Slowly blinking his eyes open Harsh looked up at the bare ceiling... trying to remember where he was. He had been in and out of consciousness, and everything was still a bit fuzzy... a weird mix of dreams and reality... And then recalled that he was in a room - a hospital room... remembering Mayank hovering over him whenever he was awake... There had also been strangers - doctors and nurses... talking... touching and feeling him... nodding solemnly... and Kajol... and Ali... But everything seemed so muddled!
Slowly turning his head he saw Mayank, still sitting on that chair by his bedside, slumped, the eyes closed... looking pale and tired. He watched for a while, feeling an immense surge of love and gratitude wash over him.
He wanted to reach out and touch him, tell him how much he loved him... thank him for everything... and as he tried to move his arm, he realised that they still didn't obey him as spontaneously as before... seeming sluggish.
He couldn't recollect every detail... yet there were those vague, fragmented bits and pieces... tiny disjointed sequences...
He had been waiting for Mayank on the steps of the college building when Sandeep had called out. Pleasantly surprised at seeing Sandeep there, he had run down, greeting him. Sandeep wanted Harsh to go with him... said he had planned a surprise weekend camping trip for Mayank... of course, Harsh was also to join them - a camping trip in the jungles of the western Ghats, with trekking and rock climbing included... roughing it out in the wild for three whole days! He wanted Harsh to help him plan out the details... recheck all the stuff they'd be requiring since he was already into rock-climbing... and also, more importantly, confirm Mayank's likes and dislikes... Harsh had squealed with delight, going along with Sandeep... terribly excited about the planned trip, and thrilled at the thought that he'd be contributing to something that was meant for Mayank!
And as they climbed into the cab, Sandeep leaned close, his eyes twinkling, "Don't answer if he calls," he whispered, "let him sweat a little before I drop you back home..." making Harsh gasp in shock, giggling as he nodded.
He had a thousand questions... and a million suggestions, barely able to conceal his excitement... Sandeep smiling, and nodding in agreement as they drove out of town. They released the cab at Bicholim and walked around the market for a while before entering a restaurant... "And how many times did he call?" Sandeep asked as they ordered their lunch, taking the phone from Harsh... smiling as he saw the missed calls... switching off the instrument and placing it next to his own on the table.
After lunch Sandeep hailed another cab, "To Valpoi," he told the driver, and once they reached the place he once more released the cab and together walked around the block to an old, dilapidated mansion, entering the unkept and overgrown grounds... Sandeep's car parked under the decayed and moss covered portico... leaving Harsh totally baffled, making him wonder what they were doing...
And as he got in, Sandeep offered him a cola... The next thing he knew was waking up in a strange room... cuffed and naked, feeling drowsy and terribly disoriented... And in that heavy fog Sandeep materialised at regular intervals... his voice strange and venomous, the words indistinct as he groped him... touching all over... rough... the hand cruelly hurtful between his legs... squeezing painfully... making him cry out in shock and confusion... Jabbing his arms with needles as he floated back into oblivion...
And then he had woken up on that cold floor - numb and dazed... everything still a blur... and worst - he just couldn't move or speak... He was terrified... his brain trying to comprehend, but the heavy fug numbed his senses... In that stupor he had heard a faint call... and instinctively knew it was Mayank... calling him... before finally seeing him through bleary eyes... a faint, hazy apparition... He didn't know if he was hallucinating, or if Mayank had really come, and though he had tried to answer that call, he just couldn't, his tongue heavy and numb... the mouth weirdly insensate.
And then suddenly there were more people... many voices... and Mayank was bending over him... holding him, hugging him... whispering into his ears... How it all happened, how he reached this clean hospital room, he didn't know, but he understood that Mayank had saved him... Saved him from those terrifying moments at that bizarre place...
"And how's my little friend today, eh?" Ali asked cheerfully, entering the room, followed closely by Kajol.
Harsh looked up and gave a wan smile, trying to sit up...
"Don't bother," Ali said, quickly going over and gently hugging him, "Well, you do look fine to me," he smiled pulling back as Kajol hugged the boy.
"Yes, I feel much better," he smiled weakly.
"Mayank, you better go home and get some rest, you look awful!" Kajol said turning to her colleague as he sat up, pale and haggard.
Suddenly getting up he rushed forward, spreading his arms wide as he hugged her tight, his eyes flushed with gratitude. And then releasing her he went around the bed to hug Ali, squeezing him.
"Ow, careful," squealed Ali, grinning at his pal, returning the hug, "you'll break all my bones, besides, I still hurt from all that slamming I took!"
"Thank you guys, thank you all so much!"
"Don't be silly," replied Kajol, sitting down on the bed, "but seriously, now you should get back home, take a proper shower and get some rest. The doctor said he can go home tomorrow." And as Mayank looked at Harsh, his eyes still reflecting the terror of the past few days, she added in a more gentle voice, "don't worry Mayank, we'll be here with him. And Milind will drop in later and he will spend the night here, you go home."
"Buddy, listen to her," added Ali, "we'll be here and Milind and Lluis will be with him at night, you better get some rest, and in the morning you can come over and take him home!"
Mayank had stood by Harsh's bedside for all those five days, and nights, watching the doctors struggle to stabilise him, get him back to the living. Though the drugs had been within 'acceptable' limits - three days of sedatives, and a total lack of food or water had severely weakened the body... and then Sandeep's concoction of muscle relaxants had left Harsh tethering on the brink... Flitting in and out of consciousness, the heart erratic, the system slow to respond to medication. All the while feeling awfully miserable - consumed by remorse, unable to forgive himself... feeling responsible for Harsh's terrifying ordeal... continuously blaming himself for what happened, and praying with all his heart. And finally, Harsh had shown some positive signs, his body slowly responding to the medication, gradually recovering... He had regained consciousness and the muscles were once more responding... bit by bit, the limbs regaining strength.
And of course, there was Ali, Kajol and Milind, taking turns to be with him, carrying food for him, forcing him to eat... take a shower and get some sleep... supportive... encouraging.
Lluis too had been there, all through the first three days, assisting the doctors, refusing to allow the nurses to touch the boy, personally doing what was required... And Nalin too dropped in, checking on Harsh... talking to the doctors.
Another regular visitor had been Sandeep's father... He had stayed on in Goa, genuinely concerned, consulting the doctors, urging them to spare no effort, or expense, in the treatment. Bringing in his personal doctor for further consultation and re-evaluation...
Just then Dr. Lorso Gonsalves, along with Sandeep's father entered the room... "He's now totally out of danger," the doctor was saying, "and we've decided to let him go tomorrow."
Sandeep's father nodded, smiling at Harsh and the others. "Doctor, since you've decided to release the patient tomorrow," he said, "I need to talk to them for a while..."
"Oh, yes, of course," replied the doctor, "I'll be in my chamber, if you need me," he added, quickly going out of the room.
"Mayank, Ali, Kajol, it's so good to see you all here. The doctor says Harsh will fully recover within a week, and my personal doctors have confirmed that prognosis. Let me tell you once again, how terribly ashamed I am of this whole affair," the man said, quickly raising a hand as Mayank was about to speak, "no, please, don't stop me; allow me to apologise for Sandeep's terrible behaviour..."
"I also want to request all of you not discuss this affair with anyone..." and as the three nodded, "I've already spoken to Harsh's parents and told them that he is at my Andaman resort, a reward for having won a local surfing championship..." and then addressing Harsh, added, "They believe that since there is no connectivity, you have been unable to contact or inform them. I have also apologised for your forgetfulness in not informing them about the trip... attributing it to your excitement at winning the competition. I wish that all of you will remember these few days as that...
"I won't insult any of you by offering a reward for your understanding, and your amazing sense of maturity in dealing with the situation, but I would be extremely grateful if all of you allow me the privilege of having you as my guest at any of our resorts... as per your convenience; and I must insist, that it's neither a compensation, nor a bribe, but my genuine appreciation of what you all have done... and maybe, partial atonement for Sandeep's most reprehensible and atrocious act.
"Sir, that's really not required..." began Ali, but fell into respectful silence as the man raised his hand.
"I told you, it is neither payment, nor bribe, and I'm sure none of you'll deny me the pleasure..."
"And Harsh, son, I know nothing can take away the trauma or the terror... but if you will allow, I've already arranged for a new surfboard, a similar J S Carbon board, please accept it."
The boy nodded, touched.
The man smiled, "It will arrive here tomorrow, custom cleared. And since you are supposed to be in Andaman, enjoying your championship reward, I have already arranged for you and Mayank to be there, you will leave as soon as the doctors' permit travel... you will have to go since I don't want to be proven a liar to your parents! Of course, this trip to Andaman is separate from my earlier request of letting me have you as my guests."
"And..." he added turning to Mayank, "Sandeep won't bother you again, I've send him over to take charge of our Seychelles property. He is away from the country and I'll make sure he doesn't return any soon."
"Okay, thank you all once again," he said turning to go, "Mr. Tahiliani, my man here, will get in touch, to finalise and coordinate your trip."
Far away from all habitation, the beach was isolated and pristine, only known to, and frequented by the locals. The surf here was magnificent and the group of young men seemed to be in perfect harmony with the ocean, shouting and screaming as they paddled out and sped across the glassy face...
One in that group, the youngest - a gorgeous youth barely out of his teens, stood out from the rest... masterful on the board, and in perfect sync, almost instantly catching the eyes of the young man as he sat on the veranda of the secluded oceanfront bungalow, watching the surfers since morning. And as they finally trooped out of the water, the man rose, slowly going over to the youth...
"Hi, I'm Sandeep," he greeted the startled youth, "you were exceptional!"