While Vipin had been invited to a house party for New Year’s Eve, Ranjit spent it with relatives. He tried protesting, but his mother was too persuasive, and his father too domineering. Playing Antakshari with family until the clock struck 12 wasn’t his idea of spending the last day of the year. But his sister tried lifting his spirits, and his uncle pitched in with a few pitchers of local ale, inserting spirits into him. In time, Ranjit forgot his sullen mood and most everything else.
The next morning he was eager to find out how Vipin’s night had been, but one look at his flatmate told him something was amiss. He told Ranjit how he had met the one true love of his life the previous night but had no memory of her face.
“How can you forget someone so important to you?” said Ranjit.
“I’ve been beating myself over it all morning!” said Vipin agitatedly.
“Well then maybe she isn’t so special,” said Ranjit with a shrug. Vipin glared at him, and Ranjit decided to keep his thoughts to himself for a while. He kept pacing about the hall as Ranjit sat by the table and made himself a sandwich. He had a splitting headache, and over the years he had learned that he always felt better after eating, no matter where the pain. Before he could take the first bite, Vipin sat down and looked at him imploringly.
“There’s someone who can help me remember,” he said. Ranjit’s eyes grew larger as he pointed to himself and lifted his eyebrows. Vipin’s grimace told him otherwise. He exhaled wearily and looked at Ranjit again. “She’s a bit…different. I don’t want to go there by myself.”
His voice rode on a sea of emotions. In those capricious frothy waters Ranjit could make out desperation, paranoia, apprehension, and earnestness. In his eyes was a heartfelt plea. Ranjit couldn’t say anything, let alone refuse.
And so, an hour later, with an empty stomach, a heavy head, and his expressionless baby face, Ranjit was making his way up a claustrophobic staircase that led to a grim, yellow door. He exchanged nervous glances with Vipin before his flatmate knocked on the door.
“Enter,” said someone from within. The words, although uttered with the least effort, had the power to grip the two visitors. They weren’t overwhelmed but were helpless all the same. Ranjit began to regret having come.
“I can never trust a woman who speaks in a seductive voice even when not with her lover,” said Vipin. He nodded to Ranjit, who was too transfixed to hear him, before walking in. Ranjit remained standing there in daze until the next spell was cast his way when his eyes met the woman’s seated at the table. Her enigmatic smile coaxed him into entering. Her big, deep eyes held treasured secrets and promised their disclosure should he venture. Her head appeared too small for her body, while her flowing hair seemed too dense. Her bandana could barely hold them down. She wore countless bracelets on both arms but a single, long bindi adorned her face.
It wasn’t until he sniffed the air ripe with beguiling fragrances that Ranjit realized he was sitting across her on the small, round table. A barrel full of a chalk-like powder sat next to it. The odours made him feel exalted, levitating.
“It’s often those who come here with others seeking help that are most affected by my aura,” she said. Her round face and sinister smile gave her an eerie resemblance with the Cheshire cat.
“Chandini, I need help with something,” said Vipin, sitting next to the barrel.
“My vials revitalise anything. Tell me what you need,” she said, taking on a professional countenance.
“I don’t think you should drink anything here, Vipin,” said Ranjit.
“My vials affect the olfactory organs. The nasal tract is far more stimulating and direct,” said Chandini turning towards Ranjit. She always moved her entire body instead of her head towards the person she addressed. Ranjit felt like he was looking at a portrait whose eyes follow the viewer.
“I need to remember someone,” said Vipin. Chandini nodded. Ranjit watched her hair as they continued swinging up and down for a few seconds. They seemed to have a mind of their own.
“Is it her name? Face? Special characteristics?”
Chandini got up and walked towards a shelf on the other end of the room. It was dimly lit by a lamp hanging over the round table, shrouded by a trapezoidal flask. “Someone long forgotten? Someone you’ve met recently? Someone special?” she continued as she rifled through the shelf.
“It’s someone I was introduced to last night. I remember holding her in my arms, but the image in my mind is blurred,” said Vipin. Chandini nodded again and swept a few tubes of vials aside, delving deeper into the shelf. She wasn’t a short woman, and the way the shelf engulfed half her torso made Ranjit question its depth. The tubes flung to the side had shattered on the floor, their contents adding to the mound of aromas. Finally, she remerged with three tubes.
“These ought to do it,” she said. Rather than merely uncorking them, she smashed two tubes on the table and thrust Vipin’s head down to inhale their collective fumes. A rancid odour of lemon and sulphur gushed into his nose. Vipin strained his eyes under the nauseating effect.
Vipin pushed her away and turned, sneezing vehemently. The chalk-like powder flew but remained suspended in air. Vipin noticed that its particles formed themselves into an image. He was bedazzled by the lucidity of what it showed; he was holding a white Himalayan cat.
“Princepessa!” he squealed and got up. “I remember! Oh, she’s the most beautiful cat! Her fur was so fluffy and soft! And the way she purred. It was magical, divine! She reminds us why the Egyptians worshipped cats. Thank you, Chandini!” he said, embracing her gratefully.
When he let go he saw her body was turned towards Ranjit. Contrary to her, Vipin only turned his head. But his face became as sombre as hers.
“Oh dear,” she said.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Vipin anxiously. Ranjit was sitting stiff as a rock and was pale as a ghost. His eyes were shut tight, and the only colour on his face was the purple liquid around his lips.
“When you pushed me away, the third vial escaped my hand and somehow its contents entered your friend’s body.”
“What was in it?” asked Vipin frantically, trying to get Ranjit out of his petrification.
“It’s not what was in it. It’s the way it made its way in his body. My vials aren’t supposed to be ingested,” she said as if it were something trite.
“What happens now?”
“He will chase dogs,” she said. Vipin turned swiftly towards her. She merely shrugged.
“What the hell is that suppos–”
Before Vipin could finish, a dog started barking in the street. Ranjit’s eyes opened as if a switch was flicked, and he was out of the room before they blinked. The sound of laughter entered through the window. Vipin rushed to it and saw Ranjit running hungrily after a dog with its tail between its legs. He moved like the wind, and somehow went on breaking wind.