Book Excerpt

A car cruises along National Highway 44. The weather is nice and balmy, and the traffic is mild. The man behind the wheel is humming to the sound of a Bollywood track.

His companion, Nisha, doesn’t appear as relaxed as him;in fact, she looks nervous, scared. She peers at him, watching him for a minute or two. He continues humming and drumming the steering wheel with his thumbs.
Finally, she says, ‘Rishi, are you acting calm, or are you really so at ease?’
The drumming stops. Rishi looks sideways at Nisha. ‘To be honest, I’m trying.’ He looks back at the road and takes a deep breath. ‘I . . . I know what happened is very unsettling— my ex-girlfriend threatening to kill my present girlfriend . . .’
He shakes his head. ‘Except she wasn’t my girlfriend at all.
Ha!’ He lets out a short laugh.
‘She’s a psycho!’ Nisha spits out. ‘Why does she say she is your ex-girlfriend?’ Rishi raises his arms in despair. ‘She’s just my neighbour.
Alright, we went out for movies, coffee occasionally, but that’s it! There was never anything between us.’
‘And she feels I’m responsible for’— she makes quotation marks with her fingers —‘coming between you guys?’ Rishi lets a short hiss escape through his lips. ‘I’m sorry for what happened, for what she said to you.’ He gives her hand a tight squeeze. Nisha, looking out the window, doesn’t reply. They are passing Ambala. There is a row of dhabas to her left and she contemplates asking Rishi to stop for a quick bite. They’d left Delhi in the wee hours of the morning and she hasn’t eaten anything. And now her stomach is grumbling. But she ignores the hunger pangs and decides to eat lunch at their destination.
They are headed to Writer’s Hill, a quaint, secluded tourist spot in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. This isn’t a planned vacation, but a last-minute, get-your-stuff- together getaway. They want some peaceful time together, but primarily, they want to be away from Avni — Rishi’s ex-girlfriend, or whoever she is. Suddenly, Nisha feels a chill rising in her spine at a memory. She shivers. ‘The way she . . . she screamed at me!’ she says, horrified anew. ‘How she pounced on me like a rabid animal . . .’ She trails off, her face contorting as she relives the episode. ‘We need to stay far away from her.’ 
When Rishi turns to her, he sees the fear in her eyes. She still looks frightened after almost twelve hours of the incident. Justified to an extent, he thinks. Avni has been a revelation. He had known her for more than three years but saw the real Avni only yesterday. How difficult it is to truly know someone! Nisha is right, he agrees — Avni is a psycho.
‘I get a strong feeling that something horrible is going to happen on this trip,’ Nisha’s voice is shaking when she speaks again. ‘Ah, come on now, Nisha,’ Rishi says, waving a carelessarm. ‘You’re thinking way too much about it.’
‘Am I really? What if —’ She lets the sentence hang.
Alright, last evening’s events were . . . unnerving, even frightening, Rishi admits, but they don’t warrant the stress Nisha seems to be suffering. It’s over now. He knows it wasn’t the best decision to invite Nisha to his place last evening— that had been the catalyst. They had their entire lives ahead of them for intimacies.
Rishi and Nisha have been dating for a few months. Rishi works in a prominent IT company in Gurgaon. One day, Rishi had a bad toothache. It was a Sunday and he stayedin bed until noon. When the pain got too much to bear, he went to the nearest dental clinic, his left hand firmly pressing the jaw.
It was the dentist’s assistant, Nisha, who had told Rishi that a root canal therapy was required. He remembers how scared he was at the prospect, and the subtle, reassuring way Nisha calmed him down. She explained to him that it is the discomfort experienced before one seeks dental care that is truly painful, not the procedure itself. In the end, he thought Nisha was right. It was no more painful than having a filling placed. He’d been avoiding a root canal for a long time despite occasional bouts of pain, and now he knew the reason. It was how everything in theworld worked out.Destiny.
He was destined to meet Nisha. To be cured by her. And then fall in love with her.
They kept in touch, went out on weekends, and laughed about his mild panic attack when he’d spotted the surgical tools during his treatment. He remembers that look on her face well, how she’d smiled first and then laughed, covering her mouth. She’d enjoyed torturing him a bit, and then calmed him. Through the pain, his subconscious mind told him she was pretty, and that he should ask her out if he managed to make it out of the treatment alive.
He did, and he knew it was the best thing he would doin his life.
And now, a few months later, he had done a stupid thing, inviting her to his place when he knew full well Avni would be watching.
Stupid. Stupid.
Rishi knows two things about Avni — that she loves him obsessively and that she is a little nuts. Avni lives next door to him and is always keen on going out for a movie or coffee with him, coming to his flat, inviting him to her flat, any activity that involves only the two of them. Out of politeness, Rishi has obliged on a few occasions but lately he has started avoiding her. Simply because she is crazy. She doesn’t seem to have family or any other friends —he has never seen her with anyone else. Sometimes when he returns from his office, he spots Avni furtively watching him in the hallway through the chink in her apartment’s door. He watches her from the corner of his eye and ignores her. But sometimes he makes it obvious that he knows she is spying on him by suddenly appearing at her door. She only smiles coyly — it doesn’t deter her. Avni does what she wants to, and Rishi knows better than to confront her.
He wonders why she is attracted to him. He never thinks of himself as attractive — alright, he’s a decent-looking guy, of medium height and medium built, but definitely not handsome in the classic sense of the word. He’s not rich either; he doesn’t drive fancy cars or live in a fancy house — hell, half the time he finds it difficult to pay the rent for his flat. His parents live in Kanpur, and he hasn’t taken any money from them ever since he turned eighteen.
A few months earlier, he had casually asked her, ‘Avni, listen, it’s flattering, really it is, but why do you like me so much?’ ‘Love you,’ she corrected him. ‘Rishi, you are such a cool guy, you have such a nice beard! What’s not to love about you?’ Beard? Doesn’t everyone have a beard these days? Outright nonsense — the girl is insane. When he walked into the hallway with Nisha yesterday, Avni was peering through the door as usual and slammed out of her apartment at once, showing up before them like an apparition.
‘Who is this girl?’ she demanded.
‘Nisha,’ he replied.
‘Yeah, but who is she? Why is she here?’
‘She’s my girlfriend.’
Avni was already fuming by then and her nostrils flared at his reply. She fixed Nisha with an icy glare. Her fists tightened, and even from that distance, Rishi could feel her nails burrowing into her palms. Then her breathing became fast and shallow. She muttered something to herself to calm down, he thought, and started pacing up and down the hallway in front of them. Rishi and Nisha watched her with unease for a minute. Rishi then stepped towards his flat, took out the keys from the pocket of his trousers, and began unlocking the door. Avni jumped between them and the keys jingled in his hand in shock. ‘You are not taking this slut inside!’ she commanded.
‘Excuse me?’ said Nisha.
Avni wagged an admonitory forefinger at her. ‘Do not
interrupt!’ Then she turned to Rishi and said in a calmer tone,
‘You never let me in. How does she get a chance?’
Rishi took a deep breath. He considered the words in hismind first.
‘Avni, look,’ he began cautiously, ‘you are a very good friend of mine. You’ve done a lot for me, I know, and I am very thankful for it. But I don’t love you —’ ‘You love this bitch?’ Avni interjected, nodding towards Nisha.
‘Please, Avni, mind your language.’
‘Yes or no?’
‘I do.’
That set her off. She launched herself at Nisha, and taken unawares, Nisha staggered backwards, lost her balance, and fell on the floor. Her head hit the floor and she winced from the sharp pain radiating in all directions from the point of impact. But there was no time to assess the injury; the next moment Avni was on top of her, her pudgy hands pressing down her neck, choking her.
‘I’ll kill you, bitch!’ Avni screamed. ‘I’ll kill you!’
Nisha started to feel dizzy. Where was Rishi? she thought.
Why wasn’t he helping? As her vision slowly cleared, she saw Rishi’s arms around Avni’s waist, trying to drag her away.
‘Let me kill her, Rishi!’ Avni continued screaming. ‘Then we’ll be together!’ Rishi continued to pull at Avni but failed to get her to move even a little. She was short but stout and Rishi realized he would have to change his strategy. He saw Nisha was trying to wrench herself free from Avni’s grip but Avni’s arms were steadfast. All Nisha managed was to move her head from side to side.
Rishi could see the colour draining from Nisha’s face.
Panic clawed at his throat and he felt beads of sweat beginning to form on his forehead. He shook his head vigorously and positioned himself in front of Avni now. He placed his hands on Avni’s forearms, and with all the energy he could muster, tried to dislodge her hold on Nisha’s neck. He could see it was beginning to work; Avni’s grip was loosening.
Just as he braced himself to apply more force, help arrived in the form of two men crossing the hallway. Finally, the three men jerked away Avni’s hold, and with the sudden impact, Avni was propelled backwards. But before she fell back, Avni’s right hand, intentionally or inadvertently, Rishi would wonder later, connected with the collar of Nisha’s cream top, tearing off a thin strip of cloth right to the bottom.
Embarrassed with her bra on display, Nisha rolled over, away from Avni, coughing and gagging. Rishi dropped to her side and rubbed her back.