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Fun with Fiction #1



After years of driving around amongst blaring horns, static storms of smoke and dust, loud music blaring from the auto rickshaws around that was flavoured by multiple radio stations that aired in the city, it was strange to be driving on a road that was completely empty. There were no other vehicles either behind his car or heading past him from the opposite direction for his headlights to illuminate. Now that he thought about it, it had been well over an hour since he last saw any sign of human life.

This wasn’t the oddest thing. It was, after all, a Tuesday night, well past midnight, and Karan was on the highway, driving from Bangalore to Pondicherry. Despite this, he felt it slightly unnerving to not have seen any open shop, restaurant or a passing vehicle for over an hour. While driving in the city, he would distract himself from the din and dust of the roads by listening to the radio. Despite there being ten active stations, he had the feeling that there was a more than fifty percent probability of hearing an advertisement irrespective of what station he turned on.

His car was an old fashioned blue Santro Xing, which carried the advertising tagline of ‘the sunshine car’ when his family had first bought it twelve years ago, and he was certain that it had crossed it’s sunset time. But it did the basic functionality of transporting him from one place to another and he wasn’t going to replace it until it stopped doing that. But now, having crossed the city limits of Bangalore, he realised the need for having an upgraded car. There was no longer any music to distract him now. The Xing only supported a sound system with radio and audio cassette tapes. The radio stations would only throw up static outside of city limits and the age of cassette tapes was long gone. This meant that there was nothing to keep his mind from hypothesising scenarios under which he wouldn’t come across any sign of human life for over an hour. And the clock continued to tick with still no sign of a passing vehicle or a cigarette shop.

Afraid that the silence will put him to sleep at the wheel, he reached over to the seat next to the driver’s, where he usually throws his wallet and phone while driving, deciding to play some music on his phone instead. Just as he was about to do that, he reminded himself why he was driving down to Pondicherry in the first place, and why he had left his phone behind.

Earlier in the week, he had received a strange phone call. It was eleven in the night, the time he usually hit the bed on weekdays. This being a Monday, he had finished setting up his calendar for the next day and planning out the tasks he wanted to get done at work and was just responding to a few emails he had left for the end of the day, when his typing was interrupted mid-sentence as his phone started vibrating and the email draft disappeared from the screen in one swift animation to be replaced by the incoming call. Where one would usually see the name of the person calling, or the number when the caller was unknown, he just saw ‘Blocked Number’.

Unable to imagine who might be calling him from a private number at this time of the hour, he decided to pick the call. As he put the Nexus 5 to his ear, he heard a deep voice at the other end that said, “Hello Mr. Karan. I apologise for calling from a private number. But you’ll understand soon enough why I had to.”

Karan was hoping to hear an introduction at the other end, but this piqued his curiosity a little. He thought that the voice on the other end belonged to a man of around forty or forty five years. And given the deep nature and the coarse texture of the voice that reminded him of his gym instructor from back when he was a school kid, he pictured the owner of the voice on the phone to be of a similar build that his gym instructor was back in the days. There was no change in the tone or the modulation of the voice as the sentence was spoken, and Karan pictured a man of forty, about 6 feet tall, slightly on the bulkier side of around two hundred pounds, sitting down at his desk, with his phone to his ear, and his eyes on his laptop screen, probably sifting through some document, his half-distracted tone indicating the last bit.

Karan waited a few seconds, hoping that the owner of the voice will come forth with an introduction. But when all that he heard was silence, he closed his eyes and gently scratched his forehead, the way he always did when he was about to take on the role of an interrogator. He often played the role of interrogator at his work. Being the head of products at an Internet startup often had him questioning engineers, designers and marketing people in his team, to dig deep into why his products weren’t doing as well as expected.

He didn’t like his time being in the control of someone else, and this was one such case. When he would rather be sleeping, he was being held up over a phone call he had no context of, by a person he didn’t know and who didn’t seem in a hurry to change that. “Who’s this?” he demanded bluntly of the voice at the other end.

The silence resumed for a few more seconds. Perhaps the person at the other end was weighing his words before answering the question. Finally, the deep voice came back on the line, “Let’s just say I represent someone who is a fan of your work.”

True, Karan had built products that he was proud of and some of them affected people’s lives for the better. But, someone being a ‘fan’ of his work? It wasn’t his work alone at the end of the day. He wasn’t even the face of these products. He ruled out the possibility that this call was from a potential recruiter, even though some of them had started using the ‘fan of your work’ line with the hope of enticing prospective recruits. It just didn’t fit that context. Potential hiring calls were almost always made by women, never this late in the day and would definitely not be as enigmatic. Still wondering, he responded with a half inquisitive “Thank you”, dragging the end of the ‘you’ long enough to make it sound like a question, and hoping that the person on the other end would take the cue and elaborate more on who he represented and what work this person was impressed by. Although, he wasn’t very sure that the person would take the cue.
“My client is a regular reader of your blog, and I should say that I am too but that’s not of consequence here.”

Karan wrote often and was very candid about his views on the world, and where it was headed. His passionate essay on reforming the societal fabric to bring about changes in how everyone looked at poverty, economic progression and the happiness index was a big hit. Originally published on his blog, it was picked up by the leading national dailies for their editorial pages and had evoked a healthy debate on the issues in the media. He felt that it may have gotten the spotlight less for the ideas themselves and more for a seemingly anti-capitalist view coming from the head of products at a successful Internet startup that was the epitome of capitalism at play. In fact, he had been hounded by the media for further comments on his published ideas. Although he would have loved to take the debate further and make a case for how free availability of all basic resources to everyone was neither anti-capitalistic nor socialistic, his company had publicly disavowed his words as not representing the company’s views in any way, and had warned him internally to not have any further interaction with the media on this topic. However, his silence on the matter only encouraged the media even more to hound him for comments.

This sounded like another attempt by the media to get his comments and was about to tell the man with the deep voice to bugger off and leave him alone, when he heard the deep voice again. As though the man had been reading Karan’s mind, he said, “Don’t worry Mr. Karan, I’m not from the media and I don’t want further comments on the article you published. My client wanted me to get in touch with you as your ideas are very much aligned with his own and he is interested in meeting anyone who is as passionate about the cause and can potentially play a part in it.”

Cause? What cause? Karan had just written down and published a few of his ideas. True, he really felt that the world would be a better place if his ideas were executed. But this man was making it sound like he was leading a cause to bring these ideas to life. He knew he wasn’t ready to do such a thing. But, like he had seen many of his team members that he had hired do, he didn’t give away anything and tried to find out more about this cause instead. “Thanks, but you haven’t even told me your name yet. Or your client’s. And you’re calling me from a private number and talking about some cause.” He let out a nervous laugh, with the hope of sounding affronted and yet indicating his willingness to further the conversation.

It took three more such calls from the man with the deep voice to convince Karan to drive down to Pondicherry for a meeting with the man he represented.

Once he had heard the name of the client, it took Karan very little time to make up his mind to go meet him. The client was a very popular religious leader in India who had his ashram in a little town called Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh. He was revered as a living God by many of his followers who flocked to see him from across the world.

Despite not being a devout follower of any religion, Karan was curious enough to follow up on this invitation to go meet the man who was otherwise extremely hard to meet, even for his followers that donated thousands of dollars to his ashram. This was like meeting a celebrity for Karan.

Of course, even with an invitation, one can’t just waltz in to meet a man of such stature, and there would be rules and rituals that would have to be followed. And one of them was, as requested by the man with the deep voice, to leave his phone behind. Happy to get away from the constant barrage of emails and instant messages, Karan decided to treat this as a day’s getaway from the always connected world and agreed to leave his phone behind.

The actual rendezvous point was not in Pondicherry itself, but a few kilometres away. Without his phone, there was no firing up Google Maps to navigate to his destination, but he had memorized the directions. It wasn’t hard to do so, given that he just had to look out for a parking garage on the highway to his right once he had crossed the limits of Pondicherry. And from there, it was a short walk through the farmland as there was no road to take the car further ahead.

By the time Karan approached the parking garage, the full moon was at the centre of the sky, and a cloudless night made the atmosphere seem ethereal, illuminating everything around with the moon’s natural light. The moment he parked his car and turned off the headlights, there was no longer any artificial light. And there had still been no sign of any human life. But a small cat with thin black stripes leapt off a tree next to the parking garage and scurried away quickly, possibly spotting a mouse.

The road he was on was a slight detour from the main highway that he drove down on from Bangalore. It was small enough to allow the passage of only one car at a time, which meant that if another car had come by in the opposite direction, one of them would have had to stray off the road onto the muddy patches on the side to let the other one pass. But, no car had come from either direction. The road itself looked like it lead to nowhere. There were no houses or shops that he could see, nor were there any sign boards indicating where the road led to. It just curved to the left or right every few hundred metres and seemed to stretch on into the horizon.

It was as though he was out in the forest and away from all civilization. He had only seen such places in movies and didn’t think they actually existed. But all he could see on either side of him was trees except for a little patch with small plants that stretched on into the horizon as well. And all the trees seemed to be of the same kind, tall, bearing no fruit and full of wide branches with palm sized leaves. The parking garage that could hold just three cars and was currently holding one old blue Santro Xing, seemed like an aberration on the beautiful landscape. There was no fence around the farmland, as is usually the case in the country-side. And that is where he started to walk.

On the fourth call, when the man with the deep voice had finally managed to convince Karan for the meeting, he had recited the directions to the rendezvous point and asked Karan to park his car at the parking garage and walk on the farmland in the direction leading away from the road for about three kilometres until he came across a small house, beyond which there would be more trees like the ones flanking the farmland. This house would be the meeting point.

As he started walking in the farmland, Karan was thankful to be wearing his bulky Woodland hiking boots, as he was worried there might be snakes in the field. But having seen a cat chase after a mouse earlier, he concluded that the probability of there being snakes was low if the cats could survive on the mice. The same mice that they would have to compete for with more powerful snakes. All he felt under his boots was the occasional soft grass on an otherwise muddy and soft earth. The land must have been freshly dug and covered up after sowing seeds. And it was probably watered during the day which left it damp and soft this late in the night.

After walking for about fifteen minutes, the road was no longer visible when he looked back, and the parking garage was not visible either. Although he couldn’t be sure how trees seemed to be obscuring his view of the garage when there were no trees that he had walked past. Nevertheless, it was too beautiful a night for Karan to worry about why he was unable to see a parking garage more than a kilometre away. He knew that it would soon be dawn, so he stopped to soak in the view of the sky which had so many little white dots that he would never get to see back in the city. If he looked up at the sky when back home, he could always count the number of visible stars even on the clearest of skies, but it was impossible to count them now. There were that many. He couldn’t remember the last time when he had seen so many stars in the sky.

As he was walking on, trying to identify constellations in the sky, the outline of a little white house came into view, behind a few trees. He could see where the farmland ended and the trees began to envelope the land. The house was just beyond this point, amongst the trees. Even though the trees were obscuring parts of the house, he could clearly make out it’s dimensions. The entrance wasn’t on the side facing him. There were just two sets of windows with three openings each. The glass wasn’t transparent. With the moonlight shining upon them, he could just about make out that they had a sort of a translucent design that reflected some of the light back, but didn’t let him see what was behind the windows. The design on the glass reminded him of a bunch of pebbles strewn around in a heap. There was no light on inside the house, or the windows would have been illuminated from the inside and the design would have looked clearer than in the moonlight. There was a thin strip of wall dividing the two sets of windows, and there was a pillar a few feet away and parallel to this strip that, along with two other such pillars on either side, served as holders for the thatch roof that made for a covered walking area outside the windows. The pillars themselves were thin and plain cylinders with absolutely no ornamentation or design. And being made of stone, they needed no paint either.
The entire house seemed to be elevated by a couple of feet above the ground. This allowed for a small set of stairs to climb up to the entrance of the house. Karan could notice the platform for these stairs to his left side. Having reached within a few steps of the house, he now decided to walk around towards the stairs. As he reached the entrance side of the house, he paused to look up and saw a simple teak door that was polished well. The door had an elegant design of a blooming lotus at the centre of the top half while the bottom half had two fishes in a jumping position, flanking the lotus above on either side. There were no windows on the side of the entrance.

Karan had a quick glance at his watch and noted that it was still 4:30 in the morning, a good half hour earlier than the time he was expected. He climbed up the few stairs and stood close to the door, trying to pick up any sounds from inside the house. But, all he could hear was the gentle breeze and the occasional rustling of the leaves as they parted to make way for the breeze. Being February, it was not very cold and was the kind of weather that Karan liked to spend on the balcony of his 19th floor apartment, looking up at the sky. Choosing not to knock on the door and disturb the people inside before it was time for the meeting, he walked a few steps back and sat down on the stairs. The calm atmosphere was an ideal setting for him to sit down and put his mind to work.

He occasionally interviewed famous people in various fields and posted those interviews as podcasts and blog posts to his audience. He had so far had the chance to interview a prominent Bollywood actress, the founder of a healthcare startup, the owner of a famous chain of tea-shops in Bangalore, a popular radio artist who was his favourite entertainer when he was a kid, and the man who invented the famous voodoo kick cocktail, which was the rage in Bangalore. He was looking at this as an opportunity to add a popular religious leader to his now growing list. Since he didn’t have his phone to record the interview, he had brought along a pencil and notebook to take notes the traditional way. Although, he wasn’t sure if he would be granted the permission to publish the contents of this conversation on his blog. After walking down a farmland to a remote house in the middle of the night, he wasn’t even sure if he would be allowed to mention the meeting to anyone. But Karan was the eternal optimist.

As he would for any other interview, he had done his homework for this one as well. There was virtually no trace of who the religious leader was and what his life was like before he took centre stage at his ashram in Puttaparthi. All he could find in the public domain was that the now 80-year old man was born in a small village in Andhra Pradesh called Chilumuru just before the second world war. He was home-schooled by his parents, both of whom worked at the village temple. Both his parents died or vanished around the time of India gaining Independence as there was no records of them after that point. In fact, the entire family seemed to vanish around that time and only one emerged back around 1962. The boy who disappeared fifteen years ago was now a man in his prime and started helping people in need in the town of Puttaparthi. Soon, he was gathering more and more followers as he began to be known as the person who can solve any problem one might have. In 1970, he set up his ashram and took on the avatar of a religious leader and has been fondly known by his followers as ‘Baba’ ever since. In the forty five years since he set up the ashram, he had managed to grow it into a sort of an empire with schools, universities, hospitals and housing all provided free of cost to his followers. The only source of income for setting up all these seemed to be the donations coming in from his devotees, which he was channeling through a religious trust that he set up around the same time as he did the ashram.

What he had achieved was miraculous indeed and if he had pitched this idea to any of the venture capitalists back in 1970, Karan doubted he would have managed to raise a single penny with this vision. He would have been laughed off. This was not just an interview of a celebrity for Karan, it was also the academic curiosity of finding out how all of this came about. Moreover, he now realised what the man on the phone might have meant when he talked about the cause. Karan had written about an ideal state in his article where he wanted all basic needs like education, healthcare, Internet, housing, food, water, security, transportation was all free for every citizen of the land which allowed each one to pursue whatever interest they had. The Baba had been executing a similar vision in his little ashram town for a few decades now. So he could understand the man wanting to talk to him after reading his article.

Just as Karan was putting all this information into a coherent flow that he would like to talk to the Baba about and slotting in questions that he needed answers to, he heard the creaking of the door.

The time for the meeting was here.

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