Rohit was slowly inserting his hand into Rhea’s blouse when the men appeared. It was a warm day at Avalanche Lake, the water glinted just below where the two of them sat, a copse of eucalyptus trees stood like a sentinel to one side. The air was infused with the smell of eucalyptus, wild rose and thyme that Rhea recognised from her mother’s Coonoor garden.
There were three men. Two of them carried long wooden poles and all of them had scythes. Grass cutters? Shepherds looking for their flock? The men were beefy, with skin the colour of glistening ebony.
Rohit withdrew his hand hurriedly. He wasn’t worried. Rhea averted her face and waited for the men to pass. But they didn’t. They stopped in front of the couple, so close the latter could smell the sweat that rose off their bodies. Rohit lifted his chin and looked one of the men in the eye, glaring in what he thought was an intimidating manner. Rhea continued to look away. The man met Rohit’s eyes and smiled. In that instant, Rohit felt his heart slam into his chest. The smile was a slow one and the amusement it contained did not for a minute mask the menace.
‘Oho! Idhu enna?’
Rohit wasn’t sure who had spoken the words and he didn’t know what they meant either. He forced himself to calm down. Bluster wasn’t going to cut it.
Rhea shot him a sidelong glance. Was Rohit going to bluster their way out of what looked to be a sticky spot? She didn’t know him well enough, this was only their second date but she rather thought he could be a guy prone to bluster.
‘Tamil illa,’ Rohit told the men, causing much ribald amusement. Taking a deep breath, he continued in Hindi, ‘What do you want?’
‘Hinji? Hin-Di?’ The second syllable was given a hard and mocking ‘d’. That too, sounded threatening.
The youngest of the men now pushed forward. ‘What do we want?’ he said in passably good Hindi. He then turned to his companions and said something in Tamil. Rhea flinched. She’d understood what the man had said.
He now turned to Rhea, stepped up close, very close, and caught her chin. Rhea went rigid, she uttered a sound that fell somewhere between a stifled cry and a sob. The man stared into her eyes, then said conversationally, continuing to speak in Hindi. ‘We won’t hurt you. What do you think we want from you?’
At which point, Rohit forgot his admonition to himself and fell back on bluster.
‘Oi! I’ll get the police to raid your homes! You’ll be beaten black and blue by the cops. I know the Nilgiris Commissioner!’
‘Shut up,’ Rhea told him softly.
As if on cue, the three men burst out laughing. They’d obviously caught the gist of what he had said. ‘Polees?’ one asked mockingly. ‘Aiyyo, polees!’
The oldest of the men who had been silent until now, now stepped forward. He pointed to Rohit’s ring. Rohit couldn’t take his eyes off the dried white spot of spittle at the corner of the man’s mouth.
‘Kodu,’ the man commanded. Rohit didn’t need a translation.
Incredibly, his mind baulked, his body mirroring that resistance, and he put his arm behind him, for all the world like a ten-year-old child. The man grinned, then wrenched Rohit’s arm forward again. It was a show of strength and it hurt, just as much as it was meant to.
‘Give him the ring,’ Rhea hissed softly.
‘Married?’ asked the Hindi speaker.
Rohit swallowed, then said, ‘Haan. To her.’ He indicated Rhea. Then followed a minute of silence so thick you could cut it with a knife.
‘Biwi?’ the speaker asked in an incredulous tone.
‘Hmm,’ said Rohit, trying for the most nonchalant timbre he could find.
Just as he thought he’d pulled it off, the Hindi speaker was touching Rhea’s slender white throat.
‘Oi,’ shouted Rohit again.
Ignoring him, the man ran a finger across her throat, past her prominent collarbone, then dipped into her neckline and fished out her slender gold chain, which was clearly not a mangalsutra. Rohit flung himself at the man and received a backhanded slap that sent him reeling.
‘You are his wife?’ the man asked Rhea, tugging at the chain in order to bring her closer to him.
‘Yes,’ Rhea told him, stiff with some emotion. Was it fear or anger? Rohit couldn’t tell.
‘Why are you here,’ the man asked her. ‘Can’t do your business at home?’ He grinned and as if on a signal, the other men laughed loudly. One of them made an unmistakable gesture with his fist.
To his horror, Rohit felt himself let loose a sob. It was a sob of fury, of course, but Rhea turned to him and lashed out, ‘Don’t cry, Rohit. You got us here. Get us out of this.’
So it was anger, not fear that was driving Rhea. He didn’t get much time to muse on that, however. The men were divesting both Rohit and Rhea of their jewellery. Rohit’s ring, his Panerai Luminor watch and the chainmail gold bracelet his dadi had given him for good luck were in the men’s hands and were being examined with much approval.
‘You.’ the Hindi speaker indicated and Rhea unclasped her chain, removed the diamond studs on her earlobes and handed them over. The she handed over her heirloom Favre Leuba watch, looking ready to cry at any moment. She wasn’t wearing any other jewellery.
Rohit forced his voice to a steady low tone. ‘Can we go now?’
‘Go?’ said the Hindi speaker. ‘Can they go now?’ he asked his companions. They grinned.
Turning back, the man asked Rohit, ‘Where do you want to go?’
‘Home,’ Rohit replied.
‘Where is home?’
‘Coonoor,’ he replied trying to sound matter of fact, pleasant even.
‘That’s a long way away,’ the man said in a thoughtful way.
‘Enough talk,’ snapped one of the older men. Stepping forward, he indicated with an upraised scythe that Rohit and Rhea should move onto the bridle path.
‘Can we make a run for it?’ Rhea asked in a low voice.
‘We won’t get far,’ Rohit said, glancing at his suede boots and her gladiator sandals. He looked at Rhea and saw what he thought was an expression of scorn in her fine grey eyes and muttered, ‘Oh, what the hell. Let’s try.’
Almost in synchronized movement, they ran. The men hadn’t been expecting that; they were taken aback and the element of surprise gave the couple a small lead. But it was short-lived. The men soon caught up and they were overpowered. Rohit felt the sharp end of a scythe cutting the skin on the back of his hand near his wrist and when he looked down saw blood gushing out of the cut. He felt faint. He looked up and felt worse when he saw one of the men slapping Rhea. She took it without a sound. The lacy edge of her bra was showing through her pulled aside blouse and one of the men commented on it. A brawny hand was put there; Rhea pushed it aside with force. There was a fresh burst of laughter.
And then they were walking down the moss-hedged path with the three men in single file close behind them. Rohit tried to put Rhea in front of him but the men weren’t having any of that. The dry eucalyptus leaves cracked beneath their feet and high up, a Nilgiris skylark fluted out a melodious tune.
They walked and walked and walked some more. They spotted and skirted around a brace of bison, gigantic beasts who paid them no attention, and passed blood-red rhododendrons that drooped in a dispirited manner. Rohit was no trekker and he now felt physically sick. The silence was getting to him. This picnic at Avalanche had been Rhea’s idea. Stupid, stupid idea.
`Ro, I’m scared,` Rhea said from behind him.
Rohit stopped in his tracks and turned around. The man just behind Rhea was lightly running his hand over the back of her chiffon top. Rhea’s fine-featured face was expressionless but her eyes spoke volumes.
Rohit began to speak, uncaring of whether the men understood him or not. He told them that Rhea and he were tired, were scared, just wanted to go home. The men had taken all the valuables, he pointed out. Now they had to let the couple go.
Strangely, the men seemed to be listening. Turning to the Hindi speaker, Rohit told him that if something happened to Rhea, his life would be worth nothing. If he let something happen to Rhea, what kind of a husband did that make him?
‘You have a wife,’ Rohit found himself telling the man, ‘would you allow anything bad to happen to her?’
Rhea watched him with a strange expression in her eyes. So much for her assumption that he was the blustery sort. Rohit was handling matters well.
She’d met him at the Coonoor Club, and Rohit had made no effort to hide his instant attraction to her. Both were down on holiday here, they both lived and worked in Gurgaon, and had a few mutual acquaintances. What’s more, he was very good looking even if he favoured a slightly flashy style of dressing.
And now Rohit blew it. Ending his impassioned appeal, he stepped up to the young Hindi speaker and put an entreating hand on the man’s forearm. The man recoiled, then hit Rohit with the flat side of his scythe. Rohit reeled, and saw another man attempt to pull Rhea’s top out of the waistband of her skirt.
The next few minutes were a blur. He could feel each blow as it fell hard on him. Pain and fear melded in a sticky mind-body mess. He watched as Rhea was groped, as she pulled away yelling.
Then Rohit was on his knees, begging.
‘Please, please let us go,’ he sobbed. ‘Our lives are in your hands, we are nothing, let us go and forget you ever met us.’ He tried not to see the looks of amusement and contempt on their faces.
Rhea then spoke up. Speaking in Tamil, she asked the men something. Surprised, they moved across to her. Rohit slowly wiped the blood off his mouth onto his shirt-sleeve. He couldn’t understand a word of what Rhea was saying; he couldn’t even begin to guess anything from her tone. He saw her looking directly into the eyes of the Hindi speaker; she was so close to the man. Maybe she fancied these black-skinned types, he thought sourly. He himself was fair, ruddy even.
To his horror, the three men pushed her off the bridle path and into the woods. Rohit tried to shout but found his voice had dried up. He watched helplessly, as they walked into the woods. Then they were lost to sight. Rohit couldn’t hear a thing. The idea of taking off didn’t even cross his mind. He waited, feeling utterly helpless and angry. There was blood dripping warm from a cut on his nape; a gash on his left knee hurt like hell.
When they came back after ten minutes maybe less, Rohit had no way of telling, the men came first, Rhea at the rear. Without a word, they indicated that the couple was to get back onto the pony track. All five walked in silence. Overhead, there was birdsong and pale-winged butterflies flitted about near them. Everything seemed so surreal.
A short while later, they were back at the car. The Hindi speaking man looked enquiringly at Rhea.
‘Give him the car keys,’ she instructed Rohit.
‘What? This is not my car. I can’t. I won’t.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Ro.’ Rhea told him in a deadly tone, all the while smiling an unnerving smile. ‘Just give him the car keys.’
For one wild moment, Rohit contemplated some commando action where he’d leap into the car, fire the ignition and drive away. Except he was no commando, he had never had any commando training and what about Rhea? And he stifled the thought that the stupid woman deserved to be left behind.
And so Rohit and Rhea watched as the young Hindi speaker got behind the wheel and the other two men got in, too. Would the fellow be able to drive the car? As Rohit expected, the engine fired at the first start. The driver slid into gear smoothly and soon the car vanished from sight.
Keep calm, Rohit told himself. He turned to Rhea, to sweep her fringe back from her pale forehead tenderly, to ask if she was alright. And found himself saying instead, ‘That car is not mine, Rhea. It’s Bittu Uncle’s. What will I tell him?’
Rhea took a deep weary breath.
‘Rohit, those men were deciding who was going to have a go at me first. All I could think of was to bargain with the car. Your car, your uncle’s car, whatever. I was going to be raped, Rohit. Raped.’
Rohit opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it and shut up.
‘How do we get home now,’ he asked sulkily.
They walked the couple of miles it took to reach the nearest hamlet and Rhea borrowed their bus fare from the village headman.
As the bus pulled away, Rhea told Rohit almost conversationally, ‘One of those men happens to be the headman’s nephew. He runs a mechanic shop near Manjoor. No wonder they let me go. Your Duster is good money and no repercussions.’
Suddenly, she seemed to be in the mood to talk. ‘None of the three were hardened criminals. That’s why they didn’t...’ She turned to look at him, ‘rape me, I mean.’
Rohit didn’t react. He was fed up, his face and neck were a mess, and they were attracting a good deal of attention from their fellow passengers on the bus. Thank god I’m not really married to this bitch, he thought morosely. Don’t want to see her again, ever. I’m flying out from Coimbatore tomorrow. And I’ll forget this ever happened. Bloody, bloody holiday.
Rhea nestled closer to him, thinking on a shaky wave of relief that the incident had really shown he was a decent kind of guy. He’d been ready to take those louts on, he’d pleaded with them, he had really been worried, he had waited. Once the two of them got back to Delhi, they could pick up what they had started in Coonoor.
Copywriter-turned journalist and writer, Sheila Kumar is the author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin, Rupa Publications. Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies. She has written extensively for the Outlook Getaway travel guides.
Primarily happy to wear a travel writer's hat, Sheila writes for a clutch of newspapers and magazines on a wide range of topics, edits manuscripts, is copy editor for a set of technical magazines, and reviews books every month for a couple of national newspapers.