It was a quarter past seven in the evening as Aman walked down the crowded street of Lal Nagar. The entire lane was filled with people celebrating the festival of Diwali. Fairy lights adorned the branches of trees and the parapets of houses. Relatives and friends were bustling about, with boxes of sweets in their hands. He saw two girls huddling together at the entrance of their home, trying to draw Rangolis. Every time their hands wobbled, the rice flour messed up the design a bit and they giggled. As he walked on, Aman saw a boy, much younger than him, in a new orange kurta, playing with his dog. Aman almost ran into him around the corner. Looking wistfully ahead, Aman saw an elderly couple sitting in the veranda of their home, soaking in the energy wafting through the damp evening air, even as they kept a watchful eye on their grandchildren playing hide and seek around the house, lest they start quarrelling. Aman seemed indifferent to everything happening around him. He had a steely resolve in his eyes. His lithe body was unusually stiff.
Amidst this wonderfully cosy colony, one house stood out. Right at the end of the street was the mansion of the wealthy trader Nayak Shukla. The grounds of his house would host the celebrations later that night. Aman lingered around the front gate for a moment, thoughtfully, and then moved on. He had important work to do. As he passed by the huge bungalow, Aman was reminded of what had transpired in the last two years. He looked at his rugged thirteen-year-old self. He toyed with the piece of wire poking out of the lower end of his T-shirt and remembered how a stranger, who later introduced himself as Razak, and his band of men, had rescued him from a nearly fatal situation. He was later told that he had been found on the banks of a river, drenched and exhausted. He could not remember anything that had happened before that. It was amnesia, as he later learnt from the men. Razak had then said that he would teach Aman how to survive in the cruel world they lived in. This training would help him for lifetimes to come, he had advised. Having no better choice, and not having anyone to guide him, Aman had stayed on. Those two years had taken a toll on him. They had turned him into a hardened soul, without a care in the world. The usual enthusiasm that you would associate with a bubbling teenager had completely vanished. Eventually, he found himself trudging through Lal Nagar for his ‘mission’.
As celebration time neared, people from all the houses in the lane started pouring into the large grounds of the mansion. Children looking elated but exhausted, from having played too much, women all decked up in sarees and looking pretty, the men looking strikingly handsome in their sherwanis and the grandpas and grandmas who had come just to enjoy the festivities. From where he was sitting, under a tree, Aman could see the door of the mansion, that opened out into the grounds, part as a man of gargantuan proportions emerged. He strode out with assistants on either side, who maintained a comfortable distance from him – far enough to give him privacy, but close enough to rush to his aid. A loud cry erupted from the crowd as the burly man lit a cracker. The children were enthralled by the whoosh of the flower pot as it started the revelry for the night.
Aman made his way to the centre of the ground, where most of the people had assembled – talking to neighbours or simply watching the fun. His heart rate picked up as he walked. The wire poking outside from his T-shirt had started to quiver too. Amidst the loud music and the darkness of the night, no one noticed as he conveniently positioned himself on a pedestal in the centre, right next to where the huge man stood, watching the proceedings. Nor did anyone hear the beeping sound that emanated from his body at regular intervals – just like that of a timer, waiting to count down to zero. Myriad images of Razak telling him about how the owner of the mansion had humiliated his band of men while at war flashed through Aman’s mind as his heartbeat reached a crescendo. He knew that his mission would soon be over. He still believed that he would then embark on his Final Journey, in peace forever.
A loud explosion interrupted the shrill sound of firecrackers. The infectious laughter that pervaded the chilly winter night stopped all of a sudden and was replaced momentarily by a deafening silence. The screams and cries of the survivors attempting to save themselves filled the night. The fury of the raging fire decimated everything in its way. There was unfathomable destruction everywhere. Absolutely nothing remained of the pulsating positivity that had pervaded the air a few moments ago. Nothing was spared.
His mission was accomplished. The deceptive forces of Evil had triumphed, yet again. The illusion of power provides man with a convenient excuse to bury rationalism deep enough - not to be discovered anytime in the near future. Subterfuge reigns in this world where, sometimes, fantasy is required to survive reality.