Manish Pathania | Author

Writer | Traveler | Artist

The ghost town


As published on Half Baked Beans

“It’s time,” the voice over the phone said, “are you ready?”
“Almost,” Veer Singh replied, “when is the verdict due?”
“Not until a few hours.”
“Ok,” Veer Singh replied, “and what’s the status?”
“Worse than yesterday, almost one lakh people have surrounded the court. They are waiting for the verdict.”
“We have to reach before that.”
“I have arranged for a patrolling vehicle.”
“Ok, pick me up from the roundabout?”
“In 10 minutes.”
Veer Singh disconnected the phone and looked at the news channel. The city of Panchkula was placed under a curfew in the light of an upcoming verdict against a popular God man. The news channel showed that almost one million followers of the Godman had swarmed the city like locusts. The court had to impose section 144, which criminalized the gathering of 4 or more people, in Panchkula and the neighboring cities, such as Chandigarh and Mohali. Veer Singh switched off the TV. He walked up to the mirror and adjusted his turban, his leather belt and the badges on the uniform. He, then, put on a Styrofoam vest that barely qualified for a bullet proof jacket. He picked up his fiber stick, locked his room and paced down the flight of stairs. There was an apparent gloom in the deserted streets of his neighborhood. The shops were closed, the roads were empty and the recalcitrant children were peeping out of the balcony. His partner, Ram Singh, was waiting for him at the roundabout on a white Police motorcycle.

“How did you reach so fast?” Veer Singh asked.
“The roads are completely deserted.”
“Have they imposed a curfew in Chandigarh as well?”
“Not that I know of,” Ram Singh started the motorcycle, “I think the crisis in Panchkula was enough to send the cowards of Chandigarh into their cocoons.”
Veer Singh laughed and sat on the motorcycle.
“That’s why I love the educated people,” Veer Singh said, as the motorcycle rode through the empty road, “They are so easily domesticated.”
“People of Chandigarh are so used to peace that they have absolutely no clue what to do in the times like these.”
“That is good for us.”
The duo rode across the deserted town. The only people out on the street were either Police men, who were protecting the government offices, or the reporters, who were creating the mass hysteria, and street hawkers, who were trying to make their living. Ram Singh slowed his motor cycle in front of a street hawker who was vending Kulchas (bread stuff with chick peas).
“What are you doing here?” Ram Singh thundered.
“Sir, Kulchas,” The street vendor folded his arms and said politely.
“The town is burning and you are heating your Kulchas on it?” Ram Singh shouted. “Didn’t you hear about the curfew? Shut this thing down and go home.” “Sir, if I go home, what would my children eat?”
“Don’t they eat Kulcha?” “Sir, please!”
“Do one thing. Follow us to the riots. I am sure the rioters must be really hungry.”
“Why are you wasting time?” Veer Singh asked his partner.
“Are you hungry?” Ram Singh replied, “Fancy a Kulcha?”
“I am not hungry and we better be leaving.”
“Oi! Pack your shop and go home.” Ram Singh commanded the street vendor. “If I saw you here again, I will stuff you in the Kulchas.”
Ram Singh put the motor cycle in motion once again. He looked back in the rearview mirror only to witness the defiance of the street vendor. “Did you really need to do that?” Veer Singh asked. Ram Singh laughed and moved the motorcycle towards Panchkula. There was a barricade set up at the Chandigarh-Panchkula Border. All the cars escaping from Panchkula were getting checked by the Police and all the cars moving towards Panchkula were halted indefinitely. There was a small line of cars at the barricade, but, no one stopped the duo. Veer Singh saluted the guards at the barricade, but they were too busy to reciprocate. As they approached the Panchkula High court the crowd thickened. They steered through the sea of standing corpses until it was not possible to move the motorcycle. They parked the motorcycle on the road and walked the rest of the way towards the high court. The high court was situated in the most affluent part of Panchkula. It was surrounded by government building on one side, five-star hotel to the other and huge residential bungalows to the other; and all the vacant spaces were infested by the mob or the Police. The duo made their way through the Police and assumed their position at the last barricade, separating the mob from the high court. It was a strange mob, almost lifeless, like zombies or more appropriately mountain trolls waiting for the sun to set, and come back to life. They were like an arrangement of dominoes, waiting for their ripple to set them to a motion. There were occasional announcements on the loudspeakers urging the mob to back off. The announcements had no effect on the crowd, but every time there was an announcement, the news reporters focused their cameras on the crowd. When the reporters didn’t get a reaction that they were anticipating, they returned to their observation vans parked in a line right outside the barricades. As the time of the verdict came closer, everybody braced them. The mob was ready to rampage, the police were ready to retaliate and the media was ready to record.
“It’s time,” Ram Singh muttered to Veer Singh.
“How do you know?”
“I heard it on the radio,” he said, “we still have 10 minutes before they announce it publicly.”
“Let’s go!”
Veer Singh swung his stick and shouted: “Oi, stay there.” He then marched towards the media vans and shouted, “Return to your vehicles.”
Ram Singh followed his cue. “Return to your vehicles.” He hit the stick on the media van. A couple of journalists turned off their camera and walked up to the observatory van. Veer Singh crossed the caravan of media vans and walked to the back side of the court. Ram Singh followed. The crowd was comparatively thinner on the back side. They walked through the still mob and crossed the barricade that was guarding the residential complexes. They joined the guards who were standing there.
There was an explosion at the main barricade. The verdict had been announced. The ripple effect started. The silent crowd went berserk and started chanting the name of their guru. In a matter of minutes, the mob rampaged into the barriers and the Police retaliated. The mob set ablaze the media vans and the Police started shelling the tear gas bombs. It took the mob minutes to break the barricade on the residential side, and the Police retreated. The Police van was set afire by the angry mob and the Police tactically receded, while waiting for the back-up. A small platoon of Army arrived to help the Police and they fired tear gas bombs. The mob scattered and ran in every direction possible. The police ran after them to stop them from entering the residential bungalows.
Veer Singh pressed the doorbell. There was no response. He pressed the doorbell again.
“Who is it?” A woman shouted back.
“Madam, it is the Police.”
“What do you want?”
“Is there someone with you in the house?” Veer Singh shouted.
“We need to check the CCTV, I think someone jumped into your garden.”
The woman opened the door and jumped outside. “We don’t have any CCTV and I am alone, please help me.”
“Wait here mam,” Veer Singh entered the house. There were a series of explosions in the city
and the sky was painted black by the fumes. The woman, in her early forties, was visibly frightened.
“Stay behind me and keep quiet,” Ram Singh said and escorted the woman inside.
“What’s this?” he pointed towards a door.
“Get inside and wait,” Ram Singh ordered. She opened the door and went inside. Ram Singh latched the door from out and whispered, “don’t worry, we’ll get you out once the house is secured.”
“Where’s the woman?” Veer Singh asked.
“I locked her in the store room.”
“And she didn’t protest.”
“No,” he said, “in fact, she was quite happy about it.”
Veer Singh laughed.
“Did you find the vault?” Ram Singh asked.
“There’s a safe in the Almirah, but I am not sure about the keys.”
“Oh boy, I have to pick a lock again.”
“In case we don’t find the keys.”
“Try the drawer,” Ram Singh said as he took out the surgical gloves, “by the bed. People have a strange affiliation to the drawer in the bed stand.”
Veer Singh took out his surgical gloves and wore them before opening the drawer. He found the keys in the drawer and tossed the keys towards Ram Singh.
“Yet another old woman,” Ram Singh complained while he tried different keys to open the safe, “Why can’t there be a young hot dame?”
“It would have been a shame to lock the young hot dame in a store room.” Veer Singh mimicked Ram Singh’s tone.
“Exactly!” Ram Singh said as he cracked the safe open. He started to pull out the contents of the safe; documents, cash, and jewelry. “I would have devoured her on this very bed, while you counted the money.”
“And do you think I would have let you?” Veer Singh asked casually.
“If you would have wanted to have her first, then fine, I could have gone after you.”
“I am not a rapist,” Veer Singh said.
“So, it’s true what they say about you,” Ram Singh said as he took out the Styrofoam from his vest and started stuffing it with the jewelry from the safe. “You are one hardliner.”
“Call it whatever you like, but that’s my code.”
“We can loot them, but we cannot rape them?” Ram Singh asked, “What sort of logic is this?”
“My logic,” Veer Singh said, “and what’s the bravery in raping a scared girl. If you are a man, then try to woo her.”
“If only thugs like us could woo a rich and beautiful girl,” Ram Singh sighed, “if only!”
Ram Singh tightened the seams of his vest and rolled on the bed to even out Veer Singh took out the Styrofoam from his vest and stuffed it with cash and jewelry.
“That doesn’t mean that you rape her,” Veer Singh said, “not on my watch.”
“That’s why I don’t like working with you,” Ram Singh said, “I knew I should have worked with Juggat Singh. He is the man who knows how to have fun. I worked with him during the Jaat protest riots. It was all about money and woman.”
“Then chose an infidel to work with you next time!” Veer Singh raised his voice. “Relax Veere!” Ram Singh got up from the bed and struck his hand on the vest and said, “I am happy with the gold this time.”
“What’s out escape plan?” Ram Singh asked when Veer Singh was done with filling his vest.
“We walk till the highway, stop some vehicle for inspection and hitch a ride with it till the Haryana border.” Veer Singh replied.
“What about the bike?”
“Somebody must have burnt it by now.” Ram Singh replied, “It was a police bike, remember?” On their way out Veer Singh put his ear on the door of the store room. He could hear the woman sobbing and praying on the other side. He pointed the same silently to Ram Singh. They passed a smirk at each other, opened the door and walked out. The streets were deserted but the town seemed like a nascent battleground. The police sirens were blaring at a distance. The sound of the explosions of the tear gas had subsided. The sky was still dark with the black fumes. They walked down the deserted streets of the ghost town.

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