Agree to third-wheel on an impulsive trip to Dehradun with your friend Natraj and his latest fling-turned-girlfriend Lara (he says they will last, but believe it when you see it). Pack your artsy kurtas for the look and your warm woolens for the location. The spontaneity of the decision demands you leave within the hour. Book tickets. Fail. Try again, fail again. When, on the third attempt, Natraj finally manages to get the last three seats on the bus, declare that it’s a sign: you’re simply destined to skip classes.
Don’t overthink it.
But don’t forget that you’ve been brought up in a strict and censuring household, and this newfound freedom is priceless. When you abscond, feel sadistic pleasure at leaving everyone; everything in the lurch. When they ask (and yes, they will ask), say your withering lungs need respite from the deadly Delhi smog. And you know that’s not untrue. Ruminate on the shrewd semantics of that statement. Stay aware of the fleeting moments of college life hurtling past you at break-neck speed.
The bus ride is neither too long nor too uncomfortable, although Natraj will make it seem like both. Try and get some shut eye, but the driver’s predilection for ramming his foot into the brakes will prevent you from remaining inert for too long. Feel a vague tingling in your nose as you wheel through the polluted hinterland. You’re not the only one—Lara’s Bangalore-bred lungs are on the verge of rebellion. Affirm once again to yourself your decision to have left.
Natraj’s place is quiet, comfortable. Lunch is followed by a drive—a quick trip to Goon School and back. Involves zooming past a bubbling creek and large boulders painted with directions to “Rani Restoorant”. Stare blankly at the thick foliage that lines both sides of the tarmac, checking your watch every few minutes, wondering what dogs find fascinating about sticking tongues out of windows (and sneakily trying it). Then casually cross a rickety bridge that leads right into a thick forest.
Armed with headlights and a gullible belief in God, scan the tall trees for leopards or cheetahs—whichever of the two are not extinct. Natraj is clearly lying about how he’s gone all the way up to the animal sacrifice temple at the end of the forest and pissed on the holy rock. Wait for something to pounce on the car any second while Lara is lounging in the backseat. You’re clearly the only one worrying about how a gruesome death is merely one pair of unblinking, green eyes away.
After the forest expedition, it’s a spooky night all the way. The drive back is quick, focused, and only mildly uncomfortable—the three of you can’t stop talking ghosts, banshees and evil nuns, interrupted only by Lara’s mockery of your tachophobia. Natraj is visibly rattled. When you get back home, try freaking them out further with the story of your dad’s late doberman, Mike, and watch in embarrassment as the story falls flat. Apparently, the mysterious death of a religiously inclined dog doesn’t frighten the heart quite the way you intended it to.
The night drags on with the three of you in the guest room taking turns frightening and being frightened. It becomes more and more difficult to tell if Natraj is trying to be terrifying or is just plain terrified. Of course, the next morning he’ll play it cool and say that he’s ‘obviously’ not scared in his own home, but the way he clings to Lara, tells a different story. Somewhere between the maniacal laughter and the theory of renewing one’s virginity every calendar month, Natraj tells Lara that he’s not going to make it through the night, and that he loves her. Maybe it meant nothing, maybe you’re looking for patterns in a meaningless jumble, maybe you’re looking for the love that your mother never gave you, but later at night you find yourself thinking about them safe from evil spirits in the brightly-lit master bedroom—so barge in and force them downstairs, to the creepy bedroom with the flickering lamp.
Despite all the ghost-scares, you fall asleep almost immediately.
The next day, drive up to a little pocket of paradise called Landour. See snow-clad mountains peeking at you—it’s the polar opposite of smog-clogged Delhi.
Play with the two not-so-furry (a detail that will soon become important) quadrupeds that follow you up a beaten path on the hills of Landour. It’s a beautiful day and the three of you just spent the past hour running up and down a slope outracing one another. The cool air and the warm sun make for the perfect afternoon. Amidst the beauty and frolic, how does it matter that the white dog has little bald patches over its torso, is quite excited (later read: rabid), and in its excitement scratches and attempts to nibble on your fingers?
Nothing is out of the ordinary, at least not for the next twenty-four hours. For now, look with feigned interest at the overpriced scarves that you have no intention of buying. The rest of the day is as memorable as it is fleeting. Visit an old-age home(owned by some Gosco) that seems more like a glamorous luxury resort designed for youthful gaiety than for awaiting death.
Sit sipping coffee in a café as Lara gets up to receive a call. She comes back rattled, burdened with new information. Then Natraj gets a call. He comes back sniggering, but also rattled. The new information is something that’s new for you, too—apparently, rabies can spread through any mucus membrane; there isn’t any mandatory biting needed, which means the three of you are probably breathing your last few breaths. For anyone who asks, this is what happened: Lara kissed the dog. Then the dog she’s dating wanted a kiss too.
Next destination: a hospital. Any hospital. Stuff a few bites of the pasta in your mouth as you leave in a hurry. In the course of the drive, Natraj manages to convince you that you’re safe and Lara’s the only one dying, so try to relax in the backseat. But Natraj drives like a complete maniac—his car feels like a roller coaster on cocaine. Notice Lara’s already developing rabid symptoms, demonstrated mostly by anger towards Natraj, who neglects his soon-to-be-dead girlfriend’s hypochondriac eruptions, and chooses to ramble about how Lax Hospital, like everything else in the city, is also owned by a Gosco.
Natraj is busy dreaming about school days, or maybe he’s lost in calculations about when his virginity gets renewed next, ‘cause he rams his car into the concrete while squeezing into parking. Only then does he snap back to reality. He’s furious—not at himself, but at Lara. Why? Because that’s just how toxic masculinity works.
A prolonged drama at the hospital follows—convincing a skeptical doctor that Lara is potentially rabid is the first challenge. Then comes an onslaught of medical forms, suspicious looks, and giggles at Natraj consoling Lara’s that she’s going to be fine.
In about fifteen minutes the storm subsides—Lara is safe and vaccinated, and once again Natraj convinces you that the two of you are safe and immune. For the time being, believing him is only fair, since he’s the one who kissed Lara, a.k.a. the rabid dog kisser and if he isn’t scared, why should you be? So you all frolic your way back home.
Feel as healthy as ever, sitting in Natraj’s plush living room. But when the entire rigmarole is narrated to his parents, garnering both their laughter and worry, lose your newfound courage in life. With those little claw marks on your hand, start seeing vulnerabilities in the plot. Call up your sister, who’s a doctor to clear your nagging doubts. Then call a chachi, a tauji and a nephew. They all seem to be saying the same thing—you’re rabid too.
Next thing you know, Natraj’s parents and your nagging fear compel you to visit a nearby hospital. Sit in the waiting room to get vaccinated like punished school kids, while Natraj gets caught texting another girl sitting right next to Lara. To prove his innocence, he makes up some brilliant story, which you slyly memorise. After some shrieks and drama, it’s all done—the two of you are fully rabies-proof and alive as hell.
Natraj drops you off at the bus station the next afternoon. He needs to stay home for a few more weeks because he claims he’s developing chicken pox; you know the darned liar just wants a longer holiday. Having bonded over the sludge of absurdity of the last 48 hours, Lara and you head off in the rocky bus, with more oddities to laugh about than you had a weekend ago.
If you’re wondering about the title, the answer is this—rabid symptoms take a few months to appear, so we really don’t know if we’ve avoided the lethal ailment. But if the three of us survive, then let that be testament to the fact that if you’re ever at a junction between Delhi smog and imagined rabies, it’s wiser to choose the route with unnecessary vaccinations, scenic mountains with creeks and trees, and memories.