(Manjula (hindi : मंजुला) is a Sanskrit feminine given name, which means “lovely” and “beautiful.”)
The anonymous door to ‘Shera Bar’ swung open drunkenly; a banshee wailed in unhinged agony; a jaundiced rectangle of light appeared on the dark sidewalk exposing a mangy rat gnawing on a gnarly toe; spooked local strays snarled in rabid frenzy; the squalor-laden air swirled with heavy indifference at the din.
Quivering in trepidation, the rat transfixed a beady eye at the dark shadow that stealthily breached the lower edge of the lit rectangle. An ominous shadow that grew taller until the feeble rays of the fly-encrusted bulb were all but eclipsed by a swaying form.
The silhouette belched a noxious sourness that pierced the rodent’s street-hardened defenses, sending it scurrying in squeaking self-preservation.
Manu wrinkled his nose.
The heady cocktail of raw onions, spiced peanuts, fresh bile, and cheap whisky that rose from his innards and seeped in green tendrils through his clenched teeth failed to mask the acrid stench of burnt cremation logs and scorched flesh that cloaked him.
He had stood too close to the pyre; he had to be certain that his secret was reduced to ashes.
He clutched the surprisingly heavy earthen urn tightly against his chest; its mouth silenced with a scrap of bright red cloth and rough hemp rope.
With blood-shot eyes, he peered into the inky darkness that seemed to swallow the end of street — a path into the murky belly of the beast.
The road home.
Manu grimaced. Fucking, watered whisky! Two bottles down the hatch hadn’t drowned out the rending screams of an anguished, broken mother or erased the haunting image of a helpless father’s devastated, knowing, mute stare over flickering flames.
“Paralyzed prick,” Manu slurred and spat in disgust. He didn’t make it far. The spittle ran in rivulets down the front of his sweat-stained shirt.
No matter. This fine establishment was an hour past last call and he had to get to his bed.
He lurched down the desolate street, grasping dilapidated doorways with his free hand until he reached his own.
“Oye, Behenchod Ramanbhai,” Manu hissed as he saw the hallway lights had been turned off past the midnight hour by his obnoxious landlord. The entrance to the peeling, squat, should-have-been-demolished-a-decade-ago, art-deco building yawned.
He pulled himself together. He had made it this far through the star-less night; muscle memory would get him up to his flat. Clutching the urn tighter, he ascended the wooden stairs slowly in a symphony of pained creaks that protested his presence.
He paused outside the front door of his flat — enveloped in the sensuous caress of a complete, pitch darkness, and listened.
His face stretched with a grotesque smile at what he did not hear.
Fumbling, he managed to slide the stubborn key into its sheath and the lock surrendered with a defeated sigh. He flicked the light switch — nothing! He had cursed Ramanbhai unfairly — at least tonight.
He stepped inside; the smoggy lights of a sleepless city glowed weakly through the bird-dropping and grime stained windows. He shuffled uncertainly to the kitchen faucet. He couldn’t wait to wash out his rancid mouth. His soul would have to wait for the morning ablutions.
He lay the urn down at the edge of the chipped counter where it was unlikely anything would be chopped again. He splashed on some tepid water that held on to the day’s warmth like a first-time lover’s embrace.
He returned, unsteadily, to his tiny, disheveled, drawing room. His face, unwiped. It would help keep the stifling heat at bay until he drifted into a stupor.
He lay back in his rocking chair.
The screams and the deafening silence, receded.
He jerked awake with a start!
How long had he been asleep? Minutes? Could’ve been an hour. Two?
He ran a trembling hand across a scowling face, tight with broken sleep, that was still wet. A steaming, alcoholic sweat seeped through every pore; oppressive, unwashed odor launched an olfactory assault.
“Fuck it, it’s nothing” he croaked. No one heard him. No one was there.
And then, he heard it again.
The sound that had roused him.
His eyes darted; hunting in the darkness like a pair of ravenous wolves.
They stopped in their tracks.
A flickering blue light glowed through the windowless kitchen’s door.
He closed his eyes tightly and swore for the umpteenth time to give up Shera’s moonshine for something more upscale.
He opened his eyes ever so slowly.
No. It wasn’t the brew!
He stood up; the chair rocked violently in his unsteady wake.
He stumbled towards the kitchen in the throes of a stupor cut short; racing pulse roaring in his ears.
He squinted at the sight; not comprehending.
The gas burner was on; the searing blue flame sending a hissing blue glow through the cramped room.
“Oye Bevde, you must’ve turned it on,” he scolded himself furiously under his rasping, terrified breath.
He tottered to the stove but before he could turn the dial to off, he heard it again!
A suffocated gasp!
He whirled around.
His face froze in a rictus of fear; every drop of his blood crystallized into ice; a fetid warmth flowed uncontrolled down his legs.
She was right behind him.
The blue glow illuminated her vacant, hollow eyes — swimming, shimmering in flowing black tears.
The rest of her face hidden behind the frilly cushion that had snuffed out her last delicate breath. She struggled to tear it from her face but couldn’t.
Manu screamed in horror. No one heard him. No one was there.
He turned violently to run and slipped in a puddle of what may have been her tears.
He flailed in terror, his arms grasping wildly for something to break his fall.
He knocked over the urn perched unsteadily on the chipped edge.
They fell together — in synchronicity — and the hard, grim, slate kitchen floor braced for final impact.
When the stench spread like a rumor in a rioting city, they broke down his door.
They were startled to see a chair rocking in the empty drawing room as if someone, startled, had stood up hastily.
They found him in the kitchen.
A jagged terracotta shard embedded in his gaping jugular.
A scrap of bright red cloth caught between his lifeless fingers.
His splayed and bloated body appeared to float in a thick, cloying pool of blood that was mottled brown and grey with shattered clay and ashes.
And there was one more unsettling item lying forlornly on the floor.
A frilly heart-shaped cushion with cheap, thread embroidery that read:
“Manu and Manjula. Till death do us part.”
(Copyright 2017 — Avinash V. Ganatra. All Rights Reserved)