The Runner

TImage result for Dak harkarahe nights were chilly that week before Diwali as the days were getting shorter with the sun dipping down the horizon earlier  and earlier everyday . The red hue that lit up the sky soon after, was his signal to get ready for his nightly journey. He pulled the bells around his ankles , picked up the sack and got ready. He would leave after the twilight merged into the inky  darkness.

Bholanath or Bhola as they called him , was a “Daak Harkara” or a postal runner. A twenty year old young man, he had been running on the 5 kos ( about 10 miles) route between Ramnagar   and Palampur for the past two years. He ran the distance every day with a bag that carried a bundle  of letters,  that he handed over to Abdul at the “Daak Chowki” ( the post office) who ran further from Palampur . He ran back to Ramnagar, after resting through the day, with another bundle that he exchanged with  Abdul. All of this earned him a princely sum of Rs 2 per month!

“Working for the government is a matter of pride my son. Look at me, what do I have? Hardly two bighas of land that does not yield anything! A steady income like yours is definitely useful. Besides, if the Saheb Bahadurs ( a word to denote the white man/ British colonisers) are happy with your service, who knows, you might one day actually manage a dak chowki” said his father.

Bhola had not wanted to be a “Daak Harkara”. Actually he was not sure what he wanted to do with his life except for grazing cows,  playing with his friends , running races and wrestling in the fields. It was during one such race that an agent of the Saheb Bahadur had spotted him. A tall strapping young man who could run fast was an asset to the postal service.  And so that was how he had ended up doing what he did .

Bhola had quickly realized that his family looked up to him for support. Considering that their  one bigha of land ( 1 hectare)  was any way mortgaged to pay for his older sister’s marriage, it was not easy for his family to make both ends meet. Their cattle herd was also getting smaller by the day as they sold one cow after another … Besides, he also had three other siblings besides his father and a mother who was always ill.

So he began running, braving the darkness of the night, the wild animals and the vagaries of nature. His legs felt numb by the end of it all but there was no time to lament, as he had to keep running to keep his family going. Sometimes  he felt he had become just a pair of legs! No other part of his body seemed to matter to anyone including himself………… that is until he saw her…!

And that was when he realized he had eyes and he also had a heart…!

He had seen her for the first time  just outside  Palampur. It was nearing dawn and a group of girls were on their way to the river bank to bathe and fill water. A beautiful voice was singing a sad song. He could not help slowing down and looking for  the singer. But it was difficult to see in the dim light of dawn which of the girls was singing.

And then a few days later , he found out. It had been a hot and humid night. His throat felt parched and his dusty limbs ached. He had collapsed panting, on the ground near the river!

“Do you want some water?” she asked.

It was the same voice that had haunted him. He lifted his head and looked up into the most beautiful pair of eyes! He sat up and lifted his palm to his mouth as she poured water from her pot into it. As his parched lips drank in the cool water, his eyes stayed riveted on  her face. Some would call it ordinary but to him she was like a creature out of this world! Her long hair was damp after her bath. Her hands were slender and covered with gold and glass bangles and her small feet had heavy silver anklets.

“What is your name” he asked her as he wiped his mouth with the end of his turban.

“Radha” she said dimpling into a smile.

  “Do you have any letters for me”? she asked him

   “Let me see..What is your father’s name”  he asked

    “Thakur Ramdhari Singh. But I asked you if there was any letter for me- Radha Singh” she said mischievously

     “Do you know to read? Letters are only written to those who can” he said with a grin

     “Oh, I know the alphabets. I can manage” she said smiling.

     He didn’t know how to answer that because it was very rare for a girl to know how to read. He continued to look at her and she returned his look, holding his gaze until one of the other girls called out to her.

And thus had begun the most beautiful part of his running career! He would reach the river bank and wait for her, hidden behind the trees as she made her way there with her pot of water and a small bundle of left over food from the night before. She would sit quietly smiling and watch him eat. He felt very cherished  and cared for. No one, not even his mother had ever sat with him and served him food like she did. He usually ate by himself near the cow shed behind his hut.

He was sometimes worried that her friends would find out about them. But she told him “Don’t be afraid. They won’t come here”

He wondered what she had told them. It was a risk that they were taking. As a Yadav he could be killed by the Thakurs for even looking at one of their girls. But it was a risk worth taking. He suddenly felt that he had wings on his feet as he left every night. The stones and thorns no longer hurt them. He ran swinging his spear like he was dancing.

But tonight was not another night. It was a very special one.

Bhola was very happy as he cut through the darkness. He had saved money over the past few months and bought her some glass bangles from the village fair. He had wanted to give her something for Diwali. Along with the bangles there was something else in his bag. There was a piece of parchment on which he had scrawled carefully the words “Bhola” and ”Radha” .  He knew how to write his name. The Babu at the “Daak Chowki” at Palampur had taught him that. It had taken him some time to identify the alphabets in her name and now he felt very happy that he had been able to write their names together. He smiled as he thought about how he would tell her today that he had a letter for her. Wasn’t that what she always asked ?

His feet flew along with the bells on them jangling. The dogs were howling in a village as he ran past it. It was past midnight and he had another three hours of running to do. He felt impatient as he increased his pace..!  The earlier he reached the river bank the better it was. They had to meet before the sun came out and spoilt it.

Bhola kept running.  He looked at the marking stone at the side of the road and knew he was only an hour away now. He ran on, through the jungle and the clearing before he reached the green banks of the river flowing outside the small town of Palampur.

He made his way behind to their usual spot behind the tree . She was waiting for him. She looked ethereal.. like a fairy! He wanted to crush her in his arms but he held himself back.

“Look what I have brought for you” he said taking out the bangles and waving them towards her.

She tried to grab them as he moved away. She chased him as he ran around the tree laughing. This went on for a couple of minutes before he stopped suddenly and turned around to face her. Before she could stop on her tracks she found herself colliding against him. He pulled her towards him and brought his face down towards hers. Their thudding hearts collided against each other as time stood still.

He searched inside his bag and brought out the piece of parchment. “look here is your letter”. She took it from his hand hid it inside her blouse.

Did he imagine it or were there tears in her eyes?

“I have to go now Bhola” she whispered. Why was her voice breaking like that ?

 “What is it Radha? Why are you so sad? We will meet again tomorrow. Won’t we?” he asked

“No Bhola. Not anymore . My parents are arranging my gauna ( a ceremony denoting consummation of marriage. )  My uncle came yesterday from my inlaws house. He says they will be coming on Diwali and will take me back with them immediately after” she said sobbing.

“You mean.. you are married?” he asked with his mouth open

 “Ofcourse! What do you expect. I am fifteen years old. I was married ten years ago” she said

Bhola felt as though he had been turned into stone. He did not know what to say. He stared ahead into the eastern horizon that  was slowly turning rosy as Arun the charioteer of the Sun God drove his master through the clouds. And then Sun God looked out of the  white fluffy clouds  in his full red gold brilliance!

For the first time since he knew her,  Bhola saw his beloved in the morning light . A petite, dusky girl with hair until her ankles. The vermilion in her parting was as red as the sun in the sky.

His last image of her was a red veil flying in the morning breeze as she turned away from him and merged into the greenery.

The Dak babu at the Palampur Daak Chowki was a very kind man. He insisted  that Bhola personally deliver the letter to Thakur Ramdhari Singh. “It brings good news about his daughter’s gauna. He will give you bakshish ( a  reward/ tip)  . You can use the money to add another cow to your herd. Your father will be very happy.”

( This is my first attempt at writing a story set  in Central India, a hundred years ago.  Though I did do some research on this, let me warn you that the story may not be historically very accurate. The “Dak harkaras” or mail runners had been there since the time  organized postal services were introduced by Shershah Suri in the 15th /16th century. The British East India company  continued with the “Runner” services. This story is inspired by a beautiful Bengali song about the Runner. There is also a famous novel in Bengali  by Tarashankar Bandopadhayay on the “Dak Harkara” or runner. This is by no means anything as good as that song or the novel. This is just a humble attempt at bringing to life a person whose occupation always fascinated me. )

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The love letter

It was publicly posted on face book. Addressed to an unknown woman.

Strange….Usually one hears about unsigned love letters sent by anonymous admirers. However a public declaration of love to an unnamed woman… this was certainly a first!

But then, Aniket had always been like that! A genius bordering on madness…the kinder ones called him gifted, those who were  less kind called him eccentric.

But what a lovely letter it was…

My dearest Soulmate-. my anchor in this stormy sea of life.

You fill my thoughts with your presence, your voice whispers words in my ears every waking moment of my life. It has been nearly two decades since we parted but it seems like yesterday. Memories  vivid like photographs are etched inside my head. Your smile, that fleeting touch of your hand ,the sound of your voice, the softness of your lips  and the fragrance of our bodies together

Can we bridge the time lost?  Can you spare me a day from your life?  A day that will help me tide through my mundane existence? Tell me yes… come meet me tomorrow – let the supermoon –blue and bloodied be our witness. “

Inside an investment bank in Mumbai

Reena was shaken when she read it… Had he really not forgotten her? Theirs had been a brief relationship at the university.  He had been a difficult man to deal with.. a brilliant physicist with a gift for music. He could play the violin like no one else she knew. Long walks on the beach punctuated by silences that spoke for themselves. A lovely ‘in the moment’ feeling but with no future.

Her phone was ringing.

“Hey Reena, did you see that message of Aniket on facebook?” asked Meenakshi excitedly.

“ Yes “ said Reena cautiously, wondering how much did Meenakshi know about their relationship.

“  You know, I think I can tell you now. I never realized that he was so affected by what happened between us” said Meenakshi breathlessly

“What did happen between the two of you ? “ asked Reena – mother of twins, ashamed after so many years, for  feeling that  sharp pain of jealousy when she heard this

“Umm it was mostly physical.. but definitely an out of the world experience” said Meenakshi in a dreamy voice.

Reena was finding it hard to breathe!! Meenakshi, the very traditional Marwari bahu living in a joint family had had a physical relationship with Aniket!!!

“Are you kidding?” she asked her disbelievingly

“Ofcourse not!!! It was not something I planned. It just happened one evening and then well…it went on for a while until I got engaged” said Meenakshi matter of factly.

So he was two timing her!! Reena wondered if she should tell Meenakshi about her relationship with Aniket. But before she could say anything Meenakshi herself brought it up” Reena I am sorry I know you were interested in him but then passion is not something that knows reason.. It has a life of its own” said Meenakshi before she hung up.

Reena was finding it difficult to breathe! Had she been a fool to keep their relationship at a platonic level? Should she have yielded to him physically? For the first time in her forty three years she felt she had been a fool on that score….!!

Somewhere near Kodikarai in Tamilnadu

Radhika had logged on to the internet with some difficultly. She wanted to update her face book page on Carnatic music. Just as she was scrolling down the home page she saw the message..! “Has it indeed been two decades?” she wondered. To her it seemed like it was yesterday when they had met.

A student from the music college and daughter of a renowned Carnatic musician she was a violin player with a lot of promise. When she had got admission for the one year course on music  appreication at Cambridge university, she had had to fight tooth and nail with her traditional family to allow her to go there.

But how glad she was that she went there. It had opened up to her a world that she never knew existed. Music that she had never heard before and the freedom to experiment with compositions . She had met people who were so different from her and yet so similar in their talent and love for music..

And then there was Aniket…!!!

Whenever she thought about it now, she always put it down to the madness of youth and new found freedom….! But sometimes, just sometimes she wondered if it was not destiny that brought them together? Otherwise what was it that drew a very traditional Tamil girl from Chennai to near genius Astrophysics major who had in his own words “randomly “ enrolled for a course on music appreciation.

“Instant chemistry” was not a word that did adequate justice to what happened to the two of them. She found herself spending more and more time in his company and before long she moved in with him. If there had been a love that bridged the physical, emotional and the spiritual it was theirs!

And then it was time for her to return to India. She was faced with the difficult choice of staying there with her love or coming back to continue with her musical tradition. And finally music won over the mortal and she was back in Chennai – a changed person .

She continued with her music but not through public performances. She set up a school along the coast where she taught music to the children from the coastal villages. Her music combined the sound of the waves with the songs of the fishermen. She wrote about her experiments with folk and traditional music.

She often wondered what was happening with Aniket. They had been in touch off and on through social media. He was following her page on music and she sometimes read his comments and observations on her posts. She heard he had been married and divorced. Maya… yes, that was his wife’s name….She was secretly happy that it had not worked for him. She herself was not married. She had not been able to bring herself to accept another man in her life.

 Outside the Kennedy space Centre, Florida

Maya walked into the coffee shop and ordered a glass of cold mocha. She took out her phone from her bag, checked her email  and then slowly scrolled down the messages and the notifications from the various social media apps. Emily had sent her screen shot of a facebook post from Aniket with the message “ Look at this Maya, Come on , talk to him. He wants to make up”. Maya shook her head slowly…! It had been a painful experience, this separation from him but she was slowly coming to terms with it. Marriage to him had been a roller coaster ride- both the highs and the lows affecting her equally. He had seemed to be everything that a woman wanted in a man- brilliant , talented and charming. But she had realized soon that men like Aniket could not be domesticated. He was a free spirited person and marriage was restricting him. She had tried her best to be open to his need for freedom. But there was a limit .. she was hurting emotionally from his dalliances and then one day she had decided to talk to him about making a choice between commitment and freedom. He had chosen freedom and she had given that to him. It had taken her a long time to come to terms with it but she had managed towards the end.. And now , this …! Could it be true that he was asking to meet her?

31st January, 2018,  Chandipur on sea, Odisha

Dr. Aniket Sen, walked slowly along the beach looking at the moon coming out the shadow of the earth. A celestial occurrence that happened rarely…! He looked out at the sea… shimmering in the moon light. He could hear a violin play in the background. She was beckoning to him from across the universe… He wondered what her name was? Reena, Meenakshi, Maya or Radhika?”  He saw her rise out of the sea and walk towards him…! He smiled and stretched out his hands . The words played in his mind

lBue moon you saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own
Blue moon, you knew just what I was there for
You heard me saying a prayer for 
Someone I really could care for
And then there suddenly appeared before me
The only one my arms will ever hold

Yes they were going to be together finally!

3rd February 2018

The newspapers carried a long obituaries  about him.

“A brilliant astrophysicist who had done phenomenal work on mapping the surfaces of the moon and studying its atmosphere” … “ A genius who had contributed to India’s space program”

But to the four women who attended his funeral he continued to  remain an enigma

 

 

Lost and Found

Ramya stepped out of the verandah onto the grass outside. The drizzle that had been dogging them throughout the evening had stopped. The sky was clear without a trace of the clouds that had darkened it for the last few days. A cool breeze was blowing. She shivered as she pulled her duppatta close to her. She was not sure if she should stand exposed like this to the weather. After all it was not even a week since she had recovered from malaria. She looked quickly inside the banquet hall. People were busy with the party. She could see Raghu deep in conversation with someone. Thank God for that!! If he saw her now standing outdoors like this he would come out and start scolding her..!! Anyway, what was the use of coming to a sea side resort for a party if all that one did was to stay indoors she asked herself as she started walking on the cobble stone path that led towards the private beach attached to the resort.

She could hear the sound of the waves as she approached the beach. The moonlight had cast a silvery glow around. The casurina trees in the grove along the beach were swaying in the light breeze as though nodding their heads in answer to some un answered question.
Ramya walked quickly through the rows of the trees towards the shore line. She could see lights bobbing along the sea.. catamarans with lanterns on them for night fishing..!! Across the farther end of the coastline she could see the lighthouse with its revolving lights lighting up the waters every now and then.

“When did they build the light house?” she wondered as she started walking towards the waves. The casuarina trees seemed to whisper an unintelligible answer. She shivered now with a strange sense of something that she could not explain. Her feet seemed to be walking faster towards some unknown destination. Faster and faster they walked until they stopped at the boundary wall indicating the end of the private beach. She clutched at the wall panting and looked out beyond at the darkness. There seemed to be a fishing settlement there. A few huts.. and no more! “What happened to the houses and the temple?” she found herself wondering aloud.

“Lost in the cyclone” said the voice startling her. She jumped with a small scream. But she need not have worried, he seemed a decent enough man. Middle aged like her, he had a shock of white hair and thick glasses.

“I am sorry I scared you like this” he said apologizing as he walked towards her.

“ It is okay. I was not aware that there was anyone else here besides me” she said.” But tell me how do you know about the temple?” she asked.

“I have been coming here almost every year ever since I first chanced upon the village . I am a marine biologist” he said.

“Oh.. okay. How long has that been?” she asked him.

“Oh many years ago. I do not remember. I saw this village from on board a catamaran. ‘ he said quietly.

“But there seems to be no sign of any life here. Why are all the houses deserted?” she asked.

“Legend has it that there was a terrible cyclone that washed the entire village out about fifty years ago. There were no survivors. It is supposed to be haunted. So no one has had the guts to rebuild the houses and live there” he said

She shivered. Was it her imagination or had the wind picked up?
The moon suddenly decided to move behind a passing cloud casting the entire vista in front of her in darkness.

She wondered if she should go back. Raghu might be looking for her. She turned around towards the resort.

“I think I should go..!” she told him fully intending to move from there. But her feet seemed to be stuck to the ground, refusing to move!! Why?

“Come, I will walk you to the resort” he said putting out his hand. Like a person stuck in quick sand she reached out to hold it. It was dry and wrinkled like a very old man’s.

She walked with him holding his hand. The moon came out of the clouds and the casuarina grove once again turned into a land of silver.
They were reaching the gate of the resort now. There were a few people standing in the lawn. She pulled her hand out of his quickly hoping that no one had seen them walking like this hand in hand.

“Thank you Mr…..” she said waiting for him to introduce himself.

“You do not remember me Anjalai? I am Naveen.” He whispered as he turned away from her and walked back towards the grove. She kept watching his retreating back until he disappeared among the trees.

She opened the gate and slowly walked inside.

“Ramya, where on earth were you?” asked Raghu his face suffused with worry. “Don’t go wandering away like this in strange places. It can be quite dangerous” he said covering her with his jacket.

“Now wait here while I bring the car. It is quite late. People are beginning to leave” he said as he began instructing the valet to bring the car to them.

Ramya joined him as he made his way towards their host and hostess thanking them for the evening. “We are so glad you could both make it . I hope you enjoyed yourselves” said Meenakshi her hostess giving her a hug as her husband shook Raghu’s hand.

Ramya got into the front seat and fastened her seat belt as Raghu maneuvered the car out onto the high way.

She looked out of the window as the car passed the ruined houses of Periyakuppam. Anjalai… he had called her. Why? Who was she? Her mind refused to give her any clear answers. All that kept flashing by were some strange images. Images, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that refused to come together to form a complete picture. She closed her eyes trying on focus on the images.

Anjalai, the dark skinned beauty of the village walking along the shore with a basket of fish balanced on her head. Anjalai with her head full of jasmine flowers praying at the temple. Anjalai drying fish on the beach and explaining about each variety to a handsome stranger. Anjalai, being done to death by her brothers for daring to fall in love with a city bred marine biologist! She could hear almost hear the thunder crash as she felt them strangle her with her davani on the beach. Her hand went involuntarily towards her throat.

“Is your throat hurting?” asked Raghu looking at her.

She shook her head. It was more than her throat that hurt now. The picture was almost complete. She looked back one last time at the village across the road. Among the ruined houses was a shadowy figure looking for something that he seemed to have lost.

SILENCE IN THE STORM

The rain was lashing against the windscreen, clouding the visibility!! The wipers seemed to be fighting a losing battle against the torrent of water. It was amazing how much noise this was making.

“Like someone has opened a tap up there in the heavens” muttered five year old Ankit as he snuggled into his mother’s lap in the back seat of the taxi. Riya held him close. His temperature had gone up again. She rearranged the shawl that was covering his shivering body, tucking it in under his feet.

The noise of the falling water seemed to be broken only by the sound of the thunder that crashed down. She held on to the door handle as the driver tried to keep the car steady on the slippery mountain road. Her husband Alok was sitting on the front seat with the driver. She caught his reflection in the rear view mirror. His face was creased with worry.

This holiday was not turning out to be how she had thought it would. She had hoped that the one week in a picturesque hill station, away from the tension ridden routine of their daily life i would help them bond as a family. But unfortunately, four days into the vacation , Ankit had fallen ill. It had been difficult to find a  doctor in a tourist spot. Riya had tried to manage his condition with  paracetamol, which unfortunately only provided temporary relief. She had not been keen on the drive this morning to the highest peak in the range. But Alok had been determined to go.

“What is wrong with  a slight  fever? He is not going to die for God’s sake! Stop fussing and come on” he had said in his usual aggressive way. Riya had not wanted to make a bad situation worse by arguing.

A strong gust of wind rattled the glass on the window as lightning lit up the sky. As the sound of the thunder died down, she felt the taxi grind to halt.
The driver tried to start it again, but it refused to restart.

“What the hell” muttered Alok as he looked at the driver in exasperation.

“Saheb, there is some problem with the engine. We will have to check it. Let us wait until the rain stops ” he said.

So, here she was, stranded in the middle of a narrow mountain road, inside a taxi with a broken down engine, a sick child and an irritable husband! Riya could feel the tension radiating from Alok.  She braced herself for him to turn around and tell her “This holiday was your idea. Look where it has got us stuck now”.

To take her mind off she turned towards the window, looking out into the pouring rain. The head lights had been turned off and it was pitch dark.

The silence inside was suddenly broken by a tapping sound She looked up with a start. Outside was an almost luminous form defying the inky darkness

“Alok,  look there is someone outside  ” she said  quietly.

Before Alok could react, the driver rolled down the window to speak to the man .

“Excuse me, my car is stuck in that lane up there. The road has been washed away in the rain. I trekked down the slope. Can you please drive me to town?” he asked politely.

Alok looked at the man. He looked decent enough. Should he let him in?  What if he was a criminal who was hand in glove with their cab driver?

But Riya had no such doubts .  She wondered if she should tell Alok that she knew him. However, she was not sure how her husband would react . He was an extremely possessive man given to bouts of jealousy. But it was inhuman to let him stay out like this in the storm!

Her mind made up, she opened the door on her side and said “Please get in”.
“Thank you mam” he said getting into the car at the back and shutting the door. Riya could feel Alok’s anger and anxiety at her action.

“ Iam Subhash. A doctor by profession” he said leaning over on to the front seat towards Alok. Alok grunted acknowledging the introduction.

She wondered if he would introduce himself to her next. What would he say?
But strangely he didn’t. He sat next to her , their distance separated by Ankit’s sleeping form.

She stole a glance at him. He had aged. His once black hair was now peppered with grey. Those piercing eyes were hidden behind a pair of glasses. Their glance met for a brief second as he took out his glasses to wipe the water off them. Did she imagine it or did those eyes crinkle up into a smile?

“Is he ill” he asked pointing at Ankit. She nodded. She could not trust her voice.

She had never imagined that after all these years she would meet him suddenly like this on a lonely road. She wanted to ask him so many questions but they never made it out of her mouth. His presence had again rendered her speechless!

Theirs had been a strange relationship. He, had been a man of few words even in those days when she had been a chatterbox. But whenever they had been together she could never bring herself to speak. Their friends had always teased them about each other. She used to blush whenever that happened while he smiled enigmatically. Despite the silences that tagged their moments together, they had managed to connect in a very special way. She remembered a hand drawn card with a poem inscribed in it- a birthday gift! It now rested deep inside a cupboard in her parents’ house in Bombay. It was the only thing he had ever given her before he had gone away abroad for higher studies.

In those days before email, she used to wait eagerly for a letter or a post card. But they were very few and far in between. Living as he did  on a scholarship, telephone calls were obviously out!!

She wondered when she had stopped waiting…

Ankit was moving. “It is so hot” he muttered. His T. shirt was wet. He was sweating. She took out a napkin from her bag and started wiping his forehead.

“Don’t worry he will be fine” said Subhash looking at her.

The rain seemed to have slackened a bit. The driver was getting out of the car and was fiddling with the engine. Alok  had moved on  to the driver’s seat and was trying to start it. After a few attempts the engine started. The driver came back inside and they were on their way. Silence, once again seemed to engulf the people inside.

They rode on like this for about half an hour before they came to a road block. There were police patrol vehicles with their flashing lights blocking the way.

“What happened?” asked Alok rolling down his window

“There has been an accident sir. The rain caused a land slide  pushing two cars down the slope” said the constable motioning them to take a detour through a smaller lane. There was a traffic pile up inside the lane taking them more than twenty minutes to get back on the main road.

“Terrible day!” muttered the driver as he spend on towards town.

“Are you from this town?” asked Alok finally easing up enough to start a conversation with the passenger in the back seat.

“ No. Like you I have also come on a holiday” he said speaking to her husband for the second  time.

“ Alone?” asked Alok curiously.

“Yes” he replied.

Riya felt tempted to take the opportunity to ask him if he was married. But something held her back.

So, they went back to being silent. She closed her eyes trying to blot out the memory of the man sitting next to her. But images of a tall young man with crows feet under his eyes kept disturbing her. He was bringing two glasses of tea to their table at the canteen. There was loud music playing in the background adding to the noise. Yet, their silence has bound them together.

She started as she heard the honking of cars. They were in town.

“Where can we drop you sir?” asked Alok turning back .

“Oh you can stop here. I will get down” he said.

Ankit was completely awake now and was looking at the new occupant of  the back seat curiously.

“Thank you “ he said as he slid out of the door. He looked back once more at her before ruffling Ankit’s hair and saying “Bye beta. God bless you” .

The door slammed shut and he seemed to melt into the street outside.

“Nice fellow” muttered Alok as they drove on.

Their holiday was now almost over.

“Only one more day left ” she thought with a sigh.

She hoped that she would not run into him again in town. She was not prepared to deal with the turbulent feelings that meeting him like his had aroused.

But she need not have worried.

The newspaper reported the next day that a land slide in the Kakrapur highway had pushed two cars down the cliff. There had been no survivors.
Among the six people who had died, had been a Dr. Subhash Chandra from Bombay!!

<div style=”text-align: justify;”> This post has been written for <a href=”http://writersezineblog.blogspot.in/search/label/promptofthemonth”>Prompt of the Month</a>; a feature of <a href=”http://www.writersezine.com/”>Writer’s Ezine</a></div> </div>

The Blind Date

“Coffee World” was filled with young people . The background music was perky without being too loud to interrupt conversations. The young waiters in their T shirts bustled up and down taking and delivering orders.

Biju looked closely at every girl who came in . He had arrived half an hour ago and positioned himself at a strategic location inside so as to give him a view of anyone who was entering. He had kept the bouquet of roses he had brought on the chair next to him. He did not want to draw attention to it before he could present it to her. It had been an impulsive buy. He looked up at the door, a pretty young girl in jeans and a kurti was entering. She sat down at the alcove opposite him and started fiddling with her phone. Was it her he wondered? He felt his phone every now and then to see if it was ringing. The girl opposite was now talking on the phone to someone. Her voice was shrill and loud. No it was obviously not his beloved.

Two girls sitting to his right were staring at him and giggling making him feel a bit self conscious. He smoothened down his hair nervously. They were joined by two young men and Biju was relieved to find that their attention was now off him.

A blind girl walked in and felt her way around the shop with her stick. She was sitting to his left. From the way she was talking to the waiters there, it was obvious that she was a regular.

He tapped his foot impatiently wondering how he was going to kill the next fifteen minutes. He decided he would call her at 5.10 if she did not come by 5.00 PM as she had promised.

It had all started a month ago when Biju had called the toll free number printed at the back of his credit card to seek clarification on his billing for the month. Her voice had been soft and warm answering his queries in a professional way.
The voice at the other end had captivated him so much that he had called back again trying to speak to the person whose voice it was. Unfortunately, the second time he had encountered a male voice which was equally helpful …but help was the last thing on Biju’s mind. He was trying to get the voice that called itself “Nina” to talk to him.

After several failed attempts he discovered over the next few days that he was most likely to speak to her if he called between 2.30 -4.00 PM. And thus had begun a routine of calls with questions that were very obviously made up and imaginary. He wondered how long he would be able to keep up this charade. He was sure that she must have guessed by now that he was calling to talk to her. She was always professional and polite , brushing off the questions that she could not answer or transferring his calls to others. He always disconnected when these transfers happened. He was not sure he could keep up the charade with someone else.

He had tried to look for her through social networking sites like face book. But it was obviously not so easy considering there were about 100 “Nina”s that the site kept throwing up. He had patiently gone through twenty of them but had given up after some time. Besides, his friend Unni had told him that most employees at call centres like the one that handled his credit card queries used assumed names.

Unni, was his only friend in the city. As a new migrant to Bangalore from Cochin, Biju had been drawn to a fellow Malayalee. Both of them worked in the same IT firm, albeit in different teams. Unlike Biju, Unni was a native of Bangalore having grown up there. He had introduced his “country cousin” ( as he liked to refer to Biju) to various haunts in the city. Unni often made fun of Biju’s strong “Mallu accent”. Of late he had taken to imitating Biju on his afternoon trysts with the toll free number.

“Dude, you don’t have to find her. She will find you! An accent like that is hard to miss” he had said once laughing loudly at his own joke. Biju listened to him good humouredly. At least Unni had not said that Nina would be put off by that accent.
Meanwhile, he spent all his free time thinking about her. Her voice was the sweetest thing that he had ever heard- not too shrill like that of most girls or too husky in a way that would intimidate. He had often imagined how she would look. Probably fair , small built with long hair he thought. He did not know why but that was the image that came to his mind.

Unni had teased him mercilessly when he had shared these thoughts with him. “ Do you also imagine she applies coconut oil to her hair? And idiot, how do you know she is fair? Stop these Mallu fantasies built around what your Velliya Ammachi and various Kochammas talk about” he had said. Biju had been a bit embarrassed after that. But he knew there was some truth in what Unni said. A Syrian Christian from Kerala, Biju Varghese knew that his idea of femininity had developed from what was considered beautiful in his native Cochin. And anyway, it was quite possible that she looked like he imagined her. After all, God worked miracles in strange ways. And he was a god fearing young man. He had never missed a single Sunday at church except when he had malaria as a boy. He was sure God would reward him for this uninterrupted attendance in more ways than one.
The almighty had finally decided to reward him yesterday. Unni who had been doing some “detective work” for him on the side had had a sudden windfall.

“ You remember my cousin, Usha? I ran into her yesterday at a wedding. She mentioned that she works at a call centre. And good friend that I am I quizzed her for more details and found out that she works at the same call centre that handles queries from customers of your credit card company. I asked her to find out about your Nina.“ Unni had said , his eyes flashing mischievously.

Biju couldn’t believe it! Fate seemed to be smiling at him. He just hoped that this Nina whose details Usha Chechi had promised to find out would not be some matron with four kids. And hopefully, her last name would be Kurien ,Cherian, Chacko , Mathew, Mathai or any one of the hundred odd Syrian Christian names that cropped in his church in Kerala. He was not sure how he would deal with it if it was something else. What would Ammachi say? Appachen might disown him if she was from another religion or region.
He must confess, he was a bit worried when he finally heard her full name- “ Nina Rao ” !!

“She would have to convert” he thought folding and refolding the paper napkin under his saucer. He looked at his watch 5.15 now. It was safe to call her now. He hoped she had not ditched him. But she had promised to meet him here at 5.00 PM after her shift got over when he had spoken to her yesterday. He did not think she was the sort of girl to play such a cruel joke on a small town fellow like him.

He took out his mobile and called her number all the while keeping his eyes fixed on the entrance in front of him.

“Hello Biju” she said. He felt a bit disconcerted to hear her voice. It seemed to be coming from somewhere beyond the electronic device that he held to his ear. Yes, indeed it was… a real person was speaking . Ignoring the voice in his ear he turned left in the direction of the voice. He did not have to look at her to know  who it was !!

“Hello!! Biju? Where are you?” said the blind girl, speaking into her mobile.

He watched her silently as she repeated her question again before he disconnected. She was thin and fair with long hair, exactly as he had imagined but her eyes were covered with dark glasses.

He wondered if he should go up to her and introduce himself. But something  stopped him. He could deal with a Nina Rao, but not a Nina Rao who was blind!!

He rose and signaled to the waiter to bring his bill. He slid out of his seat quietly and walked towards the door trying not to look back at the blind girl sitting inside.

“Sir, you forgot your bouquet” shouted the waiter running after him.

Biju walked faster turning around the corner panting. He did not want to bear the burden of those flowers. Those were meant to be carried by a much stronger man!

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.. !

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!

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