“You couldn’t make it any more obvious, could you?”
“Relax, its fine. Leave him alone, now.”
“Tilak, you stay out of this. You know any stupidity can draw attention to the entire clan.”
“You are beginning to pick up regular human emotions, especially the most explosive out of them all, anger.” Ravi smiled at Nayna. “Mom.”
“Why can’t you be more like Ravi? He is just- so brilliant!” Anu kept the onion omelette on the table along with a pitcher of orange juice.
Karan chewed on his cornflakes softly. He poured some juice in a stain-painted crystal glass and looked at his father sitting at the head of the table, fiddling with his palmtop.
“The perfect grades in school, numerous awards in extra curricular activities and the school basketball captain.” Anu took the place opposite Karan. “Your teacher just wouldn’t stop praising him. You should have seen the pride on his parents’ faces.” She poured some tea in her Kanji Design Japanese Tea Cup.
“Karan, basically the point is that you are getting into college next year and there will be much higher competition there. You will have to work much harder.” Prem finished the last piece of his onion omelette and got up from the table.
Karan stuffed the rest of the cornflakes in his mouth, gulped them down with the orange juice and leapt up from the table to avoid more badgering.
“Now where are you running so early in the morning? Karan? You have to help me do the grocery shopping every Sunday, remember-” Anu shouted as he darted across the living room and exited through the main door.
The fresh morning air immediately got to work. Karan looked at the splendor of spring around him. The green by lanes of Jaya Nagar were abuzz with birds and decked with flowers. Creepers descended from lavish balconies. A concoction of fresh scents hung in the air. He was already beginning to forget the final examination results that were declared yesterday.
When his friends told him that being an only child saved him from constant competition with his siblings, they failed to realize that it actually opened the entire sixteen-year old world as a point of comparison. And instead of being compared with the brother or the sister, he could be compared with the best-in-each-field sixteen-year old. Or with one dynamite like Ravi.
“Wonder what he eats in the morning, bugger. Pretends to be my friend and then becomes a constant agony for me. If only I could throw the ball like him…” Karan remembered the day when Ravi had edged him to become the basketball champion.
When Ravi had joined the school two years back as a shy and reticent kid, Karan had been one of his first friends. He had helped Ravi settle down and get familiar with the school and the area.
“Hi Karan!” An excited voice came from behind and Ravi turned around, disbelieving. “Great to see you! You have met my mom, right?”
“Hello, beta, how are you?” Ravi’s mom, Nayna, had an angelic smile.
“Thank you aunty, I am fine. How are you?” Karan moved forward with heavy steps.
“I am fine too. What are doing out here?”
“Uh- just going to get something to drink. Uh- it is a bit hot- uh cold, I mean-” Karan was never good at making excuses.
“In that case, why don’t you come over to our house? I can make you something nice to drink.”
“No way! Uh, I mean I need to get home to go to the mall with my mom. You know, for grocery shopping.” He managed a smile.
“Forum?” A wild guess. He raised his eyebrows. Then sensing no adverse response, he added. “Yes, that, Forum.”
“But didn’t you read in the papers? It is closed for a VIP visit till lunch hours.” This was Ravi, the spoilsport.
“Huh? Uh- really?” Karan looked around but there was nobody who could rescue him. “These VIPs! They are just too much! Don’t think anything before bringing the world to a standstill. The worst is the traffic blockages when their cars have to pass.”
“True.” Nayana nodded disinterestedly. “Okay, so then, you’re joining us for a drink. A cold coffee if you’re feeling hot and a hot chocolate if you’re feeling cold. You can make up your mind till we reach our place.” She smiled again.
There was pretty much no choice left as Karan found himself walking in between Ravi and his mother, three of them headed home after a long day, like a happy family.
Ravi’s house was large and luxurious. His father worked for an international company based out of Dubai, that’s all Karan knew, apart from the fact that they moved to India because of his mother’s health. The main door was gigantic with sharp metal arrows on top, ready to pierce through anybody who tired to infiltrate. There was a huge lawn in front lined with flowering and non-flowering plants on opposite sides. A water sprinkler shook his head in the center of the garden, disapproving of the heat beginning to set in.
Glass panels opened into a huge living room laden with classy furniture, colorful pieces of art and some fancy electronic gadgets. Karan had been here before but every time he was equally amazed.
“Okay boys, I will be back with goodies. You two can chill out.” Nayna left the room.
Ravi picked up the remote control. “Wanna watch TV?”
“No, man. We always do that.” Karan tried hard not to look jealous, irritated or bored. He looked around. “Actually I want to see your new gaming console, the one you said you bought.”
“Hmmm, okay. Let’s go. It is in my room.”
Ravi’s room was palatial.
“Wow, this is killer, man! I can’t believe this. You actually live in this room?”
“Yes, I do.” Ravi giggled like a girl, amused at Karan’s reaction and proud of his room.
“How come I have never seen your room before, man? Very surprising.”
“Yeah. Something or the other happened I guess and we had to leave or something.” Ravi switched on the console.
“Shakira’s posters? Hahaha!” Ravi said looking at the wall behind the bed.
“I like her.” Ravi smiled.
“Yeah, she is hot, but you know she is very short, around five feet or something. But she is hot. And the way she moves… Oh man!” Karan hurried towards the console. “Wow, this is good stuff.”
“Aye aye! NOT THAT ONE! That switch is not for the console.” Ravi’s eyes almost popped out. “Heh, I got scared. You know- the house has some wiring issues. If you switch on some wrong thing, it may, you know- burst or something.”
“Really? Oh God, got to be careful then.”
“Yes. Just don’t touch anything. Let me handle it.”
“Okay.” The light from the monitor lit up Karan’s face and his childlike excitement got even more pronounced. “Can I play?”
“Sure.” Ravi gave him a remote control.
Ravi pressed the ‘up’ and ‘down’ buttons. One of them was stuck. “This button is not working.” He looked at Ravi who was adjusting the brightness on the screen. “May be I can try this one-” He pulled a second remote from behind the monitor that he had seen while standing. He pushed the center button.
“NOT THAT ONE!!! THE WIRING! THE-” But it was too late.
Karan’s instant reaction after coming back to consciousness, eyes still closed, was to feel for burns on his body because of the short circuit. But there were none. Karan opened his eyes. And went numb.
Colors had never looked so enigmatic. The green of the trees was emphasized by the brightness of the leaves and the vastness of the branches. Ribbons of leaves hung from each tree, caressing the ground. Some ribbons interlocked with each other to form paths stretching into the horizon.
Water flowed somewhere at a distance sending misty vapors this way, splashing silvery white onto the green.
Large chandeliers of light in all sizes and lengths dropped from the sky adding to the riot of colors.
Below, paths started to different destinations in all directions.
Karan gaped speechless. This must be his dream. But he did not know this was the kind of subconscious stuff he thought of. Or he could be dead. But he was not sure if this was what heaven was supposed to look like. He stood up unsteadily.
“There you are!” This familiar voice had never felt so comforting and welcome.
Karan swirled around to find Ravi walking towards him from amidst the bushes with ribbon leaves.
“I’m glad you are fine. You are a brave man.” Ravi was cheerful. “We thought you people will not be able to take the environment here.”
Karan stared as a hundred and forty-five questions / thoughts / responses formed in his brain.
Finally he said, “What?”
Ravi smiled. “What what?”
“What are you talking about? And where are we?”
“We are in the Otherland.”
Karan waited for more to be added, but Ravi thought this was enough explanation. “Ravi, my mind will explode. What the hell is this Otherland. And- uh- who are you?” In situations like this (actually there had been no other situation like this), Karan’s temples were lined with sweat, but right now he felt strangely cool. “Please tell me!”
“Karan, you are my best friend in the school and in that world. You have helped me on numerous occasions. And this is the only reason I am telling this to you.”
Though highly confused and frightened, Karan wisely nodded.
“This is a land inhabited by the Otherpeople. We have been living here for millions of years.” He sat down on a pebble that grew to take the shape of his body. “Our version of your scientists keeps experimenting and accidentally they devised this unique thing where we can go outside the Otherland and experience life in the rest of the universe. That was what brought me to Earth.” He looked excitedly at Karan who looked like a tornado had hit him. “You don’t believe any of it, do you?”
“I- you- I don’t know what to say. But this is all too fantastic to be real.”
“It is real in our world, yes unreal by your standards. That is why the ones amongst us who choose to go to planet Earth have to tone down so considerably!” He laughed.
“Ravi!” A sharp voice loomed in the air.
“Delightful to see you after so long.”
“Same here, believe me.”
A tall man with graying hair walked towards Ravi. Karan saw as they stood face to face for a long time and just looked at each other.
“Oh, some of these experiences seem priceless!”
“I told you, scientist! I researched well before I made the choice to go to Earth. And besides, my friends Anu and Tilak were there for company. We had such fun.”
The old man had meanwhile fixed his gaze on Karan and was melting him with stares that made him feel naked.
“Yes, you are naked in my thoughts right now.” The old man said. Then he looked at Ravi. “Who is he?”
“Karan. From Earth. We were-”
“That I saw, but why is he here?”
“It was an accident.”
“Bad. Very bad.”
“We must go to the center. Let the others decide.”
“But they will… Can you help us?” Ravi said.
“Karan, follow us.” Ravi looked at Karan.
“What?” Karan thought for a moment. “But what is happening?”
“And how did you know that I was thinking?
“Scientist can read thoughts.”
Karan scampered behind, out of a mix of fear and curiosity.
Flowers bloomed all around, sprouting from the ground, hanging from trees, embracing any surface they could find, in a blend of colors, red, orange, blue, yellow, violet. Creatures resembling butterflies hovered over them, with wings like mulberry silk.
Suddenly Karan remembered. “The ones amongst you?”
“You said before Scientist came in.”
“Yes, the hippies amongst us, you can say.”
“No, I am referring to the ‘ones’ amongst you on Earth. And uh- Anu? You said she is your friend?”
“You ask too many questions!” Ravi breathed. “The others who have gone to Earth from here are allowed to stay at one place for as long as they want, but they can never go back once they come back here. Like is the case with me now, thanks to your stupidity.” He gave Karan a pat on his head.
“Who are these others? Do I know them?”
“Some of them, like you would know the ones around your area or school. Mr. Reddy, for example.
“Yes, and Maria.”
“Wow! So, they are all around! In school, markets, hotels… Who could have guessed! Is Jay one of you people too? Man, the way he bowls!”
“No he isn’t!” Ravi laughed. “Human beings can be good at their work too!”
“Oh God! The amount of time I spent being envious of you! If I knew, I would have focused on other productive things!”
“That is the problem with humans, my dear.” Scientist turned around, and Karan froze where he was. “Some of you people take yourselves too seriously. My career, my job, my achievements, my family, my ego… All that is time badly spent. And you, Karan, you spent a lot of time in self pity.”
“He did?” Ravi looked surprised.
“You- couldn’t- read my thoughts?”
“No, only Scientist can, he has worked hard to get that skill.”
“Phew!” Karan scratched his nose.
Ravi inhaled something deeply. “Okay, I can smell it. We are at the center now. I did not realize I was missing it that much.”
Karan looked around.
Men and women sat around a huge atrium. When they saw Ravi, they got up and walked towards him. But the temper kept changing as they began noticing Karan.
“Karan, you wait in that corner, I will be back.”
Though none of the faces betrayed any emotions and there was no shouting, Karan knew something was deeply wrong. He could see Ravi pitted against a large group, answering and explaining. Karan pretended to look elsewhere every time eyes turned in his direction. Finally the meeting broke.
“Hey, sorry that took a bit of time. By the way, meet Ronny. He is really excited to meet somebody from another planet.” Ravi pointed to a boy on his left side.
“Ravi, what is wrong?”
“Nothing.” Ravi averted his gaze.
“Then please tell me how I came here.”
“The remote control. I was experimenting with the- It is a long story.” Ravi cut himself short when he saw a group walking towards them. “I will be back.”
But the group instead walked all the way to Karan.
“You can not be here.” One of them addressed Karan directly.
“I want to explain something. It is not his fault. He is a good guy.” Karan led them slightly farther away.
“Nothing matters. We are what we are because we have remained pure over ages. That can not change now.” A second person said.
“If one has come, others can follow.” The first one added.
“How is it that everybody is talking in my language?” Ravi shrugged his shoulders.
“They are not. You just think that we look and talk like you. It is images inside your brain which are projecting us in this form.” Ronny said.
“So you people have no form?”
“This is how we were made – by something like a chemical reaction under favorable circumstances.”
“And you will never die?” Karan looked around at everybody.
“What’s dying?” Ravi winked.
Ravi came back and looked at Karan. Then he said to Ronny, “Trouble. They do not agree.”
“I told you. And they have a point.”
“But it is not his mistake. We can at least try sending him back!”
“Yeah, my parents must be worried sick by now. How long has it been anyway?” Karan tapped his watch which had stopped running.
“He does not realize how serious this all is. I have never seen all of them behaving like this,” said Ronny.
“Yeah, its like I am back on earth, a land of angry emotional monkeys.” Ravi looked around.
“Hello? I am standing here.”
“And that is what is causing all of this.” Ravi looked at him.
“What do we do now?” Ronny asked Ravi.
“We can hide him.”
“Right! This is not Earth. They will sense him anywhere.”
“The lake. He can hide inside it till this settles.”
“You are brilliant.” Ronny said. “But how will you deal with them?”
“I will think of something. You take him quickly.” He turned to Karan. “Go.”
“Ravi, I am not sure exactly what is happening. But thank you so much. You know- I- I have to confess. I used to be so jealous of you because you were brilliant in everything. And now the way you are helping me! I-”
“Just go.” Ravi turned around and started walking towards the group again.
Ronny stopped after walking for around five minutes. “We have reached the lake.”
“A little ahead.”
And soon enough Karan saw the clearest blue he had ever seen spread in the form of water. The water was still.
“Okay, you should be safe here. Now jump.”
“You know what I was thinking, why don’t you people send me back. I will never utter a word to anybody about the Otherland or the Other people on Earth.”
“Good joke. Now jump.”