This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
The ‘Knee’dy traveller
सैर कर दुनिया की ग़ाफ़िल, ज़िन्दगानी फिर कहाँ,
ज़िंदगी गर कुछ रही तो ये जवानी फिर कहाँ।
-ख़्वाजा मीर दर्द
Travel the world o! carefree man, the life is short;
Even if the life is prolonged, the youth is short.
Khwaja Meer Dard
Though the above written couplet is hugely inspiring and brilliant, it is also true, unfortunately, that I have spectacularly failed to follow it in my life, till recently, atleast.
Being a doctor, a knee replacement surgeon(orthopedic surgeon) at that, in India, has meant that I have lived about ninety percent of my life toiling hard in school and medical college followed by exhausting struggles of private practice and married life.
But, lately, the essence of the couplet has slowly dawned upon me – life is short and youth even more so! Admittedly, the golden years of youth, might have already slipped out of my buttery fingers. Nevertheless, some life, short as it is, still remains in my ambitions to travel the World. Thus, lately I have begun to consciously roam around the planet and observe the unending beauty of mother nature, and additionally observe the eccentricities, fickleness, traditions, joys and sorrows of the people inhabiting the world.
Being a medical professional, I, alongwith my fellow medicos, come across death and disease, and upheavals these evil twins cause in the lives of people, perhaps a little more than other professionals.
This blog is my humble, if feeble, attempt to write about, not only my travels, but also about experiences and events that I come across in hospitals and the life in general.
It is my firm belief that to survive in this society, and the world at large, one needs to have a healthy dose of humour and an ability to laugh at oneself, prevailing circumstances and the surroundings. Otherwise serious harm can be caused to one’s reason and ego.
Thus I have written in the introductory line of this blog, that this is a – ‘Strabismic view’- of the world as seen by the eyes of an orthopedician. Because I do think, rather strongly, that the world is too weird, too awkward, too preposterous; to be looked and thought upon directly and seriously. One needs to have a slightly diverted or strabismic, or ‘cross eyed’, if you will, view to remain sane, in this crazy crazy world.
I hope you all will enjoy my travelogues, stories and even ghazals.
I woke up with a start. It had been a fitful sleep, filled with strange dreams and unusual happenings, and I don’t remember which one of the countless demons residing in my head was I fighting when my slumber came to an abrupt end.
There is a lethargy in my limbs that comes after walking many miles. Why does it always feellikethat after getting up? ‘Waking up during R.E.M. Sleep – have you forgotten everything that you have studied?’ the voice in my mind comes alive. ‘Of course I know that! But for once can’t we leave behind medicine and think about life in its worldly perspective-eventful, difficult, colourful and strange,’ I retort sharply, and feel vindictive and foolish, both at once.
With a Herculean effort I raise my arm and pick up the mobile lying on the side table nearby-
It is early. It is the leisure day today. Thankfully. Admittedly, last seven days have been fabulous, as expected. Who would not love a vacation in Kerala? But they have been hectic too. I want to relax today on the beach.
God knows I needed this break. Having worked continuously at our new hospital for the last two years has completely drained me, and Neha understands this. Though she too has worked as hard in establishing her Opthalmic practise but somehow it has been more difficult for me to handle the stress. But I feel rejuvenated now and ready to dive into work again with vigour.
I sit up in the couch and look at her. She is sleeping on the double bed with the kids. Howdoes she manage to look peacefuland angelic at all times?
I am proud of her. Tall, statuesque, gorgeous, confident, intelligent, competent, self-reliant, dignified and fiercely independent. Like every morning I wonder that why did she choose me.
Then remorse hits me like a speeding train. Yesterday night’s fight seems pointless and trivial in the morning. It is the only blemish on this otherwise splendid past week. Hugh! Why do I act like an obstinate fool ever so often. There is no harm in staying here for a couple of days more as she wants, only it will be a logistical nightmare to reschedule everything, as I pointed out to her.
It strikes me that perhaps all happy marriages are dependent upon such guilt-ridden mornings when one feels boundless love for one’s spouse, and the fog of the bitter previous night is dispelled by the first rays of the day.
That; and the kids of course. These are the foundations of a stable, solid and a long married life.
I get up, and walk upto the bed to have a look at the kids, sleeping entangled with each other behind their mother- an arm here, a leg there.
Brothers in arms!
Can’t take my eyes off them. Hope that Aryan remembers these days. At four, definitely he is in the best part of lifecycle-no pressure, no studies and no responsibilities. No such luck for Veer. Has only entered the third standard, and already seems to be wilting under the class work. Their eyeballs are moving under the cover of the lids, and there is a smile on Aryan’s face. He is too young to have nightmares I guess.
With a sigh I turn towards the huge slider that forms one wall of this large room, and serves as an alternative exit; the more beautiful one-facing the sea. As quietly as possible I close the slider behind me and take in the scene from the patio. The green of the small, but well curated, garden contrasts with the brownish-white hue of the sand, and that in turn abuts the shiny blue of the Arabian sea. It’s stuff the dreams are made up of. A waft of sea breeze hits my face and instantly the lethargy is forgotten. The first light of the day has started to spread it’s wings but it’s not bright as yet.
Suddenly, getting up early does not seem to be a bad idea. Nothing is stirring as yet, and this pristine beach is at my disposal. A brisk walk there is what I need. And its a long stretch too-picturesque and clean. Though the resort has a portion marked as it’s private property, it’s not marked concretely, and the beach curves a long way off in both directions to end up in a clump of rocks surrounded by thick coconut groves.
The sand feels cold under my feet. Sea has receded quite a bit from the night, and the boundary that waves have created earlier is distinctly visible, as if ocean needs to mark it’s territory- dark chocolatey on one side and crisp brown on the other. This December morning is not chilly or hazy, like Jaipur. The temperature is quite comfortable.
One look at the ‘Starry Sands’ resort from here is enough to confirm that it is a wise choice. I can now visualise the rough ‘L’ shape, in which it is spread out, with half of the twenty four independent cottages facing the swimming pool, and the other half, like ours, facing the ocean, not fifty metres from the cottage.
Neha, of course, is the one behind the choice, and its typical of her to try and kill two birds with one stone. The property is small but niche, and sells clear and starry nights i.e. astronomy along with the sea, sun, sand, luxury, Kerala and whatnot.
Lately, she only wants to cuddle up with a binocular or a telescope under the stars. It riles me to no end. I don’t get it, astronomy that is, which is her damned latest fad. But it’s a wise man who humours his wife; or so I have heard. Thus, I find myself here, in a secluded and remote part of God’s own country. It’s wonderful though, have to concede that much.
The breeze is soothing, and the gentle lull of the distant waves is making me sleepy again, and it’s only due to my iron will and the thought of Neha’s taunts, that I can resist the magnetic pull of the lounge chairs and hammocks so generously spread out on the beach.
The fact that there is nobody else here is making it even more difficult. Even the fishing boats are not out as yet, everything’s so….
What is that? Is that a man lying face down? Near that showpiece of a boat. Cannot be sure from this distance but it certainly seems like that. But why is he fully clothed?
Something is wrong! I quicken my pace. He might need medical attention. I think who it is- Sid. He was wearing a red T-shirt and a beige shorts just like that last night. Hope he is ok. Wait a minute…Is that..Is that…Oh my God!
Sid; or whoever he is, has been strangulated! There is a rope around his neck. My heart is racing and I am practically running now.
Oh! It’s a ghastly scene, cannot imagine a more improbable place than this to encounter it. Who would do it? And why? Here, of all places! The rope that anchors this small boat, which goes nowhere, to the wooden piling has been used to choke him.
Ok …Should I turn the body. He seems dead and that makes it a crime scene. But what if he is still alive? One has to ascertain that-won’t one? C.P.R. might be of use. What should I do..What should I do…
Ok..Let’s do it. Here it goes….Ughh! He is heavy. It’s Sid; can’t believe it! Saw him last night in his cottage and now he is lying here…Neha will be shocked.
There is no pulse in carotid, and no sign of breathing. He is quite dead, and has been for some time. Rigor mortis has not yet set in.
That’s so stupid of you Nikhil- You saw him barely five hours ago, alive! How could rigor mortis set in?
My hand are trembling. It does not matter how many deaths I might have seen in my medical practice but when it comes to hold myself together, my body is failing me. I am hyperventilating and the mind is blocked-numbed by this tragedy.
Ok…deep breaths..deep breaths.
That’s better. I look more closely now. There are signs of other injuries on his body. Something does not add up. Damn it! Nothing adds up. I am no detective but one thing is sure that many vital clues, like fingerprints, must be gone due to the water and the mud. Yes, the body has been lapped by the waves all through the night, it lies, alongside the boat, at the very edge of the mark made by the retreating Waves. Only yesterday evening we get a selfie clicked in this boat, against the backdrop of sunset, and now it is part of a murder.
All at once the adrenaline leaves my system and I collapse with a thud near Sid. So many things need to be done-urgently, but I have no energy. My thoughts are tumbling onto the near future-get back, raise alarm, come back with everyone, console Neha, take care of fearful and puzzled kids, deal with police….hugh! just thinking about it makes me dizzy.
I turn to one side and suddenly Sid’s wide but dead eye is staring at me…
××× ××× ××× ×××
“Don’t eat too much, it’s not good for your health,” I shout to the retreating figure of Veer who runs away from me towards the pool with two idlis in his hands.
“Nikhil!”, exclaims Neha,” what are you doing? Preventing kids from eating? Have you totally lost it?”
I look at her and cannot decide that whether the peevishness is due to yesterday’s fight or due to the unexpected demise of Sid or both. She does not seem devastated as I thought, but she can bottle up her emotions pretty well. That’s one thing different between her and I, one another thing actually.
” They are overeating since last so many days. Look I am sorry about Sid. Truly I am.”
She gives me a stern look, and is on the verge of snapping again but then restraints herself,” Did you give medicine to Veer?”
“Yes; it’s terrible what has happened but you have to be strong,”
“You don’t have to worry about me, take care of your mighty self,”
Her words sting and both of us lapse into an uncomfortable silence.
We are sitting in the aesthetically built and decorated dining area that is chaotic today. No surprises there. The catastrophe that has struck this property in the form of the untimely and unnatural death of its charismatic owner has paralysed the staff. And it’s a wonder that they have managed to provide us breakfast at all. Though it’s quite late. It’s almost 10:45am, but nobody is hungry, except perhaps the kids.
There is a pall of stunned gloom hanging over the resort. I have had to tell the story of my morning’s mis-adventure so many times that I will go insane if I have to do it one more time. But of course I will do it, obediently, in front of the inspector expected from the nearest big town Kanhagad any time now. A constable has been here since morning from the nearby village’s police station, and has secured the site of crime, but due to it’s enormity it has to be handled by a senior official naturally.
As if on a cue a waiter informs me that I am needed at the conference hall. Inspector Sujith is expecting me there.
Conference hall really is just a hall roughly at the centre of the property, where Sid used to give his presentations about the stuff that he showed later in night sky, and doubles up as room for any sort of a gathering or celebration or entertainment, as we had last night.
I enter it and immediately notice the difference-the gaiety, breeziness and laughter is gone, the life has gone out of it. In one corner both the high-end telescopes are standing sadly, covered by a cloth, as if in mourning for their master.
” Dr. Singh, I presume?”
“I am Inspector Sujith, I am told you discovered the body,”
“That’s right,” I am taken aback a little by his appearance, he does not confirm to my mental picture of an inspector, specially an Inspector in Kerala. Perhaps I have a skewed notion based upon few south indian movies that I have seen, but with a balding head, fair complexion, clean-shaven face and a bulging belly, he seems more of a businessman than an official of the law. That he is in civilian clothes is not helping either.
“Hmm.. I have read the statement that you have given earlier to Constable Ajeesh, don’t you think it’s too much of a coincidence that you were the last person to see Siddharth in the night at his cottage, and also the person to discover his body in the morning?”
I do a double-take,” What is this? Am I a suspect..How can you..One minute! What? There was no discussion about last night with the constable. He asked me about today’s events,”
” That why I am an inspector and he is not, Dr. Singh,” he says while sitting behind a table that has been kept in the centre, he signals me to sit on the chair on the other side of the table, ” I have already made enquires in the short time that I have been here, and we are checking the footage of c.c.t.v. showing the area outside Mr. Siddharth’s cottage this very minute. You entered there around 12:18 am and came out at 12:27, and then again went back inside around 12:31am, and finally came out around 12:37 am. Nobody saw him alive after that. What do you have to say about it?”
“Are you absolutely sure of that? I would be quite disappointed in the staff here if that is the case,” I said while sitting reluctantly on the chair.
“What do you mean?”
“I had specifically asked the guy at the reception after coming out of Sid’s cottage to check upon him after ten minutes. If he didn’t do it then it was a serious lapse on his part. Also you haven’t checked the full footage yet, perhaps others saw him later on the beach,”
” Is that so?” he seems flustered and his James Bondsque demeanor is gone for a moment,” let me check his statement, I think he goes by the name of Vijayan…ummm..,” he skims through a paper,
” All right, he has said that you came around to reception at about quarter to one in the night, and said that Mr. Siddharth was not feeling well and that though you had given him medicines it would be better if he were to check upon him after ten-fifteen minutes. He further says that before setting out towards Mr Siddharth’s cottage he thought it would be a good idea to call him up, so that the reception was not left alone. And that he did ring him, Mr. Siddharth picked up the phone and seemed quite all right. He ends up by saying that he was explicitly told by Siddharth that he was feeling good after the medicines, and there was no need to come to his room, then or later,”
“You see?” I say with a satisfied voice
” But that means he never saw him, only talked to him over the phone..that’s flimsy, you know. And about five hours later Siddharth is found dead on the beach, by you,”
An ache is beginning to drum up in my head. Is he dense?
“Oh…I think what has happened- I came out of the room in the night in full view of c.c.t.v. then went around announcing my visit to his room in front of the guy at reception, made sure that he checks upon Sid…then later somehow sneak back in, without being seen in c.c.t.v. and drag out Sid, who by the way is feeling better now, and is much stronger than me, to one end of the long Beach and strangulate him. After that I go and sleep peacefully, and get up in the morning to find his body and announce my crime to everyone! Perfect..case solved!”
Sujith stares at me quietly as he fiddles with a paper-weight,”It sure is impossible…Hugh! I am sorry Dr. Singh, I think we got started on a wrong foot. This is a murder scene and we have to treat everyone with suspicion. I hope you understand that,”
” I know that Inspector, but that does not mean you start insinuating the first guy you come across with absurd, and frankly impossible, theories.”
” My bad Doctor, let’s do it the proper way. Could you please tell me why did you go to Mr. Siddharth’s room in the night and what happened there?”
“Sure, I got a call from him on mobile, and by the way you can check it in my call records,” he rolls his eyes,” sometime after midnight, and said that he was not feeling well. He asked me whether I could come over to his cottage. I was quite sleepy, it was a long day yesterday; right from the site-seeing at Bekal fort and nearby areas in afternoon to the party at night, which by the way took place right here, it had been one tiresome day. We all were exhausted. But, of course, I dragged myself out of the bed…”
“What time did you go to sleep, and did your wife wake up when you went to see him later?” interjected Sujith.
” I don’t think so that Neha woke up, she was fast asleep along with the kids, and I made sure I went out as quietly as I could. It was late when we came back from the celebration. Siddharth had thrown the party to commemorate two years of this resort, and it was wonderful-barbeque on the beach, a lot of singing and dancing, and well, most of us had a bit too much to drink, specially Siddharth. I myself had a couple of glasses more than usual,”
“Seems it was quite a party,”
” Well you know how it is; we all are on a vacation and he was one hell of a host, anyway I think it broke around elevenish, and we all were drowsy and tucked in bed by 11:30pm at the latest I guess,”
“Not everyone I presume, there is a dead body on the sand out there right now to prove it,”
I shrug, ” Yes, it’s deeply mystifying. How Sid got there, and who killed him. Can’t make head or tail of this question. I explicitly told him to lie down and sleep,”
” We are here to get answer to that question. You need not worry about that. Just tell me what I want to know. Like, what was he suffering from?”
” Hypoglycemia i.e. low blood sugar and gastric reflux, acidity that is,”
“Acidity? That’s it? For that he got you to his room?”
” I also said hypoglycemia. He didn’t know that, he thought it could be something to do with his heart,”
” He was diabetic and was on insulin. Hypoglycemia presents with symptoms that mimic a heart attack, there is perspiration and a heaviness in the chest. That is exactly what was happening to him. I asked him whether he had taken his regular dose of insulin. He had, just after reaching his room after dinner. Trouble was that he did not have much to eat and had a lot to drink. In his state of inebriation he forgot that he had to reduce the dose of insulin. And well, alcohol itself causes hypoglycemia. So he was experiencing symptoms of very low blood sugar. I looked for something to give him immediately, and fortunately found a carton of Soya milk in his fridge, he used to drink it as it’s healthier. And it still contained roughly half of its content. Hurriedly I mixed two-three pouches of sugar from the tray kept to prepare coffee and gave him. That sweet cold milk combated both- reflux and low blood sugar,”
” Hmm…There goes the insulin angle as well. We found the discarded carton of milk in the dustbin along with pouches of sugar. The glass from which milk had been drunk sat upon the side-table near his bed. And his vial of insulin has the proper amount left in it. It’s not emptied.” muses Sujith.
I laugh, “Really! You Were planning to pin that upon me – insulin overdose! I think you read a lot of detective novels,”
He looks sheepish,” Well it’s a known method of homicide, and suicide as well, and we are going to check every adult here who is diabetic, whether they have any missing vial or something, of course. Anyway, why did you go back to your cottage and again went to see Siddharth?”
“To get Tablet Pantaprazole,” from his uncomprehending face I know that he has not got it,” it is a medicine to relieve acidity, I have it with me always as I too suffer from gastric reflux. I made him consume it, then went to reception to tell the guy there to check upon him later, and then lie down in my room and instantly was asleep. I was totally spent,”
“Oh! All right…tell me how long have you known Mr. Siddharth madkaikar?”
” About an year and a half or so. Actually he was a good friend of my wife’s. She is the one who is into astronomy. I met him once at Jaipur where he had come to deliver a guest lecture in an astrophotography conference. It’s there my wife and other members of Jaipur astronomy club first met him. After that, they all have been in regular touch through social media, webinars and whatnot. We met once again about six months ago, briefly, at Neem ka thana, a small town in Rajasthan, where we all had gone to see the total solar eclipse. Siddharth was there of course, and I think the idea of this vacation was mooted there. He was quite enthusiastic to have members of the club to have a starry vacation at his property. And so we are here-all the families belong to the astronomy club. I got to know him personally well enough only in the last week,”
” I knew him quite well. He was fantastic, wasn’t he? Tall, handsome, charming, debonair and passionate. He left a high-paying job at a multi-national to open this resort. That requires courage. He got this area on the tourist map,” said Sujith. He clearly is a member of Sid fan club, well, who isn’t? He was very popular in our group, and Neha had been going on and on about his many qualities in past few days. To be frank I have been feeling slightly fed up lately from all this. But now that he is suddenly gone it strikes me acutely that we have lost an extraordinary man, and that too in such an unfortunate manner.
“He sure was a great guy, full of zeal and innovative ideas. Pity, that he ended up like that,”
“All right doctor…I guess we are done for now but I will need you again, and you know that you cannot leave the town, don’t you?”
I groan, ” But we have a return flight tomorrow! I have many surgeries pending, my wife too,”
“Sorry, can’t help you there. You all have to be here atleast for the near future,”
I get up feeling dejected, and start to go back when he says,
“Your wife is also a doctor …Isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is an Opthalmologist,”
” And was close to Siddharth too, yet he called you in his distress, and not her– strange,”
I stare at him and don’t understand where is he leading to,” Well, I am a cardio-thoracic surgeon. Perhaps he thought I would be of more help than her. It’s quite logical considering the circumstances,”
” Or perhaps he did call her later,”
“What are you saying?” I demand.
” You know the last number that Siddharth dialled was your wife’s. Around 1:21am, the call was very brief, about 25 seconds long. Perhaps she met him later…Of course I am going to quiz her later about it, I thought you might be knowing something about it,”
The floor beneath my legs is moving and I cannot stand firm, ” I…I don’t know anything about it, but Neha did not go out in the night…Of that I am sure,”
” We will see about that. We are checking the c.c.t.v. footage of all the cottages – both the exits. Soon we will know who was out of their rooms during that period,”
” I am confident that you are not gonna find anything to incriminate her,” I say firmly and turn around to stride out of the hall in a huffed manner. But something stings my conscience.
The voice in my head says-Wasn’t it a soft click that you had heard Nikhil, sometime after coming from Sid’s room? And in your uneasy, light and fragile slumber had thought-‘What is that? Is Neha going out? Did I wake her up?’ Then had dismissed it as convolutions of a tired mind, and had forgotten all about it.
Well, now you know –She did go out… to meet him. And now he is dead….
××× ××× ××× ××× ×××
I find her in the bed, trying to make the kids go to sleep. Our eyes meet and for a moment she is my Neha; lovely, supportive and trusted. Then I remember what I have just heard and suddenly I cannot stand her. The room seems small and cannot contain both of us. In an instant I am out of slider wall and in the chair lying in the veranda.
The sea is of totally different colour in the afternoon-its green. Its amazing how it changes colour with time. Like humans. There is so much bitterness in me right now that I can taste it in my mouth.
She comes out quietly and sits in the chair besides me. Her hand is on my shoulder and I know she has that tender look on her face that makes me go weak in my knees.
“What happened Nikhil? How did it go with the inspector. Did he say something offensive to you?”
I only have to look into her deep black eyes and everything will be all right. But I can’t..I won’t. Not today.
Instead I keep on looking at the sea and say,” It was fine. Nothing offensive.”
” I know it must have been an enormous shock to you to find him gruesomely murdered there. How are you taking it? Please talk to me… Nikhil,”
“How are you taking it? It’s much harder upon you I think,” look into her eyes….atleast looks towards her, the voice in my mind pleads; but I won’t.
“Why?” In a flash her shapely hand is off my shoulder and the tender voice is gone,” why would it be harder upon me?”
Somehow I control myself and think this is what is called Deja vu.
We are here again, on these chairs in the patio, the kids are asleep and we are at loggerheads again. Only Sid is dead now. I take a deep breath. Perhaps I am over-reacting. No; I am not, how else am I supposed to behave? A man is dead, and my wife is a prime suspect; of discreetly meeting him atleast; if not of homicide.
“Nikhil, I told you that I wanted to extend the vacation as I thought you were having a good time at last. You have worked hard for a very long time and deserve a nice long break. It had nothing to do with Siddharth. Told you yesterday, and even earlier, that I admired him as a man who had courage to follow his passion, and I really liked to talk to him about astronomical stuff and observations. Nothing more. Don’t keep on beating about that bush. He was quite knowledgeable in his field. I have always asked you to come along but you were never intrested, what could I do? “
” And did that give you the license to meet him in the dead of the night? Slipping past your husband like a thief,”
“Shut up Nikhil!”
“Why? You know what was offensive about that inspector-he told me that the last call Sid made was to you, and that pretty soon he would find evidence that you met him, out on the beach in the time period when he has supposed to have died. Do you know how it feels when someone tells a guy that his wife is having an affair, and is a murder suspect too?”
Her jaw is clenched and she has that far-away determined look on her face,” I don’t care what others think. I only care what you think about me,”
I relent,” Neha, forgive me if I have said anything wrong. It was a moment of weakness. Sid had become a good friend of mine too, and I genuinely liked him. But it does not matter to the police what do we think or feel. Only evidence matters, and it is not looking good for you right now. Did you meet him late night out there on the beach or not?”
She looks for a long time towards me,” If I have to answer this question to you after all these years then I think there’s nothing left in our marriage,”
“Why are you behaving like this? It’s not about us anymore. They are going to officially question you. Please tell me…”
” Don’t worry about them, I will tackle them when the time comes. As for you, you will have to trust me. The question is -Do you still trust me?” she gets up and goes inside with these words.
“Shit!” I yell and kick the chair, it falls with a loud crash and wakes up Aryan. He is bawling loudly.
I massage my head. There is a distant boat in the ocean. It’s standing still in the vastness; solitary and sad; just like me…
××× ××× ××× ×××
I wake up and cannot decide whether it is evening or morning. I am in that sweet zone of uncertainty in which one finds self just after waking up, and where nothing is clear to mind, only a promise of happiness. Then the memory of all that has happened today falls upon me like a ton of bricks. Getting up from the couch seems impossible but of course I do it to find that Neha and kids are missing.
They are near the pool. I should go there but find myself drifting towards the bar near the dining area. It’s dim and the usual resplendence is gone, forever I think. There is a man sitting there with a glass and bowed shoulders.
It’s Joy Saldanha, the chief manager of Starry Sands, and a close associate of Sid’s. It must be hard on him. They were quite close. I like him. Have been co-ordinating for a long time before coming here about the logistics of the trip with him. He has given no occasion to complain. I sit on the stool near him and find him bleary-eyed and disheveled. A far cry from his usual uber-self. The air of competency is gone, as if somehow the sheen has come off his persona.
“Hi Joy, I am very sorry about Sid. How are you holding up?”
“Ah! Nikhil sir…I am good; actually am not, how can I be? Everything is falling apart. But first tell me what will you have?”
” A glass of red wine please,”
“Here you are,” he says while handing over the glass to me.
” You two go a long way back, don’t you? I remember Sid telling me the first day when we came here that you were his right hand, and that he could not have managed without you,”
” He said that, did he? He was one charming bastard. Oh! I miss him. Things were always lively when he was around. It was so typical of him to pass his partner like his manager. He had a certain manner though. You could not correct him even though you knew that he was lying. He had Oomph and flamboyance. I am sure a lot of ladies would agree,” says he while taking a sip.
Partners? This is news to me. I thought he was just the manager, and perhaps a good friend of Sid’s. I give him a close look. He cannot be more different from Siddharth. While he was tall, extremely fair with classic chiseled features and a physique to match; Joy is thin and of average height. His hair are greying prematurely and a wafer thin moustache sits on his angular face, and does not sit in a flattering way either. His manner is sauve and articulate, but cannot equal the eloquence of Sid. He was in a different league all together.
“We grew up together in Pune you know,” continued Joy,” but both of us are Konkanis actually. He was my best friend right from school. When he decided to chuck his job and start this venture he called me. Both of us invested equal capital in this property. It’s as much mine as his. Of course he was the star- astronomer par excellence, brilliant marketing guru and and numero uno sweet talker. He brought the guests and dazzled them with his personality and starry stuff; and I tackled all other managerial stuff. That always has been the deal.”
” So what happens now?”
He shrugs,” Don’t know. Half of the property is in my name. But I cannot run it on the basis of night sky, that’s not my cup of tea. It can be a simple resort I guess, but the location is so remote, because of the necessity of having a dark and clear night sky, that I don’t think many tourists will turn up. His share hangs in balance. He was divorced, and had long ago alienated his family. I am as close to being his relative as any.”
“Is that so? I thought a guy like him would have a lot of loving people to bother about him,”
” People are not always what they seem to be. There was a strong eccentric streak in him and he could be quite mean. Despite his brilliance he rubbed most people the wrong way once they got to know him closely,”
It is strange to hear such words about Sid from Joy. No doubt the alcohol has loosened his tongue. But it does not shine a generous light on Sid’s character if his best friend speaks about him in this manner the very day his dead body is found. The world is a strange place where nobody can be trusted, as I am finding out with each passing day.
“All right take care old boy, ” I get up from the bar and Joy waves his hand without looking at me. I should join Neha and kids.
” Shhh..Over here Mr. Doctor, sir could you come over here for a minute?”
I look around to see the source of the voice and find the constable from the village, who was the first police official here in the morning, sitting in one corner, splayed upon a lounge chair that has appeared here somehow. Perhaps he has dragged it himself. Both are totally out of place. I go towards him and find that he has downed many glasses. Night has not fallen properly and people are already drunk. Free booze does that. He has been posted here by Inspector Sujith for the night but he is useless as a raincoat on a sunny day.
I am about to pass him as there is no desire inside me to talk to another comatose drunk when I hear him say,
” Madam will be all right sir… She was not the only one out at that time,”
My feet are rooted to the ground and my ears are burning. What does he know about that? Then it strikes me with a bolt that what a blundering fool I am. Of course he knows. He is on the inside, and he is drunk right now and wants to have a chat with me. And I was going to pass this opportunity. What a fool.
I go to him,”Mr. Ajeesh isn’t it, tell me how much do you want,” and take out my wallet.
He gets up and folds his hands,” No..No, Doctor sir, I am a simple man. I don’t want your money,”
I am at a loss,” Then what do you want”
” You are a cardiologist, aren’t you?”
I begin to tell him that I am a cardio-thoracic surgeon and not a cardiologist, but stop myself. He won’t understand the difference.
“Well, my mother is having heart trouble since some time. I took her to many doctors and then she was referred to a big hospital at Mangalore. There the doctor did that test- that angiography, he told me that her heart is in a bad way and she needs three tents in her heart, and needs them pretty soon too,”
“Stents, not tents,”
“Yes, stents or whatever they are called. He demanded a huge amount of money. I have checked at many hospitals, even the cheapest one is very costly. I am very much troubled about her. Could you help me? I would bring her report and c.d. and could you have a look at them? I want to know whether they are really needed and how many? If I go ahead with the procedure which is the best quality and best doctor to…”
“Relax…I will check her angio. That’s what I do, it’s my job. Don’t worry, I will tell you everything that you need to know, and if you could come down to Jaipur, I can get the procedure done at a nominal rate at my hospital. Otherwise there are my friends at Mangalore who will get it done there in roughly the same rate, ” I say this and watch a big smile spread upon his face. You scratch my back and I will scratch yours. I notice that he is not even that drunk as I thought.
” Now tell me about this case. What has my wife got to do with it? Is she the only suspect?”
” You need not worry about madam, she is innocent”
My heart flutters,” Really? Who told you that? Inspector Sujith?”
” No, my heart says that. A lady like her cannot be involved in such a business, specially with a man like Siddharth. I knew him quite well. I live in the nearby village Ozinhavaluppu,”
I stare at the floor. A tide of anger is rising in my veins,” never mind what your heart says, I want to know what does the evidence say,”
“Well,” he squirms in the chair,” she did go out on the beach. But she was not the only one. There were three other persons seen in the c.c.t.v. footage who were out of their rooms or expected positions in that period, apart from Mr. Siddharth. Currently, fourteen families are residing in their respective cottages in the resort, all part of your group, no other guest is there, plus the staff. I myself scanned the entire footage as instructed by Sujith sir. It’s a miracle that resort has installed cameras all the cottages and other important areas, and all of them worked!”
“Who were the others, do you remember?” I sink lower into the chair. She did go out. Despite knowing it to be a fact I had been hoping against hope that it would turn out to be false.
” You bet I do. In fact I have written all the timings here,” he searches the pockets of his crumpled shirt and brings out a leaf of paper, ” madam went out at 1:32am and came back around 2:10, both entry and exit through the slider. Mrs. Khandelwal came out of the main entrance, facing the pool, around 1:19 am, then meandered in the garden for a short while, and from there to the area adjacent to the patio of her cottage, strolled there for about 20 minutes and entered her cottage through the slider entrance at around 1:42 am,”
” Was Mrs. Khandelwal visible the entire period?”
“Yes, she did not go out of range of camera even once,”
“Then she has a solid alibi, we can forget her as the perpetrator of the crime, What was she doing out so late anyway..”
“She says that she suffers from insomnia and was unable to sleep yesterday night too, so she came out to walk in fresh air,” he hesitates for a moment as if trying to decide whether he should tell me more or not, before adding,” she has also said that she remembers hearing a loud male voice while she was in the garden near her cottage, and it seemed to her that someone was shouting. She has stated that the voice sounded familiar to her but she cannot positively identity it. Her cottage is nearest to the crime scene, being at the last end of the property on that side where the body was found. But she could not have seen anything, it was too far and well it was dark. The crescent moon was quite weak to give any reasonable light,”
I am alert. This is the stuff that I want to know,”But she says she heard a male voice! That could be the killer,”
“But it’s inconclusive. It could be have been Siddharth too, having one of his famous flares of temper. Perhaps there was a fight, a scuffle and he got strangulated. We don’t exactly know how it played out. Can only guess,”
” But what about Neha? Is she also visible throughout the footage? If yes-bingo! She is innocent,”
“Unfortunately no, madam came out and went in the rough direction of the murder. She was lost only after a few metres. The range and the angle of the cameras have been set so as to keep an eye only on the immediate vicinity of the cottages and the interior part of the resort i.e. dining area, garden inside, pool, conference hall etc. She could have stopped anywhere though,”
My heart is down to my boots. It is conclusive that she went to meet him. Ok …that’s one bullet in my body, now what about the other one- Did she kill him? It’s too absurd to think that. Even if she was meeting him clandestinely, and was enamored to him, it’s insane to think that she could have killed him. That would not have been possible physically too….Unless…
I pick myself up from the quicksand of my thoughts and make a feeble attempt on her behalf,” but surely one cannot judge only by the footage of cameras, that are so myopic, cannot see beyond few metres. Nobody saw her meeting him,”
” Actually, Ranjith has stated that he saw madam, going towards the general direction of the beach where Sid has died, just a minute or two before he left for his home. That was 1:34am to be precise. He did not see her meet him, just that he watched her go and wondered what was she doing out at that time of the night,”
“Ranjith? Who is he and what was he himself doing then?”
” He takes care of the telescopes and other gadgets. He has been here since the beginning. Actually he was sort of man-friday to Mr. Siddharth. Did a lot of odd jobs for him. In his statement he has said that after the party there was a lot of work for him to do- like cleaning the conference hall, tucking away telescopes carefully, Siddharth was very particular about it, and preparing the hall for the early morning session. Apparently Siddharth had planned a surprise morning session to show the planet Venus and sun, or something like that. So he worked till late and then started for his home, in the nearby village, when he saw your wife,”
I have placed who Ranjith is, he is that silent, morose Keralite who shadowed Sid during observations. Handing over lenses or fixing an object in the eyepiece of telescope. I have not heard one word from him in the past eight days.
” Could he be lying?”
” Difficult,” says Ajeesh,” he is seen many times in the camera. In fact when Siddharth came out of his cottage, which incidentally is quite near to the conference hall, at 1:18 am, he is seen talking to Ranjith. He says that he asked Siddharth where was he heading to at that hour, and that he was told by Siddharth that he wanted to meet someone, then he went off towards the ocean,”
I am unable to speak. My lips are parched. With some difficulty I utter,” we only have his word that he went home. He could have followed him later, when he was out of the range of those mighty and God-like cameras, perhaps they had an argument and Ranjith murdered him. Such silent men are dangerous. When there patience gives way, anything is possible. He has no alibi,”
What am I doing…who am I convincing- this man or myself? But to my surprise he says, ” That’s quite true. He could have done it easily. Although the way to his home makes him go around the resort, skirting it actually, away from the beach. I know where his home his, it’s a small settlement, mostly of fishermen. But we only have his word that he went there straight away. He lives alone too, there’s just a sister who is at Kochi right now, working at a hotel. So nobody can vouch about the time he reached his place. And so, he is a prime suspect right now, along with madam and Joy,”
“Joy! This joy?” I point towards the man sitting in front of us, with his back towards us, and with whom I have been talking just few minutes back.
” He is a suspect? Why? How? He is Sid’s best friend,” I cannot get a hold of this fact.
” When a murder is involved anything is possible Doctor sir. He is under the cloud right now, and by the way, they might have been old associates but there are indications of friction amongst them. The financial health of the resort also seems to be in an unhealthy condition. Joy had invested all savings here, not so for Siddharth, he was clever this way. Joy also had reservations about being called just a manager here. He is half the owner you know,”
“Ya I know, he was speaking something about it just now, but to kill a man for that seems a very long shot. Was he out of his room at that time?”
” Yes, he stays on the whole floor above the conference hall. He is seen going out around 11:25pm and does not return till 1:29am. He was not inside the property during that time. That is confirmed. He says he went urgently to Ozinhavaluppu, the nearest village and my native, on the instructions of Siddharth to bring back a solar filter that was lying there at the house of one of Siddharth’s friends. It had been delivered by courier in the evening. Most couriers don’t deliver here by the way, so they routinely used this friend,”
“He went there in the dead of the night?”
” Yes, he says Siddharth had suddenly decided to show something on the sun’s surface in the morning along with Venus, and that filter was absolutely necessary. He was whimsical like that. Used to decide at the spur of the moment, and then was adamant and impatient after that. But guests loved these surprises, they were like bonuses. Everyone was used to his mood swings, including his friend. When Siddharth came to know during the dinner that the much anticipated solar filter had reached his friend’s house in the evening, he got desperate to have it at the earliest, and dazzle his guests in the morning with it. It was going to be a parting gift from him to your group on the last day of the stay. We have enquired at the village and Joy did reach there around 11:50pm, got the filter. That much is true and verified. He is even seen entering the hall with a package in his hand later, we even found the solar filter in his room. What is interesting is the lag between his procurement of it at the friend’s house and his entry to his room. He must have left immediately, even if we consider that he might have left the village by 12 am or 12:15 at the latest, then the way back is not more than 20-25 minutes. There is a whole hour missing in his story,”
I am intrigued now,” What does he have to say in his defence!”
“He says that he was not feeling well on account of having had to drink a bit too much in the two-year celebration, and after he set out from the village he felt nauseous and vomited at the side of the road. He further says that he was having trouble opening his eyes due to fatigue and the influence of alcohol, so he parked the car on one side of the road and slept for about an hour or so. When he woke up it was about 1:15 am, so he hurried back and slept the rest of the night in his room,”
” Yes, it is thin but believable and totally possible. I myself have done the same many times when it got difficult to drive in the night after …You know, having to drink too much. Of course that narrow road is totally deserted in the night, even in daytime the traffic is very light, so it cannot be corroborated in any way. By the way our friend Ranjith saw him enter the conference hall with ‘something in his hand’. He was inside the hall at that time, checking the equipment one final time, according to him. Joy went straight to his abode on the first floor and never saw him,”
I let out a deep sigh. Yes it’s possible, everything is possible. I myself have taken a nap along the side of the road in the night a few times when the going has seemed dangerous. So Joy could have done it too. Why not? Certainly liquor has literally flown yesterday night. I remember clinking my glass to that of Sid’s and Joy’s many times.
‘They might have consumed much more than you Nikhil. Don’t you remember spending the latter part of the night out on the sand with the kids, teaching them how to barbeque,’ I smile as I recall their excited faces. God! How the things have changed. ‘But it’s a fact when you were out, the party was in full swing. What with all the singing and dancing no doubt they drowned more spirit than intended,’ my conscience tell me.
My head is spinning. So many possibilities! So many ifs and buts!
I get up,” Anything else?”
Ajeesh thinks and shakes his head. I thrust a note of two thousand rupees in his pocket despite his protests,” keep me posted,”
He nods,” One more thing, tomorrow morning they all will be called to the police station at Kanhagad for questioning. Joy and Ranjit might be detained there for further enquiries. Both the ladies will be allowed to return here but under strict surveillance,”
By now I am attuned to such things. How soon a man adapts! But it takes something out his soul leaving a void behind. This void can either be filled with the love of one’s soulmate or by whiskey. Having no access to the first one, I find refuge in the latter….
××× ××× ××× ××× ×××
“Give medicine to Veer on time and take care of them, I might be late,” these are the first words spoken by Neha to me since yesterday and before I can say ‘Yes’, she is whisked off in the car along with Mrs. Khandelwal by the police.
The gulf that has opened up between us has widened to such an extent that it feels like we are strangers who are chained to each other by two innocent kids.
I turn to go to the dining area where both of them are sitting, and bump into Sujith.
“What are you doing here? Neha just went to see you” I demand. He is looking sharp today in his uniform.
“Yes I know, I am on my way. I will question them at the station only. There were some loose ends to tie here,”
I am in no mood to humour him,” So did you tie them?”
He looks at me keenly,” Not yet..I need your help for that Doctor Singh,”
“What can I do for you?”
“Shall we sit near the pool….Here you are, that’s better. You are a hotshot surgeon, aren’t you? I have done some research and you have come up as one of the top surgeons of jaipur,”
” I am doing all right, thank you,”
“Then tell me, as a doctor, don’t you think there’s something irregular about the way Siddharth died, I mean you say he called you as he was suffering from low blood sugar, then you give him sugar and he is all right, goes out and dies of strangulation. It doesn’t fit, it is not smooth,” he moves his right hand as he speaks.
” It does seems unusual but come to think of it, it is not that strange, I mean- hypoglycemia is corrected very soon with consumption of sugar. After that the person feels fully normal. So did Sid, and that is why he must have gone out for some reason and…”
” But why did he go out at that hour specially when he had just recovered. He should have slept. Common sense says that, even medical science says that, then why did he go out?”
I shrug and don’t know where is he going. He derives a special pleasure in slowly tormenting me I think.
“Unless it’s a pre-decided meeting with someone that he doesn’t want to miss. A rendezvous, if you will,” he smiles and I have an irresistible desire to break his nose.
“Are you suggesting that my wife was having an affair with him?” I rise with blood in my eyes.
” Sit down Doctor. This is a murder investigation and we have to be unemotional, thorough, scientific and logical about it,”
“Logical!” I laugh,” is it logical that you consider the possibility that Neha might have overcome and strangle him? Have you seen her? She cannot strangle a bird even if she wants to. She is that delicate. And you knew Sid, didn’t you? He was over six feet tall, athletic and muscular. Strong as an Ox. How in the name of logic could she have killed him?”
” Hmmm….You discovered his body, didn’t you? I hope being a medical professional you gave a good look at it. Did you?”
I am caught off guard by this sudden change of topic and don’t say anything. I can hear my heartbeat, it’s beating fast and loud.
Sujith speaks softly, ” Come on doctor, tell me. I need a professional opinion. As this place is so remote we are having trouble in getting the opinion of a capable forensic professional, but if you don’t help me I will get it done sooner or later. And autopsy report will come in a couple of days. It’s not your speciality but being a super-doc you must know enough about all this,”
I am sweating profusely, and my mouth is dry, but he is right, it will come out sooner,” I …I think he did not die of strangulation,”
” I knew it!” he slams the chair with his right hand and stands up, ” and your reasons for saying that?”
“There was no ligature mark, that is characteristic of strangulation by a rope. Other signs like petechiae in the eyes and frothing in the corner of mouth were also missing,”
” When you went to see him the first time didn’t you call the reception and ask whether there was anyway that you could get Siddharth’s E.C.G. done?”
“Yes I did,”
“Why? You told me yesterday that it was evident to you that he was suffering from only hypoglycemia and acidity,”
I sigh,” It was to pacify him mainly. He was worried about his heart. But the reception guy told me that we would have to go to Kanhagad to get it done,”
“Was that the only reason? Later you told the reception guy to have a look at him. Why? If his blood sugar was up and he was better then why this instruction?”
I cannot face him, ” It seemed like a good precaution. Doctors always ensure good follow up,”
“Or you thought that there was a chance, however miniscule, that it really could have been a heart attack?”
It’s the the moment I have been dreading. There is no way I can evade it now. Slowly I speak,” There’s some truth in what you say. Many times cardiac attack presents like gastric reflux, specially a subtype called Inferior wall M.I. and vive-versa. Though it’s rare. I thought it would be wise if E.C.G. could be done, however it was difficult. Then I gave him sugar and anti-acids, and he felt a lot better, so it seemed like it really was reflux coupled with hypoglycemia, specially it looked like that to Sid. He was quite relieved, even laughed at his earlier suspicions about his heart. Called himself a ‘chicken’. I told him that in my opinion a visit to the nearest hospital would be better, but with his typical arrogance, and machismo he rebuffed me once he felt better due to the sugar in his system. Without E.C.G. and other diagnostic facilities it was impossible to say anyway, and Sid was adamant that he was all right. He was a little embarrassed by his need to call me I think. He always wanted to be seen his usual confident and healthy self,”
” I am a little confused here, ” says Sujith,” he gets better then goes out and get himself strangulated but expires due to a cardiac reason, I mean what the hell happened there man?”
” I am not completely sure but I think what happened was that he actually was suffering from an underlying cardiac event masquerading as heartburn along with, and overshadowed initially, by low blood sugar. It progresses slowly, you know. He felt all right for a short period of time after sweetened milk. So he ventured out, despite my advise to not to do so, but all that time his heart was worsening and he would have collapsed soon, but in a massive and rather cruel twist of the fate, he got attacked by someone just then and..”
“And as the attacker coiled that rope around his neck, his already damaged heart stopped in the ensuing panic of the onslaught, and this will be reflected in the autopsy as the cause of death, and not strangulation,” completes Sujith. The bastard already knows what has happened but the sadist in him wants to hear it from me,
“Exactly, it would have led to severe arrhythmia or disturbance of rhythm of the beats. That sounded death knell to the already failing heart,”
“Unbelievable! I thought such coincidences occured only in mystery novels not in reality. Tell me one thing, Siddharth must have felt weak in the end, I mean just before life got snuffed out of him,”
“Yes, he must have had difficulty in standing and speaking. He might have been confused too,”
“In short he was vulnerable. Hmmm..then in such a situation even someone weaker than him normally, say a petite lady, could have overpowered him, specially if she were to be in a fit of rage,”
I get up and walk away from him. I don’t need this. Don’t I know it? This is what that has been killing me for the past two days.
I find kids fiddling with food on their plates. There are other families in the dining room, everyone is staring at us silently. All right, the news spreads fast. These are the people with whom we have been having a good time till only a couple of days back, but now it seems I am in a crowd of strangers.
There is no need to instruct the kids to eat less, they have no appetite. Children might not understand everything going around them but they are very intuitive. They sense the tension between their parents and wilt. It kills me to see them like this. I try to cheer them up by playing with them but my heart is not in it, neither is theirs. Finally we watch cartoons on the T.V. for a long time until they fall asleep.
She enters the room around five. It has taken the whole day, and she must be tired, but I am tired too-of waiting, of being lied to, and of worrying to death.
“What did you testify in front of Sujith,” I cannot restrain myself. I have to know!
“It’s confidential. I am not allowed to tell that to you, or anyone else for that matter,” she replies while selecting a dress from the cupboard that she will wear after the shower.
My worn-out patience gives way and I am up in a blink, and the next thing I know is that I have jerked her towards me and her right arm is being squeezed by my hand,
“Tell me what happened there,” I demand. My head is clouded by a fog of anger.
“Leave me!” she frees herself and shoves me gently,”What are you doing? The kids will wake up,”
“I am your husband! Don’t I deserve honesty and some clear answers from you? It’s my right. What if I were to be in your place, and you in mine? Would you not demand to know everything?”
“We would never be in the reverse position,” she smirks at me while entering the bathroom,” I would never doubt you in the first place,” the door closes in my face.
I shut my eyes fast. Really! Is this the time to play this card! Why are females like that? Stubborn and emotional about ‘Trust’ and ‘Listening to one’s heart’. And how am I supposed to do that? She has just returned from an official enquiry about her suspected role in someone’s murder for God’s sake!
“Fine, do whatever you like, but know this-I have other means to gain knowledge about your statement. I am not dependent upon you,” I yell to the silent door, and walk out of the cottage, slamming the wooden door of the main entrance loudly.
I jog towards the bar, and find Ajeesh in pretty much the same position as yesterday-slung about in the lounge chair with a glass in his hand. He gets up as he observes me.
“Ok…Tell me-fast, what did my wife say to Sujith? Did she meet him? What’s her story?” I demand as I sit near him.
He looks at my right leg that is tapping the floor nervously and says,” I am very sorry sir, I cannot tell you anything about it. I have been here the whole day. Sujith sir instructed me to be here. I am not privy to his conversation with madam that happened at the Kanhagad police station,”
I sink into the chair, bowed down by massive disappointment and immense irritation. This guy is totally useless.
” However,” he says in an attempt to redeem himself in my eyes,” I have not been sitting idle here. I have made a lot of enquiries today, and talked to all the staff here. Some interesting things have come up,”
I perk up and sit up straight, “Like what?”
” Like, you know out of seventeen staff employed by the resort not a single one is female, there is no lady here, from top to bottom,” he makes the symbol of ‘zero’ with his right thumb and index finger as he speaks,
That is news to me, ” No ladies? How did I fail to notice that? But why?”
“Mr. Siddharth Madkaikar was an incorrigible womanizer it seems. About eight-nine ladies have resigned in the last year. All the staff members have said this. Now that he is gone, they are speaking their minds freely. It did not matter to him from where did the lady come from- socially, culturally, financially etc. I mean. He went after each of them, and made their lives a hell. He was a predator, and this nature of his had led to his divorce,”
And with such a man my wife has been spending a lot of time lately. ” Why did nobody stood up to him?”
He shrugs,” Then that person would loose the job. Siddharth ran the place like a tyrant. Skeletons are tumbling out of the cupboard. He was temperamental and flayed his employees even on small mistakes. But most of them put up with it as employment is difficult to come by in this region,”
“I could never guess all this, he seemed such a good-natured fellow,”
“Of course, as his guest or client you would never have come across this aspect of Siddharth. But there are stories galore about his excesses, Ranjith for example had a big confrontation with him about a month back, and he had resigned. But Siddharth pacified him and brought him back later. Apparently, he valued him too much to loose him,”
“Why did they have an altercation?”
“Ranjith’s sister. She had joined here in the capacity of receptionist about five months back. Siddharth relentlessly wooed her and obviously Ranjith objected to it,”
I am excited,” Don’t you see? There’s a motive for Ranjith to attack him. It might have still rankled with him about his sister,”
“Yes, it is very much possible. There is no scarcity of motives here. There are motives all around,” he swings his hands above his head in all directions.
I watch the hands circling above his head, mesmerized. Motives everywhere! The waters are murky here. So many had grudges against Sid.
“But what about Joy? Surely he stands to loose the most by Sid’s death. He had invested his money here, and with the passing of it’s charismatic and popular astronomer- hotelier, the very existence of Starry Sands is under threat,”
“That’s true, but it is also a fact that he was a much tormented man here. He disliked the way Siddharth dominated him, an equal partner, and under-carpeted him as ‘just a chief manager’ and ‘Sid’s right hand’. He was also pushed around a lot like a junior staff by Siddharth. Joy could not overcome the forceful personality of his ‘oldest friend’. They had frequent showdowns and run-ins, every member of the staff has reported that; but Joy gave in every single time, like that night- Joy requested Siddharth to send send somebody else to collect that filter. He was wasted, and according to him, such an errand could be done by any of the staff member. But Siddharth stuck to his ground that the filter was very costly and he trusted only Joy to get it, “
” Wow! This place certainly is not up for the award for best workplace atmosphere.”
“Yes, and not only that, things were not good financially too. We have scanned the accounts and they are dismal. Sure, the property is beautiful, famous on paper, and unique, but few people have interests like that. There were a few big groups, like yours, and they did pay well, but they were few and far in between. Also, it’s situated at the upper tip of North Kerala, bordering South Karnataka; and was chosen because it has the right conditions for observation of night sky i.e. most cloudless nights an year, and a secluded but long and gorgeous beach- front, but regular tourists go mostly to South Kerala. I am a native and can vouch for it. Joy was in a tight corner monetarily, and was embezzling funds it seems, there are discrepancies in the accounts. He took care of the finance, you know. Siddharth was careless that way, but not a fool. He had charged Joy with swindling money from the property a few days back, and they had a big quarrel in front of the whole staff,”
I whistle,” So, a whole lot of suppressed anger, desperation and scarred psyche there. Hmmm.. both of them, Ranjit and Joy, could have done it. Anyone else? I mean a totally unexpected person, someone who was not staying at the resort at that time? It’s a possibility,”
“It certainly is, but it would be very improbable, if not impossible. Nobody lives for atleast quarter of a mile nearby, and the nearest settlement, Ranjith’s village, mostly has fishermen, who would be sleeping at that time so as to get up early morning, and go out to the sea. The beach would have been deserted at that time,”
It sounds right, all pointers are in the direction of it being an insider’s crime. Sid met someone whom he knew, God only knows what went down there next but it looks like that he and that ‘person’ had an altercation, that resulted in his demise. Fine, no issue with that scenario; only problem– my lovely wife could as well be that ‘person’. That’s the elephant in the room and I don’t want to address it.
He has nothing more to contribute. I instruct him to keep on looking for anything else that might be relevant to the case, and get up to go and sit in front of the ocean.
Who was there? Who met Sid that night and tightened that noose around his neck? Hugh! The vacation has quickly turned into classic “Who done it?” mystery, in which my life has gotten embroiled. Always thought such mysteries were limited to books and movies, but here I am living it, minute by minute; and burning in the hell that it has unleashed upon my picture- perfect life.
The more I think about it the more entangled it seems to be. I look at the ocean for answers. How calm it is! Yet it has got many ugly secrets buried in its bosom. Don’t know whether this case will ever be solved fully or not, or it will become another riddle– unfathomable and deep, just like this sea. If only my heart could be as big and magnanimous as the ocean, able to swallow everything yet rise above it and roll, making waves and traveling from one end of the world to another; unhurried, unworried and unconcerned.
The sun sets in a blaze of orange and red, and the stars come out, one by one. I gaze at them, and try to figure out what power do they have, shining like tiny dots from billions of kilometres away, to send my wife into the arms of another man. It seems they are not twinkling but winking at me wickedly….
××× ××× ××× ××× ×××
“Papa! Get up Papa,” I open my eyes, and find Veer shaking me vigorously. It is late morning and beams of bright yellow sunshine are streaming in the room.
“Papa, get up…We are going home, everybody is…mummy is calling you outside, hurry up,” says Veer, and I sit up with a lightening bolt in the couch.
Going Home! Hurry up!
I cannot process these words, and my first thoughts are that Veer is pranking me. But his face is alight with truthful innocence that only kids posses.
I come out of the cottage along with him, and find that the world has changed- for the better. Almost everyone is assembled near the pool and the adjacent green patch of grass, and somehow, it seems, that the atmosphere is charged, there is a buzz in the air. Neha is standing within a small group of ladies in one corner, and is chit-chatting and laughing! Just like old times.
It seems that I am dreaming, but I turn my face and catch the eye of Ajeesh, who is conversing with other people of our group at the other end, near the pool. A big grin flashes across his face, and he gives me the signal of Thumbs-up.
It is surreal and must be a dream I decide, just then there is a tap on my shoulder, I turn and find myself facing Sujith,
“Congratulations Dr. Singh. It’s over. You all can leave now. Of course, be ready to fly down here if you are called to testify,”
“But…but, how? What about Sid’s murder? Who did it…Do you know?”
He raises an eyebrow,” Haven’t you heard? It was Joy. He confessed late last night. He had a scuffle with Siddharth that night,”
I close my eyes, the relief is heavenly, “Joy…Are you sure?”
He chuckles,” Of course I am. Had my eyes on him from the first day. A little pressure from our side and he confessed everything. We have our ways, you know. That wasn’t difficult anyway, he was at the end of his wits. Poor guy, his nerves are in tatters, could not handle the guilt and pressure,”
“So he did not sleep at the side of the road that night, but was on the beach at that time,”
“Yes, after reaching here from Ozinhavalappu with that filter around 12:30am, he did not go straight to his room, rather he went and sat near that boat. It was his usual place, he says. Used to go and sit there whenever he was feeling low or agitated. And that night he was very much aggrieved. He says he was fed up with the way Siddharth treated him-‘like a bloody staff’- are the words he has used in his confession. The dangerous drive to get that solar filter had maddened him. Also, he was desperate about money,”
“Poor man, it’s a pity. He seemed such a decent guy,”
“Depression and desperation can make even the sanest guy loose his mind, and he was both. Siddharth had demanded him to return all the money that he had channelled into his personal account, and well; had lost on stock market apparently; by next week, or face legal action. So, he was sitting there watching waves come and go, battling his anger and anxiety, when he saw Siddharth tottering towards him. He says he was surprised at first but then could not control his resentment and started shouting at him, this must be the ‘familiar voice’ that Mrs. Khandelwal heard, it would be around 1:25 am, a minute here or there,”
“Oh!..what happened then?”
“Joy says that Siddharth looked a bit unsteady to him, which he thought was due to his heavy drinking, and mumbled something derogatory about Joy, about how he was a weakling, and something extremely vulgar about Joy’s wife,”
“About Joy’s wife?”
Sujith rolls his eyes,” Ya, there had been some ugly episode in distant past involving Siddharth and Joy’s wife. We know what a philanderer he was. They had buried the hatchet about it years ago but when Siddharth taunted him about it, joy went mad. He said that he hit him many times and Siddharth fell on the ground, near the boat, and in his anger Joy picked that rope and tightened it around his neck,”
“Then he did see him die!”
“No, he says that he choked him only for a few seconds in his fury. He did not intend to kill him. Even says that he had not wound up that rope very tightly. He released it from his hands when he saw Siddharth coughing and spluttering in the mud. And picked up that filter and walked back to conference hall in panic. He dreaded that he would have to leave the resort, that Siddharth would punish him. He insists that he had left Siddharth breathing, and was shocked to know in the morning that he had expired. He has been in severe guilt since then. But says he could not imagine that he had strangulated him to death. Well we know what happened, don’t we?”
I nod,” Yes, I can imagine Joy’s surprise on hearing the news of his death. That’s why he cooked up that half-baked story of his nap along the road hurriedly. He never knew while hitting Siddharth that he was already suffering from an ongoing M.I. But here’s a question– if Siddharth did not die of strangulation but due to arrhythmia leading to sudden cardiac arrest; and this will be reflected in autopsy; then can Joy be held guilty of his murder?”
” It’s for the court to decide. It certainly is a bit of a bummer. I have never seen or heard such a case. But consider this- it was Joy’s attack that ultimately led Siddharth’s heart into a tizzy and finished him. Without it, who knows, he might have survived. He could have returned to you, to anyone else and would have received medical attention. It could have been a mild attack. Couldn’t it, and people do survive, don’t they?”
“You bet they do. A lot of them, in fact. And you are right, it looks it could have been a mild one, the way it progressed slowly. Yes, Joy is in trouble surely,”
” That is what I am saying,” he stretches his hands and yawns,”I can rest easy now,”
But I cannot, until I know this answer, “But Inspector, what about Neha? Did she meet him? If she didn’t meet him then why did she go out?”
He looks at me incredulously, “Don’t you know? Hasn’t she told you anything..my, my!”
I shake my head, and reflect what he might think about us, as a couple.
” She never saw him. He called her to ask whether she would like to join him near the boat, and witness the meteor shower with him that was supposed to peak at that hour on that night. But she said no to him, rather curtly. However, she says that she was unable to sleep after that, and decided that she didn’t want to miss the amazing spectacle happening right then in the night sky. So she went out, but she never went near that boat, and did not even know that Sid was out there. She says that she climbed the nearest hammock to your cottage and gazed up the sky for about quarter of an hour, and returned back. It was quite a display of shooting stars, according to her. Unfortunately, we could not see her in the camera, but it seems she was quite near to your room,”
It’s like someone has thrown a ton of ice upon me. Meteor shower? My mind is numbed. It is so simple! Of course, she has been harping about it for days. Geminid metor shower or something like that. They were supposed to be visible that night and the next one. She went out to see shooting stars in the sky. How silly of me! How did it slip my mind? I don’t know whether I am more relived or embarrassed. I have doubted her. But what could I do? A man can’t think straight in those circumstances. I have a lot of forgiveness to ask from her.
” All is well that ends well I suppose. When she came out, at around 1:32 am, Siddharth had already passed away. But she could not have known that he was lying, dead, further up on the beach. Same with Ranjith. He saw Joy enter the hall around 1:29am, a minute or two after his attack on Siddharth; and the very minute perhaps when he died; and saw your wife going towards the ocean about three minutes later, but did not see either Siddharth lying on the sand or Dr. Neha resting in the hammock. He went towards his home from the road skirting the property, and away from the beach. He could not have seen either of them in the dark.”
I still cannot get recover from the depth of my shock and idiocy, and stare at him rather for too long, he pats my back,
” It’s all right Doctor, we all have rough patches in our marriage. I must say I may have treated you harshly, please forgive me. You must understand that I was only doing my job. But I appreciate the help that you have provided me. Of course you will be my expert witness now in this case,” he extends his right hand towards me.
Reluctantly, I take it, after all he is only doing his job.
Slowly I turn towards Neha and find her keenly watching the exchange between Sujith and I.
How can I face her!
I start towards her but am swamped by fellow travellers who have been stuck here for the last three days. Suddenly there is an urgency. Everyone wants to know what happened, how did it happen and how are we going to get back. There is a lot to do, and I am swept away with the tide of errands to take care of- bookings, packing, getting away in the minibus to the nearest aiport. As I go with others to search for an available flight, I glance at Neha. She is looking at me unblinking with her big beautiful eyes and I want to melt into her arms….
××× ××× ××× ××× ×××
Finally we are sitting in the flight that has taken off from Manglore airport twenty five minutes back, and everyone’s settled. It has taken us almost full day to arrange everything. I haven’t had the opportunity and proper moment to talk to Neha as yet.
She is gazing out of the window, Aryan is sleeping in her lap. It is so unlike her to be aloof and silent like that. She has barely uttered a word all afternoon. Cannot blame her, I reckon. It’s my turn to do all the talking and save our marriage. But I am at a loss of words. What can one say after messing up big time?
I love the black Sari and the sleeveless blouse that she is wearing. It contrasts her complexion, and suits her svelte figure. Veer is dozing off in the middle seat uncomfortably. He mumbles something in his sleep as I remove the hand rest between his seat and mine, and gently place his head and upper body in my lap. He sleeps with his mouth open, and I can watch him endlessly, but now is the time to approach her. They have dimmed the lights and most of the passengers are nodding off. It’s now or never.
I lean towards her and place my hand over her’s,
“I am sorry. Truly I am. Don’t know how could I doubt you, but it’s never going to happen again. I know it might be difficult to belive it but I am mortified,”
She keeps on looking out of the window for few seconds then turn towards me, her eyes are wet,
“How could you?” there is a catch in her voice and something dies inside me. I have never hated myself more than this moment.
” I …I ..was caught in the whirlwind of the events. Could not stand firm, and you had been going on and on about Sid for the past few days. Sid this, Sid that…and had been spending so much time with him. Then you started nagging me to postpone our return tickets. To top it all Sujith produced those facts about Siddharth’s last call, and your visit to the ocean front. In my subconscious I started believing that… I know I should have trusted you but …”
” He was a scumbag..” she says quietly.
“What? What did you say? I thought you considered him a good friend,”
“I did…but he had been upping his advances gradually. Of course, I did not know about his nature then, all the horrible storiescame intolight onlyafter hisdeath. And that night, well…he did flirt with me shamelessly, while we were dancing; you were out; with the kids, and I had reluctantly accepted his offer to dance. There was a lot of merriment going on and he did dance with all the ladies, but I got a distinct vibe when I was with him. Females can always tell that, you know. I am sorry too…You were right, his intentions were not platonic, you were tentatively trying to warn me, and I failed to read the signs,”
Anger is welling up again inside me and I slowly clench and unclench my fists,” I told you so! Why did you not tell me about it after the party when we had that heated discussion? Rather you pushed me to extend our stay,”
“Shhh..Keep your voice down, what are you doing? This is precisely the reason I did not tell you, because I cannot not stand this ‘I told you so’ smugness, I hate it when you do that! And also when you start deciding on my behalf! That’s why despite inclining towards keeping our original travel arrangement intact after that celebration, I, in my irritation fought to extend the vacation-just to oppose you! You started howling upon me and I could not control myself,”
My head is throbbing,”You can’t be serious,”
” I am, but you won’t understand. You cannot understand females,”
I take a deep breath, this is all going the wrong way. There’s no desire in me to argue with her right now,”All right, it was foolish of me to try to dictate you. Forgive me. But do tell me what did that bastard do to you during the party?”
” Nothing as such, but the way he kept on looking at me and the manner in which he was holding me during the dance gave me creeps. It was different than his body language with other ladies. I excused myself and sat away in a corner, confused. Didn’t tell you because, as usual, you would loose your mind, plus kids were having a great time with you outside. I wasn’t sure either, he had done nothing wrong specifically. It was just a feeling. And then, he did come to me and apologise profusely for anything that might have upset me, and he could be a real gentleman; atleast he could seem like that; and so I softened. I decided that I might have been mistaken about him. Everyone deserves benefit of the doubt. Then he invited me to join him and others in the night to witness the meteor shower. Said he would call three-four of the most enthusiastic members personally in the night, who would bother to be out of bed at that hour, specially after getting exhausted in the celebration. According to Siddharth, the north end of the beach was perfect for viewing it. That’s the region where he was found by you. But I was a little vary and declined, then, and also later, when he did call me. He was one persistent guy and a pervert. In hindsight we now know that he wanted only me to be there. And he came out of his room only due to this burning desire of his. However, I was unable to sleep after his call, and went out to see the shower. Did not want to miss it after waking up,”
“You could have woken me up,”
“For what? To listen you complain about waking you up in the middle of the night to watch ‘the stupid sky’ as you call it? No way, and besides we had had that tiff only about a couple of hours back. Of course, didn’t know that you had been to his room in the intervening period. But I never went far, just little further out on the beach front. Had no idea that a few hundred metres away in the dark, a dead body was lying on the sand. It gives me goosebumps to think about it, how dreadful!”
I let out a deep breath,” Well it’s over, isn’t it? The important thing is that we are here, together again and…What? Why are you looking at me that way? I said I was sorry,”
Her eyes are narrow slits and there’s that furrow of concentration on her forehead,”Why are men like that? Narrow-minded, full of weird notions and baises, like– a woman can spend some time with a man happily only if she finds him attractive,”
Oh no! Not this conversation. I don’t want to go down that road right now, but of course she rambles on, have no authority to stop her,
“And like, only adult can be diabetic and be on insulin,”
I jerk up to see her watching me closely,” What? I don’t understand. Where did diabetes spring up from all of a sudden?”
She chews her lower lip,” That inspector Sujith considers himself a wisecrack, doesn’t he? He is a fool, if you ask me, like all men are. It never occurred to him that kids could have diabetes too, and could be on insulin. Like Veer is; he just checked the medical records of all the adults, and only questioned them, who were on insulin based on the information submitted by each family before travelling to Starry sands,”
Blood is rushing to my ears and they are hot.
” You gave him the injection of insulin didn’t you? When you went the second time on the pretext of giving something for angina, or reflux. You could have said anything to him. Sid trusted you as his doctor. I found that Veer’s vial of insulin and syringes are missing. You have been lying to me. You have not injected him for the past two days, and I confirmed this with Veer, and have been managing his sugar by making him eat less. How could you do it? Toying with your son’s health! I will never forgive you,”
I look with intense surprise,”What nonsense are you talking about, I did nothing of that sort,” but she is not listening to me. She is in another zone.
” It was brilliant–perfect murder! I have always thought that if an intelligent man like you would commit a crime then it would be unsolvable, and I was right! I can clearly see now what happened there- you saw it right away that it was nothing but hypoglycemia due to inadvertent consumption of his own insulin without a simultaneous proper meal, accompanied by gastric reflux due to alcohol. Siddharth was worried about his heart. He was experiencing perspiration and chest tightness due to low sugar, and in his panic he called you- the nearest and easily available cardiac doctor. While examining him a thought began to form in your head- you stroked his fear about it being a cardiac condition, probably angina, yes; I am sure you told it was angina, quite possible, short-lived, mild and easily correctable with drugs that you, a cardiac surgeon always had with himself as a precautionary measure, like Aspirin, for example. A lot of people keep Aspirin with themselves, and is actually advisable to do so. Perhaps you told him that you yourself suffered from it, that it runs in your family. Yes that’s it! It is entirely believable- you two are of roughly same age, just a matter of two-three years. We have only your word about what transpired between you two. You could have said anything to him and in his condition he would have believed you. What choice did he have? “
What is she talking about? ” Listen, on which tangent are you going? Nothing like this ever happened, I myself gave him the Soya milk laced with sugar,”
” Yes you did, but you never told him that it was to raise sugar and in his panic, he never realised that. You told him that the cold milk was to help in reducing the massive heartburn he was suffering from, he never noticed the sugar or probably he himself used to take it that way, most people add honey or sugar in it to make it more palatable. In reality you wanted to make him feel better, but only for a short period of time- twenty five to thirty minutes max. It was a masterstroke! Then you called the reception to ask whether E.C.G. could be done, you knew the receptionist would recount that later in his statement, you were planting seeds of doubt there about his condition and diagnosis,”
This is crazy! “Are you out of your mind?”
She is on fire,” No, rather I am thinking straight for the first time. I can reconstruct how you did the impossible. After that you told him that you would bring the medicines for angina and reflux from our cottage. You came- took a tablet of pantaprazole and also filled the syringe with Veer’s insulin- full, enough to send any man into insulin shock and death. You went back, passed a simple tablet of pantaprazole as the drug for angina, he would never know the difference, and took it, thinking it would cure his heart condition soon. And then you told him that you have got another medicine, an injection; that would help in angina; No! wait a minute; I get it; you told Sid that you were now going to give him an injection that would cure his reflux, yes; that’s what happened. At that moment you injected him with a massive dose of insulin that Veer is on, in his buttock. By now he was feeling better due to the sugar in the milk. That negated the effect of first insulin effectively and completely. But another huge wave of hypoglycemia was going to hit him later, this time lethally. Veer’s insulin, Novolin-R, does not start acting before thirty to thirty- five minutes, and acts even more lethally if given in the muscle. You knew you had that window. You assured him that due to medicines given by you he would feel better soon and then he should go to sleep– It was a mild attack of Angina probably anyway. As you came out of his cottage, at first you discarded the vial and syringe, perhaps buried them somewhere. There was a slim chance that anyone would suspect a kid in your family of having diabetes. People don’t think like that. After all even the resort had asked only the adults to submit their medical condition before the trip. It’s the standard procedure. Even I didn’t think about it till I found about the missing vial, accidentally, while packing our stuff. You would soon replace it neatly and properly, with correct amount left in it, and it would become a closed and watertight chapter forever. And nobody else there knew about Veer’s condition, we don’t go about advertising it, do we?”
I am done trying to stop her. Let’s play hardball, “Intresting…tell me what happened next?”
She stares at me with her characteristic determination that I admire and loath equally, ” Then, with much ingenuity, you ensured that the receptionist guy would check upon Sid within 10-15minutes, and would find him all right. Later the new insulin would start acting and he would pass into coma in his sleep. This insulin reaches it’s maximum action in about an hour or so, and acts only for about four to five hours. It can be traced in the body majorly during this time only, and that too by sophisticated tests at an advanced lab. But his body would be found only in the morning, probably quite late, and even if somebody did suspect it, there was no way those tests could be done in that remote place or even nearby. The prick of the injection also cannot be traced after that much time, would be almost invisible anyway if given with care initially. The autopsy was the only thing to look out for, and it would reveal nothing about Insulin, just- Myocardial Infarction and signs of arrhythmia- huge overdose of insulin leads to those changes in heart. Bingo! Nobody would find anything,”
I had not thought that things can be portrayed in this manner,” Neha, what are you saying? I have no idea what are you talking about,”
But it’s like she is talking to herself and I am not visible,” Even if insulin overdose was suspected, it is notoriously difficult to prove it, and requires expensive tests and high-end labs. At that remote place it would have been quite impossible to arrange for all this. Even if somebody, like Sujith, did manage to get all this done somehow, the findings could very well be explained on the basis of the fact that Siddharth was on insulin for a long time, and had taken his regular dose-that would make the result of those tests unreliable. And then you would say that you had already suspected an underlying heart attack, had even asked for E.C.G. but it wasn’t possible. The autopsy findings, circumstances and the statement of receptionist would overwhelmingly favour that. Who would not believe it? Anyway, It was a miniscule chance that it would ever come to that. His death would be labelled a ‘natural’ one. Tragic, unfortunate but entirely commonplace and routine. Thousands die like that daliy. It would have hidden the murder in plain sight. Brilliant!”
I have to admit that it is possible and believable, but can’t tell that to her, “Really? If that was my grand plan then how did he reach near the boat?”
Nothing can halt the train of her fertile imagination, “Yes, that did throw a spanner in your plan for a while, didn’t it? You must have been aghast to find him lying there on the beach. You had thought that he would be in his bed, dead. There was no way he could have been there, and that too with a rope around his neck. Of course, you had no idea about the meteor shower and his desire to call me there. But Siddharth felt absolutely good for some time, and had an impression that his ‘so called mild angina’ was cured by that time. He was a pig, and in his perverseness decided that he would go ahead with his desire to see me-alone. He had this impression that his bait of ‘once in lifetime opportunity to witness fireballs in unpolluted and clear night sky’ would work upon me. And it did, only I never went near him. But in an interesting twist as he strolled down there with his phone, he ran into poor Joy. By now, the insulin had started acting and he was feeling confused, as one does in its influence, and as Joy launched a verbal attack on him, in his mental fogginess Siddharth made derogatory remarks about Joy and his wife. As Joy hit him and coiled that rope, the arrhythmia already undergoing there rocketed and his heart went into arrest,”
“Bah! Don’t go on spewing absurdities from your mouth,”
“This is not absurd, it is the ugly truth. For a moment, after finding his body, you were at a loss to decide what should you do? Your astute mind had already seen what had happened, you knew how he took his last breath, but didn’t know why did he come out and who tried to strangulate him. Suddenly, it struck you that the fate had provided a golden chance to you- now someone else could be blamed for trying to murder him. Of course you had the foresight to see that autopsy would reveal the true cause of death, but it was no problem. The findings would remain mostly unaltered. You were safe, safer actually, your precautions to show his initial condition as the results of an ongoing myocardial infarction still stood in place. You just had to divert the attention subtlety towards them, which you could do anytime. Who would contradict you? See, how easily you have become an expert witness in this case, and now Joy has no chance. So you raised alarm. Only one thing went wrong; quite wrong. I became a suspect due to his last call on my cellphone, and my appearance in the c.c.t.v. footage. You had not bargained for it, and that has been eating you alive, hasn’t it?”
I look at her for a long time and don’t know what to say. I am shocked. Eventually I shake my head,” Why would I do it?”
Pat comes the reply,” Because you were intensely jealous of him. I have seen you going red in face while I talked to you about him, I agree that in my excitement, I could have said a lot about him. You suspected that I was falling for him and that made your blood boil. We were spending a lot of time together, and my innocent attempt to prolong the holiday was deciphered as my excuse to be with Siddharth a little longer by you, in your hot-headedness. Perhaps you had glimpsed us dancing before I rebuffed him, and your suspicion got stronger. Later in the night, you saw an opportunity to eliminate him and did just that. I know how possessive you are about me. It was a fair gamble, and chances were in your favour- thousand to one, and you took the chance,”
If she want mind games then I am not going to back off,”Hmmm ingenious…If you are so sure about my guilt then why didn’t you tell everything to Sujith? Would you let an innocent man hang?”
Her eyes are burning embers,”I…I could not have proven anything, that’s the beauty of your crime. Though I know what happened and how it transpired, I cannot do anything. And I got to know about the missing vial and syringes today afternoon only, while packing our stuff. It’s only then I started suspecting you. Besides, you are the father of my kids, I have to think about their future. But have no doubt…I am not going to stay with you anymore. You have killed a man in cold-blood! How could you resort to that?”
I somehow manage to utter,”You could have told Sujith about Veer’s juvenile diabetes, and the missing vial of insulin and syringes. Surely, he would have perused me and this theory of yours. I will tell you why you didn’t say anything, because in your heart you know that it’s a long shot– perfectly possible, I will give you that, but also highly improbable. And if this theory has a chance to stand corrected then so does my explanation of it being a cardiac event, equally…much more so, frankly,”
She bristles,” Does it? Then tell me what happened to Veer’s vial of insulin? Where did it vanish, and why haven’t you given him his regular dosage for the past two days?”
“There is a perfectly simple explanation for that – I broke the vial,”
I cannot look into her eyes,” Yes, on the morning when I discovered Sid’s body, I was very agitated and fidgety, and in my nervousness I dropped it while filling the syringe to give to Veer. It fell and shattered. You were out with kids, discussing the discovery of Sid’s body with others. I became frightened of your anger. You are very particular about it, and yes, you had told me to keep an extra vial as contingency, and I had said that there was no need, one would suffice. As you were vary of my ‘I told you so’ about Sid, so was I, about your fierce resentment, and your ‘I told you so’. This is what being married for a long time is all about. In that remote place a new one was not available. I chickened out, flushed the pieces and broke syringes, and flushed them too. I had been trying to find an excuse to visit Kanhagad in the hope of finding the particular brand that we give to Veer, but didn’t find the chance,and frankly, I was so depressed about your suspected involvement that I did not care much. I asked Veer to tell you that he was getting his injections regularly in case you enquired. He could not lie to his mother I guess. I am sorry,”
There’s an uncertain look on her face, understandably. To her mind, I am the guilty person and it won’t accept anything said in my defence easily. But then, I am glad to see that despite herself there is hint of a faint smile on her face,
“You flushed it?”
“Yes, I wasn’t thinking straight. It was a knee-jerk reaction to escape your temper, and of course we had had that fight the night before and were not talking much,”
“Nikhil, you could have told me,”
“And you could have told me that Siddharth had made a pass at you while dancing that night, but you didn’t. Look both of us did what we thought what was right under the circumstances. It was one long chain of misunderstandings and confusing events. We became so engrossed in our insecurities and doubts that we forgot there could be simpler explanations, like meteor shower and a broken vial. Each action of ours was perfectly possible, and commonplace in any married life, but taken as a whole in the uncommon circumstances of Sid’s unnatural death, our actions seemed fishy. Look, our trust in each other, and the very foundation of our relationship has been severely tested in the last few days, but I promise you it won’t occur again. I have come very close to loose you, but I won’t let you go-now or never, come what may,”
Her lips are quivering, and tears are streaming down her face. I lean towards her and she places her head upon my shoulder. My life hangs upon her next few words, I wait with baited breath as she decides,” Promise me that you will never suspect me ever. There has been no one for me but you always,”
I am stroking her hair and it feels we have fallen in love all over again,”Never,”
“What did actually happen that night in Sid’s room?”
“Exactly what I have stated. It was an underlying cardiac event, probably an attack of inferior wall M.I. presenting as gastric reflux, along with low blood sugar. Remember Suresh chacha? He had exact similar symptoms after attending a party. He phoned me and I took themlightly too. Told him to take an anti-acid. Later he collapsed and E.C.G. at the hospital revealed that it indeed was M.I. It’s not that uncommon, and he was a prime case to get it- forty six years old, a long standing diabetic, and on anabolic steroids to build his body. And that’s why I advised him strongly-to seek medical attention at a hospital. I could do nothing for him there. But once he felt better after the milk, he regained his usual boisterous confidence, and rejected my suggestion that he could be suffering from a cardiac ailment. Called it nonsense. He considered himself quite fit. Called himself a’ chicken’ for his earlier apprehensions. He was quite abrasive actually. I could not go on arguing with him. Remember I was not feeling very friendly with him either. But I am a doctor, and did my duty to advise him. I am not a murd….”
She is snoring lightly. I kiss her on the forehead. I myself am feeling drowsy. The black shadow has lifted from our lives, and now we can rest easy. I look at the kids and then at her. Came so close to loosing them. I cannot imagine a life without them, specially her. She does not know how much I love her, and appreciate her presence in my life.
She is a rare lady- gorgeous, kind-hearted and intelligent at the same time. How many husbands can say that about their wives? But my Neha is the proverbial ‘Beauty with brains’. Sometimes she surprises me with her sharp intellect, like just now when she could reconstruct correctly the events of that fateful night in such precise detail. That was frightening…..
I turned on the road leading towards my society and noticed the man immediately.
He was trudging along the side of the road with a heavy bag in each hand. There was no one else on this long stretch. I had not met a single vehicle on my way, and this was the first person I had seen on the deserted lanes that day, so I studied him with a passing intrest.
He was walking further up on the sidewalk and clearly was struggling. The way his back was bent and the manner in which he leaned towards right, presumably due to heavier weight, made it evident that going was tough for him. His bent legs seemed to buckle under the heat. It certainly was hot. The monitor of my car showed the reading as 41℃ but I knew that it would feel a whole lot more to anyone unfortunate enough to be out on the road in the dry heat of Ahmedabad, that too when the sun shone directly overhead!
Instinctively, I notched up the A.C. of the car.
On both the sides, fields were brown and the land was cracked. A lone scarecrow stood listlessly in the distance. There were no birds to ward off. The paved tarmac shimmered in the distance.
It was only the first week of May and already the dreaded winds of Loo were blowing freely on the lonely pathways and unsown stretches of land.
As my car approached him, he turned around, perhaps due to the noise of the diesel engine, and I got a glimpse of a weathered-face and a head filled with shiny-white hair.
It was at this moment that he did the unthinkable : gradually, like in slow-motion and perhaps somewhat half-heartedly, his left hand came up and I saw, as if in a dream, his thumb sticking up in the universal gesture to ask for a lift.
I froze; even in normal times I am loath to respond to this signal, and the times were very difficult indeed.
What isthat actually? A question asked when none is expected, a request submitted when it is not welcome. It forms a link, however short-lived, between two unknown persons. A bridge spanning from one human to another inside the vast sea of humanity. And it needs to be answeredtoo. Either in affirmative leading to tiresome small-talk, or in negative leading to crumpling of face and crushing of feelings.
No; I don’t like it one bit.
And so I gaped at him as my car rushed passed him, and felt his eyes bore through me with their piercing query. But those eyes had shades of other emotions too-resignation, fear and guilt.
Something in his demeanor penetrated my conscience, and I was deeply aware of the fact that if anyone ever was in the need of my help then it was this old gentleman.
I braked suddenly and the car came to a screeching halt a few paces ahead of him. I could see him in the rear-view mirror. He was as surprised by my abrupt halt as I was.
‘What am I doing? This is not the time to give an unknown person a lift in my car. What about social-distancing, and what about the police?’ I thought.
I regretted the decision to stop but having done so it would have been awkward to suddenly fly-off. I waited for him to approach.
He was in a similar dilemma it seemed. For he stood for few moments gazing towards my car as if expecting me to come out and shout at him. It was quite possible, I reckoned. Lockdown had transformed everything.
Eventually, the man shuffled towards me, and knocked on the glass of the passenger seat next to me,
” It’s ok saheb…it was a mistake, a moment of weakness. I am sorry, please go ahead towards your destination.”
My heart was thumping. How did a simple act of offering a ride-along became so complicated? It seemed I was involved in an illegal activity.
I observed him closely. His wrinkled face was suffused with perspiration. He was long, thin and lanky with a thin moustache adorning his hardened face. Clad in an old white shirt, the ends of which were flapping in the hot wind, and brown trousers, he stood before me; panting; due to the effort of carrying the weight and perhaps due to the thirst. The large plastic bags that he was carrying were filled with melons, bananas, cabbage, tomatoes, onions and many other such fruits and vegetables. If the age had to be guessed it would be around seventy.
The veins of his sweaty hands were propped up and seemed like a mighty river was traversing the plains of his forearms in a torrent of green water. Not only I could see the distributaries and rivulets, emerging from the bifurcation at the elbow, but I could name each branch individually.
“No, it’s alright…please come inside, I will drop you off to your place. It’s scorching outside, and I fear that you will pass out with the effort of carrying the weight in the heat,”
” But what about the police, saheb? It’s not allowed for more than one person to sit inside any vehicle,”
” There is no policeman in this area. We are in the outskirts of the city and strictness here is not similar to what it is inside the city,”
He stood there and gazed at me with his steely eyes.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting the virus from me?”
I flinched. Deep inside, I was petrified, but it seemed too inhuman and uncultured, if you will, to leave that elderly man alone on the road.
” Do you have fever or any other symptoms?”
” No, but I have heard that even people without any signs could carry it too,”
“Bah! If we start thinking about it in every action of our lives than life would become hell. Come on, hop in,” I was feeling unusually careless and adventurous. Five weeks of over-saturation of hearing and reading nothing but corona-related news had worn my patience and defence down.
I was cagey, irritated and bursting with revolt against the crazy world that I was living in. This simple act of giving lift to a person seemed to have become an act of madness, stupidity, anti-authority and a challenge to the system.
It was just the thing I wanted to do. Besides, what were the odds of myself being apprehended? Miniscule.
Also, to be truthful, it did seem to my trained mind that he needed help.
He started to open the door and then suddenly stopped,
” Would you mind if I sat on the back-seat? It would be better, I think, considering the circumstances,”
My alpha- male ego felt a kick. I wouldbe like his chauffer!
I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. There were merits in his suggestion. Yes, it was the prudentthing to do.
“Thank you very much,” he said while settling in the seat,” you are very generous, and a good man.”
I blushed, “It’s nothing, it’s the least that one can do for another human being,”
” Not everyone thinks like you saheb, infact this virus has brought out the worst in humans. I have never seen people so suspicious and paranoid about others in my life, and believe me I have seen a lot,”
“You are quite right,” I said while preparing to accelerate the car, ” where should I drop you off?”
” Mehfil society, Sarkhej.”
My heart gave a big thump, and inadvertently I relased the clutch too soon. The car gave a big lurch and came to a standstill.
“Sorry..” I was not able to breathe properly. There was a tightness in my chest. Sarkhej! Of all the places why did he have to live there. The bonhomie and benevolence that I was feeling few moments ago had vaporised, leaving behind a gnawing anxiety.
This see-sawing of emotions was the characteristic of lockdown. One moment I would be filled with bravado and recklessness, and in another second I would be in throes of uncertainty and deep nervousness. Life was coming apart at seams, and my sanity was getting unhinged.
The tumult of my heart must have been reflected on my face, that was visible to my co-passenger in the rear-view mirror, because he exclaimed hurriedly,
” Don’t worry my name is not Imran or Abdul or any such name; I am Bhanwar singh,”
I was instantly ashamed of myself, then relieved, and then deeply ashamed of my relief.
“No..No, it’s not that, I thought that Sarkhej was under curfew,” I lied, but it was important for me to impress upon him that I was not that kind of a person, and truly I was not. But the world had gone topsy-turvy. I did not know what to believe and who to believe anymore.
“Hmmm…” a knowing smile played upon his face,” it’s not your fault. This virus is nothing against the might of virus of hatred that is seated in the depths of everyone’s mind. That’s why I did not ask your name. It instantly divides us. The pandemic has only exposed the rift that was already present. My heart aches when people, mostly youngsters who have not seen the world and have not faced the realities, spew venom against a community so casually and with impunity. I have a lot of Muslim friends, in fact in this troubled time it’s only because of my dear friend Wasim that I have been able to sustain myself,”
I felt a wave of compassion and gratitude towards this wise old man. He certainly seemed to have his bearings, and it was a big thing in the ugly world of lockdown.
” Quite true Bhanwar ji, though I must tell you that I too am one of you…I mean, we all are one.. but..but…”
“It’s ok saheb..I understand, don’t feel bad for yourself. You are young but I can see that you are a man of depth who is trying to remain true to his principles even in the face of this storm. The fact that you halted for me, and did not kick me out even when I told you my destination, tells me a lot about your character.”
A warm feeling of satisfaction and gratification descended upon me like a soft cloud. By now we were cruising along at a comfortable speed. I thought that how great it was that I decided to offer this gentleman a lift. If I would have rushed past I would have deprived myself an opportunity to meet a wise man, and more so, an opportunity to know that there were others in the society, at different levels and different strata that have not been swept away by the tide of phobia and hatred raging in the country.
“Here, have a go,” I offered the bottle of water that was been lying near me.
He stated at it hesitantly, unsure whether to take it or not.
“Don’t worry, keep it with you,”
He gulped the cool water and let out a sigh of ecstasy, “Heavenly, I was dying to have a sip of cool water,”
“Why are you out in this damned heat anyway?”
” I had to take this stuff. From tomorrow perhaps Sarkhej is going to be under curfew, even right now there is a lot of security there. This is from the Wasim’s field. He is distributing it locally as transport is blocked and his crop will decay. Of course for me it’s free. I got a message from him yesterday night, so I walked early in the morning to his field nearby. But it got afternoon by the time everything was sorted out,”
“You mean you walked from Sarkhej! It’s quite a distance. But why? Don’t you have a vehicle or anyone else to help you out? And why didn’t you buy all this near you, I am sure there are few vendors selling fruits and vegetables there,”
He remained silent for a few moments and kept staring out of the window. I felt that I had trespassed an unsaid boundary. It was none of my business.
” I am sorry, I did not mean to be over-inquisitive. Its Just that watching you walk alone in this dreadful temperature made me curious,”
“No..No saheb, it’s not that. I was too over-whelmed with emotions for a moment there,”
“Why? What has happened with you?” I was very much intrigued now.
” I have been left all alone in this difficult time without money and no means to fend for myself, and the people who I thought as my own have turned against me,”
” How come? Where is your family?”
Bhanwar singh seemingly hesitated before speaking softly,” They all are at Civil hospital. All of them-my wife, son and daughter-in-law.”
“Civil? Why?” I was getting anxious again. Who was this man? What was he hiding? Something did not feel right.
” They all tested positive for Corona and were taken to the Civil hospital by the authorities. Infact, my wife is fighting for her life right now. And I was barred from entering my society after that. All my money, my scooter and important papers are lying at our residence but I am unable to access them,”
I nearly got a heart attack while listening to him. In my panic I missed a speed-breaker, and the car went flying over it with a severe thud, “Ouch!” cried Bhanwar singh from the rear seat as his head struck the roof.
“Sorry..” I was unable to speak anything else.
‘There is a direct contact of positivepatients with you in your car!’ my conscience whispered to me. ‘Whathave you done!’
Nobody spoke for some time. Tension was palpable in the car. He was looking at me, perhaps, to gauge my reaction, and I was hyperventilating, as if there was a sinister criminal in my car.
My mind was blocked. I could not decide the next action.’ Should I askhim to get out of the car?‘ I threw this question at my alter-ego and received the confused response, as always- ‘Perhaps yes, but won’t that look awful? But you should not take the risk. But what does it matter now, already you have been in his contact for some time now and shortly you will reach his society…Just don’t tell your wife about it,”
I shuddered to imagine what would happen if Ritika came to know about this. She would fly-off the handle totally.
“Don’t be afraid saheb, I did not come into their contact for a long time before they were taken to the hospital,” said Bhanwar eventually.
“Hugh! What… How?”
” I had been to Dungarpur, our native, for about a month before the lockdown to tend to our ancestral house, and also to maintain and cut the mango crop that was getting ready in the small piece of land that we have there. I rushed to Ahmedabad on the evening when the lockdown was suddenly announced that evening. What a journey that was! The borders were sealed and I hid in a cargo truck after bribing the driver,”
I listened to him riveted.
” But as I reached my colony in the dead of the night, it’s in Manipur gaam, I got the news that an hour ago my wife, son and his wife had been taken away by the authorities to the civil. My son works as a porter at the airport, and his sample had been taken as a routine check a couple of days before that fateful night. When it turned out to be positive, immediately the civic bodies descended upon our home and took all of them without any warning. No time was given to them to prepare for the near future. Such was the hysteria in our society that all other members were baying for their blood, as if they had done a crime. Our neighbours, friends and companions of years had suddenly turned our enemies. They saw my family as a threat-grave and immediate threat,” there was a catch in his voice as he recalled the events.
“I am very sorry to hear that. You must have been very disturbed by the way things turned out,”
“I was devastated. But more than the disease I was hurt by the manner in which the committee members and my landlord behaved. I was barely absorbing the news of deportation of my family, standing there at the entrance gate in the middle of the night, when I got to know that we have been evicted from our house by the landlord, and that our house was sealed and nobody was allowed to go inside- not even I! They did not believe me that I had not come in my family’s contact for the last few weeks. They did not want anything to do with me. Just wished me to disappear away from their eyes-that was all,”
“But that is illegal and very unfair! Why didn’t you go to police or higher authorities?” I bristled with anger.
” We are poor and small people saheb, who would listen to me? Besides I was very afraid and confused. I ran to civil after that but was not allowed to meet my family. Doctors are living gods, and are doing a wonderful service in this time, but the situation at the hospital is very grave and disorderly. Though, they tested me too after I informed them of my relation to the recently brought family. That test came out negative later on. I would not have endangered your life by sitting in your car otherwise, trust me.”
I was much relieved to hear that and felt deep sympathy for him,” How is your family doing now, and where have you been living since then?”
“My son and daughter-in-law are fine. They are young and will come out of it, but my wife is serious. My son calls me on my mobile once a day from hospital. I have no balance in my mobile, and very less money in my pocket to recharge it. I have not gone to the hospital after that night. What is the point? Wasim had a spare one room apartment at Sarkhej, and he offered that to me to live-in till everything becomes all right,”
” Oh..That was kind and very thoughtful of him,”
“Yes. Isn’t it ironic that when the need arose, the people of my own neighborhood deserted me; majority are from my own caste only, and belong to Dungarpur and other regions of rajasthan; and a Gujarati muslim stepped up to lend me a helping hand. Not only that, other residents of Mehfil society have also accepted me despite knowing the history. Though they are maintaining a distance but daily I find a thali of food in front of the door and a jug full of water. The real religion is humanity saheb. Only problem is that it’s very rare to be found, and only appears in the most unexpected of the places,” said Bhanwar singh while wiping a tear.
My heart was filled with a glow of warmth spreading all over my body. I felt a strong connection with this man who had been a complete stranger to me ten minutes ago, and now seemed like a member of my family. An old and wise elderly whose proximity always benefits one, either by his benedictions or by the wise counsel. I found that the cobwebs in my head were getting cleared- It is so simple! Just be humane and have no bias against anyone.
‘How strange this world is! One minute you are about to pass a man on the road, and in another you are immersed neck-deep in his story.’ I thought
“Bhanwar singhji, though you are elder to me and much wiser, but still I want to tell you that do not worry, everything will be all right- as before, and you have a friend in me,”
” Thank you…I know saheb. I haveseena lot of hardship in my life and know that like every difficulty this time shall pass too, I just wish to remain healthy to be able to see my wife and children return to me,”
I laughed softly,” Don’t worry you are strong as a horse. Nothing will happen to you, and god forbid, if it does then come to me. I will get you treated at my hospital free of cost,”
There was a sound of deep breath being sucked from the rear seat,
‘ Are you a doctor?”
“Yes,” I smiled in anticipation of his kind words, “I am Dr. Vivek sharma and was returning from the hospital only when I picked you up. The hospital was quite nearby. It’s in Ghuma, near the bus stand. I am a senior orthopedic surgeon…”
“Stop the car right now!”
I was startled, and the car nearly ran into a cow that was standing on one side of the road, chewing it’s cud meditatively.
With some effort I brought the car under control and halted. As I turned toward the back I found him completely transformed. The face was flush red with anger and the veins of his neck were dancing menacingly. There was murder in his blood-shot eyes.
“Are you out of your mind! You are a doctor and you gave me lift in your car..are you insane? Or are you deliberately trying to spread the virus?”
“It’s people like you who are spreading it all over the country..look what happened in Bhilawara. You should be put behind bars. You are going to the hospital daily and coming in contact with people carrying it, yet you decided and dared to make sit in your car! Ram..Ram…What will happen now?”
“But…listen to me..Why are you..”
” I have been taking so much care of myself. If they would not have barred me from entering my house, I myself would not have entered it! And why do you think I am not visiting civil hospital? To protect myself! And here you come along and take me with you in this filthy car of yours…”
With these acidic words he opened the door with so much violence that I feared that it would come off.
I saw him get out and literally jump a few metres away from the car, then he turned, spat at the ground while cursing me, and then whirled around and stomped off, muttering under the breath, with a determination, zeal and speed that I have never seen in a man of that age walking with weights in his hands……
All right, let me confess right in the beginning that I dig books about wars, specially the Second world war. Not only books but also movies, but we will talk about the books here.
There is something about such books that is too endearing, and too heartwarming and heart- wrenching at the same time, that compels one to finish them in one sitting. Certainly, a good war-book is un-put-downable, if there is a word like that🙂
The pathos, the struggles, the heart breaks, unlikely romances, instances of bravery, demonstrations of humanity and expressions of iron will are far too common in a war, and agonizingly lacking in our day to day life.
Thus, a well written book about a war has the unimaginable power to transport the reader from his or her mundane life to those war fields, those trenches, those households and prisons where strange coincidences are taking place, unlikely permutations and combinations of circumstances are happening, where people are dying at the blink of an eye but others are surviving despite insurmountable odds. A surreal universe where there are improbable twists in the tale leading to severe heart breaks and ‘one in million’ chances delivering salvation to torn-apart lovers.
Yes; it’s a magical word woven by a capable author and indeed such stories were common in the days of great wars, and these books, that I am going to enumerate, must have had their seeds sown in a true story that occurred somewhere in a small part of this globe during those horrifying days.
It gives me goosebumps to think that such stories might be unfolding at this very moment all over the world as we fight the war against Corona virus.
Being an Orthopedic surgeon I have been relegated to the sidelines of this deadly war, but my wife and other colleagues are at the forefront.
This is a tribute as well as my salute to health workers and all others who are in the first line of defence and are facing the fire right now.
So here is a list of some books about wars that I have read over the years, and have loved and cherished:-
1) The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje- This magnificent novel centres around four different type of people brought together in an Italian villa in World war 2 – a severely burnt man, presumed English, a Canadian girl nursing him, a young sikh british soldier and a thief. The story centres around the North African and Italian campaign of world war two and it’s effects on these people. The writing is superb and I often say that it is poetry in the form of prose. The book won Booker prize in 1992 and the prestigious Golden Booker prize in 2018. Absolutely brilliant!
2) A Farewell to arms by Ernest Hemingway:- When it comes to writing about war there is no one better than Hemingway. This book deals with the love story of an American working as a lieutenant in the ambulance corps in Italian army, and a british nurse, who takes care of the lieutenant when he is injured in the world war 1. This book established Hemingway as a prominent writer and is a wonderful romantic story. It’s semi-autobiographical as Hemingway himself served as a soldier in world war 1 in Italy.
3) The Narrow road to deep north by Richard Flangan- This haunting novel describes the horrors suffered by the Prisoners of war at the hands of Japanese during the construction of Burma Railway. The Burma railway is known as -‘Death railway’ in history, as the soldiers were treated extremely cruelly by the Japanese and human experiments were done upon them. The book tracks the life of sn Australian doctor who is captured by japan and sent to Burma. Very sad but true. It won Booker prize in 2014.
4) All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr- If ever there was a book that made war look beautiful then it is this one. The setting is German occupied France and main protagonist are- a German boy whose technical efficiency leads to his rapid rise in Nazi Germany; and a blind french girl who, despite her handicap, strives to gain knowledge and spread it through radio transmission, which is considered as treason. Eventually their paths cross in a small french town while the war is raging around them. The boy saves her life as he finds himself falling in love with her. There is a subplot of a famous diamond. When I read the book I was hugely impressed by the writing-it was splendid. The canvass here is vast and the author has painted a fabulous world over it.
5) For Whom the bell tolls by Ernest Hemingway- Here is another gem by Hemingway. Regarded as one of his best works, the book deals with the brutality of Spanish civil war(1936-39) through the eyes of Robert Jordan, an American volunteer fighting as a dynamiter for spanish guerillas from the Republican side against fascist forces. The story revolves around an incident when Robert is assigned to blow a vital bridge. Terse, powerful and ‘ To the point’ in typical Hemingway style, the book was based on Hemingway’s personal experiences as a reporter on the front line during the Spanish civil war.
6) Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières:- This very famous book at its heart is a love story, but also depicts the horrors of the war exquisitely. Set in the Greek island of Cephalonia during Italian and German occupation in second world war. An unusual love story develops between an Italian captain, who is also a mandolin player, and a beautiful and well read Greek girl of the island. Written in an unorthodox way the book manages to delight everyone who embarks upon its reading.
7)TheZone of Intrest by Martin Amis- My mind was blown away by this novel. Not only the plot is unique but the characterisation is brilliant. Set in Auschwitz, the concentration camp where millions of jews were terminated by Nazis in second world war.The story deals with an officer in Nazi forces who is enamoured by the commandent’s wife, and his eventual treason towards Hitler. Told from the point of view of three characters-the officer, the commandment and a jew who is in charge of disposing the bodies of other Jews, the book has a refreshing and a new angle on Holocaust i.e. from the other side- from the point of view of Nazis. Highly recommended.
8) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak- I can easily claim that this book can melt the hearts of the most hardened men. This international bestseller’s story is narrated by -Death itself, and tracks the life of a German girl growing up in Nazi germany and her attempts to save the books, by stealing them, which have been marked by the regime for destruction. She also writes a manuscript for posterity but it is destroyed by Nazis. A heart breaking but poignant and beautiful story, it should not be missed.
So these are some of the novels that I thought would intrest the lovers of fiction in these troubled times.
These are available as e-books on various apps like Any books, Amazon Kindle, Play books etc.
Of course there are tons of great books on war but I have included only those which I have read and enjoyed. Please excuse me if any prominent book is missing here. The readers are most welcome to suggest and add more names to the list.
I am contacting you, O! Wise reader after some time; and what desperate and dangerous times are these!
Death is in the air and we are abound with worry, fear and overwhelming reporting, both true and false, about Corona scare.
As the house becomes claustrophobic and the dreams of that golden summer vacation are being buried, I thought if one can’t step of the home physically, atleast one can travel around the world digitally and magically through the world of books.
Yes, books have the power to instantly transport us to any corner of this fascinating planet, and even beyond.
So here is list of books that I have loved and would recommend everyone to read in this time.
All these books are either much loved travel accounts or unbelievable real-life adventures that will leave you on the edge of your couch.
These books are available as e-books on apps like Anybooks (free) or Amazon Kindle app, Play books app, Kobo app etc.( paid).
So, sit back, hold the armrest of your couch tightly and fly along with me to distant parts of the earth…
1) InXanaduby William Dalrymple :- If there is any book about travel that has made me want to chuck my job and to travel with gay abandon, then it is this book, which made what Dalrymple is today – a famous and respected author. It is an interesting, humorous and amazing account of his endeavor to repeat Marco polo’s iconic journey from Jerusalem to Xanadu in inner Mongolia (china) in 13th century. Xanadu was then the capital of Kubla khan, the grandson of Chengis khan. It’s a ruin now and Dalrymple, young and just out of the college, made this epic journey with a female friend. Together they crossed nations like Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan! And met different cultures, delays, red tape and unexpected events…If only my life could be likethis.
2) The worst journey of the worldby Apsley cherry-garrard:- This masterpiece of real life adventure deals with the true and personal account of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition lead by Captain Robert Scott from 1910-1913, in an attempt to reach south pole for the first time. Cherry-garrard was the youngest crew member and writes from the heart about the life on the ship and later of hardships on the white continent of Antarctica. Everything was going fine, except Roald Amundsen cut through the chase. Scott was forced to go fast and ultimately he and four others died in a blizzard just 11 miles from the depot where Cherry-Garrard and others waited for them. Also, they died with the knowledge that Amundsen had beaten them to become the first man to reach south pole. Read it to know about the great age of exploration of poles of the earth. It’s a tale of adventure, of exploration, of grit and of loss.
3) Turn Right at Machu-picchu by Mark Adams :- All right, I am fascinated by Machu-Picchu, well who isn’t? One of these days I am going to be there, till then though, I burrowed into this delightful book that has two stories running parallel – one describes the events that happened when in 1911 Hiran Bingham discovered Machu-Picchu and the world was dazzled, he became a superstar an the discovery was exalted as rhe most important of the century; however both – the importance of Machu-picchu in Inca history and Bingham’s stature has taken a downward toll since then; and the second story is of Mark’s own attempt to emulate Bingham’s steps to this site. Mark, a newspaper editor decides one day to do this the hard way – to go through the original Inca trail to Machu-Pichu and hires an experienced guide- John. What happens next is hilarious and is very well written by Mark. An absolute joy for the lovers of travel, history and reading.
4) Into Thin Air by John Krakauer :- Rise to the dazzling heights of Mount Everest along with this book, that is a personal account of Krakauer of the disaster that struck on Everest in May 1996 when eight climbers perished, among them were – Rob hall, the famous climber and expedition guide and Scott Fischer, another Everest guide. What went wrong? Who was to be blamed? Had it become a race and Everest a commercial playground? These concerns are true in today’s time too, but they were first raised by Krakauer through this book, which makes your adrenaline rush. The mountain is described exquisitely and it’s dangers are narrated beautifully, of course Krakaeur was himself present there as the events unfolded.
5) A short walk in the Hindukush by Eric Newby :- It’s 1956 and Eric Newby is itching to leave his job in fashion and explore world, so what does he do? – he resigns, take a diplomat friend along and together they attempt to go to a place where very few have gone and climb a mountain that nobody has done, it does not matter that they have no previous climbing experience and do it! Yes this is what exactly happened and Eric Newby went on to become one of the most reverred travel writer of Britain – What an adventure and what a life! Yes this is all true and this book is the account of that life changing adventure, troubles and events. The region was – Nuristan (previously Kafiristan) province of Afghanistan, an unexplored region even today and the mountain was – Mir Samir, a tall peak in the Hindukush mountains. A book not to be missed by travel aficionados.
6) KonTiki by Thor Heyerdahl :- There is a reason that there is a Kontiki museum in Norway and Thor Heyerdahl is a legend there and the reason is – how many people you can name who built a primitive raft of tree wood and set sail in it across 8000kms in Pacific ocean just to prove a theory? Well there is only one and that is Thor, an adventurer and ethnographer in his own right. In 1947, he and five other like- minded fellows built a primitive raft of Balsa wood, based on account of old texts and stories, and set sail from Peru to Tuamotu island in French Polynesia braving the mighty pacific, storms, hunger and even whale sharks to prove Thor’s theory that French Polynesia was colonised by people sailing from South America in such rafts thousands of years ago; and not from Asia as thought. Though, the theory could not be proved, this adventure caught everyone’s attention in the world and this book is a riveting account of that epic journey.
7) Don’t Go there by Adam Fletcher :- There is matter and there is anti- matter, there is climax and anti-climax. This book is antithesis of travelling as here the author chooses, deliberately, to travel to those places of the world where nobody would normally go. This is a hilarious book and the writing is superb and laced with British humour. Adam travels along with his eccentric girlfriend Annette to North Korea then to Chernobyl and to Moldova and what not. It is his attempt to understand himself, his relation with his girlfriend and the world and we say – Bravo!
8) The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd :- This one chronicle a very important piece of Australia’s history – The Burke-Wills expedition. Turn back to 1860 when most of the Australia’s population lived around the coast and that too majorly in South. Nobody knew what lay at the centre of the continent – was there an ocean there or a scorching desert? An expedition was launched to find out under the leadership of Robert Burke and his able deputy William wills. It is said that Burke was ill suited for it and expedition poorly equipped, and as the the time would tell that the 19 men on it suffered immensely in the hot Australian outback. But despite all odds they crossed the Australian continent for the first time in history and covered a distance of 3200 kms. The book gives accurate description of their adventures and interactions with the Aborigines. Unfortunately both Burke and Wills perished in the end due to thirst and hunger. A very good read I would say.
9) Touching The void by Joe Simpson :- It is perhaps one of the best survival stories ever told and proves that man can achieve the impossible when the situation demands. It tells the true story of Joe Simpson’s story when in 1985 he fell into a crevice on the 20000 feet high Peruvian mountain Siuala grande after breaking his leg during the climb with his partner Simon Yates. After joe breaks his leg, Simon helps him for some time but at one turn he falls off the edge and Simon finds himself in a situation when he has to decide whether he would save his friend or die with him. With a heavy heart he cuts the rope and Joe falls off the mountain. Thinking that joe has died Simon returns alone to the base camp and decides to wait for 3 days. Meanwhile, Joe falls 150 feet into a crevice and survives. Then begins the ultimate survival story…Joe climbs out of the crevice and crawls down the face of the mountain for three days and three nights with the broken leg and no food and water, and reaches the base camp in near- death condition just hours before Simon leaves. This story is of grit, determination and friendship. What would you do? Would you cut the rope? Joe has said repeatedly since then that he doesn’t hold Simon guilty and would have done the same.
10) Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen :- Enter the world of 1500’s and the two naval superpowers of the world – Spain and Portugal- are in a contest for supremacy. This is the Tale of the first circumnavigation of the earth by Ferdinand Magellan and his crew from 1519-1522. The ultimate travel story leads one to that era. Magellan was given the commission by the king of Spain to find a westward route I.e. through American continent to reach the spice islands of East indies ( today’s Moluccan islands of Indonesia) for trade. Magellan started confidently, there was only one problem though -Pacific ocean. Yes; nobody knew that it existed! This voyage lead the humanity to know for the first time about the true dimensions of Pacific ocean and the earth itself. This is a great story filled with rebellion, difficult conditions and death of Magellan in Philippines. Ultimately, just 19 men returned to Spain but what they did changed history forever.
So these are my best picks about travel and real life adventure. Hope the reader would like this list and embark on a journey of the world from his or her couch.
Noticed him the moment I handed the first chaddar of the day about ten minutes back. Could not have missed him even if he would not have chosen that part of the pavement to sit down eventually. That man stood apart in the crowd. The way he was moving – ambling along the alley, in front of my shop, and peering at the houses and the shops in a queer manner; as if trying to remember something. His eyes were scanning evey aspect of the narrow and congested streets deeply. Quite slow and very different from the fast moving horde of tourists going towards Dargah sharif purposefully.
Don’t know why but got a queer feeling from the start. An intuition, a vibe, that he had something to do with me. And it only grew stronger when he came to a stop, roughly diagonal in front of the shop, across the street, and peered in this direction and the small street going inside towards Kayastha Mohalla.
It was unsettling, the way his eyes lingered upon me. Could feel my heart sinking as he sat slowly, as if in a trance, on the dirty pavement there. He hasn’t moved a muscle since then, and I too have become immobile, struck down by apprehension and curiosity.
Come on! Get a grip on yourself!
Cannot place him- haven’t seen this man ever, of that I am sure. Also can’t place him otherwise- means in the established boundaries and patterns of humanity. Normally I am able to assess a person quite soon and can identify from which strata of society he or she belongs and the purpose of that person’s visit to Dargah Sharif; to really bow down in front of Khwaja sahab or merely to have a look at the famous shrine while on a visit to Ajmer.
These eyes have seen a lot of changes and countless pilgrims on these roads over the years; yet; they cannot decipher this man.
It is clear that he does not want to visit Dargah sharif but what is mystifying is that he isn’t venturing towards the nearby hindu areas of Kayastha mohalla and Beejasan Mata temple either. He is just sitting and staring- at thestreet.
Need to examine him more closely to obtain a clue. All right, age- about fortyish may be. Dressing- clad in a bright yellow T-shirt and a jeans, the belly protruding enough from the T-shirt to belie his wish to portray him as a supremely fit man. The complexion is fair and he might have been handsome once in his youth.
Ok, body language now-shoulders are hunched, hands folded in lap where they are writhing and lines of anxiety on the face. Don’t know why but he seems a well-bred and a well – behaved man, polite to the point of fault, to my mind. There is a certain restrain in his body language, a reservedness that exposes his nature to be that of an introvert person.
It is evident that he is battling some stress. Tension is palpable in his eyes and it is tearing him apart internally.
But why in the name of Allah is he sitting there and staring towards my direction!
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My sight fell upon Imran bhai and I was too shocked to look away. Think I stared for too long so as to make him suspicious. My steely gaze has unnerved him because I can see him fidgeting. He is trying to figure me out, and no doubt he would soon stumble upon the correct conclusion. Guilt has the uncanny ability to refresh the memories of the crime in perpetrator’s heart with a lightening speed. Whether he acknowledges it or not is another matter.
To disturb him or confront him is not my intention, I am here to face myself. But the sight of him sitting there on the same wooden plank of that very shop, after so many years, gave me such a chill that I could not look away, and froze.
It’s as if time has stopped for him, and for his shanty of a shop. Seems like he has been squatting there and selling those baskets of flowers and chaddars for Dargah Sharif since eternity.
He has not changed one bit! Should be above fifty now but looks exactly like he did a quarter of a century ago.
The trademark brown Pathani suit, the white round cap on his head, the unique style of his posture- one leg dangling down from the platform and other one pressed beneath the other thigh…Hmmm…If it weren’t for few white strands in his hair, here and there, the whole scene could be from early 90’s. Must have seen him, just like this, countless number of times on my trips to the school from our house.
But the same cannot be said about our family, certainly not. We have aged and moved on. Perhaps we have moved on too far. Otherwise how is it possible that I have not met Sumit for the last two years? I suppose it is difficult-logistically. Me being in Dubai and Sumit in Singapore. And no doubt Papa’s death two years ago have left us unhinged. Still, brothers should meet once in a while, shouldn’t they?
It’s like whole family has been scattered and the past forgotten.
The past that contained Rajiv chacha, my dear friend Nadeem, his father and Shenaz has been buried under the bulky layers of years, events, preoccupations, responsibilities and the present; ever- engaging present, fast- moving present and ‘ won’t let you breath for a moment’ present.
It could not have remained buried deep in my heart forever though. Not possible. Past has this tendency to sneak upon one when that person least suspects it. Like it did today to me in the morning. Got a tremendous shock while reading those headlines. A shock that emanates through frightful revision of old memories; ugly, deadly and monstrous.
‘ Delhi burns:- over 27 killedinHindu-Muslim riots.’
‘ Fourteen bodies recovered indrains;national capital simmers.’
‘ Father steps out to get milk and neverreturns; four year old son awaits for him.’
How can everything still be the same? Same hatred, same divide in the society, same biases in the minds and same regrettable turn of events.The victims and perpetrators might have changed; the crimes and the sorrows have remained the same. The dead bodies could be different; the destruction they leave behind in the lives of their loved ones has remained, unalterably and regretfully, the same.
The feeling of Deja vu was so strong and ugly that it was beautiful, like a grotesque painting that shines due to its absurdity.
How ironic it is that I should have read those headlines today, when for once, I was at Ajmer, alone. Perhaps it was fate that conspired to bring me here on the pretext of the deal to sell the house.
Could not have overlooked the pull of this place after that- strong, magnetic and unrelenting; no. It is similar to the fascination that a haunted house holds over a kid. And it’s not like I have not given a thought of visiting these lanes ever in the past. On the contrary it has played upon my mind too often. One cannot run from one’s past forever, and today finally I could overcome the hitch, and so-what now?
Everything looks just as it was back then. Narrow congested streets, hordes of people thronging the streets and creating chaos by their haphazard movements, cows strolling on the roads, loud music playing from the shops and vendors selling souvenirs in the streets.
It does not feel that 27 years have gone by.
Dargah Sharif’s faint outline is visible in the distance. Opposite, the street bifurcates from the main road and goes into the bowels of the old city, twisting and turning, like a small tributary of a great river, and is lined by concrete jungle instead of a rainforest. To my mind there is no doubt that I can reach here in the dead of the night, everything is so familiar- shops, guest houses, petty restaurants and the mouth of the bifurcation of that street-adorned by Gulzar guest house on end and by Imran Bhai’s shop on the other one.
How easy it would be to get up this very moment and walk briskly on that street and then turn on the many small turns to reach our old house located near Beejasan mata temple. It’s so near, a few hundred metres down the road. Barely a five minutes walk.
But I am unable to gather the strength to enter that street- that tortuous labyrinth filled with familiar landmarks. I cannot…
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Who is he? What does he want? What is his deal?
I cannot pin him down.
Why is he sitting there and staring at the street adjacent to my shop?
It has been so long that he has been sitting there; mouth slightly open, pensive eyes, panting for breath, hunched shoulders and a ruffled demeanour.
Hope he is not having a heart attack or some other medical emergency.
Should I go and check upon him?
But… it does not seem that he is suffering from a heart attack, rather it seems to me that he is a ailing from the stress of old memories; yes, that’swhat it is. He is definitely revisiting his painful past. Some tragic event has occurred there on that street and he is struck down by that memory.
He has that faraway look that dawns upon a person’s face while walking down the memory lane.
But what could it be?
Nothing has happened here in the recent past, infact apart from the violence of ’92 there has never been any other untoward incident…
Wait a minute!
Could it be so?
Ya Allah! Could this be that boy?
Allah! Please let be this that boy..No! Allah please let it not be him…I cannot face him.
He seems to be of right age. If that boy would have survived that fateful night he would be approximately of this man’s age today; and the look that he gave me a while back- that knowing and disdainful look; full of hurt and hate; it sent shivers down my back.
Why would I feel the way I felt if it would not have been for some connection that we have had in the past? Vibrations of that past are not only tormenting him but they have stirred something inside me too.
Still don’t know what got over me that night. Why did I behave like I did. But the whole atmosphere was filled with hatred! There were no rules, no precedents for such a situation.
It is not an excuse, and given a chance I would go back in time and correct my mistake, but it’s not possible. Haven’t I tried to do the next best thing possible – to be a good man, a better man since then? My Allah knows this. Isn’t it enough?
Then why this humiliation? This examination. Am I supposed to go down to him and apologise in front of everyone?
What if he is that boy who has now grown up! I am under no obligation to apologize to him. It has been so long! I can behave normally as if nothing has happened, as if I don’t remember anything or better still, that past does not bother me.
But his eyes!.. They are tormenting me.
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Imran bhai has definitely recognised me. He has that guilty expression on his face. Can see him clearly from here. He has gone visibly pale. But I have no desire to confront him. My wish is to revisit those days and in particular-that night. Though nothing good can come out of it, cannot stop now.
I don’t place Imran bhai guilty, or at least the most guilty. There were crimes committed by both the sides. If anything, Imran Bhai’s sin was less sinister than the heinous crimes done by other people of the two communities.
Hugh! Why did things turn out like the way they did? Why did the peace and harmony of this area got shattered in a single day?
Was the unity and harmony that was evident everywhere between hindus and muslims, living here for centuries, fake? Was it just an act?
Well, it did not seem like that back then. The trust and love was real, at least that was my perception. And weren’t we all told the heartwarming stories of co-operation between the two communities in times of need by our elders? Was it all false?
If there were any cracks in the wall of unity they certainly were not visible to me and other kids, of this I am quite sure. The adults must have masked their apprehensions well because life ran smoothly till the day catastrophe struck and everything changed.
That’s why my memories are neatly divided into two halves – before 6th december 1992 and after it. As if my life has been perfectly cut into two by a sharp knife. Earlier half was like being in paradise; carefree, buoyant, bright, filled with laughter and innocence of childhood. The latter half is dull and mechanical; heavy with lethargy, half-heartedness, responsibilities, anxieties and monotonous grind of life.
From the earlier half I miss Nadeem the most. How I miss him! My bosom friend. It has been so long that his face has started fading from my memory. The outline of the building in which he used to live on the ground floor is visible from here, it is unchanged. Undoubtedly, the fact that he used to live quite near to my own home, and his father too worked for railways, like Papa, played it’s part in cementing the friendship between us, and between our families in the initial days.
Can’t forget his vivaciousness and exuberance that starkly contrasted my shyness. It’s evident to me now that why, I, a timid, tongue- tied kid trying to deal with the dawn of teenage and not doing a good job at it, got pulled towards him–because opposites attract.
In hindsight, it seems, that our friendship was perfectly balanced. We complimented each other pretty well. His ease with the world and my awkwardness, his boldness and my reclusiveness, his carelessness with studies and my brilliance, his excellence at everything else and my dimness – we were in perfect equilibrium. No competition, no jealousy and no desire to outdo the other one.
What a loner I was before Nadeem came into my life. Could not converse with anyone, and was unable to break the ice. And even today nobody would label me as social. A friendship like that happens rarely in life.
These myriad lanes were our world, our playground. How happy were we in those days! Running from one gully to another to reach each other’s house in an eye’s blink in the evening to play cricket or exchange comics, that too after being together throughout the day at school. Inseparables-that’s whatothers used to call us.
Suddenly, I am unable to breath. Am hyperventilating. The rush of those memories has left me breathless and the pain is choking me…
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My heart was beating so fast a minute ago and how did I sweat! Perhaps he noticed it. But his unexpected emergence out of the dark shadows of the past left me overwhelmed for a while there.
‘But now that you have got a grip on yourself, don’t let your weakness show,’ the voice in my head says that and I agree.
I wonder, what is his aim? He has not done anything for so long now, except sitting there and staring ahead as if he has been hypnotised by the echoes of the tragedy.
Unusual as it might seem, but I am getting a feel that he does not want to confront me. There is no need to be alarmed.
From here it seems he is gasping. That is understandable. Today, after the appearance of this man, I too am finding myself flowing along the tide of memories, and it’s not a bad thing either. My heart has closed the door upon those ugly events for so long now, that it would liberating to go down that lane for once. Perhaps I would learn something about myself. Even if it amounts to be cross-examined by my own conscience.
Yes, I must do it today, before I stand in Allah’s court some day.
I miss those earlier days, before that calamity, when there was real bonding with each other. When in the congested lane of my house were residences of Sindhis, jains and Mathurs.
Everything is different now. Of course, on the surface all is calm, but there is a lot of restlessness in the deep. The trust and the camaraderie that we had, is long gone. It has been replaced by a fake politeness. We go along playing the charade of being good to each other, but everyone knows that it’s just play-acting. We smile at them and in return they beam at us patronisingly, but behind that smile is hatred; pure and raw.
Slowly but steadily both hindus and muslims have got themselves congregated. They have moved out of this area and got settled at the other end of the city; the newer one and the fashionable one. While we have been quietly buying all the properties around Dargah over the years. It’s like battle lines have been drawn and borders have been marked, and isn’t this a war? Cold war at its best.
Oh! What a fool am I …on one hand I am reminiscing about the golden old days of solidarity, and on the other, am categorising people subconsciously as – ‘We’ and ‘They’. Its strange, how human mind works- it craves to compartmentalise people into such categories.
How did this happen? It certainly was not so when I was growing up. There was no animosity here even when there were problems in other parts of the country like U.P. But it all changed that year when Babri Masjid was demolished. It was too great a shock, too big an assault to overlook.
I can only remember those days through a haze of resentment and uncertainty. It would amount to lying to myself to say that I wasn’t worried.
There was a lot of anger brewing in people here. At first nobody believed that it would be done, including myself. In the weeks preceding the unfortunate incident I regarded the growing rhetoric by the politicians as just that – rhetoric.
But as people started to gather at Ayodhya, the sense of unease grew. Still, for the life of me, I could not believe that it would come to fruition. That matter had been going on for ages and the general consensus was that it was much ado about nothing. And it was my opinion too. The mosque was an unused one, hardly important; the perpetrator of the alleged crime of breaking down the alleged temple had been in grave for almost four and a half centuries, and people had been worshipping Rama for thousands of years without whining to find the exact spot of his birth.
I mean how did it matter? All right, it might have mattered to some, but was it so important that the feelings of millions of muslims had to be crushed?
Of course, they asked us this question – ‘If that mosque is not that important then why not to demolish it and let atemple be built there? What about the feelings of hindus?’
I, for one, had no answer. That is where everything falls apart of course. One thinks that the other community should let go and the other community thinks exactly the same way.
Which side was right? Which one was wrong?…Who can say. The answers to these questions have eluded me for so long that I think they are unanswerable.
I don’t know how the seeds of hatred are sown and whether they can be nipped in the bud or not; and even this line of thought-this questioning, is the result of my advanced age I think. Because on that day I certainly did not think like this. Hell! I did not think at all. I was deeply offended and enraged by that act. We all were. It was as if we all had been stabbed or spat at – simultaneously, by them!
That feeling of helplessness is still fresh in mind that I experienced while watching those disturbing scenes on the television throughout the day, and it still creeps me out. As the structure was brought down and Karsevaks danced in ecstasy, a fire had risen in my belly.
It took some time for us to gather, discuss and react; but when we did, the action was swift and explosive, and it was inevitable. We all were swept away by the wave of revenge. We needed retribution. Ineeded it!
Unfortunately, people on the other side were equally high on victory, self-proclaimed judgement and bias towards us, and it’s no wonder that blood flowed on these streets.
If that boy, who has turned into a man now, sits there and pants due to the rush of disturbing memories, then it does not seem unnatural, and in the least, surprising to me.
My regret is that I am a part of his painful past…
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I should move. This is a busy thorough way and I am impeding the traffic. People are looking at me oddly as they try to avoid hitting me. Advika would never believe that I am attracting so much attention right now. It irritates her to no end that her husband is socially inept. A pathetic recluse! That is what she calls me. Ha! If only she could see me now.
But my legs have a mind of their own and they won’t listen to me. I am sitting on the pavement and looking straight towards that street, where scenes from my past are rushing by. It’s like I am sitting in a movie theatre and on the screen a film is being played, only it’s my story. Soon the movie will come to an end, and I will strech and walk away.
However, its not finished as yet. It has only reached the half-way point. The better and the brighter half is over.
Any time now I would see a Luna emerge out of the street and riding it would be Rajiv chacha.
He would be his usual charming self and behind him, and holding him tightly would be a boy-grinning, gangly and with large glasses; me.
Whenever I think of Rajiv chacha this is the image that comes to the mind. Because he died so young, barely 23, he would remain forever young in my mind, of course.
My eyes are brimming again. God! I am being such a baby.
Still can’t believe that he is gone. Just have to shut my eyes and his infectious laughter trickles down in my ears and soul. Of course, being just ten years older to me, he was more of a big brother rather than an uncle. Used to confide everything in him. He and Nadeem were my pillars, my safety nets. That they were lost in a single day is too difficult to accept, even after such a long time.
The events of that day, permanently etched upon my mind, are now rising in my conscience like dark shadows do in a grim setting during a horror movie.
It would seem freaky to anyone, except perhaps a shrink, that I can only recall those events in my mind in the way of narration to my alter ego. Or to an imaginary friend. Deep mental trauma does that to a person. This surely is an ego-defence mechanism, some abstruse Freudian principle of processing and internalizing a tragedy that prevents an introvert person from going insane. Doubtlessly, the effect of being present in the same surrounding again has amplified the agony, and here I go down that road, literally, on an emotional ride again, elaborating the gruesome chain of events to an unseen observer, and also simultaneously listening to them myself in my mind-
‘After returning from school that day, I, as usual had completed the home work, and other studies. And waited for the clock to strike Five-thirty in the evening. At that hour I could go to Nadeem’s place and from there to cricket field. But as the time approached my mother admonished me from going out. According to her, there had been some unfortunate developments in the country that day, and conditions could deteriorate anytime. I was annoyed. Everything seemed all right to me. Ok, perhaps a little less crowd on the roads but nothing significant. I told her that she was over-reacting. But she instructed me severely not to nag her. She was alone at home along with I, grandma, and Sumit, who was not well– cold or something. Papa had gone to Jodhpur on an official tour for three days, and Rajiv chacha had not returned after the college. Said that she had enough on her mind already to additionally worry about me too.
I was angry, quite angry. Did not understand what the fuss was about. Had no idea about the demolition of that mosque. I sat dejectedly at the front gate, hoping that perhaps Nadeem would come instead.
Around 6:30 pm mother came out and gazed at the road with a concerned expression on her face. I could see that she was anxious by the manner in which she kept on rubbing her hands together, and murmured,
“Where is Rajiv? Why hasn’t he returned as yet? It’s getting late,”
” He must have gone to his friend’s house who lives nearby- Prakash chacha, like he doeseveryday,” I told her.
In that era obviously there were no mobiles and mother’s concern was genuine. Though it did not look like that to me at all. I thought it was an opportunity to go outside. I was rotting away at home.
” Yes, I think you are right, but how should I contact him? There is no telephone at Prakash’s house. I am getting worried about him. I can’t go there, your brother is not well,”
“I will go and check there. It’s quite nearby, and will go from the shortcut, via the empty plot behind out house. It’s just a two minute distance. Will be back in an eye’s blink along with chacha.”
My mother was reluctant but agreed tentatively as she wanted chacha to be at home as soon as possible, and by then nothing untoward had happened, atleast in the vicinity of our house.
And so I jumped over the parapet of our home and landed into the plot behind, and immediately noticed that something was wrong. Street lights had not been turned on, and there was an uncertainty, and well, fear, somehow I felt that way, floating in the stifling air. It had started to grow dark. Everything was quite, nothing stirred. Still, I thought nothing much of it, rather I took it as an adventure. What a dumb wit was I.
I clambered on the road skirting near the plot and jogged towards the turn leading towards the intersection and the road to Prakash chacha’s place. As I turned, my feet got rooted to the..’
I have flinched with a jerk and hit a man passing behind me, with my head. As I apologize he is giving me a queer look. What can I say- that I was immersed in my flashback mentally, and jumped at a heart-wrenching point? He won’t understand, and yet it is true. That scene always make me jump, and crawl, and writhe. I can hear my heart racing away. I can get up and walk away. Why not? What comes next is gross, and crazy, and deadly. And I know it, don’t I? But I think I will stick around and go through it all- again, completely and totally, once and for all. That’s the point. Isn’t it? Of coming here– to revisit the past, cry about it and get closure. So I will continue again and nothing will thwart me now, hopefully…
‘ As I turned, my feet got rooted to the ground and my heart came into my mouth. There at the intersection, about fifty metres from me, stood Rajiv chacha surrounded by a group of about twenty men, all welding swords and lathis in their hands. Nearby, his Luna was burning. There was nobody else. He was pleading to them with folded hands. All of a sudden a man from the group hit him hard, and he went reeling to the ground. My tongue got stuck to the roof of my mouth, and a shiver went down my spine. In a flash I understood the gravity of the situation and the reason behind mother’s concern. With an enormous effort of will, I stifled a shriek. I was standing some distance away and was in the shadows so they hadn’t seen me.
The man who had slapped him, and appeared to be the leader, spoke something harsh to the prostrate figure on the ground, and then to other men; suddenly; they all shouted a slogan or something. And at once they were all upon Chacha- kicking and thrashing. Before I could react they had picked him up and then they all went inside an alley that opened nearby, and that I knew had a dead end. In the light of his burning vehicle I got his last glimpse– head rolled to one side and arm dangling from his body listlessly.
My legs had turned to water. Did not know what to do, and whether anything could be done or not. I did possess the presence of mind that he needed help and that too urgently. I looked around, everything- all houses and shops were closed, shut tightly and were ominously dark. There was no use in banging any of them. Going home was pointless. Ma and grandma could do nothing either. As my mind raced frantically it occurred to me that Nadeem’s father was my best bet. Tariq uncle would be at his home, that was quite near, and certainly would rush to help me. And he belonged to the same religion as those men. That was the first time in my life that I had thought on those lines- religion and cast.
Immediately I turned back and sprinted towards Nadeem’s place, in a state of acute terror. It was a four-five minutes walk from there, and I covered it under two minutes. Though I saw no one, there were small fires raging intermittently as some or the other vehicle lay torched, or tyres burnt. As I approached that street, which is in front of me right now, I cautiously peered from behind a wall, there could be other groups like that. I was at the other end of this street. It was deserted except for a girl of about nine-ten years who was shuffling slowly on the road as if in a dream or in a shock!
From somewhere a beam of light fell upon her face and I was surprised to see that it was Shehnaz, Nadeem’s younger sister….’
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What happened that night should never have happened. No religion and no outrage, however strong and deep it might be, justifies the act of taking a person’s life. Everything is rushing back to me now. It is fresh, still, in my memory, it’s a wonder. Haven’t thought about that night in such a long time that I reckoned the details would have been blurred by now, but they haven’t. Not in the least.
Unfortunately, I too was involved in madness, though; I myself did not kill anyone; my Allah knows this. But I saw it happen and did not do anything. I was a willing part of the mob that killed a person brutally. This is an unalterable truth whether I admit it or not.
But, what could I do? Whole atmosphere was so charged. Didn’t hindus also committ the same crime? It was free for all.
There was a vortex of hatred raging here and we all were sucked into it inadvertently.
I distinctly remember that evening. We assembled at Abdul’s place around dusk, as darkness was about to spread it’s wings. He was the unspoken leader, nobody had said it so but wasn’t he the one who was the most vociferous against the demolition of the mosque and was willing to take the charge of avenging that shameful deed? Yes, we all followed him. It seemed easy and right.
I can still feel the heat of the flame of the rage that was burning inside me when I reached Abdul’s place, and well, wasn’t surprised to observe that everyone else was exactly in the same frame of mind. There were sticks, knives and swords lying there- shining. Felt a fascination for them. It was the first time, and the last time too, that I held a sword in my hand. How good it felt. Powerful. Vindictive. And deadly.
Abdul said that a great injustice had been done and that we had to teach them a lesson. That there were reports coming from all over the country of hindus killing muslims and assaulting our women, and that we had to protect our people. It never entered my mind to verify those reports.
By this time all of us were raging from blood thirst anyway, and soon filed out of his place. Must have gone fifty metres, hardly, when we saw him- a young man walking down the street alone, quite near to us. He was holding his Luna in his hands and was walking besides it, perhaps it was not getting started, and he was taking it back to his home. I knew him vaguely. Had seen him passing through the streets on his dark blue Luna quite often, and knew he was a Kayastha living nearby. He was an innocent college student but that night through our distorted vision all of us saw him as an enemy. I did too, I must admit. Why? Can’t say. He had done nothing wrong, only he was at wrong place at the wrong time. That was his only crime. Hugh! Everything seems so simple and uncomplicated in hindsight. My heart goes out to him now but that day…It was different.
In a second he had been surrounded by our group. He became sick of fear instantly and in a way it was quite heart-wrenching to see the terror in his eyes. One could smell his fear.
Abdul told him angrily that we knew he was a Kafir and that his people had desecrated a place of Allah and everyone, including him, would be punished.
Am able to clearly visualise the scene in my mind, never going to forget it, I believe, till I die. He whimpered that he was our brother and had been living amongst us all his life, that he knew many of us and dealt with us daily, and that he had done nothing and had foolishly stayed till late at his friend’s house. And that he would quietly retreat to his house. He folded his hands and pleaded us to let him go.
For a moment my heart relented but then suddenly Abdul hit him on the face and he fell on the ground. I was shaken. But then Abdul said that he was one of them – the enemy, we should not be befooled by his innocent face; given a chance he would not hesitate in penetrating a sword through our hearts and we should not give him that chance, and we should do it first to him.
Tempers were flaring and hormones were raging. Everyone started baying for his blood, yes; even me. Soon he was lifted and was carried to a deserted by-lane, and there he was stabbed mercilessly countless number of times.
Though I did not touch him. I was standing at the back, watching it all happen. I was enraged but somehow I could not hit him with my weapon. My Allah knows it. Infact, after seeing all that gore, I felt a bit of sickness spread over me. Wanted to vomit but was afraid that I would be laughed upon. Even today I am feeling a bit dizzy just by thinking about that dreadful spectacle.
‘So you quietly slipped away in the night, didn’t you?’ I ask my conscience and the answer is yes, that I chickened out. It’s tough to judge oneself, but I must do it, truthfully. Perhaps by recognising and admitting my guilt, I can take the first step towards my penance.
Don’t think anybody noticed my absence at that time. I remember thinking that I would go and sleep inside my shop, exactly here actually, after locking it from inside. Every moment of that night is fresh in my mind after all. But the worst was about to come, and I should relive that part too even if it degrades myself in own eyes…
As I walked towards the shop and turned into the street near the shop, I saw them – a boy and a girl standing there; alone but holding each other’s hand.
××××××× ××××××× ×××××××
‘I looked at her incredulously. Why wasshe there?
“Shehnaz! What are you doing here, it’s very dangerous,” though she was Nadeem’s sister, we had hardly talked before that day. I had always been engaged with Nadeem, and she in her own world. But in my sub-conscience I considered her as my sister; not only because one does it on behalf her being the sister of one’s best buddy; but also because I had no sister, and secretly desired to fulfill that place with her. Of course, I had not said one word of this to her or to Nadeem, but it was understood somehow.
“Amit bhaiya!” she cried with relief and came to me, and automatically I hugged her. And she was crying uncontrollably in my arms and there was nothing unnatural about it.
“Tell me what happened,”
“Nadeem bhaiya and papa!” she managed to utter between her sobs.
I felt a jolt,” What about them?”
” We don’t know where they are. Bhaiya went out in the evening, while mummy and I were in the kitchen, to buy a new cricket ball that he had been intending to buy all day from the nearby market. My mother did not have any idea about the conditions in the country and in our city. She had not seen the news. She never does. So, when bhaiya did not return for a long time, she was not unduly worried and thought that he must have gone to your place. But when papa came from the office about half an hour ago he became quite angry at her and said that things were not right, and that he would immediately go out to look for Nadeem bhaiya,”
” As he went out, mummy and I gathered at the window overlooking the road in front of our home and saw him walking down the street determinedly. He must have gone only a short distance when suddenly from one of the lanes a group of people emerged and surrounded him. They grabbed him and carried him forcefully to another street that was not visible to us. Everything happened so fast that we could not react. Then mummy shouted and pushed me towards the bed in the room, and told me to sit there strictly. Then she ran out of our house after papa,”
“Oh! What happened then?” I asked her, dumbstruck by her story.
“I was very frightened and trembled on the bed and waited for them to return. Mummy was gone for a long time. I was sick with worry, and ultimately I came out of the house and thought I would take the help of our neighbours. But nobody opened the door. In my confusion and fright I did not know what to do. For some time I sat on the stairs of our house then I could not wait any longer and decided to look for them myself, and was going in the general direction of your home, perhaps in the hope of finding bhaiya there, when I met you. I am so relieved to have found you. Amit bhaiya what has happened to papa and bhaiya? Where is mummy? Are they alright …I…I don’t know what is happening?”
I had gone cold while listening to her story. Nadeem and uncle! And what about auntie? What was happening? My whole world was coming apart. But I had to take care of Shenaz and auntie, and Rajiv chacha!
I was overcome with deep despair but thought that I had to be strong for her benefit. Suddenly I had grown up.
“Don’t worry, everything will be fine. First I will take you to your home, perhaps they might have returned. They would be quite worried about you. Come-on, let’s go, It’s not safe to be out on the roads.”
We started moving towards her home and immediately saw them- three men armed with swords coming toward us.
All three were wearing headbands that were orange in colour and had ‘Jai Shree Ram’ written upon them. They were fierce looking and looked drunk to me.
“Hey where are you kids going? Who are you? Are you hindus?” asked one of them.
I was petrified but tried to remain calm. And said, “Yes we are, please let us go to our home, we are brother and sister, and are lost,”
“Aren’t you the son of Mr. C. S. Mathur who works for railways?” asked another one.
I nodded and felt a huge relief due to the fact that they knew my father.
” She is not your sister, you have no sister…She is a muslim, look at her. You are lying to us, you traitor,”
I looked at her and it struck me that how was it possible to deduce one’s religion by one’s dressing, but yes it did look that way. Shehnaz was wearing a blue salwar kameez and had her dupatta around her head. My heart sank.
” No uncle you are mistaken…She is my sister..I swear,” Shehnaz was trembling besides me and I came forward instinctively to shield her from their piercing gaze.
” Do you think we are fools, we know who you are and who she is, now step aside …It’s time that we taught her a lesson,”
‘ She is my sister and I will not let you touch her!” I don’t know what had gotten into me but as I stood there, in the middle of mayhem which was bent upon swallowing my world, I knew only one thing that I had to protect her and this knowledge gave the strength to a reticent boy to stand up to those men, half-crazed with hysteria and lust.
“You will have to kill me before you touch her.. I will not let anything happen to her,” I was standing as tall as possible and as proudly as I could, with my jaw clenched and one fist tightened up and holding her hand with the other one.
It was foolish of me to think that I, a powerless thin young boy, could do anything against those men; but it was an instinct. I was not bluffing. I truly had in mind to go to any length to save my sister.
Perhaps they were unnerved by my resistance or perhaps they did not want to harm one of their own and face wrath later on. Or perhaps because she was just a kid and had not developed fully at that point of time so as to satisfy their lust. Or perhaps my words stirred something inside their hardened hearts; whatever it was; but they hesitated for some time.
Few tense moments passed away slowly then one of them said, ” You don’t know what you are doing son, they are not worthy of you. Now go back to your home with her. It’s very dangerous to be on the streets right now. We are letting her go but others might not,”
And they went away as silently as they had come. As I saw their backs toward us, a wave of relief passed over me. The rush of adrenaline abated all at once and I found that I was trembling and shivering, my teeth were chattering. Despite my show of strength I had been totally scared in my heart.
But that was one time in my life when I stood up for something worthwhile. The only time actually, before that night, life was a picnic and afterwards it has just been a burden.
We stood there some time clutching each other, unable to believe our luck. Then we started again, but that night was one long ordeal. Universe was hell bent on trying us, it seemed, for we had not gone few paces when a man’s form emerged out of shadows. We were quite near to the end of that street then i.e. near Imran bhai’s shop, indeed it was Imran bhai who strode up to us, looked at both of us and said,
” You are Tariq Bhai’s daughter, aren’t you? What are you doing here?”
Now it was Shehnaz’ s turn to speak for me, she nodded and said,
” I got lost while looking for my father and mother Imran uncle, this is my brother. Please take us home,”
He stood quietly for some time and replied, ” I know who he is, he is certainly not your brother. I have seen him. This boy is a kafir. He must be taking you to your death. Come with me, I will take you to your home. Don’t trust him…we should never trust them,”
I was shocked and appalled at the suggestion that I could guide her to her death. How could he think like that about a boy was beyond me but perhaps the air was so obnoxious with hatred and mistrust that he could imagine and believe in that notion.
” I am trying to help her and I might not be her real brother but our relation is not lesser than that,” I told him with conviction and thought he would be moved too as those men had been a little while earlier.
But he suddenly came towards me, urgently freed Shehnaz’s hand from mine and pushed me with such a force that I stumbled backwards and fell on the ground. Then he kept his right foot on my chest while holding Shehnaz with his left hand forcefully, as she was trying to get herself freed, and growled-
“You are not her brother. Ok..You are a hindu and a kafir and there can be no relation between us and you. That game is up. Now everything is clear to us. You cannot deceive us anymore,”
I was shocked to the core by his words and lay there looking at him like an idiot. My limbs had no power, my mind was not responding, it had gone into a shell. I stared at him foolishly.
” Listen kid, don’t meddle in our affairs. I have just seen a young men brutally killed, he was one of yours, not far from here and I will not stop from hurting you if you try to follow us. I am taking her to her home and you can go to yours or die on these streets. Today death is dancing on the roads. Your people and mine are out to kill each other. I will make sure that this girl lives but I don’t care for you, so run away try to save your puny life, if you can, anyways it does not matter to me,”
With these words he turned and jerked Shehnaz with him with such force that she was dragged along. She had been crying and pleading to him to take me along with them, that I could be killed, but he did not heed to her.
She turned towards me and our eyes met for the last time. There was an ocean of regret, helplessness and sorrow in those eyes. I saw her last time at that moment and then she was gone.
I lay there for some time. I had gone limp after listening to him.
I have just seen a young man killed nearby.
He was talking about Rajiv chacha! I was too stunned to react.
Eventually I got up and mechanically went to an old abandoned house in the next lane, where nobody lived. There was a way to get into it from the backdoor and climb up the dilapidated stairs to reach the first floor, which was over run with grime and dust. I knew about it because Nadeem and I had been there many times earlier.
I had no desire to go to my home and face my mother and grandmother after what had happened to Rajiv chacha. Besides it was not safe at that time to navigate those streets. I knew they would be half -dead from worrying about myself and about him, but I thought it was the prudent thing to do under the circumstances.
I was drained of all emotions and I distinctly remember staring at the ceiling for a long time untill sleep descended on to me. I was jerked out of my fitful slumber because of a blaring siren. It was early morning already and police was everywhere.
I came down and gingerly went out and then a constable saw me. He asked me what was I doing there, did not I know that an indefinite curfew had been imposed.
I told him everything truthfully and I was transported to my home in the police van…’
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Can never forget the look on his face. It had equal measures of humiliation and defiance. It is difficult to describe, and perhaps I imagined it, but as I pinned him down with my foot and said those words in an attempt to crush his spirit, it seemed to me that his eyes contained a lot of pride and self-respect along with shock and sorrow.
Don’t know how could I stoop so low so as to behave in that inhuman way. Not only I had separated the kids and uttered those inexcusable words to him but I had also left him, a young powerless boy, to die there. Allah be praised that he lived and is now in front of my eyes.
There was a burning desire inside me to prove that I was not a chicken, who was feeling queasy after the butchering of that young man, when I approached them. And I wanted to inflict some damage, do something macho to avenge myself in my own eyes. Though I did not want to kill anybody, that much is true. I must be impartial in judging myself, come what may.
When I saw him standing there with Tariq’s bhai daughter, all my bitterness burst forth out of my heart and flowed through my mouth like lava flows out of a volcano.
I know it was detestable. A better man would not have behaved in that manner in front of a kid. It was no way to prove my manhood. But I was caught up in the mood of the moment. We all were drunk on the poision of loathing. No excuse, but it is exactly what had happened. However, later I did try to redeem myself, didn’t I?
But before that, had to drag the girl to her home forcibly. How she fought with me! And though her home was very near, it had not been an easy task to take her there. However, the moment she saw her mother sitting in front of their house and banging her chest, she broke away from my grip and ran to her. They embraced tightly and both of them wept deeply for some time. It moved me. Yes, it was the point when I first felt the inkling of remorse, of that I am sure.
As I flow along with the mental tide of memories of that tumultuous evening, I must recount and analyse each moment, each action of mine honestly, to myself; specially to myself, before I even begin to hope to ask for forgiveness from him and the Almighty. Because it’s easy to lie to oneself, and in a way that’s what I have been doing all this time; but not today.
There was death lurking on every corner, so I herded them indoor quickly and locked the door. My heart sank while listening to her story- the manner in which her husband had been abducted, and her desperate and unsuccessful attempt to help him. It was heart-wrenching, her pain. Tried to console her but in the heart I dreaded about the fate of her husband and the son. Her despair and helplessness finally crushed my anger. Could feel my bitterness being dwarfed and washing away in front of her despair. That’s what it all lead to! That aftermath of unimaginable proportions.
The daughter kept on looking in my direction with pure disdain and I could not look into her eyes. By then, my conscience already had begun to bite me about leaving that boy unattended there in those circumstances.
That’s why I got up after about half an hour, and went back stealthily to look for that boy and lead him to safety, but he was nowhere to be found. I must tell him somehow that I did come for him.
Since then I have been burning in the fire of regret, though the fire had dimmed over the years. That’s natural I guess, human mind adapts to all situations and cannot go on living in sorrow, pain, guilt and regret with same intensity forever.
But it’s a glorious day today. I know now that he did survive, and I was saved from the ultimate sin- to be solely responsible for the demise of an innocent human being. And though it was unexpected and rather surprising, his sudden appearance atleast I made me face my guilt today.
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‘Life was never the same again. Rajiv chachas’s body was discovered in that gully in a terrible condition. Later we came to know that he had been stabbed thirty-six times.
Tariq uncle’s mutilated body was found in a drain after few days, quite far from where he had been nabbed, and Nadeem’s has never been found. To this day I live in the slender hope that perhaps he ran away to a far away place, and would one day materialise in front of us, smiling in his charming manner and with a perfectly sensible explanation for his prolonged disappearance. Though I know this is never going to happen but I keep on hoping against hope.
I never saw Shehnaz and auntie again. There was a curfew for many days and when things calmed down a bit, we heard that they had gone to Allahabad after few days, at Nadeem’s maternal grandfather’s place. His mother had survived the night but was seriously ill for a long time. His maternal uncles came here and kept the search for Nadeem going on for a long time, then it petered down as no result came out of it.
Meanwhile we were reeling under the loss of Rajiv chacha. Grandmother could not sustain the shock of her young son’s demise and became bed-ridden. She left us for good a few months later, but not before making us move. She absolutely forbade my father from going on living in the same house and the same locality.
A lot of people were shifting from this area after the riots and our family became one of them. We rented a place at Civil Lines after few weeks and shifted there. For me it was a relief. Without Rajiv chacha and Nadeem there were only bitter memories here. And I have ventured here for the first time after that.
Papa was transformed into a broken man. He could not forgive himself for his absence at a time when his brother and family needed him the most. Though it was not his fault that he was out of town at that time. Mummy cried bitterly for months. She blamed herself for not being able to do anything for her brother-in-law and for sending her son into the jaws of death. Though she could not have done anything.
But we had to live and live we did, in our slow, sorrow filled and guilt ridden manner. Eventually we sold our old home and purchased a new one at Vaishali Nagar, only a few kilometres from this place but a world apart.
But there is no energy and no zest in my life. Lights went out for me that tragic night and never came back. Dead people have no memory and no pain. It’s the people who are left behind that have to deal with them. For the longest time I did not allow anyone to sit on my bench in school. That place was reserved for Nadeem. Teachers also went along out of respect for his memory. But I could not keep it up forever.
So after brooding months on these lines, I moved on eventually. I was good at only one thing and it was academics. I managed to get decent grades after an year or two, and went on to pass the All India pre-medical test to become a doctor few years later, and have been practicing at Dubai for the last decade….’
Hugh! That’s it…I have done it. It’s over. The most traumatic events of my life transpired in these lanes, and I have faced them again today. Stood up to them and do feel lighter. Can’t say that I have closure but I do feel better.
They say that wound heal with time. It is wrong, I can say from personal experience. They never heal. We just learn to live them and their throbbing pain subsides to a dull ache. They are always present at the background of one’s mind, ready to burst forth afresh and pour out pus anytime, like they have done to me today morning.
Events happen at a lightening speed, they pick one up suddenly, like a twister, and swirl and churn in its chaotic winds; then all at once everything is calm, except there is a trail of devastation filled with death, mutilated limbs, fates and minds. Afterwards one can spend years and years dissecting the chain of circumstances and actions leading to those events; analyse each minute, each moment and each angle that was involved in the build up and execution of the tragedy; but nothing comes out of this exercise ever. Why did it happen this way? What if… Allsuch questions are unanswerable.
I must return to the present now.
Sumit has been after me to sell off the house at Ajmer. It had been lying vacant after papa’s death two years ago. And now the deal is close to being done.
I was reluctant initially and even today I am not fully convinced. It is the logical thing to do, I know, but it feels ‘too final’ and ‘too decisive’ to me. With it my last contact with Ajmer will be gone. The fragile chord tethering me to my history will vanish.
Don’t know why I persist though. There is no point actually but still I can’t let go. It seems a travesty to pull curtain down on that sordid chapter of my life forever. I wonder what others would do or have done with their lives after suffering in similar manner.
Actually, that makes me think about Shehnaz. Wonder where is she now. What became of her? I hope that she has had a good life, though it’s hard to imagine. But if she has been able to carve out a good life for herself then atleast it will be of some solace to me.
Suddenly, it has occurred to me that why haven’t I tried to look for her? It could not have been very difficult. Perhaps I have been trying to run away from the past all along, rather than facing it. Well I should make a new beginning now. Atleast then this visit could be of some use.
An idea has sprung up in my mind, and it’s amazing why it did not occur to me earlier – I should look for her on the social media. Almost everyone maintains a presence there nowadays. Perhaps I can locate her there. It’s worth a try. I am hardly active digitally, with no presence to speak of, but she might be.
Alright, the web browser is open, and I have typed her name -Shenaz Aziz. There it is, hope something can come out of ..Whoa!
I cannot believe my eyes! There are many entries and the first one is a blog post by the title – My Brother. By Shehnaz Aziz, a dentist at Auckland, New Zealand. There is a picture ..it’s opening and…
There can be no doubt about it. She has obviously grown but I can place her anywhere. Same toothy smile, same dimples on the cheeks and same face cut as Nadeem.
So she is a dentist at NewZealand! And I can see a husband and a daughter in the picture. My heart is fluttering with happiness. To see her after so many years is an unparalleled joy and the fact that she turned out fine is ecstasy itself.
The title of her blog is intriguing, must be a tribute to Nadeem. The date is 20th march 2019, almost an year ago. And she writes :-
‘We are reeling after the shock of the deadly attack on the mosques five days ago at Christchurch and my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones.
Why does this cycle of communal violence and hatred keeps on repeating? Christians against muslims, muslims against christians, hindus against muslims and vice versa. It goes on and on. Someone takes a revenge of some terrible act committed by someone else and somewhere else on a totally innocent population and in the process creates new injustices, new tragedies, new grief and new bereavements, that would need to be revenged and avenged later onanother unsuspecting population.
Where will it end? I don’t know, but I do know how it can end; atleast begin to end. And that is if we starts believing in each other as humans and not as hindus or muslims or christians. Religions are good but only if they make us a better person. If they implant seeds of suspicion, distrust and bias towards others then I would run away from religion at a lightening speed. Why can’t we simply interact with others on the basis of simple rules of humanity and common sense? We all know the good things religions preach but most of us fail to incorporate them in our lives. Rather, we generalise people based on their beliefs and not on their actions, and merits and demerits. We see them through a tinted glass and find them tainted.
I am not speaking in a clichéd and a preaching manner. This is coming from a person who has lost her father and her brother to communal riots. Yes; hindus killed my father and my brother many years ago, and regretfully I have to say muslims also murdered many hindus inthose clashes. There were losses on both sides. There were demons on both the sides, but there was Amit bhaiya on my side..’
I stop reading it. My name has cropped up and my eyes have started to brim. She remembers! Before I break down totally I should complete the blog :-
‘ Yes, he was a hindu and he stood up to protect my life and honour when it mattered most. He was not my real brother but he was much more than that. He did not shy away from offering his life to save mine, he did not think that I could be slaughtered becauseof my religion or because he was alone and they were three strong men who wanted to assault me and kill me. When he stood that night in front of me in protection from those beasts, he was not a hindu but he was my brother.It does not matter that he could have been easily overcome by those men and that they could have taken me anyway; but what matters is his intention, his action and his commitment to save a muslim girlwhom heconsidered his sister, even as his own people lay dying. And in the end he did succeed in turning them away. The need is to stand up to hatred and not succumb to it, the need is to rise above the bias, anxiety and distrust arising from some people in the name of religion and believe in humanity andnothing else.
Unfortunately we got separated that night in regrettable circumstances. I don’t even know where he is right now orwhether hesurvived that night. But my heart says that my brother is alive and I urge him to contact me if he reads this.
Because I need him…The world needs people like my brother to come to the forefront and help people like me in fighting this madness that has gripped the world.
Amit bhaiya wherever you are, I salute you and I love you, more than Nadeem bhai.”
Oh God I am sobbing uncontrollably now and tears are running down on my face. I am sitting here on this pavement on a busy thoroughfare and weeping like a lost kid. It is embarrassing. People are noticing me and talking in whispers, even Imran bhai is visibly upset, and I think he is getting up to come to me. I have signalled him to stay put in his shop.
These tears are good. They were long overdue.
My sister is fine and is dealing with her loss in a much better manner. Perhaps I should have been more vocal and more proactive against communal violence all these years, like she has been. Our story and other incidents like them are not something to be hidden and grieved about in solitude. They can be shared and an awareness can be brought about.
Atleast I can try too and do my bit, like her. I can see some closure coming my way, and a ray of sunshine bursting from the veil of dark clouds.
Will contact her soon and together we will ease each other’s pain and of others, if we can. Even if we influence a handful number of people, or even one person, it would be a worthwhile effort.
Shehnaz is younger to me but I think is more mature and more wise. She has shown me the way to deal with the pain and loss, and I now I feel invigorated.
Don’t think I will sell our house at Ajmer now. It’s my last link to my past and from that past I will try to frame a new future. Yes, that’s the way forward. Not only that, I need to bring my family here and introduce them to my gruesome past. Kids do not know any of this, and even Advika has a vague idea about Rajiv chacha and Nadeem. I have never been vocal about it. They don’t know what transpired in this city. How two communities came at loggerheads and committed the biggest sins. They, and others like them, need to be aware. Then only they will understand about the disastrous consequences of fanaticism and hatred. Sumit will need some convincing but he will come around, I am sure. Of course, he does not remember much about that time as he was very young then.
Finally; I think I am ready to go now. But before I go there is one thing I need to do–
I get up and give a smile to Imran bhai.
He is startled and I think he is wiping his eyes.
He is not a bad person and I don’t want to keep a grudge against him. Like everyone else he was caught up in the current of rage. But I think he has repented enough. This is the start that I, him and the world needs.
I will not talk to him today. The smile is enough for now, but I will return soon and will try to engage him in our effort and perhaps it will do a whole lot of good for him too….
×××××× ××××××× ×××××××
Ya Allah be praised! He is smiling at me.
A little while ago he was crying copiously while looking at his mobile. I got worried and was in the process of getting up to go to him when he gestured with his hand to stop me.
It’s amazing how we can communicate without talking to each other, aftereverything!
I think he and I perfectly understand each other at some basic level, as can all humans; the need is to pay heed and trust our instinct about others. It’s almost always right. Unfortunately I have learnt this the hard way.
Don’t know what did he see in his mobile but whatever it was, it has given much needed relief to him. He has stood up and is smiling at me. And his smile is like the rainbow that appears after the rain when sun comes out of the clouds.
It has given me assurance that he has forgiven me. That even after everything he still believes in me as a person and is ready to give me another chance. Why can’t everyone be like him?
He is going on his way but something in his manner tells me that he will be back soon to talk to me and perhaps engage me in his life.
And I will be ready with open arms and an open mind to walk along with him on the only true righteous pathway….
Should I take a left … No..no…that’s the wrong way….Should I take a right turn…ummm…I don’t know..
‘What are you doing? Let me sleep it’s 4 am in the morning!’ said my wife while shaking me up from my deep slumber.
‘ You were bumbling something loudly in your sleep…What’s wrong with you..’ she uttered irritably while turning on the other side.
I realised with surprise and with a flood of relief that it was a dream…
If you are thinking, o! wise reader that I was searching for the way while being lost on the road somewhere, you cannot be more wrong. Though I admit I have been found in such a position quite often, much to my wife’s chagrin, and have a poor sense of direction. My search was more philosophical in the dreamland.
I was debating, with my conscience – which might seem absurd and clichéd to you but hey, it was my dream – about which way to lean in today’s scenario. Politically, I mean.
Should I lean towards left or should I embrace the right. Because frankly, one has to choose a side now. One cannot sit on the fence perennially and permanently anymore.
The constant hullabaloo about the historical wrongs and the need to correct them has got all of us pinned- squirming and uneasy- but definitely pinned down. There is no room to wriggle. No room to escape the sharp scrutiny of penetrating public gaze that seems to follow one with a dogged determination to get it out of the depths of one’s mind.
Wherever one goes, be it workplace or while commuting or in one’s housing society, people are going bonkers about the need to correct the historic wrongs and their desperate urge to listen to one’s whole- hearted support to the cause.
And these people won’t take a ‘ no comment’ or ‘ I don’t know’ for an answer. That’s as good as – you areagainst us – as an answer.
‘What do you mean that you don’t know? Are you a feeble-minded person who can’t see what is good for the country and it’s citizen? Are you an idiot? Wait a second, are you one of those anti- nationals opposing the good work being done by the government?’
You see? don’t you, o! wise reader what a predicament it is for a man like me who is so absorbed in the troubles and nuances of one’s own life; who traverses the journey of life in a trance, dazzled and baffled by the intricacies and contradictions of one’s professional and personal life; that he fails to see the larger picture and is too preoccupied in working out ways to make his bosses, kids and wife happy that he is not bothered by what is happening around him. Revolutions might be on the way, alliances might be breaking off at various states, bombs might be falling off in Tehran or wherever, but he is concerned only for his miniscule and indifferent existence.
And men like me are not uncommon. Not by a long shot. They are found dime a dozen.
Suddenly, spotlight is upon us- what do we think about the tremendous social change being brought about in our beloved nation at this very moment? What do we think about the churning going on in the society right now that will bring the nectar to the surface?
I shrugged helplessly one fine evening while sitting at a gathering of my friends after finding myself at the receiving end of such queries -‘who me? I don’t know..I mean I have not thought about it…err… it seems everything has been going on nicely in the society for such a long time; I mean we all have been living in a harmony in this great secular nation for a long time- why to disturb the peace for incidents that happenedsuch a long time ago that they don’tmatter anymore….’
Bang!…It was done…I was labelled a traitor and my friends stared at me in a particularly unfriendly way and then turned away from me to talk to other ‘like- minded’ people.
I was horrified. Startled. Perplexed. Bamboozled. Bulldozed.
You see I did not see it coming. It was so fast and the judgement so atrocious and brutal, that I had to intervene, retract and do damage control.
I am in their good books again.
But this unsavoury incident did leave a bitter taste in my mouth and got me thinking; and by God! when I start thinking then I am unstoppable.
What is it I really think about the situation.? Where do I stand? I am a leftist and want to cry foul or I am rightist, hell bent upon righting the historical wrongs come what may?
And while pondering over these mighty issues I didn’t know when I slipped gently into the land of dreams, and started talking in my sleep.
But now, after being rudely awakened by my better half and strongly rebuffed by her, I am fully awake and in full possession of my mental faculties.
A new line of thought has started to raise it’s head in my mind – what aboutthe historical wrongs done to mein myown life?
I have frequently thought that I have been wronged mightily by the cruel world at every turn in my life. What about it then? Can’t we do something about it in this season of rightings of all the wrongs?
While we are avenging the mistakes done by the history to the majority of the citizens of this nation, why not to avenge the injustices met to yours truly by the hands of teachers, bosses, in-laws, relatives, traders, plumbers, carpenters…I can go on but I think you must have gotten the gist of it..
I have had a very unsatisfactory childhood and a tasteless blossoming of the youth.
I was not spared even by my parents and got to know very late in my life that I could have obtained a handsome ‘ pocket money’ but was managed by just few pieces of chocolates and promises of toys, games, PS4, bike, 3 bhk flat…I could on but you must have understood by now.
In college time my heart was greviously injured by the rejections of many a fair maidens, who repelled my timid advances haughtily.
And I have been screwed royally by my bosses forever. Well..Who hasn’t?
Ok..I am very excited by this prospect. Tomorrow will be a new morning for me – afresh with the sweet fragrance of revenge.
I am thinking of going on a protest from tomorrow… No, no…not along with the protesters protesting the righting of the wrongs but along with the protesters protesting against the protests of protesters protesting against the righting of the wrongs….I think you are bright enough, o! wise reader to read the above line and extract the correct meaning of my words.
I think the country can afford one more protest in this sea of protests going on everywhere.
But I will have a different agenda – to demand compensations and apologies from the perpetrators of crimes done against me and if I don’t get them there will be consequences; serious consequences, because – damn it! someone has to pay for my grievances.
I am very excited now; I have found the way and it is to have a ‘rightist’ philosophy. From now on I am going to be authoritative, adamant, inflexible, abrasive, commanding, uncompromising and not sorry to be all of the above. I already am feeling a current of power running in my veins. It’s intoxicating and I am getting a high from it.
* * * * * *
In the morning as I started to go out of my house a question from wife encountered me,
‘Where do you think you are going? You have not had your breakfast as yet..’
‘I don’t like this healthy and tasteless breakfast…from now on make sure there are Aloo- parothas or sandwiches in the morning for me with a steaming cup of coffee; and listen things are going to change in this house from today- I am changing the rules, you can think as if I am amending the constitution, from now on I will come and go as I please, and will watch T.V. till late night…also I will decide the menu of meals daily- enough is enough!’
Before I could finish I had to take an evasive action and dove under the dining table to dodge the rolling pin that had emerged from the kitchen like a ballistic missile and came towards me at lightening speed.
Slightly unnerved by this and having dented my new found confidence a bit, I decided to make a run for it, and dashed out of my house before my wife could tear me apart.
Some battles are to be fought at a later date. Right now I have to confront the world and I am going towards the municipal park at the far end of the city where like- minded and ‘right- minded’ people are going to converge to protest against the protest…You know what I mean.
I will go there and keep my point of view and perhaps they will try to avenge wrongs done to yours truly too.
× × × × × × × × × ×
Things have gone wrong…horribly wrong, o ! Wise reader.
Its almost midnight and I am sleeping at my cousin’s place, who happens to live in my city. I am here as my wife has refused to let me enter our home.
I can’t blame her- an hour ago she had bailed me and my friend out of the police lock up, where we had been caged on account of drinking, rioting and creating a ruckus.
You see, I had started with a new belief system and a brand new agenda from my home in the morning but for the longest time I could not find the park where that ‘protest against the protests’ was slated to happen.
People kept on telling me to ‘turn right’ at every crossroad until I was totally lost in my usual fashion. I could not decide whether they were guiding me on the roads of Ahmedabad or on the philosophical journey of my spiritual and political life.
After drifting on the roads for few hours I suddenly realised that I was in the vicinity of a famous sports cafe and the crucial T-20 between India and New Zealand was going to start soon.
I can resist everything excepttemptation.
Though this immortal line was not written by yours truly but by Oscar wild, it accurately portrays my character in a single line.
I briskly entered the cafe and splayed myself upon the couch in front of the big T.V.
The wonders that the heroics of Rohit Sharma and Mohammed Shami can do to boost one’s patriotism is phenomenal and every speech of every leader of the country pales in front of it. I emerged from the cafe elated, ecstatic and with my ’56 inch’ broad chest fully puffed up. My resolution to avenge the wrongs had lost much of it’s steam.
Anyway, I trudged onwards with my agenda more in the fear of returning home than any real zeal for the cause. It was already late evening and after crossing few streets I had a strong desire for a hot cup of tea. As I stood near a bus stand I suddenly recognised the gully leading to the home of one of my oldest friends, one whom I had not seen in a long time.
I wasted no more time and reached his home. He was delighted to see me and imparted the happy news that he himself was seeking the company of a friend as his wife had gone to her parental house for few days with the kids.
‘ Who will prepare the tea then?’ I asked with concern. I am always very practical in life.
‘Arre pagle who needs tea when we have this’- and he proudly produced a beautiful bottle of Chivas Regal (18 years old) in front of me
I gulped in anticipation. You see living in Ahmedabad makes life complicated…I don’t support drinking and it’s good that alcohol is banned here, but there are times, like when one is staggering alone on the pathways and struggling with inner turmoils, where if one gets the company of a good friend and an angelic vision of single malt whiskey then life becomes a little bearable.
So we sat and washed down the divine liquid with chakhna. He asked me what I had been doing in that area and fell off laughing from the chair after hearing about my mission.
‘Saala…##^%#…What is this new shit that you have become entrenched in…forget all this historic wrong-vong,’
My dear friend is quite a jolly fellow and uses obscenities like punctuation marks while talking to his male friends , and it is comforting in a way. He goes through his life laughing at everything and making fun of everyone.
Curiously he Sobers down a lot after having few pegs and then becomes very lucid and rational. So when enough liquor entered his system he said to me..
‘Seriously yaar, this country is not worth living in anymore. What is this absurdity of digging up past and poisoning the present that is going on. Do we have to divide the society and witch-hunt our innocent brothers and sisters living with us and punish them for crimes done by their ancestors? What sort of morality is this? Are we living in 21st century or 11th century when Mohammed Ghori invaded our country? And does one correct one wrong by committing another wrong? Is this what history has taught us? To perpetrate the same crimes, to make the same mistakes and to stumble onto the same stones twice?’
‘And,’ he continued unabated,’ aren’t we creating more historic wrongs for the future generations…If they would go avenging their historic wrongs than what will happen? The vicious cycle will go on and on…And if all religious groups in all the nations of the world would resort to such measures then what will happen? Humanity itself will be history pretty soon,’
By this time I had been much moved by his words and placed my glass firmly on the table with a loud whack, ‘ No..You are absolutely right…I was an idiot to fall into the trap..let’s go out and instill some sense in this wacko society,’
By this time we had downed the whole bottle and we stumbled down unsteadily to the road in front of his society and started yelling…
‘Down with fascism…Stop this madness..’
I don’t even remember what we were shouting…but through my mental haze I do remember the scene when my friend was jumping haphazardly to save his posterior from the thick stick of the constable while demanding from him- why was alcohol banned in Gujarat and what about his fundamental right of freedom to decide whether he wanted to destroy his liver or not.
I did not behave in a sane manner either. While I was being accosted by the policeman, a decent looking man came towards me to help me and introduced me as the local municipal corporator and a distinguished member of the ruling party.
At that moment I committed an unforgivable blunder by asking him the one question which should never have been asked -‘ Well sir, what about the economy then? Why is it in the doldrums?’
I don’t remember anything other than waking up in the locker with a lot of bruises over my body and my wife processing the bails of yours truly and my friend.
The look that my wife gave me when I came out sent shivers down my spine and my legs became watery. Of course, I was not allowed into our home.
My life is in shreds and I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow.
As I write this, my friend has been evicted from his society and I have got a notice from my boss for an urgent meeting first thing in the morning tomorrow. I think I might be on the verge of getting the pink slip, unless I do what I do everytime – retract my statements and do damage control.
It seems I am going to be quite busy in the coming few days as I will be engaged in rigorous yesmanship and arse licking of my boss and that corporator, and obviously in taking out my wife to the jewellers to pacify her.
So long, O! Wise reader, have a good life and be on the ‘right’ side of the debate always.
Goodbye and Jai shri Ram! ( Just to be politically correct)
‘Its just as I had imagined it would be’, sighed Ha – joon as he looked out of the big window of the A.C. Volvo bus which was taking him from Jaipur to his destination – Barr; a small town in the district of Pali, Rajasthan.
He had always wanted to be in the Aravalis, India’s oldest mountain range and one of the world’s oldest.
In the past few years he had directed his research and concentration so much towards this region that it seemed he had lived there all his life. The truth was that he had landed in India for the first time yesterday. He had stayed at the large villa of his friend in the consular area of New Delhi.
‘Here the Aravalis start, or finish; depends on the way you look at it,’ thought Ha, as he examined the small hillocks of Delhi, which were topped by forts and palaces in various stages of dilapidation, each one narrating it’s own story of erstwhile grandiosity, royalty, tumult, bloodshed, gruesome history and descent into despair.
Today he had flown to Jaipur and now was travelling to a place, about which he had never heard till a few weeks back, but which promised to reward him a lot- Barr, a small quaint town, nestled in the rocky cliffs of Aravali ranges.
Coordinates – 26.0722° N/ 74.1034°E.
These were the coordinates that had cropped up repeatedly as the result in his extensive research and repeated computer simulations, as the region where he would have the maximum chances of finding the ‘rock’ that would prove his theory and would bring about a major change in the prevailing traditional teachings of geology, history and astronomy; atleasthe hoped so.
He had been stumped at first. The place which was nearest to these coordinates was such a small town that it didn’t even have an entry in the Wikipedia. And it sounded funny too – Barr, as if someone was freezing. But nonetheless it was the place that he had to travel to.
Ha-joon was an astrophysicist and the youngest person to have been offered a tenured position as a faculty at The Harvard- Smithsonian institute of Astrophysics at Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He was thin, of medium height, with oriental features and oriental boyishness. He wore gold-rimmed glasses on his slanting eyes and parted his hair midway. He was 30 but looked 25 and had been blessed with a smiling face and a gentle, charming personality. But beneath the calm demeanor and ‘nerdy’ carelessness, was an astute and a brilliant mind.
He had quickly made his name in his chosen field and had many influential academic papers in his name. He had been a Stephen Hawking advanced fellow at the university of Cambridge, and had held postdoc positions at various prestigious universities before getting a tenured position at Harvard.
But the research in which he was engaged currently, was not only the most ambitious but also the closest to his heart till date. So much so, that he had obtained a grant and a sabbatical leave to travel to India and follow his surmises.
‘ These boulders have seen so manytransformations over the ages,’ thought Ha, as he saw the changing terrain. As the bus had passed through Ajmer, he had witnessed beautiful rolling hills that stood in multiple overlapping layers, forming chains of different lengths and heights. The rugged hills were bright green, in late July, due to the flush of greenery which had suddenly appeared in the monsoon; bursting upon the hard rocky cliffs and draping them in a verdant blanket, masking the thorny shrubs of Khejri, that dominated the mountains for the rest of the arid and dry year. Distant hills appeared blue as they were in the shadow of the setting sun.
But as the Volvo took a left turn after Beawar, he found himself surrounded by shorter hills, at an arm’s length. Most of the boulders were rounded and some others demonstrated fantastic shapes, inviting one’s imagination to visualise different faces and animal forms.
‘ If only I can find a meteoric iron rock amongst the zillions of rocks here..’ pondered Ha wistfully and was jerked out of his thoughts, as the bus halted at the Barr bus stand.
He stood up to get his luggage and immediately sat again – he had palpitations- his heart was thudding loudly inside his chest and he was hyperventilating- ‘ there are so manyhuman beings here!’, he thought.
Although, since he had arrived in India his senses had been saturated by the constant and overflowing sensory stimuli; disturbing visions of countless humans running hither and thither in an erratic fashion on roads, intriguing mixture of aromas floating around due to the ever present street food stalls and urine which undeniably had drenched the walls of the public places, loud foot-tapping bollywood songs blaring away in the buses and taxis intervined with the tinkle of bells of numerous temples and azaan of mosques and the constant rebuffing touch of passerbys as they rushed on the roads or boarded the trains and buses, mixed with the awful and frightful requesting touches of the old beggars and small filthy kids who begged on the streets; but the suffocating vista of the bus stand at Barr had scared him totally.
There were men and women everywhere, cramped in the narrow confined spaces of the bus stand, some were carrying garland’s in their hands and were eagerly looking for someone.
It seemed that the whole town was there and indeed it was true. Unknown to Ha, his friend at Delhi, who worked in the U.S. embassy had relayed a message to the local authorities that a very prominent american scientist was coming to their town on a very important project which would propel their town into limelight. He just wanted to help Ha to have some support and help in his early days at this unacquainted place. He had no idea that it would steamroll into a full fledged circus.
The sarpanch of the town, Mr, Mahendra singh rathore was himself present there along with the M.L.A. of the Jaitaran, the assembly seat under which Barr was situated, Mr. Devendra singh Rathore. He was none other than elder brother of Mr. Mahendra rathore.
Along with them were their extended families and a whole squad of party workers along with casual onlookers. It was too good an opportunity to be lost.
As Ha tentatively came out of the door, there was a hush.
All eyes were upon him. Then heard someone say – ‘Amrican?’
‘ Nahin Japani‘, someone else replied.
There was a lot of talking going on in hushed tones. It seemed everyone was looking at him quizzically and were waiting for him to make the first move.
Ha was at the end of his wits, he didn’t know what was going on. Indeed he had no idea that the crowd had gathered to welcome him.
After few tense moments, a girl strode forward and asked him- ‘ Are you the scientist from America?’
Ha was immediately struck by her beauty. She was about twenty-five and was wearing a sea blue indian suit, that Ha thought suited her particularly well. She had a milky white complexion, sharp features with big, beautiful eyes, a well maintained figure and silky long tresses.
A typical Indian beauty, thought Ha and answered, ‘ Yes, I have come from U.S.A. …Hello, my name is Ha Joon,’
‘Hello, I am Veena,’ replied the girl smiling shyly, ‘ but aren’t you Japanese?’
Suddenly it struck Ha that why everyone had been looking oddly at him – they were expecting a true blueAmerican scientist not an oriental!
‘Oh! I am of South Korean descent but I have been born and brought up at U.S.A, I am an American citizen,’
Veena laughed her lustrous laugh and said,’ Ok, people here are used to see a lot of Europeans and u.s. citizens that pass from this region after visiting Jodhpur, but they seldom get to see nationals from korea and japan, that’s why they were a bit startled to see you,’
While this conversation was going on the crowd had been keenly watching them. Ha deduced that majority of people there were not fluent in english and specially an accented english like his, he was suddenly hopeful that he would get to see Veena a lot in the coming few days because she seemed to be the only one who could converse with him easily.
Veena turned towards her father and told her what Ha had said and immediately the crowd gave a shriek of pleasure and everyone was in tearing hurry to shake his hand and garland him.
There were so many garlands that he suddenly felt suffocated. Veena asked him to remove them and held them for him. She also admonished the crowd not to overwhelm him.
But the crowd was quite enthusiastic, never before this small town had seen a man of this stature who had come there to lift it out of anonymity. Most of them didn’t even know who he was and what he did, but were gathered there anyway.
Few young men lifted on their shoulders despite repeated requests from Veena not to do so, but the festive atmosphere was such that nobody heeded to her.
Ha felt that he was doing to die…He could not understand what was happening. He had hoped for a quite sabbatical and leisurely research in this ‘off the track’ hamlet, but it seemed he was going to be smothered during this unexpected, unwarranted and unwanted welcome.
‘Bharat Mata ki Jai!’ the crowd shouted loudly.
He was taken on to a small stage which had been hastily built an upon which few chairs had been kept. He was seated in the centre and the sarpanch and the M.L.A. sat on his sides. Veena also came up and stood behind her father.
Then there were long speeches by the two leaders. He was given the gist of them by Veena- that it was a matter of pride for Barr that Ha saheb had decided to do this research here. That the town welcomed him and people would do anything to help him in his noble endeavor, that his accommodation and meals would be free…A gift from the leaders of the town…blah..blah..
Ha cringed inside, they sounded as if he had come on a very big humanitarian project which was quite grand and would save a lot of lives or would alleviate the town of its poverty, illiteracy and other stigmas.
Infact, he had come on a very personal and humble scientific project with only his books, papers, a powerful binocular, his laptop, a hand held state of the art metal detector and an object called -XRF – that was a compact instrument to analyse the composition of a rock or a metal, that was all. All of it was in his backpack.
At the end he was called upon to address the crowd. He stood up gingerly and felt his legs shaking. He was a brilliant scientist but a poor orator, specially in front of a large crowd, his class was all right, but this non-understanding gathering of strangers in this completely unknown region terrified him
Again Veena came forward for his help. She told him to tell her about his project and she would translate it to the crowd. She took the microphone in her hand and waves of relief passed through his legs.
As he blurted to her that he had arrived to look for a special type of rock, that was not a terrestrial rock but had fallen in this region, according to his calculations millions of years ago, and was called a meteorite, but a very special kind of meteorite at that which contained a special type of iron. As she translated it, he could feel the disappointment of the crowd -it was palpable. Soon the attention of the crowd wavered and people started talking loudly to each other.
Sensing the mood Veena quickly ended the speech and her father gave Ha a momento and the affair ended abruptly.
Later he was taken to a big house that was three storied and had a big compound in the front, in a corner of which some cows and buffaloes were chewing away at the cud, and at the back was a large field that stretched to the very base of a nearby cliff.
It was the ancestral home of the Rathore’s – the undisputed chief family of the region. Veena’ s father, Mahendra singh himself escorted him to a large room at the top story and told him that he was going to stay there.
Ha tried very hard to refuse, he thought he could not take undue advantage of their generosity. But Mahendra singh was quite firm.
He told him in broken english that it was their pleasure and that he should think this as his home. He instructed everyone severely in his booming and tough voice, including Veena, to take proper care of Ha. There was Veena’s younger brother Vikrant too and he eyed Ha suspiciously. He seemed to be a brute and didn’t hide his irritation which this stranger was causing him by his intrusion into the home and his room.
Ha sat heavily on the cot, his head was aching. He lay on the cot and went immediately to sleep and dreamt a strange dream in which he was standing on the red fort addressing people of India about the importance of astronomy and encouraging the kids to follow this science. People were looking at him suspiciously and suddenly a man in uniform came towards him and shouted – ‘ You are not anAmerican…You are a fraud ..YouJapanese!’
Suddenly, Ha was falling backwards from the podium…falling and falling….
× × × × × ×
He woke up with a start and found that it was dark. There was a plate on the table and a chit in a neat handwriting – ‘ Here is dinner, you seemed tired so didn’t wake you up. Please don’t hesitate to give a call if you want the food to be heated or anything else – Veena’
He ate the dinner gratefully, as it is, and found that it was delicious but quite spicy. He didn’t know the name of dishes but presumed they were part of the local cuisine.
Afterwards, he came out on the terrace and sat on the charpai which was lying in a corner. He was still exhausted but as he lay on the cot and looked towards the sky, he found his spirits reviving, as they always did when he saw the night sky.
There, in that lonely part of the world, the night sky was specially beautiful. There was no light pollution to speak of and he could identify many stars which were not visible to his unaided eyes back at home.
He sighed at the brilliant display of the constellations. He often thought that night sky was a big velvet black cloth on which bright diamonds of different colours had been embroidered in different shapes to form beautiful patterns.
This thought had struck him when he was quite young and had gaped at the night sky one night from the roof of his home. His father, a doctor who had migrated from South Korea in the early 80’s along with his mother; also a doctor; had brought a telescope for him after watching his fascination with the heavens. And Ha had been mesmerized for life by the vision that his telescope had opened for him.
Today, after so many years and after establishing himself as an astronomer, he still could feel that child-like fascination for the stars.
‘ Are you looking for your rock in the sky? It’s the wrong place,”
Ha was startled and sat abruptly. He found Veena standing behind him with a mischievous grin.
‘Oh! It’s you…You scared the hell out of me,’
‘I thought Americans were very brave,’ teased Veena.
‘Not this one…by the way thanks for your help today, I don’t know what I would have done without you,’
‘It was nothing and it’s my pleasure to have a distinguished scientist here. I was fascinated to know about your research…How are you going to find that rock?’
‘Are you intrested in astronomy and science in general?’ asked Ha, he was feeling a curious feeling of happiness by the intrest which this girl of this ‘off the grid’ place was taking in his work.
‘Yes I am, very much so… wanted to pursue science but my grandmother insisted that it was not necessary for a girl to study it and I was forced to pursue home science instead,’ answered Veena wistfully as she leaned over the parapet.
Ha thought it was very contradictory that she could speak such good english but was not allowed to pursue science and said so.
‘Actually, to to tell you the truth…my dear father is of progressive mindset, atleast for a man of this region he is quite modern, and he fought with his family and sent me to the best convent school at Jodhpur when I was young. But after I finished the high school, he had to bow down in front of the social pressure. Girls of marriageable age, specially the ones who are .. well, you know… good looking…don’t have the same liberties as everyone else in this part of the world. To pursue a degree in science from a well respected institution would have required me to go far from home and that was not deemed as acceptable. I was enrolled in the girls college at nearby Pali in the home science division and currently and I am pursuing my graduation from there. I am being allowed to talk to you so freely only because I am the only one who can communicate with you,’ said Veena as she squirmed and looked down towards her feet.
‘ It’s very unfair, ‘ bristled Ha, ‘ that you have not been allowed to follow your dreams, I concede that you are very beautiful but what has it got to do with your education?’.
‘You will not understand that,’ beamed Veena at the concealed compliment, ‘ anyway let it be, the girls here are accustomed to such thinking. You didn’t answer my question- How you are you going to find the rock and what is special about it?’
‘Well; it’s not very easy and not very glamorous, if I could use the word, too…I will just have to roam around the area which I have squared upon and look for the rock personally,’
‘Ofcourse, there are certain characteristics of a meteorite that has fallen from the skies which distinguishes it from the other terrestrial rocks and they will help me in discovering it – it’s colour for example tends to be on the darker side i.e. black or rusty, then it has something called a -‘ fusion crust’ i.e. one surface burns up and melts as it traverses the hot atmosphere of the earth. It does not leave a mark when it is rubbed against a ceramic tile and there are higher chances of it being magnetic. There are some other points too like it would be more dense and irregular than a terrestrial rock etc’
‘ But these would be true for any meteorite, won’t it? You said you have come to find a special type of meteoritic rock,’ Veena said.
Ha thought that she had quite an astute and a sharp mind.
‘True, you have grasped that quickly. Of all the meteorites falling on the earth only about 5% are what we call – ‘Iron meteorites’. These rocks are rich in iron, but this iron is different from the iron which is found on earth. It has more percentage of other metals specially nickel which is consistently higher in these meteorites than iron found on earth.’
‘Ok..so they are rare, but is that it? That’s why I you have come here?’
‘ Well…no; these meteorites have the composition of early solar system i.e. from a time when earth and other planets were not even born. So by studying them we can have an idea about the conditions which were prevalent then,’
‘In a way these rocks are like tiny time capsules – wandering about in the vast heavens with their secrets buried within them for billions of years, then suddenly due to some factor like the pull of the earth or something else; they are flung towards us – falling at mighty speeds and burning as they traverse the atmosphere, they ultimately reach the surface in a brilliant firework display. Is it not beautiful and wondrous to you that things should work out like that? That we can know about the past – about the secrets of billions of years ago- by a small piece of rock that has suddenly and abruptly dropped near us from an immeasurable distance?’
‘ It’s beautiful the way you have described it, ‘ Veena said with much awe. She had not seen anyone so passionate about the stars and rocks – it was new to her and it was pleasantly surprising – bewitching.
‘ Sorry, I have been rambling along for a long time,’ Ha was deeply conscious of her presence suddenly. He had not felt such a feminine presence before and was pleased by her attention. He felt a wave of pleasure run through his body as he watched her big, beautiful eyes look at him with wonder.
‘No..No, please go on; I want to know more,’ urged Veena.
‘Ok…Can you tell me when did the iron age began?’
‘Iron age?’, for once the mentally agile Veena was stumped.
‘Yes…The Iron age i.e. the time period roughly when humans began extracting iron from the ores of earth and started smelting it into tools, utensils and weapons,’
‘ I don’t know…thousands of years back I guess; what has it got to do with your meteorite?’
‘Everything,’ continued Ha,’ the iron age began roughly 1200 years ago- that’s pretty recent and is much later than copper and bronze ages that started about 3000 years back. It means humans started using copper and bronze much before they could use iron. In that era the cost of iron was ten times more than the gold,’
‘Fascinating,’ uttered Veena,’ but what is the connection?’
‘Patience,’ Ha said smiling,’ you know even though iron age began just 1200 years ago or so, weapons made up of iron have been found which are about 3000-3500 years old. Where did this iron come from if humans didn’t know how to extract it from the ores?’
‘From the meteoritic iron!’ quipped Veena triumphantly.
Ha was again impressed by her mental acuity – ‘Yes, you are right. Long before the iron age had started, humans knew that rocks falling from the sky did contain it and they used it to make some precious weapons and other artifacts. And that’s why iron costed much more than gold because it was available in such a little quantity, and so rare. Remember, only 5% of meteorites are iron meteorites and to find these rocks is not easy,’
‘Wow, all this is so intresting. So you have come here to find a rock containing meteoritic iron and to make a weapon from it – Hmmm… quite futuristic and advanced I would say,’
Ha laughed as he saw her mocking him with a quizzical expression.
‘ Ok…Good joke, now listen to me – meteoritic iron has never been found in this region ever, actually in whole of India. There have been some reports but no conclusive evidence,’
‘And that’s why,’ continued Ha, ‘ weapons made up of Iron have never been found in Indus valley civilization. So the current theory is that Harappans never found any iron from meteorites and also did not know how to smelt iron- they had nothing to do with iron in short.’
‘Alright..I am listening,’ Veena said patiently.
‘But this seems very odd. All other civilizations which were contemporary of Indus valley knew about the iron in meteorites like Ejyptians and Assryians. Did you know that the sword of the king Tutankhamen, the boy- king of Ejypt was made of iron extracted from a meteorite?’
‘If these contemporary civilizations were aware then why did Harappans did not know it? They were not dumb- quite the opposite actually. And recently some artifacts have surfaced from different sites of that civilization that seem to contain iron. It’s quite well known that Aravallis were a major source of copper for Harappans, so isn’t it possible they also might have found iron from the meteorites in this region while looking for copper?’
‘There are only two possibilities – either Harappans knew how to smelt iron from ores and thus iron age began a lot earlier than traditionally thought or, more possibly, they did know about the iron in meteorites and used it.’
‘And you have come to find such a rock. It’s wonderful and quite interesting.’ Veena said enthusiastically.
‘Exactly, and well there is one more thing. Scientists have not found major asteroidal and meteoritic activity in the geological history of the Aravallis. That’s why nobody has properly studied this region in this regard. But I and some other planetary geologists think otherwise. I think there was a major asteroidal impact here, near your town, around 65 millions years ago; and that asteroid was an iron one. Infact, we think that this whole region is an impact crater of that asteroid. All indications are towards this conclusion, and my repeated computer simulations, which I created using a lot of data and hi-tech digital technology, pointed this region. That’s why I came here – to prove my theory.’
‘This was the time when India was floating away from Africa and was in the process of reaching the Asian plate. During this time the Aravallis were very high, as high as Himalayas and were the most important mountains on Indian peninsula It is this during this time that an asteroid struck nearby. ‘
Veena was looking at him in a manner that was almost like a churchgoer looks at the statue of God and then she said in a low voice, ‘ I never knew all this …thanks for coming into our lives,’
Ha was embarrassed, ‘ It’s not that big a deal. All this is quite well known. I am just the first person to tell you.’
Veena was mesmerized, ‘Not a big deal! meteorites- Harappans- history of millions of years ! You have made my head spin. This is so exciting..I never knew that stars, history and geology could be connected. I always thought of them as separate subjects,’
‘Most people do, they never realise that everything is connected. Earth was formed by the material left by a star only…we ourselves are made up of stardust only.’
Veena looked towards the sky and saw a star twinkle. She was feeling exhilarated, and liberated. This stranger from a far off land had touched the strings of her heart. In the midst of mind- boggling mediocrity, orthodoxy and monotony of life there, he had arrived as a whiff of fresh air.
And Veena found herself floating…flying higher and higher till she could gingerly touch a star…
× × × × × ×
The next day he surveyed the area which he was going to explore in his quest – acres and acres of mountainous terrain filled with pebbles, stones and boulders of all sizes and shapes; scattered throughout the vision.
It seemed too daunting a task! It was very good to think and philosophise about it sitting in his cozy room, back in his country. But standing there, with half of the town looking at him, it looked as if he had embarked on a fool’s errand.
He had a momentary loss of confidence and he had a strong urge to chuck everything and return back. But Veena was looking at him and sensing his mental state she said, ‘ Don’t worry, you will do just fine. You have come here to prove your theory and research, not to prove your worth in the eyes of these people.’
It seemed to him that she always managed to say the right things. He was filled with gratitude and hope.
He had devised a plan to scourge the area – starting from one end and reaching the other end in about 4-5-months. It was a tedious job and quite monotonous. Initially for few hundred metres some boys accompanied him out of curiosity. But they soon became bored by the routine. Ha was using his hand-held metal detector and the XRF that determined the metallic composition of the rocks.
He was going slowly – examining the rocks closely. He would sit and examine many loose rocks or would dig a few of them intermittently from the earth and would have a long hard look at them. Others didn’t have his expert eyes and the dedication towards the task, and they soon were making fun of him in hushed voices behind his back. He could sense all this but was too absorbed in his work. Having started at last after months of preparations and few initial hiccups, he now was totally ‘into‘ it.
Shortly, everyone left and he was left alone in the hills. He had imagined this peace, this quietness and this solitude for a long time and was finally enjoying it. There was no one near him, except the rocky hardness of the cliffs, thorny bushes and wide blue sky overhead. Occasionally, there would be a rustle and he would find a goat looking at him oddly, as if it was thinking – what is this peculiar mandoing here?
When he returned in the late afternoon after a satisfactory day’s work in which he had acquainted himself with the topography and had made good notes about the geology, Veena was waiting eagerly for him.
‘Did you find the meteorite?’ she enquired impatiently.
Ha laughed a short laugh, ‘ Already? No its just the beginning, it’s going to take a long time before I find it, if at all.’
That night he organised a star-gazing session for the household and some neighbours, in an attempt to befriend them.
With his large and powerful binoculars he showed them different highlights of the night sky.
‘ That’ s Jupiter and it’s four moons,’
‘ That’s Saturn and it’s beautiful rings,’
‘ A double star..’
He mesmerized everyone there with those heavenly visions except Vikrant and his friends, who thought it was a waste of time to look at these objects- what benefit could possibly be obtained by observing them? This was there persistent query, for which Ha had no answer.
But Veena was in another world. She had not seen any of these astronomical objects ever, but had fantasized about them. She was ‘over the moon’ and it was quite evident to everyone including Ha.
Later, he was disappointed to know that she would leave for Pali next morning to join her classes. She told him that she would return next weekend and every weekend after that.
‘ I want to see Venus through your binoculars, don’t know why but I have always wanted to a have a closure look at it.’ she asked him before leaving.
‘Sure, but you will have to get up early. Venus is shining early in the morning right now. It’s quite befitting that you want to have a look at it. Venus is the godess of beauty, you know,’ he told her with a thumping heart and later thought why did he behave in such a juvenile manner. That was new to him.
She turned and looked at him abruptly with a smile on her lips and a mischievous glint in her eyes for few moments, then she looked down and went out of the house with her luggage.
Ha felt his heart sinking with her departure…
× × × × ×
As the weeks passed Ha became a regular feature of the town. He tried to blend in an started wearing a kurta over his jeans.
Striding in this attire and with his backpack slung over his shoulders he no longer was a man to be revered. Earlier enthusiasm of his arrival in the town had died down and had been replaced by a curiosity.
What was this man doing here, so farfrom his home?
He was treated as an eccentric but a loveable eccentric at that. He learned few hindi words in an effort to communicate better.
‘Chai,’ he would demand every morning at his favorite shop – Mohan tea stall, near the bus stand, every morning before embarking on his quest onto the hills.
‘Karak – Karak chai Ha saheb, Good morning’ Mohan would say handing him over the steaming cup.
Then he would spend the day working in the mountains, looking for the object of his desires. Sometimes he would loose hope and throw his bag in anger and would shout at himself for getting himself into this remote place, but then would be distracted by the glint of a promising looking stone and would run after it.
At the house of Rathore’s he had started communicating a little with almost everyone but not to the extent which he could communicate with Veena. He tried to explain to her father about his guilt of overstaying his welcome and offered to shift to a nearby guesthouse, but his reservations were rebuffed gently but firmly by Mahendra Rathore.
‘You are most welcome here and consider it your house. Let us host you till the time your research is complete.’ he told Ha.
And so the days began to pass – slowly, silently and solemnly. It seemed to him that he himself had fallen off the grid. He was so far away from his home and comfort zone. Connectivity was an issue there and he had been out of touch with his friends and family for the past so many weeks. Social media was a forgotten entity.
It was only the thought of Veena that kept him going for most of the week. Her visits on the weekends had become a sort of an oasis in his otherwise dry and arid life.
She continued to astound him with her sharp brain. She researched and read about various topics during the week and then discussed with Ha later. Her swift progress in astronomy, geology and history had not only left him elated but also amazed. Clearly, she had a high I Q.
Ha often wondered how could a girl like her agree to live a life like hers – curtailed and caged. What inner strength was present in her and other women in this part of the world that let them suffer by the hands of orthodoxy and age-old notions, yet they accepted the restrictions so gracefully. The way Veena carried herself was marvellous. She dealt everyone with so much genuineness, compassion, humility and humanity that he thought she was a duchess and not an ordinary girl of a small town in India.
She has that – Ladylike quality- for which models and actresses of the west would die for, thought Ha often.
‘ How very important is the role of the place of one’s birth..’ he surmised in his diary ,’ a sperm meets one egg one day and a child is born, but where does that child takes birth is such a random chance. This chance however decides the fate to quite an extent, if not fully. A girl like Veena would have shown brightly Iike a star anywhere in the West because of her beauty alone, forget about her intelligence. She could have been anything from a supermodel to an academic. But here, bound by ropes of society, she is rotting away. It’s such a pity because although this country has made substantial progress, there are still a lot of girls like her whose life arebeing hampered. ‘
Should I take her to U.S..???
He put down the pen after writing this and thought that what was happening to him. Was it love? Or merely an attraction due to the novelty of finding a super girl like her unexpectedly in this quarter of the earth? Was he falling into the trap of the idea of romance with a stranger at an exotic place?
His logical mind wanted to be sure. It wanted to weigh every aspect and option before taking a decision. But perhaps it already had been decided.
May be I am getting attracted towards her because there is no other women in this desolate part of the world with whom I can interact. Perhaps it’s the circumstances that are culpable, hewrote another night.
How is it possible that I, who has always thought my ideal women should be a prominent scientist or a brilliant academic, should feel this way towards her? I have always thought that I should be able to respect the women for her achievements in life before I could love her. Love without respect is nothing, and I have had access to best of the women – fellow scientists and even students- who have dazzled the world with their work; and many of them were quite beautiful too; and admittedly I have had a few flings over the years, but I have never felt anything like I this before. Would I have fallen for her had I met her at u.s. where she would have been just another beautiful face in the crowd?
Is it all right?? Or I am trying to take advantage of a simple girl??
Is it logical?
LOGIC… Should there be logic and reason behind everything in world? Can’t one do something without any reason for once in life???
Ha put down the pen and put his head on the the table and sighed. How couldhe write the above sentence?
He who had been the supreme advocate of reason and logic. He who thought that love was nothing but an arrangement between two like-minded people who respected each other’s qualities like intelligence and research papers. He who had held on to the strings of his heart tightly for so long in order to find a distinguished and brilliant life partner some day and hand over the reins of his heart to her, because that was the logical thing to do.
It was an unknown and exhilarating sensation to him- to be swinging out of control. To let the heart rule over his mind.
Perhaps I am going bonkers in thisdamned town…
But is it so crazy? Can’t I love a women for just being herself. Are overachieving intelligence and eugenics that necessary? Am I afraid that what would my peers think about my choice or how my kids would turn out? Am I that shallow a man? Can’t other supreme human qualities suffice.. and it’s not that she has any dearth of intelligence,it’s just theopportunities which has been lacking in her life.
This thought gave him a lot of solace and he began to feel a mighty calm. He began to scribble further in his diary-
When I look at her I feel that she would complete me. That everything would be fine in this world if only she would consent to stand by my side. I am not a hero of a mushy teenage romantic novel, but I have this recurrent urge to have her in my arms. I think everything in my life would fall neatly in it’s place if only she would rest her head on my shoulder and her hand upon my chest.
But does she think about me in the same manner? And if yes, is it alright for us to embark on this path?
I don’t know…It might be troublesome and dangerous, but why are the ways of the world like this here? Can’t two people decide that they admired each other and be together… Wasn’t itenough?
Ha put down the pen and thought that he was entering into the territories of philosophy at that point, and that nobody could possibly answer these simple but age old questions.
He turned towards his left and peered out of the window near the desk.
It was almost dawn, reddish streaks of light had begun to paint the sky above a distant cliff in east.
Shining brightly high above the cliff in the still dark patch of the sky was Venus, the roman goddess of love and beauty…
× × × × × ×
If Ha-joon’s mind was in tumult, Veena’s was completely at peace- blissful, all- enveloping peace.
If he was tormented by searing questions of brutal self- introspection, she was in complete control of her emotions.
She was totally and completely in love with him.
How could she not? How was it possible not to worship this man who had entered her life suddenly and had changed it forever?
She remembered the moment exactly when she had first seen him- standing perplexed and a bit nervous, framed in the door of that Volvo at the bus stand.
She had known at that moment that he was no ordinary man. He was a man of pure brilliance of mind and possessor of a gentle, lovable and an honest soul.
How did she know? She just did…women have a sixth-sense about these matters, and where a man can be puzzled by the nuances of emotions and prickles of conscience, a woman always knows exactly. She does not flounders or dilly-dallies.
And the way he looked at her, she could look into his honest, if hesitant eyes, and reach the bottom of his heart.
A woman can always tell about the character of a man by the manner in which he looks at her. And she knew that Ha not only had an excellent mind but also a compassionate and a soft heart. He would treat every woman with respect, but he would treat his partner like a queen.
And Oh! the way he felt about his work –sopassionately. He felt nothing but genuine happiness in sharing the secret of heavens with her and with anyone else for that matter.
He had arrived in her town and lifted her out of gloom. Deep …deep gloom of mundaneness. Lifted her out of the suffocating fog of ignorance and mediocrity that had enveloped her for so long.
And he also felt the same way towards her, she was quite sure. It was evident in his every gesture, every glance and every movement.
But she had to be sure…she had to hear it from himself, whatever might be the consequences….
× × × × × ×
It had almost been four months but his search still had not yielded any positive results and the meteoritic rock had remained elusive.
During these past months he had seen a lot of mining going on in the hills and that saddened him.
It was no secret that Aravallis were threatened by the blatant and over-excessive mining that was going on. Most of it was illegal.
These beautiful hills were an abundant source of minerals like copper and zinc, and stones like quartz, marble,granite and sandstone. For this reason they had been plundered for centuries, but the kind of over-zealous loot that had been going on for past few decade had put the very existence of these hills at risk.
The supreme court of India had passed a judgement restricting mining to few supervised zones only. But despite that, mining was rampant.
He had many times stumbled upon the sites during his search. He would be moving about systematically on a hill and the planes near it to the other end, when he would hear a dull hum of a tractor or J.C B. nearby and hushed voices.
When he would cross the gorge or climb up a big chunk of rock jutting out and blocking the view; he would see it – a wide shallow pit cascading down from a hillock and defacing it. Like a big bite of the mountain had been bitten out of it by a giant, leaving it precarious and vulnerable. Somewhere in the brown sea of the sand would be the shrill yellow of J.C.B. that would be working with its demonic mechanical claw to gouge out the heart of the mountains.
He had thought not to go near the sites, but once or twice he thought he saw Vikrant standing there and directing the operation. Finally one day, to be sure, he had ventured quite close to one such mining site.
It was Vikrant, there could be no doubt. There were some other boys from the town too, but undoubtedly Vikrant was leading them. Ha was unsure how to react. He wanted to confront him, but had no authority, moral or administrative. He was a guest at his home and he felt that infact he was trespassing, despite the clear fact that the vision in front of his eyes was not legal and was sounding a death knell for these ranges.
One day he delicately approached the topic and was rudely shocked by the Vikrant’s response.
‘ You keep your nose out of my business..’ he growled, ‘ do your research and leave this country as soon as possible.’
Mr. Mahendra rathore had overheard the conversation and he restrained Vikrant by keeping his hand over his right arm.
‘ Ha saheb you have come here on a different purpose, please concentrate upon it. Whole town is looking towards you with expectant eyes. Don’t worry about these hills, we love them more than our lives.’
After that, he could not say anything more to him.
× × × × ×
‘ I have already seen these nebulae and galaxies, do you have something else to show me or are your treasures exhausted?’ complained Veena while returning the binoculars to him. It was late October.
‘Well…You haven’t seen the polar ice-caps of Mars as yet.’
‘Hmmm,’ Veena said non-comittally, she appeared distracted, ‘ and do you want to say anything else to me?’ she asked looking at him with her big brown eyes that seemed to bore through him.
‘ Say anything else? Me? …No,’ stuttered Ha, he knew what she was trying to imply. It had been brewing between them for a long time now but he was afraid of letting it out- tocommitt– to reach the point of no return. He felt very small standing besides her there, in that part of the world where he did not have any real friend, except Veena, merely a lot of acquaintances.
Should he propose to her and open aPandora’s box? Did he have the courage to stand up against her family? Because surely they would not accept it.
He knew Veena’s patience was wearing thin and she was also fighting the uncertainty of his stand. It was her right to know where he stood, he knew it but he did not have the wisdom, courage and surety of taking that decision…at that point of time atleast.
She looked down at her feet for a few seconds with her her hands folded in front of her chest and replied at length,’ Ok, tomorrow is the first day of Navratri, an important festival here. There is going to be a celebratory dance tomorrow night in the empty plot behind the community hall. Afterwards, we will climb the hillock just near the plot. The night sky would be very beautiful from there. Show me the mars from there.’
All day long the next day he trudged along the narrow pathways on the cliffs, made by years of passage of cattle and their shepherds, gloomily. His heart was not in his search and he dragged along his metal detector behind him, barely stopping to scan any rock. He sat in the scant shadows of the trees, perched upon a granite rock that was burning under the sun, for many hours.
All around him and beneath him was thin and coarse sand of the desert. It knew no bounds and would infiltrate in one’s body unabashedly. He removed his shoes and poured the sand, that had gotten there stealthily, in a gully nearby that was filled with cacti and shrubs.
It seemed to him that he was a persona non grata there. Though he now knew about the mountains a lot more than the locals and as he sat there covered in sand and perspiration, he perhaps was more local than the locals; but nobody would accept that. He would always remain an outsider – an eccentricnovelty.
And it was true too. Why would he expect himself to be counted as a local? It was not as if he was going to stay there forever; far from it. His search was coming to an end and regardless of the result he would soon be returning to his world.
A lizard came out from beneath a small rock and peered at him unaproovingly. It was hot and the lizard moved quickly into the shade, ambling on its padded feet. From its perch, under the shades of leaves it gawked at him as if saying- go on odd man, have a life. What are you doing here, burning yourself in the sun and in the flames of your desires?
Despite his mental state, Ha laughed at his imagination and lay full upon the rock. The sky above was spotless blue.
He looked at it for a long time as if looking for a sign and didn’t know when he went to sleep….
* * * * * *
He went weak in the knees when he saw her in the evening.
She was looking gorgeous!
He had never seen her this way- made up and in resplendent traditional dress. He could not believe that someone could look so beautiful.
He has had a lot of experience with American girls and had seen them in all sorts of attires; and well – without it too, a few times. But they did not come close to Veena, not even one bit.
For her part, Veena was determined to get something out of him. And she had worn her best dress- a beautiful blue and yellow chaniya- choli with full ensemble of ornaments. She was looking a queen with her earings, necklace, baajuband, rakhdi and anklets; and she knew it.
She was not disappointed with his reaction. He stood open- mouthed, unable to take his eyes off her. His heart had skipped a beat and she knew it.
She gingerly went to him, holding her chaniya with her hands and lifting it up a bit gently, lest it would be spoilt by the mud; and said- ‘ Don’t forget to show me the ice-caps of Mars later.’
He was unable to speak and nodded vigorously. His mind was jammed by the angelic vision in from of him and by her sweet fragrance.
Ican see her navel! And just a hint of her long milky legs, he thought.
His heart was thumping loudly and he was ashamed to know that he was aroused a bit.
I am a thirty year old man! Why am I behaving like a teen who isexperiencing the first flushes of puberty? Hereflected
But he knew that he was a beaten man. He had to try to make her his.
He just had to. There was no other option. He loved her and there was no getting away from it. He had to be with her and spend his life with her…he could not let her go.
For two hours she saw her dance with other boys and girls. They had adorned sticks in their hands and were swaying on traditional songs that he had not heard before in his life but was under their spell. They were melodious and very rhythmic.
It was as if he was under a trance – the aesthetic lighting, colorful dresses, bright faces flushed with happiness and foot-tapping music had mesmerized him. The whole atmosphere was charged and buzzing with energetic vibes.
Though he was standing on the sidelines, it seemed he was a part of the melee. His foot inadvertently tapped the ground.
Veena was the life of the celebration. As he saw her petite waist gyrating to the tunes of song after song, he thought that she was an angel who had descended on the earth and was now dancing amongst the mere mortals in order to lure a man who was not worthy of her.
Then he laughed inwardly, ‘ This must be love surely…otherwise how could a man like I, who never could think beyond formulae, dry scientific names and theorems of physics and maths; could engage myself in such poetic meanderings of my thoughts. Angels! Mortals- whathas gotten into me?’
Around 9:30pm there was a break and Veena signalled her to follow him. He already had his binoculars and a torch with him.
As he went behind her he thought that this night was going to be a special and important night in his life. His heart was filled with a nervous eagerness. There was trepidation also but it was overridden by a curious ‘butteflies in the stomach’ feeling.
Veena started getting up the rocks and he was frightened that she would fall as she would be encumbered by her dress. But she displayed agility and fluidity of a ballet dancer and never did falter once.
There was a plateau at roughly one-third height of the mountain. There were some trees on the side which bordered the mountain but otherwise remarkably clear of any obstacle. They could see the site of the celebration down below, it glittered against the darkness of the town. As everyone was there the houses in the town were dark.
Above, the stars shone brightly and there was a thin waning crescent of the moon dangling weakly at one corner.
Veena shivered slightly as there was a chill in the air. Ha immediately offered her his jacket which she took thankfully.
Both of them stood side by side and looked at the scene. There was no need of words.
Eventually, Ha spoke -‘ Venus…Can I call you Venus instead of Veena? It seems befitting,’
She looked at him steadily with a smile on her face and ascented with a nod of her head.
‘ Venus..I wanted to ask you…that would you?…I mean..What I want to convey is…You know..’ he wrung his hands helplessly. Words were failing him at this crucial moment and she was enjoying his discomfort.
He came forward near her and spoke softly, ‘ I cannot do it as shown in the movies, you know I am not made for it. I will straight away come to the point – would you be my Venus?’
‘ I don’t know how to express it but I have never felt about anyone like I do for you. I did not even know you a few months back but don’t know what I would do without you now. So, would you please answer my question,’ he rambled on.
She came very near him and said yes very very softly. Then it automatically happened, she was in his arms and they were hugging tightly.
After few moments, she leaned over him and kept her head on his right shoulder and left hand over his heart. His right arms was wrapping her.
‘You will have to keep finding ever new things in the sky to show me. I will go away if I would get bored,’ she teased him.
Ha laughed and thought that it really was possible to feel that way- totally peaceful and fully contended. He thought it truly felt that everything in his life had fallen in its place and now he could die easily.
Then he wondered why would he think about death in this supremely happy moment. But it reflected the contentment that he was experiencing then – his life was complete. He did not desire anything else. With her by his side he could face any trouble, any problem in the life. No worries worried him at that moment. No expectations tempted him at that moment. He did not feel any other obligation except towards her.
‘I…Aaaghh!…. ‘ Ha shouted suddenly and fell on the ground and writhed with pain.
‘Ha…Ha…What happened?’ Veena shouted and bent over him but was forcefully pulled away by someone.
Ha felt a thin streak of liquid traversing his face and when he wiped it he found out that it was blood.
There was a severe pain emanating from the left side of his head and he could not stop tears from brimming in his eyes.
Veena was shouting hysterically but was being restrained by someone.
‘Haramkhor!..How dare you touch my sister!’
Ha realised that it was Vikrant.
‘ Pig!…We gave you a place in our home and you are trying to defile the the girls of our town…’ Vikrant kicked him and he doubled over in anguish,’ I have had my doubts over you for a long time …I will not spare you today,’
‘Vikrant! Stop,’ it was Mahendra Singh’s voice.
Slowly Ha sat up on his knees and looked around him, there were around five men surrounding them. All had lathis in their hands. In front of him was Mahendra singh and by his side was Veena, sobbing uncontrollably while looking down at her feet.
Ha realised that those were tears of shame and humiliation.
‘ You have crossed a line Mr. Ha that should not have been crossed, ‘ growled Mahendra rathore in an angry but a restrained manner.
‘ Mahendraji…Please let me explain; I love your…’
‘Please!’ Ha was cut off in mid-sentence by Mahendra singh who was holding his right hand up with palm facing towards him, ‘ there are certain things in life which just cannot be, this is one of them….Vikrant, escort Mr. Ha to the bus stand withouthurting him andmake him sit in thefirst bus going towards Delhi…Hecannot remain here anymore.’
‘Veena….Come with me,’ with this command he strode off towards the town and Veena remain rooted there for few moments. Their eyes met and so much was conveyed in that glance- regret, sadness due to the death of their future, ashes of their dream world and love; but no hope.
Both of them knew that it was over and in all probability they would never meet again. Suddenly, helplessness outweighed the pain and Ha started crying softly. Veena put her hand to her mouth, stifling a deep sob emanating from the depths of her soul after watching him reduced to this state, then she was pulled by her father and was gone – forever out of his life.
He stood up unsteadily and was pushed again on the ground by Vikrant.
‘ You will go to Delhi but not before I punish you…You filthy Japanese bastard!’
Ha found anger rising within him, ‘ You should be punished not me, you brute…You are killing these mountains by illegally mining them. I have done nothing wrong,’
‘What did you say…You nosey son of a bitch! I will kill you,’ shouted Vikrant and started kicking him as he lay on the ground. His friends also joined him.
Ha rolled into a ball and put his hands over his head for protection. He started rolling on one side to dodge the blows and all of a sudden went over the edge.
It was a gentle slope on this part of the hill but there were a lot of sharp stones and thorny bushes. As he slid he was mercilessly cut and bruised. He desperately tried to break his fall and came to an abrupt stop due to a large rock and got his wind knocked out.
He could hear footsteps and shouts behind him. Desperately he tried to stand and find a hiding place. It was dark and it was difficult to get his bearings. Before he could act he was violently shoved by Vikrant, who had reached there much ahead of his friends, and fell into a ravine that was behind and downwards that large rock.
Vikrant came after him,’ I kill you..And will bury you here in this ditch,’
To his horror Ha saw Vikrant lifting a large stone above his head in attempt to crush his head. There was a curious glint being reflected by one surface of that stone due to the light coming from below where the celebration was going on and Ha stared at it as if he was mesmerized for the fraction of a second which he got before reacting.
Instinctively he kicked Vikrant in the shin and he fell backwards, still clutching the rock. Ha jumped at him despite wincing in pain. There were voices coming from above that were approaching nearer very fast. He had to act fast.
There was a mighty scuffle between them as they rolled over the ground. Then Ha, perhaps due to the power of his flooding anger or heaving desperation or both; overcame him. He punched him repeatedly in the face forcefully, despite hurting himself badly in the process. He saw his nose crumble and his jaw crack. Vikrant was stunned and paralysed by the pain.
Ha got up fast, lifted the rock that was lying besides Vikrant and then he was running…running for his life…
* * * * * *
He jumped from one ravine into another and from one cliff to another for about an hour. He had left his pursuers behind, probably because he knew the topography better than them. He had a rough idea where he was and so despite it being dark and despite being injured he had gained upon them.
There was a small natural cave few yards ahead that he had discovered during his search. It was well concealed and nobody knew about it, he was convinced. He was going towards it. It was vital for him to reach Delhi safely. He did not have his phone and the torch with him as they had been lost during his fall. He could not contact anyone right now.
The cave was in the section of the hills that were quite near the village of Sendra. Ha had thought that he would pass few hours there and would walk towards Sendra as soon as dawn would start to break.
As he reached the cave he quickly checked that it was not occupied by any animal. Then he kept the stone carefully at one end.
He got out and collected some branches from the trees and shrubs nearby. Then he slithered inside the cave and covered the entrance with those branches. There was just enough space for him to lie down on one side with his body folded around the rock like a child would sleep around a precious toy.
At rest finally, he found his heart beating away like an engine and his legs shaking due to grief, anger and exertion.
He could not imagine what would be happening to Veena. He prayed that she would not be punished severely. He just hoped that Mr. Mahendra would not go to police to track him, atleast before he could contact his friend at the U.S. embassy. Although, he had an idea that the family would not go to police and rather would try to suppress the matter as it involved Veena. And they would not want to spread the scandal by involving the authorities.
Fortunately, he was still carrying his pocket diary in his jeans in which he had the number of his friend and the U.S. embassy. He would ring them first thing in the morning from Sendra. That would make him secure against any action taken by Mahendra singh’s family. He just needed luck to be on his side for few hours.
As he plotted the route to Sendra and onwards in his mind, he thought that how could he be so systematic and organised after what had happened.. hell…he should have gone to pieces, it shouldn’t have been possible for him to think clearly, to plan things. Yet, he was in full control of his mental faculties. Perhaps, he was in a shock and the defence mechanism of his brain had kicked in and had blocked all thoughts, or perhaps he was running on sheer adrenaline that was rushing through his system.
He stared at the Stony ceiling for a long time and tried to catch up few hours of sleep, but his body was in an overdrive, his central nervous system was fully awake and showed no signs of switching off.
Finally, life started to stir around him. Birds started chirping and the sky started getting brighter in the east.
He came out of the cave silently with the rock in his hands and started to walk briskly towards Sendra…..
× × × × × ×
Veena said goodbye to his son who waved from the window of his school bus. As she returned to her home, a big villa in the fancier part of Bikaner, she found her husband getting ready to go to his factory. She immediately served him breakfast and prepared his tiffin, along with the maid.
After seeing him off she roamed around the house, in a distracted manner, to see whether anything needed her attention. Not that she had to do this, there were enough servants to take care of everything, but she wanted to keep herself occupied.
Finally, she sat with a thump on her bed, ‘ it has been six years since thatfateful night,’ she mused.
Today was Navratri sthapna i.e. the first day of the nine days festival, same as the day when she had seen him for the last time.
Generally, she was able to forget everything and remain focussed and reasonably happy in her life, but Navratris always bugged her. The past seemed to clutch her in its strong hands during these days and seemed to crush her, slowly but firmly, till she could not breath.
She let out a loud sigh and absently looked out of the window that showed her the vision of life going on normally in the street. People were coming and going with a purpose, kids were playing cricket, as it was a holiday, the vendors were selling their wares as usual. It seemed to her that she was the only one who was feeling distraught, the rest of the world was getting on with the daily life as always.
She wondered what Ha would be doing at that moment. She understood that the pattern of his life would be very different back at his home than hers and probably he would be too busy to remember her. Probably he had forgotten all about her, then she thought that it was not possible. She knew him well enough to know that it could not be like that.
Was he happy? A part of her wanted her to be unhappy without her. Then she was ashamed of herself and thought that he would want her to be totally happy in her life…he was that kind of a man; and wasn’t true love like that?
Was she happy?
Well… she was .. Almost; on most of the days atleast. Her husband was a good man and treated her with love and respect. He was ten years elder to her and that did give him a maturity even in the initial days of their marriage, that perhaps was lacking in the men of lesser age. He was a thorough gentleman, and a respected prominent businessman of the city.
She had all the material comforts which a lady would want from her husband. She also had a lot of space and liberty provided by her husband, who understood the need of them in the life of every person.
But the apple of her eyes was her son- Samar. Now four and a half years old and very naughty. He occupied her time and mental space for most of the time.
But on days like these she started feeling uneasy- itchy and irritable. Of course, it did not hurt her like in the early days when the pain was unbearable. It had dimmed to a dull ache that suddenly burned acutely on some days.
She had thought of ending her life many times in the initial few weeks of their separation. The grief and humiliation was too much to handle. Although, her father did not punish her or even shouted at her, but others in her home did not spare any excuse to torment her, specially while Vikrant was recovering. And her father had gone into a sort of shell. He did not talk to her and responded in monosyllables, and that only if required. His silence riled her more than the taunts of others.
It was her grandmother that lashed at her the most – you have blackened the name ofour family! – she would shout or – youhave made your father’s head bowdown in front of the whole town andfor what sort of a coward, who chosean useless rock over you and ran awaywith that stone?What sort of a lover would do that? And he has not even returned for you. These firangis are like that – unreliable– you should have known that,’
Though her father was the strongman of the town and everyone was afraid of him, the scandal had quickly engulfed Barr, it was not possible to shut everyone’s mouth.
She flinched as she remembered the barbs hurled down at her by the boys when she ventured out alone sometimes to get an errand done or simply to get some air-
‘ Hai – hai, how can someone love a piece of stone more than this beauty…perhaps he was not a man enough,’
‘ Choose me baby, I would never leave you…even for another girl leave alone a rock,’ then there would be a volley of laughter as the boys would crack up at such comments.
She made it a point to walk through slowly and with her head high. To not to react and walk away with dignity was the only thing to do. It would have been a mockery of their love not to do so. Those shallow men could not understand him and their relation.
She completely understood his actions. He had to do what he had to do.
She did not held him guilty of abandoning her and she certainly did not rue the fact that he had gone back with the rock, that he had so miraculously found that night in the hands of Vikrant.
What else could he do?
He certainly could not have come back to Barr to take her away. This was real life and not a movie. Things did not work that way.
What could he have done against the might of his father in that part of the world where he was alone and barely knew anyone?
Of course he had to go, she understood that. His work was important to him and to the world. Itwas important toher.
His devotion and passion towards his research was what had attracted her towards him in the first place.
He had taken the right decision. It didn’t matter to him what others thought of him and it certainly did not matter to her too. Not when the goal was so enormous and lofty.
It would have killed her if Ha would not have been able to fulfill his dream because of her. She was infinitely thankful that he wrested the rock out of Vikrant and was able to get away, specially after what her brother had done to him.
Their love was doomed anyway, and had been from the start; she now knew and accepted it. Then what was the point that he should have sacrificed his aspirations and life’s work for it too?
It was not cowardly of him to go away with his prized possession rather it was quite brave and wise of him to do so. Stakes were very high for him.
And what if he would have decided to show up in Barr in an attempt to meet her or take with him…What then?
She thought that it would have been futile not only because she had been caged in her house for weeks and was allowed to venture out later only when the news percolated down to her father from his political connections that Ha had left India; but because she didn’t have the courage to go against the wishes of her family. Despite her views about the liberties of women she could not have done it when it would have mattered. One look from her father and she would have wilted. It seemed an insurmountable obstacle to her to have rebelled against her family and go with him to another country to live an altogether different life. It was too much to demand from herself, she admitted frankly.
Then why did she temp him? She was hell bent on taking herself to the task that day. He had showed remarkable restraint, perhaps he knew the outcome in advance, but she had provoked him to propose her.
‘I was young! So young…only twenty four’ she said to herself, ‘ and I needed to know,’ God! How desperate I was to hear from him that he too aspired for her companionship, that he considered herself worthy of being his life partner,’
‘ So would you behave in the same manner even today if the circumstances were similar?’ she was blank for sometime in the face of this question raised by her own conscience.
The answer was – no probably; or yes in all probability- she did not know.
Was it correct what they said- that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?
She thought how easy it was to say that to anyone who was experiencing the pain of separation or a break up, but how difficult it was for that person to just take it on its face value and be solaced by it.
‘ But, ‘ she pondered, ‘ I am infinitely grateful that he came into my life. There was no way I could not have fallen for him; not a chance. Perhaps I would behave differently if those circumstances were to be repeated today- more maturely perhaps. But no doubt I would love him nonetheless and perhaps it is better to have loved and lost than never to love at all; after all,’
And he certainly knew this too. When their eyes had met for the last time, she could see finality in his eyes. He had grasped the situation firmly. His sharp and logical mind had signalled him that the battle of their love was lost. She would be gone from his life forever, even if he somehow defied her father and her brother’s gang.
To make the correct and the right decision in extraordinary circumstances was not easy for an ordinary man, but he was no ordinary man. Rather, if he would have stayed than he would have fallen in her eyes, and he knew it.
How did both of them know all this about each other without discussing it ever? She did not know that. Perhaps that was what true love was. To under stand each other and trust each other completely no matter how things worked out, no matter what people said, no matter whether they remained together or not and no matter whether they did not meet again ever in life.
She got up and went to her bookshelf. There were a lot of books on astronomy and history. She had carried on her reading about these subjects and now had a telescope at her home. Her husband and her son loved it when she showed them the wonders of the night sky, and she now knew the happiness that this sharing bring forth in herself and could imagine why Ha was so enthusiastic about it.
At the end of the shelf, pressed against the wall was a thin magazine. She took it out. It was the June issue of Science magazine of two years ago. She had begun to read a lot of such magazines with the hope that she would find something about him one day and she had not been disappointed.
She remembered clearly the day when she was flipping though this one and had encountered the page and article – U.S. astronomer rewrites the history ofAravallis : a meteorite reveals anasteroid impact that changed theworld.
There was a photo of Ha- joon, the prominent astronomer and planetary geologist of Harvard-smithsonian institute of astrophysics. He was smiling in his easy charming manner.
She had reacted involuntarily and had said – oh! loudly while sitting up with a jerk. Her husband had been sitting near her in the living room and their son was playing nearby. He asked what had happened with concern. She had said that it was nothing and she was feeling nauseous all of a sudden.
Then she had gotten up and had gone into the bedroom with the magazine and read the article eagerly.
It elaborated that how Ha-joon had searched for and had ultimately found a special type of a meteorite that had long been suspected but never had been found earlier. This meteorite confirmed the usage of iron from such rocks by the inhabitants of Indus valley civilization. It went on to state that Dr. Ha-joon and his team had also proved beyond doubt with the help of their theory, simulations, analysis of this meteorite and few others that had been found in Aravallis later, and with the help of studies of geology of the region; that there had been a massive asteroidal impact roughly 66 millions years ago in the region of western Rajasthan that had changed the course of life on earth along with the other asteroidal impact at Chicxulub, Mexico and the volcanic eruptions that had been going on simultaneously in that era in the Deccan plateau of India. All these events had lead to extinction of dinosaurs and changed the pattern of life which emerged later on earth.
Dr. Ha also revealed that there has been an addition in the geological timeline of the earth after his paper and a new event – Veena event has been added to the geological chronology of earth. This event was the time period when that asteroid struck the Western part of Rajasthan till a few thousand years after that. It has been named after the guest house where Dr Ha had stayed during his stay at the small town of Barr and behind which he found the meteorite.
She had cried for weeks after that and till today her eyes easily got wet just by thinking about the effect the article had had upon her.
She opened the page and caressed his picture. She knew why he had lied about the reason behind naming the event as Veena and respected him even more for that.
He wanted to protect her reputation and her privacy, yet wanted to give his association with the her supreme importance.
It was as if he was speaking to her from beyond this world; this world of orthodoxy, of bondages, of rules, of biases and preconceived notions.
She knew it was easy for him to find her. With all the technology at his disposal he could have come there to meet her but he did not want her life to be disrupted; again; and she did not want him to come. What would it achieve? It would change nothing. She was a married woman and the mother of a child. That was a fact, an irrefutable fact.
But she knew she held an important place in his heart and his life. And it was all that mattered to her.
She thought he had made her immortal by naming an event in earth’s life after her, which would live in the history forever. In a way he had linked her to himself for eternity. Whenever his name would be taken inevitably the mention of his most important work would be done too and so her name would live with him.
She felt their relation was like Radha- krishna. Like Radha she could not be with him but her name would be linked with him always.
She got up smiling and thought what he would think of this analogy. ‘Nonsense!’ he would day in his accented voice.
She kept the magazine on the shelf and went to prepare for the festivities. She could live with the thought that their love had not got wasted and had resulted in something tangible.
It was enough for her…
× × × × × ×
Ha disembarked from the Volvo about two kilometers from the Barr bus stand. The driver and the conductor looked at him oddly as he got down. There is nothing here except the hills and bushes, there stares said.
Of course they didn’t know that he had come to meet the mountains only. He had no intention of entering the town.
As he started walking uphill on the narrow pathways made by the shepherds and cattle, it seemed that it was only yesterday that he had been there.
He remembered each gully, each branching of the footpath and each turn.
How time flies he thought as he sat on a rock jutting out of the ground. It had been almost seven years when he had left those hills.
From his position he could see the town of Barr in the distance. Life was going on there as usual but it did not have Veena in it’s pulsations.
He knew she was far away in Bikaner, married to a widower, who had no kids from his first marriage.
It was not the first time that he had come there after that fateful night. He had come the first time roughly ten months after that.
Ten months had elapsed before he could manage to come. He had his hands full till then. When he had got down at Barr last time he had straight gone to Mohan tea stall, where Mohan was alarmed to see him.
‘Ha saheb! Why did you come back? It is not safe for you. There is a lot of ill-will against you still. Please go back right now, you can be hurt here,’
He had heard from Mohan about Veena as a sickness had spread over him. He told him that she had been married off just few weeks after his departure to a well respected man of her community at Bikaner by her father.
He had returned back immediately and had not come back – till now.
He came out of his reverie and started reflecting about that strange night and the events that had unfolded after it.
When he had called his friend at U.S. embassy the next morning, all hell had broken loose. His friend was livid with rage that he had been beaten and wanted to take the local administration to task. But He had asked him not to do so.
He had seen the humiliation in her eyes and did not want it to be increased in any manner. Also, it was paramount at that moment that the meteorite reached Delhi and later U.S. safely. Mahendra’ s men were after him and if he fell into their hands he could be severely injured and the rock could be damaged or misplaced.
He requested his friend to quietly arrange a police escort for him and to arrange to transport him to Delhi, which his friend duly did.
Once he had reached Delhi and was being treated for his injuries, there was a further frustrating delay of two weeks in which it was notified to the relevant Indian authorities about his discovery and the need to take it to America for further research. The Government eventually accepted his request on the condition that the rock would be handed over to India when the research was over.
During the intervening time he experienced pure hell. He was half mad with grief and anger. And with indecision – should he go back or not? How was Veena being treated?
There were so many questions playing on his mind. He was strongly advised by the embassy not to go back. He was an American national whose life was important to his country. If he did go back and something untoward happened to him then who would be responsible? They asked him and he had no answer. He had flatly refused to press charges against Vikrant and his friends in order to suppress the matter and protect her name from being further maligned, so their hands were tied.
After a lot of thought he had decided that it was useless to go back. She could not and would not come with him even if he somehow managed to contact her, which was impossible.
She was a brave girl who could stand for her principles, but not when it involved her family. The way she and other girls had been brought up made them incapable of defying the wishes of their family, however unreasonable those wishes might be, and they even felt guilty for thinking about the same, even though they were absolutely right. He had understood this much during his stay.
Moreover, she genuinely loved her father and could not think of hurting his feelings. She would always choose her father over him. He knew this and accepted this as a fact.
She had to do what she had to do.
There were no hard feelings in him towards her for being so provocative towards him yet being so non-rebellious toward her father. Some things in life can’t be changed and have to be accepted. And frankly he had loved her for this quality of hers to take care of the feelings of others, specially of her family. She would not be the woman whom he loved without this aspect of her personality.
She was quite young then, perhaps she would have acted differently today, he did not know. But that changed nothing.
Moreover, there had been the rock. He had found it in such extraordinary circumstances that he hardly believed it was true. So big was the coincidence and so miniscule the probability of him finding the very rock he was looking for in the hands of his attacker at the very last night of his stay was; that he sometimes thought that the universe had compensated him for loosing her by giving him the meteorite.
It was like he could not have it all. Whatever gods there might be, if at all, were keen on maintaing a perfect and balanced ledger in the account of his destiny.
Thank you very much for transecting with us.
So it was logical that he would do what he had originally come for – to find and analyse the meteorite. She would want him to succeed, he knew.
So he threw himself feverishly in the process of analysing the meteorite then writing his paper based on his findings. Later he sent it to peer review and was exhilarated when it was accepted to be printed in the most prestigious journal of the country.
Not only that his proposals and conclusions were enthusiastically received the world over but soon there were calls to decide the matter of an asteroidal impact in the Aravallis once and for all. So there was a lot discussion, committees were made, action plans were drawn and various expeditions dispatched in due course of time to find other evidences. He of course was in the forefront all this time, it was his brain child after all.
Eventually after about four years of his departure from Barr, he and his team published a landmark paper that had defined The Veena event.
He always maintained that he had named the event Veena after a small but lovely guest house by the same name where he had stayed and had had a wonderful time there. It did seem odd to his colleagues and scientists that he would name if it after a guesthouse but he was adamant and had stuck to his guns. It was his call anyway.
He could have easily stated the real reason but somehow he deeply felt that it would put her name and honour at stake. He could do anything in life but an act that would drag her name to mud. Though they had done nothing wrong and he could easily state her name in his society, he understood that things were different in her world.
‘How did I become this way, so responsible and mature’, he wondered, ‘ I had gone as a nerdy boy to her town and had returned as a man.’
Perhaps this is what true and deep love was all about, in which he thought more about her name and honour than what was right or what ought to be done. It had taught him that while one might not always attain one’s true love but one could always cherish, respect and protect it.
That love was not always to be vocal about it or to whine about the injustices met at the hands of the society but it was to be silent, for herbenefit. It did not need to be shown to the world vociferously but could be kept quietly and safely in one’s heart.
Though he was quite sure that anyone in Barr would ever hear about The Veena event, as those people lived in their own small world and were not bothered about things such as science, geology etc, he hoped that she would come to know about it someday. She had started taking keen interest in these subjects and it was not very unlikely that one fine day she would come across it while flipping a magazine or browsing the net.
He hoped that she would find immense satisfaction to know that he had succeeded in his endeavor.
He wanted her to be absolutely happy in her life and that’s why he did not want to meet her because it could do no good apart from inflaming old wounds; but he did want her to know that he had named the event after her so that she could understand that their relation had meant something to him…everything to him…
He had come find a rock and had found it, but it was not the stone – it was her.
She had become the rock of his life, the solid base on which his life revolved.
He thought that she would want him to be happy and settled in his life and had eventually married three years earlier to Elsa, a doctor of Swedish descent, but even here his choice had been influenced by her. Elsa had all the qualities which he had admired in Veena – same feminine presence, same concern for the others, same depth of character and though he did not want to admit to himself but she did resemble Veena a bit.
He thought that even after loosing one’s first love it was still possible of loving again and in a better way too, because one knew what the loss of one’s love was and one did not want to loose this one too. One tried not to committ the follies which one might have done in the first relationship.
Also true love made one more humble and a better person. He had become a better man after meeting Veena. More sensitive, more sincere and more mature, atleast he had tried to be such a man.
They had a daughter six months back and he had named her Venus.
When he took her into his arms he thought he could die for her, he loved her so much. He again thought that why did he always thought of death in his moments of happiness. Perhaps because it equated that moment with utmost and supreme happiness in front of which there was no other moment of life and that after attaining so much ecstasy he could easily die because he had attained the level of satisfaction which could not be surpassed by anything else in life.
He hoped that he was a good husband and would make a decent father.
Also her association had given him a new mission in life – to make those girls, and even boys, provide an opportunity to pursue studies in scientific streams and other streams, who could not get the avenues to follow their determination of doing higher studies due to any reason.
He had started a N.G.O. with some of his influential friends and they were doing a lot of work in many countries including India. Infact he had come.to Jaipur to attend one such event and on a whim had decided to visit Barr, a place that had given him so much and that had taken away so much from him.
This philanthropic work of his too had been inspired by Veena. He thought a lot about her will to study science professionally and her helplessness in not being able to do so. There were many women like her and he wanted to lend them a helping hand.
This project of his gave him immense satisfaction and had become one of the pillars of his life along with his family and his scientific work. It had given a strong and meaningful purpose to his life.
As he saw the sun go down behind a hill he took a deep breath and reflected that on the whole his life had turned out well. He could have been broken by her loss but he had faught and had strove to make her love his strength and not his weakness.
He hoped she would have done the same and he did hope that she would have understood his motive behind going away with the meteorite.
He just wished that she would somehow come to know about the Veena event so that she could get her closure. So that she could know that it all had not been in vain. That he named it after her to tell her that their love had become immortal like the stars above and would shine forever. Nobody could take it away from them.
He wanted to convey it to her that though their romance had not materialised in physical and day to day intimacy, it had been able to transcend above the obstacles like prejudices of the ignorant, biased notions of lesser mortals, restraining chains of xenophobic societies and baseless and fragile yet omnipresent differences of religions, nationalities and castes.
He thought that this was the least that he could do for her….for them…..
A travelogue about a trip to upperkerala and coorg.
Alright…I have to admit, rather reluctantly, that Kerala is – ‘ God’s owncountry.’
The reason why I have used the word ‘reluctantly’ is because I am an atheist and so naturally I don’t like this sobriquet.
However, the beauty of Kerala and nearby region of Karnataka is such that one has no choice but to agree that it is rather a special place, and has been very well crafted by – God, for some; nature, for yours truly, in it’s infinite and timeless wisdom.
The truth is that for me; that god, that supernatural power, which others see in a deity, or if not in a statue but in a vague ‘superpower’, that ultimately controls everything, and that cannot be defined and explained or seen by us; is natureitself– and the laws of physics, chemistry and biology – controlling and defining it, specially physics.
That and the simple breathtaking beauty of mother nature.
Thus, it’s no wonder that I, along with my family, was totally bowled over by the phenomenon which I observed at Nileshwar beach, Nileshwar; Kerala recently.
That phenomenon was – an Annular solar eclipse – which was seen on 26th december 2019 in a narrow band of 120 kms from upper Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu. Rest of India saw a partial solar eclipse I.e. there was no ‘ annualrity’.
‘Annularity’ means that the shadow of the moon does not fully cover the solar disc during an eclipse.
This happens because the moon is far from earth in its orbit and consequently it’s shadow is smaller than usual and instead of a total solar eclipse it forms a spectacular ‘Ring of fire‘ during the eclipse.
This phenomenon is a rare, but a mesmerizingly beautiful celestial event in any country at any given time. However, the region where it was going to be seen this time and the time of the year when it was scheduled to occur, were extremely fortuitous – Kerala! and December!
Thus it was an opportunity not to be missed, and the astronomy and the travelling bug inside me bit so hard that I planned a special vacation withmy family – Annular eclipse on a beach of Malabar coast of Kerala followed by a stay in the misty mountains of Coorg.
Both – the natural beauty of the region and the physics of celestial bodies transiting each other in their orbits ( sun and moon) and casting shadow on another mighty orb in space ( earth); were going to be prominently on display at the place where we planned to witness this dazzling event. So it was a trip not to be missedby me. And I didn’t.
Fortunately, my parents and wife share my enthusiasm for astronomy and travelling, and they were immediately intrested in doing this trip. So, we planned and plunged into this extraordinary vacation headlong.
I researched and found that a tour company, foliage outdoors was planning to take a group of astronomy enthusiasts to Nileshwar, in Kasargod district of upper Kerala. The site was chosen as it was bang in the middle of the narrow band of annularity and it’s clean beach provided the best chance of observing the eclipse in the frequently cloudy weather of the region.
Later, we realized that it was an inspired choice.
We started from Ahmedabad for Mangalore airport early in the morning on 25th of december and all our grumpiness of the early morning journey evaporated as we deplaned at the Mangalore airport in the afternoon. It was beautifully situated and built. Nestled amongst coconut groves and near the sea, it quickly restored the good mood in our group.
We started towards our destination – Malabar ocean front resort at Nileshwar- after a sumptuous lunch at Mangalore. This journey of 100 kms was covered in an innova comfortably, and to my mind this short journey showcased the very essence of lower karnataka and Kerala.
We passed through meandering roads amongst plentiful coconut trees, and frequent backwaters and rivers. After about half an hour we crossed Karnataka border and entered Kerala.
This was my first brush with this amazing state of India and I was not disappointed. It was just as I had imagined- lush greenery, quaint villages alongside the road filled with picture perfect houses having a big garden and a small but omnipresent car, people of different religions walking in same attire -men with dark colored shirts along with a lungi flying at half mast 🙂 and ladies wearing simple but graceful saris along with a veni of white flowers in their hair; small blue colored fishing boats lying upturned on the shores of backwaters and a delightful sea breeze wafting inside the car from the nearby ocean and making us wish to remain there forever.
And the Arabian sea itself was never far away. We caught glimpses of glint of sunlight being reflected in the ocean every now and then. The sea was playing hide and seek with us like a playful muse trying to lure us – appearing suddenly in all its beauty at one turn then vanishing for some time, only to appear out of nowhere at another bend of the road.
Indeed the whole setting was so soulful and serene that my wife asked in all seriousness that – what might bethe cost of land here? She was so enamoured by the simple and peaceful living of the region that she was pondering in all earnestness for us to buy a small piece of land and construct a villa there!
It was so different from the region that I had seen for most of my life – Rajasthan and Gujarat- that I wondered about the bewildering diversity of my country.
If it wouldn’t have been for the traffic, I would have thought that I was in a different country all together. Yes.. Seriously; like anywhere else in India the traffic was pure hell. Cars, buses and trucks rushed towards one’s car as if with murderous intentions on the single laned roads, only to turn away at the very last second.
I think this craziness on the roads and the utter disregard of the traffic rules is the single most binding factor in our country today. Otherwise, what could have bound such a big nation with areas as different from each other as chalk is from cheese?
From kashmir to Kerala and from sikkim to Gujarat; people, religions and cultures are mind-bogglingly different but the traffic remains disorderly and maddeningly same.
As it was christmas, there were celebrations going on and at one place we crossed a sight which made me laugh and also to think. That sight was – a pot- bellied Santa dancing in an open truck on Malyali songs in a town which was predominantly muslim.
It can only happen in India.
A slice of heaven on Earth :-
We finally reached our destination the wonderful and luxurious Malabar ocean front resort, as the sun was preparing to dive into the ocean.
The resort was beyond our expectations. Situated in a prototype kerala village- Ozhinhavaluppa ( yes that’s how it’s spelled…don’t ask me how it is pronounced), it had comfortable modern huts built right on the beach.
It had been almost completely booked by Foliage outdoors for the eclipse tour, and we were greeted by the people of the company and were introduced to the group. It was a congregation of like-minded astronomy enthusiasts and also had an emminent astronomer and a naturalist along with it.
View from the room.
After a fast check in and the tour of the resort we immediately went to the beach as we were itching to take a refreshing dip in the sea before the sunset. Kids were ecstatic and so were we.
Later the group assembled inside a villa and the astronomer of the group gave a presentation about the solar eclipse and what we could expect the next day.
After a tasty meal we went to a deep sleep filled with excitement and anticipation of the next day.
Itpromised so much!
The vanishing sun…
I got up early around 6 am and immediately walked towards the beach and turned my head towards the sky and found my spirits sinking.
It was cloudy!
There were clouds everywhere and not even a patch of sky was visible. My heart sank.
Was it going to be ano-show?
Although, we had been forewarned that there were 10-15% chances that sun might not be visible due to the weather, I had been confident, over-confident rather, that everything would be fine. But it seemed that our worst fears were going to be realised.
The first touch of the Moon’s shadow on the sun was scheduled at 8:04am, so everyone got up early and got ready. Everyone was apprehensive about the eclipse. But we had high hopes that sky would clear atleast for some time and we would enjoy the eclipse.
We all assembled at the private beach of the resort by 7:45 am and stared expectantly towards heavens.
Each and everyone had been provided a special pair of glasses made of solar filter to watch the event with ample warnings not to look directly at the sun.
As the appointed time approached, our hopes were raised a little as the sky began to clear a bit.
Meanwhile, we were also enjoying the beach and the sea. The latter was particularly rough due to the increased tidal activity of the moon.
It was a picture perfect setting – a clean and delightful beach surrounded by coconut groves, and we were dazzled by the pristine beauty of the nature. Kids started building sand castles while waiting for the sun to peep out of the clouds.
‘Hope is alive!’ :- As the time progressed and sun rode high up in the sky , the weather began to clear up and we were able to witness, with tremendous excitement, the moon’s shadow creeping over the solar disc.
The mighty sun was reduced to a moon like cresent.
As the eclipse progressed we waited for the clock to show the time of 9:24 am. Because at this time moment the moon’s shadow would fully cover the solar disc leaving a beautiful and dazzling ‘Ring of fire‘ around it. The moon was scheduled to cover around 97% of the sun.
All our apprehensions were gone as the appointed time of annularity approached. The sky opened up fully and we were able to witness this rare and once in a lifetime spectacle in all its glory right on the Malabar coast.
As the annular phase began, everyone started to cheer and shout. I heard a lot of whistles and catcalls, and smiled thinking- only a solar eclipse could turn perfectgentlemen into rogues and kids- such was it’s power and affect.
This is what we had come to see!
It was breathtaking. Those three minutes of annualarity are going to be etched forever on my mind. Even kids were affected by our reaction and they saw the spectacle with much awe. I think it was a very good event for my kids to get intrested in astronomy and science in general.
I got hyper and could not contain my excitement. My planning had paid off! You can have a glance at the annularity in this short video. Kindly excuse the shrill, hyper-excited voice of the speaker. That’syourstruly trying to give the first hand account of this spellbinding phenomenon!
After the eclipse, that ended by about 10:30am and gave us a memories of a lifetime, we strolled on the beach.
The place looked right out of a travel magazine and we had a great time there. Children collected sea shells and elders got busy in clicking pictures and then just sitting quietly, taking in the unbelievable scenery and hearing the soothing lullaby of the waves.
Hmmm…Must be Kerala…
As it must be pretty evident from the above pics that we had a whale of a time at the Nileshwar beach, and it was with a heavy heart that we returned to the resort.
” Tu hi re…”
After checking out from the resort we went to a place of extreme historical importance of the region – Bekal fort.
It is the largest fort of Kerala and was constructed by the then king – Sivappa Nayaka in 1650’s. It is right on the edge of sea and 3/4th of the fort is surrounded by the sea.
This fort played an important part in the history of the region and changed hands according to the frequent wars and their Victors. Tipu sultan constructed a massive central watch tower from which a huge area around the fort can be observed.
This fort was immortalised in the famous song of the movie Bombay- ‘Tu hi re..’ This song was completely shot here and now this fort is commonly known as ‘Tu hi re’ point.
The Land of the Mist…
After spending two days in sunny Kerala we now were headed towards another great destination that is known for its misty mountains and coffee plantations – Coorg.
Coorg in South Karnataka requires no introduction. It’s a famous hill station and is known as – ‘The Scotland of India.’
This title does full justice to the place and we were wooed by its verdant beauty.
As we started from Bekal towards Coorg, a journey of about 115 kms and took around four hours, the terrain changed quickly. From the coconut trees and backwaters it turned to tall silver oaks, climbers of pepper and coffee plantations around the winding roads.
We stayed at another great resort – Coorg cliffs resort. If the u.s.p. of Malabar ocean front resort was sea facing cottages, the main attraction of this resort was again it’s wonderful location.
It has been constructed at the top of a cliff which is surrounded by acres and acres of coffee plantation. The rooms are so situated that from its balcony whole valley and plantation are visible. It’s like living in a luxurious tree house.
It was so soothing and heartwarming to wake up to the chirping of birds and critter-cratter of the insects; and this went on throughout the day! It was like living in a jungle but with all the worldly comforts. It surpassed all our expectations and I can say, after travelling a lot and having stayed at many resorts, I have never been at a place that provided this kind of view and ambience. It was brilliant.
I experienced such peace and calm while sitting in that balcony that it was almost like meditation, and felt my creative juices overflowing. I could have passed the whole day there sitting in the chair and doing nothing…Just revelling in the miracle of nature.
The resort had all other attractions and amenities which a place of this quality should offer. In fact it had an infinity pool which was amazing.
At Coorg we were joined by the families of my in-laws and my sister in-law. They had arrived from Banglore. It was so good to have a family reunion at such an unique place.
Throughout the day we relaxed at the resort – chilling in the pool or riding the Bullock cart or enjoying a game of T.T. and carrom. The kids enjoyed a lot at the kids play area.
Smells like coffee…
In the evening was a mouthwatering activity for which I had been waiting for a long time and that was – The Plantation walk.
Accompanied by the resident naturalist of the resort Mr. Kunjappa, we all set out to explore the extensive plantation around the resort.
The plantation mainly grows coffee and black pepper. It is owned by four brothers and is quite old, being inherited from generations to generations.
Coorg and the surrounding hills of Western ghats form the coffee basket of India and produces the best quality of coffee in India.
While walking on the uneven pathways of the plantation and surrounded by the tall silver oak plants; on which pepper climber climbs and that also provides the much needed shade to the coffee plants; we were introduced to the history of coffee in India. It came from Yemen in the form of smuggled seeds in the pocket of a man who wanted to grow it here, and then later the Britishers cultivated it commercially and made India a coffee hub.
Mr. Kunjappa was very knowledgeable and told us many things about coffee- like how it is grown, the varieties( robusta and arabica), how it’s dried and processed, and many other intresting trivia about other spices like black pepper and green chillies.
At the end of the tour we emerged at a place where there was a picturesque church, in the courtyard of which there were a lot of coffee seeds that had been kept for drying.
The whole vista was so beautiful that for few moments I just stood there and gaped at the scene. It seemed we had descended into a fairytale.
It could only happen at a coorg that one would find a church with coffee seeds in its courtyard, surrounded by the tall trees of the plantation behind which are misty cliffs and black clouds over them.
Later, at the resort we were greeted by a bonfire and foot tapping music. Everyone danced around the fire and it was great fun.
Taking the tuskers to the task…
Next morning we set out to explore coorg and our first destination was a famous site – Dubare elephant camp.
However, when we arrived there we were stumped to see a huge crowd there. There was an never-ending queue for the tickets. I have to say that the place was not managed efficeiently. The tickets were available for only two and a half hours and there only two small boats ferrying the tourists across the Kaveri river where the camp was situated, so the line moved very slowly.
After a gruelling wait of an hour we were forced to abandon the queue and revise our itinerary. We decided to go there in the evening session.
When we returned in late afternoon after visiting other attractions of Coorg like Nisargdhama deer park and the golden temple ( a monastery where a large number of buddhist monks stay), we were again dumbfounded to find another huge queue and my brother-in-law who had gone earlier gallantly to stand in the line, told us that he had been rooted at the same spot in the hot afternoon for an hour.
After an eternity we were able to procure the tickets and boarded the boat for the short ride across the river. It was very scenic and restored our jolly mood, which had been ruffled somewhat by the heat and the long wait.
Dubare elephant camp houses many elephants who were earlier used by the royal family of Mysore in the famous Dussehra festival of Mysore.
This practice has long been stopped and now these tuskers are retired. However, this place gives the tourists an unique opportunity to interact with these majestic gentle beasts.
Here one can feed the elephants and can bath them. We enjoyed the interaction a lot, the kids specially were thrilled to touch and feed the elephants.
Trip comes to an end with a surprise.
Finally, after having a wonderful time together, the day came when we had to return to Ahmedabad.
With a heavy heart we checked out of the lovely resort and set out in our cab towards Banglore from where we had to catch our returning flight.
But surprise..Surprise; the way to Banglore was not a boring and tedious journey…not at all.
About 35 kms. from Coorg and enroute to Banglore, is situated the famous Nagarholle national park, and we passed thorough this park on our way, though not from the core area.
We saw some elephants in another camp and then suddenly there were deers grazing just near to the road. Kids were excited to see them standing there nonchalantly.
As we went onwards on our journey and crossed Mysore, going towards the historic town of Srirangpatna, our driver suddenly remarked that there was a gem of a bird sanctuary tucked nearby and asked whether we would be interested in visiting it.
Always keen on visiting such places, we immediately said yes. Though I was a bit sceptical as I had not read anything about a bird sanctuary in my research, but I am always game for such excursions. So we took a short detour from the Mysore- Banglore highway and headed towards Ranganithittu bird sanctuary.
Ranganithittu Bird sanctuary.
This quick excursion became the cheery on the cake for the trip and we were pleasantly surprised that such a beautiful place had earlier escaped our radar.
The bird sanctuary is situated on some islands in the backwaters of Kaveri river few kilometres from Srirangpatna.
It is home to a plethora of indigenous bird species and also becomes a temporary residence for the migratory birds in the winters.
The tour was conducted in a boat which encircled the islands where the birds were roosting or feeding their young ones. It was a thrill to observe these exotic birds in their natural habitat from up close. The employee of the sanctuary spotted and informed us the names of birds like – Pelican, Night heron, painted stork, white throated kingfisher, spoonbills and many more.
As we cruised in the waters of Kaveri at a comfortable pace, our guide pointed out that a couple of crocodiles were lying in the water quite near to us!
It was the first time that I was in a water body that contained crocs, and it seemed dangerous yet exciting at the same time. Needless to say that the kids were suitably impressed.
As we observed the birds, a large pelican glided gracefully near our boat and then suddenly swooped towards the water and with a quick strike of its beak captured a fish and then flew towards its nest on a large tree on the island…
Memories of lifetime are created :-
This trip turned out to be such a triumph that I was compelled to turn it into a travelogue quickly so as to preserve the memories forever in the way they were etched upon our minds.
I always try to plan a trip or a vacation in a manner that it provides a vast spectrum of activities and experiences, and thus gives me the best worth for my time and money.
This trip was a short one of about four nights and five days but contained so many dimensions that it seemed we were away for a long time.
It had – astronomy, beach, hill station, history, wildlife, proximity to nature, bonding, relaxation and quality time with family and lots of fun!
Needless to say that this ‘Knee’dy traveller is feeling much satiated after this trip, but this satiety is only for some time and I am already rubbing my hands in anticipation of planning the next trip 🙂
Goodbye to all…here are some more pics from this incredible part of India…India rocks!
As he struggled to find a foothold on the narrow and overcrowded steps of the over-bridge at the Kalupur railway station, Mayank glanced at his wrist-watch.
He cursed under his breath. The train, Ashram express, had been running late by about 40 minutes. It was not a large duration of time by any measure, specially in India, where trains have been reported to reach their destination a day later. But he was in a foul mood. His ticket from Ajmer to Ahmedabad had not been confirmed and he had spent half of the night sitting in the corner near the bathroom, in bitter cold, trying to stay warm by wrapping his shawl around him.
Intermittently, he had to repeatedly hide in the bathroom from the sharp eyes of the roaming ticket collector(T.C.). Finally, he had given up and had himself approached the ticket collector and had paid him three hundred rupees. In return, the T.C. had given him the side-lower berth in the sleeper compartment, to be shared with another man, who was another suffering soul like him, only too tall.
So, he had spent the latter half of night adjusting himself on the berth with that man, on one side then on the other side, then again the previous side and so on.
His legs poking that man at all the wrong places and the legs of that man creeping near his face so that Mayank could see the dirt in the nails and corns over the toes in all their glory; and the smell – oh the smell!- thenauseating, anesthetizing, revoltingsmell of those feet.
Thus they travelled in that narrow and confined space, two drops in the vast ocean of humanity, who got accidentally hitched together for a short period of time – uncomfortable and irritable- only to be disassociated in the morning and be lost to each other forever.
On top of it all, it was bone freezing cold. The window pane near the berth was not functioning, it was not coming down. It was stuck at the upper end of the window, as if it had a will of its own and was determined to torture him – peeping from up there, sneering and rattling at his acute discomfort. Throughout the night icy gusts of wind had tormented him – slicing him through the narrow gaps that appeared in the covering of the shawl, no matter how hard he tried to wrap himself.
He had had a fitful, fretful, sleepless, dreamless and awful night, and he rose with a sprain in his neck and back.
Mayank sighed as he reached the top of the bridge. All over the stairs going down to the pavement he could see only heads of the people. There was not even an iota of space available which was not occupied by a human body. All around him men and women were rushing down and jostling with each other in their hurry to get down. With their bulky luggage, people were constantly running into each other; bumping the person in front with the suitcase or evading the big holdall that the coolie was carrying; and at the end of the stairs was a wall of men in khaki, not policemen, but autorickshaw drivers.
They were competing with each other to get the fares, so much so, that they were almost bullying the passengers to ride with them. They snatched the luggage from the hands of the passengers and started walking briskly towards their autos speaking only two words – ‘aabaju’, before the passengers could argue or haggle for the fare.
As he hurriedly sat in the auto and said, ‘ Devkutir flats, Meghaninagar,’ to the driver, he suddenly realised that he had not seen whether the driver was a muslim fellow or a hindu. He had vaguely seen the face- a middle-aged person with greying hair and beard which had been dyed in mehandi, andwearing an old-looking round-rimmedglasses – he could be anyone!
He became even more alarmed as the auto came out of station and started it’s journey towards the destination. The roads were empty!
Why was it so? This was the most crowded and bustling area of the city at any given time of the day – had therebeen rioting again? Kalupur and nearby areas were infamous for frequent riots, which had plagued the city so often in the last few years.
His pulse quickened and he thought – but there was nothing in the news, andnobody had talked about it.
Suddenly he realised that it was 26th of january. The republic day. It was a national holiday.
He relaxed and wondered why he was in such a hurry to reach his home. He didn’t have to go to the office today. And there was only his mother at his home. He had taken along his wife, Bharti, and their four year old son, Kartik, to Ajmer with him six days ago, and had left them at his in-laws at Kishangarh, a small town near Ajmer. Then he had gone on to do his official work – to see the sales of medicines of his company – Elite pharmaceuticals – and meet the prominent doctors in that region.
He was the area manager of this region, covering five districts around Ajmer. He frequently visited the region and has been specially given this area as he hailed from here and claimed that he had ‘good relations’ with a lot of doctors, along with good english speaking and marketing skills.
This is where everything falls apart of course, he thought bitterly. If he had lied on his resume, his company had lied too about the quality of the medicines, and also about the gifts and perks to the doctors. He had not been able to make the doctors ‘happy’, as the management had retracted on it’s promise of ‘rewarding’ the doctors with exotic gifts and tours. The doctors had stopped writing his medicines and even some had stopped meeting him.
Had there been some efficacy in the medicines, some doctors would still have prescribed them. But he knew that that they were bogus. And so, the sales had gone down massively. He dreaded the upcoming meeting where he would have to disclose the sale report of this quarter. Already, he was hanging by a thread and this could prove to be the last straw.
This was the underlying reason of his foul mood, he understood.
He was quite weary – why the life hadto be like this?- difficult, stressful, dreary, tasteless- he could think of many adjectives to describe his existence at that moment and none of the adjectives would be complimentary.
He had shifted to this megacity of Gujarat four years ago after finishing M.A. from Ajmer in search of a better life. He had heard that this pulsating financial city provided excellent opportunities to grow. But he had been searching for that elusive breakthrough in career but was yet to find it. He had been drifting from one job to another, one office to another, one yelling boss to another and selling one item to another.
He often thought that he represented the middle class of India truly, exactly and ideally. He hailed from a town which was not very small or a backward village but was also not a modern metro like Ahmedabad, he was educated but not a professional like a doctor, engineer or chartered accountant who were assured of leading a prosperous life, he was not a ‘hand-to-mouth’ poor but not filthy rich; not even decently rich either, he could read and speak English but not in the fluent, accent-laden and stylish manner as belted out by convent educated students, he could dream of owning a flashy car but could in reality afford a small second hand car and actually drove a bajaj scooter, he aspired to send his kid to best schools but managed to enroll them in a poorly managed c.b.s.e. school with a lofty name, he was ambitious of owning a villa or atleast a high-end flat some day but was also resigned to languish indefinitely in small and old -fashioned flats like Dev-kutir.
Yes, I am the line that neatly divides the population into two. On one side, prosperity increasing steadily until it reached the orbits of top one percent of ‘super- richs’ which held ninety percent of the wealth and consequently the whole country in their grips; on the other end of spectrum, poverty increased alarmingly to engulf millions and millions of inconsequential people who sold their daughters for pennies, and then committed suicides.
Mayank came out of his thoughts with a jerk as the auto stopped rather abruptly in front of his residence.
‘170 rupees saheb,’ demanded the driver as Mayank came out and kept his bag on the ground.
‘170! This is too much, no..no I will give only 150, we have covered such a small distance from the station…here, take these two hundred rupees and give me fifty rupees change.’
‘ Kya sahab! I am asking you the right amount. Itna to hota hai,’
As they haggled for the money, standing beneath a massive Peepal tree, that had been standing just across the street from the flats since decades, a beggar approached them. Clad only in a loin cloth he limped towards them, leaning onto a stick. He was quite old and properly wrinkled.
‘Baba, have mercy on an old man…God will shower blessings upon you. You will flourish and will be happy forever,’ he requested Mayank for alms.
‘Arrey baba, move along…this is Kalyug, year 2001, the last God that walked upon the earth was two-thousand years ago…And even that God was an english God…this country has been abandoned for many thousand of years by the Gods..Nobody can be happy here,’ said Mayank irritably.
‘ Why are you getting angry at this old man sahab…there is a lot of power in their blessings,’ said the driver as he removed a crumpled small polythene from his shirt, unfolded it from the crease which had become dirty and opaque by the long usage. Inside was an old and small calender with a picture of Lord Shiva on one side, it had yellowed and was rather blurry, but gave immense satisfaction to Mayank because it confirmed that the driver was a hindu, ‘ here, I will take only 150 rupees, but I am giving 10 rupees to this beggar and 40 rupees to you..Ok?’
‘ Bhagwan bhala karega..God will give both of you a long and happy life,’ blessed the beggar.
‘Baba, I have had a simple and contended life, I can die easily now with a clear conscience…give my life too to this sahab,’ answered the driver.
As the beggar poured out profuse and repetitive blessings, Mayank glanced at his cheap digital watch and thought what drama those two characters were playing out.
He kept the change in his pocket and entered the premises of Dev-kutir flats after crossing the road. The flats were quite old, constructed around 9 years back when this area had first flushes of modernity and had flirted with sky-scrappers for some time. In a rush, several such buildings had mushroomed – poorly built and pathetically maintained – they had quickly gone into neglect as the growth moved onto newer and outer parts of the city.
The complex consisted of eight buildings from A block to H block. All the blocks were in a circular shape and in between was a garden that had no greenery, few benches and a couple of swings for the kids.
He had lived here for the last four years, since he had moved to. Ahmedabad, in a flat till about six weeks ago. Then the increment in rent which the landlord was demanding became untenable. Unable and unwilling to shell that much amount, he had been forced to shift to another apartment. They had shifted to a new flat in the same compound only. Now they lived in the B- block on the third floor. Mayank and Bharti had decided to stay in the same compound as they had developed friendship with a lot of neighbours here and were in a comfort zone.
Originally painted sparkling white, all the blocks had long turned grey and had intermittent streaks of black, which were formed when the water from the roofs over-flowed onto the walls as the drainage pipes got blocked. So they had a curious zebra like appearance and it was not possible to say whether there were white lines on black background or vice versa.
Dev-kutir or hut of the God, thought Mayank as he looked at the semi- circular board hanging over the entrance, which had rusted and few letters like ‘v’ and ‘r’ were barely visible, it was an apt name for this place…It was a kutir only i.e. a hut, dwelling of cheap gods.
His phone rang with a shrill tone. As he took out the bulky and old Motorola phone that had been provided by his company few months back in an attempt to entice the employees and impart a good ‘first impression’ to the doctors whom Mayank and his colleagues met, he saw that it was his immediate boss Sanjeev.
With a trepidation he picked it up while walking towards his block.
‘ Good morning Sanjeev bhai,’
‘ Morning Mayank..how was the trip?’
‘ It was quite a good one Sanjeev bhai…I met a lot of doctors. They were quite happy and have promised to write our medicines,’ blurted Mayank as he quickly went up the stairs, deciding not to use the rickety lift. He was sweating and was quite anxious to give a good report.
‘ Hmmm…If you say so Mayank, the sales of last quarter don’t match up with your statement. Let’s see this time. You know na that we have a review meeting on Monday… prepare the sales report,’
‘ Don’t worry Sanjeev bhai, you will get the report fully prepared on Monday. I will take care of everything,’ answered Mayank as he kept the phone sandwiched between his left shoulder and left side of the face which had turned towards the phone, and pressed the doorbell of his flat with left forefinger, while holding his bag in the right hand.
‘Ok..ok, Sanjeev bhai…Have a good day!’ as he pocketed the mobile, he was getting impatient…Where is Ma?Why is she not opening the door?
He double-pressed the doorbell forcefully.
But he could not hear the bell ring…Ting – Tong..Ting- Tong. Suddenly he was jerked and fell on the closed door of the nearby flat.
He could not understand what had happened. There was a loud voice coming from somewhere as if hundreds of lions were roaring simultaneously or thousands of engines had started whining at the same time. He pressed his ears with his hands and tried to get up but was again thrown on the ground, which was shaking uncontrollably. His Motorola was thrown out of his shirt pocket and went skidding on the floor towards the opposite apartment and then on the stairs, bumping hard on each step and getting smashed.
He was dumbfounded. As he lay on the floor, open-mouthed, he watched the bulb which had been hanging down from the ceiling in the foyer. It had gone wild! It was swaying from one side to the other like a mad pendulum. Mayank was hypnotized, he could not fathom what was happening.
Then he heard loud voices above and below, of people rushing out of their homes and shouting – Dhartikamp aayo!Bhago!
Some sort of understanding began to dawn in his confused mind.
He had only heard about this phenomenon but had never experienced it.
He got up tentatively, holding onto the dancing walls and saw the neighbouring blocks swaying maniacally, leaning at unnatural and dangerous angles. He shuddered and shivered at this bizzare scene. His whole understanding of the world, it’s laws, physics and mechanics had taught him that it was not possible for a building to move like that, hell!, a building was not supposed to move at all…but right now in front of his eyes they were like whipping branches of a tree in a strong wind.
It could not be! It should not be!
Then with terror rising in his heart like a billous vomit rising in the throat, trying to burst forth, he saw a neighbouring block develop cracks and then crash on the ground with a booming voice.
It was as if his legs had turned into water. He could not move.
Like in a strange and impossible dream he looked down on the floors below and saw a flurry of saris, pyjamas and dhotis rushing down the stairs.
As if rising from a nightmare, he came into action and ran down the flight of the stairs unsteadily and immediately found himself caught in a raging stampede.
Men and women were in tearing hurry to reach the safety of open ground. There were no rules. Everyone was for himself or herself. It was survival of the fittest and the fastest.
Husbands were pushing down their wives in their compulsion to run. Wives, in turn, were not to be left behind. They pulled at the corners of shirt or dhotis of their husbands with all their might and held on.
From everywhere a huge wave, a tsunami of humans, was rolling along the narrow stairs, which trembled with the furious earth. Mayank found himself caught in a group of rampaging people and desperately tried to find a foothold on the steps. The wave of people had swelled and swelled till it became impossible for it to pass the narrow bottleneck of the turn where steps wound around itself and went down to the ground floor.
Mayank found himself lifted off the ground and in his desperation he pulled himself up on the shoulders of someone, who uttered a shriek, but he did not relent, otherwise he would have gone under and trampled under the feet.
For few tense moments the mob was stuck. Mayank feared that they would all die, stuck in the narrow passageway, ungraciously like a pack of mice running in the corridors of a sinking ship. Any moment now the building could collapse.
But somehow the wave passed the bottleneck and Mayank flowed down still pulling up on the shoulders of unknown humans, his feet hanging in the air, his shoulders rubbing against the shoulders or heads of other men and women in similar situations.
Finally, as the earthquake still raged, as the mother earth growled and grumbled; as if shouting angrily; perhaps recounting the sins which humans had committed against her in the past decades, in her deep sonorous voice; they managed to reach the ground floor and then the open space in between the flats.
For few more torturous seconds the trembler unleashed it’s fury, then it subsided, and everything was silent again, but not the same again.
Mayank had held onto the railing which had been put up to demarcate the unkempt garden, with his back towards the block from which he had come out, to keep himself standing as the bowels of earth had moved for some moments. Now he was standing ashen-faced, panting and with white knuckles, clutching the railing, trying to make sense of it all.
There was a sound behind him, like something trying to give away, like a door which has been jammed for ages was achingly being opened or perhaps a large branch of tree was breaking apart from its origin.
He turned around to see the cracks that had developed in the building from which he had emerged, join each other like tentacles of a giant organism that was bent upon gobbling up the building. The cracks quickly travelled all the way from the top floor to the ground floor and the block started to crash.
Ae padyo !…Ae padyo !
The mass of people that had emerged from the block started shouting and began pushing further away in an attempt to run from the falling debris. Mayank experienced a great force being exerted upon his body which pushed his back over the railing to such an extent that he feared his spine would break and he would become an invalid.
He pushed back at the crowd with his legs, the greatest force that he had ever applied, then as he got some leeway, he climbed upon the railing backwards, all the time watching the building which was on the verge of collapsing. He fell with a thud upon the ground on his back and got his wind knocked out of him. At the same instant a part of railing gave away and he was buried under a heap of bodies as men and women fell over him and each other.
With a deafening crash the block collapsed slowly as if in a slow- motion. As he emerged from under the heap, Mayank saw few people who were nearer to the building being engulfed by the falling beams and he saw a lady who had been trying for help with outstretched hands, crushed upon with unimaginable force by a large part of the block, and he saw her hands protruding out of the collapsed mass -twitching for some moments, then they were dead.
He crawled backwards on all fours, all the time facing the destroyed building, then he got up, turned and vomited copiously.
× × × × × × ×
Cough.. Cough !
Mayank coughed vigorously going down on all fours. He was covered in dust which was everywhere in the atmosphere right now.
After lot of retching, he sat on the ground, tears running down on his face and leaving the marks of their journey on his cheeks as they blazed a trail of whitish salty pathways in the dark and greyish layer of dust that had covered his face. His nose was running profusely and there was phlegm everywhere. From his heaving and panting mouth, grasping for air, dangled drops of saliva, streching from the lower lip, springs of different lengths, yo-yoing up and down as he hyperventilated.
He looked up and through the wall of tears saw the vista of death and destruction. Many towers had collapsed, some leaned on the neighbouring blocks as if for comfort. There were deep gashes in all towers and the situation was quite dangerous even for the ones that had not toppled.
There were shrieks all over the place – shrieks of terror, shrieks of loss, shrieks of life being turned upside down in a minute and destroyed forever.
People were wailing, some were sitting stunned, like him, not able to process this gigantic tragedy that had struck out of nowhere. It had taken them by complete surprise, grabbed them, shook them profusely and tossed them hither-thither; so that a father landed somewhere and his son somewhere else; perhaps living, perhaps dead, perhaps living but worse than being dead; a wife had been separated from her husband and kids, mother from daughter, husband from wife and so on – and all this in about two minutes…Those fateful two minutes!
Mayank stood up weakly and held on to a pole that had been part of a swing which had now been damaged. He could hear voices loud and clear with a buzzing sound accompanied constantly, as if he had suddenly disembarked from a plane and his tympanic membrane had suddenly inflated so that he could hear everything accurately and loudly after a long time.
Suniye! Suniye! Bablu ke papa! Suniye!
All around him people were shouting for their missing loved ones.
It was at this moment that the realisation struck him with brute force –
He had forgotten all about his mother! He had run for his dear life in the ensuing pandemonium and had totally forgotten about his mother.
A wave of nausea and guilt hit him and he reeled forward, his legs gave way and he fell and retched again and again.
Time and again his bowels and stomach contracted, and tried to throw out all vestige of food and fluid, that he had ingested, as if they were so disgusted and incensed by him, that they refused to be connected in any manner with him.
‘I have abandoned my own mother!’
His own conscience shouted at him. He had pressed the doorbell but the door had not opened and now the block lay collapsed and decimated. His mother was buried somewhere in that twisted mass of concrete and steel. Perhaps her neck had been broken or she had been instantaneously crushed under the massive beam of the house.
He wept uncontrollably… convulsions of grief, guilt and self-pity shook him repeatedly.
‘ I am not only a looser but also a monster- a selfish and cowardly monster, who does not care about his own mother.’
In such moments the defence mechanism of the mind kicks in, so as to preserve the sanity of the person –
‘ But if you would have tried to save her then you would be dead by now! What purpose would that have served? Think about Kartik..he needs his father, think about Bharti..she needs you. You are young, working ! The sole bread earner of your family. You had to live! Your mother had lived her life – She would have wanted you to survive!’ told his ego defense mechanism to him, ‘ besides, these are paranormal moments, nobody knows how to react to such rare and life-threatening situations. What you did was natural…Instinct!…Nothing to be ashamed of..’
But he knew inside his heart that his mother would not have abandoned him like that, Bharti would not have left Kartik to die and his father, had he lived, would not even begin to imagine a thought like that, whatever the extraordinary circumstances.
He was devastated, not only by the death of his mother but also by his glaring inaction to save her.
I should have atleast tried!
Now he knew he would have to bear this massive guilt throughout his life and bear it alone. He could not unburden his heart to another human being, not even to his wife, specially to his wife.
He felt someone shaking him on his right shoulder.
‘Bittu…Bittu…Is that you?’
He heard the familiar voice. Could it be so? Or was he hallucinating?
He looked up and through his brimming eyes he saw that a woman was standing in front of him. She was covered in grime and her hair were all astray, but she looked vaguely familiar.
‘Mother? Is that you?’
‘Yes..It’s me Bittu…You don’t know how glad I am to see you,’
It was as if a high voltage of current had passed through his body. He was electrified.
He got up and hugged her tightly. Both of them wept tears of joy.
‘Oh..Thank God! You are alive..I thought I had lost you forever,’
‘ But …How?’ asked Mayank,’ our block has collapsed..How did you get out of there?’
‘ No Bittu, our block has not collapsed, look its still standing, it has some cracks but it’s standing. When the earthquake struck I got out of the house and ran down the stairs and safely reached here. I have been looking for you since then. Because I knew you would be reaching here soon,’
Mayank whirled on hearing this and saw that indeed B-block was still standing, where they now lived on the 3rd floor.
How was it possible and where had he been? His mind raced…then it struck him with a mighty force, after looking at the fallen remains of the neighbouring C-block, what actually had happened – he had enteredC-blockmistakenly.
They had lived for four years in that block on the second floor and had only recently moved to B-block.
As he had entered the premises of the apartments, in his foul mood and thinking bitterly about the upcoming meeting and then talking to Sanjeev – he had unknowingly retraced his old steps. He had picked up the phone and while talking animatedly, and concentrating only on the conversation, he had entered the nearby block, where he had lived for so long that his sub-conscience was accustomed to tracing the way to his old home.
Neuronal circuits or something like that in his mind had been set to fall back to trace that route by countless entries and exits of all those years. They were programmed to seamlessly and flawlessly take him to the exact flat when he was not thinking consciously about going there. They still had not got accustomed to the new path that lead to his recent residence.
It was like the occasions which had occurred so many times – when, while driving his scooter back from work, he had exited his office building and had pondered over the day and the future, and had reached Dev- kutir flats as if in a trance. He tried to remember how had he reached there, where had he turned, what sort of traffic had he encountered; but could not remember it. His sub-conscience had lead him there without applying his mind.
So, caught in his train of thought, and later engaged in the phone call, he had climbed the steps of C-block and had rung the bell of his erstwhile home.
He had not abandoned his mother! This thought thrilled him. He did not know who lived now in that flat… even, whether anyone lived there at all or not. But certainly it was not his mother who was there behind that door. He could not have saved her, even if he would have tried to.
Mayank found his heart getting lighter and the guilt receding away in the light of changed circumstances.
‘But Bittu, when did you come? Did you enter our block and ran ahead of me?’, his mother enquired.
‘I…,’ he abruptly faltered,’ he could not tell her the truth. It was embarrassing and foolish, and could portray him in a negative light, ‘ I just got down from the auto about a minute before the earthquake started. I would have been inside the block had it not been for the driver and a beggar. They delayed me for vital few moments and as I just started to cross the road- all hell broke loose. At first I could not understand what was happening, then when I got my bearings, I ran towards you but kept on falling and when I entered the premises it was quite again. I thought I had lost you.’ he hugged his mother once again.
Later, after few hours when the society was being evacuated. As Mayank and his mother came out of the premises, they saw that the massive Peepal tree on the other side of the road had got uprooted and had fallen on the road. Crushed under the tree were seen parts of an auto rickshaw. Nearby just a little farther from a big branch of the tree was a stick and through the gaps, were seen parts of a body that had been clad only in a loin cloth.
Mayank was shocked to the core. His legs buckled and he sat on the ground with a thump.
‘ There is a lot of power in their blessings,’
‘ I have had a simple and contendedlife,I can die easily now…Give my life too to this sahab,’ that driver had said…his words echoed in his mind.
Had he really given his life to him! Was this possible? And did the blessings of that beggar protect him? His head was spinning, the events of the day had been too much for him.
He told his mother what had transpired in the morning. His mother proclaimed it a miracle!
She immediately vowed that she would go to Khodha Ganesh temple barefoot and would donate 1000 rupees there.
Then she prayed for the peace of the souls of that driver and the beggar.
Later in the evening when finally call went through to Kishangarh. Mayank told everything to Bharti, who had been half-dead from worry.
‘All is well …It is a wonder that I lived and Ma is alright too. Imagine, me being stranded in between the tree and the flats, here – that driver and the beggar expired and there – in the flats so many people died, it is a miracle!’ he gestured with his hands, as if she could see him through the phone. By now he had told this story to so many people that he almost believed in it himself.
Bharti immediately vowed to go to Salasar ke Balaji temple barefooted and donate 1000 rupees there.
As the night fell and they slept in the makeshift camp. Mayank’s heart had many emotions – sadness for this immense tragedy, happiness to have survived miraculously, minute guilt for his actions and an overwhelming relief which his new story and altered circumstances had provided him.
* * * * * *
But the bigger miracle happened two days later, when they found that lady and her eight month old daughter buried alive under the rubble of C-block.
They were found due to the incessant crying of the infant. They had been in the triangular space which had formed when the beam fell upon the double-bed under which they had taken shelter while earthquake raged.
It was the right thing to do during an earthquake, experts said, to hide under a bed or a table.
But that young lady, barely 25 years old, slim and beautiful , didn’t know this at all. Her version of the events defied all logic, reason, expert opinion and common sense.
There was a loud cheer when they were extracted from under the debris. Finally, there was something to cheer about. So people clapped, whistled and hooted as both of them were taken to the hospital in the ambulance. The lady was very weak and almost comatose.
After a night of ‘touch and go’ she started getting better. Her daughter was fine. In all, they had been buried for about 54 hours.
She opened the eyes in the afternoon and immediately created a furore.
‘ We were saved by the God himself!’ she kept on repeating and kept on praying towards the heaven.
When she narrated her story it spread like wildfire…everyone started talking about the miracle at the camp.
‘ God himself rung the doorbell. We are new here and don’t know anyone here. We have just shifted from Indore in the flat C-22 one week back. Infact my husband had gone to Indore to bring rest of our household items.’ her husband nodded vigoursly by her side.
‘ We had not talked to anyone as yet, all other flats on our floor were empty, two of them were waiting for new tenants, and the owner of the fourth one had gone to their native place. You see, my husband had stocked the fridge with milk, vegetables etc for five days. So I wasn’t expecting anyone,’ she continued her strange story, ‘ that morning I had gone to lie down on the bed to feed my little Divya, who slept on my chest after the feed. I had kept a water bottle near me on a stool. I might have slipped into a deep sleep, as Divya had kept me awake for most of the night, because I was awakened from my slumber by the shrill voice of that doorbell. I woke up with a start and was confused that who could it be?’
‘ Even I was not sure whether the bell had really rung or not. I thought I had heard it in my dream. But I decided to check, and as I got up from the bed after laying down Divya on the bed, I struck the water bottle accidentally with my hand and it fell and rolled under the bed. At the same instant Divya began to cry. So I lifted her in my arms, and bent down to reach for the water bottle under the bed. At that very moment I heard the doorbell ring twice, but suddenly I was jerked forcefully forward and in attempt to save Divya from injury during my fall I rolled a bit on the floor, clutching her tightly in my arms, and found myself under the bed with the water bottle at my side,’
‘Then everything went berserk.. everything was heaving and swinging. I was so afraid! I could not understand what was happening for many precious seconds. Divya was crying loudly and my mind was not working, and before I could think of anything, there was a loud sound and the roof fell upon us, but we were saved! ‘
‘ I survived the horrible days shouting for someone to listen and chanting – Om namah Shivay. I survived on the water in the bottle. Rationing it more and more, and Divya survived on my milk. But I know it was my Lord Shiva who had come and had rung that bell, otherwise I would not have been alive to tell you this story.’
As no body was found near them in the rubble, and as nobody came forward to claim that he or she had rung the bell, the story of the miracle at Dev- kutir flats spread wildly. Of course, it could have been someone who might have died in the quake. But people needed a miracle. In this mind numbing tragedy, amidst all the death and destruction, they wanted to hear and believe a good news. Something supernatural to restore their faith in the Providence. Something out of this world to give them hope and fight the grim situation.
And so, the legend of Dev-kutir became very famous. So much so, that all the blocks were soon razed to the ground and a magnificent temple – Dhartikamp mahadev was born. The builder of the flats himself took personal intrest in the construction of the temple.
Just adjacent to Dhartikamp Mahadev, another small temple was built dedicated to Goddess Durga. It denoted the strength of both the girls – the mother and little Divya, who had fought death and had defeated it, against all odds. This temple was built by the donation of Gharonda furniture, who had built that bed under which both of them had survived, and upon which Mayank and his wife had slept with Kartik for so many years.
The owner, Mr Kanti Patel, was a God-fearing man and recognised the divine indication when he saw one. That his showroom had been involved in the miracle was a sign from the God and an order to built the temple.
Ofcourse, it was another matter that Mr. Patel’s business tripled after the incident.
All the while, when the news of miracle was discussed in the camp and later in their new society, Mayank never spoke a word. Though he was infuriated by it.
The thunder of his ‘miracle’ had been stolen by the temple.
And he knew the secret behind the Dhartikamp Mahadev, it was so commonplace…there was nothing divine about it.
When people glorified the incident and went to pray at the temple, he wanted to shout loudly that it was not a supernatural power that had rung the doorbell, but it was him, old, idiotic him, that had mistakenly pressed the switch of the bell.
But he could not say anything. After having narrated a spectacular story about his survival, he could not backtrack upon it. He had to stick to his version and he silently saw the fame of the temple take off and grow.
Slowly, he drifted out of that area and went to join a new job at the other end of the city. He was quite relieved to be out of influence of that temple, which reminded him of his cowardly error.
‘Good riddance’, he thought, ‘people of this country are so stupid that they would believe anything and would built a temple anywhere. ‘
He was the real miracle, who had been saved by the prophetic words of that auto rickshaw driver.
But they would never understand….
Almost Four years later..
It was a beautiful November evening in 2004 when a group of cars entered the gates of The Paradise club, the most prestigious club of the city on S.G. highway, the upcoming and throbbing hub of Ahmedabad. All the cars were swanky and high-end but one of them was extraordinarily beautiful. It was a Bentley and it belonged to Mr. Suresh Jani, owner and chief of Dharmaraj builders, that had built the Dev-kutir flats and the Dhartikamp Mahadev.
Mr. jani was around 45, strongly built, tall and masculine. He was sporting a thick moustache and was wearing a well-knit safari suit. He looked like a politician and had the expression and attitude to match. Infact, he secretly harboured a desire to run in the upcoming assembly elections scheduled around two and a half years later.
In the past few years he had acquired a great name, fame, wealth and political traction. He prided himself on being a – ‘self-made man’.
As he sprawled on the soft and beautiful bed in one of the spacious rooms at the club, other men took their seats, some sat near him on the bed, others pulled up chairs near the bed. All men were his close friends or associates. Some were fellow builders, not competitors but partners, and others were his old friends.
‘ Kya Suresh bhai..Kem cho?’ asked one of them.
‘ Bas jalsa yaar, ‘ he replied languidly.
‘ That I can see very well suresh bhai,’ it was Kamlesh, one of his closest friends and quite a rich man himself, ‘ you have grown a lot in the last couple of years, specially after the earthquake. Now you are in the big league!’
‘ Thanks Kamlesh…everything is due to my hard work, you see I am a self-made man. I have climbed the stairs of success slowly but steadily.’ answered Sureshbhai.
‘Ghanta!’ said Kamlesh loudly as he poured the scotch in his glass, ‘ you have been benefitted immensely by that earthquake. You were down and out, on the verge of collapsing. That tragedy was a blessing in disguise for you. You encashed it. It was a Godsend opportunity to you, so don’t give me this self-made man shit,’
Nobody spoke for few seconds. Everyone was stunned. Only Kamlesh bhai could speak in this manner with Suresh bhai. They were tense.
Suresh glared at Kamlesh for few nail-biting moments, then he burst out laughing, simultaneously Kamlesh started laughing and held his right hand out, palm up for Suresh to smack it. All others relaxed and joined in the fun.
‘ You know me inside out Kamlesh, we have been friends for so long…I can’t get angry at you, and all others here are my associates and friends too. I don’t need to hide anything from you all, anyway it would not change anything,’
‘ Yes, it’s true that I was saved by that earthquake. Before that I was fighting for survival, my reputation had been sinking in the market and I was not getting money and loans from any where. Some people had filed complaints against me for the poor quality of the construction. Indeed most of the cases filed had been from Dev-kutir flats,’
‘ But that miracle of Dhartikamp Mahadev saved me. You see, I had constructed the two initial blocks well- A and B; they were earthquake resistant too and that’s why only both of them were left standing; so that after seeing the quality people would buy them. But in the later blocks the quality had not been the same. I was fighting for funds and could not built them in a similar manner.’
‘ There had been three cases filed in the court from Dev-kutir flats by the residents that had claimed that the flats were not safe, specially in a natural calamity like an earthquake. The decision was on the verge of being pronounced and would have ruined me,’
‘ But that fateful morning changed everything…As soon as I came to know about the “miracle” I knew it was an opportunity for me. I reached there in a hurry and and announced that a big temple would be built inside the premises to commemorate the incident. With that gesture I turned many aggrieved people towards me. Anyway, two of the complainants had died in the quake and their kins were not keen to pursue the case, and retracted it from the court. I bought the third person who had filed the case later with a lot of money.’
‘ In the great destruction of that day, many offices and files had been destroyed too and many officials either expired or went on long leaves, and some got transferred eventually. I bought all the land behind Dhartikamp Mahadev, which was a big dump actually, after bribing a chain of clerks at a dirt cheap price, much less than actual price, ‘
‘Anyway it was lying vacant, it did not have much value at that time. But as the prestige of the temple grew, the price of the land also grew with it, and I was waiting precisely for this. I had secured loans from many bigwigs, including some politicians, after promising them that I will change the map of the area and they will reap rich dividends. Then I went on a spree of building very high-end apartments, fully earthquake resistant and following all norms. No cost was spared, no compromise done. The apartments were of best quality and launched me in the big league. And now Dharmaraj builders only construct very high-end and much sought after flats.’
‘ That earthquake might have been a Godsend opportunity, but it was me who grabbed at it, it was me who bribed the officials, it was me who got the documents forged, it was me who befriended powerful men. So perhaps it was a miracle that saved me, but I used it fully and it was not an easy job. Not easy at all. Thus I am a self-made man.’
As the sound of the loud laughter floated in the corridor, a man – one of the many junior managers of the club, who had been passing through the corridor heard it and stopped in front of the closed door of the room.
He thought- what a great life these men lead. Opulent, extravagant, grandiose, luxurious. He pined to live such a life. He desperately wanted to be one of them. But had been languishing on the sidelines as the high and mighty of the society sped away on the road of life in their costly cars.
He had come to this city so many years ago with a burning ambition to succeed, but till date things had not looked rosy. Had rather taken a turn for the worse after the earthquake. He had lost his job as the company folded up. He had shifted to Bopal, a suburb near the growing areas of S.G. highway and Bodakdev. The jobs were to be found in this region. And he had had jumped from one employment to another, never settling down. He did not know where the problem lay – in him, he was over qualified somewhere and under qualified at other places; or with the bosses who demanded so much for him and he tried, he tried his level best, but it was never sufficient, and he always ended up leaving the job in the end.
And now he had become a junior manager in this club, but he knew his position was just above the waiters. As he stood there in his ill-fiting blazer, with his boyish face, angular and gangly arms and thin moustache, he looked 28 but was 34 actually.
Few paces ahead in the thick- carpeted corridor stood a big statue of Lord Ganesha. It was well adorned.
He went and prayed in front of the statue. With folded hands and bowed head he stood silent, only his lips moved quietly as he prayed for success and wealth. Then he looked up and saw the marvellous statue of Buddha that was lying a few steps ahead in a corner. He was hesitant for a few doubtful moments that whether he should or should not bow down to this God of Buddhists.
But then he made up his mind and Mr. Mayank ‘miracle’ Saini paid his respects to Buddha, and then went on his way.
Both the statues had a playful smile on their faces, as if they knew what the actual and true miracle was – that thiscountry was still functioningsomehow.
Amongst all the chaos, engulfed in new controversies and scandal each day, drowned in ‘over-the-top’ chest beating and divisive politics, marred by inter- religious and inter- state fights and draped in superstitions and age-old notions; the country was still progressing forward!
This country with all its inconsistencies, contradictions, differences, corruption, ignorance and poverty was still chugging along. Where hindus and muslims helped each other in the times of need, like after the earthquake as family members; only to butcher each other mercilessly the very next year.
A country where people were so religious that they prayed throughout the day and around the year, and built magnificent temples and mosques to praise the God; but went on living absolutely irreligiously whole life- without imbibing any religious values in their lives – they went on with black-marketing, bribing, killing females foetuses, raping, plundering, evading taxes and laws, breaking rules, eyeing people of other religions with suspicion and murdering them brutally as the part of a mob on the pretext of extracting revenge of wrong actions done by ‘others’ on ‘others’ and laughing upon those who claimed to be atheists but lived in a much better way than them.
A country where even a tragedy of colossal scale could be turned into a fortune. Where millions could die and a whole city could be decimated by an earthquake; but the lost souls were quickly replaced by others who were eager to replace them, and a new shiny metropolis was constructed in a blink to mesmerize one and all, so that the destruction was quickly forgotten.
It was a lovely Friday morning when I came out of my house to go to my office. I have always loved February, the air is fresh and the temperature is just right.
From my parking I had an unobstructed view of Mr. Upadhyay’s house, across the street. The villa had a beautiful garden. The tall Ashoka trees, standing in line as if guarding the house from imaginary intruders, had obstructed the view of the main building to a great extent. The Ashokas were interspersed with a variety of plants- Bougainville, ferns, palms; one mulberry tree leaning towards the lone chikoo as if trying to whispersomething, perhaps it’s disapproval of my own humble dwelling, which paled in front of this grand abode of the Upadhyays; in front of the trees and running along the boundary wall was a hedge and beyond it, in the strip of land before the road, were a couple of Gulmohar trees that produced bright, radiant and luxuriant red flowers in the season.
It’s quite possible for someone, a visitor for example, to harbour a notion in the mind after having a look at the two contrasting villas sitting in front of each other, The Upadhayay’s and The Patel’s, that perhaps the residents of these two homes would not be on speaking terms. That hurt by the indifference and contempt of the Upadhyas, the Patels would be a bunch of bitter and grumpy people, bent upon revealing dirty secrets of their neighbour to anyone willing to listen and eager to show their torn hearts to one and all. After all, so great was the difference in the two residences – one resplendent – the other grey, one beautiful – the other a black swan amongst the villas, one mighty and headstrong – the other meek and mute.
I laughed at this line of thought, at my own unreigned imagination and over-active mind.
In reality, Keshav upadhyay and Dinesh patel ( yours truly) were quite good friends and the two families were on very healthy terms, having lived near each other for a decade now. That he was a big businessman and I, a modest goverment official, had made no difference.
As I turned towards my car to reverse it out of my parking, I caught the sight of Keshav coming out of the gate of his house to give me a call.
‘ Patel, good morning, do you have a moment please?’
‘ Good morning Upadhyay sahab, how are you today?’ I answered as I walked towards him.
Anyone who laid eyes on Mr. Upadhyay for the first time was in for massive disappointment. One would have thought that such a successful businessman leading such a grandiose life would have an overpowering personality – tall, masculine, charming . A tour-de-force of worldwiseness, razor sharp intellect, and magnetic aura served along with good-looking, albeit sunburnt face, resulting from his wide travels around the globe, and entertaining tales of his colorful life.
Infact, Keshav was short, stout and balding. He had not entered middle-age as gracefully as his villa, the hairline had receded so much that now there were just few meagre patches at the backside and on both sides near the temple, the waistline, perhaps to compensate for the failing hairline had decided to expand and now was flirting with morbid obesity. He was diminutive with an effeminate voice and a non-assuming nature. He had a mild, almost an apologetic demeanor, in the public life.
‘Arreyyaar! You know how these fellows are- workers, I mean, the event manager just called up that the decorators would be arriving late in the afternoon, as supposed to in the morning. ‘
I looked towards his place, which was looking even more pleasing than the routine, as it had been decorated with lights recently. There were lights of all sizes and colors, either hanging alone or in tandem as chains of different lengths all over- on the roof, in the garden and on the trees, where they had startled and uprooted the birds who had been living in those trees for a long time peacefully, only to be disturbed screechingly one day by the sudden appearance of bidi wielding faces of workers – bearded, sullen and grumpy, who were hanging lights on the trees, that ironically signified the union and the happy beginning of a new and shiny long domestic life for the ‘soon to be married’ couple.
‘Aha! The wedding! I hope you are managing things well. Things can very become hectic and haphazard in the wedding of one’s daughter. Do tell me if I can be of any help.’ I told him with enthusiasm, after all I considered his daughter Sonu, like my daughter.
‘ That’s why I interrupted you, could you drop this form at the municipality office? I was going to do it myself after giving the directions for decorations at the venue of the wedding to the workers. But now they will be arriving late and probably I won’t be able to go to the office today, and tomorrow it’s closed for the weekend. Sorry to bother you.’
‘Oho!..It’s no bother, ‘ I exclaimed as I took the piece of paper from his hand, ‘ by the way- what is it?’
‘ It’s the form for marriage certificate for Sonu and Rishabh.’ he stated simply.
I looked at him oddly, ‘ Upadhyay sahab are you aware that the marriage is still about a week away – it hasn’thappened already! You have ample of time after the wedding to get this certificate, and anyhow even Rishabh’s family can get it done too, they also stay at Ahmedabad only.’
‘ I know Patel, but why let anything wait for later? And you know how bad the red tape in India is. No work is done here without a bribe or if at all , it would take ages. I don’t want to take the risk. I have given 1000 rupees to the clerk at the municipality office to process it as soon as possible. I am afraid I will forget it later in the ceremonies and this thought has been nagging me, so I thought – why not to finish off the errand.’
‘You mean the clerk will process the marriage certificate even before the marriage takes place? How is it possible?’ I enquired incredulously.
‘Bhaisaab, everything is possible in India. You just need to know the way,’ said Upadhyay making the universal gesture of money with his thumb rubbing over the index finger,’ Grease their palms and see how efficient Indian clerks are, you might be an exception, but a rareexception rather than the rule.’
This was so typical of Keshav to feel anxious about a document, infact I had not met a more fanatic man with regards to have ‘proper’ and ‘in-time’ paperwork. He was obsessed with having all documents which this country, in its fondness for drowning it’s citizens with floods of tedious documentation, had to offer – passport, election card, registries of properties, banking papers, Loan papers, R.C. of vehicles, P.U.C., P.A.N. card, tax papers, mediclaims and insurance papers etc…you name the document, he had it properly filed, regularly updated and stored. Not that I didn’t have these papers but the zeal with which he collected them and the anxiety which he demonstrated if there was any lacuna in his sacred assortments of all these documents, was lacking in myself, and actually in anyone else for that matter.
It was rumoured that he had built a special hidden vault in his home to keep all the papers safe, the location of which was known only to his wife and daughter. Of course, this was an exaggeration but it did show his reputation as a stickler for paperwork.
And it was also quite typical of him to stride into an office and promptly bribe the first clerk which he encountered. Such was his unshakeable faith in the efficiency of indian offices in the post- bribed period that it was a ritual for him to do so. Infact, we had first met in this manner only, about a decade ago – he had walked into the office of the electricity board; where I had worked in a humble capacity, and where I still worked, rising slowly to a mid-senior level position; and had kept 300 rupees on my table without uttering a word and had stared at me expectantly –
‘Yes? What can I do for you?’ I had asked startled.
‘ I have recently bought a house and I want to get the name changed in the electricity bill from the previous owner to mine,’ he said pointing towards the money.
I saw the address and was surprised to see the address was of the opposite villa to my house.
‘ No need for the money Keshav ji, some of us do our work honestly, and secondly you would be surprised that I live opposite to your new house.’
He had sat there open-mouthed, unable to believe the scene unfolding, but had the good sense to apologize, pick up the money and extend his hand towards me to shake, and begin a new friendship.
In due course of time I understood him better and now knew that he had been handed over a well-run business of manufacture of auto-parts by his father, and he has had just enough common sense, goodwill earned by his father and deep pockets to maintain the business in good health. He certainly didn’t have the enterprise, vision, audacity and the courage to lead his inherited business to new and unchartered heights. That needed a lot of tact, and a will to dabble beyond the fine line of legality, to venture into the financial pathways which are ruled by – ‘ Black’ money, and for him there was no colour except for ‘White’, not even – shades of grey.
The only tact he had learnt from his wise father, anecdotes of thousands of acquaintances and biased soap-operas and films, which projected indian offices through a lense of corruption, was to – grease the palm of anyone dealing with any sort of paperwork – document, certificate or a file. And this too was because he was so anxious and obsessed to get all the paperwork done as fast and as smoothly as possible. And in this one tact too he was so ‘tactless’ – so naive, too open and bluntly direct.
‘ Ok, I will drop this off and also take a form of Aadhar card from the centre for the child which will soon be forthcoming in a couple of years out of the wedlock of Sonu and Rishabh.’ I said teasingly and quickly walked away from him towards my car, before he could hurl a friendly obscenity in my direction.
* * * * * * *
On Monday, as I was just wrapping up the work on my table to get up for my well earned lunch, in came Keshav inside my cubicle, walking with lines of consternation drawn over his brow.
‘Upadhay sahab, what happened? You looked worried..is everything alright?’ I asked, gesturing him to be seated in the chair opposite to mine.
‘Patel, I have been thinking of having a conversation with you about something…I was passing by from this area, actually had gone to registrar’s office to finish the process for the flat which I am purchasing for Sonu and his fiancee, and I thought I would have a word with you here, in the office rather than at home where our wives can become unduly worried,’
”Yes, tell me, what’s troubling you?’
‘ Nishant. I have heard he was seen in the vicinity of our houses yesterday. It would be a big trouble if that is true..You know,’
I started on hearing the name – Nishant, it’s been almost two years that I had heard it.
‘But I thought he had moved to Surat permanently,’
‘ I thought so too, but the scoundrel he is, he might have come to create nuisance in Sonu’s marriage. You remember what he had said that day?’
I remembered it distinctly – ‘ Iwill notforget this…I will destroy you,’ he had screamed at Keshav that day when he was being accosted by the constables and was being taken to the police station.
‘ I do, but I thought that those words had been spoken in anger and had meant nothing, and he has not been seen or heard of for the past two years,’
‘ Cheap men like him are very vindictive, they lie hidden somewhere until the right opportunity to take out their ill-imagined revenge arrives. I am feeling quite apprehensive suddenly, suppose he appears at the wedding and creates a scene! Apart from my family I can only rely upon your wise counsel – what should I do?’
‘Don’t worry keshav ji! We are all here to support you, and Sonu is like my daughter. You remain busy in the preparations of marriage, I will talk to few senior and sensible members of our society, who are already aware about the history, and are your well-wishers. We will formulate a plan- we will take the local S.I. of police into our confidence, and I myself will be on the lookout along with few able-bodied young men of our neighborhood, if Nishant is foolish enough to show his face at the venue of wedding- we will deal with him. We will not let him create trouble in the marriage. Don’t worry,’
He clutched my hand,’ Thanks Patel, I knew I could count upon you in this sensitive manner,’
‘I am there always for you Upadhyay sahab,’
As I saw him off, he was visibly relieved, but now I was thoughtful – What could be done about this matter?
I thought that what a great tragedy it was that such a ‘proper’ man and a thorough gentleman had such a free-spirited, vivacious and careless daughter. I had great affection for Sonu, but it was true that her affair with that ruffian Nishant had brought a lot of trouble and headache for Keshav.
It had started in the last years of school, where both of them studied. Though Nishant belonged to a decent family, he had strayed early in his life – filled with a misplaced sense of his inflated importance due to bronzed good looks, a hunky body and a charming personality, he waded the murky waters of the world with a careless swagger and ‘devil-may-care’ attitude, which perhaps enamoured him in the hearts of many unsuspecting young girls, who were on the cusp of blossoming of adulthood, brimming with ‘Mills and boons’ romantic ideas. That Nishant had many vices and an obnoxiously rude personality and moved in questionable company, was invisible to these girls, or perhaps added one more attractive dimension in his alluring personna.
Sonu was one such girl, but she also was quite beautiful, rich and had a colorful personality. In short – it was a recipe for disaster.
So, in the time period when she should have been focussing on her career, she was engaged in a bitter fight with her parents due to Nishant. Mr. and Mrs. Upadhayay were at the end of their wits. Keshav, always soft-spoken, tried to instill sense in his beloved daughter delicately, but Ratna bhabhi, a formidable woman any given day, was more dominant and stricter than ever. She had imposed restrictions on Sonu, even got me and my wife to give an uncomfortable lecture on ‘impotance of right choices at the right time in life’ to her. Ultimately she was barred to go out from her home and in true Bollywood style Nishant had started encircling her house – shouting, whistling and writing graffiti on walls. It was all very shameful and hurting to the reputation of Upadhyays and disturbing to the residents of Apple county society, where our villas were located.
Finally, I and some senior members, along with Keshav, had approached Nishant’s parents. They were a long suffering lot. They themselves were quite wary of him and his ways. His father told us to get strict with him and teach him a life-altering lesson.
So one evening, we found Nishant scaling the boundary wall of the villa in an attempt to meet Sonu, some of us gathered together and called the local police, which caught him red-handed trying to scale the walls of the house and was taken to police station, in full view of everyone to instill ‘sense’ in him. It was then that he had threatened Keshav with dire consequences, and that he would elope with Sonu somehow and get married and what not.
He was let off with a warning next day, as Upadhayas had pressed no charges, in an attempt to suppress the matter. Then it was heard that he had been sent off to Surat by his parents to work with his uncle there in his business.
Meanwhile, Sonu had cried copious amount of tears for him for few days, we all were worried to death about her. But slowly, due to the absence of his magnetic presence and as board exams. were looming quite near, she had started to recover, much to the relief of everyone and managed to pass with decent marks. We heard later that Nishant had flunked and was in depression, but as the time went by nothing more was heard of him. Later he had tried to contact Sonu many times, but she had understood the importance of ‘ right choices in life’ by now, and gave him a cold shoulder. And everyone, including myself, thought that it was the end of that tainted chapter….until now.
As time had passed, Sonu got immersed in her diploma of fashion designing and grew more and more responsive to the idea of a ‘good‘ marriage – a well educated and settled husband, broad-minded in-laws, a big comfortable house to live in and a secure future leading to motherhood, obesity and a long luxurious life. Already there were indications and suggestions floating in the air that the couple could shift to Australia after the wedding, and Sonu’s excitement knew no bounds.
I thought that how happy she had been for the past few days after meeting Rishabh, She had been positively radiant in the the last months, flitting from one showroom of bridal wear to another, like a glorious butterfly coming of age.
How strange a woman’s heartis, when it loves a man she can perform feats of unnatural strength, courage or sacrifice for him or can cry to death for him, but when it moves over to another man, it becomes ruthless- mercilessly destroying all memories of the previous ‘knight in shining armour’, then no plea of the former lover can touch the strings of her heart, no reflection of the past deters her from going onward the new path leading towards the ‘man of her dreams’.
And how strange a man’s heartis – it could play games with many lovelorn ladies earlier, can flirt shamelessly with any number of maidens, happy in his ability to influence the fairer sex it discards many a proposal, ruthlessly breaks many hearts. But when it is fixated upon a girl and if that lady dumps him, this former hero of the love-town becomes a thing to pity. Drowned in his sorrows and burning from the rejection, this former Romeo becomes a whining Devdas. But, it’s adangerously imbalanced man, who would not thinkfor a momentbefore performing foolish acts, either of self-inflicting injuries or moronic actions of misplaced bravado, to impress his former lover or to avenge his rejection.
Perhaps on hearing the news of the upcoming marriage of his former sweetheart, the slumbering passion in Nishant’s heart had again become inflammed, and the dormant volcano of suppressed anger had become active again with the hot lava of revenge.
* * * * * *
On the night of marriage everyone was a bit tense, as there had been reports of sightings of Nishant in the vicinity. I had involved few boys of the area which had been placed on regular intervals around the venue of the wedding, which was at a walkable distance from our houses. Some other seniors members of our society were also on lookout of any signs of trouble.
Keshav and Ratna bhabhi were understandably worried. As we heard the loud music of the band accompanying the baarat, Keshavturned towards me with questioning eyes. I signalled him with my hand thay everything was fine and under control.
The baaratis danced frantically and comically, but also endearingly. It was as if they all had thrown caution and social inhibitions to the wind and were so drunk with the ecstasy that they didn’t care what others thought of them.
Eventually, the bride and the groom got seated on the plush sofa on the platform and people started going up to greet the couple and their parents.
I was standing on the ground in front of the platform, and from the corner of my left eye I saw a commotion, Mr. Jani, who was our neighbour, and Pankaj, son of Mr. Aggarwal, were coming towards me briskly. I quickly walked towards them so as to meet them as far away from the stage as possible.
‘ Something has happened,’ said Mr Jani urgently, ‘Pankaj just came from near the house, and the front door is ajar, he shouted for Birju but he didn’t answer,’
‘Yes,’ said Pankaj, ‘ I thought it was suspicious, it might be nothing but I came here fast to inform you and everyone,’
The house? I thought quickly that why would Nishant go to Upadhayay’s house. We were all expecting him to create a scene at the venue of the wedding and nobody had thought that he, or anyone else, would go to the villa. Of course, it could be burglars too, a house of wedding is the favorite target of thieves, that’s why Keshav had left Birju, their faithful and long-standing housekeeper behind, to take care of the jewellery and other valuables. All the manpower had been concentrating on the party plot, where marriage was taking place, and we had left the villa conspicuously under guarded.
I took Madhav, keshav’s younger brother, with us and all four of us went quickly to check on the villa. Keshav had seen us huddled together and talking animatedly, he seemed quite anxious. I signalled him to stay-put and not to worry.
As we turned the corner which lead to our homes, we could distinctly see Keshav’s villa in the distance – resplendent and bright. Then all at once, there was a figure scaling the boundary wall. We all shouted at once at the figure, whose back was turned towards us – Aaey…Aaey…Who is this..Stop! and started running towards him.
The man fell on the ground but quickly got up and ran frantically towards the gap between the two neighbouring houses, which lead to a large empty plot behind, filled with wild grass and weeds, and other colonies after that. We could not see who it was and he melted into the darkness.
I urgently diverted Jani and Pankaj to go for the man and also to call for the police, while Madhav and I ran towards the house.
Everything was happening so fast, I could not control my heartbeat which was so quick and loud that I could clearly hear it.
As we entered the front door, our hearts sank, Birju was lying near it, sprawled on the floor in the gallery which lead to the hall – unconscious, but without any obvious wounds on his body.
I told Madhav to quickly inspect the whole house to see whether any damage has been done or anything valuable was missing, and went to help Birju. I checked his pulse and whether he was breathing, and found that he was sleeping soundly, perhaps he had been given something to eat or drink, that had knocked him out.
He was in no immediate danger, I kept a pillow underneath his head. He would wake up groggily after few hours.
Then I got up and myself started inspecting the place critically. There was a dreadful and suspicious silence hanging over the place. Everything seemed exactly like it always had been. Master bedroom, hall, kitchen and guestroom on the ground floor revealed nothing amiss. I went up to first floor -Sonu’s bedroom and the adjoining study room were also untouched.
As I got down I met Madhav coming up from the basement, ‘ Anything?’ I asked him.
‘No, everything is alright, ‘ Madhav answered, ‘ nothing has been touched, all ornaments, money and other valuables are fine, I have checked,’
‘Yes, it does seem that everything is fine, though it’s quite puzzling,’
‘Perhaps the man lost his nerve or heard us coming before he could do any damage and fled,’
‘Perhaps,’ I said as we wandered out of the front door and saw Keshav and Ratna bhabhi ambling towards us anxiously.
‘What happened? Where is Birju? Have they looted everything? Hai! ..What will happen now? My Sonu’ s marriage is ruined. I told him not to leave so much gold and cash in charge of Birju, one can’t trust these servants, however faithful they pretend to be. But No! He does not listen to me….’ babbled Ratna bhabhi excitedly as they met us.
‘ Bhabhi, calm down… everything is fine. All the ornaments and cash are fine…Madhav ji has checked, Birju is here only, he has been given something to knock him off, but otherwise he is alright, both of you shouldn’t have come here, ‘
‘ Hugh!..What? Who were they? And why did they come to our house?’ fired indomitable Ratna bhabhi, as Keshav caught his breath standing by her side.
‘Was it Nishant? We were so worried that we couldn’t stay there, ‘ he enquired.
‘We don’t know…We saw a man jumping down the boundary wall, but could not see who it was,’
As we stood there discussing, in the strip of land in between the boundary wall and the road, near the Gulmohar tree, we saw a group of people dragging a man along, who was resisting and fighting to get himself freed.
It was Mr. Jani, Pankaj and two constables, and as they came near us, pulling at the man with all the strength, we saw that it was Nishant – he had lost quite a bit of weight. He seemed thin and gaunt, and an ungainly stubble had sprouted on his face. I could see few strands of silver on his head.
‘Chal.!..Tell us what did you do?’ one of the constable demanded from him.
Nishant looked in the direction of Keshav with a glint in his wicked eyes and spat on the ground near his feet, ‘ I told you I would tear you apart if you got her married to someone else,’ he spoke with vehemence and then went flying to the ground as the constable punched him in the back.
‘Please, ‘ I motioned the constable to stop and asked Nishant, ‘ you are bluffing, you scoundrel, no damage has been done…We have stopped you from doing your filthy mischief and now you will be locked up for a long time,’
He turned towards me and watched me for a few moments, then a grin broke out on his face, ‘ you won’t understand …He knows,’ said Nishant pointing towards Keshav.
I whirled towards Keshav, who was standing behind me, he had suddenly gone pale, he was white as a ghost.
‘But…’ I started to speak, but all of a sudden Keshav ran towards the house, he went very fast as if his life was in danger. We were all rooted there, bound by our incomprehension. It was as if we had been glued to the ground.
I remember the scene in slow-motion, though everything happened in an eye’s blink, but in my mind it has been imprinted forever in slow-motion – Keshav sprinting towards the house, Nishantsitting in the mud flashing his cruelsmile, a mystified suspense of few brief seconds, then a loud wail …Aaghhh! followed by a sickening thud…And then– silence.
We all woke with up with a start and rushed inside the house.
‘Kya hua..Suniye..Kya hua?’, Ratna bhabhi ran in front of me shouting and tripped over Birju, who was dreaming peacefully, unaware of the tumult going on around him.
As I helped her to her feet, I thought that in all probability Keshav’s anguished shriek had emerged from the bowels of the basement. I went down the flight of stairs, two stairs at a time, and was stopped in my tracks at the end by the scene in front of me,
The wall- sized painting of Lord Krishna, which I always thought had denoted Keshav’s special devotion to the Lord, had been unhooked from its hooks and was standing at an angle from the wall near the stairs, and behind it’s original position, where there should have been the wall, was a hole! It was a concealed locker in fact, made In the wall, with lots of shelf and occupied the area of about half the length of the wall and about one metre in breath; on the floor nearby the foot of the uprooted painted, lay Keshav, facedown and apparently insensible. All around him were strewn shredded pieces of papers!
There were shredded papers in the lockers too…a lot of them. A glance told me what I already knew in my heart, there were all sorts of documents – land deeds, bonds, insurances, certificates – neatly cut into pieces, calmly cut, purposefully cut, methodically cut and ruthlessly cut to dust; fluttering around their master as if to awaken him, clinging on to him, as if even after their destruction, they still wanted to show their loyalty and commitment to their fallen master.
I came out of my stupor, ‘Keshav!..Keshav!’, I turned him over and started giving thumps to his chest on the left side with my palms, as had been taught to us few days back in a workshop at the electricity board by the visiting medical team, ‘Call anambulance! Dial 108…’
* * * * * * *
It was the third day after the marriage, thankfully it had taken place without any further incident, when I parked my car in the parking of the hospital. I had accompanied Keshav in the ambulance that night to this hospital to get him admitted. Madhav had taken Ratna bhabhi back to the wedding, despite her vociferous protests. But it was a difficult situation which needed to be tackled delicately. Fortunately, Ratna bhabhi had risen to the occasion and kept her wits and head intact.
It was told there to everyone, Including Sonu and Rishabh, that there had been an unsuccessful attempt of burglary at the residence of Upadhayay’s, but the thieves had been apprehended in the act and no damage had occurred, except that they had destroyed some papers and files, but while investigating keshav had slipped on the stairs and had sustained minor injuries on his left leg and hand, for which he had been taken to the hospital. Madhav and his wife had done the Kanyadaan, and Ratna bhabhi had managed to smile and assure everyone, including the parents of Rishabh, that everything was under control. They were quite understanding and took charge of the situation and saw that wedding proceeded unhindered. Of course Sonu and Rishabh wanted to come to the hospital straight away after the feras, but they were counselled by all elders that it was inauspicious and that Keshav was alright.
As I entered the hospital, I met Sonu and Rishabh coming down after meeting Keshav. Sonu had cried much the next day when it was revealed that Keshav had sustained a minor heart attack. No mention of Nishant had been done to her, so as not to compound her grief with guilt.
‘Bless you both…enjoy your honeymoon, don’t worry about Keshav, we are all here for him and he is sound as a horse,’ I told them as they touched my feet and Sonu hugged me. I had been involved the day before in getting their tickets done for Kerala. As Sonu’s passport had been torn by Nishant, they no longer were able to go to Bali, their original destination for honeymoon. They had wanted to cancel the trip, but as doctors announced that Keshav was alright, and as the family wanted to send the couple away from the dark shadows of Nishant, they were convinced to carry on.
After seeing them off, I entered the room where Keshav had been admitted. I saw him staring up at the wall.
I thought that given the efficient h in which the matter of Nishant had been suppressed and no scandal had been allowed to break, and the smooth way in which wedding had proceeded; he ought be reasonably happy, considering the circumstances. But, then again, how could you reason with a man who considered documents more worthy for safe-keeping than his daughter’s jewellery. A person who on the occasion of his only daughter’s marriage, kept huge amount of cash and gold in charge of his servant but refused to share the secret location of the locker of his papers from his own brother, let alone his friends and servant, would not be expected to respond to one’s reasoning.
‘How are you Upadhyay sahab today? You should be happy,’
‘All thanks to you Patel, you are a true friend. But not everything is well, that bastard has ruined me. I could not perform Kanyadaan of my onlydaughter. He will not spared by the God…there is delay in his justice but not neglect of sins…he will rot in hell,’
Keshav had to resort to his faith in the judgement by Providence because after a lot of discussion amongst the family members, it had been decided not to press charges against Nishant – again. He was let off with a warning after two days. With a written apology and assurance that he won’t come near the house of Upadhayay’s or Sonu’s in the future. I had been there and thought that his passion was spent now and he won’t be a trouble anymore. What a tragedy it is that even in today’s era, parents and the family of a girl can’t express their indignation outrightly, they can’t react to an insult or a crime openly; they have to calibrate their response and measure it against the repercussions. They have to think about the society and about the ‘good’ name of their daughter. They have to gulp down their bruised egos, overlook their trampled emotions and water down their burning resentments.
‘ But that ruffian struck where it hurt the most, and at the worst possible time. I wonder how did he come to know about the locker and the combination number to open it?’ continued Keshav.
An image sprang up in my mind – It might have been a beautiful evening and the dusk might have started to fall – soft and romantic, when two young lovers sat somewhere secluded, perhaps on the bench in a park, full of greenery and colorful flowers and devoid of crowd. As the boy and girl held the hands, as they hugged and smiled shyly, as the girl rested her head on his strong shoulder; it might have occured to both of them that they were made for each other and were soulmates, inseparable for seven lives atleast. As their conversation proceeded from declaring their undying love to each other to discovering each other, as they decided not to have any secret anymore amongst them; the girl felt confident that she had met her man of dreams and as she laughed on his charming compliments, she told him about her father, who was the best father in the world, a true gentleman- just a little eccentric. He loved the documents and papers more than anything else, he was so obsessed about his fear of loosing them that he had had a special secret locker made for them. Perhaps the boy had said – Idon’t believe it. The girl might have retorted – Arrey baba, I am telling youna! And then in her compulsive need to gain his acceptance, she had gone on to tell him about the location and the combination of the locker.
The boy might have laughed it off, but he stored the information in his mind. It might be useful someday, he might have thought. And never again the topic was discussed, the girl thought nothing of it an forgot all about it in due course of time, but not the boy, who bade his time- hidden, patient, and attentive- to strike at the most opportune moment to inflict maximum damage.
‘ They were just papers Upadhyay sahab…’ I said as I woke up from my reverie.
‘ Just papers! They were everything, you know how much damage has been done? Everything is gone- everything, right from all the necessary documents of all three of us to all our academic certificates and degrees to all my property papers; I have nothing as of now; to all banking papers about investments etc. and worse of all – he has destroyed my precious memories. There were cards and letters written to me by Sonu when she was young and there were letters which I and Ratna had exchanged during our courtship.’
‘ I fear I will get my second heart attack just by thinking how to get all these paperwork done again…Wherewill I begin?’ he turned his face away from me, trying to suppress a sob, ‘ and you know – how bad the red-tapein India is…’