In a differed part of the bus, Dalbeer changed places and sat with Harpreet. As Dalbeer rarely participated in the ragging sessions, he hardly knew anyone from the junior batch.
Surprisingly, Dalbeer and Harpreet hit it off well. They seemed to share a few things in common such as their Punjabi roots and cricket.
It was midday and almost six hours since the group had been on the road. Most of the students had dozed off except Dalbeer and Harpreet who were merrily testing each other’s cricketing knowledge.
‘Okay. In the 1983 World Cup, who scored the most runs and who took the most number of wickets?’ asked Dalbeer.
‘That’s easy. David Gower and Roger Binny,’ replied Harpreet with nonchalance.
Dalbeer was impressed.
‘Tell me the nickname of Vivian Richards,’ asked Harpreet expecting Dalbeer to mess it up.
Dalbeer laughed and replied, ‘This is what I call a sitter. Smokin’ Joe. Ask some tough questions.’
‘In which newspaper was the satirical obituary that started the legend of the Ashes series published?’
‘The Sporting Times.’
‘Off whose bowling did Sunil Gavaskar score the 10,000th run?’
‘Ejaz Fakhi. That’s what I call a hattrick,’ said Dalbeer, with elation.
Harpreet’s nonchalance soon turned to helplessness.
‘Chetan Sharma took a hattrick in the 1987 world cup. Who were the batsmen that got out? In the right order!’
‘Ian Smith, Rutherford and Richard Hadlee,’ said Dalbeer, placing an arm around Harpreet.
‘Wrong,’ said Harpreet, looking blankly at Dalbeer.
‘Wrong? What do you mean wrong?’
‘The third batsman was Ewen Chatfield.’
‘What rubbish! The right answer is Richard Hadlee,’ protested Dalbeer.
Dalbeer was so loud that a couple of students woke up startled.
But Harpreet was not going be cowered down by Dalbeer’s rant. He simply pulled out an edition of ‘The Cricket quiz book’ from his bag and threw it on Dalbeer’s lap. Dalbeer was tempted to read the book up to be sure, but he didn’t want to be further embarrassed and so he returned the book without checking the answer.
The two sat silently, like a married couple that had had a spat, for the remainder of the bus trip.
The group reached Nainital. Everyone was booked into a room with two students each. To keep things simple, those who travelled together were given the same room. Much to their consternation, Dalbeer and Harpreet found themselves in the same room on the fourth floor of the Lake View hotel in Nainital.
The long journey over the hilly terrain had fatigued the group but after they took one look at the scenic landscape, they were itching to get out and explore Nainital.
The next morning, the group trekked up to China Peak, from where the mountains on the Tibetan border could be seen. It was an arduous climb but the mesmerising beauty from the peak was so invigorating that everyone forgot the hardships on the way.
After a day of trekking on the hills, a night bonfire was organized. Harpreet enjoyed himself by the fire but soon felt drowsy.
He walked up to his room thinking that Dalbeer would have slept by then but hopefully not locked the door. He turned the doorknob and was surprised to find the door locked. He knocked on the door. There was no reply. He knocked again. No reply. Harpreet got irritated and banged on the door.
Harpreet was losing patience. He was thinking of what to do next when there was a loud thud on the door. It appeared as though something had hit the door from inside with brute force. The sound shattered the silence of the night.
Harpreet wondered why Dalbeer was trying to hit the door when it was locked from inside. Just then, the door opened and he saw Dalbeer’s tall and well-built frame standing in the doorway.
Harpreet looked at Dalbeer and shouted on his face, ‘Are you mad? Why the hell did you close the door?’
Harpreet was about to enter the room to sleep when he noticed something peculiar about Dalbeer. From the light of the corridor that fell on Dalbeer’s face, he noticed his eyes were shut. Eyes shut, breathing heavily, Dalbeer stood there mumbling to himself.
Dalbeer was sleepwalking.
Instinctively, Harpreet turned around to run. But in a flash, Dalbeer’s long arms reached out and pushed him against the wall. Harpreet felt Dalbeer’s wrist hit him on his neck. For a moment, he seemed to lose his breath. But he quickly recovered himself and started running towards the staircase. Dalbeer seemed to be possessed and darted after him as he chased Harpreet.
Instead of turning right for the stairs, Harpreet turned left into the toilets. He quickly ran and shut the door of one of the cubicles. But before he could bolt it, Dalbeer’s heavy hand pushed it open. Harpreet jumped back and quickly placed his feet on the commode seat and looked at Dalbeer, waiting for him to make the next move. Surprisingly, his eyes were still wide shut and he was still breathing heavily.
Harpreet turned and jumped on the commode, put his hands on the partition between the cubicles and lifted himself. Lying on the dusty partition between the toilet cubicles, he looked at Dalbeer down below, heaving a sigh of relief.
Dalbeer stood there for a few seconds and then left.
Shashank was a lighter sleeper and was woken up by the commotion. He had barely stepped out and closed his door when he saw a strange sight. A person wearing pyjamas and an open shirt was sitting on a chair, a few feet away from his room. The person sat upright with his hands one on top of the other as if he was guarding his room.
Shashank recognized Dalbeer and started to walk towards him.
‘Hey Dalbeer, what are you doing?’
Shashank could not make out that Dalbeer’s eyes were closed.
Just then, Dalbeer suddenly got up, stood for a couple of seconds and threw his chair at Shashank. The back of the chair hit Shashank’s foot. But instead of bothering to see how badly he was hit, Shashank quickly turned and bolted towards the staircase like a rabbit. Dalbeer was after him like a greyhound.
Shashank was short and nimble and was able to rush down the staircase. Dalbeer clambered down but couldn’t catch Shashank.
Shashank was out of breath when he reached the ground floor and ran to the receptionist. He thanked his stars that Dalbeer had given up the chase.
‘Call our dean. Quickly. Quickly. One of our students has gone crazy. He threw a chair at me.’
‘Okay, I’ll do that. But who is he and why,’ asked the receptionist in his usual trained-to-be-calm voice.
‘Please first call somebody quickly,’ blurted Shashank.
Harpreet reached the ground floor and was surprised to see Shashank.
‘Dude, what’s happened to Dalbeer? He seems to have lost his mind,’ said Shashank deliriously. His voice was mixed with fear and panic.
‘I don’t know. I think he’s sleepwalking. I’m not going to stay in the same room as him.’
‘But where is he now?’
‘He chased me then he disappeared. Let’s hear what the dean has to say.’
The dean and other professors reached the reception. In the next ten minutes, the reception was full of students and a few curious onlookers.
The dean walked up to Harpreet and Shashank.
‘Where is Dalbeer?’
‘We don’t know sir. He chased Shashank and me on the fourth floor. But disappeared after that. We’ve no clue where he went.’
‘This is serious. Not only is he a threat to the people around him but also to himself. Let us split ourselves into batches of three each and search the floors and see if we can find him,’ ordered Dean Adhikari.
This situation brought out a very different avatar of the dean. Like a seasoned policeman, he marshalled his pyjama clad troops for the comb and search operation. Two members of the hotel staff also joined the operations. Each batch was assigned a floor. Some were cursing themselves for coming out of their rooms while the others saw this as an adventure.
After an hour, all the groups were back in the reception with no trace of Dalbeer.
This time the dean had an extremely perplexed expression on his face.
‘If we are not able to find him, we’ll have to report the case to the police. He may have walked out of the hotel complex.’
Everyone was fatigued and needed rest. So, the dean ordered tea for everyone. People started sipping tea and gossiping nonstop when the dean asked to meet the duty manager.
The dean got up and asked the duty manager, ‘We’ve looked in a lot of places but I’m sure we’ve left out a few places. Where do you suggest we look?’
The duty manager called one of the staff members for a side conversation. The duty manager then asked the group. ‘Have you checked the terrace?’
The faces wore a blank expression.
‘Don’t you lock the terrace every night?’ asked the dean.
‘Yes we do, but last night we had some labourers working. So, the contractor has the key. It’s possible that they may have left it open.’
The dean immediately gestured to everyone to leave their tea cups and rush to the terrace. The open door of the roof could mean a lot of things.
As suspected the door was ajar. The dean’s eyes narrowed. He looked worried, not sure what he would find.
The group slowly eased into the terrace with their torches. The cold night air hit the group and instantly drove away their sleep. At one glance, one could make out that there was no one around, apart from some equipment left behind by the labourers.
Shashank and Harpreet broke away from the others and started looking around more seriously.
Harpreet stopped Shashank and pointed at a distance. Behind a corner of the terrace, something fluttered in the wind. They walked towards the wall and saw it was Dalbeer’s hair fluttering. He was sitting on the ground and sleeping. Shashank immediately waved to the others and motioned them to be quiet. Harpreet bent down to see if his eyes were closed. Sure enough, they were tightly shut. The group got closer and decided that he should be carried down.
Four able-bodied boys lifted him carefully, making sure that he didn’t wake up. When they had just begun carrying him, they heard a sound, as if something had fallen from his body. The dean pointed his torch to see what it was. Harpreet nudged Shashank to give way so that he could get a better look at what had fallen.
In the light of the torch, Harpeet saw something familiar.
It was his Cricket Quiz book.
Excerpted with permission from “Rewind and Play”, published by TreeShade Books.