The best moment for any father is when he discovers some long lost part of his own self in his child—probably that innocent, clear gaze, filled with curiosity that the father’s eyes once had; that sudden, unconscious way in which the child runs a hand through his or her hair; that peculiar giggle that he had as a kid—an entire gamut of emotions that defined the father then, become the son’s inheritance later.
On that sunny Sunday morning, sitting by the placid Naini Lake, I saw my own being reflected in my seven year old son’s visage. He was examining a shining crimson-red tennis ball that he had found lying in the sparse growth of creepers poking out of the concrete enclosure around the lake.
Rishi has my brown-black eyes and similar jet-black hair covering his forehead. But that day, he surprised me by exhibiting the typical action that I perform while thinking—‘Looking for the Thinking Cap’, as my wife used to call it. Rishi wasn’t just ‘looking at’ the ball. It was as if he was ‘looking into it’—frowning with utmost concentration, chewing the inside of his lips. And out of nowhere, he tilted his head to one side and started moving his hand to-and-fro, inches above his tousled hair, like he was indeed trying to find some invisible cap.
What I felt then was nostalgia, like looking at my own childhood through the portal of time. Before that sense of warm pride could blossom into a smile, my wife’s voice broke the spell.
“You’ve never seen him doing it before, Arnav?” She asked, laughing at me and teasing me at the same time. I looked at Rishi. He had stopped ‘looking for his thinking cap’. He questioningly looked at me and then at his mother, before flashing a grin and showing off with the ball, like there was no other like that red one. I nodded at my wife half-heartedly, irritated at her for spoiling the moment.
I was sure Rishi’s ‘thinking cap’ was old news to my wife. A spark of jealousy was struck inside my heart instantly, the flint being held by my own wife. This is always the case with the fathers. We miss out on so many things that our children do. Probably many would say that earning a livelihood is imperative. Agreed, but those tender experiences with your kid are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, something that cannot be bought—a sacrifice that mostly every father has to make.
“I have seen him doing that before,” My wife added. “Although I don’t know how he picked it up from you in the first place, given the scenario that you don’t get to spend much time with him, you know.” I knew, yes, and problem was, there was nothing I could do about it given my exacting and hectic schedule.
You grill your ass for millions and yet in the end you lose by not having seen that newborn bundle of joy grow up into a seven-year-old kid, I thought. The smoldering spark of envy finally caught fire and engulfed my heart.
I kept admiring my kid as he dribbled the ball around, caught it and hit it against the hardtop, making it bounce higher. I felt my wife’s hand creeping over mine. Our eyes met and we smiled at each other. She nodded once, like she understood what I was feeling. Probably she was exhorting me to cherish that moment.
I relinquished my grip on anger and together, we watched the verdant hills looming above us and the waters of the lake reflecting the surrounding peaks. As dusk approached, the echoes of the Mall Road thoroughfare amplified manifold, as if the hills and the lake were talking in some alien language. I and my wife basked in the diminishing glow of the setting sun while Rishi played—our life’s shining hope, our own rising sun.
I called him when it was time to leave.
“You sure the ball doesn’t belong to some other kid—what if he or she comes looking for it?” I asked Rishi as we walked towards the car.
“No, I was supposed to have it,” My son said. “That old man said so.” He pointed in the distance. I turned around.
At the edge of the shoreline stood a glittering restaurant on an upraised platform, supported on wooden beams and rafters. In the gathering dusk, I caught sight of a hunched form sitting in the darkness amidst the lakeside foundations. The shape moved and I saw a shriveled old man, his hair hoary with age and a pointed white beard that danced in the cold breeze. He had a patched rug wrapped around his frame, surrounded by garbage and waste from the restaurant and the murky water of the lake lapping against the embankments a few feet away.
No man is an island, but this one surely is. The thought sprang into my mind out of nowhere.
I took a step towards him, thoughts of charity suddenly overpowering me. But then I saw his hands and I froze.
The old man seemed to be murmuring something, observing his stiff, arthritic fingers as they moved in harmony with his lips. There was something ominous in that sight—a forlorn, forgotten old man sitting all by himself in a dark corner while the world bustled around.
I felt my wife’s hand clasping my fingers. When I looked at her, I knew there was a shadow over her heart, too. When a woman who doesn’t think twice before giving a generous sum of ten-twenty bucks to a poor man hesitates, it is politic to follow suit.
“I don’t have a good feeling about him,” She whispered. “It’s getting dark, what if he has a knife hidden somewhere?” She pulled Rishi closer as we started towards the parking lot. For some reason, I could not shrug off that disturbing feeling. The old man’s raved whispers and the hypnotic movement of his stick thin fingers kept swimming before my eyes.
Maybe the old man was an island indeed, albeit an island full of mysteries.
“He’s sleeping, Arnav.” My wife ducked out of the car’s backseat, straightening her hair and tying it into a bun.
“Let him sleep then, we’ll buy some chips for him,” I told her. “I badly need a cup of tea before we set off again. We’ll be home in a couple of hours if there’s no jam.” I rubbed my eyes and moved towards the dhaba, wincing at the unusually loud rumble of trucks passing on the highway. I turned around once to look at Rishi. He lay peacefully on the backseat, snuggled into the velvet upholstery.
I ducked inside quickly and switched on the lights in case Rishi woke up and got scared. In the yellow brightness I caught sight of the red ball. Rishi held it against his chest, like it contained his dear life.
As if in response to my boring gaze, the ball glowed once, twice. I blinked and open my eyes wide: nothing. The red color was gaudily bright, yes, but nothing more except that, not a pinprick of glow.
Hallucination from sleep-deprivation, my mind responded. I shook my head and traipsed after my wife.
The tea was rejuvenating, its sweetness augmented by the enlivening smell of cardamoms. An equally sweet kid, presumably, the dhabawallah’s son brought us a plate of steaming samosas, served with a warm smile. As we ate, my wife longingly started recounting all that we had done during that weekend in Nainital, the places we had visited and not to forget, Rishi’s masquerades.
“He likes mountains and hills,” She said. I nodded in agreement. “Maybe we can take him to Manali, next time?”
I sipped at the tea, inhaling the cardamom vapors. My wife went on chattering ceaselessly. Somehow, my mind was still lost in its own tortuous confines. The long drive from Nainital wasn’t the problem here, I knew.
My mind had been repeatedly playing Rishi’s ‘Thinking Cap’ act on its micro-mm screen, interspersed by the dark images of the old man. I had no idea what had been so strange in the sight of that old-man under the wooden eaves that was haunting me. Surely there are hundreds, millions of such impecunious, lost souls all around us. But this one…
“Arnav, the door on Rishi’s side is open,” My wife’s words pulled me out of my reverie.
Our car was parked some ten feet away from the dhaba’s cot-jammed seating area, the hood facing us. I could see the inside lights trickling out of the car, outlining the open rear door clearly.
“You didn’t shut it properly?” I enquired of my wife as I got up. Though the car stood at a safe distance from the busy highway behind, the door hanging wide open with the kid sleeping inside did not come under the domain of ‘safe’ exactly. There was hint of anger in my voice and my wife reacted in kind.
“I wasn’t sitting on that side, in case you’ve forgotten,” She retorted. “Probably you didn’t shut it properly in the first place, after Rishi got in.”
My mouth opened in response but the words never came out, they never got a chance.
A loud backfiring sound from a passing truck silenced me, followed by a crash of metal and glass. The air was filled with the ear-splitting screech of brakes as the truck lurched on its side and skidded to a halt against a pole encumbered with a maze of electric cables. I saw a man flailing wildly in mid-air, his heavy bike spinning just behind him. They landed in a heap in front of my eyes, the bike falling squarely on the man’s skull. There was the distinct crunch of breaking bones.
Profound silence fell as smoke rose from the hunk of twisted metal and glass that the truck had become. I approached it, my wife on my left and a growing assemblage of onlookers coming from all sides. It was like the crowd was gathering to catch a glimpse of some giant lying dead on its sides. From my side of the road, the pole looked like some knight’s sword buried in its chest.
Someone was blaming the accident on a punctured tire while some said the brakes had failed. I smelled oil and stepped sideways in time, avoiding the spreading pool of slick.
The front end of the vehicle looked like the broken jaw of some animal that had died with its maw open wide. Shards of glass crunched under my feet as I peered inside. I knew the biker I had seen was beyond salvage, the crunch of his skull had been proof enough. I prayed for the safety of the truck driver.
“Someone please help me,” I shouted as soon as I saw the driver through the shattered windshield. Though it was too dark, I thought I could see his chest moving as he breathed.
“Let them handle this, Arnav,” My wife called after me. I raised my hand in assurance and nodded at her. I was turning away to co-ordinate the driver’s rescue when my eyes zeroed in on something and an alarm went up inside my head.
Rishi’s red ball was lying near my wife’s feet—the incarnadine hue screaming bright, like a blot of blood sashaying willfully. My heart came hopping up in my throat as the ball rolled towards me. My wife looked at me incredulously, before her gaze followed mine. In the middle of the growing hubbub and shocked voices, we saw the ball moving, as if guided by an invisible hand.
It stopped just near the pole, suddenly making those fifteen-sixteen feet between my wife and I look like a mile. And this time, it flashed twice—we both saw it. I knew something bad was going to happen.
An electric wire detached itself from the crisscrossing jumble at the top of the pole, the sparks sizzling out mischievously from the severed end. I watched it fall, so did my wife and the gathered people.
It fell inches away from the red ball. The ground around it went up in flames, licking blue wavelets of heat that sprouted out of nothing.
The oil-sodden hardtop burned as the flames reached the fallen hulk of the truck. I sprinted towards my wife. The hem of her sari caught fire in a second as her mouth opened in a wide ‘O’. I ran, determined to save her, cursing myself for not having warned her about the spilled oil, before. A few feet, mere seconds away, while she stamped her feet in panic and the fire spread.
WHUMP! A sound came from my left and I felt tremendous heat striking me, lifting my hair, scalding my skin. My feet left the road as I was tossed by the shock wave of the explosion. I worked my hands and feet tirelessly, expecting to run through the air and save my wife.
I kept my eyes open against the heat-waves, ignoring the pain as I landed on my shoulders. They remained open as I struggled against the gathering darkness, watching her burn as the pieces of burning metal rained from the explosion.
I sank into the quagmire of darkness, smelling gasoline and the crisp, sharp odor of burning flesh. My eyes closed but the after-image of my wife ablaze, thrashing in pain, remained. It remains there, till now.
“Where’s my son?” I asked, struggling to keep my eyes open against the onslaught of dizziness. I forgot my pain, ignored what had happened, tucked the thoughts about my wife away.
The dhaba-owner and his charming son (who had a terrified, tear-streaked face now) tried to hold me down but surrendered against my relentlessness. They pointed me towards Rishi.
He was sitting quietly on a cot facing the highway, watching the firemen and local volunteers working to remove the rubble and scrap away from the middle of the road. I saw the soot-smeared face and swollen eyes—he had been crying. I knew our family had just grown short of a member.
There were men huddled together nearby, discussing the gruesome details of the accident. It appeared the explosion had killed ten others, besides my wife and the biker. The fuel tank had caught fire and all hell had broken loose.
“Mom’s with God, they say,” Rishi spoke, his eyes still fixed on the highway where his mother had died. “They are joking. Right, Dad?” He paused. “She died.” His voice quivered. It was not the voice of just any seven-year-old boy, but that of a tragedy-stricken kid, aged by sorrow and loss. He hadn’t asked me whether his mother had died or not, I realized—he was telling this to me, plain and simple.
Words escaped me on hearing the aggrieved tone of the kid. I wanted to hold him, cry and weep. But at this moment, my grief as a husband was not more than my responsibility as a father. I stroked his head as he sat impassively. I didn’t know what to say. My wife would’ve known—mothers always do.
“I can’t find my ball, Dad. Have you seen it?”
Yes, I have seen it. Flashing and moving on its own accord—your mother saw it too, just before she died, I wanted to say. Probably it had been the ball that had caused the accident and the explosion, you know.
I shook my head and surveyed the scene, unable to look at my son. There were dead bodies being loaded into an ambulance, under the supervision of some policemen. There was blood and charred bits of clothes lying in the middle of the road, the concrete blackened and cracked by the heat. There was no sign of the red ball—nothing flashed red or moved.
It had all been so sudden: accidental was what one would say. Yet I was sure there was more to it.
The ball had flashed, undoubtedly and it had caused the wire to fall in the spilled oil. Hell, maybe the entire accident had been caused by the ball. Rishi had held it in his hands while he was sleeping. There was no chance that it would tumble out of the car on its own. But somehow, it had.
“Red and round, it wants to play,” Rishi’s voice sounded tinny and meek in the din of the traffic and the yelling of the workmen.
“What?” My ears stood alert. Red and round—did Rishi mean the ball?
“The old man, he said this when he told me I could have the ball.” Rishi replied. His eyes were distant, looking at the road, yet lost someplace else. He paused then spoke again.
“Red and round, it wants to play,
In the blood and mud and crimson clay,
It’s the Darkman’s toy, Satan’s play-thing,
More blood it desires and a death-song it sings…”
I heard the sound of teeth clenching and held my son close.
“The ball, it’s bad. Isn’t it, Dad?” He spoke, his face buried against my chest. Tears fell, both his and mine, as the levee broke. “It spoke to me, Dad, it flashed the first time I picked it up. It was angry before, but when the old man said it belonged to me, it didn’t speak anymore—just flashed merrily.”
My seared cheeks burned as the saline tears traced their path downwards. But what I felt instead, was fury. Whatever the ball had been, it had snatched away my better half, the mother to my son, the most integral part of our small family.
“It’s something bad, son. Something that doesn’t belong to this world,” I said. One of the policemen was coming towards us. Maybe I should tell them about the ball, maybe they’ll be able to do something. Problem was who would believe something so incredulous, that too from a grief-stricken, father-son duo?
“The woman,” the policeman pointed towards one last shrouded corpse lying near the ambulance. “She’s your wife?”
My son’s grip tightened on my hands. I saw him looking towards the ambulance, eyes wide in fear and surprise. The policeman standing nearby ceased to exist as I followed his gaze. It wasn’t my wife’s shrouded corpse that held Rishi’s attention.
In the glow of the streetlights, we saw him—the old man. He raised the shroud off my dead wife’s face. It was like he was an artist looking at his creation—the marvel, the glee, sparkling in his eyes. He didn’t look that old now: the clothes seem to float, made of wispy shadows; the eyes burned red, just like the ball; the pallid skin stretched taut over his skull. Maybe, he was indeed Satan, Devil, the possessor of innumerable names of evil.
I stood up, ignoring the policeman’s voice. His eyes darted quizzically between us and the ambulance. I somehow knew the old man was invisible to everyone, except us.
My feet moved on their own, driving my body forward, fuelled by rage and hunger for vengeance. The old man looked at me, smiling menacingly. He slipped his bony hands under the shroud and out came the ball. My breathing turned ragged as I fumed. I wanted to kill him, hear him screaming and turn that smile into shrieks. I rushed forward, wanting to destroy the ball at any cost.
Rishi shouted behind me then and someone pulled me by the collar of my shirt. My body jerked and I landed on my bottom. A bulldozer came to a stop barely inches away from where I had been seconds ago.
The world came into focus, echoing with the policeman’s berating. Rishi came running and held me tightly, sobbing and bawling with all his might. I realized he would’ve lost me too, had the policeman failed to pull me back.
But my eyes were still fixed on my wife’s corpse on the other side of the road. I couldn’t hear the policeman’s voice nor could I feel Rishi’s embrace. All that I could see was the old man, the Devil, in the hazy dust rising from my scuffle with policeman.
The Devil got up, nodding to himself imperceptibly. Business had been rich today, the ball’s thirst for blood quenched. I gaped at him, looking at the disappointment on his face. I knew he would’ve felt incredible to see me die.
He smugly turned away and ambled towards the extreme end of the highway, playing with the ball. I saw it flash again, once, twice, thrice, like it was voicing its master’s sense of accomplishment. The streetlights flickered briefly and I felt hands hauling me up.
The Devil disappeared without a trace. So did his red ball. I never saw him again, nor did Rishi. But every time I would watch some ill-fated accident or genocide or death, I knew it was the Devil behind it all—and his plaything, the red ball.
“Red and round, it wants to play,
In the blood and mud and crimson clay,
It’s the Darkman’s toy, Satan’s play-thing,
More blood it desires and a death-song it sings…”