The train chugs to a halt. A robotic voice from the public announcement system rattles off train and platform numbers. Wordlessly, we alight. The silk ivory blouse and the knee-length black pencil skirt cling to our bodies. We spot a middle-aged man with pursed lips in front of a shop selling cigarettes. He is holding a placard. Some disinterested person has doodled our city name on it. Waves of relief run through our spine as we wave at him, even as we cringe inwardly at the ignominy our native place has been subject to. With a cursory nod, he acknowledges our greeting and turns around, making his way to the red-coloured SUV with careless strides.
If only we could check into the nearest hotel, ease ourselves into a bathtub filled with warm water and lavender-scented gel, and sip wine until things iron out! But knowing they won’t, coupled with the fact that we are on a mission, we follow the man. The clickety-clack of our stilettos is drowned in the clamour of the bustling commuters.
Despite the imposing size, the SUV is not large enough to hold the ten of us, but we squeeze in somehow. We place our rucksacks on our laps. Being lean is indeed a blessing. The engine comes to life, and our vehicle sputters for two seconds before zooming out of the station. We hold each other’s sweaty palms but desist from speaking. We are together in this – we assure ourselves.
Leaning back against the plush upholstery of the car is a luxury we cannot afford, so we continue to sit huddled inside. Is this how sardines feel inside a tin? Silk rubs against silk as our SUV hurtles along the occasionally bumpy road. Not that we whine about it. We are used to naked, warty bodies abrading our already-bruised ones.
We try to shove the painful memories of our past aside, but they sneak in obstinately. Don’t forget your purpose – they seem to remind us.
Is it a week already? How helpless we stood outside, watching with increasing shock as enemies bombed the place we called our home. Heart-wrenching shrieks of our friends trapped inside reverberated around us, but we stood rooted to the spot – like wooden dolls. Despair gave way to fury as revenge took over our minds. But what could we do against a powerful and mad enemy hell-bent on wrecking innocent lives?
When silence enveloped the place like a shroud, it felt so ….. so eerie, so deathly. We strained our still-ringing ears to catch the faintest sound. Maybe a gasp? The final breath? A desperate but weakened plea for help? But we found none. The girls were dead. Our wobbly knees gave way as we sank into the crunchy grass, crying, overcome by guilt. We had escaped death by a whisker.
These were teenage girls who had big dreams in their eyes. They longed to catwalk on the ramps and travel around the world. But misfortune forced them to a life they didn’t bargain for. They did get to wear fashionable clothes, but of what use was the rustling sheer lingerie when the reed-thin girls spent most of their time taking it off in front of grubby, fat strangers with nothing but lust in their eyes?
Tears trickle down our cheeks, bringing us back to the present. We wipe our eyes.
“He can’t wait to meet you,” the man is gushing about his boss, his hands firmly on the steering wheel.
We nod and tell the driver that we are eager to meet our boss too.
A day after the bombing, a woman rang us and asked us to be in her office that evening. Dressed in the garish clothes we had managed to salvage from the explosion, we stuck out like sore thumbs in the glass building, where people in smart formals whizzed by. A few men sneered at us. We recognised them as our nocturnal clients who solicited our services when things were rosy. With eyes on the marbled floor, we ignored the men of repute and followed the prim-looking woman to her chamber.
We took our seats inside what looked like a conference room. It had a rectangular table and twenty chairs. The woman dialled a number and pressed the speaker key on the black archaic landline phone. We gazed at the multiple buttons on its body. A man’s baritone voice greeted us.
“Call me boss. Best of luck!” he signed off in the end. We looked at the wall clock. Had we spoken for two hours nonstop?
The SUV stops in front of a white dilapidated structure. Once again, we are dragged into the present. We tell ourselves not to cling to the past anymore. It’s over.
“He’ll meet you in his room at 8 PM,” the man informs us without alighting from the car. “You’ll be having your dinners in your rooms.”
One by one, we get out. The cool breeze caresses our exhausted faces. We adjust our skirts and make our way to the front door.
We turn back and thank the man. He speeds away.
“Are you sure you all are ready for this assignment?” the lady had asked us, peering through her gold-rimmed glasses.
Our unanimous yes resonated in the chamber, almost startling her.
“Welcome to the shit hole!” A faint smile parted the lady’s lips as she shook hands with each of us.
We nudge the door gently and saunter inside. Soon, we will come face to face with the boss, who will train us in espionage and various methods of honey trapping.
It’s a good thing we did nothing when we saw our houses blowing up in a split second. After all, the soldiers had just fired the shots. The ones who paid for the bullets were out in the open, partying, globe-trotting – unmindful of the sufferings of the countless victims. If things went as planned, we would target the bigwigs and play a pivotal part in their destruction.
We don’t bother to find out how the lady got our numbers; or if we can trust the hitherto-unseen boss. But we know one thing – Revenge will be ice-cold desserts.
This story won the first prize in the Bharat Award International Award 2024 in the category ‘Short Story’. It garnered appreciation from the three jury members.
Julie Ratcliff from Christchurch, UK –
Ice-Cold Revenge offers mystery and intrigue from the start in a well-structured story that keeps the reader engaged. We follow a group on a journey. Who are they? Where are they going and why? They are travelling ‘together in this’. We don’t know their names and they remain silent, trying to forget ‘painful memories’. As their story unfolds, we discover their motivation, what they have experienced and what they have witnessed. They have an enemy that is ‘powerful and mad hell-bent on wrecking innocent lives.’ The writer provides information little by little until we discover the group’s objective. Ice-cold revenge it is indeed. This imaginative story is executed in a suspenseful and inventive way. It is an absorbing story of our times, that is well thought out and with good pace. It is a worthy winner of the competition.
Dr. Amar Singh from MP, India –
The short story writer has exactly, crisply, concisely and precisely chosen all the words used in the story. The plot of the story is profoundly significant giving the sense of completion. The characterization is minutely portrayed giving desired space to each one of them. The central theme of Revenge has been woven around several minutely etched symbols.
The overall setting of the story with requisite pictorial tools makes it wholesome, palatable, and believable. There is clarity in perspective, objective and rising and falling action. The ultimate lesson of the story is impeccably described. There is an organisation of linguistic, structural, and phonetic grandeur in the story. The proportion of weightage, scope and timings of the given events is balanced. There is no misgiving gap considered to be filled at all. The size of the story is eminently worth appreciation.
The story writer is competent, matured, and soulful enough to use almost all the elements of a good story. This fulfils the purpose of short story writing. I wish the story writer a happy, blissful, and healthy creative writing journey. God bless the story writer’s ever-evolving multi-faceted personality.
Latha Prem Sakhya from Kerala, India –
A story of revenge which shows and suggests more than telling how in the face of adversity individuals might go to fulfil their intense desire for revenge.
The protagonist or protagonists can be every survivor in a war-torn world, nauseated and disgusted with the cruelty of mindless killing they see around them and seek revenge on the perpetrators of war and suffering.
Written in a surrealistic manner it has captured the immediacy of war, its grotesqueness and the trauma it causes to the survivors which spurs them on with their desire for revenge.
A story with an implicit message, which can have a tremendous impact on the present-day world.
Gopakumar Radhakrishnan from Palakkad, Kerala –
As the title hints, the method of revenge chosen will be altogether different and will be deployed by a group of women who had managed to survive from the ongoing war scenes. The trap of this story is its scheme and the apparent thread of emotions of the survivors that leads and binds us towards its end. The final twist that makes us ruminate more is that whether these avenging survivors are again caught inside a tricky trap set by some strange war lobbies. It’s very intriguing, well-crafted like a suspense thriller and I eagerly look forward to reading its next part.