Leon let out a puff of smoke, and passed the cigarette to Kiran. He continued to look at his computer program, not aware of who had just passed in the corridor in front of his hostel room. A second later, a sharp, accusing voice broke his concentration.
“So you are now teaching the juniors to smoke, eh, Leon. Aren’t you content with keeping this filthy habit to yourself?’ The voice belonged to Pankaj, one of those goody-goody ‘idealistic’ kinds of guys, who according to Leon thought it their birth-right to ‘poke their noses in everybody else’s rooms.’ Leon looked up from the screen, trying not to let his irritation into his voice.
“It’s OK, Pankaj, I didn’t teach him, he’s been smoking since before he got here.”
“So hadn’t you better discourage him, rather than offering him cigarettes?”
“I’m not a hypocrite like you. Whatever I have, I share with others. “Muttered Leon under his breath, and pushed the ‘enter’ button to immediately see the correct output come flashing on his computer screen. He shut his computer down, and picked up his trekking shoes and socks from the shoe rack.
Pankaj was standing in the doorway now, his arms folded.
“Look Leon, if you think you can get away with making addicts out of our juniors, you’re badly mistaken.”
Leon had put on his shoes, and for an instant, felt like kicking this sick fellow’s head off. But he knew better. He looked past Pankaj, towards Aakash and Manish, who were standing in the corridor behind Pankaj, looking at this scene with amusement. Leon jumped up, and giving Pankaj a slight push, bolted and locked the door, completely ignoring him otherwise. Aakash, Manish and Leon started walking down the corridor.
“This isn’t right, you immoral lout”, shouted Pankaj. “I’ll complain about this. Just wait and see…”
“What’s the guy’s problem, yaar?” Aakash asked, hastening down the stairs, and adjusting the strap of his guitar case as he went. “Why is he always ready to fight his head off? And why is his brow always in crests and troughs?”
Aakash followed this question up, with an imitation of Pankaj, who always looked as if he were in deep waters, and looked at Leon, who burst into laughter. Manish, too smiled. Aakash was the jester of this group.
And so, the three of them, the ‘cowboys’ as they called themselves, because of their adventure crazy nature, walked down their college road to the boundary wall of their college, climbing over which, they would walk right into the surrounding woods. It was twelve o’clock in the night, and they had just started, full of enthusiasm for a trip into the woods. Only, they did not know that this trip was going to take them longer than they had thought.
Leon, Manish and Aakash were engineers in the making. They studied at the Hyderabad Institute of Technology, which was one of the leading institutes of its kind in the country. Leon, tall, lean and handsome, was a tough kid. He was of Anglo-Indian descent; his ancestors had once come to Rajasthan as missionaries. He was passionate about the hills of his native Rajasthan, and had a never-ending spirit of adventure. Aakash, short and somewhat stocky, liked to have fun every living moment. He and Manish were both from Delhi, and as such had never had had any experience with the wilds before coming to Hyderabad. Leon had taken them to the woods for the first time. And the woods had been a love-at-first-sight affair for them, too.
Now, they were a group of the most adventure crazy boys in the whole college and the most common and nearby source of somewhat keeping in control their insatiable hunger for adventure were the woods surrounding their institute. They often went there, always in the middle of the night, exploring the area, and climbing the big, smooth boulders, which were characteristic of this part of the Deccan, well through the night. This was one of those nights.
It was a very beautiful night. Lord Indra had smiled only an hour ago, the sky was now clear, and the slight drizzle had settled down the dust particles of the atmosphere. The cool night breeze had a freshness and purity to it, and Leon felt an exhilarating sense of freedom, as the cool wind blew through his shirt, his hair. His gaze wandered off towards his far left, suddenly, he snapped out of his euphoria. In the distance, a large patch of woods had been destroyed and Leon saw electricity poles where eucalyptus trees had once stood proud. The fangs of urbanization had reached this Garden of Eden too, planning to turn it into another concrete jungle. Leon’s heart bled. The sight of cut trees always made him feel that way. Manish and Aakash were fooling around, oblivious to the pain Leon were going through.
With a heavy heart, Leon lit a cigarette. Then he remembered that he was here to enjoy this night.
It was a rough terrain, these woods. Once the trio left the road, and walked deeper, away from the light coming from their campus, it grew darker, and the darkness surrounding them made the sky look even darker than it was. The moon shone above them, in one corner of the sky, like a small, tilted vessel of thick, creamy milk, emptying its light silvery contents into the vast, inverted bowl that the sky looked. The mild light of the moon seemed to provide a thin veil to the huge, dark sheet of the sky, a veil from behind which billions of twinkling diamonds tried to peep out. And the three boys, walking slowly among the shrubs and talking and joking among themselves, enjoying the sight, were on a high.
They were now about a mile into the wilds, walking among the shrubs, consciously avoiding the thickly wooded area. They knew from experience that the woods could be very slushy after the rains. They reached their favorite spot, where there were big boulders around.
“Remember this boulder, Manish?” Leon asked, as they gathered round the base of a boulder, around fifteen feet high, and smooth and round and even shaped, like a giant egg. There were virtually no cracks and crevices to use as footholds or hand holds, very unlike the craggy sedimentary Aravalis that Leon was so used to in his hometown in Rajasthan. ”The first time we came here, I was stuck while coming down. I could not climb back up, since there were no holds, and as I was preparing to jump from that spot about 10ft high, there I saw a huge snake just where I wanted to jump. Remember?”
And Manish remembered. That was one of the very few instances that he had seen terror on Leon’s face. Out of the two rock protrusions that could be used as hand holds, one had come off, and there were no footholds. Because of the extremely smooth top surface of the rock, Manish could not even pull him up. So Leon had just hung there, on his one hand, for full five minutes, hugging the rock with all his might for some extra friction, his fingers and hands shaking from the effort, waiting for the snake to go. His fingers had bled and his usually pale face had gone red, and Manish could not even imagine the pain he must have been through.
“Yeah, that was one hell of an experience, for me, too”, recalled Manish. “Just sitting over there on the top, like a fool, just looking at you hanging down there for dear life.” He gave a small shiver. “God forbid, had anything happened to you, I couldn’t even be trusted to come down that height all by myself to help you.”
“Well, in that case, Manish, you would just have had to call someone from your cell phone, to come and rescue you”, Chirped Aakash, who was a new entrant to their group and had remained silent all this while.
But Manish and Leon knew that the inexperienced and carefree Aakash had not accessed the situation carefully enough. Whom could they call, in the dead of the night? Besides, what would they tell them, where to come? Anyone coming into the woods alone for the first time had a slim chance of ever finding his way to this particular spot a whole mile deep into the woods. It would take hours for any search party to find them. Leon and Manish, from that experience had become acutely aware of the fact that once in the woods, they were all by themselves.
And after that experience, Leon and Manish had got even more addicted to the nighttime splendor of these woods. It had now started to provide a thrilling experience, a feeling of being ‘on the edge’, which lured them to the woods now, more often than before.
We’ve walked enough, yaar, enough exploring for one night.” declared Aakash, and took off his guitar from his shoulder. “Let’s have some fun now!”
Aakash was a beginner guitarist, and liked to show off his skills at the guitar at every possible opportunity. It was his own idea to bring his guitar to the woods, and play it, just as the romantic characters of the western movies did on the Prairies.
Leon and Manish smiled at this childlike eagerness. Manish decided to stall him. “Wait, Aakash,” he said. “Let’s climb that big rock over there, and then you can play. It’ll be more fun.”
Aakash looked at where Manish was pointing out. The rock was a real piece of nature’s artistry. ‘The rock’ was actually four separate boulders. The structure had a base that was about ten feet high, and extremely flat and smooth at its top, like a huge round conference table. On two ends of a diameter of the rock, were two smaller boulders, roughly cylindrical in shape, and about four feet in height. On those boulders was balanced a huge semicircular rock, with its curved end facing the sky. The whole structure looked like a mushroom whose top was connected to its bottom by only two arteries. Behind it shone the moon, outlining this momentous ‘mushroom rock’ standing against the sky. It was a breathtaking sight.
Aakash looked at it for a moment, and then suddenly cried, “It is a race, guys. Let’s see who gets there first.” And clutching his guitar tightly in one hand, he jumped on the ground, from the small rock on which he was standing, and raced towards the mushroom rock. How could the other two boys let themselves be left behind? Jumping over small pieces of boulders, and brushing past twigs, leaves, branches and thorns of the surrounding foliage, Leon and Manish, too, charged towards the rock.
Aakash, who had had quite a good head start, reached the base of the rock first, panting and out of breath, wearing his guitar on his shoulder, which almost reached his knees. Leon and Manish were still running, both of them some distance behind him.
Aakash stood there, panting, looking in the direction where he had come from, waiting for his friends.
Suddenly, a click from the bushes behind startled him. He whirled around. The click had sounded metallic, and it had come quite clearly, from the thick bushes. Could it be…no, it was not possible…he took two steps in the direction of the bush to investigate. But at that very moment, behind his back, his two screaming friends jumped from two different boulders towards the base of the mushroom rock, each stretching his arms in the front, holding his hands to prevent himself from running into the huge, solid rock itself. And both of them almost simultaneously touched the rock, and started arguing over who came first. In the ensuing mock argument, Aakash pretty much forgot all that he had heard.
It took Leon five minutes to climb the rock, and then pull his friends up. Then everybody sighed.
The base of the mushroom rock was about twelve feet high from the ground. The base itself was located on higher ground. From where they were sitting, they could see the city lights in the distance. A mild breeze was blowing. The top part of the rock did not cover the whole base. Its shadow fell on about half the base, and the remaining portion, uncovered by the top, lay bathed in silvery moonlight. The trio sat over there, gazing at the moon and at the city lights, enjoying the cool night air. Aakash took out his guitar from the case, and started strumming a tune. Leon lit another cigarette, and drew a deep puff. Moonlight, guitar, wilderness, and cigarette…nothing in the world gave him more pleasure. Looking intently at the moon, and trying to make out its own various rock formations, he took another puff. This was heavenly, he thought.
Then, just then, he heard a shout. And his guts told him that suddenly, something had gone very, very wrong.
It was a man’s shout, rough, hollering, loud, and triumphant. And it had been in the local language. Aakash stopped playing at his guitar. The three of them stood up, and went to the edge of the rock, in the direction of the sound.
What they saw made their blood run cold. A man, a huge hulk of a man was standing on the ground, and in his hands, was an ancient rifle, which he was waving like a toy at them.
The man with the gun again shouted at them, and motioned them to come down.
Leon knew they were in trouble, and his mind was racing. However, he was clueless against the gun pointed at them. He climbed down first, and faced the man with the gun. The man was huge, with big, muscular arms, and a large mustache and dark complexion typical of the men folk of this region. The man said something to him, of which Leon again could not comprehend a thing. From the bushes to his right, a second man came out, this one brandishing a large club, and holding some thick rope in his hand. Aakash climbed down from the rock, clutching his precious guitar in his hand. Upon seeing him, the smaller man uttered something very loudly, and gave a short laugh. Then, reaching forward, he snatched the guitar from Aakash’s hands and smashed it against the base of the rock.
His guitar had been one of Aakash’s most prized possessions. Seeing it smash against the rock, he went crazy with fury, and cried out, “Hey man, what do you want? Leave my guitar alone!” He actually wanted to lunge himself at the man, and smash his head against the rock, as he had done to his guitar. At his shout, the smaller man came towards him, and showing his round, red eyes, asked him something, which he again could not understand. Then, without a warning, the little man lifted his club, and like lightening, it slammed into the side of Aakash’s face.
The bigger man was still standing at some distance where he had stood earlier, pointing his gun at Leon. Aakash went down from the impact of the blow. Leon instinctively ran to him, and bent over to assist him. The little man gave Leon a vicious kick at the side of his knee, which sent him sprawling towards the base of the rock. The little man uttered something, again in the local language, and putting the club down, took a length of rope, and tied Aakash’s hands behind his back. He then dragged Leon, who was still lying on the ground, wincing in pain from the little man’s kick. The man was small, but he had packed a lot of power in his blows. The little man tied Leon’s hands, too. Meanwhile, Manish, too had climbed down the rock, as the bigger man had motioned him to. The little man tied his hands, too, behind his back and shouted at them, and motioned them to walk in front of them.
Leon could hardly walk. The little man had hit him very hard, although he was sure that nothing was broken. He looked at Aakash, who was walking beside him. Aakash seemed to be in a daze. His eyes were barely open, and he was spitting blood. Leon limped past a boulder, and looked at Aakash again, concerned. In the moonlight, he could see the spot where the club had hit him; it was already starting to turn purple. He looked towards his right to Manish, who was silently walking beside him. The two men were walking behind them, talking to each other, in the local language which none of the three could understand. Leon tried to think, to make some head or tail out of this crazy situation.
He realized that they, in this night adventure of theirs, had stumbled upon a criminal hideout. What criminals, he was not sure. Most probably, they were Naxalites. He had heard a lot about them. Right now, the Naxalites had become a very powerful anti government organization in this state, although their presence had not been much noted here in Hyderabad, thought Leon. And these criminals, whatever they were, had kidnapped them and were taking them somewhere else. What they will do to us, thought Leon. Demand ransom? Or will they demand the release of their comrades in return? Leon winced in pain as once again sharp pangs of pain shot through his foot as it banged against a piece of stone. The very thought of staying with these animals made him shiver. He did not even dare turn back and have a look at their captors. The kick had been too sharp.
They had now been traveling on foot for more than half an hour in the woods. Eventually, they reached a narrow road, which terminated into the woods. An ancient, ramshackle jeep was parked on the road. Leon furtively looked around for someone, but no one was around. The road too, was inside the woods, and it was the dead of the night. He tried to catch the number of the vehicle, hoping to memorize it, but the number plate was smeared with mud. The two men escorted them to the back of the jeep, and suddenly Leon felt a damp cloth pushed against his face. Then, everything went blank.
Manish woke up. He tried to prop himself up on his elbows, but found out that his elbows could not support the weight of his shoulders and head on them from behind his back. He collapsed back, onto solid earth. It was an effort to open his eyes, but before collapsing, he had seen that he was in some kind of a forest. His friends were lying on his left side, apparently unconscious. In addition, an area until a small distance to his left was all that he had managed to see. The two goons were either not there, or they were somewhere towards his right.
He tried to recollect what all had happened to them. After their captors had doped Aakash and Leon, and thrown them at the back of their jeep, one of them, the little one, had pushed him, too at the back, and himself had sat with him. The bigger fellow had taken the wheel, and the smaller one had kept on questioning him, or so it seemed. Manish could not understand a word of what had been said to him, so had indicated his helplessness to the man, who did not speak a single word of Hindi or English in all his jabbering. Manish’s hands were still bound, and the little fellow had searched his person, and had taken away his cell phone, and whatever money he had. Then he had proceeded to repeat the same operation on his friends. He had had with him a small rucksack, apparently full of something.
This whole thing had gone on for some time, during which they had kept on traveling through wooded areas, on country roads. Then the little fellow, taking Manish by surprise, had drugged him. The Last thing Manish remembered was the chug-chug of the vehicle, and his own head slumping slowly against the muscular back of Leon.
Manish tried to think of some way to get out of here, but he fell short. All he knew was that they had been taken prisoners, and that they had to get out of it, somehow. Who these people were, or could be, he had no idea. He had never been one to analyze things, or to plan them out. He decided that with his hands tied behind his back, and his feet tied, too, he really could not do anything. So he decided for either Leon to wake up, or for his captors to arrive. His head was throbbing. He decided to go back to sleep.
Leon woke up. His whole body was itching; bugs were eating him alive. He was lying flat down, with his back upwards, and hands tied against his back. His legs were tied at the feet. He had been lying there for more than 15 hours now, he realized, as he looked at the sun setting. He tried to look around. He could see first Aakash, and then Manish lying at his left, in postures similar to his. He could see Aakash’s face purple and badly swollen where the little goon had hit him the previous night. Then, adjusting his position, and shifting his weight on his chest, he looked towards his left. There was nothing but trees and shrubs.
Leon lay flat on his back, trying to think. A bug sat on his cheek. Leon could see it pushing its pipe into his skin. Leon blew from his mouth to scare it away, but the bug won’t go. It pressed harder. Leon again shifted his weight on his chest and shook his head. The bug remained. Leon shook harder, with all his might now and finally collapsed on the ground. To his great dismay, the bug was still there. As Leon looked at it, it pressed harder into his skin. Leon felt tears in his eyes, not from the pain from the bug’s bite, but because of his own helplessness. He had never felt so weak in his life.
And then, grinding his teeth, Leon knew that he could not lie down any longer. He bent his knees towards his hips. Arching his back, and twisting his shoulders, he now brought the ropes holding his hands and feet to crisscross each other. Now, heaving his whole torso up and down, he started rubbing the ropes against each other as vigorously as he could. The tight, rough ropes immediately cut into his wrists, blinding him with pain. He paused for a moment, and then continued. No pain was greater than the pain of captivity.
It was then, that Manish woke up. The bugs were eating him alive, too. He could make out Leon trying to undo his ropes. He called out softly, “Hey Leon!” Are you up?
Leon, for once left his painful ordeal and slumped to the ground. “Yeah Manish, I have come to. I am trying to get rid of these damn ropes. And then we’ll get out of here. “
Manish’s first thought was that of their captors. “Leon, what if those goons find us while we’re trying to undo our ropes. They’ll give us a cow hiding.”
“Look Manish”, Leon snarled, “let those bastards come. We can see about them later. By the time they come, we’ll be back in our college.”
“But how do you go about doing what you want, Leon?” Manish was completely at a loss. “Both of us are helpless.”
And then, in the fading light of that forest, Manish saw a demonstration of human will power, the like of which he had not seen before in his life.
Leon started to crawl. From his position of lying face down on the ground, he thrust his middle section upward, to shift his weight on his knees. He then, from his knees, propelled himself forward, to fall on his shoulders. This maneuver brought him forward by some six inches. He tried it twice, thrice, four times. Manish was lying some ten feet away from him. As Leon did this movement for the third time, his trousers gave away at the knees. Still, he kept on propelling himself, this time from his bare knees. As Leon slowly inched forward, Manish could see his trousers turn red with his own blood, oozing from his raw knees. As Leon tried it for the fifteenth time, he gave up. The pain in his knees had been too much even for him. Manish was still about two feet away. Leon turned on his side, and pushed a nearby boulder away with his feet, as far as he could. This provided him with a forward momentum, and he came sliding on the ground on his shoulder, bruising his shoulder as he came. But he was now finally at Manish’s feet. Then, taking Manish’s rope, between his teeth, he started chewing it away, bit by bit.
Soon, Manish’s legs were free. He got up, ran to a sharp edged rock nearby, and started rubbing his hand bindings wildly against the stone. Soon his hands too, were free. In a few minutes, Leon, too was free of his bonds.
They stood up, rubbing their arms and legs, which had gone very stiff after almost 16 hours of captivity. It was completely dark in the woods and there was still no sign of their captors. They could make out that they were at some kind of high ground. Their hearts ramming in their chests, they ran to the edge of the hill.
It took them a moment to realize that they had been doomed. For, below them, as far as their eye could go, was darkness. Far away, completely dark treetops kissed the dark blue horizon. Before that, there was no break in the darkness. There was no sign of light, not even a wisp of smoke against the sky, the presence of at least one of which, Leon knew, was a necessary proof of human inhabitation. Their hearts sank. Their captors had marooned them in some far-flung jungle of the Deccan Plateau, far, far away from any human habitation.
They sat down in despair on the edge of the hill. Manish told Leon about the little man’s interrogation. Leon grew thoughtful for a while. Then he declared, “Those bastards are not coming back. They left us here to die.”
Leon explained to Manish what all he had read about ‘proper’ kidnappers. Firstly, they never kidnapped anyone without a proper plan. Finding somebody near his hideout was not reason enough for someone to kidnap somebody else. Secondly, reasoned Leon, real kidnappers never treated their hostages like the way those two thugs had treated them. All the kidnappers treated and fed their captives reasonably well. They even sometimes gave them books to read, to pass their time. Leon realized that their captors had been petty thieves, maybe bandits. They had thought they had some extra cash in their pockets when they saw the boys walking into their hideout. They had probably asked Manish his address or contact number. However, none of them could understand what the boys were saying. They also did not find any identification on them. So they did not know whom to contact for their ransom. Finally, it was possible that they had nobody else with them, and they had realized that kidnapping was too hot for them to handle. So, thought Leon, they had dumped them somewhere they thought they could never find their way out of, and went off on their way.
Aakash was coming to. The left side of his face was puffed up, the once prominent cheekbone now hidden behind a purple blob. He couldn’t even open his left eye, or talk. Leon and Manish loosened his bounds. He stood up with difficulty, and indicated that he needed some water to drink.
Leon too had open wounds on his body, and he, too needed water, but they had none.
“Come on, Aakash, there’s no water here. Let’s walk. We’ll reach somewhere, and the people will give us some.”
“Huh, Leon, do anything, just get me some water, please…,” mumbled Aakash. Leon and Manish helped him to his feet, and supporting him, got him walking, along the path where they could see the tire tracks of their captors’ vehicle. The boys got a little distance, and Aakash again slumped to the ground, declaring he could not walk any more. Thirst was taking its toll on Leon and Manish, too. They coaxed Aakash to walk a little more. and supported him to walk. But after going a little distance more, they knew it was of no use. They could not possibly walk in this condition. All three of them sat down on the ground, exhausted, and thirsty.
It was Aakash’s idea to make a fire. Somebody might see the smoke, and come to rescue them. Leon fumbled in his pockets. Their captors had taken away his packet of cigarettes, but had left the matchbox. He and Manish dragged themselves around, collecting dry twigs. Soon, they had a roaring fire.
It was about the middle of the night, Leon could make out. The three boys were also extremely hungry, besides thirsty. But right now, to find some water was of the utmost importance. In the light of the fire, Leon could see the trees surrounding them. They were tall, deciduous trees, with no fruits on them. Wild berries grew around them, but Leon knew it could be dangerous to eat them. Who knows, he thought, some of them might be poisonous. With the kind of luck they had had so far, anything was possible now.
They had been feeding twigs to the fire for over an hour, when they heard some movement in the nearby bushes. Their heartbeat grew. This could be one of their captors, too, if they had decided to come back. Or, it could also mean help. Leon sat on his toes, trying to anticipate…
“Jesus Christ”, let out Leon to himself. “We are finished now.” Manish felt as if he was going to faint.
All their day’s misfortunes had been nothing as compared to this one. It was a bear. A huge, black bear. They sat against a tree, powerless, hungry and thirsty before it. Aakash gave up all hope. He closed his eyes and slumped against the tree trunk, waiting for the bear to come and maul him. The bear was still about fifteen feet from them. It looked at them with its bloodshot eyes, and then menacingly, took a step towards them.
Leon grabbed a burning stick from the fire and stood up. He didn’t care for the outcome. It was he, who had taken his friends to the woods surrounding their college. He felt a strong, almost insane sense of responsibility towards them. He picked up a piece of burning wood, and stood up, facing the bear, motioning Manish to take Aakash away. Manish and Aakash, their eyes wide with surprise and terror, started inching their way back, away from the tree. Leon stood in front of the bear, tired, hungry, and numb, his clothes torn, his eyes half closed, and his whole body caked with his own blood. ‘Come on, you bastard,’ he mumbled incoherently to himself. ‘Take me, before you take my friends’. He knew that bears started on their human opponents by first prising out their eyes. He knew the result could be more painful than he could imagine. Still, he stood, facing the bear. From the corner of his eye, he could see Manish and Aakash dragging themselves away from the scene. The bear’s complete attention was on him. He felt relieved. He stood facing the bear, with the torch in his hand, and he felt a strange exhilaration.
The bear turned back, and slowly padded away from him.
Leon’s heart leaped. He stood looking at the bear, watching it go. The flame of his torch reached its end, almost burning his hand. He threw it down, in the fire, and ran back, to where Manish and Aakash were. They hugged each other for a long time, tears rolling down their eyes.
Leon decided that it was now time to move. They could not wait over there, in case the bear decided to return with some more predators. They walked through the forest, for about one kilometer, each supporting Aakash. Finally, arriving at a spot they thought to be safe, they sat down.
It was decided that Manish and Aakash would wait over there, and Leon would go hunt for help. Manish and Aakash were too tired and hungry to move, and in any case. The three of them could not just lie over there, without nourishment. Leon started walking a path. He was thirsty, his shoulders, and knees had deep cuts. Ignoring them, he walked on. He crossed one hill range. And stood looking for some habitation. Day had broken in, and he could see a small stream of water.
Leon was so excited he could not stop himself. He hurried down the hill, with whatever strength he could muster. He climbed down the hill, and threw himself into the stream, taking big gulps of water. The water around him turned brown red with the blood and filth he was carrying on himself. Still, he kept on drinking. Fresh water had never tasted so good.
Two villagers were coming towards the stream. Leon looked at them, his body weary. After taking that relaxing bath, he realized how tired he had actually been. He ran out of the stream, towards those men, and fainted.
“I wonder how you looked, Leon”, said Aakash, twisting his face towards the right.” Must have been like Mithun, in those B-Grade movies, facing the bear, with the torch in your hand.” Aakash tried to laugh, but winced in pain. His cheekbone had fractured where the kidnapper had hit him. Manish still, had not returned from the hospital. He had been without nourishment for just too long. Leon had been discharged just the previous day. They were sitting in Leon’s hostel room, with their friends, laughing and joking. Leon was feeling edgy. The days in the hospital had been worse than the day in the jungle. They had not allowed him a cigarette.
He reached for his packet and lit a cigarette. Just as he drew the first puff, somebody peeped inside through his door.
It was Pankaj, Leon’s not so good friend. Leon was seeing him for the first time in five days. He opened his mouth to welcome him, but then snapped it shut as he saw the cold, hard look Pankaj was giving him. It was Pankaj who spoke first.”Look Leon,” he said, ”if I again see you smoking inside the hostel, I’m going to complain to the warden.“ And stamping his feet, he went away, down the corridor.