Episode 2: The Joker !

The Joker!

Keerthana woke up with a start. There was a faint clunk which emanated outside her window. The neighbourhood dogs were in a frenzy. She pulled the blanket closer. This definitely was not a good omen. A faint breeze blew past her through the open window which sent chills down her spine. She tiptoed her way towards the window pane and sneaked out through the window, careful not to be seen or heard.

It was Mr. Naidu, the landowner trying to turn on the motor. With the rationed water supply, the municipal water would come only in the wee hours of the morning. She could not sleep anymore. She opened the fridge, grabbed a bottle only to find it empty. She had forgotten to order the water can the previous night. A lot was going on in her mind, ordering water was the least of her concerns — something she deeply regretted now. She pulled her phone from under the pillow to check the time. She pulled down the notifications, three missed calls from mom. She threw away the phone in disgust, popped a pill from the cabinet and lay down trying to sleep. Yet, sleep itself became a distant dream.

It was 10 AM already by the time Keerthana finally woke up. The only advantage Keerthana felt in her job was avoiding the morning rush. As correspondent on the late evening news segment, she could turn in her drafts anytime before five and was hardly expected to be in office for more than a couple of hours. Any more and she would have quit long back. She looked at her phone, there was a small dent on the corner and another missed call. Keerthana was inclined to call her mom back, but she dropped the idea. She could not bear another drama now.

Keerthana hurriedly got ready and tried to cram herself in the white gown she had kept aside the previous night. She put an overcoat to cover herself. The coat looked funny and it was a ridiculous idea to wear it in Mumbai’s heat. On the plus side, however, everyone noticed only the coat and not the wearer. She looked at herself in the mirror. She did not like what she saw. Maybe everyone was right. She stumbled. Keerthana applied another coat of lipstick and beauty cream on her face. Was this better? She could not tell. Her eyes were becoming moist, which was smudging the eyeliner which she had very carefully applied. She picked up a tissue and started cleaning around her eyelids. The tears did not stop. She let go after some time and sobbed uncontrollably.

Keerthana was bullied all her school life, be it for her dark skin tone or her obese personality or her soda glasses. This turned her into an introvert and she avoided public gaze as much as she could. With age the ridicule and the humiliation increased. She assumed once she started working and became busy, people would stop laughing at her. On the contrary, the derision became even more brazen. This started affecting her work and she was only too happy to be relegated to subordinate roles. Over time, she began preferring being undermined than being judged. Antidepressants could help her only so much as she lost the willingness to fight for herself each day.

One generally expects the afternoon train to be empty. Alas, today was destined to be a bad day. Keerthana struggled her way towards the seats hoping someone would get down soon. She was in half a mind to get down and board the ladies compartment, but had lost all patience to get down and board again. It was finally at Kanjurmarg when a family was packing to get down, she saw a small window of opportunity and dashed her way to get one of empty seats. She plugged her earphones and closed her eyes as the train moved along.

Keerthana’s mom was pushing her for marriage even before she could finish her graduation. With great persuasion she was allowed time until degree before which groom searching was to start. She applied for post-graduation, without telling her mom. It was the first time her mother raised her hand on Keerthana. After weeks of fighting and a bitter departure, Keerthana had landed in Mumbai. The only discussion she had with her mother during her two years of post-graduation was that she was wasting her time and all her friends were getting married or pregnant.

Deep down Keerthana knew she never was interested in the course she had signed up for. She picked up the course as this was the only course where she knew for sure she would get an admit. Anything, she thought, would be better than being a slave for the rest of her life.

As she entered her second year, her mother started creating accounts on multiple marriage portals and community sites. Her description in her profile never matched her. She was called mid semesters to undergo purification rituals to overcome flaws in her horoscope.

She convinced herself to give it a shot. The first family she met was immediately after her exams. The guy spoke well to her. She also developed a liking for him. Two days later the guy’s parents called and told her mom they did not like the girl. She was unexpectedly disheartened. She took it in her stride though. She came back to Mumbai and started applying for jobs.

When she went home for Diwali that year, her mom had arranged her to meet six families in ten days. At the end of the daunting affair, all six families had rejected her. Some were more candid in admitting that they expected someone who was fairer and in better shape. Some at least had the courtesy to give a flimsy reason. Her mother rued the fact that such an ugly looking girl was born to her, who brought such shame to the family name.

Last week, another proposal came. The groom’s side were not particularly interested in meeting her. Her mom was ecstatic. There were some conditions though, conditions which her mom felt were only fair. Keerthana felt humiliated. She had to quit working, move back to Delhi, not wear jeans, cook daily and the list went on. What followed was a shouting match so horrible, Keerthana would have been proud of herself if the situation was not so embarrassing. Her mom kept calling her to reconsider. She avoided her calls not because she wanted to avoid the confrontation, but because she knew she was close to accepting it.

A mephitic stench woke her up. Sitting next to her was a raddled man with a scrawny frame. He took out two sachets of what looked like a variant of jasmine oil and applied ferociously to his henna coloured hair. He looked at his palms and was not happy with the residue. He swiped them vigorously over his thighs. His cream trouser, which was presumably white at some point of time, turned multiple shades darker. He took out a bottle of attar from his pocket. He pulled out two swabs of dirty cotton from his pocket, immersed it in the attar bottle started applying all over his body. Once he was done, he took the swabs and inserted them in his earlobes.

Keerthana looked at the man next to him, quite scared. He wore worn out shoes which betrayed the brand label which was etched on them. He wore trousers which he had rolled up and his pockets were full. He wore a green shirt which was torn and dirty. He wore two belts, one over his trousers which was buckled tightly and another one dangling over his abdomen. He had what appeared as a cross between amulets and locking chains over his wrists and arms. His pockets were full. He had a mobile attache with the Blackberry logo imprinted which had some papers stuffed in.

He took out two small coloured bottles and mixed them in his palms which formed a dense white paste. He applied it on his face and left a coat of white on his face. He pulled out a small polythene from his shirt and took out something which looked like sawdust. He saw towards it for a moment, opened his mouth and started chewing it. He made no pretension to hide his coloured and corroborated dental set. In a moment his lips turned deep scarlet.

Keerthana was unsure if there was silence in the train or she could not hear anything as she stayed transfixed on her co-passenger. She looked around — everyone’s attention was on him, yet no one dared to make eye contact. He was someone no one wanted to acknowledge existed. She was scared what the maniac next to her may do. She started sweating. He looked towards her with a deadpan expression and got busy with his charade. A nauseating sensation started building up in her. She mustered courage, controlled herself and decided to get down even though her station was still away.

She did not look back, but she could feel the silence and stares following her as she got down. She did not look back as the train went past her. She heaved a sigh of relief and turned back only to see him standing right beside her. Keerthana could not remember if she let out a scream. There was some commotion building up behind her, but she was too petrified to turn back. She was hoping the commotion would take this beast away from her. He came towards her, handed her a crumpled, dirty piece of cloth, gave her a smile and sprinted away.

On the adjacent track a small pup got stuck in the tracks as a train was fast approaching. The crowd began to gather trying to make sounds or warn the pup to get away. A sense of collective helplessness sunk into the crowd. As the train drew closer the commotion increased. Mobile phones started recording what could be the final seconds for the hapless animal. Suddenly, out of nowhere a man in a green shirt dived on to the tracks as the train ran over him. There was a splash of red over people who were close to the track. As most people on the platform were contemplating to board the train, a couple of constables came running with whistles blowing as the train stopped.

It took a while before Keerthana could make sense of what happened. Did the stranger give up his life to save a random animal ? While she contemplated what happened, out of nowhere the pup came trudging towards her and sat next to her feet. She knelt down, picked the pup up and patted him conveying everything would be ok.

At that moment, she realised something — “you don’t have to look perfect to do the right thing”. She took the pup with her and walked out of the station. She hailed a taxi and called her mom. Keerthana smiled, she was confident about herself once more.

She had all but forgotten about the piece of cloth which the stranger had given her today morning. She opened her bag and pulled out the piece of cloth. It was an old handkerchief. There was a faded hand-stitched insignia on it. She brought the cloth closer to the table lamp. The insignia read

Gautami’s Suhas

The world shattered around him when reports declared him HIV positive. He never was in any previous relationship . He called his wife. Her phone was switched off. He called again, kept on calling. There was no reply. He called her office — she was attending some party. Furiously he stormed home. The decorated house made his blood boil with rage.

He never spoke to her again after that day. Seeing her made him an animal. He abused her, hit her and given a chance he would have killed her. One day he lost his cool and hit her as hard as he could. All he wanted was to smash her skull open. He left the house in disgust.

He never left a note or anything, just left the city and moved to a different place. He could not face himself in the mirror. More than the disease, he hated the monster he had become. It is one thing to fight the demons within you something altogether difficult to handle if you have become the demon.

He did everything he could to mask his identity. He took up odd jobs, slept on railway platforms, begged for food. He was ready to accept anything which could humiliate him more than the humiliation he felt within. He wasn’t sure though if he was hiding himself or hiding from himself. He wiped his sweat with his shirt. Every once in a while he looked at his handkerchief, the only remnant of his past life. If only there was a way he could end his pain.

Anthony was in deep trouble. His addiction was taking a huge toll on his financial as well as mental state. He was lost in his thoughts. Swapping medicines from the clinic could get him only so far. He had to do something big.

Thud! He dropped the blood vial he was asked to deliver. It started leaking. He did not want to bring any attention towards him now, definitely not now. He also knew these were routine blood tests which corporates paid for and nobody took these results seriously. He cleaned the premise, took a syringe lying around and injected his blood into an empty vial and swapped the labels before anyone could notice.

Previous Episode: The Shriek

Alternate Publication: The Joker

Next Episode: The Rise

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Complete Publication: Rangabhoomi

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