The Red Scarf

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Anitha Murthy


wave
Photo Credit: Jamelah E.

The woman appeared in front of his car just as the traffic light turned green. Shailesh swore as he honked impatiently. As usual, the endless line of vehicles ahead showed no inclination of moving. He would be late for his 10 a.m. meeting—there was no doubt about it now.

Through the open window, the woman thrust what appeared to be a knitted scarf at him.

“Only fifty rupees, Sir,” she said in a rustic dialect of Hindi.

Shailesh recoiled in disgust. He couldn’t stand these traffic-signal hawkers; they were like oozing, pus-filled scabs in the city.

The woman seemed ancient, her weather-beaten face lined like parched earth. Her pink blouse was faded with tattered embroidery, her patchwork skirt was muddy, and she held the edge of a threadbare red veil in her mouth. Dull coppery hair peeped out from below the veil. She was the perfect picture of dereliction. But it was her eyes that snagged Shailesh; they were a murky green-brown, like mud stirred in a mossy puddle, and he had the feeling of being trapped in quicksand.

She waved the scarf at him. Her fingers dangled over the window inside the car like gnarled, grasping roots, their nails encrusted with thick black dirt. A tarnished ring with a grinning skull-and-bones hung loosely on her index finger. Her tinny silver bangle, adorned with the same grinning skull-and-bones, banged against the window and Shailesh felt a wave of nausea gather in his stomach.

He hated these traffic light nuisances. Sometimes, men sauntered by with piles of sunglasses, or cheap plastic airplanes, or animal-shaped balloons. Little boys hawked magazines, struggling to keep on display the chosen few from the big pile they were carrying. Smartly-dressed eunuchs slapped their hands together and uttered choice abuses if they didn’t get a handout. Shailesh had no sympathy for these folks. Why couldn’t they go out and earn a decent living? If they expected him to part with his hard-earned money, they could think again!

Today, it appeared to be the turn of these gypsies. He could spot two other similarly dressed women trying to sell the knitted garments out in front. One of them even had a baby strapped to her back, for extra sympathy, he supposed.

“Sir!”

The woman shook the garment in front of him. Shailesh gritted his teeth and shook his head to indicate his disinterest. He studiously avoided her gaze, but the woman was persistent.

“Sir. Only fifty.”

This time she shook the scarf so vigorously that it tickled him in the nose, triggering off a powerful sneeze. Irritation quickly gave way to an overwhelming fury. Just who the hell did she think she was, thrusting stuff through his window and demanding that he buy it?

“Told you, I don’t want it!” Shailesh barked at her. Hadn’t he already indicated that he didn’t want it? Didn’t she get the message, dammit?

A bus that was several cars ahead began to move. About time, Shailesh thought, itching to jam down on the accelerator. Traffic in Bangalore—bah! The worst ever.

Kabhi tand nahin hoyega, Saheb.” Her voice was flat, ominous. You will never feel the cold.

As the car ahead began to move, Shailesh glanced at the woman. Her muddy gaze made him shudder involuntarily and he made up his mind. In one swift move, he pushed the window button of his car and the window rolled up. The woman snatched her hand away just in time as he accelerated and zoomed ahead, a wicked grin on his face. As he drove on, he realized something was fluttering by his window. It was that damned scarf! She had been quick enough to save her hand, but she had been too late to rescue the scarf. It was fluttering by his window, jammed at the edge. He could see her stunned face in his rearview mirror. Serves you right, you bitch, he thought, a savage thrill coursing through his body. He watched as she raised her right hand and pointed a terrible index finger at him. The skull ring glinted in the sun and Shailesh swallowed. He thought he could hear her cursing him.

At the next traffic light, Shailesh carefully pulled the scarf inside the car. It wasn’t a great scarf; the knitting was all thick and nubbly. It seemed to have some pattern on it, and it smelled of camels and tents and travel. Ugh! Why couldn’t it have been a soft, nice scarf, something he could wear around his neck to combat the nip of the cold December air? He would probably just give it away to the security guard at work. He shoved it into his backpack that lay on the passenger seat.

By the time Shailesh returned home that night, he had forgotten all about the woman at the traffic light and the musty scarf.

*

The next day, it was a little past midnight when Shailesh returned to his apartment after the office Christmas party. He wasn’t sure how many drinks he had had, but it had made him lose all his inhibitions. He rued his crazy dance moves; he must have put off pretty Piyali completely with his display. Not that he had much of a chance with her anyway, but still. He was still perspiring heavily from his rambunctious exertions and the AC in the car was just not enough. He rolled down the window to let the cool winter air in. He liked the Bangalore weather—neither too cold nor too hot, unlike Delhi where he came from. Pity he was off to Delhi for the holidays. He winced as he thought of it.

Shailesh didn’t look forward to the annual ritual of the family gathering in Delhi. Members of their extended family flew down from USA, Canada, and the UK. There were endless parties and get-togethers, mostly with the same crowd and after the initial catching up, it became rather monotonous. Being an only son, Shailesh was duty-bound to be present and to be shown off to his relatives as a prize catch in the matrimonial market, much like a stud bull at a cattle fair. There was no way Shailesh could get out of it; after all, who did he have here in Bangalore anyway?

By the time Shailesh reached his apartment, the damp patches of perspiration on his shirt had grown as large as dinner plates. He mopped his brow as he got out of his car. Bangalore seemed to be getting hotter every year, he thought, and grinned. He was already beginning to sound like a typical Bangalorean! In a city that barely managed three seasons, each season slipped into the next like finely woven yarn, so that it could be quite confusing at times. It was the normal thing to complain about the inconsistent weather, and look accusingly at people like him—the outsiders who had come and settled down in Bangalore, upsetting the weather gods in the process.

Shailesh swung his backpack over his shoulder and made his way to the elevator. God, he was sweating like a pig! He may as well forget about Piyali completely, he thought wryly. Fat chance she would go for a guy who was as wet as a dripping towel.

He groaned when he reached his apartment. It was a complete mess. He would have to clear up everything before he left, else the place would be teeming with cockroaches when he returned. He would have to catch his beauty sleep at home in Delhi. There was no way he could clean up and sleep in the few hours that were available.

By the time Shailesh cleared up his apartment, it was almost three in the morning. The dishes were all done, the fridge was cleared out, three plump garbage bags stood like sentinels next to the front door, and his suitcase was stuffed with two weeks’ worth of laundry, which his mom would do for him when he got to Delhi. His bags were all packed, along with his laptop in his backpack that he needed to take in case there was an emergency at work. Now, he had an hour to kill before his ride to the airport showed up.

He sank on the couch and switched on the TV. It was on a news channel, and the news immediately caught Shailesh’s attention.

“Delhi is in the grip of an unprecedented cold wave. The temperature has been hovering around the zero degrees centigrade mark. All schools, colleges, and other educational institutions have been declared closed for the next two days by the Government. The sudden dip in temperatures is forcing people to stay indoors. According to the Met department officials, this is due to chilly, dry winds from the Northwest, which are sweeping through the city. They have forecast that this cold spell will remain for the next couple of days. However, the absence of fog has ensured that all flights operated normally.”

Visuals of the empty Delhi streets and the homeless huddled around bonfires came on. There was a ticker running at the bottom of the screen, advising travelers to contact their airlines and confirm their flights.

Shailesh cursed as he took out his ticket and punched the phone number of the airlines on his mobile. He was almost immediately connected to a representative.

“My flight for Delhi is at 6 a.m. today. Is there any delay or cancellation?”

“No, sir,” the lady politely answered. “The flight is on time. There is no delay for any of our flights. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No thanks,” Shailesh answered, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. Damn! It was getting really hot in here. He was actually looking forward to experiencing that familiar Delhi chill that froze one’s bones.

*

As Shailesh pushed the luggage trolley ahead of him, he scanned the thin crowd that stood outside the terminal, waiting for the arriving passengers. His parents always came to pick him up, and soon enough, he spotted them. They looked like overstuffed laundry bags with several layers of clothing bulging oddly, every inch of their bodies covered with thick woolens. In utter contrast, Shailesh had unbuttoned his shirt because of the heat, his fair face red like a boiled lobster, and his hair slicked down because of perspiration.

“I was worried about the flight,” said Shailesh, after the usual greetings. “Luckily, it was all ok. I saw the news, they were saying it is quite bad here?”

“Yes,” his father nodded. “It’s been pretty bad.”

“How could you come dressed like this?” His mother burst out. “Are you crazy? Knowing the weather in Delhi, you should have at least worn a jacket.” She sighed and shook her head. “Never mind, I’ll give you one of my shawls.”

Shailesh was in fact feeling like he was being cooked on a slow flame. The flight had been very uncomfortable, and he was sure that the temperature control had not been working properly in the plane. He had even asked the stewardess, but she had given him a strange look, and assured him that everything was normal. Everyone else had seemed quite comfortable. Some had even requested for blankets and were fast asleep. But Shailesh had felt so hot that he had to overcome the urge to reach over and rip open the damn windows!

“It’s ok, I’m fine,” he protested, and pushed the shawl back to his mother. She grumbled under her breath as they both waited for his father to bring the car. Shailesh longed to peel off his shirt and let the chill dig its teeth into his skin. What was happening to him? Had he caught some bug?

Their car pulled up, and Shailesh heaved his suitcases into the boot. Once in the car, he had to ask his mother.

“Ma, can you check if I have fever or something? I’m feeling so hot.”

His mother pulled off her glove with some difficulty. She placed her hand on his forehead, and withdrew it sharply. She then placed her hand on his neck, where it was coated with his perspiration. She withdrew it again immediately.

“You’re feeling hot?” She asked him, her eyes narrowing in disbelief.

“Yes, I’m feeling very hot.”

She turned to his father, squeezing her hand back into the glove.

“We might have to take him to the doctor,” she said, in a worried tone. “He says he is feeling hot, but he is cold, ice-cold!”

“What?” Shailesh couldn’t believe it. He put his hand against his forehead, and dropped it in shock. It was true. He was as cold as a block of ice. Then why was he perspiring, why was he feeling like he was on a slow boil inside? Why did he have this longing to strip off all his clothes right now and plunge into an ice-cold bath?

“Let’s get home. Then I’ll call the doctor.” Shailesh’s father replied. His priority was to get home first. He didn’t want them stranded anywhere on this cold, wintry night.

Shailesh’s mind was in a whirl, trying to pinpoint a reason for this maddening situation. Was it because he drank too much? He couldn’t recollect correctly, but he was sure he hadn’t gone overboard. He had felt just a nice pleasant buzz. He thought he had worked it all off with the dancing. Had he danced too much? Was it the food? He couldn’t think of a single reason why he had picked up this strange bug. What was happening? He felt prickles of fear light up his spine.

“Dad, can I roll the windows down?” He asked.

“Are you crazy?” His dad shot a glance at him. “Do you want us to freeze to death?”

“But I’m not able to breathe. I’m feeling so hot!”

“Don’t worry, we’ve almost reached home.” His mother caressed his arm, her eyes dark with worry. She should never have let her only son stay so far away from her.

Shailesh burst out of the car when it drew up in front of his house. If he had stayed inside a moment longer, he was sure he would suffocate and die. He felt like he was sizzling within, his insides being turned into a simmering stew.

“Shailesh! Are you alright?” His mother jumped out and ran behind him. Her teeth had already begun chattering and her lips looked blue.

“I’m fine. You… you get into the house, you’re cold,” stuttered Shailesh, mopping the sweat from his face with his drenched hanky. He didn’t know what he himself was going to do. A raging inferno had engulfed him, and he was beginning to feel scorched.

Inside, the house was as warm as toast, and comfortable enough for his parents to shed most of their layers. But for Shailesh, it was like he was in a sauna. Nonsense, he told himself. This was all his imagination. He clenched his teeth and refused to let himself succumb to this strange ailment. Instead, he began opening his suitcases.

“Mom, I got this Mysore silk sari for you. And dad, I got this really nice wooden prayer stand. You can put your Bhagvad Gita on it and read it during your prayer time.”

“You bought this also?”

Shailesh turned and was dumbstruck. His mom was holding up a red scarf, which she had spotted peeking out of his backpack. A bolt of pure fear shot through him. The scarf! That goddamn scarf!

In a flash, he remembered everything vividly. The woman at the traffic light. Her dress, her hair, her fingers, the ring… and the way he had ambushed her. He remembered her cursing, and the memory of it was evil. The same skull-and-bones pattern that had been on her ring was on the scarf, but with one difference. The skull had muddy eyes, just like the woman. And right now, it appeared to be staring intently at Shailesh, boring into him like a giant drill. He felt his throat close with panic.

Her words echoed in his head with ominous clarity. “Kabhi tand nahin hoyega, Saheb.” You will never feel cold.

A tsunami of cold dread swamped Shailesh. Was that what was happening to him? Oh Lord! What had he done?

He grabbed the scarf to his mother’s astonishment, threw open the door and raced out to the middle of the road.

“Take this, bitch. Take this away and leave me alone!” He screamed as he flung the scarf away.

His parents rushed to the door after him, horrified.

He kicked and stamped the scarf, boiling hot tears cascading down his cheeks. The scarf lay limply in the middle of the road and then, all of a sudden, it rose towards Shailesh. He tried desperately to beat it off, but like a python stalking its prey, it slithered around his neck. Around and around it wound, even as Shailesh screamed and tore at it. He fell to the ground, thrashing and flailing. Tighter and tighter, till he gave one last shudder and then lay still, a shadow on the ground in the frosty silver moonlight.

As if shaken from a trance, his shocked mother uttered a cry and ran towards the inert body.

“My son!” She cried as she knelt next to him and touched him. Instinctively, she jerked her hand away and looked back at her husband in frightened disbelief.

A distinct smell of burning flesh filled the bleak night air.

pencil

Anitha Murthy is a lazy dreamer, pretty content with life. A software consultant by profession, she likes to write whenever inspiration strikes her. She has been published both online and in print, has even won a few contests, and likes to try her hand at different genres. She lives in Bangalore and her home on the web is Thought Raker. Email: anitha.murthy.007[at]gmail.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email