The day had been a long, hard one, and what Veena wanted now was a sleep that was just as long and hard. All she wanted to do was collapse onto her bed, with its fresh sheets and soft pillow and fall asleep. Probably with her mouth open, drool dribbling down the side of her mouth. She wouldn’t care. She would be too insensible to the world to care.
Veena quickly disposed of her night-time rituals: slipping into her well-worn t-shirt and boxer shorts, chewing on her toothbrush for about 30 seconds, gargling the eye-wateringly strong mouthwash, washing her face, freeing her hair from its restrictive ballerina bun and taking off her bra (unhook, slip off one shoulder, then the other and then pull it out of one sleeve. Ta-da!)
But of course, falling asleep wasn’t easy. She should have known. As Veena lay stretched out on the bed, she could feel the dull ache of the day coursing up and down her legs. Her shoulders were stiff, her eyelids were heavy, and she couldn’t fall asleep.
“Great, too tired to fall asleep,” she muttered. She needed help with this, so Veena got off the bed and walked towards the single granite platform that masqueraded as the kitchen in her little studio apartment. Dark rum splashed into a coffee mug, a couple of ice cubes plopped in, and Veena settled herself back on the bed. She reached out for the T.V. remote that was lying on her bedside table. All she could do now was watch one of those tele-shopping networks and hope that it would be so boring that she would fall asleep—with her mouth slightly open—within a few minutes. And if she spilled her rum on the bed, she could clean it up later. What she wanted now was pure, deep, uninterrupted sleep.
For once, the tele-shopping networks seemed to have gone off air. So had all the other channels, Veena realised, as she clicked on with increasing desperation. There was nothing on T.V. except the black-and-white drizzle that filled the room with a low-volume buzz. Veena was just about to turn it off, when some picture finally showed up on the screen. It seemed to be one of those low-budget, home-production sort of films with a static camera. In fact...
This was going to be more fun than she had expected, thought Veena. It looked like one of those movies, full of references to ‘grapes’ and ‘noodles’, with the actors putting in painfully sincere performances. She propped her pillows against the wall and sat up to catch the action better.
Only, there didn’t seem to be much action. All that the screen showed was a room, dully lit in florescent light, with a bed occupying centre stage. On this bed, stretched out and reading a movie magazine, was a young man. He wore a ganji and shorts and had a day-old stubble. He couldn’t have been older than 30, but there were generous sprinkles of grey hairs among the black on his head. Some curly grey strands even peeked out over the low neck of his ganji.
For many minutes, all that the man did was flip through a magazine, a look of bored discontent marring his otherwise decent-looking face. Veena wondered if he was suddenly going to be visited by his co-star, who would then seduce him, take off her clothes, then take his off, put her hand...
The man suddenly flung the magazine onto the pile that occupied one whole side of the bed and picked up a T.V. remote. He then looked straight into the camera and began to click away. Clearly he was pretending to channel-surf, but why he should look straight into the camera, Veena had no idea. Perhaps some avant-garde stuff. And he was doing a pretty good job of it too. He looked exactly like a man who was bored of whatever was on the actual T.V. screen in front of him.
Veena couldn’t believe he was acting. And that was beginning to creep her out. The man, on the other hand, continued to look bored.
At this point, the doorbell rang. Veena groaned. It could only be that idiotic dhobi, who had promised to leave her clothes with the neighbour by 9:30 pm but had, as usual, come an hour later than promised. She got off the bed, dragged herself to the door and looked out of the peep-hole. The passage was empty.
This was puzzling. Veena could have sworn that someone had rung her bell. She frowned over it for a couple of seconds and then decided it must have been one of the annoying kids that lived downstairs. She often heard them running up and down the stairs till late in the night. Clearly, their parents had no control over them whatsoever.
Veena re-settled herself in bed with her mug of rum. And as she looked at the T.V. screen, she realised that the man was settling himself into his bed again, with a very definitely angry look on his face.
“Waitamminnit...” Was it his doorbell that had rung? It had been rather loud, and had sounded exactly like her doorbell. Veena was surprised. She had no idea her T.V. was equipped with surround sound (or whatever it was called).
She and the man were now watching each other again. It was weird and yet Veena couldn’t stop looking. It was like they were both on the right side of a two-way mirror where they could see each other, but couldn’t be seen by the other. Of course, since they could see each other, maybe that was not true. Unless of course, they were not aware that they were looking at each other. But then, they were looking at each other. Veena was not sure how this was working and now, her head began to hurt.
She found herself in front of the door and, rather bewilderingly, with a knife in her hand.
Maybe it was the Old Monk. It usually rendered her comatose in a few minutes when she had it without the usual Coke, but perhaps her mind, along with the alcohol, had decided to have a little fun with her first. This definitely looked like one of those waking dreams that people have. At least, Veena hoped it was.
Just then, the doorbell rang again. This time, Veena saw the man get up and check the door, even as she resisted the impulse to check her own. There was no one outside his door, just as it had been for Veena. As the man, sat down on the bed again, he was wearing a look that was less angry and more puzzled. He’s confused, Veena thought. She waited for it to dawn on him...
... That’s when he swung around and stared at the T.V. screen. Hard. Intense. Like he was trying to figure something out. Slowly, he got up and walked towards his T.V. Veena got up too and walked towards hers. As if by mutual agreement, they both raised their hands towards the screen. Veena could feel her heart pounding. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do once her fingers got close enough to the T.V. screen. What if her hand went through and touched his? The man’s upper lip was beaded with sweat, she noticed.
And just then, the doorbell rang for a third time. The man in the T.V. stared at Veena and she at him. Then both turned away and walked towards their respective doors.
It was a long walk. Veena thought she would never reach the door. And she didn’t know if she even wanted to. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to turn off the T.V., switch off the door bell and try and get some sleep. With the lights on. Or maybe call up Nitin and ask him to come over and spend the night with her. The trouble that would cause with her landlord would almost be worth it to get a good night’s sleep.
She found herself in front of the door and, rather bewilderingly, with a knife in her hand. She had no idea when she picked it up. Perhaps some part of her brain was working to protect her, despite her general feeling of mental numbness.
There was no sound coming from the T.V. Veena didn’t dare look there. Instead, firmly gripping the knife in one hand, she reached for the latch at the top of the door and slid it down. She then unhooked the chain and slowly opened the door. Just a slit. It was dark and empty outside. Veena closed her eyes and positioned the knife directly in front of her. Then, with a quick movement, she flung open the door and thrust the knife forward.
The knife slashed through empty air. The building’s resident cat sat near the stairs, licking herself. The thought popped into Veena’s mind that maybe that was the culprit, right there. Perhaps all those horror stories were right. Cats were the minions of the demon world and maybe this one was taking some pleasure in torturing her like this.
The cat turned and looked at her and mewed. With her tail sticking up straight, she walked toward Veena. It was clearly her intention to have a nice bowl of milk there, as she had on so many nights before, and then leave through the kitchen window. But her usually willing host had other ideas. Veena slammed the door as the cat approached. She thought he heard a surprised yowl from the other side, but she didn’t care. Her heart was racing and as she leaned against the door, she thought she would faint.
Instead of which, she jumped as if a bolt of electricity had shot through her. A scream had rent the air. Veena stood in stunned inaction for a few seconds, before racing for the T.V. She didn’t want to think about what could have happened.
At first, she didn’t see anything. There was the bed, with all its magazines. There, at the back, she could see a bit of the door. Veena got down on her knees, gripped the T.V. with both hands and peered into every inch of the room that she could see on her screen.
And finally, she spotted it. It had merged with the salmon-coloured rug she could see next to the bed, but it was unmistakably a hand. There was slight quiver to it, like a fish struggling for its final, painful breaths. Five seconds more and then the hand went still. Veena continued to stare at the screen. She was frozen to the spot, her hands still gripping the T.V. and her mouth slightly ajar.
Slowly, the corner of the rug that was visible on the screen began to get dark. As it grew darker, Veena jerked out of her catatonia and, screaming, pushed the T.V. away from her. It landed with a huge crash on the floor and Veena collapsed where she was. A loud wail rose out of her. Vaguely, she heard some sudden activity in the house downstairs. A few minutes later, there were knocks on her door. Someone outside told her to keep it quiet, or they would tell her landlord.
Veena ignored the knocks and she ignored the threat. She just wanted to sob and sob till she was exhausted. Maybe then she would finally get some sleep.