By: Padmini Krishnan
I am Rustom, a trainee in a Lifestyle magazine. As my first assignment, the editor asked me to interview a paranormal researcher, Ms. Yugda, who lived in a remote town, Palora. Therefore, I started in the morning, checking into a day train. I immediately sent a text message to my boss, Mr. Yazdi, that I had boarded the train. Whether it was the gloomy train or the weather, I could not say, but I felt groggy too. I drew aside the curtains to my compartment to find a young couple. Their features seemed youthful, but they were bereft of any joy and hardly glanced at each other. The man quickly pulled the curtains close. Curious, I tried to observe them in the darkness. Maybe I should write an article on sad young couples forced to live together. The guy's face seemed familiar, so I tried to pull aside the curtain for a better look. "Don't," said his wife in a hollow voice. "My husband is sick and cannot stand the sunlight." Despite the low tone, there was an agitation in her voice that unnerved me. I took my slightly shaking hands off the curtains, embarrassed. I rummaged my pocket for my mobile. No connection.
Sitting in a cramped office in a bustling area of the city, Rustom's editor, Mr. Yazdi, was talking to his assistant.
"Have you received any message from Rustom? Has he boarded the train to Paloor?"
"Paloor? He just sent a message that he is on his way to Palora."
"Palora? It is a graveyard town of the British colony. Nobody lives there. Why cannot Rustom even get a name right?"
Mr. Yazdi began to wonder if he had made a mistake in hiring Rustom. The recruit was remarkably inattentive and a daydreamer. "It is going to be a wasted trip. Unless he gets down midway."
I looked outside, huddled close to the window. Twilight broke through the skies; the trees looked as though a dark shroud had wrapped over them. Whenever I turned my face towards the couple, I saw the lady looking at me with half-open eyelids. I dozed a little, dreaming of the previous year in college when my friends had gathered around, playing pranks on my birthday. Now I was spending my birthday on a cold, dark train with a strange couple. "Go away, Rustom," whispered a voice. I shuddered and looked up to find the couple gone. The train breathed its last at an empty station. The water dripped from the signboard and I could see nothing. It should be Palora as it was the last station. It was 8 pm and everything was dark except for a dim light from a nearby ticket counter. Walking slowly ahead, I let myself out of the train station.
There were teak wood trees on both sides of the street, lit by a dim red light. It looked like Palora was not a busy place or perhaps they were romantic people who preferred dim illumination.
Inhaling the pleasant smell of the teak and lost in my thoughts, I banged against something. There was an immediate illumination all around as I realized that I had stumbled against a brand new cab. The cabbie raised his head from the steering wheel as if he had just woken up from sleep. He looked up at me, disoriented and seemingly scared. He had a strong resemblance to someone I knew. He did not seem to focus on what I said but continued to look at me with fear as I gave him Ms. Yugda's address. At last, he beckoned me to get inside. I inhaled the fresh paint and felt the cab as we traveled. What a beauty! The light breeze and the fragrance of the paint gave me a drowsy feeling and I forgot about the Cabbie. Though the town was eerie, it felt homely and quiet, as though I belonged here. I could visualize settling down here after my retirement, leading a restful life. "Go away, Rustom," hissed a voice, as I woke up with a start to look at the cabbie staring at me with glassy eyes.
He sighed and motioned me to get down. I handed him the money in my pocket, still feeling sleepy. He tore it up and threw it to the ground, "I see these crappy notes all over the place", he pointed to the torn currency notes angrily as he drove away. Confused and annoyed, I stood there for a moment. What a strange guy! He was probably mad. I looked at the torn notes with longing. It had Mina's signature on it; she had given it to me when we parted ways.
I looked around. The place I stood in did not look like a residential area, but it was very dark. I tripped once again on a hard piece of rock. It turned out to be a tomb. A cemetery! My mobile buzzed, coming to life suddenly. It was Ms. Yugda, "Go back, Rustom. Walk away without looking back." My hazy brain cleared a little as I looked at the inscription on the tomb. It said," Lord Fullenworth, January 30, 1901- January 30, 1921." And on the tomb was an engraved image of the deceased. I stared, shocked. It was the spitting image of the cabbie who had dropped me as well as the guy I saw on the train. Now I recognized whom they all resembled. Me! How could I have been so blind? They said that each person had seven lookalikes. I had seen two living ones and one dead one on the same day. What was it about today? My mouth went dry as I realized that it was January 30, 2021, and I was born on January 30, 2001. This man had passed away exactly a century ago. What was the significance of all these?
My eyes moved to some bright papers near the tomb. They were stacks of currencies that held Mina's bold handwriting. One of the notes spoke of why she broke up with me whereas another said what was to happen in the immediate future.
I felt a sickening fear as I struggled to move my legs. Before I could ponder over these strange things and how Mina fit into these, I felt a sharp pain on my head and my thoughts swirled around Ed Fullenworth's childhood. I saw Ed relocating to Palora as a child; I felt his unfulfilled desires and the pain when a deadly pandemic claimed him at the age of 20. As my soul left my mortal remains, I realized I was destined to live here until I found someone of my age and passed on the 'mantle'. Should I wait for a century too? But for now, I wanted to lie down in the cold tomb as it seemed so comforting. I watched the inscription change, replacing Fullenworth's image with mine.
At his office, Mr. Yazdi and his assistant seemed distressed.
"Did you try calling Rustom?" Yazdi asked his assistant.
"Yes. I could not get through." The assistant seemed equally perturbed. They had just received a call from Ms. Yugda's office that she had passed away a couple of hours ago due to a massive heart attack. And why had not Rustom called from that place called Palora? He should have reached by now.
"This whole episode of an interview at Paloor is disturbing," said Mr. Yazdi. But he was sure of one thing. He would fire Rustom as soon as he returned from Palora.