It was an unnecessary instruction. Treasure hunt was by far Samraat’s favourite game. The challenge of locating the clues scattered along the path and the rush to be the first one to figure it all out and grab the prize enthralled him. He especially loved how the best clues weren’t really all that hidden, but instead, placed quite openly, simply masquerading as innocent objects of the general environment. He had always thought it strange for his friends to be unable to see what, to him, was painfully obvious.
He clutched the gift-wrapped box close to his chest and grinned toothily at the blinding flash.
“You look terrible.”
“Thank you, Samraat; you always know just what to say.”
“Seriously, Nidhi. You need rest.”
“Just go. I have coffee to keep me alive. And this is the last overnight ObGyn emergency I’m attending; I swear!”
“And the last night on the town you’re missing too. Abhinav is gonna be so mad!”
“So clubbing is supposed to provide me with all this much-needed rest? Get him a beer from my side and he’ll forget all about it. He’s your brother after all!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Nidhi checked her watch, smiling slightly. “It’s 8. I have to go.”
“Sorry man. She’s a nerd.”
“Yeah I can see that, but this is getting insane!”
“You can’t tell me you’re not used to it.”
“I am … I dunno how you handle it!”
“What’s to handle?”
Abhinav sighed as he slipped into the driver’s seat. “Sometimes you’re so stupid that I can’t believe we share DNA.”
“You’ve lost your talent.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That.” Abhinav shook his head in disappointment, pointing vaguely in Samraat’s direction.
Samraat felt enormously exasperated. Abhinav could be such a girl sometimes: talking in riddles, expecting everyone to understand and then getting outraged when nobody did.
Samraat gave a start as his brother honked loudly to jerk him out of his reverie. “Get in the car before it’s my next birthday!”
Ramya laughed. “You are so funny!” Samraat was well aware that he actually wasn’t, but she was still smiling. Which could mean only one thing: he was so in!
He decided to try his luck. “Wanna dance?”
Ramya looked thrilled. “A doctor who can dance? Are you for real?”
He flashed his dimples at her. Things were going to get interesting!
There was a sudden explosion of loud music from the bar they were resting on. Samraat looked down to find his phone ringing. Talk about rotten timing!
“Hi Preeti.” Samraat answered, his tone making it amply clear to his sister that he wasn’t at all happy with the interruption.
“Are you guys okay?” She was screaming hysterically despite the sore throat that had prevented her from coming out that night.
“Of course! Why?”
“Listen; get out of there right now! But be careful!”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“You guys are at Prive, right?”
“No. We chose Velvet Lounge instead.” He heard a sigh of relief. “Preeti, what’s happening?”
“There are terrorists all over South Bombay!”
“WHAT?” Samraat thundered disbelievingly. Ramya looked scared.
“There was firing at Leopold’s, and now there are 2 armed guys shooting around at VT! Please get home!” Preeti was clearly almost in tears. “I know you guys are far away but who knows where the rest of these crackos are? Mum and Dad aren’t in town and I can’t be alone. Please!”
“Yeah, we’re leaving right now. Don’t worry.”
“ABHINAV!” Samraat roared as he flung cash on the counter.
“What’s going on?” Ramya asked him, fearfully.
“Terror attack.” Samraat answered shortly, as he scanned the drunken crowd for their madly-in-love siblings.
“Colaba and VT. We’re dropping you girls off and heading home right away.” He shoved his way towards Abhinav and Tanvi, pulling Ramya behind him. It seemed an inappropriate time for him to notice that she had wonderfully soft hands.
Abhinav, Preeti and Samraat huddled in front of the television. A news channel had a grainy CCTV video clip of a young terrorist brandishing an AK-47 at VT playing on loop, as the newsreader stated that he had confirmed news that they had finally left the premises, but regrettably, very much alive, and still armed.
An approximate death toll of 27 flashed under a banner of ‘BREAKING NEWS.’ It seemed an optimistic estimate though; VT was always teeming with people.
“Wait … I’m getting a new input!” The newsreader announced as he adjusted his earpiece and listened intently. “There’s been firing at Cama Hospital!”
There was a crash as the glass in Samraat’s hand fell to the floor. Cama Hospital. Nidhi. It took him less than a second to connect the 3 words. How could he have forgotten? How had it not struck him when Preeti had mentioned VT? The 2 buildings are within walking distance of each other. Was he really such a selfish jerk that he didn’t care about his best friend just because he was flirting with some stupid bimbo?
“Nidhi.” Samraat whispered in shock. Abhinav was already watching him apprehensively. Samraat swallowed once, stood up and grabbed the car keys off the table.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Preeti demanded to know.
“Nidhi.” He replied stupidly.
“You’re staying here.” Abhinav informed him, reaching for the keys.
“Nidhi!” Samraat insisted urgently.
“Sam, there’s … nothing you can do.”
“Maybe she left early.” Abhinav said, rather too optimistically. Even he knew Nidhi too well for that.
“Even if she didn’t, she’ll be fine.” Abhinav was clearly increasingly beginning to lose faith in his own words.
“You don’t know that! I have to go there!”
“The area is sealed, Sam.”
“But I should be there! With her!” Samraat could only repeat the single thought in his mind.
“Do you want to get shot?” Preeti look terrified just at the thought.
“I don’t care, I just—”
Abhinav sympathetically pulled him into a comforting hug. In a flash, the hug seemed familiar— the emotion was just like it had been the only time Samraat had lost a game of treasure hunt at a birthday party— and Abhinav’s girly riddle from earlier that evening suddenly made perfect sense. He was right. Samraat had lost his talent of seeing what everyone else couldn’t … in fact, now he couldn’t even see what everyone else could. He was losing his treasure hunt. Worst case scenario: he’d already lost it.
He blinked a few times to clear his suddenly-blurred-vision, only to feel 2 warm streaks making their way down his cheeks.
Loud guitaring jerked Samraat awake. He couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep in the middle of such a nightmarish situation. He jack-knifed up and grabbed his phone, desperately praying for it to be Nidhi responding to the service text she should have received alerting her about the 100-odd missed calls he had left her. An unknown number flashed on the screen.
“Hello?” He bellowed into it.
“Hey, Samraat!” A happy female voice chirped, as if the horror his best friend was going through was just in his imagination.
“Who’s this?” He snapped angrily.
Samraat made a disgusted click with his tongue and hung up. Gone were all the illusions of her cuteness. Who wanted a spineless suck-up for a girlfriend? And what real use were soft hands, exactly, if they were attached to someone that brain dead?
“What’s happening?” He asked his siblings as he redialled Nidhi’s number for the nth time.
“There’s been one death at Cama.” Abhinav said solemnly.
Samraat froze. There was a short pause, during which he heard the same recorded message he’d heard countless number of times within the past 2 hours: ‘The number you are trying to reach is out of coverage area.’
“It’s not Nidhi.” Preeti grinned.
A wave of relief swept over him. He laughed before he could stop himself.
Abhinav gave him a thump on the back, grinning widely.
Samraat jumped to his feet and turned to Preeti. “Now can I go?”
“Are you really that stupid? You’re staying here until this is all over.” Elder sisters can be so bossy!
“Look, she’s a hard-working intern in a hospital that just got attacked by terrorists. She’ll be busy.” Abhinav had never been so sensible.
It had been 3 days and Nidhi was still there. Samraat should have known she’d stay back and help to the point of exhaustion, even though she’d just gone through the same nightmare as them. He watched her from outside the Labour Ward. Her hair was a mess. Her eyes were red and swollen from lack of sleep. Her apron was spattered with blood. And she still looked beautiful.
For a moment, he contemplated barging into the room and dragging her away from the delivery he couldn’t believe she had energy left to be assisting. Then he thought of how overworked she must be, and decided she didn’t need more drama from him. He’d waited 3 agonising days … what were a few more minutes?
1 placenta later, he saw Nidhi pull off her gloves and head to the basin to wash up. Another 2 minutes and she was out, looking ready to collapse.
Before her tired brain could register his presence, he had enveloped her in his arms— blood and all. In no time, she was sobbing into his shirt, mumbling things about showers of bullets, evil bastards and a dead ward-boy. He kept his face buried in her hair as he stroked it lightly, muttering, “Its okay … its okay …”, until her breathing evened a little.
“I … am a huge idiot.” He pulled himself free and gently cupped her tear-stained face in his hands.
“Colossal.” She corrected him, her mouth twitching. She clearly already knew exactly what he wanted to say.
Impossibly, standing in the very building that had witnessed gunfire 2 nights ago, they laughed. And shamelessly, in front of an entire corridor of expectant fathers, he kissed her.
“So … I love you.” Samraat whispered goofily.
Nidhi almost glowed. “I know!”
As he pulled her into an embrace again, he caught sight of their reflection in the bullet-hold-ridden elevator doors. This was it. His most important treasure hunt was over. And he’d won. Barely, but still. He’d won! There they were … the way it was always supposed to be … true perfection … Samraat and Nidhi: the king and his treasure.