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Mysterious Disappearances
Chapter 4

By Nirupama Akella

Meetings & Exchanges

The room stared back, transparent, colorless and impersonal. The suitcase and bag were dumped on a near by bed and after making sure that she would arrange everything, Ms Chadda followed Matron downstairs to talk about her ward. Matron already knew about Jyotsana Patel in detail but still Ms Chadda liked to reassure herself that Jyotsana was in good hands. Upstairs Jyotsana shut the door and frowned looking at the empty room.

There were four beds with mattress and a pillow each, two on the side facing a window, one in the corner next to another big window and the remaining one bed stood at one side of the door. Each bed had a chest of drawers attached, a cupboard and a writing table with a table lamp. The side window looked down on the hill while the corner window faced an old building, “probably an old church,” thought Jyotsana, marching her luggage to one of the side beds. Both the windows had cream reddish curtains matching the cream of the walls. There was a huge dresser near the door for all the four girls to use and a small glass kitchen cupboard. Nothing more!

Jyotsana sighed and opened her suitcase to start arranging her belongings. Having finished with the suitcase, she zipped open the bag and carefully arranged the rest of her linen, pillow cases and clothes in the cupboard. She made her bed; a bedsheet with the face of Mickey Mouse designed on it -- then changing into slippers, pushed her canvas shoes beneath the bed. She dumped her school bag on the writing table, set her tiny alarm clock on the table and a calendar next to the lamp. The door opened and Roshini Chadda peeped in.

“My,” she said coming in, “You have already unpacked and arranged everything! What a fast worker you are! But I’ve come to say goodbye. I have to drive down back to the city. You have my phone number and address -- any emergency, you just have to give me a ring,” she smiled and waving closed the door behind her. All of a sudden, Jyotsana felt completely alone and scared. She sniffed miserably -- she always felt sad on her first day in new surroundings.

“I tell you he is cheating us,” Lata snapped. Both girls, now stood outside a cab with two suitcases neatly piled at their feet in front of the main building, arguing with the taxi driver about the cab fare.

“Fifty rupees is too much,” Malti Kundan agreed, “Hey, we’ll pay you forty!”

But the cab driver, it seemed had other ideas. Lata and Malti stood rather impatiently listening and saying their piece, but refusing to pay up fifty rupees. It had been solely their misfortune that the train had steamed into the Dehradun station late at around half past seven when both the girls had lost all their good humor and wanted to strangle the engine driver badly. To add to their run of bad luck, they had got into a rickety cab as they had spied no other comfortable means of transportation on four wheels adding on to the fact that it was already dark, had got in with misgivings which had soon proved to be right. The old beedi smoking taxi driver had taken off on a different route going through alleys and small streets rather than sticking to the main road.

 Lata had become very suspicious when they had turned into another small street and shouted at the cab driver to stop. She had then got out and made sure of their bearings and the fact that they were not being kidnapped. And the cab driver had called out, as she had stood there scratching her chin – “are you climbing in lady? Mayfair College is still some way off and if you want to go there fast, you better get in.”

And Lata kicking the dust had said, “Never heard of this route before? Are you sure you know where we are?”

“Lady, this is a short cut, just parallel to the Bank Street. Now, if you don’t want to go via the short cut…you can find yourself another cab.”

Malti, who had till then been dozing slightly had immediately sprung to life, “NO, it is a nice short cut! Lata, for goodness sake, get in! Stop admiring the sky so much!”

“I was looking at the ground.”

But she had got in and the taxi had roared off again. They had earlier bargained -- actually Lata had -- with the driver that they would pay forty rupees for the fare and the disgruntled driver had merely grunted which had made Malti question her companion seriously as to the whereabouts of his origin -- did he reside in propinquity with pigs, by any chance! Lata however had not been amused and seemed more interested in looking outside the window at passing rickshaws and buses! She seemed to be under the impression that they had mutually agreed on the fare of forty rupees, but the cab driver it now seemed clear, had never agreed and had harbored other ideas. They had finally managed to reach the college after the taxi, behaving like a rheumatic patient wheezed and grumbled climbing the hill. Lata had thought it would have been much fun to run uphill with their suitcases on their heads! Certainly that would have been more enjoyable than listening to the cab driver talk about his stupid contraption of a car!

And now the cab meter showed fifty rupees, neither of the two girls had that kind of money on them. Lata felt in her trouser pocket -- she had only thirty rupees -- and then reminded herself they had a deal! Forty rupees was all they had to pay to get rid off the cab.

The cab driver, resting on the bonnet of his car, shook his head firmly, “No, pay fifty rupees now…”

“Forty rupees…”

“No, no! Meter says fifty rupees…”

Lata glared angrily -- she had money in her bag but she had no desire to open it and part with her money, “Take forty rupees and go! Or I will call big security guys over there,” she pointed towards the gate post and saw to her dismay that the security guys had vanished -- where were they when they were needed? She fervently hoped that the cab driver would not notice that the post was empty! She bravely continued, ‘And get you beaten up! They work here and have sticks and guns! Forty rupees!’

“They were back at it again,” Malti, her hair all awry thought impatiently. She felt like hitting the cab driver and marveled at Lata who actually had the energy to argue with him! She shifted her weight from one foot to the other wearily -- she, herself, had no wish nor desire to argue with the taxi driver.  But neither did she want to shower him with fifty rupees! “Where were the security guys to brandish their rifles at this whining argumentative creature and where was Matron, in her crackling uniform -- fire emanating from her steely eyes -- why wasn’t anybody coming to their rescue?” She suddenly felt very miserable and to add to her anguish, Lata was still cheerfully arguing and smiling.

 Malti did not feel like smiling or laughing at all. She wanted to be in the hostel, have a bath, eat and then go to sleep. The train journey, in the evening, had taken on horrendous proportions -- with visitors   pulling the safety chain and stopping the train at odd interval in the strangest of places, to admire scenic beauty! Hailing from the interiors of Southern India, Malti found nothing to dribble and gape about fat buffaloes. She saw them in plenty on her annual trips to her village. But the tourists on the train, seemed to find the fat black body of the buffalo and the naked children walking beside the fat creatures with sticks in their hands, fascinating. And when the train had again stopped for the twentieth time, she had nearly screamed.

“NO, Only forty rupees, that’s all,” Lata ended authoritatively.

“What’s the matter?” it was one of the security guards -- looking huge and powerful with flashing biceps and a very black bristling moustache. Malti wanted to break into a welcome dance -- do cartwheels and clap her hands in joy -- someone had at last come to their rescue! Now, the cab driver would shut up and leave with forty rupees.

“Troubling you, is he?” the security guard took charge towering over the cab driver and looking him straight in the eye. Lata explained the situation sniffing piteously, “Bhai he is bothering us. We agreed before climbing the taxi that we would pay forty rupees but he…” Lata was in full dramatic flow, “but now he says, nahi… fifty rupees…”

The security guard blinked and said loudly to the taxi driver, twirling his moustache, “Listen, stop bothering these little school girls! Besharam! Take the forty rupees and leave now! Otherwise, there will be trouble……!”

But the cab driver stuck to his guns and Malti desperately wanted to slap him about and throw him away like in the cartoons but the guard now, stepped closer and putting an arm on the driver’s shoulder said something threatening in the local dialect and it had an immediate effect.

“I am poor man with children…” the cab- driver was now saying – drops of sweat popping on his forehead. “It was another matter to deal with school girls but with a goonda with a gun! What if this goonda or ‘security’ goonda shot him? He would take the forty rupees and next time not take passengers for Mayfair College,” he thought and said loudly, “No problem… nice college… forty rupees is good.”

Lata grinned wickedly, reaching into her pocket, “Bad Car.”

Malti frowned slightly and took out twenty rupees from her bag yawning tiredly. The fare of forty rupees was duly paid and the cab then rounded and drove off, the cab driver now completely at ease in the safe confines of his vehicle shouting abuses. The guard waved cheerfully and then picking up the two huge suitcases made his way up the spiral staircase.

The guard left them to go in search of Matron, Malti leaned on the railing and sighed -- she never did like traveling and settling into a new room at the hostel. This was her last year and then maybe back home for a holiday and them apply for a Masters degree in Economics at some big sounding highly reputable University. Lata walked about slowly -- she was tired and just now wanted to have something to eat and then sleep. Tomorrow, the hostel would be full once again and then they- the seniors would begin ‘ragging’ the newcomers, the freshers! Lata remembered how much she had been ragged during her first year at the hostel -- two years ago!

She grinned -- she had, had her share of ragging -- then Apoorva Banerjee, a third year senior college student had made her sneak into the biology lab at night, open one of the glass cabinets with a human skeleton and place a pencil between the two jaws. She, Lata had been a first Junior college hostellite and terrified of seniors and their taunts reluctantly with trembling knees had made her way to the science building, at the stroke of midnight, bravely ventured into the biology life teeming with animal and human bones and fossilized remains -- shaking with absolute fear and fright managed to locate an unlocked glass cabinet and accomplished the needful- after innumerable attempts where the pencil stub refused to co- operate and hug the grotesque open jaws of the skeleton! She had finally done it only to hear a deep voice loudly demand- “and where is my pencil?” She had opened her mouth to scream as the lab was empty and another human skeleton was in her line of vision! To her terrified mind, the skeleton had made that demand and she was totally terror stricken! Unknown to her, Apoorva and a couple of seniors had followed her into the lab and one of the seniors had spoken hiding behind another glass cabinet, close by, containing a human skeleton. Lata had then screamed imagining the skeleton to come walking out of its cabinet and reach out a bony hand towards her! She had collapsed, and when she came through, she found herself in her bed in the hostel!

 And as no one later mentioned it, she thought it was a horrible dream! It was after the end of the ragging session, did she find out that the skeleton voice had been a set up; a part of her ragging! But now, since Sister Prudence had been in charge, ragging was not as fun and harsh as it used to be. But still she would not miss out on her chance of having fun and a few laughs at some poor fresher’s expense!

“What are you giggling about?”

Brought back to the present, Lata glanced at Malti staring at her, and shook her head, Ragging!”

“That is a pleasing prospect,” said Malti and then said sharply, an obvious lift to her lilting voice, “Here comes Matron!”

Matron came briskly, marching down the corridor, a huge welcoming smile on her tired face -- the guard had found her in the hostel reception area fingering some papers.

“Hello Girls! How was your vacation? Aren’t you a little late?”

Malti sighed, “The train indulged in some sight seeing, Matron…”

Lata giggled as Matron swiftly moved forward and took out two pink forms and handed them each to the girls to be filled up.

“Are we going to be room mates again, this term, Matron?” Lata queried with interest, opening the cap of her pen.

“No! New Rules! No Senior College Final Year Student gets to share a room with students other than final year junior college girls.”

Lata groaned in dismay, as Matron continued, “As Malti is in the final year and you are in the second year, I am afraid you have been allotted different rooms on separate floors!”

‘I am in Room 12,” Malti interjected eyes on the form.

“That’s on the fourth floor….and I think your room mates are Marion, Hiran and Daisy from Junior College!’

Malti brightened, ‘I know Marion, she was in the room next to ours…’

Lata nodded, ‘Lucky you and any idea as to my future room mates, Ma’am?’

Matron grinned -- she liked this impish sensitive girl! “Well……one of them has already come in…Jyotsana Patel, a first year student in Junior College…..have you finished?” she held out a hand for the forms. The two girls handed them over and then trudged behind Matron, as she led the way to the hostel, carrying a bunch of keys.

“A fresher!” exclaimed Lata in satisfaction.

 Matron glanced at her in amusement, ‘Now- no serious ragging this time, understand? Sister Prudence has forbidden it this term!’

Lata protested -- she had been ragged- so it was only fair if she wanted retribution- ragging a junior fresher in turn! “But that is..NOT FAIR,” she said.

Malti grinned. She had been duly ragged in junior college and had duly ragged junior hostellites several times. She trudged on gamely, noting that the lawns had been mowed, hedges neatly trimmed, the science building and art and drama rooms refurbished! On her right side, Lata was saying mournfully, “OK, but who are the others?”

“I really don’t remember, Lata,” Matron said firmly, as all three entered the hostel building, “but I think they are seniors!”

“At least that is something,” remarked Malti cheerfully, taking her key and climbing the stairs slowly, “Lata…” she called after a few steps, “I will drop in later to see you and check the fresher out!”

Lata gloomily nodded and took her key, “Room 5,” she read aloud.

“First Floor,” said Matron, then added, “Better read the notices, later! Timings have changed. And there are some new rules. I will be going upstairs then! There is nobody on the fourth floor yet. I don’t want Malti to be all alone,” and she began climbing up the steep stairs.

“I am sure she will be thrilled and kiss your feet in gratitude,” Lata snapped impertinently to herself, as she struggled to the first floor, breathing hard.

Lata opened the unlocked door and swung it open and a small pale faced girl with huge eyes turned away from the window to stare at her.

“Hello! Lata Naidu,” she said nodding at the girl, who had already occupied one of the side beds, arranged her stuff! She had even had a shower.  Lata felt dirty and tired!

“Jyotsana Patel! First Year Junior College!”

Lata dumped her suitcase on the other side bed and flopped down on the mattress, sighing, “Came by train! When did you come?” to which pat was the reply, “about two hours ago!”

“So, where are you from?” Lata asked opening her suitcase, “Last term, the room I was in was kind of small with a small window and no view at all! Have you ever stayed in hostels before?”

“All my life…” said Jyotsana sitting on her bed and plunged in detailing her life history in full- normally she was reticent with strangers and acquaintances till the fifth meeting but this girl, Lata Naidu made her feel comfortable and at ease!

Lata widened her eyes, “Poor you! I come from Poona, three elder brothers- Mom died when I was born- but life is alright with dad, my three brothers and…my great aunt….who thinks I should be a traditional tamilian girl! Shyam, my eldest brother is in the air force… and Mohan, the second one is in merchant navy and Venu, is doing his Chartered Accountancy!”

Jyotsana remarked wistfully, “Guess it must be fun to have three elder brothers!”

Lata continued, “By the way I am your senior -- second year senior college -- economics major! What are your subjects?”

“Computer Science, Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Economics and one European language!”

Lata who had suffered in her first year at senior college when she had had to deal with Computers, remarked truthfully, “You must be brainy,” and then holding her towel, “Malti Kundan, my room mate last year might be dropping in, OK! She is a final year economics major senior college student and might sleep here tonight as her floor is unoccupied! You might come in for a bit of ragging! So, don’t try to act smart!”

“I don’t need to act smart --  I am smart.”

“Watch it fresher!” Lata grinned and left the room for her shower.

It was quite a long time when Lata came back, fresh and clean. The water had been ice cold and she had enjoyed her hair bath after the dust and the grime of the journey. She softly sang to herself coming out of the shower rooms, and nearly bumped into Matron looking as efficient as ever. Lata wondered what Sue Danely ate in her diet to stay lively all the time!

Matron cleared her throat, “Malti will be sleeping in your room tonight.”

Lata nodded toweling her wet sticky hair with one hand as Matron continued, “Have you met Jyotsana? Tell me, what do you think of her?”

“She seems fun, though maybe a bit cheeky…’

“So, are you going to start your ragging today?” asked Matron.

“NO, I will wait for the others to come…”

“You better come down and collect the room occupancy list! And don’t forget to check the notices…I don’t want girls coming in late for meals!”

 Serial Novel Mysterious Disappearances-4 continued here...

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