We were terribly surprised at Qureshi’s sudden action. It seemed as if it was all a set up, an ambush. We underestimated Junaid and that led us to being trapped. This meant the end.
But there was a very slim chance of this being another test from Qureshi. A test for fear. The fear of death.
“Remember, you can be put to any kind of test. Not just the stat and reasoning stuff. And that’s completely up to him. No one can predict that. So be ready.”, I remembered Junaid saying this during the preparations.
If luck and Junaid is on our side, there is a slight hope for a chance to live. I decided to go ahead with my words.
“My last wish is to die serving JeM.”, I said after composing myself.
A wide smile formed on Qureshi’s face as I uttered those words.
“Don’t you fear death, son?”
“No. There isn’t any need to fear death, Sir. We have to face it eventually. So there’s no point living in fear.”, I said, looking straight into his eyes.
“Well, I’m impressed. Again!”, Qureshi said, playing with his long white beard. Junaid too had a short yet restricted smile pasted on his face.
“So..ready for the training regime?”, Qureshi said after a prolonged period of silence.
“Sir, can we go get our bags stuffed with essentials? And..we would like to meet our family one last time before we leave..”, Abhi said.
“Ya..it’s fine. You have 2 days to do everything you want to. And remember, after that you would be no longer the person you’re now. Your life will change- for the greater good. There must be no distraction from your past lives when you guys are on mission, training..whatever. Fine? Ali, Atif and Aslam?”, Qureshi pointed to Adi, Abhi and me in succession.
“These would be your new names.”, Junaid explained, looking at our confused expressions.
“Cool.. ”,I sighed.
“And you’ll be under vigil 24×7 by our spies these 2 days. In case, you expose us..”, Qureshi said, spinning the gun on the table.
“Why would we expose you Sir? We can’t even think of doing such a horrendous crime!”,I exclaimed.
“At least not for now. Qureshi.”
“Good for you..and your family then. A few idiots have tried this before, only to be battered by bullets.”, Qureshi said, as he kept back the gun in his pocket.
Abhi looked nervous at this point. I signalled him to keep up his act for a few more minutes.
“Two days is all you have.”, Qureshi said as we bid him bye.
As we stepped out of the cyber café, it was Junaid’s turn to be free.
“Give me the goddamn remote. Now!”, he demanded in anticipation.
Abhi looked towards me, waiting for my signal. I nodded in approval.
“A deal is a deal Junaid. You’re free.”, Abhi said as he handed over the remote to Junaid.
The moment he got the remote,he just broke it into two pieces without any efforts, as such. He gave us a ‘don’t mess with me again’ look and left without any further words.
We started our journey back to home, with a heavy load of thoughts and tangled emotions. Although we had won here, and managed to catapault ourselves closer to our aim, we weren’t happy. Just two days and we won’t be the trio of Adi, Abhi and Sooraj, but Ali, Atif and Aslam, with no background, no family..nothing! By moving towards our aim, or my aim to be very frank, we were simply destroying ourselves. Our values, our identities, ethics, everything. We would just disappear from the social fabric at once. Poof!
“This is just the beginning guys. The road ahead will be more tough.”, I broke the uncomfortable silence.
“..and that equals to more risks.”,Abhi said.
“And that my friends, means more thrills!”, Adi grinned.
“How come you take every damn thing in this world so lightly, you idiot?”, Abhi asked, displeased with Adi’s extraordinary enthusiasm.
“That’s called swag bro. Not everyone is gifted with it!”, he teased Abhi.
“Stop using such outdated terms Adi. I just wished you were gifted with some seriousness and common sense instead.”, Abhi acted as if he was praying to God.
“Stop your overacting Abhi. No one’s even watching.”, Adi laughed.
I plugged in my earphones so that I can’t hear their stupid banter and dozed off.
I knew that the next two days of my life would be the most emotional ones. And I was mentally prepared for that.
We had decided that the first day would be reserved to family and the second to friends. So that meant taking a fake sick leave from office for me and Abhi.
The first day was spent entirely at home. Going through old photos, my mini library, and old family videos made me nostalgic. The afternoon was spent in writing long notes, filled with emotions addressed to Mom and Dad. I poured out my entire mind to the .doc file I was typing. How my life would be meaningless without them, how theirs would be incomplete without me. But I didn’t show it to them. They’d have to see it themselves, once I’m gone. Far away, from their lives, maybe for once and for all. That night, I slept besides Mom, a flood of tears trying to break the dam of responsibility I had built around it.
Abhi too gave a visit to his relatives, his near and dear cousins, and his parents. The only thing different this time was maybe, it was the last time he would see them.
Adi decided to spend the day watching old cricket matches accompanied with his favourite drinks. He didn’t care about mere mortal lives anymore. The fear of losing people had gripped his heart. Forever.
Abhi had decided to spend his entire day with Avantika. This had to be very special for Abhi, since he still hadn’t said what’s in his mind, or heart, as people say. And he was sure that he couldn’t leave with this regret.
They met at the Khar Social, their favourite restaurant. Avantika spotted Abhi not in the best of moods in an instant.
“You okay Abhi?”
“Ya..ya.I’m!”, he said nervously.
“You sure you’re? ”
“Yes baba! I’m fine.”
“And how about this all of a sudden meet? Anything to say?”, she smiled.
Damn! What’s she trying to say?
Did she guess it?
No! Stop making assumptions!
Girls can’t be so intelligent.
But Avantika is clever enough..
“Err.. Nothing much Avanti..just thought to meet you..had been missing you a lot lately.. ”
“That’s it lover boy?”,she laughed.
“Ye..yes! That’s it.”, he was now sure she had a certain idea why they met now.
“Well, I had to tell you one thing Avantika..”
“Say, although I know what you’re gonna speak Abhishek.”
“How? Any special powers?”,he teased her.
“The power to read eyes. Eyes are the gateway to the soul Abhi.”
“Fine then. Read my thoughts and let’s see how accurate you are. If you are correct, I’ll gift you something special. Deal?”, he said with a heavy heart. The very sight of she being sad after he leaves tomorrow made his heart skip a beat.
“Deal!”, she smiled.
“Fine. Now tell me..”
“You were going to say that..”
“Speak! Don’t add to the suspense!”
“that..you just completed reading a new novel yesterday and you were entirely surprised by the climax to such an extent that..”
“Damn!”, Abhi shook his head in agony.
“that you decided to meet me and retell the story. Like you usually did.”
“No. You’re wrong this time Avanti..but still, as I’m a good friend of yours, I’ll give you the ‘special gift’, although you failed miserably in your attempt to read my thoughts.”
“Yes!”,she beamed in joy.
Abhi took out a small velvet box and placed it on the table.
“What’s this? A ring?”, she was surprised out of bounds.
“Check it yourself!”,he smiled.
Slowly, Avantika opened the beautiful box to find a note instead, stating “You’re dumb.”
“What the heck Abhi! What’s this? A prank?”, she was angry.
“Take out the note first,and then read it.”,he said, faking arrogance.
She took out the note in her hand to read it. As she took it out, she felt a thread attached to the backside of the note, restricting it. She flipped the note to see ‘But I’m madly in love with you babe!’ written on it.
She glanced at Abhi who was trying his best to smile and put away his nervousness. Slowly, she pulled out the thread which was attached to the inside of the box, beneath the soft sponge which carried the note.
“Platinum love bands!”, she shrieked in utter disbelief as she went ahead and hugged Abhi without any further thought.
“I just wanted to say that I love you Avantika. And I know, you knew it already.”
“Yes! I did. And ya..I too love you idiot!”
The warm embrace that Abhi won’t forget for a lifetime.
Meanwhile, Adi spent time at nets, practising catches, stumpings, etc. That made him feel better.
My day started with giving a surprise visit to Rohit’s office at Dadar. We spent a considerable time discussing random things before I felt I’m interrupting his schedule and his company’s growth. My next stop was Aathira. With the help of her daily itinerary that she had sent me long ago, I found her at Sion Hospital. I took an appointment and waited outside. After some fifteen minutes or so, the lady at the counter called out my name.
As I went inside, I glanced at spacious air conditioned room, painted pastel white, certifying it as a hospital.
“Have a seat”,she said without even looking at me.
She was busy reading some medical files.
She kept the file aside, and had a look at the patient list on her computer.
“Sooraj Nair..”,she paused as she took my name.
“Sooraj! You!”,she was happy, at the same time surprised.
“Just thought to meet you so that you can counsel me to reach mental peace.”,I smiled.
“So, what’s your mental issue, Mr. Nair?”, she said in her usual tone.
“I’m worried too much about the future. Is there any cure to it Doctor?”
“Oh I see..you do look very disturbed, my friend. Your eyes look tired. Seems like you aren’t getting ample sleep nowadays..”
“Ya..I have been thinking about someone quite lately..”,I acted.
“Oh! Who’s that? Is she..”
“You.”,I gave her a serious look.
“Stop this prank Sooraj. Try this prank on someone else, preferably your girlfriend.”,she playfully threw her pen at me.
“Ya..I’ll. For sure. But the problem is I don’t have one!”,I guffawed.
“You haven’t changed a bit Sooraj. Except a few psychological changes, you’re still the same.”, she smiled.
“Change is the only constant. The only constant is change.”, I stated a quote.
“What’s the relation of that quote to my statement?”
“Nothing. Just said that way.”, I laughed.
“Idiot.”,she threw another pen at me.
“I’ll get a good fortune selling these Parker pens I guess. Thanks! ”, I stood up.
“Do try that. You may get a few bucks in return for those empty pens.”,she smiled.
“Damn! You got this one.”,I put the pen back on her desk.
“By the way, any reason for this sudden meet?”
“I already said it. I’ve been missing you lately.”
“I’m serious this time Sooraj.”
“So am I. My schedule is so hectic that I rarely get any time to meet my friends. So took out a leave so that I can catch up with the lost time.”,I said.
“Ohk..well, do get some sleep. Eat on time. That would help you in a way, my patient.”
“Thanks for the counseling Dr. Aathira.”, I said as I opened the door.
“Drop that Dr. from my name. Sounds better.”,she advised.
“Fine then. Bye, Tweety.”, I smiled.
“Bubye Bugs..Next stop Lola?”, she asked.
“Perhaps yes! ”, I winked.
As I had planned, I met Shreya at 5 at my favourite place. Marine Drive.
I always felt that there’s something so magical related with this place that I just couldn’t explain when someone asks me why I’m so crazy about Marine Drive. It might be the sea, or the Gateway..or some other reason from the myriad reasons I can list down effortlessly.
We sat facing the sea, hand in hand, immersed in viewing the sun set. The setting sun reminded me of myself dying out from the social space. All of a sudden. The other fact being my name meaning “the sun” literally added to the awkward thought.
“Such a beautiful sight.”,I remarked.
“Ya..I too love sunsets.. ”,she replied.
“No..no! I’m not talking about the sunset. I’m talking about you.”,I smiled as I realised it was too clichéd.
“Oh! I expected a better catch up line Sooraj.”,she laughed at my poor try.
“Yeah..I know. When it comes to romance, I fail miserably.”, I act sad.
“No baba..you’re completely fine. You’re just being a bit nervous. That’s it. Don’t worry. I’m there.”, she smiled. Her cute dimples caught my attention.
I just smiled at her mischievous innocence and looked back to the marvellous view of the sunset. Lost in thoughts.
“You know what Sooraj..you’re the best thing that ever happened in my life.”,she smiled again. Or rather, blushed.
“Ya, I know that. You’ve repeated this many many times Shreya. This being the 24th time.”
“What the heck! You did actually count the times I said that?”, her eyes widened in surprise.
“No yaar! I just said a random number! You know I’ve stopped counting things, especially days, long ago.”,I said, as a matter of fact.
“Yes. I know..”,she gripped my hand even tighter.
For the next half an hour, we didn’t say anything, but just silence. Our eyes conveyed more emotions than words could ever speak.
Soon, it became dark, and the city was engulfed in those bright yellow street light. The Queen’s Necklace being the highlight of them. The very place we were at.
“Is Aslam a cool name Shreya?”, I asked her.
“Why did you ask so?”
“I was actually working on this story..a biopic, of some sorts. The guy struggled a lot and then finally reached the pinnacle of success in..the business world..”
“Aslam doesn’t sound so great, but it’s fine.”, she said.
Screw you Qureshi.
“Ya..and I need you to imagine one thing now..”
“Imagine your life without me. How does it sound?”
“I can’t imagine that at all. Sorry.”, she said, unpleased with the very thought of a Sooraj-less life.
“Stop this!”, she placed her palm on my lips, asking me to be silent.
I nodded my head and agreed.
“I’m sorry.”,I apologized.
“Apologizing is against Rule No. 2 of our friendship pact Sooraj. Remember?”, she faked anger.
“Oh yes!”, I smiled.
“You know how much important you are to me right?”, I asked her, looking into her dark brown eyes.
The eyes that always distracted me from everything else.
“Yes. I do know.”,she smiled.
I leaned ahead and gave a peck on her forehead.
“Bye Shreya. I’m sorry.”,my mind wailed in distress.
The next day was Sunday. That meant a holiday for Me and Abhi.
We had decided a trip to Juhu beach with Adi beforehand. We packed our bags with our closest of things and bade farewell to our families. That one sight was unbearable.
“Be careful. Stay away from water. No pranks. Okay?”,my ever caring Mom commanded, to which I could only nod in approval.
The moment I sat inside the cab, I sobbed uncontrollably.
“To where Saab?”, asked the driver.
“Thane station first.”, I said after composing myself.
Adi and Abhi were already waiting for me when I reached there.
That’s a first!
They got inside the cab. I noticed Abhi and the dark circle around his eyes. It seemed as if the guy didn’t even sleep yesterday, just like me.
“Juhu Beach.”, I told the driver.
An hour later, we reached Juhu beach.
The wide and clean sea shore was a treat to the eyes.
“This is it guys. The journey begins.”, I said.
The next day, the local newsppaper carried an article that might have caught the attention of our families.
“3 men drown at Juhu. Bodies still not found.”