"Malaaii!" The drunkard with bloodshot eyes and unkempt hair slurred, "I just love soft, juicy and tender flesh."
He caught the drool from the corner of his chapped lips on the shirtsleeve just before it could dribble. A wet patch began to form at the spot, darkening the faded fabric.
"What did you say your name is? A...A...Ahinsababu?" The drunkard struggled to get the name of his benefactor right.
"Avihimsaka," came the correction.
"Who names a boy like that?" The drunkard laughed.
"My father," he mumbled in reply. His temples had begun to throb by then.
"I'll call you Avibabu. That's easier."In the dim light of the zero-watt bulb hanging over their heads from a loose wire, the drunkard peered at him."So...where was I?"
Egged on by those staring red eyes, Avi promptly reminded him, "You were saying, you like the flesh of tender coconuts very much."
Avi's fingers traced the rim of the glass of water before him while he studied his pock-marked companion's face. Seated across the metal table, the drunkard was busy refilling his own glass of country liquor from a tall green bottle. With grimy fingers he'd lifted the brimming glass and drained it in two long swigs.
"You think I'm thinking of coconuts right now?" The drunkard banged his glass down, but Avi was already intuitively holding the flimsy table with both his hands, keeping it from wobbling.
"...then fish?" Avi arched his brows and cocked his head in wonder.
"Ha! Don't you understand?" The drunkard leaned in further, stopping only inches away from Avi's face. Avi lurched backwards as the warm whiff of the stale breath suffused his senses, but managed to steady himself again.
Lowering his voice down to a barely audible whisper, the drunkard continued, "There's nothing more delicious than taking a girl when she's really young and nubile," he winked, grinning lasciviously.
"What say, Avibabu?"
Avi grit his teeth and kept his calm as the lecherous tippler spoke his mind with surprising clarity. His guts churned with revulsion and the hair on his nape bristled at the sound of those lustful words. Avi emptied the bottle, refilling the drunkard's glass.
"You must agree!" The drunkard was shaking a finger in the air; he flashed his yellowing teeth again, his eyes swimming and head swaying, meaninglessly.
"Okay! Come now, we must go," Avi ordered, rising from the ridiculously small seat of the metal stool that had turned his butt numb.
"Where to?" the drunkard enquired, hurriedly draining his glass while Avi paid off their tab at the makeshift teller's counter in the corner of the shanty.
Avi slipped his hand under the drunkard's arm to steady him as they stepped out into the moonless evening. A sudden shaft of cool breeze hit their faces and the frail man on his arm passed out, completely inebriated. The meandering road cut into the mountainside was almost deserted, with only a stray vehicle driving down to get back to civilisation. Nobody dared to ride up into the mountains after dark, except for those villagers who were addicted to their daily fix of the indigenous spirit peddled at the shanty. The shanty stood in the lee of a broad old Banyan tree, partially hidden behind bushes, inconspicuous to the eyes of the uninitiated. It marked the farthest edge that one could casually walk up to. Beyond that point lay the expanse of an uninhabited forest, with only the rustle of the leaves and the chirping of the crickets to break the silence.
After shoving the drunkard in the backseat of his SUV, Avi got behind the wheel. The engine purred to life and he drove upwards, along the snaking road. The black vehicle sped ahead like a cat in the dark of the night while the drunkard lolled on the spacious seat without an inkling about Avi's plans. Halfway up the mountain, Avi swerved off the road and hit a dirt track. The sturdy vehicle easily negotiated the undulating path. Once he'd arrived at a clearance near the edge of a cliff, he finally hit the brakes and the tyres skid to a halt. Avi turned the engine off and pocketed the keys.
As he stepped out of the warmth of his SUV, Avi zipped up the front of his leather bomber jacket. His feet, snug in ankle-high leather boots, landed noiselessly on the muddy ground. Avi waited for his eyes to get accustomed to the pitch dark before pulling the rear door open. He tugged at the drunkard's feet, and pulled him off the seat onto the ground. The unconscious tall, skinny man was like a rag doll in Avi's muscular arms. Hoisting the smelly tippler over his shoulders, Avi walked to the edge of the cliff and set him down under a tree. With long strides, Avi quickly walked to the trunk of his vehicle and raised the door.
From underneath a whole lot of camping paraphernalia, Avi pulled out a long piece of torn cloth, Some long pieces of thick rope and a short woodcutter's axe. He trotted back to where the drunkard lay, oblivious to the developments. He stood looking down upon the slumbering man for a while, and listened to his wheezing, before bending over and giving the drunkard a tight slap on his cheek. Slightly stirred by the attack, the drunkard murmured something as if in protest, and limply raised a hand. It remained in mid-air only for a brief moment, before falling right back by the side of his body. The very next minute, the drunkard had gone into deep slumber again, too sloshed to realise what had happened. Only now he was snoring with his mouth wide open. Avi squatted down, gagged the drunkard with the strip of cloth, and tied his legs up tightly with the rope. He then turned the drunkard over, laying him flat on the ground, on his stomach.
Avi took the drunkard's right hand, and stretched it above the head. Placing the palm of the right hand down on the ground, he neatly separated the fingers out. The left arm was also straightened into a similar position, and the fingers were systematically fanned out too. The drunkard's head lay resting on its right ear; the hands formed a 'V' shape, on the cold muddy earth. Hands akimbo, Avi stood studying the outstretched arms like he was admiring a work of art. A strong gust of wind whooshed through the branches above, bringing Avi out of his reverie.
His skin tingled. His heart was racing with excitement. There wasn't a moment to lose! He knelt down, and in one clean swing Avi's axe had lopped off all the fingers on the drunkard's right hand. In quick succession, the axe came down on the fingers of the left hand with a dull thud.
The victim's eyes had flung open at the first onslaught, but before he could collect his nerves, the axe had slammed down a second time. He let out a loud scream as excruciating pain shot through both his arms, but to Avi it only sounded like a muted whimper.
"99," Avi exhaled.
The drunkard tried to rise, digging his elbows into the mud but with his legs tightly bound together, he could only writhe in pain. Avi quickly collected the stubs of the chopped fingers while his victim watched him, his eyes wide in horror. Avi strained his eyes in the dark to make sure he wasn't touching the bloody ends as he counted ten, dropping one finger stub after another into a self-locking polythene bag.
"Thank you for your kind co-operation," Avi said and rammed the wooden handle of the axe down on the top of the drunkard's head. The squealing and writhing stopped abruptly.
Avi then pulled the damp rag out of the drunkard's mouth, wiped the axe clean, and stuffed the rag into the drunkard's shirt pocket. Rising from his haunches, he hastened his steps back to the open boot of his vehicle. He carefully stowed the axe and the bag of his loot away, locked the boot, and returned to his victim.
"Now for the grand finale," Avi exulted, "drum roll!"
With both hands he rolled the body towards the very edge of the cliff, and with a final push, sent it coasting down the mountainside. Avi did a roundabout turn, trotted back to the SUV, got right in and drove away.
"To be, or not to be," Avi appraised his reflection in the mirror, "that is the question!"His voice broke the pin-drop silence of the dingy room, in the dead of the night.
He dramatically flitted from the floor-length mirror that stood in one corner of his room to his study table in the other corner. Pulling the topmost wooden drawer open he took out the photo frame lying inside it. A portly gentleman with a balding pate and a sunny disposition stared up at him from the picture.
"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Or," Avi bit his tongue while speaking,"...to take arms against a sea of troubles?" he asked the elderly man in the picture frame.
Until the epochal episode of his life, Avi had only been a simple university student living on borrowed property in a dilapidated building located in a quaint part of old Delhi. He was lucky to have been handpicked by the very respected Professor M.P. Sharma as his mentee, but Avi had not been so lucky in love. Once he'd graduated with flying colours, Avi had politely asked the professor for his daughter's hand in marriage, but his genuine offer was spurned, without a blink.
"Why did you have to proclaim before my classmates that I was the best student you'd ever had?" Avi barked at the picture in his hands, "Only to turn me down like that?" He frowned at the memory.
A fortnight later the professor's daughter was found dead, at the terrace of the house she and her father lived in.
"...And I was the only real eye witness. I was there!" Avi laughed.
He'd pointed an accusing finger at the one man he'd looked up to the most, his mentor. He needn't have stood up as an eye witness in court, "...but you had hurt my feelings, Sharmaji!"
Avi recalled how judgement had surprisingly come on swift wings.
"This is a clear case of honour killing!" the judge had said, rapping his table with the wooden gavel to bring the court to attention, before declaring, "The exercise of probing this further will be really irrelevant and unnecessary because then it becomes redundant”.
"In accordance with the rule of law and by the clear understanding of the constitution, the Supreme Court orders that a death penalty be extended to the guilty, for honour killing is a capital crime."
Tears rolling down his fat cheeks, the professor had cursed Avi in public, "You scoundrel...you have framed an innocent man!" he'd screamed his guts out in vain. "When you pointed that finger at me did they see that three fingers were in fact pointing back at you?"
Even as he was being dragged away the professor kept yelling, kicking and punching the air a few feet away from where a stolid Avi stood staring.
"You liar...you cheat! May you never be at peace, Avihimsaka," the professor had hollered his full name out. Back in happier days, the professor had only addressed him by the full name when he was really disappointed with his performance at college."Sacrifice a thousand fingers and maybe then God will forgive you for what you have done. May you be damned until then," the professor's parting words stung Avi eternally, like a thousand needles.
"I can never dishonour your words, but I don't have a thousand fingers. I had protested, but you wouldn't listen!" Avi sulked. Putting the picture frame back in to the drawer and slamming it shut, he sighed.
"…so a thousand fingers will be sacrificed, but not mine!" he sniggered. "I don't believe in rebirth and all that shit! God will have to grant forgiveness in the here and now."
A countertop commercial freezer stood right next to the table. Avi switched it off and pulled the freezer door open. The cold air from inside immediately blew out and along with it a putrid smell wafted into the closed confines of his room. Three shelves of the freezer were stocked full up, leaving only an inch of unfilled headspace at the top of the fourth shelf. Only on a closer look, would one realise that he wasn't hoarding any ordinary kind of sausages. Each stub of meat had chipped fingernails at one end and a cap of dried blood caking the other end. Layer upon layer of fingers in different sizes and shades of skin sat fused together in rectangular blocks. Avi spread out a sheet of tarpaulin on the floor at the foot of the fridge. Holding it with the two ends of a towel, he brought the topmost block down from the freezer. A carpet of self-locking poly bags at the bottom kept the block from sticking to the base of the shelf. He pulled at the long wick of kitchen string that was hanging from the top right hand corner of the block. Very thoughtfully, the string had been kept parted away from the chunk of finger stubs so it had only turned into a rigid strand and not fused into the side of the block.
"Here! The second last batch of fingers have arrived," Avi said, fetching the poly bag from the pocket of his jacket that lay on the bed. He held the bag up as if there were a class of students watching him attentively, like during those demo' sessions in the Chemistry lab at college.
He also got his usual bag of tools and made himself comfortable, sitting cross-legged on the ground at the edge of the tarpaulin. He took a fresh length of kitchen thread from a reel and knotted it to the end of the thawing thread. Avi then threaded a thick, long needle with it. Pulling out the smallest finger from the poly bag, he put it down on the tarpaulin. With his left hand, he held a sewing awl, vertically straight on the finger, and with the right hand he brought the flat face of a ball-peen hammer down on it. The quick action and forceful delivery, sent the awl piercing through skin and bone in one smooth punch. One after another, he carved holes into all the remaining fingers. The needle and thread travelled easily through the hole in each, and within no time all the fingers were strung on the kitchen twine. It looked like a festoon of sorts. A beautifully-crafted ugliness.
"Only ten more to go," he said, stretching his arms and yawning, “and then I will be free!"
A small pool of ice water was forming on the tarpaulin as the collection of 990 fingers thawed in the rancid warmth of the room.
Avi woke up with a start.
Had an axe come down on his own ten fingers? He couldn't feel the tips anymore.
He sat up straight, and looked down at his hands. Everything was intact. He let out a big sigh of relief. His fingers had only gone numb because he'd been sleeping on the cold, bare floor with the weight of his head on them. It had only been a nightmare!
He'd slept fitfully through the night, a mêlée of thoughts and memories tormenting him, only to slip into deep slumber in the wee hours of the morning. A thin beam of bright sunlight eked its way in through the smoky glass pane and the gap between the heavy curtains which shrouded the window. Through the tightly shut window he could hear the flapping of wings and cooing of the pigeons on the sill outside. He could also hear the tinkling of bells from some flat above but his room was an unholy site. Probably, that neighbour's house was filled with the aroma of fresh breakfast being cooked in the kitchen, but Avi's room stank of stale blood and sweat.
Without further ado, Avi set about packing the garlands of human fingers that lay in a moist and festering mess on the tarpaulin, and in the open freezer. It was almost time for him to start heading for the Hidimba Devi temple in Manali.
"I cannot afford to miss the grand Lanka Dahan day!" Avi said, throwing a glance at the digital clock on the table, which also showed the date in fluorescent green.
"Like her other devotees, I will offer up my sacrifice, and free myself of the professor's curse."
Avi began to work his hands with great fervour, wrapping each garland of 100 fingers separately in black garbage bags and sealing them properly with packing tape. Only the last garland remained incomplete in an open garbage bag, waiting for the addition of the final ten fingers. He stashed the bag containing the incomplete garland in a duffle bag and layered a spare set of clothes and woollens on top of it.
His arms loaded with three heavy bundles at a time, Avi gingerly opened the door to his house, and stepped outside. For once he was thankful that his house was located on the first floor of a nearly uninhabited building. The remaining flats on his level lay vacant, sparing Avi the pain of having a peeping tom for a neighbour. It was just a short flight of stairs down to his SUV. He piled the bundles against the rear right tire and in two more quick trips he'd brought all the nine packets out. Unlocking the boot he loaded the packets in, neatly arranging them on the floor of the trunk, using all the mountaineering and camping paraphernalia to once again conceal his loot. Putting a padlock on the door of his house, and dumping the duffle bag in the seat next to his, Avi was ready for the 14-hour-long drive.
"It may be customary to sacrifice a buffalo after offering prayers to Hidimba Devi, but you have always broken the rules, haven't you Avihimsaka?" he gloated, staring into his own eyes inthe rear view mirror. He powered the engine and was off on his fearless journey.
The pagoda-style wooden temple dedicated to the most powerful deity of the Kullu valley – Hidimba Devi stood nestled in the mountains, near the northern end of the valley. He drove through hilly roads and rocky mountainsides for approximately seven hours. It was way past lunch time but Avi drove on. He disliked the scene at the Pandoh dam where tourists were flocking, and their vehicles in tandem with the fruit vendors and road-side hawkers created a ruckus. A few kilometers later, Avi saw the mouth of a tunnel inviting him into its pitch darkness. The Chandigarh-Manali national highway had been diverted into the three kms long tunnel which was as dark as the insides of a boa constrictor. Bursting into the light of the setting sun at the end of the tunnel, the picturesque scene of snow capped mountain peaks and the gurgling Beas river was enthralling.
Once he'd entered the verdant Kullu valley, Avi swerved off the concrete roads from the village at the foot of the mountains and took a path that led steadily uphill through the Pine forests. The great peaks of the Himalayas peeked at him through the gaps in the towering trees. Soon he reached a beautiful green meadow strewn with wild blue primroses, and he would have driven casually past if he hadn’t spotted the lone lama trudging through the wilderness.
"I swear by God!" Avi exclaimed and hit the brakes.
"Hasn't this land gone down in history as the Kulanthpitha – the end of the habitable world? And yet that lama dares to tread alone?" Avi sniggered, his hazel nut eyes grew a shade darker and the hair on his nape bristled. If it wasn't for the unexpected sighting of a human, he would have forgotten all about that one last task at hand which needed to be completed before reaching the Hidimba Devi temple at Manali. Avi stuck his hand into the duffle bag, pulled out the garland of finger stubs, and threw it around his neck. He rushed to the boot of his car and grabbed the axe.
"Oh, benevolent lama, care to make a little more sacrifice?" Avi called out in a mocking tone.
He crossed over, expecting that in just two long strides he'd be able to easily overtake the monk clad in ochre yellow and maroon robes. Try as he might, Avi was not able to catch upat all-even though the lama was only walking. The chase continued for quite a distance, him running and the old monk walking calmly along the serene path. Avi soon realised he'd walked right into the thick of the forest in pursuit of the lama.
"Stop!" ordered Avi at last, mustering all the strength left in him.
"Yes, Milarepa?" Serenity had not left the lama's brow as he turned to face Avi.
"Stop!" gasped Avi again.
"I have already, but when will you, Milarepa?" the lama enquired, unperturbed.
"Why do you call me that?”
"Because you wear that Anguli Mala around your neck," the lama pointed, "When will you stop killing the innocent, Avihimsaka?" There was neither anger nor fear in the lama's eyes even as Avi brought the axe out from behind his back.
"Stop walking on this path of adharma," the lama said, "In Tibet it is taught that there is a way to take charge, change direction and peel away ignorance to be able to see with complete clarity. Dharma is that agent of change!" The lama's countenance glowed with a strange aura, in the dim light of the fading evening. Avi tugged at the Anguli Mala around his neck, the kitchen twine broke, and he flung it away.
"Take refuge in the Buddha, make a strong commitment to saving your present and your future."
The axe dropped out of Avi's hand.
The lama spoke on, "The Buddha doesn't claim to be your saviour. He is our teacher who will point the way of enlightenment. It is for us to travel along."
The lama bent forward picked up the axe and deftly cut off a small lock of hair from the back of Avi's head.
"When Buddha left his palace to become a monk he sliced off his elegant princely hair with a sword," the lama spoke in a placid tone. Avi fell to his knees, and his eyes engaged with the lama’s. His body slackened, his nerves calmed and then he bowed his head in supplication, deep and low.
The lama blessed him, touching the top of Avi's head with his hands, and chanted, "Om Mani Pedme Hung," the mantra of great compassion.
While Avi's cheeks were burning with shame, the lama looked at him with a beatific smile.
"...but I have something to ask you." Avi stuttered, while rising to his feet.
" How did you manage to reach Manali, all the way from Tibet... by foot?”
"By taking one step at a time," the lama answered.
Nonchalantly discarding the axe, the lama began walking, and Avihimsaka followed.