THE REUNION

I  was not comfortable with the idea of the reunion but Natasha had convinced me to attend. She felt that it would be fun to meet up with class mates after nearly two decades of college. She was very active in the alumni network and was constantly updating me about what was happening with whom. But interestingly she never mentioned Varun. I wondered if it was because he had gone out of the alumni horizon or if she suspected that it might cause me pain.  I don’t think it was the later because few people knew about us.

So, here I was sitting in a room full of “successful” men and women in my cotton sari looking and feeling older than the two score years of my life. I felt a sense of detachment as some one tried to engage me in a conversation. I really did not know how to contribute to this conversation – I could not indulge in “mom” talk as I had no children, I could not talk about increasing prices as the economy that I was now part of was way different from that and neither could I talk about a jealous  husband  as I did not have one. Some of these people to whom I tried to explain about my work, found it difficult to understand what I was doing- “But what do you do for a living?” asked someone. How do I explain to them that working amidst tribals in the interior villages of Chattisgarh was my job. They found it difficult to accept the fact that I was not using my medical degree in either research or practice in some mainstream government or corporate hospital! “What a waste”  I heard someone whisper… I walked away from the hall towards the garden.

Darkness has a way of accentuating our other senses. I  felt his eyes on my back .. I knew it had to him! Even twenty years ago I could sense his presence before I saw him. He had a penetrating gaze that could look right through your soul. Eyes, that could hold yours and bind you to him until he decided to look away… I wanted to turn back and look at him.

My back was prickling with the heat of his gaze. I felt it stiffen. I wanted to draw my pallu over my shoulder covering my exposed waist. This man.. with whom I had shared so many intimate moments – this man who knew every part of my body and soul..! This man whose unspoken words resonated in my ears and whose movements I could sense even before they were  made.

The brilliant student of our graduating class- my rival for the gold medal,  the man who shared my dream of doing something with our medical degree for those who were less fortunate. What had happened to him within weeks of graduating?

How had he changed so quickly? Was it the admission to a foreign university or was it the beautiful Leena who had changed him? Or was it Leena’s aristocratic lineage that had prompted him to marry her.. What was it?

I had not been able to bear the pain… The pain of a broken heart is something only those who have experienced will understand. I had survived the break and run away to Bastar where I had lived for more than a decade and a half. Where I had presumed those wounds had healed.. but were they?

What was I doing I wondered… asking myself all these questions.. I needed answers. I steeled myself and turned around to face him

But was that him? That man on a wheel chair! I stared..

“Hello Rubina. How are you” he asked me with a smile as I continued to stare

“Multiple sclerosis. I have had this for a long time. Was diagnosed with it almost weeks after our graduation. Managed to keep it at bay with medicines but for the last five years it has taken a turn for the worse and I cannot move without a wheel chair. Tiresome!But when I heard that you were going to be here I wanted to come ” he explained.

I looked at him dumb founded.. He continued staring at me before he broke his gaze, and  wheeled his chair around and away from me… I wanted to run behind him asking him to wait.

Why had he done this to me? Why had he hidden this from me? Did he think I would leave him if I had known about it? It was sheer injustice not just to me but to the love that we had shared! Why ! Why! Why!

So  many questions. But would the answers make a difference now I wondered.. as I watched Leena slowly push his wheel chair towards the car park..!

It was too late! Life had to go on in the course that each of us had decided.

His with the disease and mine with my struggles- in different worlds!

 

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SURVIVING ( Part 3)

Both their families were opposed to the match. So the best part of  1995  and the beginning of 1996 were spent convincing them that they indeed wanted to get married. When they finally exchanged vows in May next year , it was not in a registrar’s office but in her house in the presence of the registrar. Sceptics gave their  marriage less than a year!

Despite all their differences the marriage stayed strong and flourished. There was Mini who joined them in 1998 and  the sceptics were slowly silenced!

They had visited Tarangampadi just once after that – when Mini was two! Sister Veronica was happy to host them. The visit to Velankanni followed- this time he grudgingly accompanied her inside the church as she gave thanks for the happiness.

January 2005

It took them over six hours to get to Tarangampadi. The entire coast, seemed to have suddenly  become omnious. The sea which was a witness to all those romantic evenings had  shown a side to itself which they did not know existed.

The beautiful village of Tarangampadi wore a grim look. She looked up at the shore and was glad to see the fort standing strong – though part of the land around it had been washed away.

Sister Veronica was busy with relief work. She did not have time to talk to them much.

As they made their way to the village along the coast, they mentally started looking up people they had met earlier. Renuka and her family were thankfully safe- though their house had had been washed away. They, along with most of the villagers were living in temporary shelters.  Pacchaimuthu was alive but he had lost his teenage grand son and his daughter in law. Every body wanted to speak to them telling them again and again about that horrible morning.

She did not want to hear them but as he told her it was important that they listen-that was all that they could do .

The place was filled with NGOs and aid workers-  lot of foreigners –people who were professionally moving around the streets!. She had a sense of bitterness about them- “Do you even know these people? Their life as it used to be?” But she realized the futility of such thoughts because their life did not hold memories linked to the place like hers did.

She spoke to Geeta – a young girl who was still in school when they had first met. Geeta had lost her parents and her young baby. Chinnaponnu – another woman in the village had lost two grand children. But what she seemed very bitter about was the fact that the waves had spared the third grand child who was mentally challenged..!

Both of them felt emotionally drained.

“I don’t know what we were expecting when we came here but this is too much” he confessed as they made their way towards the fort! She felt pretty much the same.

She took in the beach beyond the fort – not much of the land remained. There were stones heaped up forming a sort of dam- to prevent the sea from coming inwards.

Interestingly, the ruined  house of the governor nearby had been restored by a hotel chain into a very fancy resort- the children no longer played hide and seek there. Rich adults from foreign countries lived there on rent…!

“Everything seems to be changed. Life as we knew it has gone with the waves” she muttered sitting down near the entrance to the fort wiping away her tears.

At some level, they realized that they had associated this little village with their life together. He was not superstitious but he was glad that at least this fort remained standing strong.. he could not have taken it had it succumbed to the waves.

“ Why did it all end like this? ” she asked suddenly.

“ Nothing has ended. Many people have survived just like this fort. And think back .. the memories will never die. It is for us to keep them alive” he said softly.

The sun was setting, bathing the sea red. Was it the colour of blood she wondered?  Why was the colour suggesting these thoughts today when eight years ago it looked like the blush on a bride’s cheek…!

“It is all a state of our mind and our reality” he continued holding out his hand to help her up. They made their way slowly towards the convent. They had to hand in  their cheque to sister and start for Chennai- dark coastal roads were not something that he fancied now , clamoring as they must be with the spirits of lives gone long before their time.

“ The guilt of survival” was something that she had read in psychology books about disaster survivors. “Are we guilty that our life is going strong while theirs has been ruined?” she asked him as they started on their journey.

“I am not guilty.. I feel a sense of great respect for the survivors- people who are standing strong like that fort there. People  who will eventually  bounce back and  rebuild their life. Learn to have faith in human kind” he said squeezing her hand gently before starting the car.

( concluded)

( The trouble with  presenting fact as fiction is that things get a big long winded.  And  when the fact in question is a lived experience one loses control over words 🙂 Thank you readers for your patience)

SURVIVING – Part 2

The ride to Tarangampadi was an adventure so to speak! The roads were narrow and pot holed and the bus very crowded. She occupied the ladies seat and drew more attention from the other passengers than she deserved. But then girls wearing jeans and a khadi kurta were not common those days in those parts.

He was extremely amused by the stares she was getting – “Are you a part time film star? Everyone is staring at you!” . “They are staring because you are with me! A rare specimen like you obviously attracts a lot of attention” she shouted back loudly.

Thus they went on with their conversation shouting  to be heard above the noise of the rattling bus. She had become so used to the din that when they got off at Tarangampadi she found the silence deafening!

They made their way through the beautiful arch into what could only be described as  the past. The streets were cobbled and she felt that she had walked into some small town in Europe.

At  the convent. Sister Veronica instructed one of the workers  to take their luggage upstairs. The boy made the embarrassing mistake of assuming that they were married and put both their luggage in a single room!! He explained the mistake and the fellow opened another room opposite hers!

“Just imagine.. this chap thinks that I am your husband! What a fate to condemn me to!” he said as he closed the door to his room! She was fuming with anger!

But it was difficult to stay angry – the place was so beautiful and so picturesque!

They trudged along the roads towards the beach and from there eastwards to the fishing hamlets- small shacks or tiled houses almost touching the coast. The men were coming back from fishing and there was a shore auction of fish going on.

“Come and look” he said gently pushing her towards the centre of the circle. He picked up a fish and told her the scientific name and then the English name. She asked the women standing there the Tamil name.

The rest of the day passed by very quickly. They realized that there were a lot of women who were involved in the small fish trade. Some of them were not going to the market that day and so they stayed behind chatting with them. Renuka, a thirty something woman became their guide- she had twin daughters –identical little girls each with a huge black bindi and an equally large beauty spot on their cheek! She offered them lunch- rice and fish curry. He ate it with relish while she explained in embarrassment her vegetarian preferences

The afternoon passed into evening- they met many others- old men like Pachaimuthu the traditional head who was a living encyclopaedia on the fish varieties on the coast.

The sun began its movement down the horizon painting the western sky red. They were done for the day! “Shall we go to the fort” she asked?

He nodded as they made their way out to what could only be called a deserted building standing on the cliff. The sole government employee in charge of the management was already part intoxicated. He gave them out the two entry tickets as they made their way up the ramparts of the fort.

There was a wonderful sea breeze blowing. The catamarans going for night fishing were bobbing about with only a lantern on them to indicate their location on the dark sea.

She felt very much at peace with herself and somehow his presence there next to her seemed to be the most natural thing on this earth! The wind was blowing more strongly now and her hair was flying all over her face. She secured it firmly with two strong clips on top of her head!

“You have beautiful hair” he said. She looked at him surprised. This was the first time he had said anything  like that. It felt strange …She was glad that he could not see her blush in the darkness

A church bell was ringing somewhere. “Come let us go.” She said gathering her things. “Scared?” he asked her

“Of what? Ghosts?” she laughed. “You know very well what I mean” he said cryptically. She kept thinking about this all through the night preferring to eat in her room rather than face him over dinner.

The next morning they boarded another bus and went southwards towards Velankanni – the place known as the Lourdes of India- to the Shrine of the Virgin Mary revered by all in the region – irrespective of religion!

She found it strange that despite being a Christian he was not interested in coming inside the church. “ I am not into religion. I get enough of it when I am with my mother” he grumbled. She went in alone and lit some candles. “Did you pray for a husband like the hero of the novel” he teased her when she came out.

There was a wedding going on inside the church. She stared at the bride resplendent in a white and gold sari. “Beautiful isn’t she” she asked him without realizing it! “Too fat if you ask me” he replied ! She punched him on his arm as he yelled out saying “Oh my god .. my wife is beating me !”

“Shhh.. idiot what are you saying” she glared at him. People passing by stopped and smiled. She was feeling very embarrassed now.

As they went back to Tarangampadi that evening she went alone to the fort.

“ Would you like to get married in a church ?” she heard him ask. She started! She had not realized that he was standing behind her.

“Why do you want to know? Anyway, considering I am not a Christian it is highly unlikely” she replied

“Supposing you were to marry a Christian?” he asked looking at her intensely.   “No!” she said

“No to what? Marrying a Christian or getting married inside a church” he persisted.

“I believe that love is beyond religion. So marrying a person of any other religion is not the issue. But I think such marriages should begin on neutral ground. Religion should never be imposed on either party” she replied  softly.

“So will you agree to marry me at a registrar’s office?” he asked with a smile

“What..” she whispered.. and started walking away towards the beach. The kids playing there surrounded her clamouring for her attention.

“Hey leave her alone. I was talking to her” he said trying to pull her away from the brats.

“I don’t know.. But Why me?” she asked  finally facing him

“Why not? You are the nicest person I have met in my life. You are intelligent and smart and you are…” he said.

“You forgot about the nice hair” she said with smile.

“Does that mean a yes?” he asked. She nodded!

The waves danced around them joining in their joy!

 

( to be concluded in part 3)

SURVIVING… ( Part 1)

She looked at the clock. It was past 9.00 AM. The cool December air was making her too lazy to leave the bed. She closed her eyes and snuggled back into the blanket. “What the hell..! It is one day after Christmas and I have atleast six days to laze around like this before routine takes over” she told herself mentally as she tried to get back to sleep.

“ Hello sleepy head” he whispered into her ears. She smiled with her eyes closed and tried to get back to sleep.

“ Hey stop it..” she murmured as her husband tried to entice her into wakefulness.

“Stop what ?” he whispered again.

“Amma, wake up. Priya akka is here. She has a strange story to tell” shouted Mini as she barged into the room.

She got up. The moment was lost.. ! She slowly made her way to the bathroom, passing Priya, their domestic help on the way.

Priya was agog with information. “Akka, you know there is something strange happening. I heard that the sea waves have washed away the buildings around the Marina beach”

“Don’t  be crazy” she muttered as she continued brushing her teeth.

“Amma can we go to the Marina and see what is happening” asked Mini jumping up and down  with excitement.

“I don’t know please ask Appa” she said as she wiped her face

When she emerged from the bathroom she found her husband in front of the television watching the news. There seemed to have been an earthquake in Indonesia which had caused some tidal action along the east coast of India.

“What is this all about” she asked as she poured out the coffee from the flask into her cup.

“Tsunami” !  he said grimly.

“Tsunami..? But isn’t that a Japanese thing?” she asked puzzled.

“Well apparently, it is also an Indian reality. Huge killer waves have caused havoc along the east coast. Nagapattinam is the worst hit” he said.

“Nagapattinam.. don’t tell  me!” she said, her eyes widening with horror

“ I tried calling Sister Veronica in Tranquebar. Unable to get her” he said before she could ask ..

Tranquebar or Tarangampadi.. the beautiful little Danish settlement on the east coast. A fort on a cliff , some lovely period buildings, a convent, a printing press and a school, besides a ruined bungalow belonging to a former Danish governor.

When they had first visited the place in 1995, she had absolutely fallen under its spell!

1995..

He was a fisheries economist who had approached the NGO  she was working with to help him gather data on fish catches along the east coast of India. A NRI, he could only speak halting Tamil. She was deputed by her boss to help him with translation.

After spending about two weeks with him traipsing along the various fishing villages, she was ready to quit the assignment. She spoke to her boss about it “ he is so pompous and sarcastic!  Is it my fault that I am vegetarian? And anyway, who said that only people who eat fish can understand fisheries and fishing communities”

Her boss, a former  Jesuit Priest was a very wise man. He had selected her to accompany this man because he felt that this would be a good opportunity for her to understand the fishing community. She was still fresh from college and few could orient her better than this visiting scholar from abroad. He decided to have a word with this fellow to be kind to the girl.

When they boarded the train at Egmore railway station  that evening, she was preparing herself for another round of sarcastic conversation. She had decided that she would not rise to the bait this time. She looked at the reservation chart. “Arrived” he had scribbled against his name! “What an ass! Is there no better way to let me know that he has reached the station” she muttered to herself as she got into the first class compartment. She dumped her back pack on the lower berth , took out a novel and started reading it.

She looked out on to the platform – the idiot was getting into the coach with two cups of coffee in his hands “What is this great book that you are reading” he asked her with a grin offering her a cup of coffee. “Umm let me see.. who is the writer – Penny Jordan. Is she related to Jane Austen?”

“Thanks for the coffee but the rest is none of your business. ” she said taking the cup from him and  burying her face back into the book.

Meanwhile there was some commotion outside on the corridor. A horde of policemen were getting into the coach. And along with them was an extremely fat woman laden with gold jewellery. She was obviously a VIP-wife of some high ranking police honcho.

“Is she travelling or is she moving  house” he asked the girl. She could not help giggling. Meanwhile, the people who had come to see her off began to arrange her luggage across the four berth compartment- pushing to one corner the two back packs that the duo carried with them.

The train started and the lady settled herself comfortably. He was staring at her open mouthed! “Is all that jewellery on her real ?” he whispered into the girl’s ears. She nodded. “ Her husband must be either very rich or very corrupt” he said. “Shh.! “ she said trying not to laugh. She was afraid that the lady would hear them. “Don’t bother I doubt she knows anything other than Tamil” he said with a laugh. “And anyway she is not going to understand this British accent of yours. By the way, where did you pick it up? You have been abroad only for a few years now. You said your parents are in Kerala” she asked him

“ This is Malayali English” he said with mock seriousness. She burst out laughing.

He took hold of her book and started reading aloud from the page she was on           “ her heart was beating aloud. She could feel the heat of his body through his shirt” She grabbed the book from him. It felt ridiculous when someone read aloud from a romance novel like this.

The lady on the opposite seat wanted to sleep. She instructed them to stop talking and switched off the lights.

The train was rattling along the quiet countryside. A meter gauge coach, the lower berth was just big enough for both of them to sit comfortably along with their back packs. She looked out of the window. The moon was out and the entire countryside was bathed silver in the light.

“When do we reach Nagapattinam?” he asked her/  “We don’t reach Nagapattinam. This train goes to Mayiladuthurai” she snapped angrily at him. Idiot! He had spoiled the magic of the moon.

“Sorry! I did not mean to disturb your dreams about the handsome hero of your book” he  said softly in  mock apology/

“How do you know I was dreaming?” she challenged him..

“Oh, I can easily tell.  I have spent more than a month in your company” he said with a smile.

“Get on to your berth and go to sleep” she said with mock stern ness

“Madam, this is my berth! Yours is the upper one” he said laughing!

“Then you go up. I want to sit here by the window” she said

“Okay. Your wish. Happy dreaming..” he said as he clamoured up to the top bunk. She looked up to make sure that he was settled so that he would not trouble her again with his annoying remarks. She giggled as she saw his feet dangle from one end of the berth.

“Don’t laugh! If I had known that these berths were designed for midgets like you I would have taken a bus” he grumbled adjusting his six foot something frame on it!

The lady on the opposite berth was snoring very loudly. The moon was still beautiful but the spell was broken. She sighed and stretched herself out using her back pack as a pillow.

Eight more hours to go for Mayiladuthurai. The train was slated to get there by 5 AM. There was a bus for Tarangampadi that left from the railway station by 6.00 AM. Sister Veronica at the convent there had been informed about their visit. She had agreed to let them stay at their training centre.

Tarangampadi.. the place of the dancing waves. She was looking forward to the visit!

( to be continued)