Sunday, 3 May 2015

Valentine at Sunset

He woke up with a start, his heart filled with a nameless fear, almost kicking out to free himself from the clutches of whatever it had been that had been pulling him into the dark pool. Gasping for breath, he could smell her and moved closer, nuzzling her neck and the soft hair there, her smell like a balm that soothed him instantly. Instantly, almost instinctively, she reached back and pulled his hand into hers and clutched it close to her cheek like always. His hand lay there, entwined in hers, her warm breath breezing onto his skin, breathing life into him. She moved even closer to him if that was possible, their bodies a perfect fit. Slowly, a smile curved his lips and he closed his eyes, drifting off into sleep, lulled by her warmth.

The alarm went off and he woke with his nose right in the curve of her neck. Kissing her soft skin, he tried to remove his hand from hers but she only clutched him harder. He just laid there, her grayish white hair brushing his cheek. From this close, he could see the fine lines in her skin, the only evidence of her age. She shifted in her sleep, her breath escaping in a gasp from her lips and his fingers were loosened in her clasp. He slowly withdrew them from her, stiffening an instant as she shifted in her sleep and slowly rose out of bed. Walking to the bathroom, he stared at himself in the mirror. Dark eyes, still a semblance of sharpness in them, stared back at him. Eye lashes now completely silver and his chin peppered in white, his hairline now far back from his forehead, hair all pure white and scanty. Crow’s feet lined his eyes and a series of wrinkle dimples lined his cheeks from the corners of his mouth to his ears, dancing in series when he smiled.

He made his own coffee, a ritual for the past lifetime of his, and made his way past the living room and opened the door to a brilliant sunrise. Their house was the one that they had always dreamed about, on a hill, facing the sun rise and surrounded by a plantation and a farm. The best thing about it was the mornings when he could sit on his doorstep and see the sun come up over the hill. Everything about the house was still and silent, sleeping waiting for the dawn. He sat on the top step as always, legs spread and holding the coffee cup in both hands, letting the warmth seep into him. As he drank the first sip, the rush overtook him as always and he settled down into his absent minded stare as the sun peeped over the hill. Halfway through his cup, he heard her light footsteps behind him and then smelt her presence. She came around and took her position on the step just below the one that he sat on, between his legs, her head resting as always on his right knee. He leaned forward and kissed her hair and they just sat there staring at the sunrise. The town came alive below them in a while and soon after, the maid came home as their daily routine started.

The plantation work started thereafter, the head stayed at the farm in a small building some way away from their home while the farm hands came in every morning. They reviewed the progress on the crops and she spent time with their cattle, brushing them and taking care of their feed. It was immensely satisfying, the life they led. It had always been their dream to give up the big city life that they each had, their successful careers and simply come away to the back of beyond where they had only each other and the life they built for themselves. There was nothing material about the life they led, a far cry from what they once had. But there was nowhere that they would rather be now.

In a couple of hours, they made their way down, hand in hand, walking down the trail towards the town. Towards the small building that housed the other part of their dream. The building was divided into two parts, one where there was an open floor and a number of mats for sitting and another where there was a black board and study tables. The open floor was hers, where she taught boys and girls a variety of craft and art ranging from simple sketching to pottery and candle making. The class room was his, where he taught the children basic subjects like English, Science and Math. He opened the gate and they made their way into their areas and prepared for the day ahead. Shortly, they heard the gaggle of the children as they made their way to the building and then settled down to their routine. Breaking for lunch, they had the usual quick lunch where they talked about how the kids were coming along and specific problems they were facing.

Winding down in the late afternoon, they both walked down to the park. It was another daily routine of theirs to spend the evening at the park, their bench as always saved for them. They sat there as the tea vendor brought them hot cups of ginger tea, sipping and watching the sun go down. Words were not always required. Their silent understanding was born from the numerous fights and battles they had had, learning about each other from every one of them. Their life together had never been easy, the ups and downs far more than the plateaus of happiness. And every such up or down had brought them closer to each other, to a level of shared understanding that didn’t need words or gestures.

And they wound the evening walking back to their home, up the hills past the sheep and goats that were getting back to their pasture. The glow of the sunset lit up everything in an orange halo, even the dust from their feet showing orange yellow. Dinner was always simple, the routine set to music of her choice. It was always in the living room, with both of them sitting on the floor, legs tucked under or crossed, talking to each other. They had always been able to talk to each other, sometimes for hours on end, about anything at all under the sun. Post dinner, the ritual was a walk in the garden, hand in hand, listening to the crickets chirp and go silent at their arrival and start again once they passed.  She stopped often to spread out a flower or to smell it, lifting a leaf or sometimes just brushing them with her fingers. He was content just to walk with her, holding her hand, smiling at her gestures and answering her questions at times. They retired to the patio where he would sit against the pillar and read while she would listen to the music, her head in his lap as they lazily talked their way into the night.

And thus their life went, not much of a variation in it unless they travelled, which they did once in a half year. They had looked forward to this life so much that they wanted to live each day of it to the fullest. Their lives together had not always been this peaceful and easy, they had not always been this understanding of each other. But the need for each other and the realization of this had come with each time that they had nearly walked away from each other or had broken apart. The bond had grown stronger and what had been two strong separate pillars had slowly broken down to become a beautiful arch whose both ends supported and strengthened each other.

But it looked like the gods weren’t happy with their peace and trouble came into paradise a few weeks later. It was just another morning when he woke up, his face buried in her hair and his nose nuzzling the back of her neck, his fingers clutched in hers, right next to her cheek. The only difference was that his fingers were cold, clammy cold, like he had dipped them in a bucket full of ice water that had stayed out in the freezing cold over night. He woke with a start and tried shaking her awake. Her heart was beating like an express train going crazy. She didn’t come awake and he dialed the town’s only doctor who came by on his scooter, rasping and groaning up the hill. An injection brought her around and the doctor got her sitting up in bed in a short while. He told them it was nothing, just a weakness induced fainting episode. She felt ravenously hungry after that, like she could eat a whole horse and they pigged out for breakfast, forgetting about it completely. But the cloud had appeared and started to move over the sun. She couldn’t walk that day and so they didn’t go down to the school or for the sunset. She recovered though in a couple of days but he could feel that she had slowed down, the springiness in her walk a little less, the smile in her face a little slow, the brightness in her eyes a little dull.

Monsoon came in a few months, the hills drenched in rain that poured in like a giant tap had opened in the sky and someone had forgotten to close it. The sheets of rain ran down like new rivers finding their way down to the sea, sometimes taking with them entire plants that had got washed loose. New rivulets and new creeks came up every day. He hated it when it was like this, dull and grey and cloudy. Like someone had forgotten to turn on the lights in the evening. The constant rain made it worse, even the furniture felt damp. Everything smelt wet or felt wet, like a kid having left it’s hand and foot prints all over the place. Everything seemed to slow down just like you found it difficult to move in a pool of water. And so it was on that particular day, it started later than normal with his coffee on the verandah disrupted by a particularly heavy shower which left him in a bad grouchy mood. She couldn’t get out of bed that day, feeling particularly like “sleeping in” as she called it. The day went by, slow and sticky. Towards afternoon, she got irritable, in a way that reminded him of their big fights years ago. He tried reasoning with her but couldn’t get through to her at all and finally just settled down to hold her close and calm her, comfort her. Suddenly, he felt her tears, hot and wet on his shirt front. Holding her face in his hands, searching for the reason for her tears, he was stopped short by her words, “Don’t leave me alone”. He kissed her quiet and they just sat there silently like that.

Night came quickly then, the rain a steady downpour that beat an unsteady rhythm that didn’t disappear but kept intruding into their togetherness, causing a discomfort that wouldn’t fade away. He held her close that night, a nameless fear that gnawed at his heart and made a hole in the pit of his stomach. He kept checking on her through the night, unable to sleep himself until the early hours of the morning when he could see the gray in the sky as light made its way across the sky. It was then that he dropped off, out of sheer exhaustion. He woke up to the sun streaming in through the window, cutting sharply like a blade through the dull darkness of the room. It fell across her face, diagonally, from one temple down her front to her hip, like a sharp blade that had sliced her and revealed an inner core of light. It was then that he noticed that her lips weren’t parted like she usually slept but were pinched shut as if by force. His eyes widened in alarm as he moved close to her, only to feel that her chest wasn’t moving at all. The blade of light caught a strand of her hair as it lifted up in a breeze and settled down over her eyes and across her nostril. He sat there for what seemed like forever, willing the strand to move with her breathing, his heart waiting with his held in breath.

The doctor came sometime later and told him that it was something about her heart that had gone weak, something to do with age. He was numb then, unfeeling like a piece of wood that had gone dead inside and didn’t show outside. He just sat there on the verandah, his back to the pillar, having forgotten everything and everybody there. The whole town came to pay their respects, all the children that they had taught came with sadness in their eyes that they didn’t quite understand. The day passed on with rituals of some sort or the other. He felt quite removed from it all, like he was standing and watching it happen to someone else. When it was finally over, she had gone and he couldn’t quite understand how. He went for days without sleeping or eating, unable to follow the routines that he was so used to but without her.

He came together like a new man three days after she had passed. Got out of bed where he had spent the night not sleeping, and showered and dressed, walked out of the door to the farm. He spent the morning talking to the farm hands and the chief about the damage that the rains had done and what repair they could do. He then went down to the school and spent the day with the children, who couldn’t quite understand why he was so normal that day after not having appeared for the past three. He finished up school as usual and walked down to the park. He sat down at a different bench that day, on the side of the pond, not facing the hills. He felt tired, like he had been on a long journey and now, at the end of it, was exhausted to the bone. But there seemed to be no one that could help him with it, he had to make this journey alone. And he realized that he couldn’t do it at all, not even for one more day.

It was there that they found him the next morning, a dove sitting on the bench next to him, the dew drops clinging to his lashes and his hair like pearls, reflecting the sun that was just coming out. His eyes were shut but there was a faint smile on his face and a sense of peace as if he had found something. His right hand clutched a red rose, from one of the bushes in the park, its thorn having pricked his hand. But the bleeding had long stopped, long before his heart had. He had gone to join her they said, for he couldn’t live without her and that was why he was smiling, because he was going to her, where his rightful place was.

Sunday, 31 August 2014


A blessed mind’s eye that records freeze frames and etches them in a film one can’t find,
and stores them in an order and a fashion that no digital bank can even hope to match,
a retrieval that is triggered by a mere sight, a sound or even a whiff of a smell in the wind,
that brings back every single minute detail, of the reality that once was, a perfect match.

A boon to some who treasure those moments of their lives that have touched them deeply,
memories of a childhood free from care or worry, enthusiasm unbridled, curiosity ever ready,
a flush of firsts in the journey thus far, each memorable and momentous, defining us completely,
and the disappointments that have balanced, crushing in defeat, leaving us unbalanced, unsteady.

There are those of us who choose to live amongst these freeze frames, considering them current,
preferring this alternate to reality itself, choosing instead to stick to the comfort of the known,
choosing to see every situation through the lens of what has been, past interpreting the present,
stuck in reverse gear, ever moving backward with each step forward, in company or all alone.

And some of us choose to look the other way, preferring the bustle of our drone like existence,
and it’s routines that give us the comfort and security that we desperately seek and are slaves to,
until we are in a curious state of limbo where the mind’s purpose dissolves, vanishing in the distance,
and then it seeks the secure, a small trigger taking it back, recreating a picture that only it knew.

Sometimes, it is only in the unbound, uncontrolled freedom of sleep that the mind goes hunting,
searching for a memory and fusing it with its deepest desires and transforming it into a dream,
letting you live in a parallel world that it created, an indulgent prospect, otherwise too daunting,
unsecured by reality’s constraints, it’s questions deliberately unanswered, a new born stream.

Some memories haunt, terrifying in their persistence and relentless in their pursuit of your mind,
try as you might to erase them, no wipe and no reset button could ever kill that indelible print,
and every once in a while, as life’s river flows on placidly, under the surface whips an eddy blind,
raising up a ghost that would not stay buried, a restless spirit that appears at the slightest hint.

And there are those who lose every precious moment, the mind flitting like a sprightly butterfly,
unable to sift through what the eyes see, what the mind perceives, running down a confusing maze,
until all seems to pass as transient visions, the strongest are the only ones that they now swear by,
built in the games of childhood, even these fade away, as the mind burns itself out in a brilliant blaze.

And so it is that every one of us comes back like the hands of the clock itself, turning full circle,
reliving life itself in a flashback, folding back on itself like a wrinkle that shall never fully pass,
never grateful for that beautiful memory that comes sweeping back instantly at beck and call,

until it is all gone, every last grain seeping out through the hole at the bottom of the hour glass.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Domino Effect - Part 3 - Reaching Out (Part 3 of 3)

It was the time of the drought, days dry and bothersome, with a wisp of a wind that blew mud into one’s face. Nikhil went into this like a man who has been beaten down, shoulders drooping with the weight of his disappointment, not really clear why he was disappointed in the first place. He faced the bother of the drying up of his expectations and hopes, wilting in the harsh sun of reality, burnt to a crisp and then blown away by the mere wisp of the wind that scattered the last grains of sand on the coffin that carried his happiness. He became a complete automaton, moving mindlessly through his routine, as efficiently as he ever was, in fact more than ever. His eyes downcast and his feet shuffling as he made his way from day to moronic day.

He made sure that he did not bump into Sanaa again, avoiding any possibility of meeting her. He came in early into office, often taking the stairs and left very late, when the building was completely deserted. Her phone calls and messages went unanswered, methodically deleted, almost as if he was erasing the temptation to call or write back. Once or twice, he saw Sanaa coming into his office, obviously searching for him. He almost ran away, afraid to face her, somehow terrified at the prospect of a further reality check. One day, he passed by the coffee shop and saw her with Mark, heads bent towards each other and she suddenly burst into laughter. Feeling guilty, almost as if he was spying on her, he hurried away but not before she saw him and stopped laughing, waving at him with an enthusiasm he simply did not feel. He nearly ran away and it took days for him to put the shadows of that memory behind him.

And then one day, he saw her. It was his usual late hour, the building deserted and almost completely dark. As he made his way across the foyer to the main doors where the security patiently waited to lock up after him, he saw a movement in the shadows. She came out of the darkness, like a wraith floating towards him. For some moments, he thought that his countless imaginary visions had come to life, somehow given life by his desperation. But he soon realized that this was real, she wasn't smiling like the visions, in fact her eyes were troubled and worried but determined. As if she had resolved to face him that day no matter what. He dropped his eyes, afraid to look, afraid that he might show more than he wanted to reveal. He continued walking, pretending she was not there, until her voice stopped him in his tracks, cold and haunting. He waited, frozen and unable to move, until she came to his side. As she stood next to him, a sliver of light fell across her face, bringing a radiance that rivaled even his imagination.

He stood, trembling like the victim waiting for the axe to fall, until she touched his hand haltingly. His arm suddenly seemed to warm up, as if drawing warmth from her touch. He forgot all else and his focus zeroed in on the spot where her fingers lightly lay, just above the wrist. It seemed like forever before she spoke. She simply said his name “Nikhil …” and waited. He suddenly realized that he had been holding his breath from when she had touched him and exhaled slowly, afraid that a sudden breath would make her disappear. There was pain in her voice, a tentativeness that seemed to reach out and touch his dry and dusty heart. But his nerves were stretched taut to the point of breaking and somewhere between his heart and stomach; a hollow pain started that deepened with every passing moment. He could neither find the voice to reply nor a gesture that would suffice. He simply stood there, looking at her out of the corner of his eyes. Finally, the pain in his stomach grew to the point where he was going to fall and he broke contact and moved towards the door, leaden feet dragging behind one another. As he stepped outside the door and drew a deep breath, the pain seemed to catch in his chest, sharpening to a point that seemed to pierce right through him and he fell to the floor, his eyes seeing an ink pool of blackness that was spreading by the second.

He woke up on the sofa in the office lounge, Sanaa peering over him with a mug of water, suddenly aware that his entire face and clothes seemed to be soaking wet. A couple of the security guards were hanging in the background, anxiously looking at him. A grin appeared on their faces as soon as his eyes opened and they retreated, happy to be back in safe territory at the main door. Sanaa looked white as a sheet, terrified at what, he was afraid to even guess. At his eyes opening, she sat back, just looking at him, a slight smile turning up the corners of her mouth and wrinkling her eyes at the edges. That smile somehow seemed to say it all and he found himself smiling back. Her hand somehow found itself in his and they simply sat there, hand in hand until a cough at the door broke them apart guiltily. The security guard had come to ask them if they would be going home and that broke the moment. Reality came flooding back like a tidal wave that destroyed their castle of sand.

Memories of the past, that day at the coffee shop and the sense of betrayal that he had felt at what happened, flooded in and his face clouded up. He became stiff and formal, almost wanting to put some distance between them. Thanking her for the help, he asked her if she would find her way home. He could see that his politeness was drilling into her. Something similar to pain showed in her eyes and her lips quivered with an unstated emotion. She did not reply and simply turned and walked away. Nikhil wondered why he felt like he had just turned down the best thing that could have happened to him when just a moment ago, self preservation had dictated his actions. He made his way home, thoughts in a whirl going round and round, running and re-running the past hour in his mind like an editor searching for a vital flaw in a shot. From any angle that he saw it, he realized that he had deeply hurt Sanaa. As he ran the events over and over in his mind, a curious interpretation took hold of his mind as he began to think of her meeting with him as a way of simply ending their so called ‘friendship’. A troubled and sleepless night ensued and a distraught and mind-weary Nikhil found himself at the doors of the lift the next morning.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Sanaa coming towards the lift and turned, somehow hoping that she would have forgotten the incident and would be willing to make amends. But it was not to be. She saw that he was there and without breaking stride, moved towards the stairs. Nikhil sank further into the morass he had dug for himself, his confused mind blaming her for all that was happening but at the same time, feeling like he was the lowest of the low microbes that existed on the planet, a bane to all life. He could not focus on anything at all that day and for the first time in his neat and disciplined life, he made a row of mistakes at work. The last straw came when during a presentation, the figures that he had furnished were simply wrong. His boss, quick to anger, but never at him so far, rose to the occasion fabulously calling him a string of names that sent everyone in the room scurrying out like a pack of rats when the light is switched on in the kitchen.

Nikhil walked back to his office on numbed feet, mentally and physically dragging himself there. Once in, he simply sat there, shell shocked that he had let something like this happen to himself. His thoughts whirled from childish revenge on his boss to his shame at having to face all his colleagues the next day. He groaned and put his head down on his hands, wishing that he would just wake up from what seemed to be the worst nightmare of his life. Moments passed and all noise seemed to be receding when suddenly, there was a knock on the door. Sameer put his head in and asked ‘I brought some coffee. Would you want some?’ Nikhil could not refuse and he found himself sipping on the sweet dilute coffee of the office, staring at some insignificant speck on his desk.

Sameer broke the silence again and asked, ‘What’s happening to you, Nikhil?’ And instead of following this up with a comment or further questions, he just let the question hang in the air between them, thick with the tension of uneasiness. Nikhil remained silent for some time, unsure of how to answer and then just when he was about to make a polite statement that nothing was the matter, Sameer added, ‘It’s about Sanaa isn't it?’ Nikhil looked up at that, eyes staring crazily like the boy who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. After a couple of denials which were politely but insistently brushed aside, Nikhil’s defense broke and he simply asked Sameer, ‘What should I do?’ Sameer’s only reply to that was to ask him if he felt that Sanaa was worth all of what he was going through. Nikhil instantly rose to her defense without being aware about it, talking about how great and genuine a person she was and how she was the best thing that could have happened to him. He finally stuttered and stammered to a halt when he saw Sameer smiling at him. Sameer’s only reply was, ‘So, if that’s how you feel about her, then why are you doing this to yourself?’

Nikhil’s insecurities and worst fears came to the fore and he explained how she was friends with Mark and how she was laughing and chatting with him. He continued about how she had come the day before and how she had tried to put an end to their friendship. At this, Sameer stopped him and simply asked how he knew what she had come for. Nikhil’s mind had reasoned this out completely the previous night and he launched into his argument, like the prosecutor who knows that he is going to nail his witness. When he finished, Sameer asked him, ‘If she had come to end it all, then, why would she have been sitting by your side when you woke up and why would she have held your hand?’ Nikhil found that he was unable to answer and stared down at the speck on his desk, wishing that it would somehow open up and swallow him, as realization once again took hold of him. Sameer went on patiently explaining how it could have been that Sanaa had come to clear up their misunderstanding and to make sure they were back to their normal selves. And then finally, Sameer asked, ‘What is it that she means to you anyway, that you are so tied up in knots about this?’

Nikhil could not reply, searching for words to express how he felt and failing miserably to find a normal way to explain it. After a few minutes of the desperate silence, Sameer said, ‘If she means that much to you then shouldn't you be reaching out to her? To tell her how you feel and to make amends for the hurt you caused her last night?’ He continued, ‘Sometimes, all that it takes to mend a break or a crack is the right word and more importantly the right gesture. But then, you have to reach out and make sure that you are heard or seen. If the both of you remain miserably locked up in your own worlds, then you will probably lose her for life. Is that something you could live with?’ A few minutes later, Sameer left, restating the need for Nikhil to do something about the situation. Nikhil sat there, thinking about all that he had heard. The more he thought about it, the one thing that he grew more and more convinced about was that he could not stand losing Sanaa.

Suddenly finding a resolve that bordered on madness, Nikhil stood up and went out of his room. He made his way across the cubby holes, oblivious to the whispers about his “bad day” and the “hiding” he had got. He walked, nearly ran up the stairs to Sanaa’s floor. He walked into the area of the office where she usually sat. Not finding her there, he asked and found that she was in a meeting. He debated waiting and finally, walked towards the conference room. He stood before the door of the conference room, hand raised to knock, when the door suddenly opened and she stood there, a file in hand, hair in disarray, as if she had been running her hands through it. Her eyes widened in shock on seeing him there and she simply stood rooted to the spot. Nikhil on the other hand, went through a transformation at the sight of her. The sun came out from behind the clouds and for the first time that day, it felt like a beautiful day. They stood there, just looking at each other, when from behind her, a chorus of voices asked to be excused out of the conference room. They simply stood to one side while the room emptied itself out.

A couple of the people who came out stared at Nikhil questioningly. But he simply smiled in return without offering any explanation for why he was there. And they had to simply move on. In a few moments, the conference room was empty and Nikhil gestured to Sanaa for them to move into the room. Shutting the door behind him, Nikhil started ‘I am sorry …’ only to get cut short by her ‘I am sorry …’ They broke into laughter at that, the same shared laughter of what seemed like eons ago. Nikhil finally stopped and simply held out his hand. Sanaa stopped laughing and stared at his hand for a few moments and then looked back into his eyes questioningly. She saw him smiling still, a man who had finally found the answer to the question that had been bothering him, his quiet confidence speaking more than words could. And she simply put her hands into his, like it was always meant to fit there, just like that. 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Domino Effect - Part 3 - Reaching Out (Part 2 of 3)

Those days when Sanaa was away, Nikhil changed. In a way that was more than noticeable. His normally calm and shy self metamorphosed into an irritable, snappy and weird character that people started to avoid. When she returned, his change back was noticeable. People actually saw him smiling in his shy unassuming way. In fact the times when he would have his coffee breaks with her, he was positively bubbly or as close to bubbly as a shy antisocial wallflower could be. Sameer came up to him one afternoon and commented about the changes in him. Nikhil, uncharacteristically blustery, brushed it all off. Trying a different tactic, Sameer asked about Sanaa and got a shy smile and no comments. He jovially kidded Nikhil and left it at that, understanding his friend’s need for privacy about his feelings.

Sanaa seemed the same that she always had been with him, laughing and talking all the time. Only now, she felt a slight change in Nikhil, a slight consciousness that had earlier not been there, a kind of holding back. She tried to make him come back to normal, the more he retreated into his corner. Finally, she gave up and decided to just be herself with him. They continued their occasional coffee chats over the next few months. And the habit continued with Nikhil getting in deeper and deeper over his head. Yet he never so much as said a word to Sanaa.

Then came Nikhil’s sister’s wedding. It was in his hometown and he had to go for three weeks to get things ready. He had obviously invited Sanaa for the wedding itself but she couldn’t make it in the run up due to client meetings and reviews that had been set up then. She missed the coffee breaks then and the conversations. Nikhil was busy with the arrangements back home and so the phone calls were infrequent at best. Sanaa missed him through her client meetings, the luncheons and the dinners. When finally she realized what was happening, she had been dreaming for a while in the middle of a client presentation and had missed a question directed at her. Sheepishly covering up, she answered. She suddenly felt relieved at the realization of her feelings for Nikhil and the depth of it all. She couldn’t wait to tell him to his face and imagined his smile lighting up his face when she told him what she felt for him. When she finally landed up at his place, she missed him so much that she hugged him as soon as she saw him. A stunned Nikhil did not even respond and a few seconds away, Sanaa stepped back in obvious embarrassment. They both didn’t know where to look and were thankful for the intrusion of his mother and the round of introductions that started then.

The wedding went very smoothly. Nikhil made sure of that. The hugging episode had somehow made both of them a little distant and the fact that Nikhil could hardly get time to even talk to her properly during the lead up to the wedding, made sure that they didn't actually talk about it at all. Sanaa spent time with his mother and sister and family and found them to be a loving caring environment that she completely got immersed in. The fact that Nikhil said nothing about the hug or even tried to talk to her alone made her feel that she had actually got it completely wrong and had overstepped the extent of being a friend. She felt like she had lost something in the bargain, the emptiness threatening to overcome her taking part in the celebrations there. After a couple of days, she realized that this emotion was mainly linked to his reaction to her, as if she had been expecting something that wasn't there. While the disappointment was surely there, she also realized that if she continued on this path, she would lose Nikhil completely. He obviously had never thought of her as more than a friend and she decided that it’s what they would be.

When it was time to go, Sanaa decided that she wanted to make it all normal again. So she cornered Nikhil in a room in the house, alone on the pretext of saying good bye. When alone, she spoke first, like it had always been between them. She said, “You know you’re probably my best friend and I just want to make sure that there are no misunderstandings between us.” She went on to explain in her frank and forthright manner that the hug was nothing at all, it was just her happiness at seeing him. She went on and by the time she finished, she had made it very clear that they were friends and nothing more. Slightly panting for breath, she was puzzled to note Nikhil looking stricken, like he had been struck in the face.

Nikhil couldn't believe what he had heard, still reeling from what she had said. The hug had surprised him for sure and had made him think that Sanaa actually felt the same way that he did. He had become happier at the thought and was quietly comfortable in the thought of their shared joy. The wedding continued to take all of his time and though he wanted to talk to Sanaa about it all, he couldn't find the time. And besides, he didn't know what to say and didn't want to appear tongue tied in front of her. The sight of her with his family made him even happier and he actually caught himself imagining a life between them and then realizing that he was going way ahead of it all and shaking his head wryly with a smile. And when he thought she was going to say something about how things were going to be so much better between them, he was hearing just the reverse. He felt like he was being sucked up in a whirlpool that threatened to black him out. He could hear Sanaa calling his name and asking if he was OK. And that brought him back to reality like a bucket of icy cold water thrown at him. He woke up to reality, stuttering and stammering from his swim in the pool of delusion. His only answer was, “Of course, we are the best of friends and will always remain that way.” And she left and that was that.

Truthfully, he couldn't imagine Sanaa being just a friend any more, his treacherous mind kept slipping back to the happy memories that he had created out of thin air, sticking like glue to those moments, not letting them slip into the crevasse that he wanted to bury all those thoughts in. He decided to stay back a couple of more days at home, not sure about how he would face her, the very thought turning his stomach and leaving him gasping for breath. He chose to spend the time at home by himself, making his normal shell more like that of a hermit crab now.  His family knew him well and chose to leave him alone, except for his mother’s anxious questions that he could not face. Finally he told her the truth, and lost himself in the comfort of her embrace. It gave him strength and finally he realized that no matter how he felt about Sanaa, what was important was that he be there for her as a friend.

He went back to work the next day, somehow changed, no longer the same. Like a cracked vase that had been glued together. He went through the day like he was on automatic mode, making all the expected moves and noises. Until it was evening and suddenly he felt like a deer in the headlights. He looked up and saw her coming over. He quickly ducked to cover up the irrational joy that he felt on seeing her and composed himself as much as he could, feeling himself slipping even as he stood up and said as coolly as he could, “Coffee Time ?” And off they went, trudging off to their routine, as normally as they could, each a little different and the other, too caught up in their difference to mention it. However, being normal was as easy as walking bare feet on glass shards and not getting cut. Nikhil spent his time alone brooding over what was happening and how he would continue to go through the motions.

Sameer noticed Nikhil around the office, distinctly worse for the wear on more than one occasion and tried to get to Nikhil but the hermit crab would just go back into its shell. He caught Nikhil after a coffee break with Sanaa, looking wounded and vulnerable, ready to crack into a million pieces and realized that something was going wrong between them. He remembered his own experience and wished there was something he could do for Nikhil. But the moment was too fragile and he simply decided to pass it by, choosing to just walk by. Something in Nikhil’s look got to him and he couldn't shake the feeling that he had done wrong.

Then the inevitable happened, the only surprise being that it took so long to happen. Sanaa met Mark at her office, a new intern who was the complete opposite of Nikhil, outgoing and full of laughs. He kept coming across to her any time that he was at a loose end and he was incredibly easy to talk to. She felt strangely reluctant to share this with Nikhil, choosing not to mention it until they finally crossed paths at the coffee shop. Sanaa and Nikhil were sitting at the coffee shop, her talking and him listening, just the way it had always been. And suddenly, Mark entered the coffee shop and yelled across to Sanaa. Nikhil was surprised and showed it in his face. Sanaa was suddenly caught in between. She wished to heaven that she could have just disappeared from there. But luck wouldn't have it any other way. Mark walked up to her and pulled up a chair at the table, seemingly as normal with Sanaa as he was in office. Nikhil’s face first registered surprise and then slowly changed to normalcy as he understood that Mark and Sanaa knew each other. Sanaa, who normally monopolized all of their conversations, suddenly found herself tongue tied while Mark continued his description of an office meeting. Suddenly not wanting to intrude, Nikhil made an excuse and paid up for the coffees and left. Sanaa had half a mind to go after him and explain that it was nothing, just an office colleague. But knowing that if it had just been that, she would have told him already, she hesitated and stopped.

Nikhil turned at the door of the coffee shop and saw Sanaa looking at him. He couldn't bear to return her smile and just turned and left. And for the first time, a crack appeared in the surface of the ice pond that they had been skating on.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Domino Effect - Part 3 - Reaching Out (Part 1 of 3)

Nikhil stood in front of the bank of elevators wishing the earth would open up and swallow him. His usually crisply ironed shirt was as limp as his morale and dripping wet. His trousers, the creased perfection that he always prided on, were a mess of wet muck where he had got splashed, the seeming Rorschach blot slowly dripping onto the floor. He shifted from one foot to another impatiently, quickly stopping as he realized that the squelch was loud enough to attract any attention that he had managed to escape with his appearance.

He looked studiously at the floor as the minutes ticked by, each second seemingly elongated like a over stretched rubber band, the tension twanging in the air around him. The floor was devoid of any interesting tidbits or splotches that he could microscopically examine in the meantime. And his eyes kept slipping to the pair of black heels standing next to him, gleaming in their mockery of his dishevelment. They, along with the neatly manicured toes seemed to be mocking the growing puddle that was building around him, the moat that now was the first line of defense of the glass bubble that threatened to go pop any second.

He sneaked a look out of the corner of his eye, making as if he was chasing that rivulet of water that streamed off his right shoe and tried to make a path to the lobby entrance. The black heels led to a pair of well shaped calves and … the elevator pinged to announce its arrival, disturbing his thesis on the rivulet’s drive towards emancipation. There was a rush of feet, splashing and sploshing his hard work back from the floor onto several feet clad in various shapes and colors of garments and footwear. Nikhil had scarcely moved an inch before the elevator looked like a can of sardines that would need a compression chamber to have even a remote chance of closing. His hand stood exactly at the same spot that he had managed to raise it to when the ping was heard – about a foot away from his body towards the elevator buttons to hold the door open for the black heels. He observed with dismay his vain attempt at chivalry, for the black heels had disappeared into the crowd of feet in the sardine can.

Two more attempts at boarding a lift later, he finally managed to get a leg in sideways and got to his desk, almost completely drip dried. The rest of the day was a blur as he struggled to catch up with the lost couple of hours of that wet and drizzly morning. As the evening wore on, the clouds built up, angry and ominous, almost threatening to blow his windows and storm his room. His anxiety grew at the thought of having to hail a cab in pouring rain and he doubled his efforts to finish his work. The clock moved on nevertheless and soon it was raining cats and dogs and mice to boot.  He finally stuffed everything into his bag and walked out the door at well past 8 PM, expecting to be there at least another hour before he finally managed to find a log that would drift homewards in the growing river that once was a road.

He held his bag up above his head in a make shift umbrella that soon dripped water on his head as he joined the line of people waiting for a taxi that would ferry them home. Some good Samaritan had piled up some bricks and so, he hopped from one to another to cross towards the platform where the queue stood, walking on water or so it seemed. There was a small strip of awning to be under which, most of the people there were jostling and shoving. After what seemed like at least 20 barrels of water, a couple of taxis landed up, causing a mad scramble, a joust with briefcases and bags alike resulting in some alliances being formed and about 7 or 8 of the asylum seekers left. The second mad scramble for the awning started and Nikhil found himself being pushed forward and under the awning.

With the rain stopping its attack on him, he stood uncomfortably between a hard elbow to his side and a hard breathing chest that rose and fell like a pair of bellows, feeling the slow trickle of water as it made its way down his back. Suddenly he heard the sound of heels clacking and looked up to see the pair of black heels walking purposefully towards the awning. They stopped just short, almost tapping impatiently, expecting someone to give up their place. After a long wait with no response, the right heel started tapping. Nikhil took one look around and found everyone studiously looking at their phones. The bellows was even starting at what appeared to be a dead phone. Feeling like he was in the spotlight, he carefully edged out into the rain and stood there with his arm out, gesturing her to take his spot.

It was a long wait to his taxi ride now.

The next morning, as like any other the weeks before, he made his way to the metro and onward to his office. His normal wait at the elevator banks that morning and his usually blanking out till he caught the third or fourth elevator, were rudely interrupted by a pair of tan heels that clickety clacked into his thoughts. He abandoned his study of the crack on the tile that looked like it was a bolt of lightning and raised his eyes to look at clear pupils that were quite not either blue or black framed by lips that curved into a hesitant smile as if to say that they didn’t know why they were there and what they were going to say. And then the words came out haltingly, thanking him for his gesture the previous day. Nikhil was tongue tied and mumbled a response that seemed more like an apology than an acceptance of gratitude. The embarrassing moment stretched as they both waited for the elevator. When finally it came, there was that routine dash to fill its insides and only the both of them were left. The wait stretched interminably until she broke it to ask him where he worked and what he did. The lift did take a long time to come after all. Her name was Sanaa, with a double A.

Each day after that, he would see her at the elevators at least once, and smiles would be exchanged, strained silences gave way to quick updates and some longer conversations. On most days, they would travel in separate elevator rides until one day she decided to take the one that he did and from then on, they shared the elevator ride too. More talk ensued and more information exchanged until one day, she suddenly showed up at his office. After the first rush of embarrassment at the looks of his colleagues and a stuttering hello, much like a flooded engine that slowly comes to life, he found that her client meeting for the afternoon had got cancelled and she wanted to go out for a coffee. Why with him? He couldn't for the life of him figure out why he was singled out for the experience.

The long walk out of the office, down the aisle past the barbed wire stares of people, the lift ride down where he attempted to write a new thesis on the scuff mark on his shoe and finally the arrival at the coffee shop. All these were burnt into his mind, along with the murmurs of encouragement that he seemed to be making that were hardly required for her to continue the monologue. Things took a turn for the worse when she laid a hand on his arm to explain something and let it stay there for a brief while. The coffee turned to mud and everything else around him disappeared, except the hand and her. It was one of those memorable experiences where all you remember are bits and pieces of the whole and for some reason; the thread that stitched them all together was simply not there. His only significant response was to her question on whether they should go back to work.

In spite of this debacle, she seemed to want to have more such masochistic experiences and asked him out for coffee every now and then, sometimes during and sometimes after work. With time, his tongue seemed to loosen itself and his brain kick-started along with the rest of his being and their conversations actually took a saner turn and veered towards work, interests and similar topics where he could actually craft a sensible response. He grew more and more comfortable with her while his walls and his insecurity with everyone else remained. It was curious to see the second side to him, one that she created in a fashion and brought alive.

Then came the evening when something changed. It was coffee as usual after work, something of a ritual between them now. However, that day, she seemed withdrawn. Since she was usually the catalyst in their conversation, long silences and the occasional question peppered the coffee that was left to grow cold. He could sense that she was bothered about something. But he hesitated, not wanting to intrude, letting the silence draw on in their island of quiet in the middle of the bustling coffee shop. After what seemed to be a very long cup of coffee, he signaled for the cheque. He paid up and they walked out, somehow strangely reluctant to part ways, the meeting incomplete without the normalcy of their conversation. She suddenly asked if he would like to walk and they just strolled down the road, past the usual taxi stand, the metro station and all familiars, the silence building on until it became too much to bear. She finally simply stopped and told him about her mother’s health having deteriorated, eyes brimming over and tears starting to trail down her cheeks. It was the first time either of them had talked about something deeply personal. His polite murmurs about her mother getting well soon didn't seem to be working as the tears continued, sobs becoming louder. Hesitant but without a clue on what else to do, he put an arm around her and held her loosely. She buried her face into his shirt front, the sobs growing louder as they stood in the middle of the sidewalk, people walking around them.  He dropped her home for the first time that evening, continuing to hold her all the way back.

Something changed between them that day, a new degree of closeness that neither could actually define. She remained the talkative one, drawing him out and making him laugh. He was the stronger one, helping her through things that seemed to bother her. Her mother’s health grew worse and she finally had to go home for a while. She was away for more than a week and it seemed like an endless expanse of time when he waited for her to come back. He was sitting at his desk between meetings and staring outside blankly, his thoughts fluttering here and there without landing on anything, just bouncing off walls. He reached out and almost called her then, an act of near desperation. But at the last moment, he held back.

He remained in a daze for the rest of the day, surprised by his own feelings and anxiety. When the final meeting came to an end, Sameer walked up to him and asked him if everything was OK. Sameer and he had worked together on several projects and he could actually talk to Sameer unlike most of the other people in the office. Surprised by the question, he didn’t respond and just murmured a polite reply. Sameer kept pushing and finally the whole incident came out in chewed up bits and pieces. Sameer heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Nikhil, you haven’t changed one bit in all the time I have known you. Why can’t you simply message or call her? You can just make up an excuse about wanting to know when she is back so that you can restart your coffee evenings. And maybe ask about her mother.” It all seemed so easy when Sameer put it that way and Nikhil agreed.

It was only later, when he was back at his desk and thinking about the call that the enormity of the task stared him in the face. Seven half attempts later, he dialed an eighth time. The phone on the other end rang and he immediately chickened out, ending the call. Unfortunately for him, in the era of mobile phones, there was such a thing as a missed call and lo behold, a minute later, she called back asking if he had called. He murmured something that sounded like what Sameer had suggested. And then as usual she took over the conversation and told him about her mom’s recovery and about missing coffee with him. His response was to simply agree. When finally the call ended, he found himself smiling. Things seemed to be OK again. Twice again she called before she came back and they talked, the conversations assuming a slightly different level from their coffee table talk.

Nikhil wasn’t aware of what was happening to him. If he was, he would have questioned his own sanity. But as things were about to prove to him, his life was going to be turned upside down in more ways than one. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Domino Effect - Part 2 - Is It Worth It ?

Sameer sat, hunched like he was drawing himself into a shell, his breathing still ragged, drawing in deep breaths of air like he had just surfaced after a long underwater submerge stint. His eyes half closed, trying to gain a control on himself, feeling like a puppeteer whose puppet suddenly decided to cut its own strings, he sat still holding the phone, his hands clenched around it, knuckles white with the pressure he was exerting on it, almost as if his life depended on it.  It had been another of those fights, bitter and ever intensifying like a volcano building up pressure just before the blowout. He glanced at his watch and noticed that he had been arguing and fighting for nearly an hour. He felt exhausted and drained but still high strung and all nervy, waiting for some kind of a release.

It had been Anamika, his girlfriend now of over 4 years. Cat eyed and raven haired, she also had the temper and foul mouth that came with the territory. Theirs had been a meeting that seemed like it was destined. They had hit it off instantly, almost losing themselves in each other, wanting to and spending all their time with each other, unable to be without each other. It was like they had been consumed by each other. The intensity of their chemistry and emotion was something that surprised both of them at the start but only seemed to build with time.

Theirs was the ideal love affair, building up with time and never shy, always out in the open. Everyone talked about them being the ideal couple. He was a year senior and used to help her with all her academic work, spending time on her work as much as he needed to spend on his. They would do everything together, even if it was one of his friend’s birthdays or a party thrown by one hers. They could talk to each other for hours or so it seemed, about themselves, about each other, about anything at all that seemed important to either of them. They both loved music, going to every concert that came to town, often spending hours with an IPOD and each with one of the headphones, eyes closed and simply listening. And then they would talk about what they had imagined, in vivid detail, exulting when there was something common in their narratives. Driving was another passion, both just preferring to up and ride away by themselves and reaching some remote spot where they would spend the afternoon by themselves.

The idyllic period came to an end when he passed out a year ahead of her and got into a job. The saving grace was that he was still in the same city. So, they would still meet every day. There was a strain when they were not always together. They no longer went everywhere together. He would still want to take her everywhere. But she would refuse to go saying that all his friends would talk about was work, which was true at one level.  And she no longer invited him to go with her to her friend’s parties, saying that they were different and that he wouldn't enjoy them. Also, she now had a few very close male friends that she constantly talked about. He felt that she was constantly talking about herself and about her friends; she never had time to ask him about himself or listen to anything he had to say.

Then the next blow came. He got transferred out to Mumbai from Delhi, three months before her final exam. So, they met only when either of them made a trip down during a holiday. And they could rely only on the phone. The distance affected their closeness, getting in the way, casting clouds where there had been clarity before, creating breaks in what had been familiar roads and putting in a distance where there had been togetherness and closeness before. The telephone conversations started becoming strained. She did not have him to help her with her exams and so relied on one of her friends who happened to be a guy. So conversations dwindled and sometimes did not happen at all. And even if they did, they were short and staccato. Mostly about her exams and how the preparation was so tough and how her friend was helping her. It seemed like her friend was spending a lot of time with her. Jealousy reared its ugly head and they had their first big fight the day before her first exam – about her friend. It was a new experience for either of them, fighting like that. But the words came pouring out, as if a dam that had been built up over the past few months had broken and the waters surged forth. Faults were found, conversations were rewound and dissected, issues made out of small things and names were called, a lot of French and German was spoken. They didn't speak to each other for the next couple of weeks while her exams were going on.

She had then come to Mumbai to stay with him after the exams and the whole issue had just disappeared. The two months that she had stayed was like a throwback to their college time together. Every day was an experience that they built together and relived a countless times. They discovered nooks and crannies of the city that they doubted existed outside their imagination and spent hours there, just drinking in the silence and each other, an island of quiet in the river of noise that was the city. Then she had gone back to Delhi, having gotten a job there. The first months were a hangover of their time together and went with their spending time on the phone and money on their phone bills, calling each other at least a dozen times in the day to tell each other what had happened or what they had seen or what they imagined. The bond seemed to have been rebuilt and cemented for good.

Then came her training trip to the US, for a period of four weeks. He did not have a way of reaching her. She said that the company did not allow her an international roaming and therefore, she would email him and call him from a land line when she could. At first, there were calls on alternate days and photos mailed. Then the calls stopped and the photos became more sporadic with just one line emails about meetings and dinners out or parties. He felt a keen sense of loss, something like the loss of a body part.  He had been unable to deal with not being able to talk or see her for that long. The waiting became unbearable. Then the email came that due to her performance in her training, they had asked her to stay back and take an advanced training for another month. He had written back to her that he was missing her and that maybe she could take the training after some time. Her answer about her career being important and her wanting to succeed at her work stunned and shocked him beyond belief. After that, he had not written to her and she had also only sent routine emails about what was happening, a line or two here and there. It was almost as if, there was a crack in the glass bubble that held their togetherness and it had started draining out.

She had come back after two months and started her work. Her first phone call to him that weekend was their first fight. It was about all the things he had felt and all that he had wanted to tell her for those eight weeks and all that she didn't want to hear. They had both yelled, talking at the same time, not listening. They had both been right and the other wrong. After a while, she had cut the phone on him. He tried calling and after about eight attempts, she picked up. He had been shocked at her anger and her decision to simply cut him off. He did not know how to deal with it and though he was angry, his shock was like a bucket of cold water on the fire. He was apologetic and begged for her forgiveness. For the first time, he was unsure of himself in their equation and that scared him.

Their phone calls continued for the next year and they visited each other a couple of times as well. They had one or two more fights but he took care not to push it beyond, afraid that she would simply decide to cut him off. Then came the next change, she moved to another company in a senior role. This role needed her to travel more frequently.  And then the fights had started again. With her travelling, she could not talk to him sometimes for days and even then, they were very short conversations with very little said. She was always with someone or going somewhere or doing something. When he brought up the issue, she blamed him for not being supportive of her career and not being there for her when she needed him. He couldn't for the life of him understand what she needed from him. The fights had ended with either of them apologizing and promising to make it up, though they never did get around to it.

It was now a year since they had started fighting over this issue. The distance between them had worsened to the point where neither of them could understand each other. Most conversations ended in a fight and more lately, almost every one of them did. He had started travelling as well and between them, there was never time for a conversation. He would message her almost always when he went somewhere or did something or finished something. And she would respond hours later when she could. He was used to the time when she would respond instantaneously and they would have a mini conversation on the messages. He would call her at times but most often, she would either not pick up or would pick up and say that she was busy in a meeting and would call back. She wouldn't call back until a few hours later when he was already tired of waiting.

Finally the last straw came when he had laid all of this open in a conversation about three months ago. The lack of response from her, the lack of time, the lack of closeness was something that he could no longer live with and he decided to ask her outright if there was a problem. Only, the words didn't come out quite right and he appeared to be blaming her for all of this. Maybe at one level, he had been doing just that. It blew up in his face with her anger reaching a level that he had never seen before. She gave it all right back to him. A lot of bitter words were said and a lot of hurt caused that time. The conversation ended abruptly when the signal dropped. Neither of them called back. And that was that. For the next week, they did not speak to each other until one morning she called and just picked up as if nothing had happened. He was still smarting from all that and didn't give up. The fight reared its head once more and the gloves were off.

Since then, this had become the routine. He had reached the point where he no longer knew what they were doing with each other and whether there was any point to their fighting. He kept telling her that all he wanted was time from her and her attention. And he kept finding faults with her about things that she did and things that she did not do. The fights kept escalating and there were breaks in between when they did not speak to each other, almost did not dare to call. But the routine did not break and the fights continued. The instances different each time, but the reasons the same. He wanted her to be the same again. And somehow, she wasn't ready for that.

Until this morning and the call from here when he had just reached office, saying that she was in Goa with some friends. He hadn't quite understood what had happened and then had gone white in anger, remembering how he had pleaded with her for give him time two nights before and her telling him that she could not take time off as there was too much work. The trip to Goa just like that was the icing on the cake for him and he had gone silent first and then exploded. She had tried reasoning it out with him that she needed a break and when that was established, that she needed to be with her friends because she couldn't be with him. That settled it for him. And the whole merry go round started once again, going back to conversations a year old and what had been said or not said, what had been done or not done and why that had been wrong anyway. Both of them had grown increasingly vocal, almost yelling. He forgot that he was in office and when his colleague Ajay waved to him and motioned him to go to one of the conference rooms was when he came to his senses. She finally told him that her friends were waiting and that she had to go, something that sparked off the fight again. It finally ended with him yelling that she couldn't give him time or importance anymore and that she was just calling him because he would fight if she didn't. She simply put the phone down then and switched it off. He gave up trying to call her after a few minutes and now sat there in the conference room with the phone in his hand, like someone who had been battered from all sides and left curled up, wounded and bleeding.

There was a knock on the door and Ajay peeked in and asked, “Are you okay?” Not trusting his voice, Sameer just nodded. Ajay gave him a cup of water that he had been holding and simply patted Sameer’s back and walked out. The rest of the day was a disaster and Sameer quickly closed for the day and left office, waving his thanks to Ajay. Ajay was on the phone with someone and simply waved back. He seemed to be patiently saying something on the phone, taking care not to raise his voice and keep it flat and even, spacing his words out. Sameer walked out not registering what was happening, lost in his own world.

The next day, Sameer was back in office early, trying to catch up with the time that he had lost the day before. He had spent the night up, thinking about what had happened the previous day on the phone call and had been having a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach about himself and Anamika. Ajay came in talking on the phone, put his bag down, waved at Sameer and went straight to the conference room and continued his conversation. Disturbed by the resemblance to his own experience the day before, Sameer shook his head and after a few seconds, continued with his work. After what seemed to be half an hour, Ajay came out of the conference room, looking tired and worn out. His was the cabin next to Sameer’s and he sat down heavily in his chair. At first Sameer thought he would ignore it but then decided to simply peek into Ajay’s cabin and reciprocate the previous day’s help. He carried two cups of coffee into Ajay’s room and gave Ajay one of them and sat down opposite him.

“All well?” asked Sameer. Ajay mumbled a quick yes and then hit behind the coffee mug. After a couple of minutes of strained silence, Ajay broke it by saying, “I am sorry, I was on the phone with my sister. She is going through a rough patch in her relationship with this guy.” Sameer knew what that was like and simply nodded, not trusting himself to speak and waited for Ajay to continue. Ajay continued with a question that seemed to rock Sameer right down to his shoes, “Why do people in love fight? And especially, why do they fight about love itself and with each other about it?” Ajay seemed to be speaking to himself and didn't need a reply. Sameer kept silent wondering if Ajay was speaking about him and Anamika. Ajay continued, “My sister and her boyfriend seem to be fighting with each other about why they love each other and why they think the other person doesn't love them. I am very close to her and we have been almost friends ever since we were kids. So every time this happens, she calls me and wants me to help.  Last afternoon was a fight and I thought I had told her how to sort it out and now this morning, another fight and this one about his not calling her or messaging her enough. And she wanted me to help with this one as well.” Ajay stopped at that, suddenly catching himself, looking embarrassed for having spoken too much. He then changed the topic to his son Aditya and the school annual function that was coming up and how Aditya was playing the part of Little John in a play about Robin Hood. But the conversation kept playing back in Sameer’s head and he kept silent, just nodding encouragement without really listening.

When Ajay stopped his explaining after almost ten minutes, Sameer was unable to keep his curiosity under control and asked him, “So, what did you tell your sister? Did you solve her problem?” Ajay leaned back, took a deep breath and said;”I told her that I couldn't sort out her problem and that she needed to do it. But I also told her that you can’t demand love or time. It has to be given of its own accord. There is no point in fighting for what the other person doesn't give because they have already decided that they don’t want to give you that. So I simply told her to figure out if there was anything left between her and this guy and then act accordingly. In any case, there is no point in fighting for something that isn't there anymore. Is the fight really worth it then?”

Sameer hunched in his chair like he had been punched in the stomach. The words rang in his mind again and again. Ajay finished his coffee and excused himself saying that he had a meeting to go to. Sameer simply nodded and went back to his cabin, in a trance, still thinking about what Ajay had said. Slowly, but surely, the jig saw pieces began to fall into place. He realized that he was in the same boat as Ajay’s sister, trying to command Anamika’s time and attention which she didn't want to give him in the first place, be it a question of priorities or simply a desire not to. As it all fell into place, that sinking feeling, the quick sand at the pit of his stomach, slowly disappeared. A curious sense of calm descended on him. He walked out of office and went down to the cafeteria which he knew would be deserted now. He called up Anamika and in a calm and quiet voice, told her exactly what he thought they should do. At first she seemed surprised and shocked and then angry at what he was suggesting. But his calm voice and the clarity in his words helped. After a few minutes, he signed off from the conversation with a simple thanks and bye and walked back to his cabin, feeling a curious sense of relief and miraculously, a sense of peace about himself, something that seemed to have been missing in the past year. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Domino Effect - Part 1 - The U Turn

The domino effect is a chain reaction that occurs when a small change causes a similar change nearby, which then causes another similar change, and so on in linear sequence. The term is best known as a mechanical effect, and is used as an analogy to a falling row of dominoes. It typically refers to a linked sequence of events where the time between successive events is relatively small. It can be used literally (an observed series of actual collisions) or metaphorically (causal linkages within systems such as global finance or politics). – Wikipedia on the Domino Effect

For those of us who have seen a domino effect in motion, two things keep us entranced – the seeming continuity of motion and the linkages at tandem between seemingly unrelated streams of dominos. The heart stops when a domino falls and almost whisper-caresses the next one standing some distance away and at an angle and causes it to fall, setting off another line of motion.

What if the domino effect was applied to humans? Could it be possible that every action of any human being has an impact or effect on the life of some other human being who could be completely unconnected with the first? At first sight this seems impossible. But for those of us, who believe in the serendipitous nature of things, know otherwise. Daily tidbits of human calamity that reach us that are based on a random set of events irreversibly changing lives.

And thus the inspiration for this set of stories where human lives are irretrievably changed by another, seemingly unrelated. Since this is a series, each episode will be short and centered on a person or persons whose lives change at random due to another. And there is a reason why this series is called a Reverse Domino, to find which, one will need to read through.


Part 1 - The U Turn

Ajay turned to look in the rear view mirror as he drove away. The small face crumpled and looked even impossibly small even as it receded. He could see or imagined that he could see the tears barely being held back, the whimpers shaking the small frame as the boy bravely tried to choke them. He felt a tiny flicker of pride at the change in his son – from crying openly for every little thing to being able to put up a brave face. He remembered his own words “You have to be tough and brave in the world. There are a lot of people who will hurt you. You need to become tougher as you grow up. There won’t always be someone to take care of you or protect you.” He had known he was being harsh but his own memories of endless hours of torment as he had grown up, the pain, the confusion, the hurt. And he knew that he wanted to protect his Aditya from all that at any cost. He had to make him tough and safe.

Even now, as he drove away, a part of him wanted to stop the car and run back, hug that little part of himself. But he forced that part of himself back into the deep recesses of his brain, somewhere deep in that pool of his brain that it could not come back again to the surface. His jaw clenched and he gripped the steering wheel harder even as his foot pressed down on the accelerator and he sped away, the dust cloud behind the car preventing his hungry eyes from sneaking a look back through the rear view.

He rejoined the main traffic as he drove towards office, his pace dropping to almost a crawl. He turned up the window and switched on the air conditioning. With the car stopping more than it was travelling, like some extremely tired beast that took more time to move than stop, his thoughts wandered to the morning and all that had happened.

It had been a normal morning with him waking up at to his usual clock and waiting for the alarm to ring and then shutting it off and waking up with the usual spring in his step. He had always been a morning person all his life, loving every minute of that alone time that he got for himself, switching on some music and getting everything in order for the day, for all of them. And the final part of the ritual, his extra large mug of coffee, straight out of the percolator, the only thing that he took time over in his routine, inhaling and sipping the coffee as it was the last he would have. Then his routine of waking up Aditya, cajoling him out of bed and often giving into the request for an extra five minutes of sleep. He justified the action to himself that maybe the boy had had a bad dream and so did not sleep well.

That morning went exactly as per the routine, like a screenplay enacted by a well rehearsed cast. Until the moment when he had seen the note in Aditya’s diary that he had not completed his work in class.  He had called Aditya down and had asked him what had happened and for the first time, he heard Aditya say what was apparently a lie, that his pen ran out of ink, uncomfortable and shuffling through the whole statement. Ajay filled ink in Aditya’s pen each morning and so couldn't believe that the pen could run out of ink. He pushed Aditya by asking him more questions only to get the same answer. And his disbelief had turned to shock and then to anger at having been lied to. He had asked Aditya whether the excuse was true, only to receive a hesitant and uncertain confirmation, but a confirmation nonetheless. He had turned away and left Aditya standing then, a first since his son had been old enough to talk. Unsure of what to do, his son had completed getting ready for school. And then the final straw had happened. He had brought the diary note to Ajay, asking him to write the reason and sign on it. A flash of anger had overtaken Ajay at that instant and he had lost his head, yelling and screaming.

He hadn't even calmed down after about 15 minutes of venting his anger. Aditya had turned pale, nearly white with shock at his dad’s anger, an extreme that he had seen for the first time. Tears had started to well up, Aditya had started to stare at the ground, a sign that he was going to cry. And Ajay had yelled at him once again, his anger searching for any outlet available at that instant, telling him to stop being a cry baby and own up to his mistake, to start acting responsible. Very adult words those had been, words that an eight year old could never have understood. But he had not stopped to think, his anger ruling his actions and his words just pouring out. Aditya had now focused on some spot on the floor, his hands picking and pulling at a loose thread on his shirt front for want of something to do. The thread held a button which at that instant came loose and fell. Aditya looked up guiltily as if he expected the next tidal wave for this. Normally, Ajay would have caught onto his look and would have reassured Aditya that it was not his fault. But Ajay was not normal that day.

The shirt was changed and Ajay realized that they were late for school. He started lecturing Aditya on being on time, the whole way that he drove to school. Aditya stayed silent, his hands safely clasped together, to prevent anything else from going wrong. And then they had reached school, a good half an hour late and Ajay had to talk to the teacher to let Aditya in, something that irritated him further. He had not even waited for Aditya to go in, had not said goodbye and just walked away to his car and driven away, thinking that his action will teach Aditya a lesson in lying to him.

A honk behind brought Ajay back to here and now and he realized that the light had changed color and he hadn't moved forward. He put his hand out and waved an apology as he started the car and drove the short distance till he caught up with the next car in the long queue to his destination. He then saw a boy selling sun blinds for car windows, the boy just about Aditya’s age or maybe even slightly older. The boy would go up to every driver’s side window and would put the blind onto the window and would peek through the windshield to make his pitch. A couple of drivers took and interest and he closed the sale. One driver rolled down the window and gave him a Re 10 note, something which the boy simply gave back, shaking his head, his pride not allowing him to accept alms. He muttered something to the driver inside and the driver withdrew his offer, rolling up the window. The boy was walking towards Ajay’s car now and just as he reached Ajay’s window to begin his spiel, someone called him from the sidewalk.

Ajay watched the boy go through his spiel and rolled down his window, thinking that the boy was tough and so worldly wise, exactly the same way that he had asked Aditya to be. He felt a pang of regret then that he had left Aditya like that at school. But he brushed it aside nonetheless, telling himself that it was for the best.  He decided not to buy the blinds and watched the disappointed boy go across to the next car. The driver was a man in his late forties, same as Ajay and a boy sat in the front seat. The whole sales routine of the sun blinds was run through and the man decided to buy a set but did not have the exact change. The boy who was selling them offered to get change but the man decided to walk out of the car and go across to the boy’s father and get the change.

The man came back to the car, the traffic not having moved an inch in the meantime. As he got back into the driver’s seat and belted himself down, his son rolled down the window on his side. Ajay could now clearly hear the conversation between them. The boy asked his father why he had gone out of the car and his father explained that he had gone to get the change. The boy did not leave the matter at that and asked his dad why he had not allowed the boy who had sold the blinds to get him the change. His dad was obviously uncomfortable at the question and finally muttered something about not being able to trust a strange boy with so much cash. The son quieted down at that, thinking something over. Then Ajay heard him clearly ask, “Dad, is it the same reason that you didn't trust me when I told you that another boy had taken my pen and so I could not complete my class work?” The man replied, “But how could he have taken your pen and why did you let him do it?”

The exchange went on this way as the boy tried to explain to his dad about a school mate who had not brought his pen and how he had given his pen to the boy and they had taken turns to write the class work and both had not been able to finish. When he finished, his dad simply turned to him and said, “I am sorry I didn't believe you. But why didn't you tell me this when I asked you?” The boy simply said, “I thought you would get angry at me and so decided to just make up an excuse.” The man looked as if he had been struck in the face and said nothing for a second, then finally, simply leaned forward and hugged his son and said, “I want you to always tell me everything from now on and I promise to try and never get angry at you.”

Then, sensing Ajay’s eyes on him, the man looked up and saw that Ajay had been observing the whole interchange. He looked embarrassed at first and then simply laughed at himself, finally talking across to Ajay, “Kids nowadays! You can’t be their father anymore, you have to just be their friend. You have kids?” Ajay didn't know how to react and simply nodded yes. Luckily at that moment, the car ahead of him moved forward and Ajay moved ahead of the other car, saved the discomfort of having to face the man. As he sat in his car, he thought about what had happened, how the boy had chosen not to tell the truth to the man and made up a white lie, and wondered if the same thing had happened with Aditya. By becoming angry, he had only made his son’s fear come true. He sat there stunned at what had happened and how quickly he had simply chosen to believe a lie.

The car behind him honked again and he looked up to see that the traffic had moved ahead once again and he had been caught thinking. There was a break in the traffic to his right and he saw that there was a break in the road just there with no oncoming traffic. He thought for a moment about the time and the fact that he would be delayed to office and then decided that he needed to go back. He turned on the car’s indicator and quickly shifted into the right lane and took the U turn, not noticing the “No U Turn” signal right there. The traffic cop standing just ahead waved frantically and blew on his whistle but Ajay could not be bothered. He joined the traffic line back towards Aditya’s school, only wanting to suddenly see his son and hug him and somehow make all the nasty things he had said go away.

Suddenly, the boy selling the blinds came back to his car, starting his sales pitch and then somehow recognizing Ajay, stopping it and preparing to move on. It was then that Ajay looked at the man on the sidewalk and he saw a man sitting cross legged on a sheet, surrounded by small stacks of the packed sun blinds, staring at something. After watching him for a couple of moments, Ajay suddenly realized that the man was blind. And with that came the realization that the man had no choice but to believe his son and depended on his son to see for him.

Ajay felt very small right then, shrinking in stature in his own eyes, for having done what he had that morning. He sat silently, patiently waiting and driving the small distances forward until he could take the turn off the main road towards Aditya’s school. The security guard looked confused as Ajay ran towards the gate and simply let him in. Ajay sprinted all the way to Aditya’s class room in the annex building at the back, running up the stairs to the first floor and down the corridor to the last room. He stopped at the door and saw Aditya with his head down writing something. He looked at the teacher and simply raised his hand asking for a minute. The teacher nodded and Ajay walked into the room towards Aditya. He reached Aditya’s desk and simply stopped. Aditya stopped writing when he felt someone standing next to him and looked up, his questioning eyes suddenly turning a little scared when he saw that it was Ajay. At that moment, all Ajay wanted to do was to simply wipe that fear away. He bent down and simply hugged Aditya hard. His breath seemed to have caught in his throat and his eyes threatened to spill over as a blanket of relief settled over him. A few minutes and a hasty explanation to the teacher later, Ajay was driving away from the school with Aditya, towards their favorite haunt, the beach. The office and the world and everything else could wait, he was with his son now ….