The Road to Shillong
Manas died an hour ago, in an accident on the road to Shillong. Yet, by an incomprehensible error, he was sitting in my room, by the window, with a sad air of regret about him. Perhaps being dead was not favorable to him; maybe it felt heavy, made him want to live. I wouldn’t know.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him tentatively. He looked at me, skin paler than usual, barring the blood that oozed from parts of his face and chest and legs. The gash on the left side of his face, from behind his ears to his neck, was particularly disturbing.
“I don’t, don’t know,” he stammered, “I was there, there on the bike, and then, then this car… it came out from the next turn — I lost control… the next thing I know, I am here, shaking you , trying to wake you up.” His words fell slowly, unlike his usual manner.
“So you don’t know why you’re here,” I said dryly, and he nodded.
Sitting on the edge of my bed, a few feet away from the window, I could see the bright afternoon sky behind him, a patchwork of white and blue. It felt uneasy seeing bits of sky through the ethereal presence of my friend, but I tried not to show it.
“On the bright side,” I said, “You finally learned how to talk slowly.”
“Huh? Oh yeah, good point,” he said, and gave me a weak, translucent smile.
The ice thus pathetically broken, I asked him if he wanted a smoke (I definitely needed one). He shrugged, and I lit one up in a valiant attempt to restore normalcy. I bent forward and extended my hand to him, and he hesitantly took the cigarette in his damp, clammy fingers and started smoking quietly. That was when I noticed the water, his clothes were damp and wet, and I could see a puddle near his feet.
“You alright?” I asked, pointing to the water, “Do you feel cold?”
He seemed confused by the water, like me — “The rain, I think it is the rain. You see,” he said, “it was raining there, on the highway.”
“Raining? Oh, oh, (and it suddenly hit me) and you were on your bike? Wow,” I said, “isn’t that wonderful? You couldn’t have chosen a better day.”
“And what, if I may ask, were you doing there?”
“The Shillong trip, it had been on the cards for a while now,” he replied, “But you know that already. But then, everyone backed out. And I just wanted to get away for a day, you know? I just, I – just wanted to take in the free air, maybe turn back at Borapani. And it was great too – the air, the road, the hills. Then it started to rain, after Nongpoh, and even then I thought it was amazing. It was surreal, knifing through the downpour with rich green hills on either side, the rain biting into my skin, eyes squinting, barely open, and the senses… the senses piqued. It was such a feeling.”
Such crap, I thought, as I extended my hand to get back the cigarette. But the stupid thing was all wet, and it was not even used. I could’ve sworn I saw him smoking it. I threw it away, and told him that I was going to open the windows. The air felt heavy, and I wanted to breathe in the fresh afternoon breeze.
“Breathe,” he said, and drifted off to someplace else. I got up and opened a window on the other side of the room, still not sure how close I could get to him. Although death was not technically a disease, it felt like one.
“Who else was there?” I asked.
“Nobody, just me. I told you, everyone backed out.”
“What I meant was — was there anyone else at the scene of the accident? Were there other people around?”
He thought about it, “I don’t think so. I mean, the car swerved towards the hill while I swerved (wrongly so) to the other side, towards the drop, and I went over. And then… then I think, I remember hurtling through the air, and looking at the trees below me, dark green woods, and then…black. All light and feathery. Like a beautiful, unending, free fall. I never really hit anything. At least I did not feel the impact of hitting anything,” he smiled.
I was thinking, “I wonder how will your parents come to know… Did you have an ID on you?”
“Sure, I had my DL.”
“Somebody might see you there, down by the hillside and might just call the police. Let’s hope that happens soon. It’ll be such a pity for your parents to try and hold a wake for you with a fetid, decomposing body.”
“Yeah,” he paused, “So… I was thinking, that maybe you could go to the police and get me home, right? That could explain why I am here, right? I mean,” he went on, getting bolder, “why else would I be here? It’s simple, I tell you where it happened, you go get my body. My parents cry and wail, everyone comes to my place, sees me battered to death, cries, wails, talks about my sad, pointless life, and then they cremate me the next day.”
He waited a moment, and swallowed a fearsome thought: “Then I’m gone.”
“Of course,” I said, “and what am I supposed to tell them? How do I know the details? I will just walk in to the station and report a hit-and-run on the road to Shillong because my closest friend died in it, and then ‘visited’ me in my room this afternoon and told me everything about it. So Mr. Policeman [mockingly], can we now please go and get his body? Otherwise no one else will find it for days in this heavy rain and we don’t want his parents to mourn over a disfigured, stinking body weeks later.”
“Why did you do it?” I suddenly burst out, “I mean, what was the point? What was the need?” I moved towards him vehemently and shook him. Although, it was difficult to grab him in the first place, it felt like trying to grab water, only thicker and more gassy, but I did manage to shake him up a bit. I guess it is the thought that counts, even for apparent apparitions.
He simply said that I wouldn’t understand. I don’t. I care for the people around me and I know how not to take risks; least of all, insanely foolish and fatal ones. I mean, what is the meaning of all this? I swore to myself: if this is a joke, and I find that he is back at school tomorrow, I will kill him myself. It was horrifying to think that this could be a joke. I was terrified by the possibility that whatever was happening right here in my room might not be real. I was in so deep in this drama that I needed it to be real, just to retain my trust in my senses, and consequently, my confidence in my sanity. I needed my friend to be dead in a motorbike accident near Nongpoh and I needed his spirit to visit me in my room after that. This is my personal secret now. And as years go by, I will increasingly doubt its authenticity, and the doubt will erode away the implicit trust in my own memories. I felt trapped, and when I looked at Manas, I think he saw my hatred.
I needed to retain proof of this meeting, I told myself, trying to be calm. I asked him if he could hold a pen. He said he didn’t know but he could try. I gave him one and he managed it after a few attempts. It slipped from his fingers the first time. Then I gave him a notebook and told him to write a note that I would later deliver to his parents. He moved to my table and sat down to write.
I took a bath while he was writing. I stood under the shower for a long time, thinking about what was happening. The longer I stood there, the more incredulous it seemed. Maybe I would walk out to an empty room and forget the whole thing, like how we forget our dreams as we get old. After about half an hour of soothing warm water, I came out to find Manas staring out of the window again, sitting on my chair, lost in thought with the pen and notebook beside his elbow on the table. He turned around and said that he was done writing.
“Good,” I said, “I will give it to your parents tomorrow. But,” I added to make it more believable, “I will simply slip it under their door, okay? I don’t want to be interrogated about this… this meeting. I don’t want to become a madman for no reason. I am not mad. I am not mad.”
He agreed apologetically. He seemed to regret this as much as I did.
He sat there, looking at the floor, and said sorry. This frustrated me even more, as my anger became immoral and unjust in the face of an apology. To regain higher ground, I said, “Well, it’s too late for that, and anyway, you don’t have to apologize to me. It’s your parents you should be saying sorry to, and to RJ, not me.”
“I did,” he pointed to his note, “I did as best as I could.”
A part of me hoped that he would disappear after writing the note, because hearsay knowledge of spirits maintains that they hang around only till the point that they have ‘unfinished’ business, and as far as I could tell, there was nothing more to be done here. Still, that did not happen, and I felt that he was getting tired of it too; this hanging around pointlessly. So I suggested that we watch a movie on my laptop for old time’s sake. That seemed to lighten the mood a bit and he almost seemed to glow with happiness for a while there, as we watched Bruce Willis’s raving mad antics in Die Hard for the umpteenth time. But we were not lying on the bed together as always because of the water. He pushed the chair closer to the bed and I lay down on the bed and put the computer on a makeshift stand of textbooks. Sometime during the movie I decided that I needed to see the spot where Manas died. I told him that we would go there the next day and see for ourselves if there was any police activity there. He liked the idea and so, at dinner time, I told my parents that I needed their car the next day to go shopping and then to a friend’s place for the evening. I would be back only by dinner time. I could not tell them that I would be driving to Shillong. They would not let me. Manas spent dinner time up in my room reading a novel.
We went to the terrace later in the night and talked and smoked some weed, and it felt as if we had never drifted apart. It felt like we were back to being newly-turned teenagers when we would spend hours chatting away on the phone and on the terrace. I rolled separate joints for him. There was no point in trying to share, as the rain water was still persistent about his person. We both blamed each other for our individual loneliness and we both hated each other for giving up on the other. We loved each other too, but that was a long time ago. After about a quarter past two, I felt exhausted, and I told him that I was going to sleep. I left the door open to my room, in case he wanted to come back.
He was by the window again the next morning when I woke up, but he looked cleaner. The gash on the side of his head was only slightly visible. He was wearing my clothes.
“Did you take a shower?” I asked him, and he nodded.
“I felt dirty,” he said, “and I wanted to wash off the memories from yesterday.”
“You sure look better, especially since you decided to take my clothes.. What did you do with yours?”
“In the bathroom.”
When I went there to pee, however, I couldn’t see them anywhere, but we were far beyond the boundaries of logic now. I did not bother pursuing this matter of the vanished blood-stained clothes any further.
After breakfast, I took out our car, and we drove off, out of the city towards Shillong. I was extra cautious, driving painstakingly slow at times, much to the irritation of several other drivers on the road. In about two and a half hours, we reached the spot where Manas had died. I pulled over the car, partly off the road towards the hillside and we crossed the road and looked down at the ravine.
“Can you see it?” he asked me. I replied that I could not. It was all jungle and nothing else. He pointed out to a spot down to the right, where a couple of small trees were broken and what vaguely could be construed as a tiny black battered shape which he said was his bike. I told him that I could not really see it but if he said so, then that was it.
“Do you want to go down there?” he asked me, and I turned to look at him and saw that he was smiling at me with eager expectation.
“Are you crazy? I am not going down there,” I said, “God knows how far down it is, and there is no path here, and I am pretty sure that there will be no way up.”
All of this irritated me greatly, and I turned away from him. Cars were whizzing by us, and the fresh air after yesterday’s lethal rain felt good to the lungs. I took out my pack of cigarettes with shaking hands and lit one and looked down at the broken trees once more. For no reason, and against my better judgement, tears started to flow down my face. I never understood why we romanced Shillong so much. It is not what it used to be — neither is it quaint, nor is it cool in the summer. The roads are blocked with trucks making their way further south to the Jaintia hills, and the legendarily beautiful Guwahati?Shillong journey is packed with noisy drivers and irritating drunk bastards. I was beginning to feel a festering hatred for the Shillong which promised so much, and gave so little, and took so much more from me. I kept my back towards Manas during this entire time. He too did not say anything. Death had made him quiet, understanding, and apologetic. I wished, perversely, that he should have been like this in life, and we would still have been friends, and he would have been, more importantly, alive.
At length, I told him that it was time to go. There were no police and that the stretch of the road was far off from civilization, so it would be a while before someone noticed that clump of broken trees down in the woods and found his body. The best thing to do would be to give his note to his parents and things would start to unfold. He agreed. I threw the butt over the edge and told him that I was going home and that I did not want him to come with me. Our little nostalgic paranormal adventure was at an end.
I got in the car, turned it around and started to drive back to Guwahati. The last time I saw Manas was in the rearview mirror, translucently gazing into the ravine of his own death and regretting the mistakes he’d made in life. Once I reached home, I locked away his note in one of my drawers and searched for a rag to wipe the water from the passenger seat of the car.
Bedartha grew up in Guwahati in the nineties. He has been writing short stories for over a decade, which have been published in the Sangam House Reader Vol. 1, the lifestyle magazine platform_, and the anthology released on the fiftieth birthday of Danish writer Charlotte Inuk “Mine drømme har en anden virkelighed: Charlotte Inuk og hendes forfatterskab”. He is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Earth and Environmental Science, University of Potsdam, Germany.