I rushed to the emergency unit of the Global Springs Hospital fortunately close to my workplace. Anshuman’s worried parents sat huddled with his sister and brother-in-law outside the unit. His mother saw me and broke down. His brother-in-law was with the police and I heard him occupied on the phone.
“Vandu beta…” His mom wailed. “…look what happened all of a sudden…my Anshu is so careful. You know that right? How could he get hit in the middle of the highway…what on earth was he doing there?” His mother drawled on.
“Maaji…” The brother-in-law spoke sternly with the air of authority. “…this was no accident. My guy checked the CCTV footage. Anshuman was pushed in front of a car, and the number plates are fake as well. Something isn’t sitting right. We don’t know the identity of the guy who pushed him… the footage is hazy.”
I felt the ground sweep away beneath my feet. Who would do that to Ansh. He was a peace-loving popular guy and always so helpful.
Later Anshuman was wheeled into emergency surgery and while we waited in anticipation, A group of policemen walked up to us. The bro-in-law introduced all of us and said he had arranged for this team to probe into the accident or attempted homicide…
My head was reeling. What was going on with Anshuman? Did he have any enemies that I didn’t know about? He had always been there for me every step of the way and to see him so fragile and incapacitated was torturous.
“Ms. Vandana we need your help here.” The police in charge of the investigation informed me.
I went with him to a little make-shift table with PCs and a bunch of wires around them. I was glad Anshuman had someone in the police from his home. His bro-in-law had set up everything right there in the hospital corner so Anshuman’s security as well as the investigation could be held together.
I sat across the table and was served the machine coffee. It tasted like mud, but anything warm was ok for my chilled soul.
“Ms. Vandana, please take a look at the footage. This was captured a few minutes before the accident and from a couple of lanes away from where you reside. We don’t know what Anshuman was doing there late in the afternoon on a working day, especially when he had a meeting in his office. None of the witnesses have come forward, and no one seems to know anything there. Either they are lying or don’t want to get involved… So we are going the roundabout way.”
I was shocked to hear that and also scared. Right then, they played the footage to me. Anshuman was walking on that lane. It was the same one where my favorite bakery and boutique were located. The quality was grainy but I couls recognize Anshuman from anywhere. He was looking towards the bakery first and then a couple of shops later he was staring at the boutique and then took out his mobile. Right then, a man in a hoodie came from nowhere and hit him on the head. He almost collapsed. My heart stilled to see another person in black overalls join the hoodied guy and drag Ansh away from there. All in a matter of a minute or so. The footage then moved to the highway and I saw Anshuman struggling to let loose while they waited at one side of the highway. This was the segment without zebra crossing, and people avoided it. Also, traffic was sparse due to some ongoing stir at one end of town. These guys seemed to know all that very well. They had to be locals.
As if waiting for a vehicle they let go of Anshuman… no they pushed him right before an oncoming vehicle. I screamed as I saw the accident happen. It was a miracle Anshuman survived that dreaded assault.
“Ms. Vanada, calm down, please. Do you think you can identify the assailants?” The inspector in-charge asked me in a kind voice.
I realized I was crying and accepted the tissue he offered with trembling hands. I shook my head, but at the back of my head, I knew I saw something familiar. But these days, my mind was mush and even more so now. I drew a blank.
I sipped the rotten coffee and tried to recollect what I had seen. What was the familiar thing that caught my eye?
I went home later in the night and saw my mobile had about 30 missed calls from Anand. I suddenly felt guilty. I had forgotten to call him in the fiasco.
I texted him about Anshuman’s accident but left out other details. He was a bit hot-headed, and I didn’t want him to jump to conclusions and come out guns blazing in jealousy. But it was 2 AM, and my phone buzzed. Though I was too tired and sapped off energy, I answered it.
“How are you doing, beautiful?” Anand’s chirpy voice sprang from the earpiece. Really? At 2 AM? And not a word about Anshuman…
“I am tired, Anand. Shall we talk tomorrow? I need to sleep now.”
“Sorry, darling, but I missed you like hell. I had kept myself free to have a beautiful relaxed evening and night with you. When you weren’t reachable… I lost it. Its.. ok… we will talk tomorrow.”
I felt guilty all of a sudden. Anand only had my best interests in mind. I promised to see him the next day as I had taken an off already. I had planned to stay in the hospital all day, but I could spare a few hours for Anand.
The next day I was in the hospital right in the morning and Anshuman had still not regained consciousness. The doctors spoke about medically induced coma to let the swelling in the brain come down. I wanted him to recover and also wanted to know what made him go to that lane that day… Anshuman’s accident had shaken me to the core, and for the first time in months, I didn’t want to go to Anand, leaving Anshuman in the hospital. Nothing else interested me anymore. The thoughts of losing my best friend for good scared the daylights out of me.
Later in the evening, when I met Anand, he gifted me with yet another dress, and I snapped at him, mentally taxed.
“What is this, Anand? I am in no mood to celebrate. My best friend is fighting for his life and this…”
“…So what…?” He snapped back. “…life goes on. When my parents died I was at work the next day as if nothing had happened. No one around me knew what tragedy had befallen me and I was only 15.”
I stared at a fuming Anand. His expression had changed, and he had zoned out. This was the first time he had mentioned his family. I immediately walked to his side and hugged him. He bent and dug his head into my bosom and circled my torso. He was a tall guy, and even though sitting, his head reached my neck.
I rubbed his back and promised to get his story after this event had passed. I would be the ear he needed to vent. I would be there for him…
That night we went to another hotel close to my house and our union was explosive. Anand was in a different realm altogether and he went on at least three more times. I didn’t want it but I couldn’t refuse him… he needed it and I felt obliged to give in. He slept at 3 AM and though I was sleep-deprived and had a workday coming up I couldn’t sleep a wink. Something troubled me.
I released myself from his hold and sat up even as the chill of the AC seeped into my skin. I looked at my guy in the dim night light. He looked like a child when he slept. When awake, Anand was all cautious as if trying to be someone he wasn’t. I was about to sleep again when my eyes fell on his bracelet, sheepishly peeping out of the robe he had hurriedly put on before falling asleep.
It hit me right then like a lightning strike. I saw this bracelet shining on that footage of the man pushing Anshuman. No… I clenched at the bedsheet near my chest. No way… Anand was a kind-hearted guy. Temperamental but never someone to hurt anyone.
I had to be sure… tears rolled down my cheeks as I dressed. Anshuman’s warning began to ring in my ears. I didn’t know anything about Anand, and I had, like a fool, never bothered to find out too. What was wrong with me?
I raced towards my home in the wee hours of the morning and immediately called the inspector in charge unmindful of the time. I requested to see the footage again.
I sat in front of those monitors in an hour as I scanned the footage and I was right. The bracelet was peeping out of the guy’s hand as he hit Anshuman. My anger rose, but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions without proof. I told the brother-in-law all about Anshuman’s doubts about Anand and now my doubts. Anshuman deserved my moment of truth. At that moment, though, I hated myself like never before.
I waited outside the ICU with bated breath, my crying not subsiding at all as I saw Anshuman’s battered body through the tiny glass window. His parents had to return because of their business in their hometown and his ailing grandmother. I put up an extended leave of absence at my workplace, not bothered about any pay cuts or other penalties. I was somehow responsible for my friend’s state, and I would see that he emerged safely.
On the other hand, if my suspicions about Anand were true, then I would ensure he was brought to justice. The police were on their toes investigating Anand.
My phone was on silent mode and except for a couple of calls from the office there was nothing. There were many unread texts but the last text caught my eye.
‘Manjit Singh our class four employee from outsource, is no longer employed with us and the contract company has nothing to do with the man anymore.
Now why did it strike me odd? There was no call or message from Anand. Why did I feel that it was the lull before the storm?
And I wasn’t wrong. I went home that night from the hospital and security handed me a parcel. It didn’t have the sender’s name.
Reaching home I opened it, and to my horror, the last new outfit Anand had purchased for me was in rags…literally chopped off. There was a note too. Wait it was written in paint…no correction…it was blood. I almost dropped it.
I am disappointed in you. I loved you more than life itself and removed all obstacles in your path. And you… betrayed me…
Wait and watch…
I called the police again, and they swarmed my place. I was conscious as everyone in my housing society would now know about this. But I didn’t care anymore; my suspicions about Anand were confirmed.
There was a constable posted outside my home at night while during the day I was in the hospital watching over a comatose Anshuman. Almost a week passed before Anshuman regained consciousness. He would require months of rehabilitation by he had his friend with him and I would leave no stone unturned to see he was back on his feet,
He recognized all of us, and I was relieved his mental functioning was fine so far. The only setback was that Anand was missing. The police had launched a manhunt for him, but he was nowhere in sight. The police had also confirmed Anshuman’s findings and were digging the guy’s past.
I was drowned in guilt. This was all because of my stupidity… I was proving my father correct. I was naïve and easily trusting.
Anshuman began to recover well and I helped him with physiotherapy. He was now able to eat independently but was still in the hospital.
One day about a month after the accident, I was yet to resume my work and got a call from HR. I was prepared to resign. But I was in for a rude shock. I was charged with embezzling of funds from my department. The summons were made and I was presented before the board for an explaination.
I was clueless… how could that happen. I was in charge of the lower-level financial transactions, and my boss would blindly sign my sheets daily. In the two years that I was with the office, I had never had a single discrepancy. So this was shocking for everyone.
Fortunately, Anshuman’s brother-in-law helped. He recommended a cyber investigator and I found someone had siphoned me off. Someone had used my Special key and then password repeatedly—even when it was not office hours.
My office had hidden cameras, a couple of them on my floor because of the intense transactions. In one such, we caught Manjit doing the deed and wait… he had removed his uniform and was in a t-shirt. I then saw the bracelet…
I only wished the ground beneath opened and I could sink inside. The bastard had tricked me in every way… But why? What did I ever do to him? It was Manjit all the time… Man-jit… translated as mind-winner.
I was greatly mistaken if I thought this was the end of my ordeal.
I was acquitted of the charges but had to resign from my job. This was the beginning of my penalties. A few days later, as I walked into my housing society after spending the day at the hospital, I found everyone staring at me, even giggling. The women dragged their little children away and gave me scornful looks.
The secretary walked towards me, and in the next ten minutes, I was seated in the society office. Still clueless.
The clouds shifted, and I almost collapsed when I saw the video circulated on the local cable network. It was soft porn, and I was the starrer. It was the first time I had visited Anand in that hotel. Only my face and the partly blurred body were visible but not Anand’s. His hands were, however, seen as they… and that bracelet. I shuddered as I got the notice to evict the house I had rented. Yet another penalty.
I moved to Anshuman’s home and fortunately, he was soon discharged from the hospital. I immersed myself in taking care of him, and he encouraged me to complete my studies. Every two days, I faced some new fiasco of my video surfacing somewhere before the cyber police took it down. But the damage to my reputation was done at my old home and office. Anshuman, however, was my support system, and I would have given up on my life itself, had it not been for his unwavering support.
This torture went on for a few months while Anand wasn’t caught. After that, the police also found out more about him. Anand was wanted in a couple of other cities for stalking women and driving them both to suicide. Those cases were shut because the estranged families of the girls didn’t want to pursue the cases. Anand was his given name, however. She realized he had chosen her for her history as well.
One day, a few months down the line it was my birthday, and Anshuman, was now able to move with little help. He had planned a little party today evening at the house and had invited some of our college friends.
I had seen a tiny box in his drawer he had fondly been staring at the night before and had hidden it away as soon as he saw me coming in. I knew he was going to propose to me and this time I couldn’t let him go… I think I had always been fond of Anshuman, but it took a disaster to realize I had been in love with him. He was reliable but most importantly, he respected me and loved me immensely to lay down his life for me. I couldn’t live a day without Anshuman. Even when I saw Anand, I used to think about Anshuman almost every day… I now wanted to make fresh beginnings.
Anshuman wanted to move to his hometown, close to Indore, and I supported his decision. He wanted to help in the family business and expand it as well. My parents were close to Anshuman from the start and they had given their blessings to us indirectly.
Everything in my life was falling into place, and I was a few months away from securing my post-graduate degree.
I decided to splurge on a pretty dress. It always made me feel good when I dressed well. It would be a surprise for Anshuman too.
I entered my favorite boutique, and the feeling of dread engulfed me. Something wasn’t right here and my premonitions never let me down before.
The owner happily welcomed me and showed a few dresses and some new arrivals. As I shuffled through the clothes a sense of being watched tagged along. I looked around but didn’t find anything amiss.
I went into the changing room and as I changed into the new dress, I teirled around looking into the full length mirror.
“Oh my beautiful… you are gorgeous as ever. Pity it isn’t for me…” the hoarse voice sent a chill down my spine. I looked back to see Anand emerge from the shadow in the back. What was he doing here and since when was he here? My mind went overdrive but my purse was outside on the counter.
I screamed and called out to the owner, but Anand only laughed like a maniac. He was unkempt, and his hair had reached his shoulders. His eyes were bloodshot as if he was high.
“No one’s going to hear you, beautiful… this boutique belongs to my sister…”
He moved swiftly before the information could sink in, placing a cloth over my mouth, and I sank into blackness.
I woke hours later tied to a chair in a dark room where I heard murmurs… no it sounded like an argument. I tried to move, but the ropes dug deep into my wrist. I was sure they would leave marks on my delicate skin.
Wait… was I going to die like this? No… it couldn’t happen.
A while later, a stoned Anand strutted in and chuckled as he brought his stinking self towards me. L looked away but his rough hands got my face close to his, and he slammed his mouth on mine. It wasn’t gentle at all, and I tasted blood. He then pushed me hard and I fell on the hard floor with a thud. I hit my head too and could feel the liquid trickle down my forehead.
Where are you, Anshuman… please help me. Will I ever get to see you again?
Anand took out his belt and rained blows on me even as I whimpered in agony. He swore, called me names and continued to hit me till I stopped feeling anything. The door to the room cracked open and I saw his sister rush to hold him back.
“Stop it dear, she isn’t worth it. You got your revenge. Enough… lets escape. She will rot here till they find her body” She pleaded.
“Wait… why…? What was my fault…?” I struggled to speak.
She moved ahead of her brother, who like a meek puppy, stumbled away and plonked on the floor.
“Bitches like you think you are privileged and can do anything you want to…My parents were so harsh on us… they wanted us to excel in studies and everything else… I wanted to be a free bird but my miserly parents didn’t give me a pie. And then my brother turned out like this… He wanted to become a model but got rejected umpteen times. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia… I decided to kill two birds with a stone. I made him kill my parents… it was easy. Just had to tweak his medications. I am a pharmacy graduate, so knew the tricks. No one understood how my parents were poisoned dead while we escaped with a bit of hospitalization….” She laughed and I got goosebumps, my pain had numbed away. “… I inherited all the money and property to enjoy my life and my brother too deserved something, didn’t he? So I moved with him place to place and let him find gullible women and help himself with them, all the while believing he was a model…social media helped a lot…”
“You are a bitch….” I said, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of victory. “…you ruined your brother’s life for your selfish whims… it was all you, right? who created those videos…”
“Do I need to admit? You are smart… but too smart for your own good…it time you are reminded who you really are… you belong to my brother and he will brand you forever…”
Before I could realise, she brought in a stamp… really?? A hot stamp and pressed it on my wrist below the ropes. My skin burnt and I screamed…
I don’t know how long I lay like that. Or how many days I lay there. My body fluids had gathered around me the stench being unbearable. Anand visited me frequently but only stared and I thought I saw him cry once…
It was a nightmare that could only end with my death. I had mentally prepared to meet my maker. My thoughts only drifted towards Anshuman and I only wished I could tell him, I loved him…
Finally, the door broke open one day, and I saw daylight for the first time in days. Someone rushed towards me and I felt my arms being released. My blurred vision only saw a worried Anshuman moving his lips but I couldn’t hear anything.
I only uttered, “I…. love…. You…” I then collapsed.
I stood with Anshuman on the hotel’s terrace where our reunion party was in full swing. Anshuman held me close knowing very well what was going on in my mind.
After I had regained consciousness in the hospital, Anshuman had revealed that I was in that dungeon for two whole days. On his brother-in-law’s insistence he had placed a tracker in my purse and had been suspicious of the boutique when it didn’t move from there. In fact, he had seen Anand visit the boutique once and observed him. Anshuman had been curious about Anand’s relationship with the owner and was trying to get details, when Anand had assaulted him.
The police had caught the other thugs involved and it wasn’t long before they found the dungeon. The sister had resisted and tried to kill herself. She died in the hospital later. Anand was now in the mental institution in solitary confinement.
After my hospital stay for a month, where I had a few surgeries for fracture and grafting for the ruined skin on my wrist, I often got panic attacks. Then the lockdown had begun and Anshuman and I got to spend more time together. We even got engaged in an intimate ceremony and were to be married soon.
Anshuman had been the source of strength and my rock throughout. I didn’t have to tell him anything like this moment and he would be there for me. I finished my MBA a little later and started my consultancy services. Again, Anshuman helped me and was patient with me. There are still a few unanswered questions about Anand and his background that the police have kept classified, but I am not interested anymore. Its my dark past.
Our first union was slow and passionate where Anshuman was on eggshells. I had tears as I saw how gentle he was with me, given my fragile mental state. He wanted to wait, but I wanted him… to feel him close to me… to feel the truth that I was alive and well.
I inhaled deeply and looked up at my husband-to-be dapper in his green t-shirt and jacket. He smiled and bent to lay a peck on my forehead, something I loved. It gave me a sense of security. I know it will be a while for me to emerge from the trauma ultimately. I probably never will… but irrespective of everything, I had Anshuman with me, my best friend, my fiancé, my lover… my everything.
I learned that social media has its ups and downs, and we have to beware of strangers lurking around with their invisible cloak of thorns.
After all it all began with an innocent friend request….