It took her several persistent honks before the sleepy guard finally emerged from his cabin. A quick glance at the vehicle and he moved to push aside the wheeled barricade—the first level of defence positioned outside the gates of the apartment complex. His movements were sloth-like, lethargic and laboured, and that made Namrata tighten her grip on the steering wheel even more, in irritation, though she knew, there was no point in voicing that right now.
Next, he struggled clumsily with the metallic chain dangling over the bars of the large gate. In what seemed to her like an eternity, he finally succeeded in pulling
off a Houdini of his own and pushed the gate ajar. A triumphant smirk was affixed on his face as he shifted his gaze towards her.
‘K-75,’ she muttered restlessly in response to his ‘Namaste Madam’ while easing her car past him. She didn’t need to state her destination. The guard probably
knew her as well as he did the residents of the complex, but she was hardly in the mood to put her popularity to test just then.
She parked her car in the designated visitors’ parking and stepped out. A mild breeze gently brushed past, struggling to ruffle her loose and still moist hair. Namrata shut her eyes to absorb it, losing herself momentarily to its refreshing embrace. It was a welcome feeling. She had barely managed a shut-eye through the night, and her day had already begun even before the world around her had risen from its slumber.
She took the lift to the seventh floor. On the landing of the apartment, she glanced at her watch, as her hand reached out for the doorbell button. 5:05 am. She was
on time, just about.
She heard the familiar chime, followed by hurried footsteps, behind the closed door. While waiting for the door to open, she habitually inspected her attire—
denims and a white linen shirt. Nothing fancy, but an apt ensemble for the gruelling day ahead.
‘Hey, I didn’t think you were serious when you said that you would be here at dot five,’ Akash said, pulling back the door to allow her passage.
He was a bespectacled man with a boyishly genial face, average height and a regular built. He was clad in a red tee and khakis, his naturally unkempt hair lending
him the look of a confused genius. His smile, the one he greeted Namrata with, seemed to belong where it rested, leaving a visible dimple on his right cheek. He
wasn’t exactly charming, but certainly likeable—like the seemingly harmless frontbenchers in the classrooms of Ivy League institutions.
‘Well, now you know that I was! And you better be all ready and packed up. . .we must get going right away,’ Namrata said spiritedly.
‘Of course, I harbour no intentions of risking my life by defying your orders, my lady,’ he jovially retorted.
‘But, how about a quick cup of tea before we start? As they say, one for the road?’ The innocent smile was still affixed on his face as he posed the question, but the mischief it was trying to conceal, wasn’t hidden from Namrata.
‘No, we must leave at once. There’s no way that I am getting stuck in peak-hour traffic in this scorching heat. You can stop for your tea once we’ve made some
The finality of her tone didn’t leave much scope for negotiations. ‘Okay, let me at least get my sneakers on,’ he meekly surrendered.
It took them hardly a few minutes to transfer her luggage from the sedan to Akash’s compact SUV, and by quarter past five they were at the complex’s gate once again, honking to summon the missing guard to his designated post. Akash could feel Namrata’s frustration mounting with each passing second. To quicken things up, Akash got off the SUV, to open the barricade himself.
Soon, he spotted the ageing man trotting towards the gate at a pace that would have made a giant tortoise proud. ‘Sorry Sahib, I had stepped away for a few minutes
to relieve myself. Madam had just arrived and I didn’t think that you would be leaving so soon,’ he explained apologetically. Carefully placing the dirty plastic bottle
he had been holding, aside, the guard rushed to wheel the barricade to allow the SUV to pass. Of course, only by his personal standards of swiftness.
Akash reclaimed his seat behind the steering wheel without offering a reaction to the guard’s rather descriptive and nearly graphic explanation. Namrata’s furious stare was still affixed on the poor man, as if, if she were to have her way, the plastic bottle he had been holding would have found its way through his anatomical fissures, right up to where it could stop words from flowing out of his mouth.
‘Arsehole,’ she muttered under her breath. Akash once again opted to ignore.
‘You sure you want to take the Rohtak-Patiala route and not Delhi-Panipat? I mean, we might be better off taking the highway instead of navigating the small towns and villages along the way,’ Akash inquired, just before taking the turn that would commit them to one of the possible routes for their drive to Ludhiana.
‘Yes, I have taken this road previously. It’s not all that bad. Plus at this hour we might get caught up in the assemblage of trucks waiting to get in and out of Delhi if we take the other route,’ Namrata said decisively, closing the discussion once and for all.
Given the hour, the roads were expectedly empty and the vehicle was soon racing away from the vertical jungle of concrete, Gurgaon, towards relatively flatter environs.
‘Mind if I shut my eyes for a bit?’ Namrata asked, unable to resist sleep due to the lull of the moving vehicle.
‘Sure,’ Akash replied. ‘Sleep is known to do a world of good, especially when the subject in question is a pretty lady in an inexplicably foul mood.’
Namrata looked at him, meaning to catch his eye, but Akash had his phone out in one hand and was busy fiddling with its screen. She soon realised what he had been up to when a number from the last season of Coke Studio started to play on the car stereo—her current favourite.
Instinctively, she turned to look at him, her gaze now heavy with serious contemplation. This time Akash caught her eye, his trademark smile affixed in its usual place.
‘Sleep tight,’ he whispered endearingly.
She remained staring at him for a few moments and then turned away and shut her eyes.
Namrata must have slept for about half an hour when she woke up with a start. ‘Where have we reached?’ she shot out, and without waiting for an answer, reached
out for the GPS instrument on the dashboard.
‘We crossed Badli a short while back. We should be about halfway to Rohtak now,’ Akash said, coming to her aid.
The awareness about their whereabouts appeared to ease her and she slid back on her seat, whipping out her mobile phone to keep herself engaged.
It was still early April, and while the sun was not completely out yet, the cloudless skies prophesied a hot day ahead. The duo had a lunch meeting scheduled with a client and Akash was hoping to touch down in Ludhiana with enough time at hand to check into a hotel, freshen up and, if luck were by his side, something more. He stole a glance at his companion. The look of simplicity did her a world of good, at least as far as fuelling his craving was concerned.
His focus was still oscillating between his fantasies and the road ahead when a sudden raucous noise forcibly caught his attention. A vehicle, perilously close on their tail, was demanding right of passage, its horns blaring incessantly. Surprising, given that the road was virtually empty and there was enough space for a sixteen-wheel truck to drive past without seeking Akash’s approval!
Mildly peeved, he glanced at the rear-view mirror and saw a white Bolero with a beefy-looking man at its wheel. There were others in the vehicle too, at least two more men, but the glance had been too fleeting to make anything much of them. Instinctively, he flung the steering wheel to the left and eased pressure on the accelerator. The Bolero’s driver was in a desperate need for a lecture on driving etiquettes, but Akash wasn’t going to risk being the one to deliver it. Sense and logic were hardly the reigning principles of engagement in these parts, and a confrontation of any other kind wasn’t exactly his strong point.
Akash had reduced his speed considerably by now, meaning to let the other vehicle pass. The Bolero swerved, accelerated, but did not overtake them. Instead, it decelerated to match Akash’s speed and began to ply alongside them. From the corner of his eye, Akash could see that the man on the passenger side had rolled down his window and was gesticulating furiously. He could only be glad that his own window was rolled up, thereby preventing the vulgar and offensive words from reaching their ears, particularly Namrata’s. He shifted his foot to the brake pedal and brought down the vehicle’s speed to nearly a crawl.
The Bolero, unable to decelerate in time, shot ahead of them, and Akash deftly pulled his own vehicle behind it. He didn’t want to leave an opening for them to pull
up beside him once again.
Finding himself in an undesired lead, the driver of the white Bolero began to veer the vehicle criss-cross across the road, braking suddenly every now and then. It was evident that he was teasing Akash and challenging him to surge ahead. But Akash was no hormone-fuelled teenager, and the bait wasn’t going to push him into any moments of unnecessary brashness.
He held his ground, content to snail it out for as long as he had to. They had been passing through a desolate stretch for a while now and there had to be a human settlement somewhere close, ahead of them, Akash mused. One with a police booth perhaps, or at least a tea stall with enough human activity to make them feel safe. As is, their tea halt was well overdue by now.
‘Bastards!’ Namrata muttered suddenly. She had remained a silent spectator all this while, but now, her eyes were open wider than usual as she stared at the monstrous vehicle zig-zagging on the road, ahead of them. She was visibly terrified. ‘Just. . .just let them go,’ she added, as though it were Akash who had been keeping them from being on their way.
He had barely opened his mouth to respond when the Bolero braked once again, a little too sharply this time. Akash reacted, braking furiously, but not in time to prevent the front bumper of his vehicle from touching the Bolero. The impact wasn’t major, barely jerking both of them forward, but an unwanted outcome of it was that both the vehicles had now come to a halt. Within seconds he saw the front doors of the Bolero open and two men step out of it.
‘No, don’t get out of the car,’ Namrata almost pleaded as Akash reached out to unlock his own door. Her concern was well-founded, but the matter had now reached a point of no return. Akash had kept a firm check on his ticking rage for as long as he humanly could, but a confrontation couldn’t be avoided now.
Moreover, there was little else he could do, given the gargantuan vehicle blocking their path and the two ferocious looking fellows heading towards him.
‘What is the meaning of all this?’ Akash asked, hurriedly stepping out of the vehicle. As he did so, he very nearly collided with one of them.
Without bothering to respond in words, the raider grabbed Akash’s collar with one hand and slapped him across the face with the other. The sound of this impact was several decibels higher than that of the two vehicles colliding. Namrata hurriedly opened the gate on her side and rushed out. The two cars stood kissing, and so she had to run around the SUV to get to the zone of conflict. Though the view was momentarily hidden from her, the thuds and Akash’s cries more than betrayed the goings-on.
‘Saale. . .just because you have a girl sitting next to you, you will act like a hero. . .huh?’ she heard a voice thundering, heavily dipped in the local Haryanvi accent. More blows and more gut-wrenching wails followed as she approached the three entangled men.
She could see that Akash was attempting to put up a fight, but he was clearly no match for the two stocky, muscular men. His spectacles were no longer on his face and instead it was adorned with bruises—a red trickle emerging from the corner of his lips to flow and disappear beneath his chin.
The gruesome sight filled her with an unexpected rush of anger-fuelled energy and she caught hold of one of the thugs, the Bolero’s driver, from behind and pulled him away with all the strength she could muster.
‘Leave him alone,’ she screamed with a ferocity that came as a surprise even to her.
The suddenness of her assault left the man baffled, but not for long. He swiftly turned towards her, with a glare that had the hair at the nape of her neck in rapt attention.
‘Saali kutiya,’ he roared as he shoved her away from him with all his might. She felt herself flying, her innards rattled by the inertia of motion, until she landed face down on the roadside gravel.
She tried to get up, but her stomach felt as if it had just weathered a nuclear explosion, forcing her to fold back down on her knees. Clutching her stomach, spitting
the blood-mixed sand from her mouth, Namrata saw the rear door of the white SUV open and another man step out.
This man was tall and skinny, but had a presence far more ominous than his burly companions. He had a muffler strung around his neck, a conspicuous oddity given that it was a hot April day. In his hand was something metallic that glistened every time it caught the sun, as he approached the scene of the fight.
Without a word he positioned himself between his comrades, who by now, had pinned Akash down against his own car and were pounding away at him. In one swift motion he covered Akash’s mouth with his left hand, drew the right one back and shoved the metallic thing forcefully into Akash’s stomach. The sound was a blend of half a swish and half a thud, as if a beanbag had been dropped on the living room floor. Akash tried to scream, but his voice was muffled by the man’s other hand. As the assailant pulled out the object—a knife—rotating his wrist as if he were uncorking a bottle of champagne, Namrata saw a shower of red ooze out from Akash’s belly. And then he slumped down on the concrete, knees first, followed by his torso.
‘Noooooo. . .’ she shrieked, and forgetting her own pain, lunged at the thin barbarian.
She would have torn him apart with her bare hands, but only if she could have reached him. Her advance was cut short by a pair of hands, which appeared from nowhere, and lifted her off the ground. It was once again the driver. ‘Bahut garmi se chhori ma bhi. . .(The girl too has a lot of steam),’ she heard him say as he once again flung her away, resolutely, from the scene. As Namrata landed, she knew that it was going to take her longer, this time around, to get up.
‘Take the car keys. . .and their phones,’ she heard the knife-wielding man issue instructions to the others. She saw one of them bend down to check Akash’s pockets.
He recovered Akash’s phone, threw it on the road and began stomping over its already shattered remains. The other, in the meantime, had seized Namrata’s phone and the car keys. She saw him hand over both items to the bony man. He looked at them, dropped the keys in his pocket, and flung Namrata’s phone far into the adjoining field, with an astonishing show of strength. Then in barely a few seconds, the three boarded their vehicle and soared off, leaving behind an intensely brutal and gruesome picture.
Namrata called out to Akash, but he did not respond. Not even with a twitch of a muscle. His condition had to be grim, but the absence of any form of reaction from him made her fear the worst. Gathering the remnants of her failing courage, she moved forward, half crawling and half dragging herself towards him.
She had seen such situations in movies. She had seen actors put up a display of exaggerated histrionics, in the throes of wails and howls, but real life seemed different.
Now that she had found herself in this unthinkable situation, her survival instincts had taken over. The loss and its implications could be dealt with later, but for now she needed to take command of the situation.
Akash was on the road with his neck twisted grotesquely. His half-open eyes staring into oblivion from his battered face, and the dark, red puddle that had formed around him left little doubt with regards to his condition. Namrata needed help quickly and the only way she could think of summoning it—her phone—was lying somewhere in the distance. Instinctively, she turned to look in the direction that the man had thrown it, and just then she heard the unmistakable sound of a running motor. Finally, someone was driving down the godforsaken path.
The entrant on the scene was a man on a motorbike with two large aluminium cans dangling on either side of his bike—perhaps a milkman en route to making his morning deliveries. She cried out to catch his attention, but the milkman had already caught sight of the vehicle, parked in the middle of the road, and reduced his speed.
‘Please. . .help me,’ she pleaded as soon as his curious eyes caught hers. He slowed, stopped almost, and then saw Akash and the pool of blood surrounding his body.
In an instant the puzzled look on his face changed to shock and then to horror. He hurriedly shifted gears and turned the throttle to regain his lost momentum.
‘No, don’t go. . .please. . .,’ Namrata screamed, but to no avail. The rider had disappeared from the picture just as quickly as he had surfaced. The realisation of
her helplessness was sudden and it manifested itself in the form of large droplets trickling down her eyes. She was convulsing too, involuntarily though.
For a few minutes she remained motionless, her eyes affixed on the road, wishing to see another potential saviour coming her way. But it didn’t take long for her to realise the futility behind the wait. Getting up, she shuffled in the direction she had seen her mobile phone fly off to.
The field in question was devoid of plantation, the last crop perhaps having been cut recently, and this made her black phone stand out in the pale brown of the dry earth. She rushed towards it in unsteady but hurried steps, and dropped on all fours to pick it up.
The phone screen came alive with her contact and she let out a sigh of relief. She unlocked the keypad and with an urgent ferocity dialled the emergency number 100.
It was her first experience of contacting the emergency services, and contrary to her perceptions, the call went through in no time.
Having narrated the incident to the police control room, in as much a steady voice as she could manage, Namrata then dialled Sameer, the human resources head at their office, back in Gurgaon.
‘Sameer, there’s been a horrible tragedy,’ she began, trying desperately to contain the quaver in her voice.
‘Akash and I were on our way to Ludhiana and some goons have stabbed him. He. . .he’s badly wounded. . . and. . .and. . .I doubt if he’s going to make it. We are in the middle of the road here with no help in sight. I have called the police control room, but I think it might take some time for them to get here.’
On the other end of the phone call, Sameer heard the narrative, peppering it with intermittent exclamatory words and sounds. ‘This is shocking!’ he shot out once she was done explaining. ‘Where exactly are you? Can you share your location with me?’
‘Yes, I’ll do that.’
‘And stay put till the cops or someone from our side arrives. I will arrange for an ambulance and also have a word with some of the top brass in the state administration. I can only imagine what you must be going through, but I need you to remain strong for now. . .I shall remain in touch.’
The wait was excruciating. Let alone touch Akash, Namrata was finding it difficult even to look at his lifeless form. She could see a fly or two hovering around the blood pool. Picking up an old newspaper lying in the car, she sat down next to the body and began waving it to ward off the winged menace. For her, it was an involuntary action almost, as she kept her gaze resolutely fixed on the road, as if trying to distance herself from the dreadful sight. Random thoughts, some strange and others terrifying, kept darting through her head and she kept trying to ward them off, in an attempt to hold her composure.
A car materialised on the scene, followed soon after by a scooter, but neither of them bothered to stop. They drove past the scene as though it were an everyday occurrence not worthy of their precious time. Namrata stared at them, from their appearance on the horizon, to their fading away in the distance, dumbstruck, but
refrained from crying out for help. She wasn’t just drained of her vitalities; in fact she was very nearly ready to surrender herself to the situation. Her body was battered and bruised, and her mind was already pegged down to a point of absolute numbness. She no longer had the desire or the gumption to influence the developments. She could only sit back and allow events to chart their own course.
Finally, when she saw the unmistakable insignia of Haryana Police on an approaching van, did she wipe her cheeks with the back of her hands and pull herself up. Never had she imagined that the sight of uniformed policemen could ever be so reassuring. A gush of relief surged through her, though accompanied by a fresh trickle down her cheeks.
‘You called the control room?’ the first policeman asked as he got out of the van. There weren’t very many people around who could stake claim to the deed, but Namrata couldn’t care less. She responded with a nod and a couple of sniffs.
‘What exactly happened here?’ he continued, scanning the unsightly scene with his eyes before getting them to rest on her.
His companions, three other men, his juniors in rank, had wordlessly started to work on their respective roles as well. They had taken a good look at Akash’s body and then the first one walked away, fiddling with his walkie-talkie as he disappeared behind the van. The second one who had followed him to the van was now back with a large bag that he placed on the ground next to Akash. The third one stayed put near Akash’s body, scrutinising it rather minutely.
‘Gaya yeh toh. . .(This one’s gone),’ he remarked, interrupting her narrative briefly.
Their unperturbed demeanour and professional conduct was somewhat unnerving. They went about their duties as though it didn’t matter whether the crime scene ntailed a low-value theft or a man losing his life. But, at the same time, such a clinical approach exuded a sense of control which did wonders in soothing Namrata’s quivering nerves.
Her monologue was followed by the senior policeman’s own questions—what did the three men look like? How long back did they leave and in which direction? Did she get the number of their car?
Namrata answered them to the best of her ability, cursing herself at not having had the presence of mind to take note of the SUV’s registration number.
‘No problem. . .the wisest of people often miss out on these details when suddenly put in such a situation. Having the number would have helped, but its absence won’t
prevent us from nabbing the culprits,’ the policeman reassured her.
As if on cue, Namrata looked at his nameplate—O.P. Yadav, it read.
‘We have arranged for an ambulance to take the body to Rohtak Civil Hospital. You will need to come with us to the police station and get your statement recorded,’ Yadav said, once he had conferred with his colleagues.
Two of the men stayed behind while Namrata headed to the police station with Yadav and the fourth one in their van. Along the way she called Sameer and apprised him of the developments.
‘We are already on our way. You do as they say and we will meet you at the police station directly,’ Sameer comforted her.
Once at the police station, Yadav offered her water and tea. Namrata readily accepted both. That, however, was about as far as his hospitality and consideration for her
went. Sub-Inspector Yadav was a changed man once he got down to recording her statement. He noted every little detail she uttered, questioning and examining each
word of hers with a virtual magnifying glass.
The detailing was fine, but soon his questions started becoming somewhat critical of her narrative. ‘There must have been something that had peeved them off. Why would they otherwise pick on you for no reason? Why didn’t they break both the phones? Why did they spare yours? Why did they choose to only shove you to one side while they beat him black and blue before stabbing him? Didn’t either of them even try to touch you inappropriately? Why was the third guy wearing a muffler in this season?’
At some point during the interrogation, Namrata started to get the feeling that she was being questioned as an accomplice of the perpetrators, rather than being a victim herself. The insinuations in Yadav’s questions were only getting more and more brazen with each passing minute. This made her break down once again.
‘If you really want to know why the guy was wearing a muffler or why they did any of the things they did, you will need to catch them and ask them for yourself. I have already told you all that there was to tell. . .and that too several times over,’ she burst out, unable to contain her tears anymore.
Their company lawyer, who had quietly entered the scene and was keenly listening to the dialogue, intervened at that point to control the situation from blowing up in their faces. He was accompanied by Denzil, the Administration in-charge for the company. Sameer, she later learnt, had headed to the civil hospital in the meantime.
Her ordeal at the police station lasted for several hours, way beyond what she had originally anticipated. Once the tribulation of getting her statement recorded was over, she had to sift through thick photo-albums with pictures of known criminals from the area in an attempt to identify the culprits.
She had had a good look at two of them at least, but it wasn’t easy to match the dated photographs with the images from her memory. There were several photos that appeared vaguely similar to the men she had seen that morning, but none that allowed her to confirm a match with certainty. Her experience with Yadav hadn’t turned out to be a particularly pleasurable one, and so she avoided giving him half-baked leads that could put her in a spot later.
It was almost evening by the time Denzil drove her back to Gurgaon and dropped her home.
‘Anything you need?’ he courteously enquired.
Namrata shook her head. Right then she was feeling bedraggled and bloody awful. If there was something she needed, it was a shower and her bed.
She wanted to ask him about Akash, but it would have been an exercise in futility. What could he tell him about a man who, she knew, had breathed his last in front of her several hours back?
Left alone in the house, her tussle to keep her disturbing thoughts at bay became even more pronounced. She took a quick shower and fixed herself a sandwich. Within minutes she was ready for bed. But before that, she pulled out a bottle from the medicine cabinet, took two small pellets from it and gulped them down. Anything to help her get a few hours of sound sleep!
It would be next morning when she would find the details of her ordeal staring back at her from the morning papers. ‘Startup co-founder falls prey to road rage,’ the headline would read.