Hook or Crook
Rohit was sweating profusely in spite of the air-conditioned interiors. He rested his head on his palms and tried to calm his thumping…
Rohit was sweating profusely in spite of the air-conditioned interiors. He rested his head on his palms and tried to calm his thumping heart. Eyes closed, he went over what he had to do one more time.
He let out a sigh and straightened in his seat. Today was a big day; he could not afford to mess things up.
All through the event, he had tried his best to shut out the youthful anxiety of the other contestants, but as each of them kept getting eliminated as the rounds progressed, he couldn’t help noticing the only other person to have advanced with him this far. She was a girl of around twenty, seated opposite him, her hands on her lap, head bent down. Her ripped jeans, black crop top and the numerous piercings that littered her ears proclaimed her to be a courageous rebel, but her jitters spoke of the same fear he felt.
Rohit breathed in again to calm his thumping heart. They had been handed out pamphlets that held a brief description of what they were to expect inside, including a full profile of the judges and anchors, but he had refrained from poring over his. It now lay in a crumpled heap beneath his chair.
He had learnt long ago, that it was easier to conquer an audience if they didn’t have faces. His best bet was to hope that not knowing what to expect inside would shield him from his own nervousness. The blinding lights and strategically positioned cameras would do the rest.
“Aren’t we lucky to have made it this far?” A shaky, self-possessed quip broke the silence. It took Rohit a while to realize that the pin-cushioned girl was talking to him.
He nodded politely, thinking of his wife and how important it was to prove himself to her. “Yes of course. Being in the finale means a lot to me.”
“Anyway, hello, Rohit. I’m Sonia. Oh, and don’t be surprised, I saw your name on the pamphlet they handed out to us.”
“Ah. Well I didn’t even look at it. I’m just too nervous to do any reading, I guess.”
For some reason, this comment seemed to please her, but that flicker of happiness in her eyes was gone in an instant, and the usual pallor of nervousness was back on her thin face.
“Do you know what marks this day as special, Rohit?”
He was incredulous. “You mean, apart from the fact that today is the grand finale of the biggest talent hunt in the country, and after so many rounds of screening over the past 48 hours, the two of us are finally getting a chance to perform in front of the judges?”
She laughed and nodded, but a seriousness crept into her voice. “Yes indeed, apart from that very obvious fact, today also marks the death anniversary of Fahad Khan. On this very day, exactly six years ago when the grand finale of the first season of this show was being shot, there was a freak accident that led to his tragic demise.”
Rohit knew she expected this name to strike a chord, but he had never watched a talent show in his life. He was there this year only because his wife was convinced he had it in him to make it big in the world of music.
Slightly embarrassed, he said — “Umm, I know this is awkward, but I have no idea who Fahad Khan is. Did he work here?”
Her face registered mild surprise as she went on — “Yes, he was the anchor. His job was to introduce the contestants to the judges and audiences. He was very young when he died, probably just 25 or so.”
“That is extremely sad, Sonia. So that is why the theme for all the songs in the tryouts today was tragedy. Yes, things make sense. Gosh, I really feel I am so out of touch with what is happening in the world of showbiz.”
Her thin lips stretched into a sad smile. “Fahad was the best anchor in India during that time. His wisecracks and antics kept the audience in splits, but that was not what he was most famous for. Apart from being a successful emcee, Fahad was also a movie star, with quite a few successful films to his credit. His sudden death came as a great shock to the world.”
It surprised Rohit that he had never heard of Fahad Khan, in spite of how renowned he seemed to be. He regretted that he hadn’t done a bit of reading on the history of the show before coming there; if nothing else, a bit of information might have helped him converse better with the other contestants.
“I was just 18 then, and still in school.” Sonia went on. “All my friends had a crush on the youthful exuberance of Fahad — they kept on begging me to participate in the show just so I could see him up front. I wish I had listened to them then, for even though I did manage to participate here six years later, I never got the chance to meet Fahad.”
Her young face was a mask of pain and her thin voice had lost its self-possessed note. Frowning, he ventured — “Now don’t get sad. No one can change what’s written in destiny, right?”
“But what happened was not fair. Fahad did not deserve to die. I still remember what he wore on the day he died — his photograph was splashed all over the news channels,” she added, in response to Rohit’s raised eyebrow.
“He had donned a white jacket with silver stars down the length of his arms, with a matching pair of white trousers. He looked so young; people must have confused him for a teenager. I’d never seen him with toys before, but on that fateful day, he had a small orange teddy bear with him — probably for publicity or advertising purposes. At least, that was how the news channels showed him.”
She broke off with a little shudder. Silence hung between them now, punctuated only by the rhythmic sounds of her breathing. It was a relief to Rohit when the black iron doors opened and a smartly dressed woman wearing a tiara called out his name. He stood slowly, trying to stall and steady his shaking hands.
“All the best!” Sonia said as he stood. He looked at her, sweat forming on his brow. Forcing a smile, he gave her the thumbs-up and headed towards the door, fighting off a wish that his wife was with him as he stepped into an unfamiliar world inside.
The woman with the tiara led him down an immaculately manicured hall. She was prattling detachedly about what he was to expect. He stopped listening after she told him that he was to stand on a small circle lit by a spotlight from the arrangements above.
A young man met him just outside the stage and fitted his collar with a small microphone. Another boy in a yellow shirt came up to him, wiped his brow and quickly put some powder on his face. Rohit was warned that the lights would be bright, and he should look the judges in the eye whenever they asked him any question. He closed his eyes again and took a deep breath.
A sing-song male voice announced his arrival — “Ladies and gentlemen, I present before you our first finalist of the night, Rohhiiiitttt Mehttaaaa.”
He heard his name reverberate in the hall, quieting the drone of the murmuring audience. An enthusiastic applause welcomed him into the competition.
He knew he was expected to take up his position and start performing, but Rohit was stuck helplessly in his position, legs suddenly turned to jelly. Someone gave him a gentle shove, and he half stumbled towards the little circle on the stage. ‘This is my moment,’ Rohit realized — the spotlight was on him. The lights were blinding; instinctively he put his hand to his face to shield his eyes.
“So Rohit, would you like to tell the judges what you’d be performing tonight?” the sing-song voice rang out again, and he realized the question was directed at him. Something about its quality sent shivers down his spine, and he turned to look for the speaker. He had his back turned to Rohit, but he could make out small silver stars on the arms of the white fabric that the emcee was wearing.
As the anchor turned slowly to face him, Rohit’s heart leapt to his throat in horror.
The speaker looked about 25; was dressed in a white jacket with shimmering silver stars that ran down his arms, coupled with a matching pair of white trousers. The tiny teddy bear clutched under his right arm was a formidable shade of orange. Under the brightly lit stage-lights, it seemed to snarl up at Rohit.
The man had a horrible smile fixed on his face. He lifted the mic slowly to his lips. “Do you know what’s so special about tonight and what makes you so lucky, Rohit?” he asked.
He could manage the briefest of nods before Fahad Khan went on, “You are lucky because today we have with us….” Rohit’s mind blanked out until those next words: “You have me — come back to where I began my career six years back!”
The last three words were said with a shout. The applause that greeted it was deafening.
All stage-fright forgotten, Rohit turned and ran headlong down the hall he had come through. The image of Sonia standing up in alarm as he dashed past her barely registered in his mind, as did that of the guards jumping back in haste to make way for his rushing form.
Fuelled by terror and adrenaline, Rohit ran all the way back home — faster than any cab could have carried him. In his hurry to put as much distance as possible between himself and the apparition of Fahad Khan, Rohit did not even bother to hit ‘Ignore’ on his incessantly ringing cellphone.
There was utter chaos inside the auditorium as the audience and the four judges stared open-mouthed at what had just unfolded in front of their shocked eyes. The anchor, famous singer Prahlad Karim brought his mic close and spoke into it. His voice sounded like it had been suddenly stripped off its sing-song quality — “Judges, it seems our finalist had forgotten some important task and had to rush off to complete it.”
His remark earned him a few nervous titters from the confused spectators — that was the best response he could get from them.
Several assistants were called upon and phone-calls made, but to no avail. Finally, because of having no other option, the second finalist Sonia Shekhar was ushered in. In the absence of competition, the judges and the studio audience unanimously decided to crown her Singing Idol 2018. All she had to do now was to give a token performance, and the title would be hers.
When she took her place on the stage, the fourth judge in the panel congratulated her on her win. He then asked her playfully — “So Sonia, do you have any idea what made our previous contestant bolt out so suddenly? I have never witnessed such an incident in my career as a judge.”
“Good evening sir,” she replied confidently. “As a matter of fact I do. We had conversed for a few minutes in the waiting room, and Rohit had confided in me that he had a mortal fear of teddy bears.” Her voice rang out clear in front of the 20000-strong audience.
“As a child, he was once locked up in an elevator while travelling down to say goodbye to his father. Somehow, the equipment had gotten jammed, and he had remained stuck in the cramped space for eight excruciating hours, with only his stuffed toy for company. It took eight hours for his father to finally return from office retrieve him. All this while, stuck in that elevator, young Rohit had imagined his teddy bear growing larger and larger until it filled up all the cramped space inside. His teddy bear meant to suffocate him, he believed. Since then, Rohit has been claustrophobic, and terrified of any kind of soft toy.
“I believe that because of the tough competition in the tryouts, he was already a bundle of nerves. Suddenly spotting the publicity teddy bear Prahlad’s holding acted like the final nail in the coffin.”
Sonia hadn’t slept with every judge along the way to reach the finals, to even remotely stand the chance of being bettered by a cowering giant of an opponent. She had been instrumental in eliminating all competition over the past 48 hours, and it mattered naught to her if this meant Rohit or all the others had to go home disappointed. They could start afresh the next year, for all she cared.
Win she had to, and win she would — by hook or by crook.
Taking a deep breath and feeling the adrenaline flooding through her body, she brought the mic to her lips and started her song.
It was a melody of victory she sang that night.
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