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Aniruddha Sen That ‘Dark’ Guy

T

hrough the hazy glass of her car window she looked out – that dark guy was still staring at her. She shivered.

It dawned a very ordinary monsoon day in Mumbai. The morning was cloudy. Sumi had no idea when it started raining. Busy interacting with the world over telephone and internet from behind the cozy curtains of her office room, she was rather lost in time and space. A chance peep through the window gave her a jolt. It was pouring outside. Sumi had seen downpours before – but never with such ferocity. The nearby roads were already under a sheet of about knee-deep water. It was not yet evening. But the pitch dark and menacing looking sky bode ill – of much worse to come. Forgetting about the few pending assignments, Sumi decided to call it a day. As she was heading towards the parking lot, she was interrupted by colleagues Amita and Meghna. “Forget it – the rain has brought the whole Mumbai to a standstill! Stay put here overnight like a good girl – as we’re doing.” “Never mind – it’s just a few miles’ drive for me. I’ll make it,” Sumi said and started her car. Next it was the security staff at the office gate to caution her. Reassuring them with a sweet smile and a gentle wave of her hand, Sumi drove out of the office compound and took to the street. If rain disrupts the railway service, there are invariably terrible traffic snarls on roads. Sumi, therefore, had an uncanny feeling when she hardly found any cars ahead. What the hell – did everybody else get the wind and buzz off early? Shutting the windows, Sumi started the AC. The car was inching ahead through knee-deep water. By the time she somehow managed to drive past Santa Cruz and was on her way to Vile Parle, she smelt trouble. Born and brought up in Mumbai, Sumi had seen rains and deluges aplenty in twenty five years of her life. But never did she see an arterial road submerged under such a huge body of water that was flowing like a turbulent river!

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She stopped awhile to gauge the situation. It was another couple of miles to plod through to make home. But at that moment it was quite a handful to negotiate even a five yard stretch. “Let me see what state they are in,” she thought and tried to contact home on her mobile. No luck. Perhaps the window glasses were blocking the signal, she wondered and cautiously rolled down one. She was immediately greeted by a gusty spray of rain, but there was still no sign of any signal. Network failure? Sumi realized the situation was becoming more and more dicey. She shut the window back in a jiffy. Despite the cool, there were bids of sweat on her anxious face. As she looked out of the window to find any soul around in the nearly desolate place, her eyes met those of a dark guy at the wayside. He was staring at her with a fixed gaze. Well, this was not the first time – she would often find herself at the receiving end of such gazes. While her car dozed off at red signals, especially in the slum areas, such people – irrespective of their ages – would gaze at her perfectly toned fair body, as if to suck the color off her skin by their glances. Initially she used to fret, but had gradually learnt to take it easy. “Bastards!” She would just mutter under her breath as soon as the signal turned green and would then drive at top gear. Another red signal had now impeded her progress. But only Heaven knew when this would turn green. Well, don’t all the miseries finally come to an end? It was raining and raining – had to stop sometime now? And say what you may, Mumbai municipality after all isn’t that incompetent. If there was high water on the roads, it had to be due to high tide. It would dissipate, once the tide abates. ‘Wait and watch’ might be a decent option. While she pondered, the rain intensified. The water level started rising and the current grew stronger. Sumi now sensed she was in a really grave danger. Some more spells of rain and her car would go under water for sure. Better ditch it now and trust one’s good feet! Before she could act, there was another setback – the electric lights in the surrounding area went off. Holy shit! Under the very faint daylight that was still oozing past the thick layers of the clouds, Sumi looked again and noticed that the dark guy was still staring. This time it seemed he was waving at her. In addition to the threat of rising water, Sumi now faced the menace of the impending darkness. There was still some daylight. If she had to get down and try wading, it couldn’t wait!

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She tried to open the car door – but it won’t! She tried again and with all her might, with the only result that water started gushing in through the slight opening. Pale and panting, she immediately shut the door back. It dawned on her that the door won’t open. The car was submerged by more than half tons of swirling water. To overcome its pressure and open the door would take some superhuman effort, and Sumi was just a slender girl. Sitting inside the sealed cage that was her car, Sumi watched helplessly that the rising water level touched the window. Suddenly she visualized death just inches away. Would the glass be strong enough to withstand the pressure? If it won’t – And then it occurred to her that the dark guy was desperately trying to tell her something by excited gestures. Soon she realized, he was signaling her to open the window. Well, that was just a flick of a button. But Sumi won’t do that for her life. That thin wall of glass was the only barrier between life and the death-in-waiting outside. Sitting within the safety of the car’s womb, she would fight till the last breath and then – well, give in to her destiny! Sumi looked out again. The dark guy was no more there. She helplessly waited and watched the water coming up and up. She felt dizzy. It seemed there was a sweet aroma in the air. Does death then smell sweet? The idea appeared so amusing that notwithstanding the peril Sumi was on the verge of bursting out into laughter. Then she saw the guy again. With a shovel-like weapon in hand he was heading towards her – half wading, half swimming. Sumi couldn’t hold laughter anymore. God! – wasn’t Nature strong enough to finish off a hapless girl? Did man, too, have to join hands? The guy repeatedly hit the car window hard with his weapon. Through the smashed glasses fresh air started gushing in. With his strong arms he pulled Sumi towards the window. Seeing her laughing, he slapped her repeatedly. Those slaps and the puff of fresh air brought Sumi back to sense. She realized she had lost her head in danger. The exhaust of the car AC had already gone under water and the sweet-smelling carbon monoxide had started replacing oxygen. It was just a matter of a few more minutes! With some desperate efforts and with the help of the guy she could now somehow squeeze her slender self out of the smashed window. The water around was like a rapidly flowing river, trying to sweep away anything and everything. Knowing that well, the man had come prepared with a strong rope. He had tied it around his waist, while securing the other end against a lamppost. Now he wrapped the rope

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around Sumi’s waist too. Then after considerable struggle they could somehow cross the road and reach the pavement – by then under waist-deep water. Not yet in a safe haven, they were desperately looking for one. The nearest structures above water were a row of houses some tens of feet away – never mind that the ground floors were already submerged. Sumi, however, felt she won’t ever make it, as the current was gaining strength while she was losing it with every passing moment. The guy had a better idea. He spotted the boundary wall of a compound and hastily signaled Sumi to scale it. Half afloat, she could somehow grab the top. But her hands were limp and lacked the strength to jack herself up. While hanging helplessly, she felt a hard shove on her waist that lifted her up and atop the wall. An island of safety at last, amid the raging ocean! Sumi took some deep breaths, now with a kind of relief. It happened precisely at that moment. The water below surged and swirled, as if being powered by a tidal wave. A huge wall of water was advancing menacingly. Preoccupied with Sumi, the guy failed to notice before it hit him and hit hard! Its giant thrust tore the rope around his waist with immaculate ease. Before Sumi could open her mouth, the guy’s body was swept away like a straw by the dark water mass that was curling and dancing. Sumi’s scream was lost amid the roar of the blowing wind. Sitting astride atop the wall, she trembled in fear and cold and then burst into a childlike bawl. Well, a few more 26th Julys have by now passed since that infamous one. The wounds of the body and soul of Sumi have been by and large healed. Now she no longer shuts the doors and windows in a jiffy at the sight of a piece of dark cloud. Neither does she moan in anguish in sleep, if she hears pitter-patters outside. She rose in her rank at the office. In personal life, too, she has found a sympathetic soul mate. Looking towards the bright days ahead she wants to forget that fateful evening when she almost joined those unfortunate hundreds who are now just parts of gory statistics. But what she can never shake off her mind is a dark guy. While she drives through the roads, lanes and by-lanes of Mumbai and past the traffic signals, her expectant eyes keep looking for him. God! She has to find him and say a single word – sorry!
(On the 26th July, 2005 a huge cloudburst descended on Mumbai, resulting in an unprecedented rainfall of 94 cm in a single day. It threw life out of gear for days and caused havoc to the lives and properties of the Mumbaikars. Few hundred perished, including some trapped in their cars on the streets. The ‘men in the street’ fought valiantly against all odds. Some laid down their lives while trying to save others. This piece of fiction is a small tribute to such unsung heroes. – A.S.)

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