“I can help you.”

Seth’s eyes widened as soon as he heard an unknown voice. He banged his head against the open front hood of his car as he tried to stand up straight in a single motion. His eyebrows raised as he saw a smiling person standing next to his car. He was short and thin and had a white cloth wrapped around his body. Bald. Barefoot. He held a pot made of coconut shell. He reminded Seth of the Buddhist monk he saw on his last trip to Tibet. Seth looked around quickly. There was no one. Just a soothing sound of ocean waves. He could feel his heart beat faster. How could a weak, barefoot monk suddenly appear in such tranquility?

“Is the engine hot?”

“Y…Yes” Seth found himself out of words.

“I have cold water.”

The monk poured water from his pot in the coolant jacket. Seth could hear pieces of ice falling in the hose. It was forty degrees. Seth could feel his throat drying as he saw the monk waving him to get in the car. Seth cranked and the car started. Seth sighed in relief.

“Can I ask you for a ride? I know you are heading north.” Seth raised his head to look up to the monk standing beside him. He was expecting to see him through the front windshield near the hood. Seth’s forehead was cluttered with lines.

“Sure.”

You would have heard the pin drop during the first ten minutes of the journey.

“Chewing gum?” Seth asked trying to break the ice.

“No. I have my own.”

The monk opened the knot of his handkerchief. Cloves. He offered them to Seth.

“Excellent mouth freshener.”

Seth took one. He was a bit surprised by how clear the monk spoke. Never in his life had he been offered cloves as a mouth freshener. They left a fresh flavor and a pleasant taste.

“Are you a Buddhist monk?”

“No… No… I call myself a student. Religion came later. After my time. It’s a more funded version of the tribes we used to have.”

Seth quickly shifted his gaze from the road to the passenger seat. His eyes bulging out, Seth kept staring at this strange person sitting next to him. He never felt threatened by the person. Just flabbergasted. He did not realize his foot coming off the accelerator pedal. He quickly put the foot back as he realized the car slowing down. Seth’s head oscillated from watching the road and the stranger for the next fifteen minutes. The monk sat in the passenger seat with a smile of Goddess Sarasvati. Seth noticed his pot was still full of water. Ice cold water. It was forty degrees.

An hour had passed since the car broke down and the car had crossed over the Sahyadris to find some signs of civilization.

“Dakkhan,” the monk closed his eyes with a sigh, still maintaining the pleasant smile.

“Where are you heading…Sir?”

“Panipat. To Stop the war.”

Harbeer woke up at ten that morning. The tension in his bladder woke him up. Once he staggered back to bed from the bathroom, he hollered for a cup of tea. It was then that the feeling pricked him. A sublime consciousness that reminds you that something is wrong and says nothing beyond. You spend the next few minutes, hours or even an entire day trying to figure out what it is.

He, along with his two brothers, ruled Samalkha. It was easier said than done. Buying or threatening out men from the Chhokers’ camp involved a fortune. Their recently amassed drug-money had come handy. For the hopeless loyal people they failed to buy, they had to spend another set of fortunes to ensure their death. In fact, Harbeer had spent almost a dry, sober week during the peak campaign season working with the family’s friends and loyalists. It all went well when Harbeer’s brother Yashveer got the MLA seat.

Till ten days after the election results were declared, Harbeer had not spent a single sober hour. Waking up at one or two in the afternoon, he would direct Chhotu to make his drinks. For the rest of the afternoon, he would laze out between sips and have his lunch in between. His brothers would join him in the evening and they would drink till the televisions upstairs stopped running the loud soaps. By ten, with their families asleep in their palatial house, the brothers would step out of their homes. Or rather drive out in one of their SUVs. It was their official hunting hour.

Their nocturnal outdoor activities stopped when the girl they picked up for fun one night proved to be a well-known activist. The anti-national liberal media descended on Samalkha for a feast. Even the Chhokers tried to make hay in the bright sun. They had to sell their six acres in Chandoli in order to get the girl and two witnesses killed, to buy out the local police and lawyers as well as to pay the leftist, rightist and centrist media people to run a u-turn.

Sitting on his bed now, Harbeer was trying to figure out what poked his mind time and again. What could it be that his subconscious mind thought was wrong yet the conscious part failed to spot? Of course, they were long past the JNU activist. She was dead. So was the media hype around her. It was almost two years since the election, and even the election-dead people’s relatives had buried the hatchets. Ashutosh, one of his henchmen, was missing for a while and they suspected him of either dying or jumping ships to the Chhokers, now that the municipal election was around the corner. However, this was somewhat expected and was not the reason for his uneasiness.

Unable to figure it out, he howled, “Chhotu, How much more time?”

“Sorry Bhaiya,” Chhotu came running with tea. The cup shivered against the saucer, spilling some tea out of it. He stopped more than an arm’s length away from Harbeer. “Bh…Bhaiya… Ashu used to bring milk every day. I had to go myself today.”

Chhotu took a step back trying to duck as Harbeer reached out for the cup. After making sure that the hand was just to reach for the tea, Chhotu handed over the cup. A ray of sunlight peaked in from the closed curtain in Harbeer’s room.

“Ashu… Ashutosh” Harbeer lazily sighed getting lost in a ray of sunlight that peaked from the closed curtains. Staring nowhere. Taking a sip, he said, “Kahan hai tu…”

It was bright. It was forty degrees. The open windows let a gust of headwind in as the car coasted through the vast wilderness outside.

“I am Seth.”

The monk turned to Seth raising his eyebrows. He gaped at him for a minute and then smiled. He looked away smiling even broader.

“What?” Seth was not expecting the surprise on Monk’s face.

“Nothing… I know who you are.”

“You do?”

The monk nodded. He turned again to face Seth with an intent to say something. He had his finger pointed at Seth. “Never mind.” He decided not to go through with what he was going to say.

“Never mind what? How do you know me?” Seth said with his palms facing up, momentarily leaving the steering wheel.

“You won’t believe.”

“You came in this barren wasteland, practically discalced. You started my car like you were some expert mechanic. You had ice cold water. I can, literally, see ice in it right now. ‘Religion came after my time’. ‘To stop the war’. You can give me a mangled animal carcass and call it Cleopatra and I will believe it.” Seth said raising his voice. His clenched teeth could not stop the words. “Who identifies this place as Dakkhan? And what war..” Seth’s nostrils flared.

“Mukta has sent me.” The monk interrupted Seth’s next sentence. He stared into Seth’s eyes with conviction. Still calm.

“What?!?” Seth had to open his mouth for a couple of seconds to breath. He slammed his fist on the wheel, gnashing his teeth. “Are you playing with me? Mazzaak banake rakh diya hai. I don’t like such bull…”

“Calm down…. Ashu” the monk put his hand on the driver’s shoulder and squeezed firmly. “I know who you are. I know where you are heading. Mukta told me everything.”