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Brushing Shoulders With Fear

It was five in the evening. After spending the entire afternoon at Anand’s home, located at a fair distance from mine, twenty-two kilometres to be precise, we were ready to start to Gowtham’s residence. Out on the road, we could sense that something wasn’t right; the buzz in the tea stall, the unusual crowd at the grocery store, and the panic in the faces of the people we crossed were all proof. Curious we were, as we stopped near one of the shops to listen to what people around were discussing.

We were left in a state of shock when we knew that a series of explosions had rocked the city. Though we were far off from the heart of the city, many of the shops in the vicinity were already closed and the remaining were on the verge. We rushed to Anand’s home to update the situation to his parents, who were by then on the street discussing with their neighbours.

It wasn’t the era of mobile phones and social networking; not every family owned a telephone at home. Before I could find one to inform my whereabouts to my parents, Anand’s neighbour was telling us that the lines weren’t functioning. Venturing into the city without knowing the prevailing state of affairs was a risky proposition. Coming back would be a herculean task if we get stranded in the middle.

We could now see Karthik bustle towards us. He had come out of home for a cup of tea. His locality was much calmer, and the street where he lived had open spaces aplenty. As his parents weren’t in town, he invited both of us home.

It was 10 pm. We had just finished dinner; Karthik, being pretty good at cooking, we were treated to some fine delicacies. Anand was feeling full and was ready for a walk if we agreed to join him. Having nothing to do, we strolled towards the main road, a hundred metres away from Karthik’s home.

It was pretty dark. With a few dim street lights to rely on and the distance between the lamp posts not helping the cause, we cautiously marched forward. The main road was more than a kilometre in length before it merged into another, at the junction of which was the tea stall that Karthik often visited.

We had hardly walked two hundred metres when a beam of light was trying hard to get us into the limelight. It was from the bikes, slowly moving in our direction from the junction. We stopped instantly and looked at each other.

Were we heading towards an angry mob?

“We were,” said Anand as the bikes gathered speed. In a flash, Karthik turned and ran towards the street leading to his home, shouting at us to follow. Without cautioning us, he took a right—not the intended one and ran fiercely. Anand understood his plan and followed him. Within seconds, I was running along with Karthik, who then turned left and stepped into a small pathway among the bushes. It was a shortcut that led to his street. In a moment, we were home only to find Anand missing. Searching for him at this point in time would be risky, as we could end up bumping into the mob.

Karthik quickly opened the door, and both of us rushed in, switched off the lights, and sat on the sofa in the living room, gasping for breath after sprinting a distance close to three hundred metres. We were worried about Anand, who disappeared while we ran on the path amidst the bushes.

All of a sudden, we could hear the sound of the bikes nearing us. Trembling and confused, we took the stairs inside the home and went to a room on the first floor to get a glimpse of the action on the street. Peeping through one of the windows, we found at least ten hefty men, a few metres away from home; some were on their bikes and some sitting on the road.

Why are they here? Have they found a street to rest, or were they waiting for us? Questions were fast queueing up. Amidst this confusion, we could hear someone gently tapping at the door that led to the open terrace.

Karthik was pretty sure that it was Anand, who could have taken the stairs in the backyard, but wasn’t ready to open the door without confirming that it was him. In a faint voice, Karthik asked, “Who is this?” “Anand,” answered an anxious tone.

Karthik carefully opened the door, exercising utmost caution to avoid the faintest of noises reaching the ears of the men on the street. Anand was completely drenched in sweat and shivering. He had run straight, taking the longest route and before he could reach home, we had already closed the door. Though he saw us from a distance, he cleverly refrained from yelling at us; the act could have got all the three of us into trouble.

We waited patiently for the mob to disperse. They finally left at 1 am, leaving behind the fear with us. It was only after thirty minutes we switched on one of the lights. Drained physically and mentally, yet we weren’t able to sleep peacefully. Anand had dreams of the mob chasing him on their bikes; Karthik woke up at least thrice in between, and I wasn’t sleeping at all.

Loads of cigarette remains and empty liquor bottles were found scattered on the street when we opened the gate at nine in the morning. The street bore a deserted look, and the few unmanned bikes raised concerns. Were we being monitored? Be it so, as we had the sun at our backs for company. An entirely different bunch of men in daylight, we weren’t able to be the dark knights we thought we were after dusk.

It was a night that we still remember, for we had seen fear in disguise.

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