it. Like I said, life isn’t great, but good. Shekhar didn’t talk to me for three years, but unexpectedly reached out on my birthday two years ago. He hasn’t forgiven me, it’s okay. Unknown to Dad, Mom talks to me everyday, she’s been keeping this secret for five years now.

And what about our pitiful ditched groom?

 Well, he did a marvellous job of putting up a sullen face for six months after which he got married to an ‘ appropriate’ and ‘respectable’ girl. As for me, I’m contently and happily unmarried. This drives my mother crazy, but I’ve no plans of getting married for another few years or so.

“Hey, all done” Ahana says, emerging from the kitchen.

“Thank you so much.”
“Stop your nonsense and turn on the TV” she orders. “Put on the news.” Quickly, I switch to a news channel. Passing on the remote to her, I get back to drinking my hot chocolate. But, I think it has to wait for a few minutes more.

“I knew you had to see this” she nudges me. Dhruv is speaking, he’s sitting at the center of a long table with Amrish Uncle on his right, I can’t recognize the other faces. All the media houses are present, flashing their cameras. Is it some press conference?  I increase the volume. News anchor’s voice fills our drawing room.

Mr. Dhruv Mittal, the son of late business tycoon Harsh Mittal and renowned philanthropist Anjali Mittal, made a remarkable announcement two hours earlier. He has declared to give away one fourth of his total wealth, which is estimated to being around 200 crores, in philanthropy.

Ahana gasps beside me, I signal her to stay quite.

“His announcement sent shock waves in the nation. Though the money would be used for all kinds of charitable causes, major focus would be the betterment of underprivileged slum inhabitants. This project would be undertaken by ‘ Anjali ‘, the Non profit Organisation founded by Anjali Mittal herself in the year 2007, but the work would be done in association with the Government. Mr. Dhruv Mittal’s move costed him the title of the country’s youngest billionaire. He earned it after inheriting the ‘ Sapphire ‘ chain and real estate business from his father Harsh Mittal, following his demise two years back.”

“Tell me Meera, was he always this crazy?”

“Sort of” I say, smiling.

I can’t help but notice how different the ‘ businessman ‘ Dhruv Mittal looks from the young boy of 20 I’d met five years ago. His features are more defined, the hair are no longer dishevelled but always neatly set. The stubble is gone, he sports a full beard now. Also, he has gained some weight or become more muscular, which one I don’t know. Expertly cut three piece suits make his everyday attire, and not casual T shirts and jeans. Behind the long table where he sits, a large LED screen is placed. A slideshow of Anjali’s pictures is being displayed on a loop, many of them are the same ones I saw in Dhruv’s file. Anjali smiling at the camera, her photo holding malnourished infant, not even a single one fails to touch my heart. Warmth encompasses me, I’m so happy for him. He has evolved into a successful and empathetic  businessman, very much unlike his predecessor. He isn’t Harsh Mittal’s son anymore, he is Dhruv. He has carved his own identity, he’s not his father’s shadow. For now, I just wish he’s content, just like me. Ahana’s phone buzzes as I resume drinking my hot chocolate.

“Hello. Yes, she’s sitting right beside me.” She looks at me, her eyebrows raised. “ You know she has a habit of carelessly dumping her phone where no soul can reach her.”

 I groan, aware who’s at the other end. I snatch the phone away from her, ignoring her protests.

“Can’t you pick up the calls? I get worried about you slamming into another group of drunkards” Dhruv says.

“Yeah, I know. You’re so worried that you call once in two months.”

I hear him grunting.

“You get me every time. Watch the news, you’ll know why I’m always so busy.”

“Ahana made me watch it, she religiously keeps a tab on you.” Ahana flings a cushion at me.To her dismay, I dodge it.

Dhruv laughs, I can picture his laugh so well even after all this time.

“Yes, but I promise we’ll catch up as soon as I’m free” he assures me.

“It’s okay, I’m clever enough to know billionaires are busy creatures.”

In reality, I had no reason to fuss. I was surprised enough when Dhruv kept his promise of following up. We even met a few times, but since his father’s death, his responsibilities increased many folds.

“Dhruv, let me tell you I’m insanely proud of you” I say.

“Thanks Meera, hopefully Mom will be proud too.”

“She will be the proudest one.”

There’s silence on the other end, maybe he got emotional.

“Sure.”

I hear someone calling out his name in the background. In no time, there’s a good amount of disturbance as more voices spring up at his side.

“I’m sorry I’ve to go” he says, sounding genuinely apologetic.

“No problem, drop me a text whenever you get time.”

“Yes. Goodnight Meera, wish Ahana a goodnight too.”

“Goodnight Dhruv.”

The line goes dead. I look at the phone for a few seconds and then return it to Ahana.

“He never talks for more than five minutes” she says, grabbing the tv remote.

“Why don’t we put on some movie?” I ask as I cheerfully go back to sipping my hot chocolate, which isn’t that hot anymore.

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