|| प्रतिपच्चंद्रलेखेव वर्धिष्णुर्विश्ववन्दिता ।।

|| शाहसूनोः शिवस्यैषा मुद्रा भद्राय साजते ।।

“Sajate? You are going to ensure that the only form of appreciation we receive from our dear audience, lies in their lovely shoes!” scoffed Rao and yawned softly. 

“राजते! राजते! मुद्रा भद्राय राजते! I’m so so sorry Rao sir!!!” replied Anant, in utter shame. 

“Your real strength lies in your voice modulation and pitch, Anant. However, your voice is of no use if you say the wrong stuff!”

Anant nodded his head in affirmation, as he glanced towards his side. Faint lights along the Mumbai Pune Expressway whooshed past their car. Buses and a never ending sea of cars with their lights tearing into the night sky sped at speeds unimaginable. The loaded trucks meanwhile struggled to keep up with the mighty ghat. 

Having successfully completed an intense acting workshop under Umesh Rao, an acclaimed theatre artist or Rao Sir as he was fondly called, Anant, a sixteen year old boy, dreamt of making it big in the show business. Rao had seen the fire that this boy carried and had immediately stepped into the shoes of a mentor for him. 

Perhaps Rao had glimpsed the same hunger for drama, the same passion for the stage in Anant, only to be barred by finance and went an extra mile to give him opportunities and personally take charge of his transportation, from one play to another. The world of drama was as uncertain as finding logic in daily soaps and plays took place in Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, Nagpur..the list went on and on, often on back to back days. Respite was thus a myth! 

Having successfully completed their practice session and workshop on Rao’s latest creation, ‘Janata Raja’, both the enthusiasts looked forward to their play in Pune. The destination was afar and Rao, having already slept twice while driving at night, had felt the sudden need to keep himself awake. He had thus asked Anant to recite his dialogues and take yet another practice. 

“Rao Sir!” 

Anant’s sharp voice floated through Rao’s sleepy subconscious. 

“Rao sir!”

“Ugh? Uh? Ah?” 

“Rao sir! There! Who’s she?” enquired Anant while pointing towards the side of the road. 

As Rao rubbed his eyes and forced himself to focus, a woman came into view. 

Standing at the side of the road, with a huge suitcase beside her, she looked genuinely disturbed. Dishevelled flowing black hair, huge dark circles adorned her once beautiful face. She wore a white kurta that had seen better days for sure and was waving out to them. Almost pleading them to stop. 

Rao looked into the rear view mirror and noticed that the flow of cars behind him was less than usual. He did what he thought best and brought the car to a standstill along the side of the road just a few metres ahead of the woman. 

Goosebumps crept up Anant’s hand and Rao felt uneasy as he noticed the woman through his rear view mirror. The woman locked eyes with Rao and smiled devilishly. Rao glanced towards Anant and was about to mention that they ought to continue their journey when his eyes went back to the rear view mirror. 

The woman was nowhere to be seen. Rao suspiciously turned around in his seat when Anant, who was sitting beside him screamed at the top of his voice. The woman was standing close to his mirror with one hand on it. Her nails, overgrown and dirty, bloodshot eyes were way too much for the poor child. 

“Pull the window down halfway Anant.” 

Anant glanced at Rao and towards the woman pleading for an apparent lift. He pulled the creaky window down half way just so that the woman could speak. 

The air inside the car turned foul and cold due to the opening of the window and the woman spoke softly. 

“My husband! Bastard! Started bashing me in the middle of the night after he came home heavily drunk. He literally pissed on me and my kids and hurled abuse. I dropped my kids at my neighbour and I wish to take them away from this raging animal. Would you two gentlemen kindly give me a lift?” 

Rao contemplated giving her a lift for just a second. 

“Where do you wish to go?” He asked. 

“Poona,” said the woman, her voice dropping to a whisper. 

“I’m sorry, we are not headed that way!” mumbled Rao and stepped on the accelerator. The car dashed forward as the woman shouted behind them. 

“Good for you!” And she laughed maniacally.

Rao looked into the rear view mirror as he sped away. The woman was again nowhere to be seen. 

“What the hell was that Rao sir?” shouted Anant. 

Rao sat frozen in his seat, his only aim?  To get away from the foul place as soon as possible. 

“Sir!!?? Who was she??!!

“You..tell..me.!” whispered a soft silky demonic voice from their back seat.

The car continued to race away in the middle of the night. It raced the expressway and it raced down the ghat as well. The woman climbed up the slope wherein Rao’s car lay and wiped her sweat. 

She adjusted her hair and ensured that they remained dishevelled. Pointing a thumb outward, she smiled and calmly asked for a lift.

A story by Laxmman Kamat.