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The Invisible Footsteps

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Ravi woke up from an unusually deep sleep. Lying with his eyes closed, he was trying to recall the time he had fallen asleep — was it a few hours ago or his usual time last night or still earlier — he had no idea.

After struggling for some time, he opened his eyes and and tried to focus on the fan. As the blurriness cleared, it occurred to him that the daylight seemed brighter than usual. Also, the fan was switched off — he muttered a curse thinking about the unknown culprit who had dared to do so in this sweltering heat. But, the next moment, to his surprise, he found that he wasn't sweating. Also, hanging in the air, together with the strong fragrance of incense sticks, was an oppressive silence. Something wasn't quite right.

The thought made Ravi sit up and look around. What he saw baffled him. It appeared as though everyone he knew had invaded the privacy of his room — relatives, friends, colleagues and even a few faces he had never seen before.

Some were sitting quite close by and staring sombrely at him, some a few feet away conversing in hushed voices, and some standing wherever they could find space to fit in and toying with their mobile phones.

As Ravi scanned the room and took note of all this, what struck him as strange was that, no one seemed to acknowledge his presence — although he was meeting the gaze of everyone.

While Ravi was still trying to make sense of this, he heard a wail. The sound seemed to be coming from the next room. Getting up, he walked out of his room to see who was crying.

It was his wife, Chaya. Surrounded by a few relatives, who were trying to comfort her, Chaya was weeping inconsolably.

With a puzzled expression, Ravi slowly walked past everyone and sat gingerly in front of her. But, even Chaya seemed to be unaware of his presence. He put his hand gently on hers to draw her attention and to understand what was happening. But, it didn't seem to make any difference. Feeling perturbed and nettled, he tried to squeeze Chaya's hand.

The result of his attempt left him rattled and confused. Chaya's hand just went through his fingers. He tried again but the result was the same. He tried to lift her hand, hold her by her shoulder, place his hand on her cheek — every attempt produced the same result. He tried shaking the person sitting next to Chaya — and, the result was the same.

Everything Ravi tried to touch passed through his fingers -- it seemed as though his hands were made of smoke.

Filled with horror, he called out Chaya's name loudly, but it made no difference to either Chaya, or to anyone else present there.

Feeling confused by everyone's reaction and scared by what was happening, he got up and turned around to talk to one of his friends.

As Ravi was turning around, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He stopped. To take a closer look, he moved towards the mirror.

He couldn't believe what he saw. The ashen color of his hair, his bloodless face, his gnarled body — nothing about him appeared familiar. Ravi turned back to see if the image in the mirror was a reflection of someone else standing behind him. But, there was no one there.

Ravi turned to face the mirror again. When trying to make sense proved futile, Ravi decided to go back to his room. However, he didn't know at that moment that there was more to come.

As Ravi entered his room, he was jolted by the sight of himself covered in a white tunic and lying motionless on the floor. He almost ran to look at himself. Upon reaching beside himself, he sat down and began looking at it.

As Ravi stared at his body, it occurred to him that he was also staring at an identity crisis — Who was Ravi? Was it him who was very much alive or was it the lifeless body lying on the floor or both. He also began to wonder if he was dead or still alive.

Along with all these thoughts, memories began flooding Ravi's mind and the sequence of events that had happened the day before started unfolding. He remembered the knife flashing and entering his body, just below his heart.

Ravi bent down and peeped through the tunic to take a closer look at the stab wound close to his heart. It had been stitched and closed. He remembered the acute pain he felt when the knife entered his body.

He tried hard to remember how and when he came out of his body. Was it through the wound or some other way or by some other means.

He also wondered if he could get back in, through the wound. Was it possible? Could he do it alone or would he need someone to push him in? Would getting back in be as painful as the pain he felt when he was hit by the knife?

As Ravi sat thinking about all these and unsure of what to do, his friends came and picked up his body and laid it in the verandah.

Ravi followed them, curious to see what lay in store for him. He saw that preparations were being made to give his body a bath. He walked out into the courtyard and saw that the wooden and hay platform, or arthi, to carry his body was also being readied. Fire had also been lit in an earthen pot, which would be carried by someone walking in front of his funeral procession.

As Ravi walked around watching all this, he made an observation — though there was a lot of activity going on around him, and only for him, yet, no one wished that he should come back. All he heard was, "why did he need to depart so soon and this way?"

With disinterest, yet feeling compelled to watch everything, Ravi kept an eye on the goings-on.

Finally, the procession carrying his body left his home to make its way towards the crematorium. Ravi also got up to accompany the crowd. He was the last one to leave. After he had taken a few steps, he turned back to look at his house again. He would come back once everything was over he thought. After all, where else could he go--this was his home and it was here that he would spend his life.

As Ravi walked behind his funeral procession, further and further away from his house, he began getting used to his new individuality -- the newfound freedom felt better, the feeling of detachment from everything was satisfying, the solitude in the midst of commotion felt peaceful, the anonymity afforded by invisibility in the crowded world made him feel secure.

Absorbed in all these, somewhere along the way, Ravi broke away from everyone and began walking in a different direction. He kept walking without turning back to experience the world in a different way; or was it to experience a different world?

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