MILESTONES

Impatience

He pressed down on the accelerator and watched the speedometer touch hundred! He could not believe he was driving so fast…!! A careful driver, it was the fastest he had ever driven. He watched the trees and building whiz past on the highway as he sped on. He looked at his watch. It was 4. 30AM. He had driven right through the night.

He slowed down as he entered the city. The streets were deserted with just a few stray dogs walking by. His entire body felt like a coiled spring- taut with tension. He looked at the street names until he found what he was looking for. He drove up to the building where he was supposed to wait.  The  State Public Services Corporation building like most government construction, was  shabby and dilapidated. But to him it had taken on the form of the Taj Mahal, shining in the light of the moon, as she dipped slowly down the horizon.  He looked at his watch -4.40 AM now.

The road continued to be deserted. He lowered the window and let some fresh air in. His heart was beating. There was only one question that it seemed to be asking “ Will she be here?”

Uncertainty

She watched him from behind a tree. He was here as he had promised. He had driven through the night just as he had said he would. From another town nearly 300 km away. Her fingers were sweating with nervousness as she clenched and unclenched them around the strap of her overnight bag.

It had all seemed so simple when he  suggested it. A weekend at a picturesque hill station. She had surfed the internet to read more about this little known place. The photographs  were beautiful! Just the sort of place that would lift one’s lonely spirits. But the point was did she want to go there with him?

There was no denying the fact that she was attracted to him in a way she had never been to anyone else. They had spoken for hours over the telephone for about a year before she had actually met him. Meeting him, though very briefly had not been a disappointment. She had been to his town for a conference and had texted  him just as she was heading towards the airport. He had been there outside the departure lounge even before she had reached. She did not  have to guess who he was and neither was he in any doubt.  They  had just known each other even thought this was the first time  they were meeting. He had suggested  coffee.

She recalled the warmth of his hand over hers and the heat of his gaze as the two cups of coffee sat between them, cooling down to unappetizing muddy brown pools . They had not been able to speak a word. But the tension between them spoke volumes. It had seemed like eternity before she withdrew her hand from under his and bid him goodbye.

That was last month. The conversations over the phone did not seem enough now. They wanted more. And then last week he had  brought this up – a weekend at a quaint hill station two hours away from where she lived.

She had taken time to accept the invitation. After all, it was not every day she went away  like this. But he had been persistent “ You will not regret it”. And so here she was with her overnight bag hiding behind a tree. She wondered if Aditi, their common friend would approve. But then this was not about her. It was about them.

She heard her phone beep a text message. “ Hi, are you here?” was the question. It took her a lot of courage to type” Yes.  Look behind you” and  press the “send” button.

Passion

He found her standing silhouetted against the tree. A frail looking woman with an overnight bag. He walked up to her and took her bag off her shoulder. She continued standing there looking lost. “Come, lets go” he said gently nudging her. She started, as though someone had woken her up from a trance. She followed him as he opened the door on the passenger side of the car for her to get in. When the door slammed shut, she felt a sense of finality overtake her. There was no turning back now. But the question was, did she want to open that door, get her bag from the back seat and go back to her empty flat?

She watched him watching her. His green eyes glowing in the dark. “Relax” he whispered as he brought his lips down on hers. She closed her eyes and was only remotely aware of the car starting.

He held her hand throughout the journey. Not to  imprison  but to reassure her.  It gave her a strange sense of comfort. She could feel the pulse beating at his wrist. It was racing… like the car. But strangely, she felt a sense of calm overtake her. They drove on in silence until they reached the hotel.

The room was obviously designed with a honeymoon couple in mind. She looked around at the silken sheets and the champagne bottle resting on the bucket of ice at the bedside. But she would have been equally happy in a  shack. She looked up at him and smiled for the first time since dawn. He held out his arms and she ran into them feeling her bones melt.

Pain

It was difficult to believe that the two days had  passed so quickly. She watched wistfully as the bell boy loaded their luggage into the boot of the car. He looked at her from behind the wheel and said” Come on. It will get late. We have a long way to go”.

She made her way slowly to the car. He was holding the door open for her to enter. As she settled down , he revved up the engine and they were speeding downhill. He took her hand in his and kissed it. He seemed very  happy as he hummed a tune.

“Why are you so silent” he asked her. She shrugged. What a question!! As if he did not know. She looked out of the window and watched the landscape speeding by. Strange, she had not noticed it when they had come in the morning yesterday.

They stopped at a small tea shop on the way. As she emerged from the wash room behind the shop, she could hear him talking on his phone.

“ Oh, yes, we had a good time. All the chaps from our class had come. Great time chatting and  swapping memories. Should be home by 8.00PM. What are you making for dinner?”

Why was she feeling so let down?  After all, who was she? Certainly not his lawfully wedded wife – the woman to whom he was feeding the story about a weekend spent with some school buddies.

“Shall we go?” he asked almost impatiently. She nodded as she got into the car. He was whistling a tune now. She withdrew her hand as he reached for it. She could not stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks. “Hey.. don’t cry” he said as he slowed down the car and took her in his arms. She sobbed and sobbed until there were no tears left in her eyes.

The rest of the journey passed in silence. Not a companionable or a tension filled one. But the  silence brought about by a sense of emptiness. There was nothing left to say now. The noise of the city roads was slowly descending upon them filling the silence.

She could see the State Public Service Commission building came into view. Strange, how different it looked in the afternoon light. Harsh and ugly with its skin peeling…! He stopped at the same point from where they had begun their journey together , almost thirty six hours ago. He bent across and opened the door for her. Their eyes met for a brief moment. She looked at him, drinking in his features . She needed to store it away for the long and lonely nights that lay ahead.

“Bye. Take care. I’ll call you” he said with smile as he ran the back of his hand across her tear stained cheeks. She nodded and got out on the road waiting for him to take out her bag from the boot.

He held her with his eyes again as he slung her overnight bag on her shoulder. She wrenched  his eyes away from hers and turned around walking back towards her loneliness. She could feel her chest clench with a sharp pain. She did not know which pain was worse, the one in her heart now or the blows that used to land on her face when she had been married to her former husband.

“Difficult choice” she murmured to herself as she walked on.

He watched her through the rear view mirror, moving away from him. He felt like a cad, leaving her like this in the middle of the road. He wanted to take her in his arms , comfort her and wipe all her pain away. But there was a limit to what he could do.

He started the car and turned towards the western highway that led to his town-towards the reality of his existence. There was another woman and a child waiting for him there. He had a duty towards them- as a husband and as a father. That  man inside him had better come to terms with  that.. !

Advertisements

THE GARLAND

It was hotter than one would have expected during this month. The Tamil month of “Puratasi” roughly coinciding with the months of September- October of the English calendar was usually much cooler as the monsoon showers of July-August brought down the temperature in the interiors of Tamil Nadu. The cool breeze from the Kaveri , filled with water after the month of “Adi” also helped in keeping the temperatures down.  But today the Sun god ruled..! He shone down with all his brilliance heating up the granite stones  that paved the floors of the Srirangam temple. People standing in queue in the outer praharams hopped on their feet trying to keep them cool as they longed for it to move so that they would reach the covered section quickly. But it was not so easy. After all, it was “Puratasi Sanikazhamai”- the holy Saturday of the month. They prayed to Lord Ranganatha not to test their patience.

Rafiq watched the crowd closely. A bright young officer of the Indian Police Service, Thiruchirapalli was his first posting. He had earned kudos from his superiors ever since the time he had taken charge as the Superintendent of Police in the district. He had regulated traffic, stopped petty crimes and controlled harassment of women in public places. His easy accessibility to the public and his regular interface with them made him a popular figure in the town.

“Are all arrangements in place?” he asked a constable in Tamil. “Yes saar” said the fellow as he saluted. People were often surprised at the ten odd months it had taken this man from North India to learn Tamil well enough to converse with them! He smiled whenever they congratulated him on his linguistic abilities.. The point was ,this language was not  something that he was new to. He had been familiar with it for at least five years!

Rafiq moved around the temple courtyard reviewing  the arrangements for  crowd management – ropes cordoning off sections and metal barricades at certain points to hold off parts of the crowd. The crowd was still surging behind these barricades trying to push their way through. He sighed! Whether it was Hazrat Salim Chishti’s Dargah at Ajmer that his mother visited every year or the Srirangam temple here, the crowd mentality seemed to be the same. People in crowds always pushed each other trying to get ahead. Religion obviously had nothing to do with it. He wondered if in the long run all this  effort was worth it ! Though never a very religious person, he had given up on God and religion almost two years ago! Especially after…

He brought himself back to reality. There was a child of about six or seven crying loudly in a corner. She had obviously got lost in the crowd. He went up to her and knelt down. Taking her chin gently in his hands he asked her in Tamil “ What is your name? Why are you crying ?”. “ I am Andaal. I want my mother” she said rubbing her eyes.

He felt as if a jolt had passed through his body! Andaal…! There was only one other person in this world he knew by that name. A girl with lotus eyes and lovely long hair. A girl with honey colored skin. A girl who retorted fiercely whenever anyone at the Delhi University made fun of what they considered to be a “Madrasi” name. The girl who had stolen his heart! The girl who had promised under the starry night to throw religion aside and be his wife. The girl whose spirit had been squashed down by her orthodox  parents when they had found out about their plans.

“ My daughter to marry a Muslim? You must be crazy! You should be thankful that I am allowing you to step into my house” her father had said when he had gone  to their house to formally ask for her hand in marriage.

It was ironical that a man whose presence in an Orthodox Brahmin household had been questioned because of his religion was today inside a place most revered by  this community, providing security in his capacity as a government officer. He felt proud of his country and his uniform that had made it possible. “Even the priests inside the sanctum sanctorum can do nothing about it!” he thought with a smirk as he lifted little Andaal up in his arms carrying her towards the police booth near the entrance to the next prahaaram.

“Wait here. We will find your parents” he said as he deposited her there. He looked around for his team. They needed to make an announcement on the public address system. “Where are these fellows? Why did they leave the booth unmanned” he thought with irritation as he took out his walkie talkie and started paging  them. He began to walk ahead slowly as he barked orders to the constables to stop wielding their lathis at pilgrims and be available at a point where someone might need their assistance.

It was even before he had finished the conversation that he saw him- a very suspicious looking fellow with a cell phone in his hand. He was standing near the unmanned police booth and was trying to quietly slip a backpack behind the counter. Rafiq needed no further explanation to tell him what it meant. He sprinted towards the booth shouting “Andaal.. move!”  The child started screaming loudly. People began to run amuck, breaking down the ropes and pushing aside the barricades.

Rafiq just about made it to the booth when the bomb went off. He had managed to scoop up the child in his arms and throw her far away from where he predicted the impact zone might be. The last sounds he should have heard were of people screaming. But strangely all that he heard was an animated voice in his head speaking “Andaal was from Srivilliputhur in Southern Tamil Nadu. She was in love with the Lord inside the temple and wove garlands for him everyday”!

“Where is my garland” he muttered as the breath left his body.

There were many garlands at the funeral of Rafiq Ahmed IPS who had so heroically given his life in preventing a major terrorist attack on the temple. Unfortunately, the garland he had  longed for remained out of reach- even in death!