The car rushed, roaring along the tarred road whose black blood was beginning to boil under the scorching sun. Both sides of the road are sparsely populated. Some isolated trees are standing as if they are undergoing solitary confinement for some crime they hadn’t committed. There are also a few scattered huts. The huts look more like mud holes! Before them, stand dark emaciated human forms. Some of the trees lining the sides, on some sections of the road, can’t give any relief from the intense heat. In the hot wind, the dust is whirling around. If the windshields were raised, it would be like being roasted alive inside the car. At least, there is a breeze now, though it is hot. Why lose that also? After all, such hot weather isn’t unfamiliar to Akash.

Near the roadside, there is a signboard with ‘Palani 15 Kilometres’ written on it. Feeling very thirsty. Only little drinking water is left now. Far away, there is a large sprawling tree. Akash parked the car in the shade of that tree and got down. It has been a very long drive! Speeding, pressing the accelerator mechanically! There isn’t any time to stop. But one can’t reach the destination without a little rest either. Akash sighed deeply. He could hear the heart beating heavily like a drum!

So far, the only earnings are these anxious heartbeats! How long can one go on like this? Wouldn’t it lead to a heart attack? Akash had a muffled laugh as if he had heard some great joke. If it were anyone else in my place, he could have transitioned to the other side long ago! I’ll hang on to the resolve to make the mind as strong as steel. The pieces of memories buried somewhere in the depths of consciousness are getting connected again. Once he had vowed never to do that. But often the mind runs haphazardly without reins. Once upon a time, he liked to have sweet dreams and build wonderful castles in the air. But after realising the meaninglessness of such an activity, he hasn’t tried that again.

Akash dived into the past, boarding the time machine of the mind. Blurred pictures appearing. Many faces taking shape. Father! However, that one face isn’t clear at all. It was the description by his foster father Dr. Devan that gave form to ‘father’ in his awareness. Father used to be a truck driver. Father, mother and a tiny infant. It was this family that Dr. Devan had met. Even Dr. Devan didn’t know whether they had any other relatives. He only realised that it was for the sake of the infant alone that the man had decided to drive a truck and the poor woman was willing to work as a domestic servant maid.

Father’s trips were to the mountain resort town of Kodaikanal. One day, at the Kodaikanal mountains, on a steep road at a hairpin curve without a warning sign board, everything ended. From that day onwards mother’s life became a world of insanity.

The chronic bachelor Dr. Devan became the saviour of the orphaned Akash. Idealist, social worker and an expert teacher – Dr. Devan was all these to the society. Dr. Devan got a transfer to an engineering college in Madras. Akash also enrolled in the same college. Those college days when he had lived as Dr. Devan’s son! A period in his life that gifted him so many sweet memories. But he didn’t realise at that time that the relief was only temporary.

Akash landed amidst computers. His mind was consumed by the yearning to stand on his own feet. His private world became a world of computers. He rarely mingled with others. He had no friends either. He wanted to avoid the prospect of facing any questions targetted at him like sharp arrows. Since he displayed an unsociable nature, no one tried to get close to him. Apart from earning the nickname the ‘lover of computers,’ there weren’t any other problems.

How unexpected was the rendezvous with Harita! On that day during leisure time, while sitting in a solitary corner away from the hullabaloo of the main college building to write some notes, he saw a girl wearing salwar and kameez standing there. He thought for a moment that she might have been picking up the smooth pebbles. It was the hobby of some boys and girls to collect the smooth white pebbles available in plenty there.

While concentrating on the notebook, he heard a soft voice, “What are you doing here?” He felt like asking her, “Don’t you have eyes? Can’t you see I am writing notes?” However, he said nothing.

“Are you dumb?” she asked. When he realised that she wouldn’t stop until he said something, he asked casually, “ Are you collecting the white pebbles?” She laughed as if mocking him. “Collecting white pebbles? Who? Me? Isn’t that the job of useless fellows who live in a dream world? I like only those stones that everybody ignores!” Hearing the weird reply, he sat there bewildered, staring at that girl.

The acquaintance with Harita grew gradually. She too was not the sort of person who mingles too much with others. Some invisible bond formed between them. Can’t figure out the exact nature of that even now. Anyway, Akash felt that he had escaped at least temporarily from the boredom of being alone. Both of them got to know the background of each other somewhat.

Harita! A young girl who lives with a burning fire within! An active worker of some youth organisation. During their conversations, Harita’s views were clear. Her intellect was hovering in realms higher than his reach. He had felt often that Harita was an extremist in her thinking. At times, Harita’s own words gave such an impression. Still didn’t he and Harita have a soft corner for each other somewhere deep within? Not sure. It wasn’t completely clear. Anyway, he was certain that whenever he talked to Harita, he had sensed a relief and a feeling that he wouldn’t be left alone. After a long time, he had felt that a weight had lifted from his mind.

He had till then only heard of the cliché about the lull before the storm! He hadn’t thought even once that he would ever get a chance to experience it in his life!

When they made a plan to visit Kodaikanal for a college excursion, he kept off from it. Kodaikanal! The hairpin curves! The idea itself disturbed him. It was his fear that it could excavate some old horrific memories that made him decide not to go. Dr. Devan was in charge of the tour. Harita was also part of that group.

Before the journey, she met him and told him a secret! “I am not going on this tour for mere fun. I have to hand over some very important information to the organisation I work for. They have a centre at Kodaikanal. Two birds with one shot! I can go sightseeing there and carry out this assignment also. Don’t ever mention this to anyone even inadvertently!” She also added jokingly, “Make sure you don’t turn into a computer by learning computer technology! It is okay to have some fun at times too!”

He used to feel intrigued when Harita who generally had a very serious temperament sometimes behaved lightheartedly like a child. He felt more surprised when she told him about her hidden agenda for the trip.

When he reached the college after three days, there was something wrong. There was chaos! He froze when he heard the news. The tourist bus of the excursion party from the college toppled down a cliff on a hairpin curve that had no signboard! No one survived! What a reward Dr. Devan and Harita who loved humanity received!

The nasty Fate that is incapable of distinguishing between those who are inhuman and those have dedicated their own souls to others! Fate had always been nonsensical in its misguided antics. The same old story being repeated right from the time when life appeared first on Earth.

Many people asked him, “Your eyes haven’t even turned slightly red after this tragedy. Has your mind turned into some machine?” When his blood itself has frozen, how could his eyes turn red with tears? Though an urge to sob was rising in him, he chained it down.

Afterwards, did he metamorphose into something other than himself? Like a revenge against Fate, he sank himself into his efforts to build his life forgetting everything. Nothing should be able to defeat me! Then onwards he was led by that adamant approach. I’ve seen so many hairpin curves. I am not willing to stumble over them and fall!

He secured a first class degree in Computer Engineering and joined a large company at Madras. What did Dr. Devan and Harita who had lived for others achieve? What was left in their balance sheet? They were simple-minded fools!

His rise was meteoric towards one of the top positions of the company. His sharp intelligence and skills helped. A fantastic palatial bungalow! A swanky imported car! Latest electronic gadgets and air-conditioned rooms! Waves of pleasure conquered his mind! But for all these gains, he had to connive with many activities far removed from anything ethical. Successful business meetings where everyone wears a smile while hiding a dagger! Parties where men and women alike drown in intoxication! To lead a pleasurable life, one has to do such things! That was his rationalisation of detached denial at first.

But eventually, a sense of discomfort started creeping into his very brain. The empty hypocrisy of glittering appearances and artificial faces induced boredom and numbness in him. The constant cold of the air-conditioners began to freeze his cells one by one. The monitors of the TV and the computer gifted his eyes aches and blurred sight. Sleep became an unfulfilled hope. The anxiety that the never-ending rush for business matters would disrupt the rhythms of his heart, started to haunt him relentlessly.

The mocking laughter of Harita in their first meeting, about the uselessness of those who collect white smooth pebbles, began to echo in his mind. The condition of the one who hankered after pleasure! He has been defeated! He remembered that Harita’s face was always full of contentment. For him, even now, complete contentment remains an insubstantial mirage. He at last took that crucial decision. No matter what the consequences, I must contact that organisation for which Harita had worked with so much sincerity! If I stay like this I’ll go mad! Harita had told him that they had a centre at Kodaikanal!

Akash emerged from the memories of the past only when a rough hand fell on his shoulder! A Tamilian is saying something. Instead of the pure honeyed Tamil language, he heard words emitting anger. He understood that the man was demanding the car to be removed from the shade of the tree, where he had parked it. What is the matter?! Anyway it won’t be wise to argue with the man. He started to drive again. The trees, huts and the parched landscape are running backwards. When he arrived at Palani, he didn’t feel like going to the famous Murugan temple there. What to tell God?

He turned towards the route to Kodaikanal and continued the journey. What a weird relation these mountains have to his life! Father, Dr. Devan, Harita and some hairpin curves! It is not just here that the hairpin curves exist. Everywhere, on everybody’s roads of life, the hairpin curves hide behind the beautiful greenery. Even a slight lapse of attention could bring disaster! Here comes a traveller with the full awareness that the strange beauty of these mountains is like the dangerous poisonous beauty of the snakes!

He saw the first hairpin curve ahead of him. A very narrow road! The curve is like a sharp U turn! The small safety wall on the side of the road is missing! The car screeched upwards. The curves on the road passed one by one. On one side, there is the deep gorge. On the other side, there is the forest on the steep mountain. Wild animals could be lurking there. It is getting late! A thin envelope of darkness is already setting in. Must go fast! If not, the fog could prove deadly. When he turned the sharpest hairpin curve he had seen so far, something crash-landed on the bonnet of the car. A monkey! It jumped off and disappeared with an odd roar!

Is it the soul of some dead person? Perhaps it came in search of him! What idiotic thoughts! It was foolish to have stopped the car on the way near the tree and wasted time before he had reached Palani. He had lost all sense of time in the frenzy of his mind. Akash felt that no one on this Earth could control the mind completely. Is the name of that helplessness insanity? If that is the case, everyone is insane! Akash laughed aloud.

The car is going very slow now. Though there isn’t too much distance left to cover, the journey is still difficult. The floating fog looks like the shroud of dead bodies! Damn! He should have set out earlier! It is already past 8 pm. A long meandering road still lies ahead of him.

Suddenly Akash was startled! Just in front of him, right on the middle of the road, there is a person! Akash applied the brakes. When his anger rising from within was about to explode, the stranger dropped an envelope into the car through the half-raised windshield! Before he could realise what was happening, that man had merged into the flooding darkness! Akash parked the car on the side of the road and switched on the light inside the car. He opened the envelope. A letter! Lines appearing in the faint light.

“Dear Akash,

We were aware already that you might reach Kodaikanal today. This letter is being delivered directly to you to ensure that no one else reads it. We’d like to reveal some truths. Harita had collected sensitive and shocking information that could have helped to expose to the world, the real nature of a star who still shines in the fields of politics and industry. She had accompanied the excursion party for handing over the information to us here. The bus tragedy was not an accidental event. They smelled trouble somehow and sabotaged the bus, causing the accident. When we found out, it was already too late. Those precious secrets didn’t reach us either. They managed to do it cleverly without raising even the slightest doubt in anyone.

We got an approximate picture of you from Harita. Before you decide to tread our path, make sure whether you are really capable of it. Don’t act impulsively. You still have time to think about it. The road ahead is full of hairpin curves where danger lurks! Take a well thought out and sincere decision.

With love,

Your friends.”

The word ‘sincere’ is underlined. It isn’t clear who had written the letter. The handwriting looked deliberately distorted. How did the messenger find me so precisely?! It seems this is an organisation that works in a well-planned way.

Lightning streaks started to rush through Akash’s heart. Harita, who had never given up on her fight to uphold her ideals! While my balance sheet has only a big zero! An empty zero with an embellished exterior! Self-loathing has crossed all the limits! One who didn’t have the mental strength of even a young girl like Harita had so far been arrogantly thinking that he had a mind of steel! His heart divided itself into two halves. One half clinging to his desires for a life of material pleasures. The other half standing for his conscience.

Even if he turns back now, the mind and body still won’t get any rest. Shall I give up and wither away inch by inch in the rat race to garner material profits? Or else? I shall go ahead on this path! The nagging doubt whether he had enough energy for it, still disturbed him. The car took a turn on another hairpin curve and forged ahead. I must reach Kodaikanal tonight itself. I can find the organisation’s people tomorrow. The wristwatch showed it was 11 pm! How fast the wheel of time whirls!

After travelling for some more time, the car had a hiccup and stopped. The car’s petrol tank is empty! Forgot to get enough fuel! A journey without fuel? The flaws in his character that he thought was infallible are tumbling out now. Akash leaned back on the seat in desperation. He recalled that someone in Palani had told him that since it was not a busy season for tourists, not many vehicles would be there on the route at night. Now where to get some fuel? Sleep is hanging heavily on his eyelids.

The next day, in the early morning, those who were in a truck that was coming down the mountain road, saw a sight. There was a car parked on the middle of the road! Though they sounded the horn, the car still didn’t move. When they came near the car, they realised that there was nobody in the car. Though their eyes searched around in the twilight, there wasn’t any sign of any human being anywhere.

Copyright © 1991 Prabhath P