The first time he'd chosen to ignore it. Another riff raff, one among the multitude nomadics who had hit the road, just one more faceless, directionless soul that had fallen off the radar of civisles world, now mindlessly floating from godforsaken landscape to other-was what Karuneshwar aka Kaka, the ageing trucker surmised whilst sterring his massive eight axle truck to the nearest petrol station a few miles away from Tirupur town.
It was while driving back after filling gas and partaking of a quick more water less brew chai from the shack adjacent to the filling station that the 65 year year old man had really taken note of the man.
The man nee a mere slip of a boy, stood on the kerb, his left foot jutting out as did his hands, palms raised, a cloth furiously waving out into the sky.
Intrigued, Kaka put his foot on the brake, and then as his Eicher slowed down, looked out, his head half jutting out of the truck.
"Yes, what is the matter"?
Years of hitting the road, criss crossing the length and breadth of the country had equipped him with enough human insight to decipher that the person who had waved at him- right thumb pointing south-a quite common signal used by hitchhikers-was trouble with a capital T.
His foot still on the accelerator, Kaka shifted the gear away from Neutral, and was ready to pull away.
It was only at the last moment that he stopped, his foot, though on the pedal.
How quickly judgemental have you got? His mind admonished him.
Just because you see this person is unshaven,
bedraggled and slightly disoriented, and looks scrawny enough to have his eyes half popping out of its sockets, you have made a presumption that he is a deranged person, and hence, dangerous to sit beside you, right Kaka?
The old man, who had been on the road for close to half a century, one who had clicked more miles and spent more time on the nation's multifarious highways than most men felt ashamed that he, a father to two grown up adults, plus, a grandfather to a three year old angel, had even thought that this innocuous looking young boy, one who had yet to see through his twenties, was a threat.
As this realisation dawned on him, Kaka, now feeling shamefaced, quickly thrust his left hand, and with a jerk, opened the side door.
A look of sheer relief ran through the young man's face.
Swiftly, he ran towards the vehicle, and in one quick upward jerk, hoisted himself onto the truck.
A moment later, the door now firmly closed, the vehicle had hit the road again, this time ramshackle speedometer registering a speed upwards of 100 kmph.
An eerie silence ensued in the interim. It was a little past six, and the sun was threatening to commute suicide, jumping into the barren valley behind the rocky mountains half a mile away. Kaka's eyes lay rooted to the road ahead as other trucks and road liners zipped past from the opposite direction.
"I am hungry. Do you have something to eat?"
He didn't hear it the first time around.
The wind and the noise of tires screeching past, hitting the asphalt, ensured that.
But when he heard it again, Kaka turned around and looked at the person seated beside him.
The boy looked like a beggar. But, was he?
Kaka looked at the person who saw cross legged, at his hollowed out sunken eyes, his shaggy hairs, at his shabby buttonless chest revealing yellowing shirt, and wondered: was this man a hitchhiker, a deranged lost soul, or...?
"I haven't eaten for the past two days. Please give me something to eat?, the stranger's eyes were a plea.
Kaka's hands rifled through the narrow slit under the dashboard. It was the place where he stocked a biscuit packet or two, sometimes a small pack of peanuts, all much needed essentials he carried in case the night was long, and there no sight of a roadside dhaba.
"Here, have this", let out Kaka as he thrust a packet of Britannia milk biscuits towards the boy.
Eager hands grabbed the offering; for the next five minutes the boy devoured the entire 20 odd square shaped biscuits, one by one, his locks darting like a country snake's fangs, gobbling up every single piece with silent delight.
In less than five minutes the transformation was complete: the man, and now that Kaka had given a long, hard stare at him, who looked just out of his teens, was a completely different animal.
His face, even though ruggedly swarthy, was bathed a curious gleam, and the eyes were now shiny black buttons burning silvery bright ala a King Cobra's.
"You are fated to die in the next five minutes".
The words were a jolt; Kaka felt as if he were hit by thr biggest hurricane ever to have swept the Konkan coast.
The truck swerved as his hands loosed around the steering wheel.
Black clouds began to dance in front of his eyes.
Kaka, his mind a cauldron, his heart swelling with an unimaginable fear, turned his eyes towards the stranger he had so sympathetically offered a lift a bare ten minutes ago.
"Yes, I am the highway serial killer who's been terrorising the coast for the past few months now. I kill until the heart becomes still."
The words, every single syllabic sound hit Kaka with the intensity of a massive ten tonne steel rod.
The young man seated beside him was smiling. Kaka, his eyes bulging with fear, looked on helplessly as the stranger's hands dipped inside the rucksack that he was holding close to his hairy chest ever since he had heaved himself onto the truck.
Within the blink of an eye, a gleaming metallic thing came into vision.
In all his sixty plus years, during all his trips across a multitude of time zones and across several geographies, Kaka had seen it all-the good, the bad, and the ugly.
He had picked up offered short as well long distance rides to all assortment of complete strangers.
And, a few, he had picked up much against his greater judgement
Still, he had never come to a loss; never felt frightened; and never regretted giving a lift to unknown people.
Until this very moment when he felt the sharp edges of the blade press against his lower neck.
As hot blood shot through his veins, a cold wave of sheer panic began to shoot darting pain.
His chest began to strict.
Kaka's hands, now fast morphing into an icy mass, loosened their grip.
The steering wheel swerved from left to right.
The last words that escaped Kaka's quivering lips lay suspended in mid-air- 'Oh my Gaaw....'