(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
An hour later, Ravi entered a Phantasy Publishing conference room where they had all decided to meet up. He was surprised to find that he wasn’t the first to arrive. Madhu, Anurag and Uncle Silver were already seated. A bag lay on the table in front of the old man, the right size for carrying a barebones Captura.
Ravi greeted them and walked across to an empty chair beside Madhu. Everyone seemed to be in a quiet, contemplative mood. This suited him; his headache was slightly better now but he still felt its lingering effects. Sharmila came by soon enough, leaving them waiting only for Subro.
The artist’s arrival was preceded by shouts from outside the room. ‘Hey! HEY!’ Subro’s unmistakable voice carried from the other side of the door. ‘HEY! Over here!’
Everybody looked curiously at the door. Anurag even got up to check what was happening. But just then, the door opened and the painter walked in, umbrella in one hand, but without the usual cigarette between his lips. He still had a bandage wrapped across his face, which was uncomfortable to look at. The new Captura that Uncle Silver had given him yesterday hung from his neck.
‘What’s the matter?’ Anurag asked as he sat back down.
‘Oh,’ Subro said sheepishly, taking another seat. He shot a nervous glance at Ravi. ‘It’s not much. Just that, you know, Ravi and I noticed something interesting about the ghosts yesterday, and it’s — it’s no longer the case.’
‘What?!’ Ravi let out. ‘Really?’
‘Damn it, Subro! I told you we should have investigated yesterday!’
‘What’s this about?’ Anurag enquired.
‘Something was off about the InstaCopies from last night,’ Ravi explained. ‘The ghosts, they weren’t idling about. They were, sort of, pointing in one direction, all of them together.’
Subro reached into his bag and retrieved the InstaCopies being discussed. He passed them on for the others to see.
‘Wow, this is really freaky,’ Madhu commented.
‘Indeed,’ said Uncle Silver. ‘These ghosts appeared mostly harmless before, almost mindless in the way they carried themselves. But being capable of such collective acts? It makes me uncomfortable!’
‘Well,’ Ravi said, ‘we thought they were trying to tell us something. It seemed really urgent. You’ll notice that they shift positions to stay in the frame, even when the angle of the shot changes.’
‘Really freaky,’ Madhu repeated.
‘No point talking about it now if it’s not working anymore,’ said Anurag, ‘but how do you know for sure?’
‘They’re back to being mindless,’ Subro sighed. ‘I tried calling out to them to get their attention, but they’re not reacting.’ He passed along some of the InstaCopies he had just taken. Indeed, the ghosts seemed to be floating about without a care.
‘Okay, then we go ahead with the earlier plan,’ Anurag suggested.
‘The one we discussed at the party?’ Ravi asked.
‘Exactly.’ Anurag reiterated the plan for the benefit of Subro, Sharmila and Uncle Silver, telling them who will be handling which parts of the city and how they were going to be paired. Ravi realised with a shock that he would be spending some alone time with Sharmila. He looked her way but she was still avoiding his gaze.
Once everybody had been briefed, Ravi voiced something that had been bothering him. ‘Okay, now here’s the thing. Say we go ahead with this, and we do find this temple. There’s a chance that we’ll come across Sharmila’s brother. What then? What are we supposed to do? You’ve seen how he can just decimate us with his lightning ability.’
‘Don’t engage him,’ Sharmila warned them, without meeting Ravi’s eyes. ‘You’ve already seen how dangerous he can be. It’s best to let me talk to him. If you find him, wait till I can get there. Our best chance is to reason with him, to show him he’s going about things the wrong way.’
‘You weren’t able to convince him last time,’ Anurag pointed out. ‘What’s changed?’
‘Umm… nothing, actually. I admit, it doesn’t seem like much of a plan, but he’s more likely to listen to me than to you. He considers you his absolute enemies.’
‘And he doesn’t think much better of you. Not anymore, if I heard him correctly.’
Ravi interjected, ‘I think what she’s trying to say is that her advantage, no matter how small, could make for a big difference, a difference of life and death perhaps.’
Sharmila neither confirmed nor denied it.
‘He might hate her, but she’s still his family,’ added Subro.
‘Alright,’ said Anurag, ‘I’m not really convinced, but I don’t have any alternatives to speak of. Guess we’ll see how it goes, then.’
‘I guess we will,’ Uncle Silver said, stroking his beard.
‘So, looks like it’s time to head out?’ Madhu asked. ‘Unless there are any other questions?’
Nobody said anything.
‘Awesome!’ Subro announced. Taking the Captura’s strap off his neck, he handed the device and its bag over to Ravi, who would be the one needing it for the mission. ‘Let’s go visit some temples! Funny how the one time I’m excited about visiting them, it’s not because of any God.’ He drew in a sharp breath as soon as he had said that. ‘Oops, Uncle’s here. He must be worried about our generation!’
‘Nonsense!’ Uncle Silver replied, ‘I gave up believing a long time ago. It has served me well!’
‘Aren’t you the coolest uncle ever?’ Subro laughed.
Uncle Silver chuckled. ‘Right, on to the task at hand, then.’
Everybody rose from their seats and proceeded outside. They said their farewells and then split up: Madhu and her uncle heading for the main exit; Subro and Anurag making for the parking lot where Uncle Silver’s mini-truck awaited; and Ravi and Sharmila catching an elevator to the helipad.
The two of them remained silent throughout the trip. Ravi knew that they needed to speak about the previous night, that silence would only make things worse, but he couldn’t bring himself to voice his thoughts. Sharmila kept mum as well, avoiding eye contact completely. The only time anyone spoke was when Ravi directed the pilot.
It took Ravi and Sharmila about three quarters of an hour to get to their first drop point. From there, they would be able to visit four temples. Their target for the day was to go to five such drop points and visit a total of twenty-three temples.
The first one they went to was huge. The two of them had approached it from a snaky lane with rows of trees on either side, and the temple had towered over the highest branches. It wasn’t near as tall as the Phantasy Publishing skyscraper, of course, but it definitely occupied much the same amount of land, if not more. As they reached the foot of the structure, Ravi marveled at the massive staircase, over a hundred steps leading up to a platform at the top. His jaw was literally open in awe; his headache, entirely forgotten. It was only later that he would realise how exhausting this day was going to be.
For now, he was in a perfectly spiritual mood. He bowed down in front of the structure and touched his head to the foot of the staircase. Then, retrieving the Captura, he slung its strap over his neck. He knew they only needed to capture the insides of the temples, but he couldn’t resist recording an InstaCopy of the beautiful exterior.
However, Ravi struggled to get a good shot. The building’s size meant that he had to retreat quite a way to accommodate it in the frame, but when he did, the trees covered up a lot of the base. Moreover, the rising sun was shining against him.
In the end, he made a compromise. He settled on an angle where the sun was hidden behind the structure but the lower half of the building remained obscured. Satisfied that he couldn’t do a better job, he decided to get back to the mission.
Sharmila was still at the foot of the staircase. She was chanting something inaudible, her hands in front of her chest, clapping softly in rhythm with her words. Ravi felt a funny fluttering in his chest at the sight of her lost in the act. He thought she looked rather pretty just then. Quickly, he set a fresh plate in the device and took another shot, this time of her.
No sooner had he clicked it than she was finished. With an innocent smile, she started to climb the stairs. Ravi followed.
The interior of the temple was no less wondrous. The first thing Ravi noticed was the colour gold. It seemed to be everywhere – from the idols to the bells and from the pillars to the flooring. Gold interspersed with marble-white was to be found no matter where one looked. The sweet smell of incense reached him, enriching his experience.
Ravi’s hands almost involuntarily raised the Captura to his eye. He took a shot of the interior, went a few paces in, clicked another, and then one more, replacing plates manually as he went.
A loud, angry voice suddenly yelled, ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING, BOY?!’
Ravi went white, his hands letting go of the device. It swung threateningly from his neck. Abhijit, here? he thought, shuddering.
But it wasn’t Sharmila’s brother. The man who had reprimanded him was balding and half-naked. A white dhoti covered his legs and a white thread ran diagonally across his torso. Ravi took him to be a priest.
The man accosted him, ‘How dare you bring an accursed device into this sacred place?!’
‘Oh, oh no, this is – this isn’t – it’s not illegal!’ Ravi fumbled, half surprised, half nervous. ‘Have — haven’t you read the news recently? The ban on the Captura has been lifted by the courts!’
‘The law knows nothing!’ the priest continued, spittle leaving his mouth at the last word. ‘It is a blasphemy to bring this evil here! Blasphemy! Do you hear me? Be gone! I will have to purify the temple now. Worthless scoundrels!’ He shooed them away but didn’t make any contact, almost as if fearful of contracting a horrible disease.
Ravi tried to come up with something to pacify the priest, but the longer he stood there, the angrier the man appeared to get. Finally, seeing no other solution, he hastily took an about-turn and left. They did have everything they had come for, and there was more work to be done. The time for debating with a priest was not now. Sharmila followed him out, as silent as ever.
The next temple visit was a repeat of the same. The view from the outside was so exquisite, Ravi readily forgot his irritation from before, only to be reminded of it as the priest there objected to the device’s presence as well. Once again, they left in a hurry, though they did manage to get two shots of the inside.
When they faced the very same situation at the third temple also, Ravi’s good mood dissipated completely. From there on, they focused solely on obtaining the requisite images. Their pace picked up as a result.
Before they knew it, the task for the day was done with an hour and a half to spare. Ravi decided to cover yet another drop point in that. When it was time to return, they had visited twenty-seven temples in all.
It was then that Ravi began to realise how tiring the whole excursion had been. With nothing else to look forward to, no directions to be given to the pilot, and with Sharmila still not speaking to him, he took the time to relax, but his body protested. His joints hurt all over, his legs especially complaining from having run up and down staircases all day. His headache also returned in all its glory.
Ravi looked outside the windows to distract himself, but the view no longer offered much to see in the darkness that had followed sunset. So he settled on checking the shots that he had taken over the day. He was an organised fellow; every plate in the bag had been stacked in perfect chronological order. He retrieved the first image.
Ravi loved this one. He knew he could have gotten a better shot at a different time of day, but given the limitation, he thought he’d done a great job of capturing the essence of the structure. It was definitely the best one he had ever clicked. He noticed that the ghosts were still acting mindless.
The next one, of Sharmila praying, caused him to double check that she wasn’t looking. There wasn’t anything untoward in it, of course, but he wasn’t sure how she would react to it given her mood today. There was no cause for worry, though. She was merely looking out at the darkness, oblivious to what Ravi was up to. When his eyes returned to the InstaCopy, he noticed something that caused his heart-rate to double. Yellow ropes of light had bound the ghosts, pulling them away, towards the sky.
Ravi hurriedly pulled out some of the other InstaCopies, and it quickly became evident that they were all missing the presence of any ghosts.
‘Hey, Sharmila,’ he spoke up, his voice a little shaky.
The girl looked at him, questioningly, but remained silent otherwise.
‘I think — I think your brother has been up to something today.’
That got her to break her silence. ‘What do you mean?!’
‘Look at these.’ He handed her the InstaCopies in his hand, then instantly regretted the decision as he saw her eyes fall on the one he’d taken of her. He could see her processing the image in her mind, but she didn’t comment on it. To distract her, he continued, ‘One moment, the ghosts are behaving normally; the next, they are pulled by these strings, the same strings I saw at Niranjan theatre! And then they are just gone, vanished!’
‘I think you’re right,’ Sharmila said. ‘This has to be Dada. But — but this doesn’t really help, does it? We still don’t know where to find him.’
Ravi looked at her. The conclusion she’d come up with seemed a little bit pessimistic to him, but he guessed she was exhausted as well.
‘Don’t worry,’ Ravi told her. Why was he having such a hard time speaking to her today? They had spoken a whole lot more at the party. Was it all thanks to the drinks? ‘Perhaps the others will have found something. Let’s not lose hope.’
‘Okay,’ she said, then turned back to stare outside the window. She stayed that way till they got back to the company building.
Upon landing at Phantasy Publishing, the two of them made their way to the meeting room again. They found Madhu and Uncle Silver already inside.
‘Oh good, you’re back!’ Uncle Silver said as they walked through the door. ‘We have something to show you.’
Ravi took a guess. ‘By any chance, do you mean ghosts being pulled away by yellow strings, then being absent from InstaCopies for the rest of the day?’
‘No strings,’ said Madhu, ‘but the second part is true. The ghosts were showing up as usual at the first three temples, then they suddenly disappeared in the next. We almost believed it was the temple we were looking for, but then they didn’t show up anywhere else either.’
Damn! Ravi thought. Now I’ll need to show them the portrait of Sharmila…
‘Maybe you didn’t take any shots while it was happening, but,’ he pulled out the concerned plate and handed it to Madhu, slow enough at the act to seem suspicious, ‘here’s what I was able to capture.’
‘Wow!’ Madhu said with a wink. ‘What a cute InstaCopy, Ravi!’
Ravi resisted the urge to comment, which would only keep the subject around longer. In his peripheral vision, he thought he saw Sharmila stiffen.
‘See the strings?’ he asked Madhu. ‘That is what pulled the ghosts out of action today. It’s very similar to what happened at the theatre yesterday. We think it’s Abhijit behind this.’
Madhu and Uncle Silver looked at the InstaCopy, silently nodding.
‘All the ghosts from around the city…’ Uncle Silver muttered to himself uncomfortably.
‘Did you observe anything else?’ Sharmila asked, directing the question to the uncle and niece. ‘Any other clues that could help us find Dada?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ Uncle Silver said. ‘Looks like the both of you did better than us.’
‘But Subro and Anurag are still to return,’ Ravi pointed out. ‘Maybe they will have found something. Especially Subro, with his… gift.’
‘Maybe,’ Sharmila said softly. She took a seat at the table.
Ravi copied her. ‘Can I have a look at the images you took?’ he asked Madhu.
‘Sure,’ the girl shrugged.
‘I would like to see the rest of yours too,’ Uncle Silver said.
They spent the next few minutes going through the other team’s images, waiting for the third team to get back.
After a while of that, though, Ravi was bored. He had seen far too many temples that day and was beginning to see the same patterns, the same designs, everywhere. Most architects didn’t deviate too far from the established ideas of temple design, apparently; a kind of tradition of its own, he guessed. To add to that, neither Madhu nor Uncle Silver were especially skilled with the Captura. The little lessons he had obtained from Subro made the mistakes in their compositions stand out to Ravi all the more.
Very soon, he could look at them no longer. He rested back on his seat and simply sat there, instead. One by one, the others in the room reached the same state as him, waiting silently for Subro and Anurag to show up.
As the minutes ticked by and the two boys refused to show any signs of getting back, though, the quiet weariness in the room morphed gradually into silent worry. Nobody voiced the doubts taking hold of their minds, not for a long time.