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The Sunset Journey

inside-victoria-terminus-mumbai-bombay

I dashed through the dysfunctional metal detector at the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Or rather the Victoria Terminus, as it is called by people who want to assert their inherited linkage to the city. The beautiful city by the sea, Mumbai. To me these people are in denial of accepting the fact that the city, which had its origin in the colonial era, had evolved out of its colonial past. I have always been baffled by this strange tendency to keep holding to very trivial memories amongst a lot of people. They clinch to it like a creeper does to a wall. Although accepting the change would not make an ounce of difference. I mean, would the magnificent, imposing Victorian structure change if we called it the CST instead of the VT. But then, whatever the name, it hardly bothered me. I am not made for Mumbai and I never had hesitation in accepting that. As far as the standard Mumbaikar mold goes, I am a diametrically opposite entity. I am lazy and slow; I cannot remain focused for even a minute; I hate crowded places and I really, really hate humidity.  My sprint through the platform was a metaphor for my desire to escape. I felt like a lab rat put in the condition most inhospitable to its species, just to see how fast it escapes. I had already made a fool of myself when I came down to Mumbai wearing a business suit in the month of May. My shirt was already sticking like a postal stamp to my body, all drenched in the costal sweet, beneath the expensive suit.  But that annoying feeling needed to be pushed to a lower position in the priority queue, top place taken by – Make your way through the sea of humanity and board the train before it leaves. Making your way through Mumbai crowds should be a recognized globally as an urban adventure sport.

Deccan Queen, one of the most famous trains to run in India. It plies between Mumbai and Pune on a daily basis since the times of the Raj. Had I not been in a hurry to board it I would have taken a minute or two to wonder about why the name of the train, another reminiscent of the colonial era, has not been changed yet. And how long till someone notices. The insides of the coach was no different from the overcrowded platform, but it had a promise. A promise of escape. In Mumbai you would see creature of only your own species everywhere. This should be what an ant sees when it looks around in a huge colony of ants.

The announcement that the train would be leaving shortly, came like breeze of cool air in hot summer. I tried to figure out, amidst the splendid chaos within the cramped up coach, the seat number that I was assigned by the benign online booking website of Indian railways. The reason why I am talking of the website with such reverence is because the website is a living entity of its own! It is manifestation of the great Indian government machinery, which like a tribal deity needs to be coaxed and cajoled to deliver your wishes. No Indian, willing to travel through the world’s largest railroad network, would risk angering it.

’26’ I mumbled. Sitting there was girl whom I had already noticed through my peripheral vision. Without looking towards her, I started settling my bag above the seat.

“Is 26 yours?” She asked, I was still struggling with the various straps of my bag. Without paying much attention, I just responded in an indifferent ‘hmm’. But as she spoke my brain almost alarmed started sending signals that said something is happening which is departure from the usual

“Actually I have some problem sitting in direction opposite to motion, would you be fine to switch this with mine? It is this one” She pointed to the seat just in front of mine. But by this time the talk about swapping seats appeared to be immaterial.

“Anku!” I exclaimed almost instinctively

“Rohan” She screamed. Her eyes lit up with the same sparkle that I had associated so much with her. Instantly I knew that there won’t be a dull moment in this whole journey. Ankita was seating in front of me. It took me a minute to realise that it has been 4 years since I had last seen her. She was wearing a salwar kameez which to me seemed a departure from the usual Ankita that I knew.

“You can’t believe, can you?” Her quizzing eyes looking straight into mine

“What?”

“That I have changed so much. The bindi, the mangalsutra, this whole Salwar Kameez thing.” She giggled. She enjoyed surprising people.

“Well, I have seen stranger things happen. So, I would not say that I cannot believe that you changed. But what surprises me is that we meet after so many years and that too on a train. I mean, we have so many friends in common but never did it happen that we meet at someone’s place, maybe accidentally. We meet on a goddamn train.” I shook my head

“True. And look at you. All suited up. No stubble. Show your nails to me” She pulled my hands infront of her.

“See. All nice and cropped. Kya baat hai?” She threw in her usual gesture of admiration

“Yes. You are not the only one who has been hit by life. Everyone gets a fair chance. I had a meeting in Mumbai, with a publisher. So had to present my best self.” I admitted

“Publisher! So are you finally getting published?” She almost screamed

“Yes”

“What is the book about?” Going by the Ankita from college I was expecting her to jump up and down, right and left.

“Some science fiction bullshit” I tried to play down

“What!? When did you start writing that? No love stories?”

“Not anymore. And moreover there are too many idiots writing love stories. But science fiction is niche. I wouldn’t have got published for next 10 years had I kept writing those candy floss love stories.”

“Oh my God. I cannot believe it. You know when I used to tell Aakash that you deserve to get published he always mocked you.”

“Well, as it happens to be, he is the one who helped me to get through to the chief editor of this publishing house.” I flashed the information for her

“I know. You guys are like this. You would catch a grenade for each other but would always make fun in each other’s face.” The light in her eyes seemed to die as if the source of her energy had been turned down. I knew what the reason was. When I first saw her calling my name, I knew this moment would come. Could I have avoided discussing on this? I asked to myself. Maybe not. Because Aakash was the link between Ankita and me. It was because of him that we knew each other.

Suddenly both of us went quiet. Unexpectedly we ran out of topics to talk. I kept evaluating things that we could talk upon but rejected each one of those in my mind, because some way or the other each thing linked to Aakash. She kept looking out of the window. The urban landscape of Mumbai, with all the chaos and disarrangement, was getting left behind. The queen, as it is called, raced away from the city by the sea towards the city by the mountains – Pune. The distinct costal smell of Mumbai was getting lighter and the temperature lesser. Sun went down somewhere behind the cluster of concrete giants, which from a distance were looking like half made sculptures of a novice.

“So, when are you getting married?” She asked trying to break the envelope of awkwardness

“I don’t know. Maybe 2 years from now” Unknowingly she had now pushed me into a more awkward territory not that I was comfortable already.

“Why? Are things alright between you and Kalpana?” She asked with a concerned voice.

“Well. She is not there anymore. We separated.” I tried not to look towards her as I kept gazing out of the window. The sunlight still shone on the face of the distant cliffs which came closer with each passing moment.

“Why what happened?” She asked. Although I didn’t want to bring up any discussion about Kalpana with anyone, but the simple fact that Ankita didn’t think twice before asking what happened made me feel glad. It is only with people who are really close to your heart, that you can ask anything without the fear of hurting your relationship. I had always felt that I was the closest to Ankita, among all of Aakash’s friends.

“The irony is, I don’t know.” I shook my head as I half smiled and half did god-knows-what.

“She simply left. And it appears that she doesn’t want to have any contact. Although she never told this to me and when I asked she just said that she needs some time by herself. She seemed to be intimidated by the fact that I knew her too well. I stepped back and it has been two years since then. So many times I think of calling her but then I don’t. We were not in a relationship where we could not have talked if there had been a problem. I mean, she could’ve told me what the problem was.” I just stopped abruptly there were so many things on my mind that I simply could not process the whole chunk of thoughts.

I turned to her. Her eyes still fixed on me. She had a look of a mother who had just seen her child fall down but would not help the child, just to let it learn.

“Don’t worry.” I tried to brush away her worries with a smile

“I am alright now. I am over her now” I assured

“Are you?”

“Well, that’s what I tell myself everyday”

“You know Rohan, people say that all the time that they are over some person. But actually that never happens. I know how it is. Once you are with someone, completely into the relationship you allow that person to touch your life and alter your life like no other. If and when that person goes away the impressions still remain. Like even the sculptor leaves a work incomplete still the work speaks of the sculptor’s art. That incomplete statue will always be there even if the maker has gone away. So don’t tell me you are over her”

“Maybe you are right. But there is no other way to overcome. You know, when this happened I would not sleep for days at a stretch. Everything in my life was a mess. I could not remember even the slightest things. Sometimes I would keep staring at the mirror in the bathroom thinking whether I have brushed or not. I realised how important she was to me. She was the one thing that stablised my life. For a very long period of time things stopped making sense at all. There was no real value attached to anything I did. All seemed worthless

Without her my life was like a plane without a wing, somersaulting on its way to a crash. But then one day I questioned myself – how long would I be living like this? Either I end everything or I get out of this mess. It was not just me but everybody around me who was getting affected by this. And then I think I decided to move over her.”

She smiled as if rejecting the whole justification. I still remember the day when I was leaving for Aakash’s wedding and Ankita bunked her office to see me off. It felt so strange at that time. But now it made complete sense. She would never meet him again. I still remember that wedding, it lacked the euphoria, so characteristic of any Indian wedding. I remember Aakash sitting on the mare staring into a distance while his kin and friends, fuming with alcohol, danced around him. He was unmoved, only if the baratis took the effort of looking at his face.

“It is not that you forget someone or get over them. You just get used to living with the void in your life. Months after Aakash’s marriage I would go into these strange moods where I wished that a car runs me over the next time I cross the road. I would carry on with my life like everything is normal but on the inside I could feel the burn.”

“I know how it feels. I still do not have a routine, you know why? Because there is no one thing that holds my interest for long. I would start off with a thing and by the time I would get really interested in it the thought of Kalpana would strike. How this would seemed if she was here? And boom. I lose all the interest.”

“Is that why you started writing science fiction? Or rather why you stopped writing love stories?”

I was speechless. I was amazed how well she could understand me. It was scary but at the same time, soothing. Close friends always remain close no matter how much time you are away from them.

“Never mind. I know the answer. But yes I know the feeling of restlessness and disinterest. During our courtship, Anirudh expected me to talk to him daily and be excited about our marriage. Initially I had no interest. But then I realised that, maybe I need make him feel that I am interested. Because what I have lost in Aakash is already gone with him. I cannot keep holding onto it.”

“You are contradicting yourself. You just said that we cannot get over a relationship but now you are saying that you realised holding on would not help”

She smiled again as I her follower and she was a seer who knew what I sought.

“Life in itself is a contradiction, isn’t it? We are not born by our will nor we die by it, still we call it our life. Now how contradictory is that?” she quizzed “Also I didn’t say I was able to forget him. It was just that I was able to fake my happiness.”

“But how long can you do that?”

“I don’t know. It has been four years and here I am. You get up every day and put on a mask. As you said, you tell yourself every day that you are over her. That is what I would call putting up a mask. Like an actor training yourself to behave in a manner which announces to the world that you no longer live in shadow of the one whom you loved. You are over her. You change yourself, your habits, your routine, basically anything and everything that people, or even you, associate with her. You stop listening to the song that the two of you sang together, stop going to that restaurant, that book store and even stop eating ice cream of her favourite flavour, even if it was yours favourite too. And you keep doing it every day. You create the mask. But beneath the mask you still are the same. Till the point that everyone else starts believing the mask to be the true you.”

“…And then?”

“Then what? It continues that way forever. You are confused that whether the mask is the true you, which all believe to be or you have lost yourself somewhere in the past.” Her brown eyes were now moist and her voice shrill. She wiped her tears with the end of her dupatta

“Leave it. Thoda zyada funda ho gaya nahi?” she tried to put a smile on her face. Perhaps her mask.

Nahi yaar. I think you are right. Things that hurt us in life change us more than things that make us happy. The fire in the furnace moulds the tool and not the water in which it is quenched. You remember college. How optimistic we were, perhaps over optimistic. We believed everything would work out and we would have our way with life. And look now here we are crying over the memories of people we lost.”

“You know, I no longer die to watch a Shah Rukh movie first day first show. Shah Rukh, Salman they are all the same for me now. I simply do not feel the excitement. Sometimes I miss it but then I do not see the point of that. Maybe this is what people call maturing”

“Somewhere inside I feel that this change that we go through, which you just called maturing, teaches us to adapt. It teaches us to respond to the circumstances and to face this world in a better way, but it drives us away from our true self. We may be best suited to take on the world but we are not the actual us. For example you losing the excitement for a Shah Rukh movie, that’s not the actual you but you have learnt that getting excited earns you nothing. It is survival of the fittest. The fittest version of you lives!”

She just smiled and somehow I knew it was a real one. We just crossed Monkey hill. The train curved on the edge of the beautiful Sahyadri range. Sun went down in the distance, it was orange and almost touching the horizon. The haphazard urban landscape was far removed and the slopes of Sahyadri dried in the sweltering heat lay around us. I my opinion the Western Ghats had the best sunsets in whole of India. I often rode to a small mountain near Pune on the weekends just to enjoy the spectacular summer sunset from there. I loved sunsets. Kalpana hated them. She always considered sunsets as moments of parting, but I detested any such categorisation.

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“Sunsets in Sahyadri are so beautiful” I spoke in its awe

“Absolutely” She concurred

“I think this is the second best part of the whole journey” I told her as the train curved through the mountains towards the tunnel.

“What’s the best part?” She asked

“Meeting you” and we both broke into a laughter which only those would understand who have really close friends, who share a relationship where words are secondary or maybe tertiary.

“Trains always mesmerised me since I was a child. Not just the machinery, but the whole concept of travelling with completely unknown people for lengthiest of distances.”

“Is there any specific train journey that you remember?” I asked her

“Not in particular, but yes there are many”

“I had this one journey cemented in my memory. I was travelling from Indore to Bangalore. And there was this couple from Rajasthan who had a very beautiful baby, just above a year of age. The baby was very cute, but sadly it had a hole in its heart. They were going to the Sai Baba hospital in Bangalore of baby’s surgery. They had just got a phone call and had started from their place without thinking twice. It was really heart breaking. And there was this Bengali gentleman. He would have been around 60 years of age. When you talked to him he was all negative about life. He told me how when he was young his family astrologer had predicted great achievements by him but he didn’t. He just turned out to be a mediocre medical salesman. And in the night when everyone was asleep I kept thinking that will I be the same as this old man towards the end of my life cursing everything and repenting how I spent my life. In the same compartment I saw despair in that old man and hope and optimism in the young couple who were traveling for getting their baby operated without any guarantee, just on basis of a phone call. The sheer emotional expanse of life overwhelmed me. And I cried that night, for hours.”

She listened to me with a radiant smile on her face

“I think, you should start writing love stories again, Rohan.” She suggested

“Maybe one day I would. When I have a name and people would by any bullshit with my name.”

“Oh come on! You would write great love stories”

I shrugged. The train rolled in an out of the tunnel and had covered most of the mountainous terrain, now reaching the plateau. Pune was not far now. Our beautiful journey would come to an end soon.

“But you are right. As we grow up the way we see life keeps on changing. I feel it is because of the experiences that we accumulate throughout our journey that shapes our view of life. And somewhere it is up to us how we treat these experiences. It is like, various combinations of same set of musical notes give us different tunes.”

“True. I think it would be a good idea to just note down our current perspectives so that four years later when we meet again, we would be able to compare how things have changed”

“Shut up! I need to get going. Anirudh will be picking me up at Shivaji Nagar.”

“What? Are we already there?” I asked and looked out of the window and I couldn’t believe we were already in Pune. Sun’s light had almost died and the road running parallel to the rails was full of vehicles, like fireflies in a field at dusk.

The train pulled on the platforms and we bade goodbyes. I would be going on till the next stop. She waved from the platform as her husband stood politely behind her. Would she tell him who I was and how she knew me? I asked to myself.

In the last few years I never had felt as contented as I did that day. Neither she nor I asked to exchange numbers or addresses. Maybe we would meet again, like this, in one of the sunset journeys. Maybe…

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Enduring Love

“Doddabetta is the highest peak in the Nilgiris” informed the jovial guide, who was sitting in the front seat of the SUV. The SUV curved through the bumpy roads, lined up with huge Eucalyptus trees on the both sides. Although trees blocked the view of the valley but whenever the vehicle approached the curves, on the edges, one could get a glimpse of the distant mountains. A blue mist settled over the thick green cover. True to their name, these are the Blue Mountains of India.
I and my wife took this half-yearly trip to one famous tourist spot in India. It had become a ritual. Both of us were crazy about travelling. Meeting new people had become an obsession. Ooty had been on your radar for quite some time but things never materialized until I got relocated to Bangalore. Within a month of coming down to Bangalore, we planned this trip and went for it. Arriving at the resort on the golf club road, we could not wait to hit the hills. It was already afternoon when we reached the top at Doddabetta. A manicured garden surrounding a tower was situated at the top. The tower housed a telescope which provided a beautiful view of the city. But much to our dismay, it was July and the only things visible with or without the telescope were clouds. Endless, Infinite Ocean of clouds. Most of them were dark which reflected the potential in them to drench any hill, any mountain coming in their way. Some were lighter, humbler siblings of the former. The wind was strong at the top. As we got out of the car and walked towards the tower, we could see groups of tourists clicking pictures. The older ones were shivering due to the damp, cold atmosphere created by the mating of strong winds with wet showers. Few young couples sat over the benches, indulging in the quintessential activities that happen between young couple. And the younger lot ran hither-thither to burn out extra energy that you have at that age.
“There is nothing much to see here” Commented Mithila.
“Right madam, but have you been here on a clear day, the view of Ooty is mesmerizing.” Endorsed the guide. His full name was something which I could hardly gather but it was a relief to know that one could refer to him as ‘Mani’.
It seemed Mani had been in Ooty since eternity. He knew everything and everybody. According to him, we were there in the wrong season, but we were there. He suggested taking the train ride from Ooty to Connor. It was a famous mountain train route; its claim to fame was the famous song ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ which was filmed on the same route. Ooty was sprinkled with various places which featured regularly in movies. But first we were to visit the Rose garden and the Tea museum, on our way back to the Resort. The train ride was due next morning.
The tea museum, named as ‘The Tea Factory’(written in Capital Red letters) was a functional tea factory producing the Nilgiri Tea, grown in the tea estates in and around Ooty. These museum-cum-factory hosts a tour for the visitors to let them explore the process of conversion of the green leaves from the waist high plant to that black powdery thing which each of us had in his kitchen. Visitors can also buy, various flavored teas at the end of the tour. As we completed our tour, the rain started to pour down heavily; still the better half of the day was left.
Mithila and I sat on one of the bench, which was comfortably placed behind the glass panels which sheltered us from the downpour. The view was breathtaking. The Tea Factory was situated on an elevated platform on the lower edge of a mountain. It overlooked the town of Ooty and unlike Doddabetta, it was at a lower elevation which spared us from the cover of clouds we encountered there. The droplets of water dripped down the glass, and the winds blew them in various directions. Some drops flowed straight down the glass; others bent their course due to powerful wind to reach the ground through a different route.
The town of Ooty appeared to be frozen in time from that distance. Like a masterpiece from a great painter, curtained from us by the rain-drop-tainted glass. We sat there savoring the view and absorbing the spirit. We liked our individual privacy and had a respect for that. There had been moments in relationships when we had just sat for hours without saying anything, and letting each other do his/her bit of introspection. Often those moments happened to be on a holiday, at places like these.
I cannot recall where the train of my thoughts was headed when I heard a voice familiar enough to attract my attention instinctively towards it. It was not Mithila who was speaking. Kalpana, I couldn’t have guessed to find her here.
It had been 7 year since I last met her. The last thing I remember about her was from the day our results were out and we exchanged the usual lines on each other’s result. What remained lingering from that day was the feeling in my heart which comes when you have known someone so well that you do not need to talk to understand the other’s mind, but you act like you are just acquaintances, and indulge in foolish conversation. Every time I looked back on that day I found myself more and more stupid in doing so. But we had decided to part our ways, and that too consciously.  Having been in relationship for a good length of time, there was hardly anyone in the college who did not think that the two of us are going to marry. But we knew each other way too well, to go into the bond of marriage. We were awesome together but could not have settled for a marriage with each other. Hence, towards the end of the college we decided to end it, formally. And end we did, on the night of the Farewell bash. The metallic taste of our last kiss still thrills me, as we hadn’t slept the whole night, roaming around the city on our bikes. She was a live wire then. I enjoyed every bit of time spent with her.
Her face still bore the same radiance, which I think was due to the overwhelming enthusiasm she had inside her. I could see a man following her, they were walking towards us. Mithila was still looking into the vast enormity of the Nilgiris. Before I could utter a word, Kalpana’s eyes met mine and I read the same astonishment in her eyes which I felt in my heart. I rose from the bench and my name came out of her mouth in the same way I recognized her voice.
“How are you?” was the first question she asked, it almost is every time you meet someone. But this was with a different meaning. I just nodded and smiled, with restraint. Mithila had caught the notice of our small conversation; I felt the obligation of introducing my wife to her.
“Kalpana, she is Mithila, my wife. And she is Kalpana, my friend from college.” I did the formality.
“I think I have seen you in his college pictures” chirped Mithila. She probably had an idea of our relationship but never really enquired about it. The pictures she was referring to were quite explanatory about what existed between me and Kalpana.
“Oh really, I look so bad in those pictures. I am sure he wouldn’t have told you anything about me.” Kalpana half blushed and half smiled as she said that.
Meanwhile the other guy who followed her was standing patiently, waiting for someone to notice him. I looked in Kalpana’s eyes and then towards him. She knew what I was telling her.
“Oh I forgot, he is Omang. We got married last month.” She said flaunting the Heena patterns on her hand. We exchanged pleasantries and discovered that they were staying at the same place as we did. They had arrived two days ago but didn’t go out before today. It was their honeymoon. Eventually it was finalized that we will be sticking together for rest of the day, as tomorrow they will be leaving for Chennai. A lunch was quickly planned.
Lunch was marked with several discussions about our college days and surprisingly Mithila was more interested and active in that. Both Kalpana and Mithila shared this common attribute of getting comfortable with anybody very easily, I liked that. Maybe that was one of the reasons for me to choose Mithila as my life partner. But the similarity ends there; Mithila had this quality of giving ample space to you which Kalpana couldn’t. She had to know everything about you and everything you did. Perhaps that was the reason why I thought I decided not to go ahead with my relationship with her.
“You know Mithila, once Rupak and I planned these serial blasts in the college…” Kalpana was boasting about our not so praise worthy achievements. The blasts mentioned were not actually bomb blasts but fire crackers planted in college toilets. We had planned that along with few of the friends, it was figment of Kalpana’s wicked imagination.
“… And the catch was that boys had to plant the bomb in girl’s toilet and girls had to plant it in boy’s toilet.” Continued Kalpana with naughty giggles. Mithila was enjoying every bit of it, as her arsenal was getting strengthened with information that she could use to embarrass me. It was her special weapon. Omang was just a silent listener and came across as a shy person. I wondered how the two would have got to this point.
“Oh, and why don’t you tell us your misadventures with Ms. Thakur?” I said, teasing Kalpana. We exchanged glares and she still had the naughtiness alive in her eyes. I grinned and chewed on my lunch. Ms. Thakur was fresh faculty who taught us Microwave engineering. She was single and Kalpana fooled her by sending SMSs in name of a boy from our class, for a whole semester. Later when the truth was discovered consequences were not worth mentioning.
Kalpana moved her lips to say something, without a sound. I knew what she said. ‘Jerk’ was her favorite swear word and when you really irritated her, she would turn to you mumble it. I couldn’t help but smile in wonder. As I turned I found Mithila looking at us in amazement, while Omang just smiled.
We then moved to Rose garden, which was not much exciting, at least for me. It was not something which I looked forward to; the only consolation was the scenery around that place. Omang did not enjoy it either.
“I think I will smoke a joint and come back” He said and left. Kalpana looked at me with a question in her eyes. I knew what her question was. I nodded in disagreement, with a faint smile. She smiled back. We strolled through the garden with a lazy ease as the two ladies admired beauty of the flowers.
After being done with the garden we came out to the parking where Omang stood smoking probably third or fourth cigarette.
“How many?” Asked Kalpana, with a hint of anger in her voice.
“Only second, darling.” Replied Omang with a cajoling tone to pacify Kalpana.
I used to smoke during my college days, and Kalpana didn’t like it at all. Every time she saw me smoking she would snatch the cigarette from my lips and throw it away, and would mumble ‘Jerk’ in her trademark style. I just loved that.
It was already afternoon and we went back to the cottage resort. The cloud cover was still very thick over the sky. And the winds started getting colder. After a cup of tea(Nilgiri tea, obviously!) and snacks we retired to our rooms. Although Mithila usually did not ask too many questions, I expected a few about Kalpana.
“It seems you had too much fun together in your college days?” Asked Mithila as she did her thing infront of the large mirror. I agreed with a ‘Hmm’.  She didn’t ask a question more. And soon it was dinner time. The resort was an old English villa turned into a resort. The majestic dining room was place for dinner and all the guests gathered there. We were to meet Kalpana and Omang there.
I tried not to dress too formally, and stuck to the usual cargo and T-shirt. Mithila considered Salwar kameez to be apt. When we reached the dining hall, Omang and Kalpana were already there. Kalpana wore a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Omang was in similar casuals. We chatted over the dinner, much to irritation of other guests, most of whom were Europeans. But nobody from us cared about it. After finishing the dinner we decided to take a walk in the lawn outside the villa.
Omang went away for smoking yet again. I was left to accompany the two ladies who were busy talking about thing varying from Movies to religious practices and what not. This conversation was broken by the ringing of Mithila’s phone. She excused herself to a more private area of the lawn. I found myself in the position that I wanted to avoid since morning, because when Kalpana is around with other people it is easy to act the way we were acting. But with just me and her, I just couldn’t be what I was supposed to be and at the same time I couldn’t act the way I would’ve. It was so awkward that I kept looking at the night sky, which was full of dark clouds. The moon registered its presence as a circle of white light behind the clouds.
“So, when did you quit smoking?” Kalpana asked breaking the silence. I knew that was the question she wanted to ask in the Rose garden but did not ask. The answer to that question was something which I wanted to avoid, as it would call for more questions.
“After college.” I did answer her. She turned her head towards me in a sudden jolt as if surprised by my response.
“I almost died asking you to quit, but you never did. And after college you quit. Why?” She was angry in asking for the explanation.
I wanted to tell her why I quit. I quit because, there was no one who would pull out the joint from my mouth and mumble ‘Jerk’. I quit because she was not there. The very reason I used to light a cigarette was not there. The day when we last met, someone lit up a cigarette and passed it. She was standing there watching me, but just overlooked it. We had promised to move out of each other’s life, she was keeping the promise. That was the last one, which I ever smoked.
I looked back at her, into her eyes. I didn’t know what was going through her mind. But I felt like she got the answer. She withdrew the eye contact, blinked her eyes in quick succession as if she was avoiding something from entering into her eyes. Mithila walked back smiling; it was her mother’s call. Soon Omang came back and we were back to our rooms.
The next morning Kalpana and Omang were to leave. Mithila decided to wake up early in order to see them off. We went down where Kalpana and Omang stood with their bags packed and loaded. After numerous good-byes and promises to catch up in either Chennai or Bangalore, they boarded the SUV. We waved as the vehicles started to move, Kalpana turned towards me and mumbled. ‘Jerk’
I could do nothing but smile.

Love or Death – Part 4

We ran for about 10 minutes, but we never seemed to find our way back. The bells were now silent and we were exhausted. She had a mysterious smile on her face. “I told you we’ll have to stay here if we don’t catch this boat.” I explained in panic. “So let’s stay here. We’ll get back tomorrow morning.” She said with ease. “Well we don’t have any arrangement for shelter and do you know how cold it is going to get in the night.” I was irritated with her attitude. I knew how cold it would be. This was an island and due to the water all around us the wind gets colder than the mainland.
Finally we got out of the forest and the temple stood in front of us. I ran towards the river but the boat was long gone. I was agitated. Now what stood in front of me was the sight of a distant village where smoke rose from various houses, most of them lit by a single light bulbs. These were the homes of the poor fishermen. The reflection of the village in the river created a magical scene. I stood there; it looked like a huge painting of a brilliant painter.

“How beautiful it is.” She said. She was climbing down the slope. The atmosphere was so calm and peaceful, that all my panic and anger was gone. The wind blew through my hair. It was truly divine. The fishermen were moving in and out of their houses on the other side. They were involved in their daily works. We, on the other side of the river stood secluded from the outer world. There was no light on the island so they could not see us, but we could see them. It made me feel that how far we have come from this world yet how close we are to it. I turned to her “thank you.” I said. I realised that if it would not have been her we would have gone back.
The river was calm and placid. It reminded me of her eyes. As I looked into them I fond them to be a bit more damp then the usual. The water in her eyes moved and a small tear rolled onto her cheek. She ran towards me; I hugged her. It was soothing; it felt very light. I felt like…. My brain went dead I had no thoughts. There were just she and I. We stayed there for a while.

*******

“You asked me, ‘do I love you?’. I don’t know much about love but if this feeling that both of us share is love. Then yes I do love you.” I told her as we moved towards the temple complex. We decided to spend the night inside the temple near the altar. There were still some embers left in it, so it would provide some warmth. We lied on the temple floor and kept talking.
“You know when I was a kid, I was afraid to come to Bet after sunset. There were stories about ghosts roaming here.” We decided to restrain ourselves from any philosophical discussions. “Really? But we are in a temple now. I don’t think there is any reason to be afraid,” she said smiling. The naughtiness in her eyes was clearly visible. “When I was a kid my father used to tell me that we have a body and a soul but the ghosts have no bodies. So we are more powerful than them. This was enough of a reason for me for not getting afraid of ghosts.” I could easily make out from her face that she missed her childhood. “You love your father a lot, don’t you?” I asked though I was still not clear about love. “Yes, actually dad always teased mom that I love him more than I loved her.” Her eyes lit up as she said this. “What does he do?” I asked. “He runs a transport company.” She continued “he is my best friend.” She was in a different world now. “Do you know who my best friend is?” I asked. “I think I know. The trees at your farm aren’t they?” she guessed. Although they were among the best friends of mine, but there was some one else who was the best of them all. I took her outside and pointed towards the sky. She was puzzled. “Do you see that? Orion, he’s my best friend.” I said pointing to Orion, a constellation.
She was puzzled. “When I was a child I had very few friends. We had this big mansion in central Indore. There were lots of trees in our house. Many birds and animals dwelled on them; we even had a small pond full of fishes. The trees and plants, the birds and the squirrels, the fishes and the flowers were my friends. During the daytime I spent most of my time with them. But at night I was not allowed to go there. At night after I had my meals I used to go to the backyard and watch the stars. There were these three stars arranged in a line that I thought of as a stick. In class 5th or 6th I came to know it was the Orion’s belt. It was then when our friendship started. Few years from then, we left our house and moved into a flat. I lost all my friends. The trees were chopped down and eventually the creatures dwelling on them moved elsewhere. But the one friend that remained with me was Orion. The best part of our friendship is that he travels with me wherever I go. Apart from him I have the trees at the farm.” I went deep into my childhood, memories of leaving our home and separating from my friends came back to me.
“Each star in that constellation is so many light years away from each other.” She said with an explanatory tone. “Yes-yes, I know everything about Orion, even the mythological part of it. The Greek, Indian and the Chinese.” I said, after all we were the best pals. “In Chinese philosophy they believe in two principle forces of nature yin-yang.” She said. “Yes. Yin represents female force and yang represents the male.” I added. I had read about it somewhere I don’t remember. “There’s another explanation for it. Yin, which represents the feminine force, also represents the night. It is amazing the way you are fascinated by the night sky. Surely, you are attracted towards yin.” She was on to raillery me.
“One more thing, this may sound foolish to you. Listen, my initials are KR and yours are RK. So in a way we both are opposite and complementary to each other. Just like yin and yang.” She was sounding childish. “And this suggests that we both are made for each other.” I said jesting and both of us broke into laughter.

*******

We went inside the temple. Although the serene settings provided freshness to our minds, the bodies were experiencing fatigue. I fell asleep. A thought about everyone at home kept reoccurring to my mind. I realised how tensed they would be to find out that I was missing. And what about Mrs. Rajput? They might take a boatman and come looking for us here. I must go to they riverbank. As I opened my eyes to go to the bank I saw a face staring at me. It scared me; I was not able to recognize it. I thought of running but found that I could not get up. My body was paralysed, maybe due to fear. I felt the pumping of my heart in my ears. As I tried to gather all my energy to get up, the haziness due to the exhaustion was wiped away. My vision got cleared. I found that the face looking at me was none but hers. I breathed a sigh of relief. She was looking at me.

“What happened? You look terrified.” She asked me. I got up. The words were not coming out of my mouth. Her face was placid contrary to the excited one; her eyes were lit up contrary to the peaceful eyes, her hair…. Suddenly she started changing. Her face turned into that of a male. I knew to whom she turned into, it was me. I was scared to death. The chill in the air went through my spine. I ran, I ran into the woods. The leaves cracked beneath my feet. The branches bruised my arms. I was running; it was a moonlit night. After few minutes my body gave way and succumbed to the fatigue. I fell on the forest floor. I could not move. Blood was flowing through a dozens of holes, made by the thorns, all over my body.
What was it? Was it a ghost? Yes it was surely a ghost. It couldn’t be her. Suddenly a thought struck my mind; what about her? Where is she? I have to retreat for her. I laid there for a while trying to lift my ailing body and then I heard a cry. Somebody was calling my name; it was she. I ran towards the voice. It was coming from the bank. As I reached there I saw a silhouette standing there calling my name. I thought it was her, but when it turned I saw, it was not her. It was the other I. I was confused, terrified and devastated. I turned back to run. A cold sensation jabbed my left leg and then a sting.
It was black and long. The cobra venom kills in less than 12 seconds. Already I was on the ground. The other me came closer and the snake went into the bushes. He was crying; he sat besides me. And then I realised it wasn’t any ghost it was actually her who turned into me. Now I knew what she meant when she said ‘love is death’. Her words echoed in my mind.
It felt light, very light much like it did when she first hugged me. I could see my body lying on her lap. She was still crying. It took me some time to understand that I was dead. I was not feeling sad or mournful. For most of the people death of a loved one is a very painful experience, but what about the one who dies? If you ask me it is the most heavenly experience. It feels like a long lasting thirst is about to be quenched, an eternal quest is about to end. I will soon achieve my love. I felt fortunate, for who would be so fortunate to die in the hands of the one who loved you and to pass on to the one you love. If death is like this, I would like to die everyday.

She was still me and I was now nobody.

Love or Death – part 3

*******

At the farm I showed her around the different places and at last we reached a place covered with trees; Teak, Tamarind and Rose Apple. The trees made the spot a little island of shadow where only little of the sunlight penetrated during the daytime. “In summers when I came to the farm, this was my favourite place. It was almost like a sanctuary to me. The harsh summer heat dared not to penetrate through this protective covering of nature. I sat here and thought for hours. When all the children sank into the safe refuge of their homes avoiding the scorching heat I used to come here.” As I said this I pulled her between the trees.
These were my friends, among the best I ever had. They always supported me. Just the sight of these trees standing there infused a confidence in me. They gave me a feeling that some things in life are best if kept unchanged.
“William Wordsworth once said ‘Nature never disappoints her lover hearts’.” When I said this she blushed. “Jealous?” I asked. The question annoyed her. “Why would I be?” she replied. I knew she was jealous.
We returned to the village. I promised her to take her to Bet tomorrow, but no later then 1 o’clock because one needs time to explore the place. I started experiencing a feeling of attachment towards her. I was confused what that was ‘do I love her?’ the question occupied my mind the whole night. I was confused.

*******
Next day we reached the banks of river Narmada. From there we had to take a boat to reach Bet. “I have never taken a river boat ride.” She was stirred up as always “although I have been to Bhopal where I have taken boat rides in lake but this is first time in a river.” I tried to recall my first riverboat ride, but probably I was too young to remember the ride.
We reached Bet in ten minutes. The island was covered with heavy vegetations. The wild grasses with blue and red flowers greeted every passing person. There were stairs to climb up the slope of the island and a large temple of lord Shiva at hilltop. Ghat was situated on the other side of the island.
“It’s so peaceful out here.” She said looking at the butterflies flying around the wild grass. The settings of that place isolated you from the sounds of the outer world, as if a curtain has been pulled over. Ever word spoken carried a different tone. The place had different sounds, the buzzing of dragonflies, the chirping of birds, the chirring of insects and a distant trill of a peacock. We climbed up the stairs and the temple complex stood in front of us. We entered the complex and went across every temple situated inside. Then we went to the ghat and sat along the river. The small waves in the river moved up and down and the sunrays falling on them created an illusion of twinkling stars in bright daylight.
“I am so bad. I have engaged you for two whole days. By the way if you were not with me what would you generally do?” She asked. The question surprised me. I was not expecting such a self-accusing act from her. It was also surprising to find out that, despite of the time we spent together and the amount of discussions between us, the two of us knew very little of our daily lives.
“Well If I was in Indore I would spend half of my day in college and rest half is unplanned. If I come here I visit Naageshwer, Bet and my farm, which we have been doing since yesterday. So there is no question of my routine been disturbed. Apart form this I have only missed soccer, which I play whenever I come here.” I finished explaining her my routine. The part of my routine at Dharampuri was unchanged since very long time. “What would you do, if you were not here?” I asked. “I would attend the classes. Then at home I spend some time with Jimmy. Actually a lot of time. If I have any time left, I study. Then I have my dinner and sleep. It’s as simple as that.” She answered in one breath. “OK so who is Jimmy?” I asked the very instant she finished explaining. There was a hint of anxiousness in my voice. For a second I thought, it would be better if I don’t know who is Jimmy. “Why are you jealous?” she asked with a mischievous smile “don’t worry. He’s my pet dog.” I was embarrassed. I kept looking at the river. “What did you thought, who he was?” now she started to take on me. I didn’t answer her.
“Hey look at that.” She was pointing towards a peacock. It had come to the river to quench its thirst. It was quite far from us. “Don’t move or it will run away.” I told her. “It’s so beautiful. Is it going to dance?” she asked it with innocence as of a child. “Do you want to see more of them?” I asked her. She nodded in reply. “Stay low and let it drink. When it goes back we’ll follow it.” I instructed. This was one thing I had mastered. Since my childhood I had spent a lot of my time following peacocks to their musters, here in Bet. It is a tedious job and takes patience. I was not quiet sure she would be able to do this. “Look you need to be very patient and no noise at all.” I told her. “OK” she said.
We waited till it started back for the jungle. Its legs made clear and deep impressions on the sand. It was quiet easy here but the tricky part was when it goes into the jungle. Dry leaves and splinters of wood spread all over the ground crack with a noise when you move on them. Also the bird turns its head randomly to check whether a predator is following it. If you move at that time, the bird will fly away. Although, peacocks are not the best flyers, but in a forest a jump of 20 feet comes in very handy. Once the bird knows about your presence it’s unchasable.
“If you make any noise the bird will fly away.” I warned her once again. “But peacocks don’t fly.” She came in with a trivia that irritated me. “Yeah, I know that. But when they flap their wings, they can make it as high as 20 feet. Once they are on the tree top, you can’t chase the damn creature.” I explained.
Next half an hour went by as we reached the muster of the peacocks. There were 2 or 3 peacocks and peahen twice of that. They flocked quiet deep into the jungle. We were very cautious in moving. It took us very long to reach there because we had to maintain a distance from the birds. We crept slowly towards them. “Is it going to dance now?” she asked. “No that’s mostly in the rainy season. You know why do they dance?” I asked. “Yes, they want to impress the females for mating.” She answered as if she was going to do a mischief. “Let’s get a closer look.” I said. I waved my hand signalling her to follow me. As she moved a dry splinter cracked underneath her body. The sound was enough to alarm the muster. The birds flew away blowing a gust of dust all around.
The Sun was now declining towards the west and the shadows started stretching. It usually sets early in winters. It was then when I realised that as the sun sets temperature will drop and we have no arrangement of winter. “I think we should leave.” I suggested. “As the Sun sets it would get cooler and also the last boat leaves after the evening Aarti.” There was a panic in my voice.

“OK, we have more than an hour for getting back. So meanwhile show me around.” She was very casual about this entire affair. “But, there is nothing except this jungle and the temple …”I tried to convince her. “So let’s explore the jungle.” she moved deeper into the woods as she said this. I was very annoyed by this attitude of hers. I didn’t understand why she was that reluctant in going back. “You don’t want to get back, do you?” I asked her angrily. “If we get back you’ll go to your place and I to mine. I want to spend more time with you.” I went speechless at this reply of hers.

*******

We were deep into the woods. “Why is it that always male has to persuade female into a relationship?” She asked me. We were talking about the male female relationship existing in nature. Our encounter with the peacock led to this discussion. “No it’s not always true. Yes but in case of birds and most of the mammals it is true. I suppose it is because of the fact that the female knows that if male wants his gene pool to survive, which is the primary motive of any species, he needs her. Also that the female makes the choice of the best father for her children which gives her the upper hand in choosing the partner.” She had very cleverly shifted my focus from the problem of going back to the village to the male female relationship. I was now into explanatory mode. This was my biggest weakness. If you ask me to explain something, I’ll leave everything aside to make you understand that. She knew this.
“If we look at human society the converse is also true. I mean if you look at the scenario fifty or so years back mostly the male was the one who made the choice, especially in Indian society.” She questioned. Her question drew me deeper into it. “If you see initially at some early stage of evolution, say in case of big cats and apes, the social structure emerged with the dominance of male. What led to it was the fact that when a male is not allowed to mate with the partner of his choice, he goes violent. This led to insecurity of females. Then females started looking for a stronger companion, the one who can protect them from most of the other males. This was when the ball came to the male’s court. If the female needs protection it has to abide by the male’s charter. Now the stronger males started picking up the females for them. You can see that in most of the apes like chimps have leader who is male and has a harem of females. Same is true with the lions and the tigers.” I thought it was enough to appease her query. “The basis of your explanation is that female is weaker of the two. Is it true? Your are being biased in your opinion.” She opined. The Sun was setting and the light started to get dim.
“What I feel makes the female weaker is her responsibility towards the offspring. On the other hand males are hardly bothered about the children. Or you are right I might be biased.” I was a bit submissive in front of her, had it been another person I would have never admitted my biased opinion.
“According to you what is the thing that drives a males towards a female?” she asked another question. And during the conversation I had lost my sense of direction and now she was leading the way, through the woods. “The thing that drives a male to a female is the need to reproduce. Every species wants to bring a new generation to survive in this world. This is why and how we have reached to this stage of evolution. This has led to our evolution. If this tendency was not there the only creatures on this planet would have been microbes.” I was a bit arrogant in answering to her. “So according to you the basis of relationship between a male and a female is sex, right? So what about humans? Where do our emotions stand?” she was agitated by my answer.
“As far as I think, the emotions which we carry are the representations or rather manifestations of our instincts developed during our course of evolution.” I was now stepping into an uncomfortable territory of thoughts. Emotions have always distraughted me. “So what about your emotions?” she was questioning me and I to myself. “For you love is just a manifestation of your sexual desire?” she was kind of furious to know my opinion on emotions. All this shook me. Before I could answer her previous questions she fired another one. “Do you love me?” she asked. It didn’t surprise me because I knew at some point this was coming our way.
It was this question that has unsettled me the most throughout my life. I was never able to figure out what exactly is love or any emotion. The best answer that occurred to me was the one explaining emotion as manifestations of our instincts. Fear, for example is due to our instinct to avoid any fights with the one who is stronger. It saves our life. “I don’t know. I’m confused. What do you think about love?” rather than answering I asked a question. I thought the best way to avoid the answer is to ask another question. “For me love or any other emotion is what makes us connect to each other. Love connects us to God. It is giving all that you have, even your existence. For me love is death.” Her face shined and sparkled as she said this. Then she looked down at me. Her expressions suggested that she was disappointed with me. I was not able to comprehend what she said. “Love conquers all; let us too yield to love.” I tried to lighten the mood by saying this. She smiled.
“Look its dark already we should start back.” As soon as I finished saying this the temple bells started ringing. They made such a great sound that you can hear it from a mile. This meant that the Aarti was about to end and soon the last boat will leave. I grabbed her hand and pulled her with me. We started running towards the sound of the bells.

*******

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