“Tring…Tring…”, the phone bell rang. The clock read 5 pm. Autumn had just set in after a sweltering summer. Mrs. Iyer ran to her landline connection as it came to life. “Hullo! Hullo!”, she sounded quite nervous. The phone call did not continue any further. Her six year old daughter Latha who had gone to school in the morning had not returned home after the school gave over. Mr. Iyer had received the alarm while he was in the office. He ran up to the Police Station with Latha’s recent photographs so that the Police department could get into some fruitful action. Beads of perspiration led to a stream that trickled down his forehead. Having done the needful, he drove his car on the already empty roads around the school, the nearby busy areas, the close by parks where he could expect his daughter. He got down at places, cupped his mouth and yelled out for his little princess with all his might.”Latthha”. But minus the echoes, no reply came back to him. When the sun strode behind the horizon turning the earth golden, Mr. Iyer was reminded of his wife, Bharthi who had already collapsed once in agony.
Back at home Bharthi was frightened like a bird. Like a spirit, she ran till the gate at the slightest sound and soon after before the shrine of Balaji praying frivolously for her child’s safety. She feared that the only source of life for the couple must not have eaten even a morsel. Bharathi burst into tears. She felt a blob at her throat that caused her pain in gulping down her spit. She wondered why did the person on the other end of the phone did not speak. Could the police department find any clue? Will she be able to sleep in the night with her little princess prattling till the goddess of sleep descend on her eyes? She remembered how Latha had to be put to sleep either over a lullaby or a fairy story. The thought of her possible whereabouts flushed her red in fear.
Broken as a failure, Mr. Iyer returned home only to confront his wife’s pale yet expectant eyes. Slowly the man of the house slung onto the heavily cushioned sofa. Comforting calls from friends and relatives only punctuated the looming silence in the house. Hundreds of advice and suggestions came uninvited. Few of them made no sense according to Mr Iyer. Some well wishers came pouring in filling the empty spaces when the bell rang once again. This time Mr. Iyer received the call, “Hullo! Who is there? Yesss?What do you want? Speak up man!” He could not anymore suppress his frustration.
“Ten Thousand Rupees”
Mr. Iyer mused, “Such a small ransom? Did I hear right?”
He asked, “Where do you want the money?”
“By the Light House at Elliots Beach.”
“And my daughter? Is she fine?”
“She is. Reach Elliots Beach by 10 p.m. Remember, come alone.” The phone was hung while Mr Iyer continued yelling “Hullo! Hullo!” The doting father fell huddled on the sofa.
Mr Iyer contemplated that the kidnapper sounded quite bold and confident. Mr. Iyer did not want to ruffle up the Police department for such a petty ransom. For him his daughter’s safety was above everything. He requested everyone in the house to leave so that he could get into the next line of action,. Bharthi was deeply perplexed. She was even scared to ask what went through her husband’s mind. The bright face of her daughter haunted her every moment. God alone knows what misfortune she must be subjected to. Her heart was thumping so much that one could hear it from a distance. Mr. Iyer looked at the wall clock. Time had seemingly come to a snail’s pace. he felt that his throat had become wooden. Bharathi understood. She felt sorry for her husband for he was not habitual to stay without a cup of tea in the evening. At the same time she lacked the stamina to bind herself in the kitchen for this. With shaking hands, the lady brought a glass of water for her husband. Since Latha’s disappearance, the couple had not taken even a drop of water. Bharathi remembered. The man moistened his parched throat. He was busy strategising. Should he take his buddy along with him in case the situation demands? Was he making a mistake in not taking the Police assistance? Lines of deep thought fret Iyer.
Mr. Iyer jumped to his feet. He had made up his mind. He pulled out a bundle of Rs. 2000 rupee notes from the almirah, thrust his licensed revolver under his shirt for emergency purposes and dashed out of the room. Bharthi pleadingly looked at her husband’s face urging him to take her along for she would not be able to take the void of the large house any longer. Mr Iyer could understand the emotional conflicts Bharathi must be going through. So without further discussion, the couple moved out of their house. Having clumsily fastened the bolts, brought their car to life and zoom they went leaving their house under the canopy of gloom.
Elliots beach was quite a distance from Iyer’s house. Both the occupants of the car sat mute making violent prayers for their child’s safety. It took more than half an hour’s time to reach the appointed spot. Latha’s parents tiptoed out of their car and shut the door with a cluck. Nothing could be seen around except the series of white waves approaching the shore consecutively.
“Are we cheated?”, whispered Bharthi.
“Don’t jump into conclusions till you are sure”, bawled Mr. Iyer.
Slowly they approached the lighthouse. The sandy beach had tired the couple just as Latha’s absence had done to their souls. Every step was drawing them close to their search.
Suddenly from nowhere rang the words “Mumma” “Papa”. Bharthi looked around frantically only to find Latha on the lap of a middle aged man while the latter was feeding the young one tenderly. Bharthi ran and grabbed Latha from the stranger’s lap. She was surprised when their own life and blood showed resentment in leaving the portals of the man’s lap. Mr. Iyer understood that the man whom they had thought to be the kidnapper was actually innocent. He gently rested his hand on the stranger’s shoulder in a way to enquire what had happened. May be he had rescued Bharathi from the kidnapper’s hold.
Before the stranger could speak in his own defence, Latha in her broken language described how this man Venkatesh came to her help when she had lost her way outside her school gate. When her school had given over, she could not find her van driver. Seeing her friend boarding the van, she was so carried away in fun, running and waving at the departing school van that she didn’t realise how far she had evaded from the school.
When Latha discovered herself in a completely unknown area, she broke down into tears. It was then when Venkatesh came to her as an angel. Now Venkatesh took over to narrate the remaining part. He narrated how he took her to all the possible places thinking she would be able to identify her colony. Her school had also closed by then. Finding no clue, Venkatesh started pampering the small child to the best of his means. He found himself slowly being caught in the web of Latha. Venketesh then took the little one home, gave her a humble meal to eat and then put her to sleep in his arms. Amazingly even Latha found herself much at home despite experiencing the most unkempt state of his house. “All the time fear ate me up. What if I am caught on the wrong foot?” Venkatesh confessed.
“And what about the blank calls that you had made on my landline number?” reminded Bharthi.
“Yes, I found the phone number in Latha’s diary. Each time I tried to call up, She disconnected it.”
Latha gave a naughty giggle from the corner of her lips. The white flash of her teeth under the moonlight came as a balm to the sore hearts of the Iyers. She could hardly understand what the Iyers and Venkatesh must have gone through all the while.
“Then?” Mr. Iyer asked.
“I never wanted to ask for any ransom. I wanted to call you at a place where I could return Latha in the right hands. It is she who looking at the bizarre state of my house forced me to ask for the ransom. She is indeed aware of all the wealth that her father possesses”, Venkatesh spoke with a tinge of humour. He continued ” I have never seen a girl of her kind in my life.”
After saying all this the man paused for a breath and continued, “I didn’t call you up at your mobile number in fear that you could very easily land me at the Police station. I dreaded that sorely. I know how it is like losing one’s child. I’ve myself undergone the pain. I lost my son on this very beach in the midst of waves and my wife who too gave up her life by running into this wild sea in his search. Now I have no one whom I can call my own, my very own.” Venktesh broke down inconsolably.
One of the arteries to Bharathi’s heart twitched. She was speechless. Mr. Iyer could not humiliate the angel by offering him the ransom. In the graveyard like silence minus the wild waves one could hear Bharthi’s sobs. In the mid of night, Mr. Iyer offered his card with an invitation to seek his help whenever situation may demand. He gave him a warm hug and with that the Iyers and Venkatesh parted ways. Latha kept looking behind to see his new friend till he was finally out of sight.