My wife, Suvidha, has gone out of India on one of her professional assignments. She works in an IT firm, where on-site visits, both long and short, are the norm. In the past, she has mostly gone on short visits of 2-3 days but the current visit is slightly longer. This time she will be out for 10 days and I along with my parents, have taken the responsibility of the kids, right from waking them up every morning on time, to preparing their breakfast and then leaving them till the school bus at sharp 7.30 am. Usually, I leave them in the morning and in the afternoon when they come back, it’s their grandmother, my mom, who goes and picks them up and gets them home. I usually am back from work by 7.45 pm. Till then, both the grandparents get quite tired, looking after them since each of them has their own likes and dislikes, in eating, watching TV programs and the games they like to play. While Arya, 5, is a homebody, Aryan, 7, is a total scoundrel who likes to play in the Society compound along with his buddies. Someday they will play cricket and someday, football, however, the end result is the same. His clothes are sure to get piled up near the washing machine, flaunting different shades of brown. Arya is an angel, who follows her grandmother from room to room and since their grandmother is usually in the kitchen, Arya has taken a liking to all the different gadgets in the kitchen. After I come back from office, both of them rush to me with their stories of the day, each trying to grab my attention, as I try to relax. And bedtime is reserved for stories, their favourites being the adventures of Tintin and Harry Potter. But mind you, even if the characters are well known but the stories are of yours truly.
But today is special, it is a Sunday. Due to the long absence of my wife this time, it is the first Sunday when I have to entertain the kids for an entire day. My parents too are not home today, since they have to visit one of our ailing relatives. I don’t give much thought to lunch, taking a shortcut instead, by taking them to the nearest mall and then treating my kids to a McDonald’s lunch. After coming back home, the entire afternoon is before me; while I would like to rest, they want to talk and talk. Suddenly Arya wants her Mom, Aryan wants to play video games and I am looking at a long afternoon of challenges. “Aryaaa…Aryan…who wants to hear a story?” The moment I utter these words, I see both of them, eyes twinkling, eagerly looking at me and the demands come, “Tintin…Harry Potter…”. Those two characters again…phew. “No, today I am going to tell you a story of a boy called Abhay”. “Abhay!!! Is it about you, father?” they ask in unison. “First hear the story, at least”. I smilingly plead with them in good humour.
“Once upon a time, there was a boy who used to live in Dadar, Hindu Colony in Mumbai. What was his name?”. “Abhaaay!”, they scream in their childlike innocence. “Yes, Abhay. He used to stay there with his parents, their only Son. He was in college, and he liked to play…”. “Cricket…”, exclaim the children. “Yes, he liked to play cricket but he was also a very curious boy, very fond of detective and mystery novels. One day, while going to College by the BEST bus, he saw a lot of commotion at the front end of the bus. Being very inquisitive he pushed his way forward. First, he heard a girl screaming at the top of her voice, but since he was still in the back, he was not able to make out, what she was communicating. When he finally reached her seat, he listened intently to her rambling tone. He could hardly make out what she was saying but he could make out that the girl was white with fear. Even the people sitting behind her were shaking. Finally, from the bits and pieces he heard, Abhay came to know that a man sitting beside the girl had just vanished into thin air!”. As soon I say that the kids are well and truly hooked. “Vanished into thin air! But, papa, that is not possible”. As they say it, they move closer, so as not to miss anything I was now going to tell them.
“The bus was then stopped for a while, by the roadside, while everyone inside the bus gathered their senses. A few frightened people, among them, those sitting behind the girl, got down. Abhay asked the girl whether he could sit beside her. She just nodded in affirmation. Just as he sat, something poked him from below. While sitting, he retrieved it. It was the most beautiful turquoise blue pendant with a marking of an unknown animal. He showed it to the girl and asked her if it was hers. She replied in the negative, again by just nodding her head. As he kept the pendant into his backpack, Abhay could gather that she had not yet recovered from the shock. By this time the bus was in motion again, and the topic of discussion across the length of the bus, was the disappearing man, though not everyone had seen it happen. Finally, Abhay asked her where she was going. To Surti College, she said. He told her he studied in the same College. As soon as she heard it, she became a little more relaxed. Then she told him that she had moved to Mumbai one month back, and this was only her third day in the college. Ah, that’s why I have never seen her before, thought Abhay. The rest of the ride was uneventful and once they reached College, both of them got engrossed in the College routine, so much so, that they forgot about the eventful morning. Once he got home, Abhay put on the TV and started watching the news along with his father. As always, some advertisement was going on when he put on the TV, but then the news started with ‘Breaking News’. It had certainly been a unique day all across the world. The morning event was not a solo event, similar reports of people vanishing into thin air, had been reported from all the major continents. A girl had disappeared in the USA, a woman in France, a boy in China, a child in Australia, and a man from India, which happened in the bus Abhay was travelling. And every disappearance was from crowded places like malls, restaurants, bus, and the boy from China had disappeared from a basketball court while playing! But the next bit of news grabbed Abhay’s attention. At each disappearance location, a turquoise blue pendant had been found! Pendants with markings of unknown animals. Only India did not report any pendant being retrieved from the bus. Slowly Abhay tiptoed out of the room and went to his room, where his bag was kept. He opened his bag with shivering fingers, took out the pendant and was surprised to see that, even in the tube light, the pendant was glowing. He could make out that it was not plastic nor was it glass. But what it was, that he could not make out. He slipped it back into his bag, and closed it.”
“Then what happened, Papa”, they ask, their eyes wide with wonder. “The next day, when Abhay boarded the bus for college, he saw the girl sitting alone on a seat. He went and sat near her, she too saw him and smiled. “Did you see yesterday’s news?”, they asked each other, almost in unison. “That pendant which I showed you yesterday; it is still with me, and it seems to be the common thread across all disappearances. What could it indicate?” Before the girl could answer, he said, “By the way, my name is Abhay. What’s yours” “Suv. My friends call me Suv. You too can call me that”. “SUV? As in the Sports utility vehicle?”. “Don’t you try to be extra-smart, Abhay”. Though she pretended to be angry, she was enjoying their banter. “So, Abhay, what does this pendant signify? Why all the disappearances yesterday are linked to pendants? And what are these animals which no one has seen before? How can we find out? Should we take it to the police?” Abhay pondered over it and replied, “I think, let’s take it to the ‘Indian Scientific Society’ located at Fort. I think, if anyone can solve this mystery, it is them.”
‘The Indian Scientific Society’ (TISS) was located in one of the by-lanes of the Fort area, in an old building by the British, in the typical Greco-Roman style. On a Saturday, when Abhay and Suv, had a half day, they made their way through the arch of the old building, the pendant safely in Abhay’s backpack. Before that, Abhay had asked his father to call up the Authorities in TISS and take the appointment of one of the top Scientists there, Dr Anirban. It helped that Abhay’s father worked in Mantralaya. Once in Dr Anirban’s presence, Abhay took out the pendant and kept it carefully on the desk. When he took it out, it was the first time, Suv saw it with intent and attention. She was intrigued by the strange animal figures on the pendant. Dr Anirban picked it up with gloved fingers, his spectacles on the tip of his nose. An experienced scientist like him, but he was not able to make out what was the material used to make the pendant nor was he able to make out the strange animal figures, Zoology not being his subject of interest. The first and foremost thing he did, was to call up the Control Room in New York, which had been set up to investigate the strange disappearances across the world and informed them about the retrieval of the last pendant. At the same time, he also got the pendant x-rayed and photographed and sent it to the Control room. Meanwhile, it did not escape Abhay’s attention that the luminescence of the pendant had increased from the time he had seen it for the first time. Now the glow was visible in daylight too. Unknown to them, Suv had photographed the pendant, focussing on the strange animal figure, with her mobile. Then Dr Anirban kept the pendant inside a safe and thanked them for their cooperation. That was the signal for them to leave the premises.” I then take a break to quench my thirst with a glass of water but the kids are eager to hear the story. Arya is sitting on my lap, looking up towards me and Aryan is in front of me, not moving a bit from his monk-like position. As I re-start the story, he shifts nearer.
“Upon leaving the premises of TISS, Suv was excited. She asked Abhay to accompany her home and Abhay was only too happy to do that. Upon reaching home, Suv started rummaging through her Zoology encyclopaedias. She gave some of the encyclopaedias to Abhay to see. Her aim was simple, to see whether there had been any animals in the past, which resembled those on the pendant. Her wish was to help the affected nations to solve the mystery of the disappearing humans and the glowing pendants. Perhaps the pendants were a puzzle, which, if solved, could lead the investigating authorities to trace the missing persons. For the next two hours, both of them tried to match the photograph of the pendant with the various photos in the encyclopaedias, but with no success. Finally, Abhay left for the day, and after having her dinner, a disappointed Suv retired to her room to sleep. In the night, Suv dreamed of viruses, bacterias dividing to multiply under the microscope and she did not have a sound sleep throughout the night. But suddenly, while washing her face in the morning, a brilliant idea came to her mind. She called up Abhay on the mobile and blurted out, “Abhay, yesterday we had been searching the wrong encyclopaedias. These are not the normal animals. Come to my home fast”, and then she disconnected. “Though thoroughly confused, Abhay did not need further prodding. He got ready quickly and reached Suv’s house, to find her engrossed in another set of encyclopaedias. He dreaded another 2-3 hour of wasted time. She was pouring over photos of bacteria and viruses, magnified manifold. How grotesque they looked! , he could only think of the Aliens movie and its horrific aliens. They poured over one encyclopaedia after another, but to no avail. Finally she took out the Mars encyclopaedia, first one page then the other, and when they reached page 13…” I take a pause. Aryan was holding my shirt now, his knuckles white…
“2 very excited teenagers were rushing into TISS once again. Once they were in Dr Anirban’s presence, out came the Mars encyclopaedia with its bacterial life. As SUV was showing the photo on page 13, Abhay showed the photo in Suv’s Mobile to the Scientist. Getting excited himself, Dr Anirban rushed to the safe to take out the pendant. As soon as the safe was opened, a ray of light shot out of the safe, drowning the room in a blue haze. The pendant was blazing away! With shaking hands Dr Anirban lifted it and brought it to his desk. As soon as he kept it on his desk, the glow converged into a single beam of light, similar to a laser, and pointed towards the sky above, thrusting a hole through the roof and disappearing into space…all three of them were stunned immobile with what they had seen. But that was not all. The beam finally tapered off and when the natural light was restored, there was no pendant on the desk! The pendant itself had now disappeared into nothingness, just like the humans”. Dr Anirban frantically called the Central Control Room. Not surprisingly, they too reported the same phenomenon and were equally mystified. But he did not forget to inform them about the investigation done by the two teenagers, especially by Suv. For this work, the two teenagers were invited by the USA government to New York, and the governments of all affected countries awarded them for their pioneering work on the case. And what happened to the disappeared humans; well just as they disappeared into thin air, similarly they appeared right at those locations, from where they had disappeared in the first place. And they had no memory of those few days of their disappearance. For many years they continued to remain under the watchful eye of the various investigating agencies to track their behaviour. But all of them went about their daily routine as if nothing happened. It is said, that the Martians had picked up different individuals of the dominant species on earth, to update their own Zoological encyclopaedias…or perhaps to make more sinister plans. Abhay and SUV finished their own graduation and their friendship prospered in the years to come and…”
“And kids, that’s how I met your mother”.
For a few moments Arya and Aryan were silent and then blurted simultaneously, Arya – “So Suv is Suvidhaaa, mom…?” while Aryan was curious like me, asking “Did the Martians land on earth?” But I tell them, “That is another story”.
But once Suvidha came back, the children had a renewed respect for their intelligent mother.