Ajay. Could it be his real name? It was a long shot but that was the only clue she had to his identity. That and that he was an author with a publisher called Prashant. It was grossly insufficient but she had to find this guy somehow. The thing she had read uptil now had given her goosebumps. He had faced the same agony as she was now. He would understand. Maybe together they could figure it out. Maybe he had already figured it out. However it turned out she had to find this Ajay.
I put some clothes and my books into the bag and got ready to leave immediately. It was dark now, the house infact the entire street looked menacing. I walked to the bus stop a few paces away and even in the darkness I prayed for a miracle, I prayed for a human face. I asked for a sign that he had not forsaken me. But maybe he had. The people didn’t come and nor did the bus.
I had no other option but to walk all the way to Tarsa to be able to catch the night bus to Mumbai. The 40 minutes or so passed in silence as I walked over the uneven road praying for the families as I went past their houses. When I reached the schools, near the outer limits of Kasba, I wept. The school was the first sight you caught hold of when you reached the village. I wept because I knew in that instant that I was never coming back. The school would never greet me again. I was leaving it behind just like everyone had left me.
Even from afar Tarsa looked normal. There were autos and buses and hawkers and people and chaos– just normal signs of everyday life that I had been looking for the entire day in Kasba. It was like a head rush to see so many people at once after failing to find one for hours. I was at a loss of words as I took in the laughter and the cries and chatter.
Hesitantly, I approached some vendors asking them if they knew what had happened to Kasba. I gathered someone might have heard something. But to my amazement the hawkers behaved as if they had heard the name for the very first time.
“Kasba,” I repeated, the village to the right before Madgaon.
“Saheb te tar khandar aahe, gaon kashala bolta. Kaun pan nahi rahat tithe (Sir it’s a ruin, why are you calling it a village. Nobody stays there.)”
I was dumbstruck. What were these guys saying? Kasba was no ruin and people stayed there right till that morning. Moreover, they came every week or twice to shop in Tarsa or catch the bus to Mumbai. So many autos took passengers to Kasba on a share basis. How could they forget it all in a day? I was so disturbed I didn’t talk to anyone else further. I just stood in the corner waiting for the bus to arrive. And when it came, I walked directly to my seat without even looking around at my co-passengers. The vendors’ words had struck me hard. I kept mulling them over the entire journey, my mind refusing the comfort of sleep despite the darkness of the night or the cold wind blowing across my face.
We reached Mumbai at 7am. I was meeting Prashant at 10am. Normally I would go and lie down, get my bearings in order before meeting my editor but today the three hours couldn’t go faster. I needed to unload the barrage of information in my head. I needed an accomplice. Now observing the curious glances of the people around, I realised I must be looking like utter crap. I reluctantly made my way home, afraid that this part of my life might have spun out of control too. If that was the case I would have ended it all right there but my flat seemed just the way I had left it. All was in order. I passed the three hours nervously, getting a shower, a coffee to clear my head and arranging the events in order to tell Prashant. Some part of me hoped the recollection would help solve the puzzle but it didn’t. A part of me also told me to head straight to Prashant’s home and not hang around like this. But I resisted the urge.
At dot 10am, I was in front of Prashant’s cabin. The office had just opened and people were trickling in slowly. Prashant was in already though sipping tea or coffee in his desk chair. I entered immediately and launched into dialogue without offering any greeting or pleasantries. Saying it all aloud was like giving credence to all that had happened. I stopped several times as my voice caught in my throat but I went on. It had to be said. All this while my eyes were fixed onto a spot on the wall opposite. I didn’t look at Prashant once. Now that I was done, I hesitantly looked at my friend’s face. He hadn’t interrupted or said anything yet. But he looked distraught and the worry lines on his forehead reflected how concerned he was. Obviously, he thought I was off my rocker. But it was my turn to listen and I sat silently waiting for Prashant to speak up.
“That’s quite a story Ajay. If you weren’t acting so paranoid, I would have thought you were pitching a plot for the next novel.”
“It’s not a pitch Prashant. It’s all real. I know it’s really crazy to believe but you have to trust me on this.”
“Listen, I know writing novels in a village can be quite lonesome. Sometimes your brain just acts up and makes you believe all kinds of stuff. I have seen it happen to authors before. You are just stressing too much about the novel. Just forget about it for a few days even a month, get back your health and start over. I have this friend who has a farm house in Mahableshwar.”
“I am not f***ing crazy Prashant,” I cut him off. “I am not hallucinating and making up things. I don’t need a farm house anywhere. I am not crazy. I have lost my family, my relatives, my village…I need you to trust me…..as a friend.”
“Ok. Just sit down, will you. You say the name of your village is Kasba, right?”
“Only, I know your village is called Ambed. You always spoke about your childhood there, your grandparent’s house, the outhouse and the sea and everything.”
“What the hell Prashant! You think I don’t know my own village?” My anger was flaring up now, this was a huge mistake. Prashant was always a cynical person. He won’t understand.
“You don’t have to believe me Ajay. I already asked the HR to get your files. Just go through them. For the past three months, your royalty payments have been sent to Ambed by post. Check the address. Didn’t you receive the payments?”
I did receive the payments. I went to the post office in Kasba not Ambed every month. But they were sent to Ambed. Was I in Ambed? Was Kasba just a concoction of my mind? My head hurt. Had the fictional and real worlds interwoven themselves so much that I forgot where one ended and the second began?
Prashant was mumbling some words about a psychiatrist. It couldn’t be. I couldn’t have imagined it all. It was a conspiracy against me and Prashant was involved in it. That would explain the papers. He had fudged them. I needed to get out of the office and get to the bottom of this and I had to do it alone. And I had to start in Kasba.
The rest of the pages were blank. How could they be blank? She flipped them back and forth twice but no words magically appeared. Is that what this was all about, a crazy guy who had lost his sense of reality. She had banked all her hopes on this. And what had this turned out to be? A guy who refused to let go of his alternate reality like Russel Crowe in ‘A Beautiful Mind’. Not for a minute did she believe the conspiracy angle. It was too far fetched. The manuscript she felt held answers was a big sham. What was she to do now?
She ran her fingers over her face in despair. Unpleasant thoughts were cropping up in her mind. Was she crazy like the guy in the story? People just don’t disappear in thin air one fine day. But she have no reason to lose sight of reality. She was a normal girl in a normal job with a normal life. She was not an author. She just read. She read a lot. But that was nothing. Who had ever heard of anyone loosing ones mind over reading.
She had been reading a lot since she left home and came to Mumbai. Books were her only solace in this new place. Besides her office colleagues she knew only a handful of other people here. But she had never been a social person and liked to keep to herself anyway. That’s the way she had always been. Secluded. It had driven her parents mad. They loved people and social gatherings and relatives. She liked books. She was always tucked in with her books while they went to functions and marriages. It had only grown worse as she grew up. They wanted her to know people, be civil but she couldn’t care less for these people who mean’t nothing to her. She had so many fights with her mom over this. And the fights only escalated as time went on and she found out. She had Kafka to thank for that really. Kafka allegedly had it too. The schizoid personality disorder it was called. It wasn’t a big deal really despite the big words, all it meant was that you had the personality of a social outcast. All her life she had felt if she could figure out why she hated the company of people, she could remedy it for the sake of her parents. But once she knew, she stopped bothering altogether.
The fights became more frequent. They fought over not only relatives but her career, religious temperament and well every damn thing. It got so worse that she stopped thinking of the place as her home. And so she left.
It wasn’t that she hated her family. She loved them but the fights took a heavy toll on her. Fights and constant nagging were no way to live a life. She believed the distance would do their relationship good. But she missed home like crazy. Every time she passed by the row houses near her office she craved for her family. The houses held such a familial charm. Just looking at the barking pets, wind chimes softly whistling a tune, children playing on the modest lane separating parallel array of houses, housewives chatting away made her feel happy and sad at the same time.
She remembered the day she had moved out. Her parents had repeatedly asked her not to. Mom had flown into such a rage that she said she never talk to Neha again. Dad was livid. Both of them had disowned her that day. She had moved to the city all alone without the backup of anybody. She was so angry that she had wished for everyone to disappear from her life. She had stopped talking to everyone. It was like she wanted to wipe out her past and start anew. And she had.
Tears were clouding her eyes now. She looked at the unpaid bills on the table top. She had been let go from work a month back. It was like all that she had heard her parents say about her was justified. She was no good. But she couldn’t accept that. She had to believe in herself because no one else did. And so she had continued to go to her old office in sector 6 everyday. She would walk into the office with her laptop and write everyday. It became an established pattern. She would go in at 10am, have vada pav for lunch from the vendor outside, go back to office and leave at dot 6pm. Each day she would feel the vendor’s eyes bore into her as she walked back to the building. Soon, he stopped coming too, there were no customers to be had. Her office and all others were vacated for repairs. The staff had moved to a new place. Tables, chairs and all the old furniture were left behind, there was no place for them in the new office just like her. Phone lines were all dug up everywhere. The people in the row houses had been moved too. The entire area was declared unsafe and cordoned off for repairs.
She remembered going past the tapes into the office building. Yesterday, she had taken a few printouts from the neighbouring street. She had left them at her desk. It was the story she was working on — ‘The curious case of the lost village.’