By Neel Anil Panicker

In street parlance, four o’ clock, late in the afternoon in a Mumbai bar, is known as the pregnant hour. It’s a stillborn hour when an eerie emptiness pervades all over semi-dark cubicles, an hour when waiters languidly idle upto to half broken glass cupboards seeking coloured bottles which they then wipe clean off all non-existent dust particles, as they, with practiced nonchalance (that can come only from long years of waiting tables), hold them against the fast fading strobes of sunlight that have the temerity to wade through thick dark curtains spread out over small windows, intended to separate the word of Baqcchus lovers from the not so blessed.

bar scene

As the clock above his head chimed five times, Aman extricated his head from the front desk cum cash counter that for this hour had metamorphosed into a teeny weenie resting place, a small, darkened dungeon, not big enough for him to stretch himself to full length, but then comfortable enough for him to fold his spindly legs within its cavernous folds, park his small head, close his eyes, and make himself invisible for one full hour to the world.

Aman rubbed and then prized his eyes open. As he craned his neck out towards the nondescript street and looked across to the road ahead, he was blinded by the harsh rays of a still resplendent sun. Involuntarily, his hands went up to shield his eyes, and it was then that he felt a sudden crushing pain in his head. His hands reached up and cupped his forehead as he felt a blindingly nerve raking ache ram through his brains like a 150 mile hurricane that was sweeping through the American coastline.
Frantically, he searched around and his hands found the drawer and from it a strip of paracetamol. He stripped off two tablets and gobbled it with little help from the glass container; something he nowadays kept close to him, to deal with such exigencies.

However, this particular exigency, he recalled, as he felt the soporific effects of the medicine take over, was because of the dream__ the maddening dream that he had just now woken up from.

His eyes were riveted on the ceiling above him. The false façade was well past its expiry date. It needed repairing, or maybe even a new false ceiling.

‘I need to ask Bhushan to call in someone’, he reminded himself for the umpteenth time this past one month.

He harangued himself for entrusting such an ‘ important task’ to ‘ that fool’ as he turned his gaze away from the roof.

‘God, he was going lazy, or old, or was it something else,’ he reminiscenced.

And then he recalled__the dream. It happened last night. As usual, he had so very unwillingly tripped home and one again given dinner a miss. It is better to sleep hungry than to eat the dirt that she dished, was his reasoning.

Tired to the bones, he had them ambled over to his side of the bed, careful not to touch her, even  accidentally.

He heard her breathing, loud and obnoxious and the sensory distaste that followed saw him turn over to the extreme corner, his back now safe and miles away from her.

Seconds later sleep had taken over and then he was consumed by the maddening darkness of dreadful dreams.

A room, quite like the one he lived in… curtains, deep mauve like the ones in his room, and to its left a steel cupboard and the Allwyn refrigerator and just above it a framed photograph of Lord Ganesha,  the half man, half elephant god. 

And the bed, a double bed, teakwood and arched at the head with intricate carvings at its foot and a man on it. The man is asleep, in deep slumber, and then… a woman… with fire spewing bulging eyes, an axe in her hands… and then a loud shriek as the axe falls on the man… and in one stroke the head severed from the torso… and the maddening gleam in the woman’s eyes as she, astride him, now bends down and drinks the dripping blood off the man’s chest …”

Aman had woken up terribly shaken, his hands shaking and palms all sweaty as copious sweat trickled down his spine reaching down to his innards.

He had slowly opened his eyes and looked around. The room was the same and the curtains were the same; same too were the fridge and frames monochromatic photo of the good god.

Everything was the same, just like it had been in the dream, the torturous blood curdling dream that he had just now experienced.

And then, a dark foreboding thought consumed him. Reluctantly and very frighteningly his gaze turned right, towards the woman who was sleeping, sharing his room, his bed, his life.

His eyes caught her strong, oval face, the muscles all taut and challenging, lips compressed and forming into a slow all knowing smile, full of smug and cunning; and then he let out a heinous scream minus any sound as her face, his wife’s changed contours and morphed into a she-devil; the very woman who had moments ago so brutally killed a man in his sleep.

Aman clutched his chest with both his hands as a massive surge of pain, with its epicentre around  his heart, lunged forward and dangerously percolated to other parts of his being much like an unbridled Tsunami rams through vast swathes of landscape threatening to reduce to pulp all that stood in its way.

He held on to dear life for God knows how long but when, once sanity was restored and he able to think clearly, a sickening and frighteningly dreadful reality hit him like the sheer harshness of a particularly unrelenting hot summer day.

‘That she-devil with the axe who did the brutal hacking was his wife Shefali, the betrayer, and the man who she killed was none other he, her husband, Aman.’

She had turned betrayer in the dream. What’s stopping her from turning betrayer in real life.

The very thought saw his pulse rates shoot up once again.

By the time he went to sleep, he had made a resolution: In this sordid and morbid act of betrayal he had no other choice but to ensure that the axe would fall, but this time, unlike in the dream, not on him but on Shefali, his betrayer and wife.


(Chapter 18 of continuing novella  A FAIR AFFAIR )

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