Read an Excerpt:
The white Mahindra Scorpio Jeep ran along the deserted road. Rahul kept his foot glued to the accelerator as he followed the route to Jaisalmer under the clear blue sky and the burning sun. His and Elisa’s cellphones had lost signal, so Elisa, his girlfriend, was directing him using the paper map. It had been three hours, and Rahul had been driving without a pause. So far, they had only had a sandwich they bought in a restaurant near Nathdwara that morning. Their stomachs lurched now, craving food.
“I’m hungry as hell,” said Elisa.
“There must be a restaurant or something coming up soon,” said Rahul, and just then, his eyes fell upon a building on the right side of the road that looked like a restaurant. It was about fifteen feet away from the road in the desert. He accelerated, and the engine roared. Slowly, they came to a halt near the building.
Rahul lowered the window and read, “Manu Da Dhaba.”
“Mənu Də Dhabə!” Elisa said, pronouncing the words correctly, tilting her head, and squinting at the name on the vinyl awning.
“Would you like to go here?” he asked, unsure whether she liked spicey food. He had heard from his parents that Dhaba food was delicious, even better than five-star restaurants and hotels in the cities. But his and Elisa’s relationship was only eight months old, and he had never heard her mention Indian food before. In the United States, they spent their time in Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, and American restaurants like Red Lobster.
Elisa gently pushed him back into the seat so she could get a closer look and asked, “What does this mean?”
“Manu Da Dhaba,” he answered. “An eating house.”
Elisa licked her lips. “I’m hungry as hell. I’m going in.” She unbuckled herself and jumped out of the Jeep, running toward the eating house, her brown Michael Kors’ Nouveau Hamilton purse hanging on her shoulder.
“Hey! Wait for me,” he shouted, hanging his head out of the window.
“I’m sorry. I can’t,” she shouted, laughing, as she entered the dhaba; Rahul grinned as he pushed his head back and murmured. “Alright, girl. Let’s see what you order!”
Hesaw a board indicating that the parking lot was behind the building, so he drove around and parked up. He fixed his hair, looking in the rear-view mirror. When he was satisfied with his appearance, he stepped out and entered the dhaba through the backdoor.
“So—” He stopped as he found Elisa sitting on a chair at a round table, gaping at their map. He was alarmed to see that it was covered in water. The map was their only solution to reach Jaisalmer and explore more Rajasthan cities, but it was now drowned. A metal water jug, now empty, lay next to it.
“What did you do?”He asked in a blend of shock and panic, still staring at the map.
Elisa startled and looked up at him. Worried, she stood up from the chair, shifting her distressed gaze from him to the map and back. “I’m sorry. I was marking a few more places we need to visit. But I accidentally nudged the jug and spilled water all over it. I’m so, so, so sorry.” Her eyes were almost wet with tears.
He swiftly grabbed her in his arms and tried to calm her down, patting her head, “No worries, and my dear. I’m sorry for the way I reacted. We’ll find another map. I’ll ask someone here.”
“I hope you’re not upset with me,” she said.
“Not at all. It’s humans’ error to make errors,” he said. “I could have done this as well. It’s just a mistake. Don’t worry. I love you.” He smiled.
“You’re so sweet,” she said, tightening the hug for a fraction of a second. “I’m glad to have you in my life. I love you, too.” Her worried face glimmered with a smile.
Rahul kissed her on the head.
Still in their hug, Rahul looked around and saw a young couple, only a few years older than them, exiting from the back door.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” he said, making to walk after the couple, but at that moment a young server wearing a white shirt—not tucked into his khaki pants—arrived to serve the food Elisa had already ordered. On seeing the spilled water, he pointed to the next table and said, “Excuse me, could you please move over here? I’ll clean this up.”
At his words, Rahul stopped. He must have a map. “Thank you,” said Elisa in a soft voice, giving a quick appreciative smile.
They moved to the next table and waited for him to serve the food.
“What’s your name?” asked Rahul as he placed the bowl of sabji and a plate of two Garlic Butter Naans down.
“Bhim,” he answered, now setting up the dishes for them.
“From Mahabharat, an ancient Indian epic?” joked Rahul, smiling. The waiter chuckled as he served them Garlic Butter Naan.
Rahul cleared his throat in hesitation. He looked at Elisa and then the waiter. “Could you please do me a favor?” he asked after a moment.
“It’ll be my pleasure.”
“Could you please arrange a map for us?”
Elisa’s face flushed with embarrassment.
Bhim was holding a serving spoon halfway over the bowl, the orange-color Paneer Sabjiwithin ready to be poured onto their plates, and he glanced at the wet map on the previous table. It had become so wet that it would fall to pieces if he tried to pick it up. “I could try.”
He served the sabji and then left the table, leaving the bowl there for them to serve themselves more if they wished.
“You knew what to order?” asked Rahul, wanting to change the subject to divert Elisa’s attention from what she had done to the map.
“My boyfriend is an Indian guy, so I know a little about Indian food.”
Rahul smiled; his plan was working. He could feel it in her excited voice.
“Oh, really?” he said, “but I don’t remember hearing anything about Indian food from you.”
“That’s because you never talked about it, even though I love talking about your culture,” said Elisa. “You turned yourself into a complete American. You always want boiled vegetables, eggs, Buffalo wings, chocolate chip cookies, cheeseburgers, and so on. It was completely fine for me that we didn’t eat Indian food together, because I was waiting for the right moment to surprise you.”
“Wow!” said Rahul, and gulped down a bite. “When did you learn all this?” He hummed. “I must say you do surprise me. I find it amusing, fabulous, and fantastic.”
Elisa let out a quick laugh.
“I’m glad to hear that,” she said. “I learned to cook some dishes from YouTube,” she added, tearing the naan with her fingers and dipping it into the sabji, “the revolutionary platform of entertainment and education.”
Bhim returned and interrupted them, “I’m sorry, sir.”Rahul and Elisa looked up at him expectantly. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t find a map.”
“You have no map?” asked Rahul in shock. He believed employees of any dhaba would usually keep maps, just like any restaurant or hotel would, especially if it was at a deserted place like this.
“I asked my boss, the proprietor, and he tried to find one but could retrieve none.”
“Are you sure?” asked Elisa before Rahul could say something, using a smooth flirty voice, a broad smile on her face.
“I’m sure, ma’am,” said Bhim, his tone slightly changed. It was as if Elisa’s voice melted his heart somewhat and made him feel shy.
“Please find one for me,” insisted Elisa, her voice now completely sensual, her smile so damn cute, and her gaze completely alluring as she played with her hair.
All the while, Rahul remained silent. He knew what she was trying to do. She was attempting to lure the waiter to do her bidding.
Bhim’s lips quivered and he looked down at the floor, not able to manage to look at Elisa anymore, perhaps finding it hard to release his words. Anyone could have fallen for her. Even as her boyfriend, Rahulhad to stop himself from kissing her at that moment.
“I-I’m so-sorry, ma’am,” he stuttered in hesitancy. “We really don’t have any map.”
Elisa looked at Rahul, chewing her lip.
He sensed her disappointment. “Let me try,” he told her, speaking by moving his lips in a way that didn’t let out any words. It was a common trick he used with Elisa when playing games with their friends or in any situation where they didn’t want another to hear their words.
Rahul shifted his look to Bhim.
“Even if you have one map that you can’t give us to take, please let me look at it,” Rahul asked, suspecting that Bhim might be lying. Perhaps they needed it for themselves. “I’ll take a picture of it on my cell phone and return it to you guys.”
“I’m extremely sorry, sir.”Bhim looked at Rahul with his face dropped, finding himself helpless. “We have no map.”
He walked away before they could continue.
Rahul couldn't eat anymore as he had satisfied his stomach, and Elisa seemed to have finished too, leaving some food on her plate. Perhaps she was also full, or perhaps she was just distressed. They just stared at each other with worry. Neither had an idea how they’d reach Jaisalmer.
For a moment, Rahul thought about going back to Nathdawara the way they came, but he didn’t remember the way. I could have asked that couple. Then, I would at least have map’s picture in my phone.
“I’m sorry,” Elisa said.
“It’s not you,” said Rahul. He didn’t want to make her upset or cry. “I was just thinking that I should have gone after that couple.”
“We can check if they’re still outside.”
“They left over forty-five minutes ago. I don’t think they’d be outside still.”
“Let’s test our luck!”
Rahul left the dhaba, and Elisa rushed out after him after leaving some rupees on the table, believing it also included some tip for Bhim.
Both stood at the back door and scanned the parking lot, but the couple had already left in their car, the evidence being the stripes on the sand going away toward the asphalt.
* * *
The sun was heading back toward its home as the night approached. The Jeep was still racing even after four hours of driving. Miles and miles they went, but only the desert was visible around them. There was not a trace of hope of them reaching their destination. The route seemed to be secluded; not even one car passed them. In the middle of the colossal desert, the Jeep seemed like a rat running around in the middle of nowhere, trying to find something to feed its stomach.
“Where are we?” asked Elisa. “Oh, damn God! I should have been more careful.”
“Hopefully, we will reach Jaisalmer soon, if I have mysteriously caught the correct route.”
“I feel miserable. I’m extremely sorry for my silly error,” said Elisa.
“It could also have been me.” Rahul glanced over at her, and then he fixed his vision back on the road.
When his eyes captured something in the distance, he accelerated in excitement.
The car slowly came to a halt near a timber frame sign board. He lowered the window and read, slightly craning his head out to see: KENDRAA VILLAGE.
He was surprised at finding a village in the desert. He looked at Elisa, who seemed to be thinking the same thing.
Narrowing her eyes as if she were thinking something deeply before letting the words out of her mouth, Elisa said, “I don’t think I saw this village on the map.”
“Are you sure?” asked Rahul.
Elisa looked at the board, then down, as if she was trying to recall the map on her knees. “Yes. I’m pretty sure this village wasn’t on the map.”
“If that’s the case,” said Rahul, “it maybe an abandoned village, so we might not find help. But there’s a better chance to try there than wait for someone on the open road.” He looked at the dashboard and his eyes widened in dismay as he noticed the fuel gauge. “We’re running out of fuel,” he sighed and shook his head.
“We better find someone here!” said Elisa, her voice full of concern.
Rahul looked up at her, then out at the colossal dry landscape. They were in the middle of nowhere, where human essentials could be barely found.
He exited the car, and Elisa followed after him.
“I hope we find kind people here,” said Rahul, standing with Elisa at the edge of the asphalt, trying to get a clear look of the place. Their eyes were fixed in the distance, about a thousand feet away, where the hundreds of small triangle-shaped huts stood peacefully.
“That’s so negative, Rahul. Can’t you think we will find kind people?” she asked. “Be positive, honey.” She stroked his hair, but his worried gaze was shifting around, careful of any danger.
“My grandma used to tell me to stay alert, especially when you accidentally find yourself somewhere where you shouldn’t be,” he said. He instinctually took out his cell phone from his jeans pocket. As he did so, he accidentally pulled out a locket along with it. It fell onto his shoes.
Elisa bent down and picked it up. She ran her fingers over the pendant. It was made of diamonds. “Wow! So beautiful.” She gazed at him and asked, “Where did you get it from? And when?”
“It’s a long story,” said Rahul. “I’ll tell you another day.”
“No. Please tell me now. We have nothing to do here.”
“All right,” said Rahul. “In brief, my grandma gave me this locket to keep me protected from negative energies like ghosts and spirits.”
Elisa hummed. “My boyfriend needs protection from things that don’t exist,” she chuckled.
“It’s not funny!” defended Rahul, unlocking his cell phone.
In every place Rahul had visited in Rajasthan in the past two days eating pizzas and sandwiches, he had seen people raising their cell phone in the air to catch signal, and it seemed to work for some of them. And so, Rahul decided to give it a try.
“What’re you doing?”
“Trying to catch the network,” he replied, “to call the police for help.”
“Seems like you now want to become a complete Indian,” she chuckled, looking at him as he struggled to extend his hand high enough.
After a few seconds, Rahul frowned. Still no signal.
“Stop stressing, honey,” said Elisa. “We’re wanderers. Let’s explore this place, and we’ll find someone to help us. At the same time, you can take photographs for our Instagram account, and I’ll shoot a video for my YouTube channel.”
“We don’t know whether this place is safe or not. I hate haunted and strange places. I only visited Bhangarh Fort yesterday because you wanted to,” said Rahul. Suddenly, his eyes fixed on the locket in Elisa’s hands. “Give me that, please.”
“No. I’m throwing it away,” mocked Elisa.
“Please don’t tease me, babe,” said Rahul. “Please give it to me. I don’t want to lose it and then go crazy; feeling like a ghost will haunt me.”
“Don’t cry, my baby boy,” said Elisa, laughing. “Here it is,” she said, extending her arm.
Rahul took the locket from her hand, and as he was putting it back into his pocket, an orotund voice came from behind, “Do you need help?”
Both spun around to see an old man standing right in front of them. He was wearing a black cloak and holding a long wooden stick as if it were a cane; the right side of his face was burned, and he was suffering from camptocormia—a medical term that Rahul knew, thanks to one of his good friends who was a doctor. Every time, he spoke to this friend, Rahul learned a new medical word, one of which was camptocormia: a bent spine.
Looking directly into Rahul’s eyes and then shifting his look to Elisa, the man said once more, “Do you need help?”
Elisa grasped Rahul’s hand; her gaze fixed on the man. Rahul’s lips quivered as he tried to speak. The stranger’s sudden appearance and his strange appearance had troubled him for a moment.
However, suppressing his feelings, Rahul finally asked, “Who are you?”
The man kept his blank stare locked on his. Elisa tightened her hold on Rahul’s hand.
The man’s silence somewhat bothered him, and before the man could introduce himself, Elisa whispered, “Why on earth did we have to encounter this creepy guy?”
Panicked thoughts were rushing through Rahul’s head. Is he a bandit? Is he here to loot us and kill us?
Rahul and Elisa stared at each other, and Elisa edged back, trying to hide behind him, believing Rahul could protect her. Rahul remained standing in place, looking out the corner of his eyes to verify whether any more people, partners of this man, were standing around them, blocking their way of escape. When he saw no one, he focused on the man and waited for his reply, trying to suppress his fright.
Elisa remained half visible behind Rahul, her worried eyes also fixed on the man, her fear escalating.
“Pardon me if I scared you,” said the man, observing the expressions on their faces. “I didn’t mean to.”
Rahul and Elisa stayed quiet and continued listening.
“I’m Dansh,” said the man after a short pause. “It seems like you lost the path.”Dansh smiled. “I know I look a little creepy because of my burned face. That is what bothers you and many other people, I can understand. My look generates a ball of fear inside other people.”
Rahul and Elisa glanced at each other.
“Trust me, sir,” said Dansh. “I have met many like you. Lost wanderers. And you don’t have to worry about anything. I’m a guide here. I could help you explore this place if you want, or I could show you a path back to the city.”
Elisa ceased her grip on Rahul’s hand. It was although, inexplicably, she suddenly felt light and free. I can’t judge him just because of his face, she thought.Now that she had heard something sweet from Dansh, something that could help them reach their destination, she wasn’t afraid anymore.
“I’m sorry,” said Elisa. “We didn’t mean to insult you. We just weren’t expecting anyone else to here. I believe there is a tragic history behind your scars.”
Dansh nodded. “It happened when I was a kid.”
“My commiseration is with you.” Elisa pursed her lips.
Rahul still was looking at Dansh suspiciously. His grandma used to tell him ‘Trust everyone, but not blindly’. However, Rahul felt that he had a valid reason to not trust Dansh: he was a stranger, a stranger with a harrowing physique and a burned face, just like how the horror movies presented villains. And as you often learn in movies, it was often the kind, helpful person you later found out was the villain. “Do you want to explore the place, Rahul?” asked Elisa.
Rahul glanced at her and then fixed his gaze on Dansh. Then, with no agitation in his spirited voice, he said, “It will be great if you just show us the way back to the city.”
“I know I can’t force you to explore the village,” said Dansh. “But it will be my pleasure if you do so.” He paused for a moment. “I will accept whatever you will give me in payment.”
“Please give a moment while we decide, sir?” Elisa said as she took Rahul aside near the car. “Tell me the truth,” she said, looking at his face. Rahul was looking at the huts in the distance. “You think he’s a sinner?”
Rahul locked his eyes with hers. After a short pause, he sighed and peeked at Dansh. Then, as if he had mastery in reading people, he said, “He’s a crook. I can bet.”
Elisa peeked at Dansh, who was also looking away at the desert in the distance. “No doubt he looks scary because of his appearance. I was also scared. But we can’t judge him by his looks. He’s an aged person. He’s trying to earn some money, showing his village to the lost travelers.” She waited for Rahul’s reaction, but he stayed quiet. “Please. Let’s explore the place.” When she tried to take Rahul’s hand, he let her take it, and she folded her fingers over his. “For me. Please.”
Rahul continued looking at her. He knew they had little choice but to accept his help. They were lost; it was getting late, and they had no idea where to go. After a brief pause, he sighed. “All right. Just for you.”
Elisa gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. Rahul smiled, looking at her contented face. Then he shifted his gazebo Dansh. His smile disappeared. “I don’t think I can trust this guy, though.”
“I believe you will learn to!” said Elisa. She turned and stepped back toward Dansh, grinning. “We would like to explore the village with you, please.”
A broad smile appeared on Dansh’s face. “It’s my pleasure. I will also arrange a place for you to stay for the night.”
“Wait,” said Rahul. “We could give you only 5000 rupees for tonight. We’ll leave tomorrow early morning.”
“That’s fine,” said Dansh as he extended his hand. Rahul took out the money from his wallet and handed it over.
Dansh securely put the money in his cloak’s pocket. Then he walked ahead of them. “Let’s go,” he said, his gaze fixed on the sand.
Elisa and Rahul followed as he continued to walk toward the village, Elisa’s thoughts filled with enthusiasm at how she could create a vlog on this place, and Rahul’s with concern and doubts about Dansh.
I hope he’s not a sinner, butchering people as you see in some horror films.
I hope he’s not a wizard performing dark magic to sacrifice people to bring something to life.
Whatever it is, I just hope we at least get a chance to escape.
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