12:00 AM, Peace Valley View Point

Atop a mountain, underneath the moonlit sky, a young couple are in the throes of passion. They are ensconced in their own little universe, the real one be damned. Afterwards, they lie there, not moving, the dull ochre of the moon reflected in their eyes. 

The cold gets to her first and she shivers, her skin covered with thousands of goosebumps. He runs a hand over her face and then passes her clothes. They get dressed in silence, walk towards the edge of the cliff and sit down, shoulders rubbing, on the dew-covered grass.

She places her head on his shoulder, ‘This is nice.’

He sighs with contentment, ‘Yeah! Just look at the moon, casting its light from behind the clouds over the valley. Have you seen anything more beautiful than this?’ 

She shakes her head and snuggles in closer. ‘Have you?’

He smiles, lifts her chin, looks into her eyes, and whispers, ‘I have! Among all the beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life, this moon is a distant second.’

Her eyes well up and her voice comes out in a croak, ‘But it’ll be morning soon!’

He envelopes her in a fierce hug, ‘How I wish there was another way!’

‘Why don’t we go somewhere where your father cannot track us down?’

He sighs, ‘I wish it was that simple. Right now, all the bus stands, railway stations, taxi stands, and airports within a hundred-kilometre radius will be crawling with my father’s men. I don’t think we could even get out of this town.’

‘Let’s go fall at his feet, then! Let’s beg him to give us a chance to live.’

He smiles a sad little smile, ‘Darling, the only thing I wish for is a long life with you. Do you think my father, who is entrenched in his ways, will ever accept? He’ll kill us both and claim that he has restored his family’s honour. I will not give him that satisfaction.’

She sniffs and says, ‘Some fate awaits us, eh?’

‘Are you afraid of death, my dear?’

She punches his arm, ‘Don’t be silly! I’m not afraid of death. It’s just that fate has thrown a huge spanner in our works. I had this dream of us together, in a little house with a garden, where our kids would play…’ She starts crying, ‘Is there no other option left for us?’

He stands up, ‘Fate has played us for fools, dear! It helped us find each other and fed us enough hope to make us believe. Yet, here we are!’

She stands up to face him, ‘Let’s leave it to fate then!’ 

She pulls a one-rupee coin from her purse. ‘Heads we jump, tails we don’t!’

He shrugs and says, ‘Ok by me. But it’d be more like heads we die; tails we get killed! I thought that our deaths would be meaningful and at our own terms. Anyways, flip the coin.’

She looks at him with unsure eyes. Then she nods once and flips the coin high into the dark night. The shiny new coin shimmers briefly as it spins all the way up and makes its way down to the moist grass. 

There’s no one to see how it landed.    

 

3:00 AM, 10 Kilometres away   

I feel my mobile phone vibrating under me and wake up with a start. I see the caller and groan in frustration. The clock on the wall opposite to my bed shows the time as 3 AM. Another early start. My partners will be furious when I go banging their doors. I do not answer the call. I know he’d call me back – the Inspector is persistent, if not anything else. 

I switch the mobile to loud, get out of my bed and walk naked into the kitchen for a glass of water. As expected, the mobile starts ringing again and this time it’s followed by a shriek. Again, as expected. I grin and return to the bedroom where Rani is scrambling to cover her modesty. I wink at her, open my wallet, retrieve a five hundred rupee note and fling it in her general vicinity. 

She mutters a curse, drops the blanket with which she was covering her naked body and goes to pick the note. I stare at her for few seconds before gathering her clothes and dump them in her hands. She glares at me with unadulterated hate in her eyes as I tell her to leave rather brusquely. We both know that this will happen again, this was nothing new. She’ll be back, I know that. I needed her company, and she needed the money. Somewhere, in the corner of our warped minds, I guess we like each other. But our relationship has been strictly professional till date. 

I look at her retreating figure, sigh and make the calls to my partners. They are not happy, to say the least. We agree to meet at the Suicide Point in half an hour’s time. That’s what we do for a living – we retrieve dead bodies of the idiots who commit suicide by jumping off the famous Peace Valley View Point, more commonly known as the aforementioned Suicide Point. 

I lock my doors, though there is nothing worth stealing inside, light myself a cigarette and start walking. Tony joins me after half a kilometre. He is wiry and has an exuberance that comes with being young. Unlike me, Tony is not from around here. He was a city boy who went astray. He told me that he used to peddle drugs and smuggle electronics from Singapore and Taiwan. After his boss sold him out to the Police, he rotted for a few years in the jail and it was there he discovered Jesus, or so he says. Somehow, he made his way to our idyllic town atop the mountains six years ago, and due to a complete lack of knowledge in any other trade, he joined us soon after.  

I take a deep drag of my cigarette and pass it over to Tony who accepts it gratefully. 

‘Jesus! What a cold night, eh?’

I shrug and walk ahead, ‘I’ve seen worse, city boy!’

Tony takes a drag of the cigarette and blows the smoke out in a perfect circle, ‘Still, look at this fog. It looks quite unnatural.’

I have to agree, the fog looks unusually dense, like a veil of miasma. I don’t share this with Tony, he was already looking scared anyway. 

We share the cigarette as we make jokes about the gutless cravens who decide to end their lives. I have no respect for these losers, even though they put food on my plate. 

‘I think the spirits of those who meet their untimely deaths hover around here in the fog,’ Tony mutters sagely, ‘They sometimes moan about their wishes which remain eternally unfulfilled.’

I think he is spewing crap. 

We reach the suicide point around 5 AM. Karuppu and Mustafa, our other partners, are already there. Karuppu looks like he’s already started on the arrack. A heavy-set man with wide shoulders and a wider gut due to his fondness of the arrack, Karuppu is a gentle giant. As his name implies, he is dark as the night. Karuppu grins at us and shows his backpack which is stuffed with plastic sachets of the country liquor. Mustafa is in deep conversation with the Police Inspector. A short, reedy guy, Mustafa is the de facto leader of our group. He is well into his fifties but he can climb the hill like a teenager even today. Mustafa turns and shows two fingers followed by a heart symbol he makes by joining the thumbs and forefingers of both hands. 

I grin and nod. It was a couple who had jumped because of their failed romance. Couples are the best; their families tip us generously over and above the fixed rate for retrieval. I believe that they think that paying us to retrieve their dead relatives’, usually their offspring, bodies would help them get a bit of closure. Maybe, they honestly believe that this would atone their act of making the lives of those who had jumped miserable when they were alive. I have no complaints, the more there are such people in the world, the more money we stand to make. 

There are few people standing near the Police jeep, unmoving, as if they are in a trance – the families of the fallen. Mustafa comes over and nods at me. It’s my cue to go talk to the families. We have a strict rule that the rates have to be agreed before we take one step into the canyon.  

I approach them and grunt, ‘Who’s the boy’s side, and who’s the girl’s side?’ 

An obese couple raise their hand, ‘Please get our son from there. We don’t want him to lie dead near that witch who snatched him away from us.’ 

I shrug, ‘Okay! We’ll get him out if possible. The rate is twenty thousand. No negotiations.’ 

The father’s head shoots up, ‘Twenty thousand? It’s too much.’ 

I stare at him. He is clothed in a white Nike T-shirt and a blue and red chequered lungi. Gold chains of varying thickness surround his neck like a clew of worms feasting on his flesh. He doesn’t look sad; I think he’s more annoyed and a bit angry. 

I light myself another cigarette and make a show of savouring the process. ‘Your problem. We have to risk our life and limb to go down there. If you are not interested in paying, we are not interested in going.’ 

He nods with resignation, ‘Alright! Here’s ten.’ He hands me five crisp two thousand-rupee notes, ‘Get my son in one piece, and you’ll get your balance ten thousand.’

I laugh at his ignorance, ‘One piece? You’ll be lucky if you get few pieces of him. The valley is two thousand plus feet in depth and full of sharp rocks and coniferous trees. Imagine smashing a melon against a stone, but only a thousand times worse. You look like a shifty character, no wonder your son jumped. I need the cash upfront – son or no son.’

He looks ready to strangle me, but I don’t care. I call Karuppu over and task him with extracting the money out of the fat moron’s wallet. I take a long, deep drag of the cigarette and walk over to the girl’s family. A mousy looking woman looks at me with pain in her eyes. She looks well and truly defeated. 

‘Sir!’ She squeaks, ‘We are very poor people. We don’t have the money you demand. We have only two thousand. If I give that to you, we won’t have anything to conduct my only child’s funeral.’ She folds her hands in a silent plea, ‘Please help us. I will pay you every month, bit by bit. I don’t intend to cheat.’

I hated her for being poor. I hated her for being very dignified despite her predicament. I hated her daughter for jumping and putting the old woman in this predicament. 

‘Was your daughter wearing any jewellery?’ The old woman nods. ‘The jewellery is forfeit, ok? That will be our payment, whatever the worth.’ 

Somewhere, I think I hate myself as well. 

We start preparing for the descent. We apply salt on our hands and necks and spray tobacco-soaked water on our clothes. The valley is full of bloodsucking leeches and we have no intention of donating our blood for their breakfast. We check our inventory – machetes to cut the vines and stubborn branches of trees, nylon ropes, plastic sheets and dark canvas shrouds, and wooden poles to carry the bodies, once we locate, collect and bind them in the shrouds. 

The early morning cold bites into my skin. I zip my windbreaker up and pull the hoodie over my head. We consume copious amounts of arrack, switch on our head torches and begin our descent. 

Karuppu breaks the silence first, ‘Did you see the match yesterday? Dhoni has become absolutely useless.’

There is no point in arguing about cricket with him. Karuppu was a fanatic, and you don’t argue with one. We talk about India’s heart-breaking defeat in the semis against New Zealand for a while. Then I zone out as frankly I don’t have much interest in cricket. Instead, my mind wanders towards the mousy old woman and the fat guy atop the hill. Two people from completely different walks of life brought together by their dead children. Fate is funny that way. 

My ruminations are broken by Tony mentioning Rani’s name. I’m sure he’d have seen her scurrying away from my place today. 

‘I was telling Karuppu and Mustafa that I saw Rani this morning.’ Tony chuckles and continues, ‘She is your favourite, right?’

I show him my middle finger and he starts laughing. Karuppu joins in, ‘I think you are in love with her!’

Mustafa, who is walking ahead, shakes his head. I’m sure that there’d be a grin on his face now. 

‘Shut up, Karuppu! I don’t love her. I just hire her professional services from time to time.’

‘There are quite few talents in the town, yet you seem to have a soft spot for Rani. I think it is love.’ Tony can be an ass. 

I shake my head, ‘The talent in our town is not up to scratch. Rani is just the best of the lot. You know what, we should petition the local MLA to get more prostitutes for our town.’

Karuppu guffaws loudly and says, ‘Yes! We should ask him to import some from China.’

‘China?’

‘Yeah! As it is, most of the stuff we use comes from there only na? Last week I bought a Ganesha statue and that was made in China as well.’ 

I’m inclined to agree with Karuppu. Maybe, we should get some new girls in the town. I, in particular, am tiring of seeing familiar bodies on my bed. If I wanted that, I would have married a long time ago. Still, in some deep and dark corner of my mind, there’s an image of Rani branded quite strongly. Why? I don’t know. 

The deeper we descend, the less frequent our conversations become. Death and despair was hovering over the valley like a bilious cloud. Three hours into the descent, we spot the first body or what remained of it. It is the fat pig’s son. We find him smeared over a gigantic boulder like a perverse modern art. His right leg was sticking out of the backside of his throat and his left leg was nowhere to be seen. Vultures had already started to sample his flesh. We chase the birds away with our poles and get to work. 

We set a perimeter of 30 feet from the body and search for the remaining parts. Tony finds an arm dangling from a tree a few feet below the boulder. We give up after half an hour and set about parcelling the body. We mutter a small prayer and wrap the canvas shroud around the remains and hog tie it with the rope.  

We have a meagre meal of bread and chicken broth prepared by Mustafa’s wife. We drink some more arrack and start our search for the girl. Five hours later, we are ready to give up. In my experience, if a body is not found after ten hours, it cannot be found at all. There are cracks and crevices all over on the mountain side into which a body might vanish forever. The sun is about to settle down for the day and the birds are already shrieking. We have at least seven hours of solid climb, which would be tougher with the added weight of the body. 

We prepare to leave with only the boy’s body. Karuppu and Tony are disappointed. I’m sure they were having plans with the money we would have got by selling the girl’s jewellery. Mustafa takes the lead and I bring the rear with other two carrying the body. We switch our head torches again as the last rays of sun bids us goodbye for the day. 

I walk in silent contemplation. This is not my first retrieval of a suicide victim. Heck, it is not even my twentieth. But something is weighing down in my heart. Was it the failure to spot the girl’s body? Was it her mother’s tears or her dignified plea amidst the pathos? I don’t know. What makes these young people, with their whole lives ahead of them, to jump to their gruesome deaths? What would have been running through their minds as they leap into nothingness? Do they think about their families? Do they even care about what they will be putting their loved ones through? I wish Tony was correct in saying the spirits of the dead still roam these parts. I would like to talk to them, just to understand. 

I turn back and spot something red down in the distance. Was it a piece of garment? Was it the girl? Will her mother understand when we return empty handed? Will they mourn for her after a year or two? Will someone mourn for me if I slip and fall one of these days to my death? I guess it’d be good to know that you are loved. 

We reach the top. As expected, no one’s waiting for us. The parents might be either at the Police Station or at the Hospital. 

I get this sudden urge to call Rani. Not for company, but to just talk. Something shiny in the grass catches my attention and I bend down to inspect. It is a one-rupee coin.  

It shows Tails.

***

Photo By: Varadharajan Ramesh

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This is an entry from team viibrant Quillers for ArttrA-3, A Game of  Writers co-sponsored by Diners Club International.

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