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Far away from big cities and everything that was in her past, a picturesque little town on the Channel coast, Cancale, sat between the fortified corsair town of St. Malo and Dinard on one side, and the iconic Mont-Saint-Michel perched atop its rocky island across the bay on the other - an important fishing town, the oyster capital of France.
When Pranlal died in the year 2000, quite unexpectedly, Rachna allowed Anit (then twelve) to visit Interlaken for the first time, and after that he visited his father each year, during summer, for a week.
But Anit never enjoyed those brief visits, (it seemed like an ordeal to him), feeling tense and claustrophobic all the while... unable to remain in the same room as his father. Waiting to escape as soon as the week was over.
Theirs had never been a healthy father-son relationship, since childhood... and with each passing year it only got worse. He didn't know why, but the mere sight of his father filled him with terror, sending a chill down his spine... and he froze... simply nodding meekly to whatever Ranjeet said - concurring, agreeing, conceding!
And as they grew up, Amit too seemed to have the same effect on him...
Amit had always been the dominant of the two boys, ever since childhood - aggressively domineering, arrogant and contemptuously dismissive of everything and everyone. He was also sly, with a brutal streak of cruelty... willing to stoop to any level when he set his mind on something - lie, flattery, deception and subterfuge... threat and even violence...
Oh, Anit knew it all... had seen and experienced it first-hand... had faced the consequences!
After his le bac (baccalauréate), Anit moved to Paris, to study at the ENSB-A (École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts). And it was in Paris too, that he 'discovered' his sexuality.
He was passionate about painting, had always been... the passion probably triggered by the awe-inspiring vista around him - the stark, windswept Channel coast... the rocky promontories lapped by icy waves... the towering spire of Mont-Saint-Michel piercing the azure sky from atop the spur of land it sat on across the bay... the small fishing ports along the entire coast with its bobbing boats - admiring the sheer grandeur of the place... spending practically every free moment out in the wilderness... walking the coast along the sandy beaches and the wild headlands... the Pointe du Grouin and the Baie de St Michel... even biking down to the beautiful forest of Brocéliande.
After college he decided on taking an extended break, and travel... along the Cote d'Azur - the Riviera and Provence - sketching and painting to his heart's content... and saving, saving as much money as he could, for that other dream he had...
Since childhood Anit had heard a lot about India from his mother. She used to visit her ancestral home in Palanpur each January - visiting her grandparents - till, of course, she broke off all ties and married Ranjeet. It was a grand reunion for the whole, extended family, with all brothers and cousins with their children converging there once a year from across the three continents where they had settled down, lived and worked. And she had told him stories of their vacations... the trips they took - to the Himalayas, the verdant jungles of central India, the lush western Ghats... and the various ancient and holy cities.
But what fascinated him the most was her tales of the Himalayan grandeur - Himachal, Gharwal, Kumaon... Ladakh and Sikkim - making him want to be there one day...
He had already trekked the French Pyrenees, had visited the fortified towns perched high along the foothills of the French Alps. He loved the sea, but he equally loved the mountains... and now, he wanted to see the Himalayas, and the Ghats.
He surfed the net, and read up every book he could lay his hands on - travelogues, travel guides and others... and he had it all planned.
He'd fly to Mumbai, spent a couple days in the city, and then go trekking in the Sahyadris before heading north... spend the next two months simply rambling around - no fixed plans, no itinerary - just drive, trek and camp. Stop where his heart desired, and then move on. Maybe even go ahead and do the Pilgrim Trail... at least up to Ukhimath, Chopta and Joshimath, since the route beyond would still be snow bound and impassable in January-February.
The two men hurried across the lounge as they headed for the airline's counter, their eyes furtively darting over the crowd of fellow passengers, simply checking... habit of a lifetime.
They had travelled a long and circuitous route, and had no desire to hang around the entrance or the lounge. The trip had been highly productive - the merchandise safely delivered and the special packages collected and forwarded... and now, they simply wanted to check-in, collect their boarding passes and get inside and wait there... a better and more secure place to wait!
Suddenly the man ahead paused, signalling his partner to stop.
"What?" the second man whispered as his eyes quickly scanned the faces in the crowd.
"Amit..." replied the first man with an excited tremor. "That's Amit, and he's alone!"
"Amit, who?" asked his companion.
"Amit, that bastard, Ranjeet's son!" he replied, "Wonder what he's doing here, in Paris..."
"Isn't father and son supposed to be surrounded by their henchmen and bodyguards, huh?" asked the second man as he observed Anit, searching to see if he was accompanied by anyone.
"Usually yes, and that's what's funny here, I don't see any of those men. Besides, he seems to be taking a commercial flight..."
"So?" asked the second man.
"They always travel in their private jet, this is most peculiar..." the first man mumbled and then perked up, "Let's see which airline he's taking, and his destination!"
Their desire to get the boarding passes and get inside suddenly evaporated as they discreetly followed Anit, unaware that their target wasn't Amit, but his twin brother, Anit...
They watched him check-in at the counter and collect his boarding pass... for a flight to Mumbai!
"So, the rumours were right," whispered the first man as they watched Anit walk away, towards the departure gate, "he's indeed going to India, serious about his Bollywood plans! But why alone, and why from Paris? Well, whatever, now it's time to make a call, and our guys will pick him up in Mumbai before his bodyguards can join him!"
It was 3:45 AM, Wednesday, when the aircraft landed, and after a relatively speedy passport and immigration procedure, Anit collected his baggage and went through customs... booking a cab at the desk in the arrival lounge before stepping out...
The sky was still dark outside, caliginous before the hour of dawn. The city lights blinking dully across the somnolent metropolis as the cab zipped down the mostly deserted city streets, soon pulling over at the small guesthouse in Colaba that Anit had reserved for his stay in Mumbai.
Thanking the driver he collected his luggage and walked in... totally unaware of the car that had followed him all the way from the airport, and had now pulled up across the narrow lane, opposite the guesthouse... the men inside silently observing him.
The friends of the men at the Charles de Gaulle airport had no problem spotting Anit at the Mumbai airport as he exited the building.
And yes, he was alone, without his usual entourage - of companions and bodyguards - surrounding him!
The call from Paris had been a surprise... and then there had been a flurry of activity as the telephone lines got busy - calls to Brussels, Dubai and London...
Their associates in Dubai confirmed that Amit was travelling... but as usual, they said, no one knew where exactly Amit was... and yes, the rumours about Amit going to Mumbai was very true. But, according to them, Amit was accompanied by his usual hangers on - girlfriend and 'companion', and his musclemen...
So, where were they? - the men watching Anit wondered.
They could have easily intercepted the cab along the lonely streets and taken him... but that would mean a witness - the cab driver; and it would also mean the involvement of the local police... and they had no desire of that.
They'd follow him instead, and see where he went... and then they'd wait... and grab him when there was the least chance of any eyewitnesses being around!
This was Anit's first visit to the country, in fact, his first trip outside Europe, and he felt tired... and a little groggy - the flight had been pleasant, but he had been unable to sleep onboard - and once he'd checked in and got to his room, he threw himself on the bed and went straight to sleep.
It was late afternoon when he woke up - rested, but famished - and after a refreshing shower went to the lobby, asking the lady for directions, get his orientation right. He had already read up and jotted down the name of nearby places to see and places where he could get decent food, and once the lady at the desk had given him the general directions, Anit headed straight for Leopold.
Afterwards he slowly walked up and down the crowded Colaba Causeway... simply taking in the scene... getting a feel of the place - the sight, the sounds, and the flavour - everything so new to him, so incredibly amazing... like an unfolding carnival in motion!
And finally, as the sun was setting... and he had had enough of the colour, the sound... and the jostling, he headed for the Gateway of India... admiring the colonial structure and enjoying the cool breeze blowing in from the sea. Mesmerised by the architecture of the Taj Palace and Tower complex... watching the crowds of locals and foreigners - kids and adults... strollers and tourists... the vendors, the hawkers... the caparisoned buggies... and the gawkers!
After dinner he was back again, it was late, but the place was still swarming... still as festive as earlier in the evening... and he sat himself on the parapet along the edge of the road and watched the scene unfold... listening to the spray as the waves lashed against the rocks below him... turning seawards to watch the bobbing lights of vessels out there, tiny fireflies across the bay...
It was past midnight, and since he wasn't sleepy at all, Anit decided to take a walk down Apollo Bunder, along the meandering road as it hugged its way around the bay... it would be fun to walk the solitary path... finally devoid of the teeming milieu!
He had gone about a couple hundred yards when the street got really lonely... and darker - the buildings to his right, across the street, mostly hidden behind huge trees, and silent...
For the first time since he had stepped out of the guesthouse, he was truly alone. And as he reached a bend in the street, he decided on turning back and heading for the guesthouse... it was enough for the day, and tomorrow he'd go around the city... and the day after he'd set out for the Ghats!
As he paused, a car suddenly materialised almost out of the darkness and two men jumped out... and even before he realised it, or could react, he felt himself being roughly bundled into the car as it sped away into the darkness of a side lane...
... to be continued
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