(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
‘Hey, hey,’ Ravi tried. ‘Are you sure? You’ve had quite a lot already!’
Sharmila’s response came in the form of an indecent blowing of air through loose lips. ‘This, nothing,’ she giggled. ‘I need more.’
The bartender was approaching with another bottle but Ravi motioned him not to. Sharmila saw that.
‘Ahh! No fair!’ she complained. ‘Why you do that?’
‘Look, I think you’ve drunk too much too fast.’ He tried to be as calm as he could. ‘Why don’t we take a break? Let’s continue later, okay?’
‘No! I’m telling, I’m fine. Let me have.’
Despite her sloppy talk, she methodically reached for Ravi’s mostly-full bottle and snatched it in a flash, chugging the contents down her throat. Ravi’s protests fell on deaf ears.
Once she was done with the bottle, Sharmila let out a loud belch. Ravi threw his hands up in exasperation. Every person in the room eyed them suspiciously for a second, then darted judging glances around at each other, before getting back to what they were doing before.
Meanwhile, Sharmila simply rest her head on the counter and seemingly went off into a very comfortable sleep. Ravi dared not move, lest that should stir her up. He sat there stiffly, until Subro’s loud voice boomed through the room.
At once, Ravi startled, thinking it to be one of Subro’s distasteful pranks. He looked about urgently to hush the painter, but found him standing in the dance area, making an announcement to the room. The young artist had a small Captura hanging from his neck.
‘HELLO EVERYONE!’ he yelled again to grab people’s attention, which he then greeted with a flashy smile and an elaborate wave. ‘I hope you all are enjoying yourselves. There’s good food and good alcohol here, so if you’re not having an awesome time, I’m not sure what’s stopping you!’ There were a few laughs. ‘Please help yourselves to the tasty starters and plentiful booze. The music will be starting soon, so make sure you’re ready to dance!’
Ravi realised that quite a few people had arrived in the last minute or so. They began to shuffle along to the food section and some were also approaching the bar. Those who hadn’t acted on the announcement immediately received another prompt from Subro.
Soon all the seats at the bar were taken. Ravi offered his to a lady wearing a white top and loose grey trousers, who had arrived a little too late. He stood behind Sharmila instead, to keep people from waking her. The woman looked at him curiously.
‘Looks like your date is out cold already,’ she told him.
‘Ahh, umm, she’s not my date per se, but yes, she’s out…’
‘You both old enough to be drinking?’ she asked in a voice that Ravi couldn’t confidently label as joking.
‘Oh, yes, yes, besides it wasn’t anything strong. We just had mild beers.’
‘Okay, if you say so.’ She reached in her purse to retrieve something. ‘Just be careful, alright?’ Brandishing a small document in front of him, she added, ‘I’m not here on duty, don’t make me have to work.’
Ravi recognised the document as an identity card. He noticed the seal of the Police and the name “Fernandes” on it before she put the thing away.
‘Of — of course not!’ His voice was at a higher pitch than he had been using before.
‘Good,’ said Fernandes, satisfied. She turned to the bartender and ordered, ‘One whiskey, on the rocks, please.’
Ravi felt awkward standing beside a cop. His eyes inadvertently landed on the purse on her lap. He wondered if there was a gun in there. Subro’s sudden voice caused Ravi to jump once again. He wheeled around to find the painter still at the dance floor.
‘Alright, people,’ Subro was calling again, ‘if you’ve got some food in your belly and a drink in your hand, we can start at last, but just one thing before that. I’d like to take a moment to talk about the people who would rather wish that we don’t have a party.’
Ravi was stunned. Is he going to make a scene about our unwillingness, now? That rascal!
‘There are people out there,’ Subro continued, ‘who point guns at us and plant bombs in our buildings, hoping to disrupt our lives. We read about it in the news everyday.’
‘Some of us experienced this today.’ Subro pointed at the prominent bandage on his face. ‘These people, they’re attention-seeking bastards, who want us to spend our time fearing them. But you know how we can beat them?’ He took a pause to let the people consider it. ‘I’ll tell you. We don’t let their actions affect us. We have a good time. That’s how they lose. They don’t get the panic that they had hoped to create. They don’t get the attention that they so crave. So let’s party hard tonight, have an awesome time, and beat these deplorable people! Are you with me?!’
The crowd roared as they applauded and cheered him. Ravi joined in, shocked.
‘ALRIGHT!’ Subro jumped forward, punching the air. The band got into position behind him. No sooner did their music begin than some dozens of people got straight to dancing. It didn’t take long for others to join in. Very soon, almost every single person was on the dance floor.
Even Ms. Fernandes left her seat at the bar to go towards the dance area, whiskey in hand. Ravi sat down again, beside the sleeping Sharmila, his eyes following Ms. Fernandes. The policewoman didn’t engage in the dance anymore than some tapping of her foot and some gentle swaying of her torso, but she did seem to be enjoying herself. She kept glancing his way from time to time, though, as if keeping a check.
This was precisely when Sharmila stirred awake. The music had been getting progressively louder after all. She looked around, clueless for a while, before nodding slowly to the beats. Then she noticed Ravi beside her.
‘Aww, you stayed by me!’ She sounded like someone speaking to a baby. To add to the effect, she pinched his cheek, with so much force that it actually hurt. ‘Such a cutie.’
‘Ahh — argh! — it’s — it’s nothing,’ Ravi said, failing to hide his pain.
‘You’re adorable!’ she continued, then her hand reached down to his tie. She gripped the cloth tightly in her fist and then pulled him by it. Ravi protested, forcing himself in the opposite direction, which was harder than he had anticipated. She was slightly larger than him, but for some reason, he had underestimated her strength. When he managed to hold his own, though, she used the pull on the tie to draw herself closer to him instead.
Before Ravi could do anything about it, she fell on him, her arms wrapping around his back, her face on his left shoulder, her hair tickling his ear and her chest against his.
‘Thank you for looking after me,’ she told him softly.
Ravi didn’t know how to respond. The one thing screaming in his mind loudest was that at any moment now, Ms. Fernandes would turn around and find them in this awkward position. His mind was racing, trying to think of ways out of the situation. He felt exposed here at the empty bar. He wished he could hide in a crowd. But where are all the people?
‘Umm, umm,’ he mumbled, ‘would you like to head to the dance floor?’ It took him some time to realise what he had said. What? What? What? he asked himself.
Sharmila let go of the embrace. She stood up and blushed. ‘Sure,’ she said shyly.
Okay, at least it got her off me. He rose to his feet as well, offering his hand to her to lead her to the dance floor. She obliged and they made their way.
Ravi led her into the crowd of dancers, as far away from Ms. Fernandes as he could; and from Madhu, who had people around her trying to follow her moves; and from Subro, Anurag or any face that looked familiar. Upon reaching a section that looked satisfactory enough, however, he was faced with yet another dilemma.
How do I hold her?
He turned to face Sharmila. She was almost his height, perhaps an inch or two taller, or maybe she was wearing heels. He dared not look to confirm.
Unable to gather the courage to lay his hand on her waist, he began to sway in place instead. He clicked his fingers with every step. The music was peppy at this point, so he hoped it would suffice, although his skill at dancing was anything but impressive. The number of couples clinging to each other around them was discomforting.
Sharmila didn’t seem to have a care about such things. She had a blissful smile on her face and appeared to be enjoying the experience immensely. Her glowing face looked rather pretty, and Ravi found his nerves relaxing as he realised that she wasn’t judging him at all.
It was like the calm had unlocked a hidden energy within him. The intensity of his dancing spiked up in that moment. The music in his ears gained a new interpretation, and he tried to match his moves to it. Ravi rocked his head to the beats, swayed his body to the tunes and even strummed his fingers, playing an imaginary guitar. With every second, his excitement went up and as it did, so did the experimentation in his moves.
Sharmila kept up with him through and through. The girl who usually carried herself awkwardly was now twisting and hopping and waving her arms around easily. If she hadn’t been wearing a sari, Ravi imagined that her dancing would have been even crazier.
It pleased him immensely just to see the look of enjoyment on her face, so when the music took a melodious turn of violin at one point, he found himself drawn closer to her. He swooped across and held her in an embrace, and she immediately responded in kind. Then as the music continued to grow romantic, they swayed in step.
Ravi’s mind was a blissful mix of emotions. Emotions that he wished would be there to stay till late into the night. Emotions that ended rather abruptly as he caught sight of a person with a box raised up to their face — Subro with the Captura. The artist was snapping InstaCopies of Ravi and Sharmila.
‘HEY!’ Ravi screamed, letting go of the girl in his arms and then freezing, unsure what his next action should be.
Sharmila for her part thought that he was trying some new move and copied his pose, also yelling ‘Hey!’
Ravi marched to Subro, shaking his fists before himself. ‘Why the hell are you taking my InstaCopies?’
‘Why do you think?’ Subro snorted. ‘Blackmail material, of course.’
‘Destroy them at once! I’m warning you. Your jokes have gone on for too long. Don’t forget, I can fire you now!’
‘Oh, go ahead then,’ Subro callously remarked. ‘I wonder what I would do if I didn’t have a job. I’d be so bored. Oh, I know! Maybe I’ll distribute these pictures around!’
‘No, what, why would you?’
‘Perhaps you didn’t get me quite clearly. I said these InstaCopies are blackmail material. Get it?’ He fanned himself with one of the plates.
Ravi made a dash for the image, snatching it off of the painter’s hand. He ran a few paces away, just in case Subro decided to give chase. But the painter only burst out laughing.
‘That’s surprisingly stupid of you,’ Subro mocked. ‘I took multiple shots, of course’
‘I just wanted to see what it looks like,’ Ravi explained, checking the plate in his hand. The InstaCopy was darker than he was used to seeing. It was shot indoors and Subro didn’t have an InstaLight to help him. Still, the subjects could be made out quite well. The image showed Ravi and Sharmila in a tight embrace, Ravi’s face captured at an unfortunate moment, making the moment appear less innocent that it had been.
But that wasn’t the only thing that bothered Ravi. If the InstaCopy he’d seen before this had been devoid of any ghosts, this one was the exact opposite. The entire negative space around Ravi and Sharmila was occupied by the wispy figures. Moreover, they weren’t randomly floating about like they usually did.
The ghosts were pointing their smoky appendages in one direction, every single one of them in unison. There was a sense of urgency in the collective pose.
‘Subro, look at this,’ Ravi invited, his curiosity putting an end to his annoyance.
Subro approached him and stole the InstaCopy back, gripping it securely in both hands. He looked at it and frowned.
‘What do you think?’ Ravi asked.
‘I don’t know…’
‘What about the intuition of yours? Is it telling you anything?’
‘You know I have no control over it, but, checking the other InstaCopies is a good idea, I think.’ He pulled out the previous shots from his bag and noted, ‘There’s more of the same here.’
Ravi took the shots from the painter, looking at each of them as minutely as he could, trying to find a pattern. ‘They seem to have followed you,’ he observed. ‘See? Wherever you shot from, whatever angle you used, they rearranged themselves for you.’
‘Yeah, why?’ Subro asked softly. ‘You think they’re trying to tell us something?’
‘Could be.’ Ravi thought about it. ‘We need to take more shots. If they’re trying to communicate, let’s figure out what they’re saying.’
‘Sure,’ said Subro, ‘but after the party. You know I’m very firm on that front. No work before this party is over!’
‘Oh, come on! This could be urgent, Subro!’
‘Trust me, I’m the one with the intuition. Also, you don’t seem to have much of a choice,’ Subro said as he looked over Ravi’s shoulder.
‘What do you mean—’ Ravi began.
‘Hey!’ Sharmila’s voice came from behind him. ‘Where did you disappear off to?’
‘Oh, sorry, I just had some wor—’
Subro kicked Ravi’s leg, hard. ‘What was the one thing I told you not to bring up tonight?’ he warned.
‘You didn’t have to hit me!’ Ravi complained.
‘Fine!’ He hastily turned to Sharmila. ‘I’m sorry; it was rude of me to leave in the middle of the dance. Let’s get back?’
‘Why did you? Were you not enjoying yourself?’ she asked, a slight frown playing on her lips.
‘No, no, it’s not that,’ Ravi tried. ‘I just saw something urgent that I had to deal with. It’s done. Let’s get back?’ He offered her his hand again.
‘Okay,’ she said, taking it.
They returned to the dance floor, and pretty soon the deal about the ghosts slipped out of Ravi’s mind for the rest of the night.