Shamli wasn’t just another town. It carried more secrets than those its residents were willing to reveal
“And we all fell down” said Ramlal.
Ramlal’s uncanny stories had made the auto ride to Shamli somewhat intriguing. A normal person would have labelled Ramlal mad upon hearing his stories but Kabir Sawant knew exactly what he had gotten himself into. Ramlal was after all a resident of Shamli.
Shamli was a place people stayed away from – out of sheer fright. There was a saying that people who ventured into Shamli never came back. Kabir’s visit to Shamli had been motivated by force not by choice. Being a cop and a man who had been assigned to special missions many a time, he had been sent to Shamli in order to find a person who had gone missing near the infamous town. But it wasn’t just a case of a missing person. It was the Shamli’s reputation that had him almost saying ‘no’ to the assignment but his senior not only trusted that he could deliver, but deliver well. So there was no saying ‘No.’
After crossing what seemed like an endless forest, Kabir began spotting houses. Curious wooden houses. Abandoned, but not quite. At the entrances of these homes he saw people, who kept staring at him without blinking. The blank smiles on their faces went hand in hand with their unsettling posture. Kabir had dealt with all kinds of criminal psychopaths throughout his career as an officer. He remained unfazed, ignoring the slight tingling at the back of his neck.
But he wasn’t yet intimidated by the looks. After zigzagging through a long, broken road, Ramlal’s auto finally reached the main town square. At the centre of everything was the District Magistrate’s house. It was an old, medium-sized house in relatively good condition with a smoking chimney indicating that there were people in there. Somehow the smoke made the house a home and it appeared ‘normal.’ All the others’ houses were screaming for repair and the residents standing outside made them look eerie.
Broken roads connected all the houses and one road led to a place which looked like a market. Half closed shops selling everyday items which the residents did not seem interested in anymore. An odd cobbler sitting under a sprawling peepal tree but without work; A bank with no customers; a rickshaw puller sat alone on his vehicle, but did not appear to be particularly in search of any customers. His gaze was without envy as the auto rickshaw that Kabir occupied passed him by. Though clearly in need of money, the rickshaw puller did not seem to care that he had no work himself.
Kabir spotted the auto driver looking at him in the rear view mirror and signalled him to stop. As he reached for his wallet after getting down, the autorickshaw fellow turned around and left him without a word. That’s when Kabir noticed that the strange residents had begun walking towards him. They all were mumbling the phrase “we all fell down” and did not seem to blink. ‘Something’s clearly not right, but I will figure that later. First things first,’ Kabir thought to himself, still ignoring the niggling in his head.
Meanwhile, the door of the District Magistrate’s house opened and a man wearing a purple coat came out. He was the only one who looked sane and ‘normal’. Tall and thin, he appeared to be in his mid-40s. Still he walked slowly and deliberately as though each step cost him energy. He sported a ponytail of silver hair which somehow suited his languid gait.
“I am Zubair Khan, the DM of this town,” he extended his hand to Kabir.
Kabir reciprocated the gesture, “I am Kabir Sawant, inspector from Saharan Sheher.”
“So, what brings you here officer?”
“I came here to enquire about a person who went missing near Shamli last week. His name is Sandeep Singh.” Kabir took out a photo of Sandeep and showed it to Khan.
“I think I have seen this lad, come with me” said Khan instantly. Kabir followed him through the narrow lanes, unnerved by the residents and their stares. At this point, it began to dawn on him that no one was interacting amongst themselves. Neither was anyone busy with any activity or even talking to each other. He quickened his step to keep up with Khan, not wanting to show his discomfort or acknowledge his nervousness.
“Don’t worry, they won’t harm you” said Khan as though aware of what Kabir was thinking.
“I hope not,” replied Kabir, “But I must confess this place looks like a disaster zone. What happened to this town?” He asked, unable to stop himself from stating the obvious.
“You will know soon enough” replied Khan anomniously. No sooner had they finished talking than they came upon a bench where Kabir saw Sandeep Singh sitting with the same blank stare.
Kabir went ahead to take a closer look. “He is now a part of Shamli, and so will be you!” Khan said menacingly. Unbeknown to Kabir, Khan had pulled out an injection from his pocket and, injected Kabir on his neck even before he realised what was happening.
“What have you done?” Kabir whirled and faced him, rubbing the point where the jab had been. Khan began laughing- gradually at first and then as though he had won a round in a game – where only he was the participant.
Kabir felt his perception of reality begin to change. The wooden houses stretched themselves beyond the sky into outer space. He felt as if his hands had begun dissolving and he couldn’t make out what was going on.
But he could still hear Khan’s voice. “What is happening with you happened with the residents of Shamli 30 years ago. A compound called redicitine was discovered near Shamli. They tested it on monkeys and found that it stopped the process of ageing in monkeys and made them potentially immortal.”
Kabir began losing his conscious self. He could not believe what was happening. He could sense himself slowing down. He understood what Khan was saying but found himself unable to react quickly. Instead all his movements seemed to have gone into slow motion, and cognitive abilities affected. He felt like a zombie.
“But there was only one problem,” Khan continued to talk to Kabir as though nothing unusual was happening. “The researchers found that the monkeys lost their sanity and became mad. The compound was something humanity had never seen before. They kept it in a storage facility in Shamli. One night there was a leak, and that leak resulted in entire Shamli being intoxicated. The only difference between monkey and man was that, men didn’t turn insane. The chemical leak ensured that they remain in an intoxicated state and lost their sense of purpose and activity. It was immortality without a reason. An elixir without joy.”
Kabir could hear Khan but found himself transported to a room with water rushing into it through the windows. He stood up on one of the tables in the room to save himself from drowning. “My whole family was intoxicated but the compound did not affect me for some reason. I was the only one who survived the wrath of the leak. Call it luck. The rest lost their selves but gained immortality.
When I realised what was happening, I went to ask for help but no one came forward. We were a small bunch of people; our voices carried no weight. All I got was sneers and ridicule because no one believed me. Those who came here never returned because they too were affected by the chemical strewn around. The world outside labelled us insane and isolated us,” continued Khan. “They may not need us but they will not stop visiting us or being curious about us. Like your Sandeep here, and now you, in search of him. Welcome to Shamli.”
The water around Kabir was rising. He noticed that there was a window which did not have water coming through it. ‘That’s strange. Maybe I can jump out of it…’ thought Kabir. The effort seemed much but he knew that it may be the only way out of this horror show. “So Mr. Kabir, today you are officially a part of Shamli,” concluded Khan even as Kabir jumped out of the window, and fell into a never ending void – like the rest. The next week another officer visited Shamli in search of Kabir.
And Ramlal knew he had successfully helped yet another mortal meet immortality.
Illustration by Sid Ghosh
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Anubhav is a student of class 11 who is interested in creative writing, filmmaking and photography. He has taken up humanities and aspires to be a screenwriter.