If you missed the Introduction to Disconnect: A Novel , the Prologue, or Chapter 1, do check them out before reading Chapter 2. Disconnect 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. Chapter 2 of Disconnect, my second novel, begins right below! Let me know how you’re liking the story so far in the comments below! Thank you! Love you all! And Happy Reading!
CHAPTER 2 – 11 A.M.
MAHINDER is getting an earful. He already got an earful last night, but when his boss asked him to step into his office this morning, he expected to be sacked. The last thing he expected today was to get a repeat of last night’s firing. He can’t do much except for stand in place and listen patiently to the long, hard lecture Vivian is giving him. His boss hasn’t stopped his barrage for seven full minutes, not even for a single breath of air, and Mahinder has caught almost every cuss thrown his way for being a Sikh. This part of the lecture he remembers clearly: how people like him can’t be relied on to do the job right, how they think they can do just what they please and how they are just simply not right in the head. What his religion and culture has to do with his job and why was it pulled into the matter, Mahinder does not know, but he understands that Vivian probably just needs to vent for a second time. Mahinder wishes Vivian didn’t have to, because he is just standing here, willingly taking his boss’s undue hate all over again, and feels a strong urge to object with a word or two before he becomes the butt of a crude Sardar joke. But Mahinder won’t make that mistake. He knows better than to interrupt his boss.
The office is air-conditioned, but rebel beads of sweat sprout on his forehead. He squirms.
“This is an International franchise! Can you even comprehend what that means, you imbecile? Can you even understand a single word coming out of my mouth? You are standing in Pizza Paradise’s first ever branch of this country! Our management contract assures them no more than five late deliveries within the first three months. And then along comes you, you lousy son-of-a-bitch, to trash it all. Not only do you fail to meet the twenty-nine-minute time-limit on the first day of business but also on the first day of your job. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t fire you right now. I swear I’m tempted to kick you out the door. There were other fellows to hire, good qualified fellows!”
There it is, Mahinder thinks. The threat of being sacked. He doesn’t know the relevant qualifications to deliver pizza. It can’t be very different from delivering shipments to e-shopping customers of his previous job. The only thing that is perhaps new is now he must race against the clock. And that is exactly what he was doing last night. But he couldn’t account for those cheaters. Nobody could. No matter how much he can try to explain that to his boss, Vivian will not see reason and only be interested in holding Mahinder responsible.
If I give excuses, it’ll only make things worse.
Vivian’s patience seems to be wearing thin as he sits stiffly behind his desk waiting for an answer. Mahinder’s body snaps to attention.
“Please don’t, Vivian sir,” Mahinder begs, joining his hands together in supplication. “I need the money. Cut last night’s amount from my pay like you said, but I need the job. I assure you I will not disappoint you again. Just one chance. Last chance.”
Vivian leans back into the chair and squints. He steeples his fingers together and deliberates quietly–or in the least looks like he is considering the matter. Quickly, almost too quickly, he says, “A first and final warning. One more screw-up and you’re sacked. Got it?” Mahinder nods vigorously. “Orders are storming in. There’ll be a whole lot of rounds today. Get to it. Go! Get out of my face before I change my mind!” Vivian flings his arms in the air in an agitated gesture.
Mahinder doesn’t waste a second in getting himself out of there. He has just about closed the office door behind him when he catches Vivian still mumbling to himself. Mahinder can’t understand much except for the words ‘pathetic punjabi dogs’ and ‘should all be shot down’. Rolling his eyes, Mahinder shakes his head and shuts the door.
Vivian can say what he wants. Whatever helps him cool down and take his mind off Mahinder’s screw-up. Mahinder might even agree to listen to a third lecture, if it helps. He knows that Vivian is somewhat obliged to keep him on. His boss cannot expect or afford to find a quick replacement, not when it is the second day of opening and things are heating up. Vivian just wanted to scare Mahinder straight, who he probably thought was slacking on last night’s delivery. But Mahinder knows it was not just an empty threat. No fool in Vivian’s position would tolerate him if he manages to screw up like last night again.
This is my last chance. My final one.
Mahinder prays for two things. Honest customers, and favourable traffic. At any rate, he will be driving like an absolute maniac without a care for his safety.
At the distribution counter in the back of the restaurant, his fellow delivery boys are packing up their hot-bags with their allotted deliveries. Many head out through the backdoor to rev up their company motorcycles. Mahinder searches for his name and finds it on a post-it adhered to four pizza boxes that need to reach four different people in the same pin-code somewhere in Cuff Parade. This round should be a piece of cake.
Outside, all set on his motorcycle with his helmet, which sits crookedly and uncomfortably on top of his turban, he pushes the little green button on the electronic delivery pad that is fastened over the fuel tank. Get-set-go, he thinks.
The countdown has begun.
GAUTAM keeps expecting to wake from this dream, but it has become a living nightmare. It was one thing to battle the torment inside him and keep it bottled up, but it is quite another to have so many eyes on him and his face be like an open book of his wrecked mental state. He cannot tolerate this for another moment. He looks over to his wife. She has all the words and all the feelings. He does too, but this is good for Payal. She needs it more than he does.
Once the media were let into the property and allowed to gather in the front yard, she wanted nothing more than to put her story out. Now, on the podium built for two on the front steps of the mansion, in front of a huddled collection of microphones, she is struggling to speak above the despair that has shattered her from the inside out, physically as well as emotionally.
Flash-cameras go off as she cries softly. “He is our son, our only child. He’s only seven… doesn’t deserve this. Please… don’t do this… took him, please return… to us. Don’t hurt…. We are willing… whatever you ask, just please don’t… hurt… my baby.” Her tired, red eyes look straight into the news cameras filming her, like she is making her personal plea to the kidnapper’s directly. Every reporter present is hanging on her every word. Intently, they study her wretched, tear-marked features and wait for her to continue. “Please, please, please, return Shaan to us….”
Gautam steps forward when it is clear she cannot go on having lost her voice. “We beg you, please give us back our son,” he says into the microphones. His words feel strangled in his throat, preventing him from saying more too.
With a quick nod from Inspector Kapadia, Gautam guides his frail wife off the podium and clears a way back inside the mansion as the sea of reporters starts roaring. ACP Omkar ascends the podium to kill their hopes of posing the parents with questions. They must be allowed privacy in this devastating time. He will be handling any queries henceforth.
Once inside the mansion, Gautam immediately orders a waiting Shakuntala to bring water for Payal, for his wife can’t seem to walk right and is leaning heavily on him for support. Her ashen face is not promising something good. She spent herself in front of the media for ten long minutes.
“You haven’t eaten much at all, have you?” he asks, and she faintly mouths, “No.” Her eyelids flutter when she does.
When the water arrives, she cannot bring herself to have more than a sip. She refuses to drink more and shakes her head dizzily.
“She must lie down,” Inspector Kapadia tells Gautam.
There is no question of bringing her to the bedroom. She will not be able to make it that far judging from her overall weakness, so Gautam decides to help her to the front room which is the closest place she can be taken to rest. And so he does, the housemaid and Inspector in tow.
Gautam has helped support her halfway to the closest couch when the dead weight of her entire body all of a sudden collapses over him.
If Gautam’s own muscles weren’t so deadened, Inspector Kapadia wouldn’t have to leap into action to keep Payal from splaying to the floor completely. Payal’s head narrowly misses blunt contact with the marble floor when the Inspector slides his arm under to prevent the injury. The whole incident makes Shakuntala clutch her bosom and gasp, causing her to let go of the glass of water in her hands. It splinters at her feet. Gautam tries reviving her, but Payal won’t wake no matter how much he says her name or taps her cheeks or shakes her.
“All this stress is not good for her, Dr. Shah.” Inspector Kapadia says worriedly to him as he cradles his unconscious wife. “We should carry her to the bedroom.”
Gautam’s eyes start to well up with tears, a new heat blossoming in his face. All he wants is the nightmare to end. The toll is too high. Feeling utterly helpless, he doesn’t move from the spot on the floor, but simply gazes down at his wife’s unconscious face, where his tears are falling and mixing with hers. He feels like he is looking at a different person; someone Payal has never been, with no trace of her usual self, the trials of the day etched deep onto her face and transforming her into someone beaten-down, pale, unrecognizable. Perhaps this is what she saw in him earlier, someone she didn’t know. They are not themselves anymore. The kidnapping is killing them. And he knows whom to blame. Because he can’t hold it at bay any longer, his blood begins to boil, his body shaking with anger, his teeth clenched.
They have to pay for this, he thinks. The culprits must pay. Gautam wants the kidnappers to feel the pain, to suffer the same way, to answer for what they are doing. He doesn’t want justice. No, it’s not as simple as that. It’s more than that. He is looking for blood.
He wants to kill them with his bare hands.
DIPAK knocks on his daughter’s bedroom door.
Then he knocks again. And again. And again. On his fifth try, finally he gets a response.
“What?” says a cold voice.
“Dora The Explorer is on. Don’t you want to come out and watch?” Dipak asks sweetly.
“No,” comes the clipped answer.
“Are you sure, sweety? Are you okay in there?”
No reply again.
“I’ll tell you when lunch is ready, okay?” He waits, and though it takes time, eventually it comes: his daughter replies in the affirmative.
Ashni has been given everything she has ever wanted. A big panda bear the size of an ATM machine. Three dollhouses, all practically identical. A tea party set with six different stuffed animals one can actually feed, and which need to be cleaned afterwards. A new bicycle almost each year to replace the one she outgrows. A miniature battery-operated oven that can bake one biscuit at a time. Edible paints, and real paints to take to her walls. Now that she is refused something, she has taken it to heart.
Dipak has never feared spoiling her. He has to make sure she never feels the want of anything. Nothing can ever fill the empty void left by a mother but Ashni needn’t face that void if she doesn’t have to. He convinces himself that she will get over this phase soon. It is something that usually resolves itself and then it will be replaced by another–hopefully smaller–childish need. If not, she will have to be weaned off everything. Dipak hopes it does not come to that. After his wife passed he was drowning and it was Ashni who taught him how to swim again. He doesn’t know what he will do if the day comes when he must hold back all that love from the only person he is living for.
Deep in thought, Dipak makes his way out of the apartment and across the hallway to his neighbour’s door. Uncle Ian must dissuade Ashni from this. He shouldn’t have encouraged her. He may be able to help solve this problem quicker. However, when the doorbell is not answered, Dipak goes back to his apartment and into the living room, wading through his heavy mind.
He can help his daughter by giving her what she wants, but he won’t. It is the Caller whom he can’t help. Dipak can’t help but draw the clear comparison staring him in the face. The Caller is in need of a specialized type of help, the kind of which Dipak does cannot give. He can’t figure out why the Caller is imposing on him rather than the right authorities of social and domestic work. Perhaps the Caller is frightened of getting into deeper trouble if he does. Perhaps he is watched and risks it all just to contact anyone he can, and that just so happens to be Dipak for whatever reason. Whatever the case may be, tonight is another chance to learn of his identity and get him the help he needs. The Caller’s situation is dire. And he’s just a kid.
When a minor is abused by his own parents, it demands intervention.
Dipak strolls to his vast vinyl library in the living room. He chews on his tongue, mulling things over. Maybe Nancy Sinatra’s Summer Wine will help with all of this. It’s a quiet, lazy Saturday afternoon that shouldn’t require one to stress unnecessarily. But then he amends his choice and moves to the CD collection. Only one irresistible thing can make Ashni emerge from her room and groove to its beat all over the apartment: Aqua’s Barbie Girl.
Crossing his fingers for good luck, he sets it to play on repeat and heads to the kitchen to get started on lunch.
NAZNIN takes a seat on a vacant bench at the Flora Fountain, sets down her heavy backpack, and scans the public plaza. She has arrived at the rendezvous point. GoodGuy187 could be here right here right now, having arrived earlier than her, and she might not be aware of it. She searches for boys of her age. It might be that guy who is feeding the pigeons, or that other guy who is running across the road towards her–but then he turns at the last moment and sprints into the opposite direction. It can be one of the college students with sling-bags gathered behind her, or it might be this extremely handsome guy walking over to her. You wish, she muses. Of course he isn’t GoodGuy187. He is too good-looking, and he breezes past Naznin and goes on to meet his girlfriend who is waiting off to the side of the grand fountain.
Naznin feels lost as she watches other things for a while. A homeless man asleep by the pavement. A mother trying to silence her cranky baby. Clouds rolling overhead to block out the sun, creating an overcast noon. A cobbler and some hawkers having a slow day.
Now, for some reason, but ultimately blaming it on her female hormones, Naznin can’t resist the impulse, so she glances back at that handsome boyfriend who walked by her–he really is ridiculously handsome–but the last thing she expected was to see his girlfriend slap her handsome boyfriend’s face. Naznin’s ears actually hear the crisp noise made on contact, and she starts. That was one loud slap. The girlfriend marches off, fuming, leaving the guy stunned still, and Naznin turns away with cheeks that have gone pink. She is mortified by what she saw, and then she panics. Handsome Boyfriend walks over, unblinking, and decides to take a seat right on the bench she had to her self.
“Tell me one thing,” he says, apparently still dazed, massaging the red hand-print left on his face. “Why do you girls get offended so easily? I think you all are taking the whole ‘women empowerment’ thing too far.” When Naznin pretends not to have heard, he leans in and promts, “Hello? Anyone there?”
Her uneasiness keeps her lips sealed, looking anywhere but at him. But she can see Handsome Boyfriend is not going to go away without getting an snwer or some sort of acknowledgement, so she decides to get it over with. “If you said something to offend her you deserve that slap.” She says it with a scoff, and as soon as she does, she regrets it, shifting uneasily on the bench and wishing those words back in her mouth.
“It wasn’t remotely offensive.”
“It must have been,”she says instantly. Why are you being so snappish? God, your defense mechanism is so stupid.
“Ok, let me ask you something, if you promise not to be offended.”
She still can’t look at him. “I can’t promise that.”
“Well then, at the risk of another slap, here goes nothing…”he ventures. “Are you… by any chance… TeenGirl1242… whom I chatted with last night?”
At the mention of her online username, she wrenches her head at him, almost spraining her neck in the process.
“What?” she splutters, and then takes a good look at Handsome Boyfriend: his sharp jawline and smoky grey eyes and chiseled cheekbones, his checkered button-down, acid-washed jeans, and tan boat shoes. It’s too much to take in all in one moment. A quiff a la mode crowns his head. It strikes her that he is only a real crown short of being a prince.
She stares at him, jaw slowly drifting open.
GoodGuy187 waves in front of her frozen face. “Anyone there?”
She doesn’t now why she feels breathless just to have him six inches from her. “Wait a second,”she finally squeaks. “What did you tell your girlfriend that made her steam off?”
GoodGuy187 blinks at her. “My girlfriend? She wasn’t-“
“Just… what did you say?” she insists.
“Exactly what I just asked you.”
They should have Instant-Messaged to help spot each other. We really should have, she chides herself.
“You haven’t answered my question,” he says pointedly.
“Yes.” Naznin tries to smile a little, to compensate for giving him the cold shoulder all this while. “I’m TeenGirl1242.”
His eyes narrow at her. “Prove it.”
She shrugs. “Well, I am a Teen Girl, as you can see. But you’re not much of a Good Guy if you go around offending girls like me.”
Naznin grins, seeing which GoodGuy187 also grins, knowingly, and then they share a laugh.
“Well, you owe me one. I took a slap for you.”He smiles broadly, displaying teeth that are white and uniform. “I must have come off like a total creep and she must have slapped me to escape whatever she thought I was going to do to her. Which is nothing, by the way. I’m not a creep.” He fumbles. “So… what did you want to talk about?”
She hesitates. “Talk about?”
“That’s… why you wanted to meet, right? You wanted to talk in person? Oh and by the way, my name–”
“It was an anonymous chat-room for a reason,” she cuts him off in time. Exchanging personal details is a big no-no. “And I don’t want to talk.”
“Right…” His eyes turn to slits again, confusion flitting cross his beautiful features. “So… then… let’s not talk about anything.”
Now, facing away from each other, as though watching a movie, they lapse into silence.
Last night they could have gone on sharing endless opinions– that often matched–on movies, music, and celebrities, but now they struggle to communicate on the same wavelength as before. For Naznin, it is almost like there being a real, physical person instead of a chat-room alias makes her second guess anything she could have to say. Her reservations skyrocket, and she wonders whether she is coming off as too standoffish without meaning to and what she is meant to do now.
After a minute, he breaks the silence and says, “Hey, how about lunch?!”
Naznin realizes she has left home on an empty stomach. “Um… all right.” She doesn’t sound so sure to herself.
“There’s this place on the Colaba Causeway that serves amazing Italian.” He gets up starts down the pavement. She finds herself on he feet, following him, her heavy backpack shouldered. “That fine?”
She answers with an almost imperceptible nod. She has never been the timid type, but today that tiny side of her has decided to make an appearance. Just perfect, she thinks. Why can’t you just be norma–
Where he leads Naznin, makes her stomach drop into a pit.
He mounts a parked Honda motorbike by the pavement and unclips a helmet tethered to the handlebars to put it on. “I’d be a gentleman and let you wear it, but then I’m pretty sure I’d be fined,” he says playfully.
Now, she couldn’t be surer about it. It’s obvious. This is an episode of Savdhaan India waiting to happen. She doesn’t know what she was thinking. She can’t take this any further, knowing better than to get on a motorcycle with a person whose name she doesn’t know. She had better leave and go back home. That’s the logical and rational thing to do and her only option. She had better get moving.
The only thing stopping her, however, is her stupid feet that resfuse to move. Instead, they stay stubbornly rooted to the spot, wanting to have their own say. She looks down and it is almost like they are suggesting two opposing directions for her to consider.
One removes her from this situation.
The other prods her further down the rabbit hole.
“Hello? Anyone there?” says a far-away voice she barely registers.
It is the first option she wants. Why that second ridiculous option is even there, she does not know. But then, with the first, she will be going back to the same uncertainty and doubt that were as upsetting as this moment, except for when she felt that one instance of pure relief when GoodGuy187 really turned out to be a good, nice guy who looks like he wouldn’t even harm a fly. Almost as if to confirm this fact, she burgles another look at his handsome, chiseled face.
And it is the winning smile that tips the scale.
RAHUL clears customs quicker than he thought he would. Strolling his recovered luggage bag behind him, he steps through the automatic glass doors, out into the sultry Mumbai air that is so thick in his nostrils he feels he is breathing in porridge.
A rowdy throng is storming the cabstand with no one obediently waiting for their turn. He isn’t in the mood to vie for one so he waits like a bystander to what shockingly resembles a game of tug and war. When nobody but him is left, he is depressed to realize that no taxis are left. He looks up and down the deserted stretch of airport road, palm opened over his face to shield his eyes from the sun and the heat, and is relieved to see a lone taxi crawling its way up the ramp to him.
Without the need to flag it down, it stops near him, so he gets in.
Now he is stumped. When asked where, he simply tells the driver to head south, until he can figure out where exactly it is he should go. His father’s place, Rahul’s own old home, is out of the question. A hotel seems to be the only answer. Not for the first time, he wishes he hadn’t embarked on such an impromptu journey without a modicum of forethought.
It dawns on him that his departure was also impromptu. The full-ride scholarship to the University of Cambridge when he was eighteen had come like a blessing at the right time because his father’s resentment could not be lived with. He was threatening to disown Rahul and turn him out. But Rahul couldn’t keep it in him anymore. He had to confess to his father. It was either that or… taking his life.
But he has long moved on from that dark time of his youth when it was a daily battle to wake up and look at himself in the mirror and come to terms with who he is.
He often relives that cold, wretched feeling of being condemned when he had to leave his own home and country because of a father who turned his back on him. Cancer claimed Rahul’s mother when he was nine and since then his father, who had been absent most of Rahul’s childhood, had to delist from the army to care for Rahul. But he didn’t expect his father to understand. The sheltered upbringing in an orthodox environment of his time forever clouded his father from seeing his son for who is really was: a person that deserves love like anybody else. Rahul had as much choice over the matter as over the colour of his skin: he was born with these feelings. And now he is looking to settle things. He doesn’t expect an open-armed acceptance of his way of life. All he wants is his father’s blessings before he can marry, and to know that he is still loved, missed and in his father’s prayers. His panic attacks make it clear that he will have to endure a multitude of pain before the catharsis will come into play. That is, if it is even given that chance.
He could very well close the door on my face, Rahul thinks.
Looking out the window, Rahul is surprised and impressed by how much the city has progressed over the years. Hoardings of high-end international luxury brands are scattered everywhere and buildings made of metal and glass now rule the suburbs. Sky-rail, skywalks and skyscrapers are wide-spread. Even his taxi is a Santro: a definite upgrade. The roads are familiar as well, only too familiar, and he is slammed with disbelief when he notices what’s wrong. He can’t believe his eyes.
He has been taken for a fool, ever since he left the airport.
“Stop!” he yells at the diver. The taxi in turn screeches to a halt, and he piles out with his bag, onto the highway that heads north. “I may sound like a foreigner but I know my way around here!”
The driver hollers for his fare but Rahul turns him a deaf ear. He still expects payment after trying to dupe a customer? What a joke. When Rahul has put a big enough distance between them, the driver finally gets back into his taxi and takes off, still yelling, cursing himself for failing to trick the firang.
Rahul braves blitzing traffic in an attempt to cross the road and hunt for another taxi.
SHAAN wakes up to a constant throbbing deep within his head. It is a new and extremely unpleasant feeling. The tight wrapping around it is making it hurt more than when his head was bleeding. The last thing he remembers is being rocked to sleep in a car. But it had nothing to do with another late night out when his parents would have to lift him from the backseat and carry him on their shoulders to his bedroom.
Late last night he was taken by the Bad Men with sharp teeth and slimy green faces.
He sits up and tries to collect his bearings. He can’t see a single thing in the darkness that surrounds him. In front of him, there is only a thin bar of light under what must be a door. It doesn’t help to give him any sense of dimensions. He searches for a doorknob and, his fingers having found it, he tries to turn it. It won’t budge. It has to be nighttime, though there is no window to confirm that. He gropes his way around moist walls. It is a small and cramped room. Four giant steps with his small legs and he gets from one end to the other. Also, up top–how high he cannot say–is a red dot hovering in the dark. No light emits from it, and it does not move. It is just a single, strange dot above his head. He finds what must be cardboard boxes, the type that T.V. screens and computers come in, and sits on one. It is warmer than the cold ground that has numbed the entire left side of his face.
He wants his mummy and papa. He wants them to be okay after the Bad Men hurt them. They will be looking for him, he knows.
His ears perk up when a creak sounds.
Something is happening with the door of the room. Not knowing who, or what, to expect, he scampers to one corner just before light floods the small room. It is one of the Bad Men with the scary face, the smaller one. Having opened the door, he stands in the doorframe with a platter in hand that he places onto the ground. There is a sandwich on it and bottled water. It is all Shaan has his eyes on. He won’t dare raise his eyes to look at the Bad Man. Then the battered door is being closed and Shaan scrambles to the platter before the last of the light is taken away.
He wolfs down the food and the water refreshes his dry throat, neither of which last long enough to keep him from wanting more. The throbbing has still not left him.
A laundry list of lessons clicks through his mind. Parental rules: don’t talk to strangers, don’t follow stranger’s anywhere, don’t go anywhere without someone to keep an eye on you and countless more. But there isn’t one to apply now. Nothing linked to his current predicament that can help him break out from here and return to his parents.
With their faces in mind, and a desperate hope of getting out of this dark and cold cage soon, he feels for the cardboard box and gets back onto it. Then, as the first few tears of the day slip out the corners of his eyes, a growl behind him scares him stiff. To his horror, he realizes there is something with him in the room, wheezing and hissing, with its damp breath condensing on the back of his neck.
END OF CHAPTER 2
© Amaan Khan, July 12, 2018.
Head on over to Chapter 3 to continue reading!
- Sardar: a term used to address a Sikh person.
- Savdhaan India: translating to “be watchful, India ” is an Tndian TV show that recreates national true crime stories to bring them to light, on the subjects of murder, rape, kidnapping, etc.
- firang: foreigner to Indians (slang)