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First published by westland ltd 2014
Copyright Arnab Ray 2014
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and inci-
dents are either the product of the authors imagination or are
used fictitiously and any resemblance to any actual person
living or dead, events and locales is entirely coincidental.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by
way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, circu-
lated, and no reproduction in any form, in whole or in part
(except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews) may
be made without written permission of the publishers.
To Anahita
Acknowledgements vi
the empty highway 1
the game 12
eighty-eight short 26
Sir 48
the maths paper 59
the dump 66
the hero 87
hotel lovers bliss 102
the way back 119
more recollections 127
the dancing bunny 142
Poonam 154
politics 171
her father 196
the nal decision 211
YoLo 219
the realization 229
the road 232
the letter 235
yatrik 249
I would like to express gratitude to my grand-
parents and my parents, my wife without whom
I would have neither the time nor the energy
to write, and my daughter who makes every
moment worth it. I would also like to thank
the team at Westland and specially my editor,
Meera Krishnan.
the empty highway
He pulled himself up from the ground and lurched
forward unsteadily into the darkness.
Where am I?
He looked around and up above to nd
himself alone under a dark, moonless sky, stars
sprinkled like diamond dust. A dense clump of
trees stood to his left. To his right, about hundred
yards away, a road lay still, like a black python in
repose. Silent, empty and ominous.
Why the hell am I here, wherever this is?
He had no idea. Absolutely none.
So he asked himself an easier question.
Whats my name?
The answer snapped promptly back.
My name is Anushtup Chatterjee. I am thirty-two
years old and I fold trousers for a living.
He felt better already. Because the last time
he had a blackout, Anushtup had forgotten who
he was.
He had then found himself hundreds of miles
2 Yatrik
away from home, lying on a bed of straw in a
Santhal hut, with no recollection of how he got
there. His vision blurred, hearing off, words
choked and memory shot, he had tossed and
turned for days, knees drawn up, curled into a
fetal ball, burning with fever and damp with
sweat, piss and fear.
Then it had come back to him slowly, in little
His name, his address, his life. And the way
The only things that refused to return were those
few days, in which he had somehow gone from
Calcutta to that godforsaken village on the edge
of nowhere. And so it had remained, a huge crater
of discomting emptiness, widening the little
cracks and ssures that had, over the years, opened
up in his mind.
You dont mix booze and the stuff man. You do,
you get a bad trip. Baaaaddddd.
Thats what Yannick had said when Anushtup
had nally come home. Yannick was either from
Cameroon or Nigeria, where exactly Anustup
could never quite remember. He had come to
Calcutta to play in one of its football clubs, but
had never really made it big. Then at the end of
his second season, a hard tackle had shattered his
knee, ending his career for good. Instead of taking
the empty highway 3
the ight back home, Yannick cut off his dread-
locks, learned a few words in Bengali and started
dealing in powder and pills. He was a big man,
with a big voice and a bigger laugh, complemented
by a hearty appetite for Nepali women, Chicken
65 and thick gold chains. Anushtup considered
him a friend, to the extent a dealer can be one, in
that he promptly returned calls, delivered goods
on time, and dispensed good advice in short,
clean, rhythmic sentences.
And so Anushtup had listened to Yannick. No
mixing drugs and drinks. That had been a year
ago, and he had never had such an incident since
then. Some minor blackouts here and there,
mostly from drinking local liquor on an empty
stomach. Nothing that those in the third decade
of their lives cannot deal with.
But now this. Once again.
Anushtup stopped. He had been following the
road, facing the same direction that he had gotten
up in. I wont fall off the edge of the earth, he
voiced aloud to himself, there will be something
Only there wasnt. But he kept pressing forward.
He looked around once again. Nothing
stirred. No rumbling of a distant motor. No
chirping of crickets. No whistle of the wind rus-
tling through the leaves. Almost like someone
4 Yatrik
had reached forward from the couch and muted
the audio.
He wondered now if he had lost his hearing.
Anushtup screamed. Loudly. He heard himself
crystal clear. But just his voice. Nothing else.
Where am I... he asked himself again. He wasnt
anywhere near Calcutta, and of that he was sure.
No trafc, no large lighted signs hawking televi-
sions and washing machines, no overpowering
smell of urban decay.
As a matter of fact, that was the other thing.
There was no smell. Just like there was no sound.
No, I am denitely not in Calcutta, he thought. If
he was, he gured, he would know what time of
the year it was. Because it was not sweaty hot, like
being in a defective sauna, which was the city in
May. Nor was it muggy and ominous, which was
Calcutta during the monsoons. Nor was there the
nip in the air of a winter night, that makes the old
boys reach for their thermos asks full of coffee
and their brown monkey caps.
As a matter of fact, the temperature and humidity
was perfect, like being in a pricey movie theater
with perfect climate control. When you neither
felt the need to loosen your shirt buttons nor
wished you had brought along a sweater.
So once again
Where am I? When am I? Why am I?
the empty highway 5
Many questions. No answers.
It was then that he remembered that he had a
phone. Call Yannick. Why had he not thought of
it before?
Anushtup reached for his belt where the Nokia
could usually be found clipped. To nd that the
phone was gone. The belt clip was empty. He
touched the chest pocket of his shirt. No, nothing
there either. Instinctively, he patted his hip pocket.
There was no wallet.
He was sure now. He had been robbed.
He tried to remember what had been in the
wallet. A few crinkled fty and hundred rupee
notes, some old receipts, and random phone num-
bers scribbled on frayed scraps of paper. Nothing
there that he could not live without, except that
black-and-white picture yellowed at the sides,
which always stayed snug in the inside ap. A
picture taken of him and his father, all those years
ago on the beach, of Baba tossing him in the air
and his arms outstretched, as if ying.
Anushtup loved pictures. For him, they were a
soft lens into the past, smoothing down the bumps
and the ridges, freezing time down to happy faces
and nice places. Memories, he always told him-
self, were different, they carried the bad as well
as the good, though mostly the bad. But pictures,
no one ever took pictures of themselves ghting
6 Yatrik
or weeping or throwing stuff or lying down in the
dark, looking out through the window. They just
But now that picture in his wallet had itself
become a memory. And the realization made the
nerve at the side of his forehead throb with pul-
sating violence.
Anushtup turned to his left, drawn towards the
source of the sound.
There was a man standing there, a few feet away.
Anushtup had seen him before. Well, not this
particular individual, but his type.
The everyday man. Hanging off the footboards
of buses, standing at the pharmacy buying Crocin,
sitting at his ofce desk, noisily sipping tea off a
saucer, bargaining for sh at the market, a face in
the crowd around store windows watching cricket
on the display TVs.
The background noise of Calcutta life. There but
not there. Ones mind is trained to tune them out,
so as to concentrate on the more interesting notes.
As a matter of fact, Anushtup would have
missed him totally had he not been the only per-
son blotting the landscape.
Hello there. The man called out again and
took a step towards Anushtup. And then another.
Anushtup replied, Hey.
the empty highway 7
Five feet and a few. Mostly bald, with a few
apologetic tufts of white-and-black. A humble
moustache. Beady eyes with little bags under
them. Cotton checked shirt with fourth button
undone. Brown grandpa trousers. Pigeon chest
aring out to a modest pot-belly, the kind you get
from years of having rice for lunch at two in the
Do you know where we are? asked Anushtup.
The man kept looking at him, with an expres-
sion of mild bemusement.
Anushtup realized that he needed to explain
himself. You see, I have these memorylapses. I
wake up in strange places, and I cant remember
how I got there.
The man said nothing, just pursed his lips.
I would have called someone but my cell
phone was stolen and
Your cell phone wont work here.
Exactly. Whats the here? Thats my question.
It was then that it hit him. This man had taken
his wallet. Because he knew something. He could
see it in his eyes.
The only problem, Anushtup thought, was that
this kindly-looking gentleman didnt quite look
like the blow-to-the-head-and-take-it-all gunda.
Those types didnt wear cotton shirts and ofce
trousers. The most this man could ever do was
8 Yatrik
ask for a bribe if he was sitting behind a table and
you needed a le moved. That, Anushtup gured,
would be the limit of his malfeasance.
So he wondered if he was part of a highway
But then again, gangs used pretty ladies to ag
down cars. This man would be the most horrible
bait. He would make people speed away.
Have you taken my phone? Anushtup asked,
almost politely. He walked slowly towards the
man, careful not to appear threatening. He was
condent that if the need arose, he could take him
on. After all he was six feet tall, weighed ninety
kilos and was still in decent shape. And this man
was not much.
The strangers voice was very clear, almost as if
coming from a high-end sound system.
No, I havent taken your phone. And before
you ask, I havent taken your wallet either.
Give them back. I know you took them,
Anushtup yelled, for emphasis and for menace,
The man did not seem the least bit perturbed.
Since I didnt take them, I also cant give them
back to you.
Then how do you know my wallet is missing?
Because thats just the way things are here.
You keep the things you need. Nothing more.
the empty highway 9
Nothing less.
Suddenly remembering, Anushtups eyes fell
to his wrist. The stainless steel HMT watch, heavy
and ancient, which used to be his fathers and his
grandfathers before that, was gone.
What place is this?
The gentleman pointed to a spot right next to
Anushtup. Why dont we sit down? I have always
found it to be better than standing. For the knees.
Anushtup followed his nger. There was a
wooden bench there. Now this was very odd
because he could swear it had not been there a
second ago.
I asked you a simple question. To which I ex-
pect a simple answer. Anushtup raised his voice
again and asked, What place is this?
The gentleman calmly sat down on the bench.
Of course, I will give you the answer. But sit down
rst, please. It might help.
Anushtup remained standing.
Screw the sitting down. Tell me what you have
to say, Anushtup, now standing right in front of
the man, held his shoulder rmly. And I want my
stuff back.
The only thing that was holding Anushtup
back from pinning the man to the ground and go-
ing through his pockets was how non-threaten-
ing, almost to the point of being empathetic, this
10 Yatrik
gentleman looked.
Just hear me out, please, he said.
Anushtup was silent for a while, thinking
furiously. Who, he wondered, but the criminal,
the drunk or the insane would walk down a
deserted highway at this hour of the night. And
since this man neither smelled of drink, nor
particularly looked like what the Calcutta police
would describe as a gunda, there was only one
option left.
He was not totally there. Mentally. Anushtup
stepped back.
The best way to deal with people who have lost
their mind, Anushtup knew, was to humor them.
As a child, he had seen his grandfather at close
quarters, and towards the end, he would have to
address him as Coloneland do a salute with a click
of the heels before he would take his medication.
Anushtup sat down next to the stranger,
keeping a certain distance.
Yes. You were saying
Silence again. Now that they had both spoken,
the absolute absence of all sound seemed to weigh
on Anushtup even more, in the same way that
darkness feels darker when you come in from the
The stranger seemed to be struggling with
something. He moved his lips in an attempt to
the empty highway 11
speak. Then he shook his head and was quiet
Anushtup felt sure now. There was something
not entirely right with this man.
The stranger made uneasy eye contact. His
Adams apple throbbed from the effort of articu-
lating the exact words. He took a deep breath and
then said it.
Anushtup Chatterjee, I am really sorry to have
to tell you this. But you have died.
the game
Excuse me?!The words spluttered out of Anushtups
mouth in a froth of absolute surprise.
You died. You are dead. You are no longer living.
I really do not know how to make this any clear-
er, said the man, in that gentle exasperated tone
perfected by customer service managers for dealing
with recalcitrant customers.
Anushtup was sure that he was not going to
get anywhere at this rate, because this man in
front of him didnt have a clue either.
He wondered about the possibilities. Maybe
the man had run away from a mental asylum.
Maybe he had been driven out by his family.
Out at night, lost and disoriented, he had
stumbled upon Anushtup who had passed out
on the grass by the side of the road. He had then
ried through his pockets. Maybe he was even
trying to help, trying to nd any bit of identifying
It made sense. In this day and age, who but
the game 13
the certiably insane would stop for a stranger
in need?
But of course, there had been nothing that gave
away anything. No phone. No wallet. No watch.
He had been robbed a while earlier. Simple.
But wait, he thought, it was not that simple.
The man had just called Anushtup by his name.
Now how did he know that?
It was then that Anushtup remembered that he
had been carrying a letter with him, something
important that had his name on it. The man might
have read that.
Anushtup raised his hands to his forehead
and massaged gently, his ngertips tracing small
precise circles, willing himself to recall what that
letter might have been. Retrieving that memory
would possibly provide a clue to how he got here.
His mind stayed stubbornly silent though, the
dark void within refusing to whisper the answer
he sought.
Was I carrying a letter? Anushtup asked
I did not take your letter.
I did not ask you whether you took my letter.
I asked you Was I carrying a letter? Anushtup
had by now gotten up from the bench and was
standing in front of the stranger, his hands on
his waist.
14 Yatrik
The man remained most matter-of-fact. I
really think we should move beyond wallets,
phones and letters. None of them are particu-
larly important, nor for that matter would they
work, in the way you know them to work, now
that you are dead.
Anushtup had come to a conclusion. There
was nothing to be gained from going around
in conversational circles with a madman. He
started walking, hoping it would all come back
to him gradually. He concentrated on the letter,
trying to recall why it was important and why
suddenly he had remembered he was carrying it
in the rst place.
We really need to talk.
Anushtup turned back. The man was standing
just a foot away. Which he felt was strange, consid-
ering he had neither heard his footsteps nor sensed
him approaching, in the way you instinctively know
when you are being followed. And Anushtup had
been walking briskly, determined as he was to put
as much distance as possible between him and the
man. No way that little man could have walked this
fast, this silent.
Why are you following me? And dont deny
that you are.
They say that the rst stage of grief is denial.
Maybe denial is also the rst stage of death.
the game 15
Look here, sir. Can you please leave me alone?
We have nothing more to talk about.
I cant. I cant leave you alone. This is my job.
This is what I have to do, he said, a denite tone
of desperation creeping into his voice.
Your job?
Yes. What I have to do. I know I owe you an
explanation. Thats why I have been asking you to
sit with me.
The stillness in his voice. The calm placidity of
his gaze. The stealth in his movement. The annoy-
ing need to hover around. This wasnt your garden
variety madman out on the streets, wearing warm
clothes in summer and barking at passers-by. No,
this man was different. Anushtup wondered now
if this man was not positively dangerous, a serial
killer perhaps. The thing about them is that they all
appear so very normal, so very unthreatening. Thats
how they ensnare their prey.
My job. What I have to do.
Many mass murderers believe they are or-
dained by a higher being to carry out his design
on earth. He had once read that somewhere.
Anushtup was now more than a little worried.
Something else he had read in that same book
yes he remembered the name now, The Devil Lives
With Us was that serial killers had deep reser-
voirs of strength which they drew on, when in the
16 Yatrik
grip of their madness. This meant that the physi-
cal advantage he thought he had might not really
turn out to be an advantage after all.
What if this man was Stone Man, thought
Anushtup with a shudder. Stone Man, as the dai-
ly rags had luridly called him in 89, Calcuttas
most notorious serial killer, a shadowy specter of
malevolence whose modus operandi had been to
bash in the heads of sleeping pavement dwellers
with stones.
They never caught him. And there Anushtup
had been, lying on the side of the road, senseless.
The man had taken a few measured paces
Anushtup cried out, Dont get any closer
and started scanning the ground in front of him.
He needed a weapon, anything that he could use
to make the killer back off. And there it was. A
small rock lying near his right foot.
Dont get closer I mean it or I will bash
your head in
Anushtup bent down to pick up the rock. As
his ngers closed over its jagged edges and he
straightened up, something happened.
What the fuckAnushtup exclaimed, his eyes
The rock he had picked up remained exactly
where it had been. On the ground. Clutched in
the game 17
Anushtups ngers was an identical copy, almost
as if the act of holding and lifting it had led to the
rock cloning itself.
The man did not seem too worried by this
development. That happens when you take an
object from that world and try to bring it here. The
form remains, that too only sometimes, but not
really the matter.
Anushtup let the rock drop. It vanished before
it hit the ground.
The man followed the path of the rock with his
eyes. Its difcult to understand. The way things
work here.
No its not. Actually its quite easy.
It was. Easy. Perfectly easy. Everything made
perfect sense. There was nothing to be afraid of.
With an Elementary, my dear Watsonsmile
of superiority, Anushtup continued. I am
dreaming. You. The road. The night. The silence.
The rock that photocopies itself. Its a bit too
and I dont know what word to use I guess
coherent of course, to be a normal dream. So
my guess is Yannick sold me some real strong
shit. Which means I have gone under. Hoo boy.
I have gone under proper. Like Alice down the
rabbit hole.
The man seemed to be rather amused, but in
that quietly passive-aggressive way.
18 Yatrik
As I said, the rst reaction to death, like grief, is
Yes, you told me. Denial. Thats some deep
bullshit. Ive heard that before. Anushtup took
a step forward towards the man. Stuff you read,
people you meet, they stick to your mind like lint
on wool. A face from somewhere, words from
another place, and then they appear as characters
in dreams.
Most interesting.
Though I havent gured out why you would
be in my dream. I guess we must have met, per-
haps for a eeting second. Maybe you came into
the store to buy trousers. Or you sat next to me
on a bus. Maybe you are the guy who charged the
calling plan on my cell phone. I have no idea.
Can I ask you a question, Anushtup?
If this is a dream, why dont you try waking up
from it?
I suppose I could try. You normally have to do
something really crazy to get out of a dream. Like
jump off a building. Anushtup took a good clean
look around. Dont see any buildings to jump off
or trucks to stand in front of. But, to be honest, I
quite like this dream. Not like being stuck on a
Pacic Island with Maryln Monroe of course, but
still beats the hell out of falling into a pit full of
snakes, being attacked by nail guns, walking over
the game 19
a bed of glass with stumps for legs or having an
army of ants chewing your insides. I am afraid if
I jump out of this dream, Id jump right into one
of those.
Are all dreams that bad? asked the man.
Yes. When you take a trip, it happens sometimes.
Thats why they dont prescribe the powder as part
of a balanced diet. It turns your head into cold noo-
dles, all lumped together in one yucky mass.
You seem to have some experience of this kind
of trip?
Oh yeah, you are talking to the best.
Well since you have convinced yourself that
you are in a dream that you can live with, you
wouldnt mind if we sat down here on the bench,
would you?
And the wooden bench had materialized once
again. Not that Anushtup was surprised anymore.
No, I wouldnt mind at all.
They sat down.
Now that I think of it, it is strange how every-
thing seems to be lit up here. Uniformly, like we
are in a movie set. Not quite real life.
I guess yes. Not quite real life.
See, now even you agree about the dream
thing. Anushtup reached out and patted the
mans shoulder in a friendly way.
No, not really. Its not life. Thats all I am
20 Yatrik
saying. But its real. He thought for a second
and said, Well, maybe not real in the way you
understand it.
Okay. Lets do this your way. So tell me, how
did I die?
The question you should be asking is, how did
I live?
Anushtup leant forward and snapped his n-
gers. Aha. You lifted that line from one of Babas
books. The Broken Road.
The man seemed to take this accusation to heart.
He immediately protested, No I did not. I
But of course you did. You have no other
choice. Being a gment of my imagination, your
words will of course be mine. And I have read The
Broken Road like a gazillion times.
And I havent. Not to make this personal, I
have neither heard of The Broken Road nor of your
Let me guess. You like romantic pulp ction.
No need to get personal.
Aww come on. Why be defensive?
I seem to have touched a nerve.
Nothing like that.
But please, do tell me more about your father.
Baba was a Superman in a world of pygmies.
Pity so few knew him. Outside. And at home.
Anushtup spoke with passion.
the game 21
At home?
None of your business.
I am sorry. Maybe I shouldnt have asked. The
man looked nervously apologetic, leaning forward
slightly, half turned towards Anushtup.
You know what? I think I have had it with this
dream. Time for the snake pit. Time for something
else. Anushtup stood up to leave. He thought of
setting off on a fast run and then doing a dive,
head-rst, onto the ground. The sheer impact
would work. Perhaps.
There is nowhere to go, Anushtup. We are
stuck here, unless you let me help.
That a threat?
No, just the truth.
So if I try to escape, I will only be wasting my
time. Right?
The man said, You cannot really waste time
because time here is not the kind of time you are
used to. Here, there is no past, no future, no present.
There is only action and consequence.
Not copied from The Broken Road. This one
Anushtup had heard in real life, many years ago,
that special day with Baba.
Anushtup had loved being with his father.
Because he was never the face-contorted-into-
a-grimace reluctant adult, making no secret of
how he felt being dragged along to a place he
22 Yatrik
would rather not be. Baba was a partner-in-crime,
child-like in his enthusiasm for silly childish
things. That winter afternoon, the sun had signed
the ofce register and gone home early, leaving its
light in Babas eyes. They were at the fair, and after
one too many cotton candies and rides on the
bright red-and-yellow Ferris wheel that creaked
ominously as it spun, bothering him more than it
did his father, Baba had dragged him to the freak
show tent. The picture of the bearded lady and the
boy with ve heads had been too much for Baba
to resist.
Anushtup could not remember how old he
had been then, probably eight or nine, but even
as a little boy, he had found the idea too tacky.
Baba had been insistent though. The paper mch
heads of the boy had been ridiculous and the
bearded lady had not been a lady. Then they had
come to the kiosk of the Wisest Man in the World
who, if one were to believe the impresario, had
travelled the universe from Borneo to Botswana,
and yet spoke Bangla with a Burdwan accent. For
the princely sum of ten rupees, he would answer
any question in the world. Baba had put a note
in his hand and asked, What is time?
And this had been his answer.
No past, no future, no present. There is only
action and consequence.
the game 23
I guess I will stay. You made me remember
something I had forgotten, something nice.
He made a mental note to thank Yannick once
he got home from this place, wherever he was.
Whatever he had sold him was good, he mused,
shaking out these long lost moments that had
been shoved in the dark dusty gap between the
bed and the wall.
I am glad you changed your mind.
Anushtup leaned back onto the bench. Okay.
Now tell me. Who are you? And what do you
want to help me with?
The stranger suddenly seemed to stumble with
the words, almost as if he were rolling marbles
around in his mouth. II am just here to explain
the process. Go through with you on what you
need to do to move on from death to Just a
So you are deaths orientation ofcer, the one
who checks for compliance with HR-dened pro-
cesses?Anushtup could not help but laugh out
Well, if that helps you, feel free to believe it.
The man ignored Anushtups sarcastic laugh. The
thing is that before you walk down that road, we
have to play a littlegame.
Anushtup rubbed his palms in mock delight.
Oooh I love games. Especially when the HR process
expert calls it a game. Cause his games arent really
24 Yatrik
games. If they were, they wouldnt make you play
them on company time. So whats the real deal?
Well, its not really a gamegame. Its more
like you have to watch something.
Instructional videos? Now thats a bait-and-
switch, Uncle.
Its a game, as in you have a choice of what you
want to see.
If it doesnt involve winning or losing, its not a
game. That is the denition.
Oh in this game Finishing is winning. In
a way.
Does it have a prize? I dont play unless I can
win something. Anushtup was enjoying this
chance to act like a ve year old. That was why
he liked dreams. You could act silly. You could go
crazy. There would not be any consequences.
The prize would be that you get to move along
on your journey.
So I wake up only if I win? asked Anushtup,
with studied incredulity.
No. You get to move on, once you nish.
You dont wake upnot in the sense you are
expecting to.
Aaah. So if I dont wake up, what happens after
its done?
You get to become a Yatrik.
Yatrik? Thats Sanskrit for traveller, isnt it?
the game 25
The man nodded. Anushtup was going to make
another wise-crack about HR but thought the
better of it. Mostly because he had already done
it a while ago. But it did sound romantic to him.
Yatrik. The traveller.
He wondered where he had heard that word
before. He must have. Else why would it have
come into this dream?
The man looked lost, deep in thought. Silence
settled on them like light snowakes.
And then he spoke again.
Have you ever wanted to know what happens
to your life when you are not looking?

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