Wednesday, April 23, 2014

All that jitters… doesn’t sell


Ok, first off – this isn’t a rant. It is an observation both from an author’s point of view as well as a reader’s. Both in this case being me. We’re talking about the book, obviously. The last six months or so have been nothing short of crazy for me, in terms of work, life etc. But more importantly, it has been an eye opener of sorts. And that’s just as well, because the wider one’s eyes are open in such cases, the better would be the (future) journey, wherever it is that one wants to go.

So, let’s talk about Frankly Spooking. Yeah, my first published book. Very special to me, of course. I’ve blogged earlier about the exhausting but satisfying journey from submission to print so I’ll not blah blah about that. What I’d like to do now is write down a few of my thoughts about the production and after-production of the book.

Right from childhood I’ve been a recluse when it came to showcasing my own work. Call it genes, call it nature or whatever, I’ve never been a good mascot of my own work. Class essay prize, a singing trophy, a recitation prize or even a rank in my earlier years in school. I’d always have a certain detachment to the entire process and never really got euphoric about any of those milestones. My mom, well, she’s a different story, but I think I picked this trait up from my father. Good? I don’t know. Bad… don’t know again. Relative, perhaps.

Anyway, coming back to the book. When it did go into print and right until it reached bookstores, I was bombarded with questions: When will it be available online? What is the response? How many copies sold? Etc, etc. And each time I’d hem and haw, smile and say – we’ll know soon. We knew of course. Many of you have read it, reviewed it, liked it, loved it, wanted more from it. So the entire gamut of post production drama has happened. Articles were written, a couple of interviews were given, and many more opinions, reviews and ratings later, one would think I’d joined that shiny brigade of authors who’d overnight managed to turn their bank accounts into a hefty bag of gold. Right?

Wrong.

While the book did garner good reviews and was appreciated by many, in terms of actual sales, it hasn’t managed to open eyes, let alone raised eyebrows. And this was precisely what opened my eyes to the strange world of publishing.

Best selling author of the banking thriller genre, Mr. Ravi Subramaniam, who also happens to be a good friend I made during these last few months, has very wisely written an article in his blog which talks at length about this phenomenon. It’s a text-book lesson for aspiring authors to remain grounded and continue writing that dream novel no matter what.

So what does best-selling really mean in our country? Does it mean the book has sold in lakhs? Does it mean it has broken a record of sorts in sales? Neither. It only means that within a stipulated period of time, it has managed to make a number which differs from bookstore to bookstore. And the time period also differs. It could be a monthly best-seller, a weekly best-seller, or an all-time best-seller depending on what the bookstore chooses to call it based on their internal algorithm. Whatever that means.

Coming back to Frankly Spooking. Many of you may wonder – “how? It was good, we all loved it, so why hasn’t it made a noticeable difference in terms of sales?” After all, a commercial book is written with the sole purpose of selling it, right? The answer to that isn’t all that simple or straightforward. Because a good book and a good ‘selling’ book come from two very different and distant planets. What is good, need not sell, and what sells, need not always be ‘good’. Again, I use the word ‘good’ for want of a better word. Sales of course is a beast that is not dictated by a book’s literary worth. It is dictated by a book’s brand value.

Yes, brand value. And by that let me repeat, I don’t mean branding in terms of the actual content of the book, but really, by the value or the ‘visibility’ it created for itself. And that’s where the post-production drama called marketing enters the picture.

And even then, what sells a book is not merely good marketing. It’s a coming together of a whole lot of things; kind of like 'stars aligning in space'. It’s only when all these factors come together, does a book start flying off the shelf in large numbers. Sometimes at a speed that’s difficult even for the publisher or the printer to handle. Yes, it has happened. We all know a few authors who’ve managed to pull off this literary magic, right? So are the rest junk? Do those books don’t deserve sales? Certainly not. They’re good, they’re all good in their own merit. But what probably didn’t happen in their favor was the coming together of all these factors.

So what DID go wrong with Frankly Spooking’s marketing? Bad marketing? No, there was sufficient marketing that happened in terms of promoting it online – Facebook/Twitter/Print, it was featured well in all these three areas. So then? In my knowledge, what did the book in was insufficient visibility and a proper projection of its real image. What the heck does that mean you’d ask. It means, something somewhere went wrong in the way it was presented and the way readers perceived it to be. Which resulted in reluctant sales. And by that I mean people almost reaching out for that ‘buy’ button on their devices and for that title in actual bookstores, but not actually rendering that action.

Few pointers, or like I said the ‘stars’ that unfortunately didn’t align for this book:

  • Delay in actual time to market. It was delayed by almost a month, month and a half. We started teasers, visuals and other things to increase the curiosity of the readers/buyers, but for a long time didn’t have the actual book in place to really sustain that curiosity. Many lost interest after a while. The first blow.
  • I was made to believe that online media and print were the way to go for first time authors, due to some internal stats the publishers had about first time launches not making a lot of difference to their bottom line, so there. Second blow. A launch might’ve created or at least built up a certain image in people’s minds. That didn’t happen. But honestly? This part I’m really not concerned with, and I personally know that a lot of launches haven’t done any good. But all the same, some sort of ‘introduction’ might’ve helped. And I being a novice, had no idea of going about it on my own - the cost it involved etc. So I left it at that. Plus the time, which I've listed below.
  • The cover layout & design. All hunky dory, it was liked by the editorial dept., the publisher loved the ‘different’, ‘hatke’ design of the book. In fact, a few readers too told that it had a certain eeriness to it. But, what we forgot was,  as a ‘shall I pick it up’ factor, the book wasn’t much to write home about. It looked very ordinary and also the quality of paper used in the cover wasn’t upto the mark. Nothing much could be done because I stay in another city so I have no control over this. I thought about this only after the book was printed and I received my copy. Too late.
  • Time/involvement – as is the case with anything in life, you need to invest time and effort (not to mention a fair amount of money as well) to make a difference. The timing somehow didn’t seem right. I was neck-deep in work and had a lot of other commitments to be really able to make time for my own promotional activity. And money, of course, much of it was spent by the publisher but I guess it wasn’t enough to garner enough visibility. My loss.
  • The genre. This actually came as a total surprise to me. While people love thrillers/comedy/romance/crime, when it came to horror, not many were inclined to spend their hard earned money on the genre. ‘Will borrow from somebody and read’ was an oft-unspoken vibe I got. I don’t know if it’s the age-old stigma our nation has, that anything spooky is inauspicious, evil or plain against their cultural religious sentiments, one thing was sure. Horror wasn’t a ‘yay, I’ll pick this book up today’ genre. Again, my loss.
  • Last, but certainly not the least, and this makes a huge, really huge difference to the sales of any book. The pricing. At almost 300 bucks, many felt the book was steep. And I don’t blame readers. I myself have many a time hesitated picking up a book of popular fiction that was priced above 200 bucks. Of course, I’ve made all the right choices when I did pick up books above this range. Thankfully. But more or less, this was a very prominent ‘concern’ many had. ‘Oh, it’s 300?’ Some were polite enough to change the subject, some were pretty forthright about it. Again, this wasn’t something in my control. Maybe the publishers saw some worth in the book to price it at that tag, or they did it to retain their own brand value, one will never know. And by the time discounts started appearing on online stores, I guess the initial impression was made. So, off went that click from the ‘buy’ button.

This is not to say that publishing a book should be seen as a nightmarish experience. Not at all. It’s a greatly satisfying experience. One that all writers should look forward to. I for one, am looking forward to the entire rigmarole again. I’ve already begun work on my next, and have ideas lined up for a few more. All I’m saying is, for aspiring authors out there, do keep these things in mind when you wish to ‘sell’ your book well. Critical acknowledgement, good reviews and ratings are all very good, and I must say, you guys and the many others who read the book have been really generous with comments. I’m humbled, thank you. But I’m also saying that while word of mouth is good, one must also keep in mind the above pointers.

And of course, you must have a good story to tell.

****

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ctrl Z...? (redux)


Guru turned the car onto the main road and checked the rear view mirror. No trail. The cops would be left groping in the dark, as usual. He smiled and continued driving.

The drizzle had now turned to a steady downpour. The road was dark, illuminated only by the head-lights. There was no power in the area he was passing by, he could tell.

He turned from the main road, and would've missed it had his eyes not caught the car from the corner of his headlights. Probably skidded off the road before nose-diving into the canal. As he pulled over, he saw some movement inside the car. He looked around, squinting his eyes through the fat rain drops blinding him. The road was deserted. Should he, shouldn't he? He thought about the contract he'd taken on the builder. He had to do it tonight. Oh, what the heck, one good deed for a sin - He parked a little further and got out. Drenched, he slowly got to the side of the car and wiped the water from the window. He could see it was a woman, still breathing. The door was jammed. He quickly found a rock and broke the rear window, not wanting to hurt the driver.

"Hello..? Can you hear me?" He shook the woman's shoulder. She groaned in pain.

Aside from that, no response. Was she sinking? Without wasting another moment, he reached in and caught hold of her shoulder, pulling her toward him. She groaned in pain and the car jerked to a side, the rear wheels threatening to pull the car completely in. Steadying himself, he pulled her slowly until she was away from the wheel. And then, he heaved her out. The sudden shifts and movement had rendered the car imbalanced and it fell further into the canal with a huge metallic thud, muted in the rain.

An hour and a half later, he drove out of the hospital compound wordlessly. He'd paid for her treatment. Doctors said she would pull through. He felt strange when he turned to the main road once again. He looked at his watch. He still had an hour to do his job.

***

Dinesh pulled out the wad of notes from the drawer and out-stretched his hand toward Guru.

"You know Guru, I was after this guy for the last one month, but somehow he always smelled it out in advance, the little rat. You did what the others couldn't. Here...your 6 lakhs, as promised."

"Leave it, Dinesh bhai. I don't want the money this time."

Dinesh chuckled and looked at his cronies, not believing his ears. He then turned to Guru. "What happened? I thought you killed only for money."

Guru just shook his head and left. He walked out into the sunlight, his back aching. He walked to the lakeside and sat down on the bench, watching the ducks. The calm lake should've soothed his nerves. Instead he felt sick. Sick all over. Sick from head to toe.

His mind kept going back to the builder. He had caught him in his living room. It looked like he was about to leave home. Guru was quick, as usual. And then as he pointed his muffled gun at the man's head and pumped in two quick shots, point blank, he saw a picture on the shelf. He stepped closer to get a better look. He looked down at the builder he'd just bumped. And back at the picture, shining his cell phone's flash light. It was the builder and his wife.

The woman he saved that same night.

****

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Happy Birthday


It was little Avantika’s 5th birthday, and the first one in her new home. They moved here a week back and had just about finished doing it up. Her mother, a beaming Pooja, slowly entered the living room, cake in hand. The children, all 30 of them, shouted in unison. Pooja laughed and gently placed the cake on the center table.

She arranged the plastic knife alongside the cake, asked her daughter to come stand beside her. Pavan, who was busy welcoming other guests, heard the kids shouting and guessed it was cake cutting time. He turned around to see Pooja beckoning him. He nodded and made his way to the cake. Arpita, Pooja’s sister, was the lens woman, taking pictures with her D-SLR. She had also been Pooja’s right hand all through, arranging and looking after all the details.

Everybody milled around the birthday girl who was resplendent in her new white gown, looking like a little fairy.

“Come on, children, closer now..” Arpita said into the lens, as she focused the picture.

She took her eye off the camera for a minute and smiled. A couple of other kids Avantika’s age were jostling for space near her, wanting to cut the cake as well. Kids, she thought shaking her head. Finally, it was all settled and Arpita clicked pictures as Avantika cut the cake, fed her parents and then all the children by turns.

The rest of the evening was filled with cries of joy and excitement, some happy conversation, and lastly a long picture session with the tiny tot. Arpita’s finger ached by the end of it all. The last of the guests left a little after 10 pm and soon, it was just the family.

Avantika had dozed off at the couch. The adults were chatting, milling around to clear the table and clean up the mess the children had made. It was a memorable evening. Arpita came into the kitchen carrying the empty cake tray.

“What a party. Phew.”

Pooja  hugged her. “All thanks to you, sweetheart. I don’t know what I would've done without you.”

“Drama queen,” Arpita said, giving a peck on her older sister’s cheek and continued cleaning.

The men were discussing politics and sports outside in the living room. Pavan was on a ladder bringing down the wall decoratives. Pooja and Arpita, done with their cleaning, sat at the dining table. Pooja had  carried some wine along.

“Boys..join us for some wine?” She said, smiling at her brother-in-law Rajesh. Rajesh’s eyes lit up.

“Wow, Bhabhi, you sure know how to make a tired man happy.” He ambled over to the dining table and motioned Pavan over. He was Pavan’s younger brother and Arpita’s husband. It was a really close knit family. Arpita and he hadn’t had kids yet, so they showered all their love on little Avantika.

The four of them sat and sipped quietly for a while. Arpita looked lovingly at her niece, who Pavan would later carry to her bedroom. She had taken care to clean up her bed a while ago.

***

It was really hot in this house, and Arpita and Rajesh were holed up on the first floor room. Around 2 am, her throat parched, Arpita decided to come down to the kitchen for a glass of water. She’d forgotten to keep her usual water bottle by the bed side. She came to the stairs sleepily and stopped.

She sensed some movement in the living room. She slowly got down the stairs. Was Ammu still in the living room? But she remembered Pavan carrying her along earlier. There was a zero-watt bulb on in the hall and Arpita stood dead in her tracks. The hall was partially visible from the staircase, but she could make out clearly.

A little girl in a green frock, humming the birthday song softly, was circling around the center table where the cake was cut.

Oh my God, someone’s kid got left behind.

The girl saw Arpita and froze, shocked. Arpita smiled. ‘It’s ok child,’ she whispered, walking down the stairs.

‘Mommy papa didn’t come to pick you up?’ she asked all the while wondering how on earth would anybody forget to pick up their own child. And how did they miss her? Even Pooja didn’t mention anything about her.

Arpita came down the stairs. She made her way to the switchboard at the bottom of the staircase, switched on the lights. It was Avantika.

‘Ammu, it’s you! What is it baby, why’re you standing here all by yourself?’

Avantika made a sulking face and spoke out – ‘want cake’.

In an adult male voice.

***

Monday, January 13, 2014

Back in business


It has been a busy 2013 and I'm guessing 2014 would be busier.  And while everybody's busy talking about making resolutions, breaking resolutions, and even not having any resolutions, I thought of sneaking back here quietly and having a word with you guys.

I know, I know..I've been away a long time now. And by that I mean, with stuff that I originally used to write here, and not just plonk outtakes of my book or repost old stuff. Yeah...I know, 'yawn'. I was beginning to feel so myself. So yeah, 'malignant humor' hopes to return with a brand new flavor this year. Of course, good ol' spook will always be around to tingle those spines once a while, but I'm seriously hoping to come up with a lot of different stuff this time round.

They say you achieve a lot when you're the busiest. Couldn't be truer. In fact I think if I want to continue blogging here, I should find something that'll keep me busy as hell. Well, not difficult considering I have a new project at work to sink my professional teeth into, a psychological thriller waiting to be written after hours, impatiently waiting for the words 'The End' on its last page, and a whole lot more waiting to be brought to closure in my personal life as well. Phew!

Oh, and hopefully this space will also see a makeover. If all goes well. A very dear blogger friend is doing it for me.

Happy new year, guys. I've missed you all. :)

***

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mukti


Reposting this with some changes. Removed the old one.

Prateek fumbled for his cell phone, and finally managed to pull it out of his pocket. As he spoke into it, the waitress came by to pick up his empty plates. She smiled at him, and he smiled back, his eyes following her as she turned and walked away with just the right amount of sway in her hips. His voice was into the microphone of his cell phone, but his mind had long since left the conversation. It was now hovering around the waitress. There was something so familiar about her. It was near impossible that he'd even known her personally, but...his thought hung.

Mukti. Ah, yes, that's what she'd told her name was when she came in to take his order earlier. He had nothing against names, but he thought the name was a bit morbid. Just like the soul that waited to reach its final destination, her name hung in the air, waiting to get 'Mukti' from its own self. Prateek felt stupid at his own little joke.

He also normally didn't fancy stepping into a pizza parlor for supper, but there was no other eatery in the vicinity. The Americans knew their market well, and bang in the middle of (almost)nowhere, where inter-state lorries and cars whooshed by on the four-lane tarmac, was this lone pizza parlor, indeed looking like a beacon from a light-house. He'd spotted it from afar and decided to stop by, his stomach growling in protest. But now it was silent, while the mind wandered around Mukti, much like his six year old nephew, who absolutely had to go wandering around a restaurant after a meal.

He signed on the counter slip and their eyes met for a fleeting second again. He had the pen and the counter slip in his hand. She stood patiently waiting.

"Oh..oh I'm sorry. Here you go," he smiled, feeling stupid again.

"It's ok, sir. Hope you enjoyed your meal," she replied.

"Of course, of course," he rubbed his palm over his tummy. "sumptous," and chuckled.

"Thank you sir," she said and turned to leave.

"Uh, excuse me..."

"Yes sir?" She turned back.

"Do I know you from some place?"

All those gruelling training sessions on 'be patient with a customer, no matter how weird he or she behaves, service with a smile', and all that jazz, came in handy now. She had a straight face. Not for long though, it broke into a smile but not without a question mark curving her brow.

"Me sir? I don't know..I don't think so. I..." For once, her perfectly intonated almost-answering-machine-perfect voice quivered and she hesitated.

"Oh, it's ok. It's perfectly ok. It's just that..you have a very familiar face," he said smiling.

"Maybe, sir," she smiled back and left.

He hung around for a few minutes, looked back at the restaurant, let out a long sigh and drove out to the highway.

*********

A month later. Prateek shut his laptop and rubbed his eyes, a loud yawn escaping his lips. There. That was done. The final version of the script for his movie was ready. He had to reach it to his child hood friend and director, Yogesh Viraj, the next day. This was a dream come true for him. In a way for Yogesh too. Yogesh was a couple of movies old, and he'd promised Prateek a break once he'd established himself.

He walked into Yogesh's office and they went over the script again, one last time. The next job was to make copies and hand those over to the actors.

Lunch time.

"Yaar Yogesh, something's eating me the last couple of months. Ever since we completed casting etc. Tell me something, is Merilyn really our Disha?"

"What's this? All of a sudden. We hit the floors Monday, pal." Yogesh gawked.

"I know, I know..and..I also know Merilyn was the best among the lot, but..it's just that, our Disha is someone else. Someone..someone.." he left it hanging, his mind wandering back to the drive he had on the highway that night. He then shook his head.

Yogesh walked over to him and patted his shoulder. "Chill, writer saab. This is it. Don't think a lot. Merilyn will deliver the goods. She's excellent, man. Didn't you see her in that anger scene we screened her for?"

Prateek nodded. They'd screened close to a hundred and fifty girls and guys for the movie. It took a team of more than 10 to finally arrive at the lead actors. Both of them knew the trouble they took to get the perfect cast.

Yogesh was done with his meal and he rose. Then he stopped to remark, "Of course, there was this girl too who came a close second. Actually, I even thought she was better than Merilyn. I'd wanted to tell you that day itself. You left early because your sister had sprained her ankle, and your dear bro-in-law wasn't in town. Remember?"

"Hmm, yeah. So, what about that girl, why didn't we choose her instead?"

"Arre, our man friday Amol lost her number. And she'd not left any other information, address etc."

"Damn."

"Yeah, interesting name she had though. I remembered, because one of my aunts has the same name."

"What's it?"

"Mukti." Yogesh replied, bringing a wide grin on Prateek's face.

"Apparently she works in a Pizza joint or something, but how do we...what?" Yogesh said chuckling at Prateek who was now laughing, shaking his head.

"Nothing," Prateek replied, laughing a little louder, holding his head. Ah, Disha. No wonder he felt it when he first saw her.

He patted a puzzled Yogesh's cheek, grabbed his car keys and rushed out.


******

Monday, September 30, 2013

Closing soon...


From the Frankly Spooking outtakes

They ate steamed corn and walked over to the main lounge on the second floor. It was a new mall; a lot of shops were yet to come up. The shape was a funny hexagon, and seemed like the shops would never end. But when they came back to where they started from, Deepa heaved a sigh of relief and laughed. Ashok shook his head too. “Phew.”

Just then tucked away between the wash-rooms and the audio shop, in an L-shaped corner, was another shop. Deepa craned her neck to see what it was. Looked like a garment store. Ashok was looking the other way, at the Apple store across the circular lobby.

“Baby, I’ll just step into that shop for a second?” She said, tugging at Ashok’s sleeve.

“Hmm? Oh, ok..I’m at that Apple store,” he said.

She smiled. “Okie dokie.”

***

Deepa pushed the glass door and stepped in. There was nobody in the store. Maybe they'd stepped out for a break. Deepa looked at the dresses on display and started browsing. Impressive. This was really good stuff. They were all arranged on stands in neat rows. She went on seeing, and after a while, it was like a maze. There were so many designs, so many colors, it blew her mind.

Wow..this is some collection.

She never realized the time. Oh, there was another room inside.

She stepped into that room and her jaw literally dropped.

Was this even possible? This was like a dungeon of dresses. How come they had such a humungous room here? She thought they were on the far corner, where at the most, the store front was all they could manage with that space. This was endless.

Deepa stepped in further, and several lights came on at once, bright and shiny. Automated lights. Not bad. She started walking along the rows of cloth-stands. She had never seen so many designs in her entire life. She considered herself an avid shopper. Even by her standards, these designs were all unique. She sighed. Oh, if only she had the dough to pick up everything. Like a school girl, she giggled and moved on inside.

She approached the end of a row, near the other end of the hall when the lights went out.

Oops.

She waited for the backup lights to come on anytime now. That never happened. She let out a loud sigh.

“Hello,” She turned in the direction of the store front. Maybe they were back and would step in any moment now with some sort of a backup light and an explanation.

But nobody came.

Just then her phone rang. “Oh thank heavens,” she said out loud. It was Ashok.

“Where are you?” He said, sounding a little impatient.

“I…I’m right here Ashok. The damn lights’ve gone out. I’m coming out. You done?”

“Done? Deepa, it’s more than an hour since you went..”

“What? No, impossible. It’s just been like what..10 minutes?”

Ashok laughed. “Come on, honey.”

“No really. Ok, I’m coming out,” She said and started to make her way out, but she just kept on walking.

“Funny, I could’ve sworn the door of this hall was right here,” she muttered as she thought she’d approached the doorway. Ashok was still on the line.

“Any problem? I’m coming there,” he said.

“Yeah..could you please? Nobody was here when I came in. Please call someone and tell them the lights aren’t coming on either.”

“What lights?”

“Hasn’t there been an outage?” Deepa asked, sounding a little worried now.

“No.”

“Shit..something must’ve happened here then.”

She reminded herself not to step into a new mall, still half way in development.

She hung up and pointed the cell phone’s light at the rows of dresses, to make her way around. She could see the wall on the other side. Strange. The hall didn’t seem so large now. Maybe it was the semi-darkness. Maybe there were mirrors. She couldn’t care less now. She wanted to get out.

Ashok called again.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Where are you? Which shop is it?”

“Arre, the one beside the wash-rooms – It’s called..some “Mirage..something…you can’t miss it, sweety.”

“I’m standing right beside the wash-room area, Deepa. There’s nothing here.”

“What?”

“Yeah.”

“No, no..that can’t be. It has to be there. Just ask someone around na?”

She could hear him asking someone. He came back online.

“What did you say the name was…?”

“Ashok, how the hell does it matter what name? The shop’s right beside…wait. I can see a light come on. I’m coming there.”

She found the door and walked through. The store looked different now, and the lights were still very dim. She found the familiar rows of dresses and started walking. She reached the front portion and let out a sigh.

“Ah, I’m here..see, I see you there. Come on in.” She waved at Ashok, who was outside the glass door and looking everywhere else but at her.

Ashok looked around, looked through her, and then back at something else.

“Arre, Ashok…I’m here,” She said and stepped towards the door. But there was none. It was all a glass wall.

What the hell was happening. She was getting irritated now.

“Where?” Ashok asked.

“Turn to your right.”

He turned at looked straight at her. She looked at him and waved. But he kept on looking through her.

“Where?”

“Ashok, you’re looking at me. Hellllloo..” She waved frantically. He looked puzzled.

“Where are you? I’m just staring at a wall here.”

Wall? Her heart racing, she slowly came to the glass wall and touched it. What the hell was Ashok saying? She was looking right at him. Why couldn’t he see her?

She called out to the store keeper. “Hello. Hello, I’m stuck here. Where are you?”

No reply.

She looked back at Ashok.

“I…I’m right here, baby, please don’t say you can’t see me” she said. Her voice had dropped down to a whimper now.

“Sweety, don’t worry, I’ll get to you..just tell me where you are.”

“I’m right here, damn it,” She shouted.

“Hello?” Ashok said.

“Ashok…can’t you…can’t you hear me?” She said, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Hello?” He repeated, looking at his phone and again putting it to his ear.

She banged the glass wall, sobbing.

“Please…let me out of here…”

“Hello, Deepa..Deepa?” Ashok kept on saying.

Exhausted, she hung up and turned around. The walls of the store were now closing in on her and the lights getting dimmer. She turned to look at Ashok, who was still looking around frantically. He was talking to one of the house-keeping staff, pointing to where Deepa was.

But the other guy was shaking his head, as if to say, “No, there’s nothing behind this wall, no shop.”

And then, Deepa remembered the name of the shop.

Mystic Maze.

****




Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ceasefire


From the Frankly Spooking outtakes

The quiet of the night was shattered by a rudely loud “You bloody bitch”, the last word rising a few decibels higher than the rest.

A door opened and slammed somewhere, and many girls, standing and chatting in groups, in the corridors of the working womens’ hostel, could see a figure emerge out of that door and move rapidly towards the far end of the wing.

Comments ranged from hushed tones to audible banter.

“Who was that?”

“Oofff..the drama has started again.”

“It’s Neha. Stomping off to pick a fight with someone, I’m sure. Wonder who’s the target this time.”

For the uninitiated, the object of gossip here was Neha. She was known for her wicked temper, manipulative demeanor, and a vicious “I-hold-a-grudge-against-anyone-crossing-my-path” attitude. Her latest target was apparently Ankita, her colleague and more importantly team member. The hostel grapevine had it that Ankita was a better performer at office, than Neha, and this more often than not, landed her in the direct line of Neha’s sarcastic fire, sometimes leaving a dazed and hurt Ankita silently licking her wounds in the bathroom. A recluse, Ankita hardly ever shared her sob story with anyone in the hostel. And whatever little was known, came from Neha’s roomie, who would invariably let out nuggets of the office war to the others. Some were true, some made up purely for dramatic effect, and some, well, totally hogwash.

But on this calm and quiet October night, Neha’s ire was a certain missive she received in her inbox, from their boss Vikram Deshpande. The email was obviously a result of Ankita’s report of Neha’s disgusting behavior and a few minutes after her storming out the room, word went out that Neha had been fired on that very email.

“Oh my God, poor Ankita. I hope she’s not in the hostel tonight. This one’s going to kill her for sure.”

And well, they might not have been entirely wrong in speculating that one. Neha was indeed on fire.

“Where’s she?” She stormed into Ankita’s room and came out.

“Kusum, where’s Ankita?” Neha literally caught Kusum’s collar and asked.

“Hey, let go Neha…I don’t know.”

Letting her go, Neha stomped towards the bathrooms.

***

She found Ankita in the first bathroom, standing in a corner, hiding her face and sobbing.

“Ah, the great Ms. Spitfire is here, huh? Or shall we say, the squealer? You bloody bitch…”

She waited for a response but Ankita continued sobbing.

“Oh stop it Ankita. Stop being such a saint. The whole world knows what you did with my boyfriend. And now this. How…how dare you. How dare you go and tell all that nonsense to that fucking creep, Vikram. What on earth made you think you could get away with...”

Just then a blood-curdling scream from the adjacent bathroom made her jump and she walked out to the main corridor . She saw many girls running in the direction of the scream. Neha went with them to have a look. “I’ll deal with this scum later,” she thought.

She elbowed her way in with the others. Collective gasps, wails, moans, and assorted screams escaped the girls’ lips as neared the scene. Neha slowly made her way in and came to the spot. An involuntary gasp escaped her lips as well.

There, in one of the small clearing areas, hanging from a hook on the wall, was Ankita’s limp form. Her eyes were almost popping out, and her broken neck all but managed to hold the rest of her body together.

Neha, disbelief, shock, and a host of other varied expressions darting across her face, slowly walked back looking down at the floor and stood outside the bathroom. Many more women hurried past her, some pushing her in the process. But Neha was oblivious. She kept looking at the floor blankly.

She then looked up and toward the other bathroom where she’d just blasted Ankita.  She slowly walked in that direction, her steps almost zombie-like. She peeped into the the bathroom and slowly entered. She stood in the place she thought she’d seen Ankita. She had seen her right here, by the basin mirror. She could swear she had seen her. Sobbing away like she usually did. Making the whole world hate her (Neha). And now…

She bent down and splashed some water on her face. And when she rose…

She heard a giggle, and looked behind her in the mirror. Ankita.

Her heart leaping to her mouth, she swung around sharply. Nobody was there.

Then the lights went out. And the bathroom door slammed shut.

****