“I’ll be damned,” Neha cursed as she grabbed her bag and hastily locked the door to her house. How had this happened? She was over two hours late for work. How was she to explain the delay to her boss? What excuse did she have — that her alarm clock was missing and that her wall clock had stopped working on the very same day. It was not even a decent excuse. And worse of it, she would have been blissfully unaware of it had she not glanced at the laptop clock while checking her mail.
30 June had the markings of a very bad day. She had slept badly, fidgeting the entire night with incomprehensible dreams and was in an irritable state. She had no desire to eat breakfast or do any work today. It was one of those days when she felt like an grumpy old woman. But there was no getting out of work, she still had to proofread the pages before turning them in. She lambasted herself for being so lazy last Friday and not finishing them then. And the cherry on top was that she had to do so before Piyali, her senior and assistant editor, came in. Instead, she was still stuck in the lift of her building.
She had literally jumped when she saw the time on her laptop. It read 11:45 am. She had dropped the toast and gotten ready in 15 minutes flat. Ordinarily, she should have been in office by 10am. And today, she had planned to be in by 9:30am. As she checked her watch now, seated in an auto rickshaw, the minute and hour hands were conspiring against her, almost as if showing her the middle finger. It was already 12pm. By the time she reached her office it was ten past twelve and she had no plausible excuse yet.
She stood outside the door of Dreamz publishing, a small publishing firm located in sector 6 in Vashi, bracing herself for the rebuke that would follow. She had landed a job with Dreamz just two months back. It wasn’t a very big publishing house like Penguin or Rupa but for a BA graduate just out of college, she felt she had done rather well for herself. Now she hoped, she wouldn’t be let go.
She pushed open the door but to her surprise there was not a soul in sight. That was weird. Usually, at this time the office would be buzzing with chatter as everyone looked to pass the time till lunch. Was there a meeting going on in the conference room? She thought it was highly unlikely that everyone was invited to this meeting since it was usually on a project basis. Nevertheless, she slowly peered through the glass windows to see if that was the case. There was no one there.
She went to the cafeteria to see if there was a case for early lunch. But that was not so either. Feeling desperate by this point, she checked all the remaining rooms including the loos and store room but no one was there. It was as if she had landed in office on a holiday. But then who had opened the door? And today was no holiday, she would have known if that was the case or was she referring last year’s calendar? After the mishap today she would have readily believed that.
She leaned against the desk and her glance fell on the phone in the corner. Why hadn’t she thought of this before? She took out her cellphone and dialed Manali’s number. Manali was, well you could say, her best friend in office. She had joined around the same time as Neha and the two got along well. She hoped the call would answer her questions but all she heard was irritating ‘You don’t have enough balance to make the call.’ Dammit! She had forgotten to recharge her phone.
She picked up the office phone and dialed Manali again. The phone kept ringing but Manali didn’t pick up. Neha shrugged her shoulders, maybe Manali had left the phone in her bag. It wouldn’t be the first time. She dialed Reshma, another one of her colleagues but alas she didn’t pick up either. Who next? She dialed one of the guys, Suraj, but no luck. Why wasn’t anyone picking up the phone? She dialed people one after the other till she ran out of names of her colleagues. No one picked up. She was getting scared now.
“If this is a prank, please stop. It’s gotten too far. I give up. I am the Bakra or watever,” she yelled at the empty room. But no one answered her call and no one came forward.
The office was feeling really stifling now. She was genuinely scared. As her eyes scanned the empty cubicles, one by one the faces of her colleagues cropped up in her mind. Where had they disappeared to? She couldn’t bare standing there anymore while bad thoughts enveloped her. She needed some air, needed to get out of there. Trotting on shaky legs, she went past the glass doors and settled on the single step leading to her office. What was she to do? File a missing persons report for the entire office?
The masthead of Dell loomed on her right. Maybe she could enquire there. Maybe somebody knew what had happened in her office? She knocked on the door politely but couldn’t see anyone in the reception area. She knocked a couple more times but no one answered, and so she entered by herself.
Here too she spotted no one. Tables, chairs and all sort of hardware were all that inhabited the vast space. She was beginning to feel like she was trapped in a sci-fi movie like Will Smith in ‘I am a Legend’. Only this wasn’t a movie. She had to call the police, tell them all that she knew which was nothing. She had no idea what had happened or why or why she was left behind.
As she walked out of the Dell office, for the first time that day she looked at her surroundings. There were no people on the street, no hawkers from where she would buy her lunch, no children playing in front of the row houses, no women chatting, no cars, no traffic — nobody. In haste, she ran into her office again and dialed the police station again and again.
Devastated that all her calls went unheeded, she dialed her mom. She wanted the comfort of her mother’s voice, her words to alleviate her from the present. But there was no respite for her. She sunk into her chair. Tears came thick and fast now, she was sobbing uncontrollably.
“Is somebody there? Please this has gone too far. Please…”
She lay like that for sometime. When she felt she could handle it again, she wiped the tears off her eyes. She would walk to the police station and register a complaint. That was all she could do. As she was getting up, her eyes fell on a bundle of loosely-held pages. They were typewritten sheets with a cover page that said “The curious case of the lost village.”