If you have missed the Introduction to Disconnect: A Novel, feel free to check it out for the synopsis and other juicy sneak-peek details. This new book is fiction, comprised of a prologue, an epilogue, and 13 chapters. Every week, on every Thursday, a chapter will be posted on the blog, non-stop, until the entire book is up. The Prologue of Disconnect, my second novel, begins right below! I eagerly await your thoughts and feedback in the comments below! Love you all! Happy Reading!
PROLOGUE – 12 A.M.
RAHUL cannot still his hand. It shakes uncontrollably. His fevered grip makes the ice of his scotch on-the-rocks clink constantly. He tightens his fingers around the glass as his hand begins to take on a freak madness he has never seen before today. His noisy panic attack has already earned him two scowls from the middle-aged woman passenger seated beside him in the short fifteen minutes since take-off. The third one will be coming any second now. But he’ll be damned if he has to let go of his drink. It is the only thing keeping him from falling apart at the seams.
So he brings across his left hand in an attempt to bolster his grip. But, instead of focusing on that task, the move makes him glance at his wristwatch, making him realize only now that it must be turned forward to reflect the current time in Mumbai. The stewardess’ announcements have already given him a glimpse of his motherland, their gritty accents reminding him of the one that used to be his own, which has long been refined by the nuances of the English. But that’s all it was: a glimpse. Now this, altering the hands of time on his wrist, feels like an incredible undertaking. Almost like it might confirm something; something he might not like.
He can’t tell whether he is indeed returning to the homeland he left nine years ago or just to some half-familiar dream.
To control the tremors in his hand proves to be an impossible task. Since the whole fiasco is beginning to grate his nerves, too, he throws back his entire drink in one desperate swig. Before he has even swallowed, he takes note of how the woman next to him breaths a sigh of relief. The liquid courage burning down his throat usually works by now, but it is doing nothing to steel his restless fingers. Then, not for the first time this week, his free hand subconsciously moves for his breast pocket of his coat where his phone is stored. Now that he has whipped it out, he scrolls down the contacts until DAD appears. He wonders if the number has at all changed since he had punched it in all those years ago. God only knows if he is still unwelcome after what he did.
After what he said…
Then, it suddenly happens. The sensation feels akin to claustrophobia as it descends over him, his face turning a near-black purple, the air in his windpipes getting trapped and his vision closing in from all sides–something he has by no means ever been prone to. In the frenzied panic to catch his breath, he yanks out his tie and reaches to reposition the air-conditioning vents to chase away the sweat that has suddenly beaded across his face and neck, knocking over his glass and the ice in it in the process. The cubes fall and bounce off the woman’s feet. Her face twists as she shoots him her third scowl. But he can hardly pay it any mind. Not when not he is one moment away from suffocating to death.
He needs to concentrate on something good, focus on a thing that stabilizes him before he passes out. And so instantly, the face of the love of his life comes into his mind, and his eyes lock onto the gold band of the engagement ring around his ring finger. As soon as a smile starts to tug at his lips, it all recedes.
Before long, he is back to feeling normal again, like before he boarded the plane and was in the arms of his fiancé, saying goodbye at Heathrow Airport: a consistent and resting heartbeat, no clogs in his lungs, and fingers that show no signs of ever having been in distress.
Rahul settles back into his seat. He knows better than to chalk up his anxiety to it being only his second time around on a plane, for that is not the case. First Class sure does furnish the much-needed drinks, cool air, and comfort, but none of it is making his self-imposed journey easier.
MAHINDER rings the doorbell rather roughly, leaving his finger on the button a bit longer this time around. A rather rotund young man answers the door with such an obviously-staged innocence that Mahinder just wants to scream bloody murder in his face. Instead he puts on a bright sunshine smile and, like he has been instructed to, announces, “Pizza Paradise delivery!”
“Oh, yes.” The man prepares to dig into his pocket to fish out the eight-hundred rupees, but stops short midway. Part of the charade, Mahinder thinks grimly. “But you’re not on time, are you? I don’t owe you anything.”
“You do, sir.” Mahinder fights to keep his composure steady because he knows what’s coming next and he doesn’t like it one bit. “I was here only ten minutes ago and a madam told me that I’ve got the wrong flat. I mentioned a delivery for Mr. Agarwal, but she shooed me away.”
The man rubs his chin. “A woman? There’s no one here but me!” His performance is impressive, but Mahinder is not fooled in the least. Then the man, with ninja-like stealth that can be obscured in a blink, reaches out and snags the two large pizza boxes Mahinder is holding up. “You’re ten minutes late. My food is free.”
Mahinder is stunned to find he is now standing empty-handed. He fights the urge to yell, clenching his teeth. “You cannot do this, sir! You are making a fool of me! I was right here on time and when I went to ask the watchman he sent me back here, too. You need to pay!” He pulls out the electronic delivery pad as proof of his claim, almost desperately shoving it into the man’s face. “Here, see!”
The man waves his hand dismissively. “You’re wrong. You went to a different flat on a different floor before.” And now, it is time for the final act of slamming the door on Mahinder’s face. But before it is performed, the man gets out, “Remember, the customer is always right!”
Mahinder foresaw all of this, and yet he couldn’t prevent it. He wants to pound the door with his fists, kick it in and take by force what is owed to him. But all that will probably get him is arrested, least of all his bill amount. Then he hears a sudden roar of laughter erupt from beyond the door. It sounds especially diabolical. Mahinder can almost swear, as he presses an ear against the closed door, that he can hear a woman’s wicked giggle, too, muffled somewhere inside there. It is at his expense. And there’s nothing he can do about it. So he leaves, sulking and grumbling under his breath all the way back to his company motorcycle parked outside the building.
Before he can mount the bike, his phone begins to ring. He almost knows who is calling, so he answers the phone without glancing at the screen.
“Delivered and paid for?” his boss asks from the other end of the line.
“Only…” Mahinder can hardly get his words out, his throat tightening. “… delivered, Vivian sir.”
The sharp gasp on the other end was expected, but Mahinder had not prepared himself for what would follow. His boss howls loudly, and Mahinder has to hold his phone inches from his ear. “You idiot! God help me… it’s coming out of your paycheck, I swear. Back here, pronto!”
Shaking his head, and feeling immensely discouraged, he returns the phone to his pocket and sets a course for Churchgate. He curses the universe for setting him up for failure, making him the one who had to make the last delivery of the night. Not only was the order placed past the acceptable ordering time but it was also made by the most conniving schemers on Earth. It was not a formula for success.
His first day on the job and he has nothing to show for it.
BAHAR deliberately pokes around each shelf of her refrigerator until she happily welcomes the fact that the left-over stuffed capsicum from the deli down the road is the only thing worth eating at this late hour. The very high probability of chest burn does not daunt her as she picks up a fork to dig in. She scoops up a fork-full and almost melts to a puddle on the floor when her palate begins dissecting, picking out all the right things at the right moments. The thika-masala and natural heat inherent in the chillies battle for total dominance… until they both must unite for a joint overwhelming assault… which in turn doesn’t overpower for long because the as-smooth-as-cream stuffing of the potatoes is there to save the day… and mercifully put out the fire in Bahar’s mouth. Mmmm. Love it, she thinks. It’s doing all the right things it’s supposed to do. It tastes as hot and phenomenal and perfect as she remembers. Perhaps even better. She’s glad she saved some of it and brought it home. So glad.
In the peppy mood she is in, she nudges her fridge door close excitedly with a light kick. Only then does she notice a shaft of dim light beneath the closed door of her brother’s bedroom. She hadn’t noticed it when she came into the kitchen. She proceeds to investigate whatever is going on there, chewing on blissfully. This is seriously blowing my mind. So good.
Her knock is met with a permission to enter, and she steps into the eternally untidy room of her teenage brother to find him at his desk, stabbing the keys of his laptop. She cocks her head at him.
“Why are you up?” she says to him, in a tone that implies she is his big sister who is entitled to ask such a question.
“Couldn’t get sleep,” Jashan replies without taking his eyes off the screen. “Thought I’d, you know, play a game or something to help with it.”
“Cool. Which?” Bahar is genuinely interested, but his reflexes are lightening-quick. She barely makes a tentative move to edge closer when he promptly lowers the screen, turning his laptop away from her. Her eyes narrow, scrutinizing him and his laptop. “What are you up to?” she says quizzically.
“Nothing,” he says coolly, as though he didn’t just do something suspect.
“Nothing bad I hope. Nothing… dirty.”
Jashan goes blush red. “Didi! You really think I’m like that? Shows how well you know me.”
“Ok then.” Bahar relents and decides to leave him to it. Teenagers are one of the biggest mysteries to ever plague this planet and right now she is not in the mood of getting to the bottom of whatever is going on between him and that piece of technology he forever seems to be glued to. She trusts him enough to give him that bit of space. Before she leaves him, however, she pauses in the doorway to offer him a taste of her midnight snack. “Trust me, you’ll love it.” She licks her lips. “It’ll blow your mind.”
“I know you’re the critic,” he quips back. “But I’m not a big fan of acidity. Offer Sahil jiju some.”
“Your Sahil jiju is sleeping, which is what you should be doing right now. You won’t get up in time for the orientation. Tomorrow’s your first day of junior college. Get some shut-eye already.”
He promises he will soon.
Back in the kitchen, Bahar rinses the fork and empty container in the running sink. She nearly sniffs while doing it. The stuffed-capsicum didn’t last as long as she would have liked. She wants more. She swears she could cry. It was great while it lasted, but she can’t help but weep over not having any more to feed her rumbling stomach that hasn’t stopped rumbling since it ruined her sleep and dragged her out of bed.
YASHWANT has not seen any takers in the past two days, but it feels like he has spent eons searching for someone, anyone, or even anything, that is in need of a ride. He has done everything short of something crazy like holding a knife to the neck of an innocent passerby and giving that terrified person a choice between their precious life and a taxi-ride to any destination of their choice. Either way, that person would be paying. But it’s not like Yashwant could ever to resort to that. No. He already resorted to getting his hands dirty, plunging headlong into nasty brawls with other eager cabbies over potential takers at the station yesterday. Yashwant is fifty-five. The last thing a fossil like him needs to do is break his back, quite literally, earning a livelihood. But he is also desperate, perhaps desperate enough to seriously contemplate holding someone at knife-point. Anyways, right now, that is not the direction he wants his mind to wander in. Being sleep-deprived is making him think stupid things. He is having a hard time keeping his eyes peeled for a taker, and the fact that they are coming up short may be a good thing after all. Today, driving around instead of staying parked in one spot isn’t helping his chances. He doesn’t know if he should blame it on how late it is or because he has driven much further north than he intended to, because all he sees are call-girls looking to be something other than taxi takers and other taxis that have takers. He can feel the strong pull of sleep, that undeniable mistress, but he’s two hours away from home. He knows he can’t keep going, not if he wants to avoid driving into a building because he couldn’t fight the urge to nod off. With a groan, he decides to give up on his quest.
He drives his taxi into a deserted lane, at the end of which he believes is the Railway Colony of Santa Cruz, and parks. He rolls up his windows, leaving the fourth one open by a four-inch gap lest he should wake up choking for air mid-snore. After pulling out a threadbare cushion from under the passenger seat, with sad grace he tosses his bulk into the back seat. Once he’s gotten into the position that suits him the most, he is still not comfortable. He has spread himself like a carefree giant and taken off his turban, but he is still in the backseat of an old fiat, a far cry from a spacious SUV to accommodate his girth. At long last, lying on his back, and his turban planted over his eyes, he surrenders to his heavy eyelids.
He crosses his arms over his wide chest. “Waheguru, better get some takers tomorrow,” he mumbles to himself, and the next second he is snoring.
SR. INSPECTOR KAPADIA’s phone screams for less than a second when his eyes fly open, aware and alert. He wonders, with eyebrows that are knit hard, who is calling him this late. He is supposed to be off-duty. The slurred murmurs of his wife next to him tell him that her sleep has been disturbed as well. He softly tells her to go back to sleep, throws the covers off himself to climb out of bed, and takes his phone call out on the balcony of his bedroom so as not to disturb his wife even more. The number flashing on the phone is not one which he recognizes. He would otherwise ignore such pesky callers who have no sense of timing and social convention, but something in his gut is commanding him to take this call at this late hour from this unknown caller.
He steps out, sliding the shut door shut behind him, and takes the call. “Inspector Kapadia,” he answers.
“I know. I am calling from the Crime Department.” The voice is unfamiliar and clipped. “This is to inform you that your application for a higher post has been approved.”
He doesn’t know who he is telling him this, but he knows what is being spoken about. Sr. Inspector Kapadia is thrilled, once he gets past the fact that it is still an awfully inappropriate time for this. “Thank you, sir.”
The man on the other end of the line clicks his tongue, as though annoyed. “Thank me by not making me regret it. Report to ACP Omkar at 8 A.M tomorrow.”
“Is ACP Omkar my superior now?”
“Yes, I am,” ACP Omkar’s impassive voice declares. “The man before you lasted less than a week, but don’t let that stop you from thinking you have big shoes to fill.”
A click, and the line goes dead.
Kapadia pulls his phone away from his ear and stares dumbly at it. He doesn’t know how to feel about what just happened, so he feels several things ranging from simple happiness to deep bewilderment. All he can do is he return back inside, muddled with conflicting thoughts.
His wife hears him come back to bed, rustling the sheets. “Who was it?” she asks, not making a move to take off her eye-mask. He is still laboring under that heavy haze of mixed emotions, so she reaches blindly for his hand and repeats her question till he registers her voice and touch.
He hears her the second time, breaking out of the daze. “I just got promoted,” he says simply, like he can’t believe it.
His wife lets out a disbelieving laugh. “That’s amazing!” She sits up now, yanking off her eye-mask. “This is good, isn’t it? We should celebrate!”
“I report at eight tomorrow.”
She frowns. “But it’s a Saturday.”
He shrugs. “The law never sleeps.”
At that, she understands, and he promises her a celebration later in the week. They speak a little longer, about what this promotion means and how much he has longed for it–three years –after which she is the first to lie back down, pulling her eye-mask back over her eyes. Kapadia settles back in bed, too, head sinking into his pillow.
Long after his wife has slipped back into her slumber, sleep refuses to come to Kapadia. Fifteen minutes later, his mind is still a mire of turbulent thoughts, keeping him up. The sharp way the ACP spoke doesn’t bode well for him. Nothing short of putting his best foot forward will seem to suffice. Anybody can see that. That much is clear, he knows. However, this isn’t the only thing bothering him. There is something else. He feels something he ought to know or ought to be remembering or doing is prodding at him, nudging him furtively, pushing him to confront it rather than the other way around. And the more he tries to think about it and figure it out, the more elusive that thing becomes. A mysterious, nameless thing that has come out of the woodworks to torment him, especially tonight. It is like trying to catch a handful of sand and every time the grains are just slipping through his mind’s grasp. It is so frustrating.
He just can’t seem to put his finger on what that damn thing is.
NAZNIN has been staring it for hours, her mind completely consumed by it. Looking long and black and impossible, it hangs on the hook of her cupboard, and so it is hard to ignore. Sitting on the foot of her bed, she has reached over to feel the material nine hundred times already, as if it is going to morph into something more agreeable between every time she does it, but it won’t. It can’t. That would be like being given a salad and asking it to be a donut. The fabric remains rough to the touch and heavy. Like sandpaper, grating across the grooves of her fingertips. She knew the day would come when the outfit would be imposed on her, but she wasn’t expecting it to come so soon.
Just as she lets go of it, her mother walks into her room and notices the miserable slouch her daughter has been sporting the entire day as she moped around the house. She sighs and tilts her head, hands becoming akimbo, because it is not the first time she is noticing this defeated posture. If Naznin can help it, it won’t be the last. She glowers.
“I’m not hearing any more about it. You are wearing it and that is decided.” Her mother’s tone is one of finality. “Your days of inappropriate school clothes are over. This is your best friend for the rest of your life.”
“Ammijaan, I can’t just–” Naznin starts.
Her mother’s words cut right through hers. “If your Abba were here, he’d give you a piece of his mind. Now that you’ve passed school there’s no longer a reason to wait. It will start out as being difficult, but you will get used to it. Everybody says so. The Batliwala girl who lives downstairs told you so yesterday, didn’t she? And I’ve never worn anything but this.” She tugs at her own burqa, which isn’t really form-fitting, but hugs her plump hips rather snugly. “It strengthens our imaan. You must be proud to wear it. It is our modesty and an indispensible part of a woman’s life. You can still wear your pajamas and kurtis under it, it is acceptable. And I don’t need to remind you of all the hard work your father does and the little pay he earns.” She glares now. “So you will put it on with a happy face and in the process contribute to the barkat of this house.”
Before Naznin can even respond, her mother whips around and storms out, leaving Naznin stumped.
That is so not fair, she thinks mournfully.
Left alone, Naznin returns to her pained thoughts in silence, save for the loud chorus of honking that plays as the proverbial background music to her dramatic life, drifting up to her window from the hustle and bustle of Mohamed Ali Road. It completely suits the moment, since all Naznin can think about is the unfairness and sudden disruption in her life. She stares at the burqa in front of her. If only her mother would give her a chance to have her say. Sixteen years she has been allowed to wear anything she likes–anything modest and parent-approved, that is. Now that she is getting older, certain additional restrictions would of course be imposed where her wardrobe is concerned. That is to be expected. But this? This is wholly unreasonable. There was no time given for a smooth, gradual transition. The burqa is just being dumped on her without any consideration for–
Her thoughts hit a wall; Naznin’s phone bleeped, another Instant Message from a random person on indianteencommunity.in. The stranger she was chatting with earlier in the night has returned.
GoodGuy187: hey there! i’m back
As she peers into the glowing screen, her fingers hover over the keypad, and in the meantime another message appears.
GoodGuy187: glad to see ur still online… if its insomnia its contagious coz i’ve got it too…
Naznin grows increasingly flustered. Her mind becomes a battle ground as she stews about her next move. She has been enjoying the virtual company of an anonymous teenage friend, but she also wants to be left alone for good. She wants to talk to somebody, and she wants to talk to nobody. She chews on the inside of her thumb and squeezes her eyes shut, thinking. Ideas flash by a mile a minute, and she goes back and forth, back and forth. Her mind reels, and her ears suddenly hurt. She presses her hands to her ears to shut out the street-racket outside her window. It seems to have built up to a blaring, piercing crescendo for no good reason.
She needs to escape all this. She needs to break free. She needs to be in control.
TeenGirl1242: we should meet…
ASHNI, with eyes that have never been more wide and wary, whispers, “Check again.”
Her father promptly obeys. He follows the routine he knows like the back of his hand. He gets down on his knees, lifts the ends of the blanket falling over the sides of her bed, and thoroughly examines the space underneath. He throws in a few hand gestures to indicate an empty space. “Nope,” he confirms. “Again, nothing there.”
“Are you sure?” Her voice is small and squeaky. “They always come at night and make scary sounds that wake me up.”
“There are no monsters under the bed, sweety,” her father says rather tightly as he gets on his feet. He has never spoken to her like that before. Ever. It takes her by surprise and makes her pout. “Now go to sleep.”
“You said you would think about it.” Ashni keeps him from leaving the room. He walks to the other side of her bed, gazing down at her. The longer he is with her, the safer she will feel. And, he had promised her to think about what she had asked. “Please daddy, I really want a dog. He’ll protect me at night. He’ll save me from the monsters. He can sleep with me here.” She scoots to the side, clearing some space next to her on her small bed. It isn’t enough to keep a small pup from falling off the side, and she knows it. It is a single bed for a nine-year-old, after all.
Her father just purses his lips. “I’m sorry, sweety. We’re not getting a dog. It’s too much responsibility and you’re too small to take care of it.”
“I’m not! I promise I’ll look after it. Please, daddy.”
He looks at her briefly, his brow furrowed. Then he silently pecks her cheek, draws her blanket up to her chin for her to hold because she has told him she wants it that way, and walks to the door to switch off her bedroom lights. The second he does, she tenses, her heart leaping into her throat.
“Sorry, sweety. Maybe when you’re older.” His tone has softened now. “Good night.” As a compromise and per custom, he doesn’t close the door all the way when stepping out. He leaves a crack open to spare her from being swallowed up in total darkness.
Ashni strains her ears to listen to her father’s footsteps as he steps away from her room, until they echo and fade away altogether. She was hoping they would last longer than they did.
She swallows. She is completely alone, and she becomes eerily aware of it. Terrified, her bugled eyes carefully begin sweeping across the shadows of her dim room. Her windows are closed shut, but the air has somehow grown colder around her. And she doesn’t know if there are faint growls and grunts and snaps coming from the dark corners now, or if she is just playing them from memory. She imagines the worst, her mind whirling. The monsters will have to reach below her blankets to drag her under the bed where they will probably eat her. But she doesn’t want anything to feast on her tonight. She pulls her knees to her chest and curls up into a ball under her blanket, which she uses to cover every inch of her body. Then she closes her eyes. Not that she plans on sleeping. She will also not get sleep. But if the monsters do decide to attack, she doesn’t have the courage to see them come for her.
DIPAK resents himself for having taken such a strict tone to his daughter. He tries to forgive himself. It really hurt him; his heart still aches. He loves her too madly to do this to her. Since his wife passed away in childbirth his daughter has been his touchstone. But Ashni needs to understand as well. She is almost nine, an age when a fear of monsters under the bed should have long been overcome. And a dog is not the answer. She is too young for such a big responsibility. He believed her when she pledged her unqualified commitment to it, but in all reality it would only be a hassle.
Hassle. The word brings back the Caller to commandeer Dipak’s mind again. Tomorrow is a Saturday and the Caller may try to contact Dipak again for the fourth time in four weeks. In twenty-four hours Dipak will speak to him again, this mysterious stranger, if the Caller’s sequence is any reliable indication. But he doesn’t want to think about all that right now. Not now, he thinks. Please. It is the middle of the night. Feeeing heavier than he weighs, he finds himself in the living room, having come here without realizing.
The music library is lined from floor to ceiling and covers the length and breadth of three entire walls of his apartment’s living room. He steps up to it and skims his collection. After putting some thought into it, he carefully selects a vinyl record. Using his deft fingers, he sets it on the record player and then settles into his armchair.
Right on cue, the notes of the piano slowly begin to engulf the room, steadily surrounding him and lifting his mood like airborne narcotics no one can resist. As the tempo picks up, the vocals begin, and he begins to sing along in his mind. Soon, it is all Dipak has his mind on and he loses himself in it, feeling light as a feather. Just as he has always enjoyed it, he soars high and then melts like butter, becoming a slave to the baritone, masterful vocals of Engelbert Humperdinck.
GAUTAM and his wife flank their son, holding each of his hands, as the trio turn down into a dimly lit gully of Marine Drive where they have parked their car.
“Did you like the movie?” he asks, looking down with a smile.
“I want to see it again!” his son pipes, jumping once.
Gautam laughs. “Ok little champ, we’ll try to get it on DVD so you can watch it at home.” It warms his heart that a trip to the theatre allowed him to reconnect with his family, after being held up at work with very little reprieve; even if only for a kids’ animated film about talking racecars. Something is better than nothing.
“Papa,” his son says sweetly. “Can we go for ice-cream?”
“Umm, if your mummy is okay with it,” he replies sheepishly.
“Mummy, please? I want chocolate chip!”
“Shaan,” the boy’s says in a tone that reprimands. “Remember the last time you had ice-cream before bedtime? You had a fever for three days and you had to miss school.”
“But it’s Friday night!” Shaan insists.
“Payal.” Gautam lifts a shoulder. “Let him have some.”
“Please, mummy, please!”
Payal shakes her head. “It’s too late to find a place, too,” she says firmly. “Next time, okay?”
Shaan sags like all the energy of his small seven-year-old life has been stolen from him with that simple denial, like he doesn’t have a reason to live anymore. Gautam can feel it as he holds the boy’s now limp hand.
But it isn’t simple for Shaan, Gautam knows. He begins to wonder if he can secret some ice cream into the house and make his little champ happy. It has been a long time since he has been a father to his seven-year-old. Breach Candy Hospital is understaffed and he has been one of the too-few attending Trauma Surgeons for almost a year. He has been unable to scale back his hours with the tide of patients rolling in day after day. People seem to be prone to having terrible falls or motor vehicle accidents or impaling themselves with something sharp–or indeed blunt–after a slip in the bathroom or kitchen. It has been an unusually busy year for the medical profession, and especially his specialty. But, of course, he can do anything for his little champ. Payal is only being the worrisome mother that is in her nature to be. He is the father and by definition is required to occasionally colour outside the lines his cautious wife has drawn.
He has made up his mind to go against his wife’s decision when, all of a sudden, inexplicably, a sharp blinding pain shoots through his skull. It starts from the back of his head, spreading like wildfire into his every muscle, until it numbs his body and tunnels his vision. Clumsily, he keels over, teetering on the brink of unconsciousness.
ADIL shivers violently. His legs almost turn to water under him. He has never attacked anyone like this before in his life. He cannot believe he smashed a glass bottle on a man’s head; a perfectly innocent man who is now lying on the ground. The wife gasps and screams hysterically, but she is easily subdued the moment Ismaeel bhai jabs the taser into her side. Convulsing from all those volts of electricity zapping through her veins, she crumples and falls, twitching beside her husband.
The small boy, now free of his parents’ hold, stands motionless for a moment. He raises his eyes to Adil. Slides them over to Ismaeel bhai. Takes a small breath.
Then he breaks into a run.
“Get him!” Ismaeel bhai commands.
Adil obeys the order, dropping the glass bottleneck and taking off, not needing to be told twice. The boy is crying and whimpering and has got a head start. And Adil finds it impossible to breathe under his mask. It is suffocating. He wants to take it off, but Ismaeel bhai would kill him if he did, not to mention that it would give them completely away.
We cannot let them know who we are, he reminds himself.
The child’s legs are too small and don’t carry him far enough to escape Adil’s clutches for long. When he gets close enough, Adil lunges and tackles the boy. Unfortunately, he miscalculated the force necessary. As they hit the ground, the boy’s head strikes the side of the pavement, making a sickening cracking sound. Adil winces instinctively, though he himself is unharmed. He will pay for this mistake later, but he always begs forgiveness for his mistakes the moment he makes them, hoping that will make his punishment to come less severe than it would otherwise be. So in his mind, he begs forgiveness for this.
This and everything else, he thinks. He is only doing what he is being forced to do. He does not have the luxury of choice.
SHAAN can only see through a curtain of red. Thick, hot blood drips down the contours of his round face. His ear ring.
The Bad Man who came chased him down and hurt him has Shaan in a vise-like body-lock from the back. Shaan trains his eyes to the ground. He is too afraid to look up at the sharp fangs and ferocious red eyes set on a grimy green face. A part of him knows his captor is wearing a mask, but there is another part of him, the part that is a childlike and irrational, which insists it is the Bad Man’s real face. He wishes the road had people around. He can’t bring himself to scream for help in these paralyzing circumstances, with his throat tightened and mouth dry. He is dragged against his will to the Big Bad Man, the one who attacked his mummy, who seems to be the one in charge.
“You hurt him! He’s bleeding!” the Big Bad Man roars. He has a face similar to that of Shaan’s captor.
The Bad Man tightly clutching Shaan hangs his head in dismay, acknowledging his mistake with that gesture.
“Shaan!” A strained voice shouts.
Shaan twists around to see that his papa has recovered himself, and with that he sees a flicker of hope. His father is on his hand and knees, which push deep into the tiny splinters of glass that litter the ground around him. The muscles in his bright red face are tightened hard in a scowl. Gritting his teeth, he swears at the Bad Men. “Let him go!”
“I told you to hit him hard!” The Big Bad Man yells at the Bad Man, fuming. “YA ALLAH!”
The Big Bad Man marches off, heading back to finish the job, and fear seizes Shaan worse than before. He cries aloud, “No! Papa!” The Big Bad Man looms over his father, cranking his arm back and taking a swing. Shaan looks away because he cannot see his papa get hurt and stabbed. No, it can’t happen, he prays furiously. Not to papa. Not to papa.
Anything but that. Anything but that.
But when he writhes back down in a heap, Shaan realizes his papa was only zapped with a nasty dose of electricity, like his mummy was.
When the Big Bad Man comes marching back with the sparking taser, Shaan thinks he is going to be the next victim of that weapon. A storm of unquenchable rage seems to make the Big Bad Man swell to twice his size. Shaan shrivels inside his captor’s body-lock. But the taser comes nowhere near him. Instead, the Big Bad Man stows it away and whips out a white handkerchief, pressing it to Shaan’s nose and mouth. It is foul-smelling, biting the insides of his nostrils, but the odour doesn’t last for long as his senses begin to dull. Nothing makes sense now. For some reason he is drowsy, but he doesn’t want to be, and colour begins to bleed from the world. He is so confused, sluggish. He wants to move and fight but not a single part of his body is doing as it is told; now, when he can try and escape again after the Bad Man’s tight hold on him is slowly relaxing. The world around him wavers and wanes.
The next moment he is hauled bodily and effortlessly to a parked nondescript white van, like he weighs nothing, floating all the way, and thumped against the floor. Before the van door is slid shut, his half-closed eyes catch a final glimpse of his fallen mummy and papa. Their faces are pressed flat against the ground, frozen. Unlike his, their eyes are wide open and bulged, and the way they are glaring at him, sprawled awkwardly in the middle of the road and stunned still, curdles his blood.
Shaan wants the sleep to come faster now, and so he doesn’t fight the feeling anymore.
END OF PROLOGUE
To continue reading, head on over to CHAPTER 1 of Disconnect.
© Amaan Khan, June 28, 2018.
- didi – the Hindi word for ‘sister’.
- thika-masala – ultra spicy masala
- bhai – the Hindi word for ‘brother’/a term of endearment and respect for an older gentleman.
- Waheguru: how Sikhs address their Lord.
- ACP – Assistant Commissioner of Police.
- ammi – mother.
- abba – father.
- barkat – wealth/auspicious inflow of money.
- gully – alley
- Ya Allah – Oh God (swearing)/taking God’s name in vain