Mr. Madhavan was a creature of habit. Of him, it could fairly be said that you could set your watch by his actions. He woke precisely at 6:30 am, to the ringing of his antique hand-keyed alarm clock; he was not one to let a power outage or a drained battery affect his daily routine. He would complete his morning rituals, then wake his wife, Sushila,  lovingly enough, but with that slight hint of smugness that early-risers always display in front of the indolent. Once the  coffee started flowing in his veins, he would open his eyes fully and peruse “The Hindu”, marveling equally at the astuteness of the writers and the beauty of the mast-head adopted by the morning rag—Kamadhenu, literally a cow with a female head, but spiritually so much more for Hindus. The Goddess of plenty, a mother figure, a familiar symbol bringing back so many memories of stories narrated by elders to children in the old days…

The current generation of children is, of course, allowed the luxury of sleeping in till the last possible moment. Gowri, elder to her brother, Kesav, by a few years, was naturally the responsible one, the affectionate one. The boy, approaching teenage, had been a handful ever since his boyhood days, and continued to raise a ruckus at the slightest excuse. By the time they were up, Mr. Madhavan would be ready to face the world, his lunch-box tucked under his arm, the coffee hot in his thermos, his eyeglasses askew as always, his chappals starting to wear to one side. At 8 am, he would step out of his house on Kennedy Street in Mylapore, and start heading towards Luz.

Heading towards Kapali Temple, he would always walk on the left side of the road until he reached Kamadhenu Theater, the reason being that he liked to gaze upon the cinema posters displayed on the walls, at the door, and at the large ones adorning the front awning. Truth to tell, he had an eye for the buxom starlets; he knew them all, by name and by vital statistics. It was his only vice, and a not-so-secret one at that. His wife used to joke with her neighbor about Mr. Madhavan’s fixations and proclivities, secure in her conviction that her husband was faithful as a hound dog.

After crossing the road at the theater, Mr. Madhavan would proceed eastward until he reached the Luz Corner intersection. At that stage, a couple of quick right turns with an intervening left turn were enough to get him to his destination by 8:30 am. The time-keeper in the bank would adjust the clock to 8:30 if it showed any different time at Mr. Madhavan’s arrival. Donning the visage of a Senior Accounts Manager, Mr. Madhavan would proceed to his substantial desk and deposit his belongings precisely. A quick trip to the toilet, some brief conversations with colleagues, and he would be off and running, a huge ledger drawn in front of him for making entries. Barring a 10-minute coffee break around 11 am, he would remain engrossed in his work until lunchtime, 1 pm. He ate quickly but appreciatively, well within the allotted 30 minutes. Then, nose back to the grindstone until a brief respite at 3:15 for tea and biscuits. At precisely, 5 pm, he would rose, stretch, gather his belongings, holler out some good-bye’s, and head out the door. He would re-trace his steps, and again cross Luz Avenue opposite Kamadhenu Theater, again admiring the artwork and the anatomical details.

Back home, he would be greeted enthusiastically by his wife, sullenly by his son, and rarely by his studious daughter, busy with her evening tuition classes. Some snacks to quell the hunger pangs, and he would be off again by 6 pm, on his daily walk to Nageswara Rao Park, where a few of his cronies would gather for some idle banter. Back by 7 pm for dinner, where the whole family would sit together at his insistence. The meal would be followed by some light TV viewing, with Mr. Madhavan wielding the remote control like a saber; the channel-surfing would come to frequent stops wherever the female form would be displayed, causing the family to roll their eyes furtively. He would yield control to the kids by 9 pm and retire to his bedroom, and sleep would come by 10 pm after some mild flirtations with the wife.

And so it had gone till this Tuesday, when around 2:30 pm, Mr. Madhavan had a sudden urge to leave early from work. It was an impulse, but an uncontrollable one. All of a sudden, he was sick of the same old routine. Maybe it was some random talk with a colleague, or perhaps something more profound. In any case, he approached the Branch Manager with a fictitious rendering of the demise of a sick relative, and found himself free to go. As he stepped out of the bank at 2:37 pm, Lord Shiva paused for a nano-second in his cosmic dance, then recovered and danced on.

Mr. Madhavan squinted into the unfamiliar light of a weekday afternoon. For a moment, he was flabbergasted. He appeared to be seeing colors that he could not comprehend, that he had no names for. He looked up into the sky, then quickly looked down, wishing he hadn’t. He could have sworn there were three suns up there… For a moment, he was tempted to retreat into the safe confines of his bank. Then, he yielded to his temptation, turned around, and pulled on the handle. He found himself, quite possibly, looking into the gaping mouth of an enormous frog with a long tongue starting to uncoil. He closed the door quickly, cursing his momentary dementia, and started to walk briskly on the… pavement?

The ground beneath his feet felt soft and springy, gurgly like something was stuck inside and struggling to get out. He tried to step softly, still ruing his temporary insanity. He had no idea what was going on. He put it down to a general state of disorientation, and trooped on. But his eyes kept darting hither and thither, and seeing inexplicable sights. The writing on the shops and billboards… so familiar, yet so alien. He could almost, but not quite, read the words. He shook his head vigorously, tried re-focusing, then gave up even as a surge of fear-induced adrenaline rushed through him. The sidewalk appeared to be quite long, broad, and clean—none of which he readily associated with Mylapore. The street was sparsely populated. He could see men moving around purposefully, though he could not fathom the specific purpose. He could see the occasional female head, but not the torso, which peculiar circumstance began vexing him. All these cattle, too numerous even for Chennai, were getting in the way…

With another conscious effort, Mr. Madhavan headed towards home, where he felt he could rest up and recover his senses. But where exactly was home? The terrain was tantalizingly familiar, but the familiar by-lanes appeared to be missing. Looking straight ahead, he saw to his amazement that Kamadhenu Theater was looming straight ahead, at the end of a moderately lengthy passage. Was this a short-cut he had never noticed before, being such a creature of habit? He could scarcely believe it, but he was happy nevertheless at the comforting sight. He walked hurriedly at first, then gingerly as the floor underneath snapped at him, towards the landmark. The large posters were still there (albeit in colors beyond his visual range), the faces of the starlets now starting to appear in better definition (none he could recognize, though). As was his practice, his eyes drifted down from the face to the more interesting features… and came to a dead stop.

Emotional shock can be just as deadening as physical trauma. The body shuts down affected nerve centers until the trauma passes. Hence, Mr. Madhavan was able to pretend that the theater was showing some mythological movies of a most peculiar kind, and trudge on towards home. Crossing the road took some time as the hooves thundered past. His eyes did not dare rise above floor level. Kennedy Street was approximately where it should be, and his house was more or less at the expected spot. He started breathing a little easier. What a tale he would have for his friends tonight! Blow their socks off, it would… He rang the doorbell, smiling in anticipation of the surprise in his wife’s face. Maybe he’ll take her shopping for saris, or perhaps a movie… His surly son opened the door, pleasing his father for the first and last time in his life.  Mr. Madhavan stepped into the premises, his eyes searching for his dear girls. And here they came running, so excited to see him, hooves thudding into the floor, their tails wagging behind them, their faces so heartbreakingly-familiar. As their horns nuzzled him, lightly goring and teasing, and their “moos” filled the air, he slid to the urine-soaked floor and gazed upon his nearest and dearest in udder horror.

A science fiction piece by Prof. R Nagarajan (Dean I&AR)