The Lone Branch – Ushnav Shroff

Illustration by Shristi Singh

Illustration by Shristi Singh

‘Dreams are no fun without wake-up screams,’ thought Nishant as he traipsed up the stairs. Shoving his parents’ unfulfilled dreams in a bag and then placing that bag with his jacket on the bed, he went into the living room. Dinner could wait. He ambled across to the window where on his right, there was a sliver of sun falling down in grace against the evening sky. It gave him an odd sort of joy. In front of himlay a building that blocked the rest of the picturesque view. Across the flat, his neighbor was cleaning the tube lights and the fan. There was no joy there.

Sliding down the wall, he put his head between his legs. As far as they could go. The nineteen year old couldn’t understand what he was going through. If he were to say that there were many voices speaking in his head, he’d be lying. They were screaming and loudly. Yet somehow he knew all of them wanted his mind to burst open from the inside, so that their babbling thoughts would bleed out happily.

Howling at the moon,
he was a lunatic at will.
They saw madness in him
but they saw it standing still.

Under his legs which were getting comfortable by the minute, Nishant opened his eyes to a black void. It was a bit different from the one in him but equally inviting. The voices had still not subsided. Instead of shouting at each other, they were now whispering. In a shocking instant, Nishant realized they were talking about him. He began to wonder which part of his life they were going to target this time. The childhood he never had? The molestation that marked the end of his innocence? His father’s death?

Maybe it was something else. Something new. They might very well take advantage of his cowardliness, his inordinate shyness. After all, he knew the voices to be innovative. He was sure they would find out something good enough for themselves. It would result in him listening to things that would shake the jujubes out of him, having him cower in fear at the simplest of thoughts. Oh, the irony! But the lunatics in his mind would laugh madly; theirs was a mission accomplished. They wanted him to be one of them and as each day went by, they were achieving success.

***

The little boy in Nishant stood next to the monkey on the mantelpiece. He carried himself in a care-free manner; a gay soul in an otherwise morbid world. ‘There has to be something that I can do to help your pain,’ he said.

‘Come here. You silent types are always demanding but never do so openly. You speak through your eyes. Come. I want to show you something.’ The little boy motioned him over and his hand touched something soft next to the baleful ape. It was dusty on an otherwise clean panel.

Nishant saw his hair all around him. Tufts of hair lying everywhere. It seemed as if he was living his worst nightmare. It looked filthy but was necessary. The cause had been his father’s untimely death.

‘Can you see it now?’

‘Yes,’ he said and found himself slipping out of the dream and into his bed. A sip from the glass of water on the bed stand and Nishant went back to sleep. Come morning, he would have no inkling of the dream.

***

Nothing changed the next morning, except while preparing a sparse breakfast of two boiled eggs and some leftover juice, he glanced across the window to see his neighbor hanging from the fan. The next-door building was three floors taller than his. A humungous water-tank installed on their terrace had been the topic of controversy between the society members a while back. Nishant wasn’t surprised. Judging by the amount of boorish incidents that took place in the two wings of ShreeDevi Apartments, it was about time these complaints and petty rivalries came to the forefront. The following weekend, he had looked on from his window as the core council from both sides sat down and engaged in a debate. The discourse steered from the tank to complaints they’d received of late. From quite a lot of flats, there seemed to be a general consensus regarding late-night parties. Ever since teenagers had discovered the monstrosity called dub step, there could no haggling with them to reduce the volume. Sleepless nights ensued and it wasn’t long before tempers flew and the situation grew out of hand. The meeting lasted barely an hour, before Ms. Soonawala from her ground floor flat shouted out her need for sleep on a Sunday afternoon. Having come to no unanimous decision, the crowd had dispersed.

Nishant shook himself out of the reverie and looked at his neighbor again. This time, the body moved an inch in the air. Nishant sucked in his breath. The entire contraption reminded him of a rather ridiculous Superman. With hands placed strictly next to his waist, the last look of determination on his face fit the bill of being the superhero. Panduram chacha with his bald head and immaculate figure could be Lex Luthor. Chacha was the watchman and records-keeper for the two wings.

Right then, a gust of wind rushed in between the two buildings. Nishant’s window was partly open and a fresh breeze hit him in the face. On the other side, the wind made the body move in light circles. The eyes almost came out of its shadow.

A glance.

That was all Nishant needed.

An evening spent in the mall came to mind. Even before entering, from within, he could hear a cacophony of voices. It was not unlike a vegetable market, where vendors literally screeched for attention alongside the cats hovering by. Applause greeted him as soon as he felt the cool air bring forth goose bumps on his neck. When the cheering stopped, a single tune reverberated across the open space, touching a nerve within. In a single second, something pure and electrifying had managed to move him.

By then the crowd had thinned. He moved forward and found himself in the vicinity of two musicians. They sat splat on a thin carpet on the floor with a tabla and a sitar between them. The duo were belting out an impeccable tune. Nobody moved as they carried on with their performance. As the congregation increased in number, he saw them looking around, crossing eyes with one another and nodding away in the rhythm of the song. The smiles on their face were evidence enough of their pleasure.

In that moment, through a glance, music had connected them. It was that peek Nishant wished for.

He spared Superman a look again and began to search for a song. His laptop, modified umpteen times after being handed down by his late father, was a first-generation Toshiba. One of the very first laptop to have come off the assembly line, it had been a retirement gift from his father’s boss. Back then, RAM went up to a meagre 50 MB and *Dave* managed to be the talk of the town.

A brilliant guitar riff gave Nishant the much-needed relief. As ‘The Lone Branch’ by Mighty Fists echoed and escalated through his flat, he walked over to the railings. Did dead old Superman ever chance upon it? The band had been popular in the 90s’. It was around then that records were going out of tune. The phase and craze for the same was on its way out. On a whim, his father had decided to purchase several albums of The Beatles and a little unknown band called Them Crooked Elephants on record. As it turned out, it had been a stellar decision.

Upon closer scrutinization that gave Nishant a fresh set of goose bumps, he gathered that the corpse was young. They were technically the same age. Only he wore formals and the tie was missing. A dark blue shawl ran between his tilted neck and the fan. So what could it possibly have been? Girl trouble? A hopelessly heated argument on the phone with his parents? Or (as his mother would chide him and hush, god forbid) a guy?

Following a quick bath, he left for college.

***

When he returned, Superman was still flying. Nishant frowned. It seemed as if nobody cared for this person. Could people actually be that mean? He put on a rerun of ‘The Lone Branch’ and increased the volume for the other person’s advantage. Like a last wish, this could be the superhero’s last song.

Sleep came early that night.

The next day found Nishant harried and trembling in front of the window. They’d found out about the Kryptonite. Lights were on everywhere in the flat. There were people walking around busily. But Superman was nowhere to be seen. The flurry of activities going on at the unfortunate flat gave Nishant a headache that was hard to shake off. The distress in him was a dragon rising. Uniform in length and injurious to health. People went in and out of the apartment like bees in a hive. When the police finally left post-sunset, he heaved a sigh of relief.

In a few days, everything became crystal clear. A relationship gone awry had been the reason behind it. Upon hearing that from Panduram chacha, it felt as if the sanctity of the relationship they had for the last two days had vanished. Something pure had been maligned. The next time, he heard Mrs. Soonawala talk about how Dhiraj- what a morose name- had attempted suicide a few months before moving into the locality. The old bat was animatedly rambling on about how she’d seen him enter the building late at night, often drunk and squabbling on the phone. Police later found out he had been up to good, harassing his ex-girlfriend to the point to death threats.

As he lay in bed, Nishant wondered about Dhiraj. According to the authorities, he had been a monster in the making. Someone who would have done more harm than good in this world. According to Mrs. Soonawala, the poor chap needed guidance and a lesson inmanners. He had in a moment of rage smashed her outdoor money-plant pots to bits.

Things could go back to normal now. At the same time, a little thing still clawed at the back of his mind. He couldn’t fathom what and didn’t consider it important enough to pursue.

That guy was no Clark Kent after all.

Ushnav Shroff’s work has featured in The Hindu, Free Press Journal, Reading Hour, among others. His love for creating something out of nothing has not left him once he began putting pen to paper from the age of nine. Apart from short stories, he delves in poems and book reviews. He is currently working on a novella.

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