And in my own life, a chapter was coming to a close.
I took a rickshaw to the adjacent block, where I was to meet Rohan. Rohan was getting married in two weeks time, and I felt relaxed, contrary to all the times we had met before. I was early and as I waited for him, I thought back to all those times we had spent together. That was such a long time ago.
And yet, as the darkness blurred my present, those moments felt so near I could almost touch them.
Life has its ironies. Sometimes, love blossoms in the most improbable circumstances. We had spent a good part of our relationship, oblivious to the nature of our relationship. Our relationship was about the conversations we indulged in, and the mails we wrote to each other. We never attempted to define our relationship. It was free flowing.
And yet, at some point, love just crept in.
We felt something- something that was so hard to define. Something had changed in the course of our relationship. I had finally begun to take notice of our conversations. Anxiety crept into my mind for no obvious reason and I found myself constantly interpreting our conversations and interactions. I found myself all worked up if I didn’t hear from him. I realized then that he had found his way into my heart.
I was both excited and nervous.
On an evening when black clouds filled the sky, we were seated on the stone bench, and I was crying.
‘I feel very strongly for you. And yet, I feel that we are incompatible in some ways’, he was saying.
I looked at him through my tears. His eyes softened. I put my hand past him to grab the tissues to wipe my tears, and found myself in a tight embrace.
‘I was reaching out for the tissues’, I found myself saying, almost in a whisper.
My tears stopped, and I just stayed in his embrace, resting my head against his chest. I didn’t want to move, partly because I was too shocked by his gesture to move, and partly because it felt so good to be there. I found my chin being lifted and I felt his lips on mine. I resigned to that kiss with my lips trembling.
He suddenly drew himself away and looked at me. I had stopped crying.
‘I am sorry’, he said.
That evening, I had driven back home in the rain, listening to Cascades. That evening, my mother saw in my eyes a glow she had never seen before. She might have sensed the reason.
I was in love. For the first time in my life.
Time thereafter was studded with memories- some happy and some painful. We had never really fought.
But we were incompatible.
Sometimes I don’t even know what that means.
I suddenly became aware of his familiar figure walking towards me and came back to the present. Habitually, I felt butterflies in my tummy. He stood in front of me, 6 foot tall, and smiled at me. The butterflies disappeared, as if by magic. I felt very relaxed and smiled back. He led the way and we booked a table at the restaurant. Sitting opposite each other, I was bewildered by the peculiar mix of emotions I felt. I guess I was expecting a transformed Rohan. In two weeks time, he was getting married. I was perhaps expecting him to talk excitedly about his fiancé, about his dreams and hopes, about his wedding, and about all that was part of being the prospective groom.
But what was it I read in his eyes? He looked at me just as he had looked at me all those years ago, when I was a part of his world-
When I was his world.
I talked more than he did. I talked about my life. Never once did I touch upon his marriage. Not that it hurt, but since he refused to touch upon it, I didn’t want to.
When we were done with dinner, I wanted to leave. I had loved this evening- loved his presence, loved the ease with which conversation came, loved this togetherness.
I wanted to leave because I didn’t want to give myself the opportunity to long for more.
My mind was at peace with his marriage, and I didn’t want to break that peace. And yet, when he insisted on a stroll, I found myself complying. We walked in silence, lost in distant memories. The cool night air embraced us in its freshness and fragrance. He stopped abruptly and looked at me. I looked up at him.
‘I want to take you home’, he said.
‘Won’t I get late?’, I felt obliged to ask.
‘I will drop you home’, he said.
To walk with him by my side, and to go home together, was a part of my dreams a long time ago.
When we reached his house, I became tight-lipped for some strange reason. We sat opposite each other, and he leaned against the couch, while I fumbled with a cushion, and looked away. The silence felt eerie. I looked at him once or twice and then looked away. He said nothing, and continued to fix his gaze on me. Eventually, he walked up to me and took my hands in his. I stood up, unsure of what was coming. He took me in his arms and hugged me. I felt calm and relaxed as I rested my head against his chest. He held me very close to him, ran his fingers over my hair and then kissed me on my head. I felt like a baby, and behaved like one. I rattled on at random, unsure of what I really wanted to say, until I got fascinated by a crease on his T-shirt. He watched me meddle with it, and when I looked up at him, I saw the fondness in his eyes. He sat down and he made me sit on his lap.
I continued to talk, and he smiled the smile of someone who listens fondly, absorbing all the emotion, excitement and expression, but failing to have grasped a word of what was being said.
At length, I paused, and he kissed me yet again on my head. Then he kissed me on my cheek. And then he traced my lips with his fingers, brought me close and kissed me on my lips so very softly. I was dazed, but I responded. After a long kiss that seemed to have flooded life into my very soul, we drew our faces apart and looked into each others’ eyes.
‘Why can’t I understand you? Why are we like this?’ he asked.
I wondered if it mattered any more. He then lifted me and carried me in his arms to the bedroom. He had promised me that a long time ago- that he would carry me to bed every night and tuck me in. He placed me on the bed and kissed me.
‘Are you happy?’ I found myself asking him.
‘I don’t know’, he said.
‘That’s what you always say’, I said.
‘And that is the truth. I don’t seem to understand the ways of the world. Nor do I understand myself’, he said.
As he kissed me, tears rolled down my face.
‘Does my marriage hurt you?’ he asked.
‘No’, I said.
And I meant it.
He doesn’t know what he wants. And I don’t want him when he doesn’t really know.
That night, we slept in each others’ embrace. At some point, I woke up to find that he had encircled his arm around me, and my head rested beneath his chin. I moved a little, and he drew me back, his eyes still closed, and kissed me on my head.
Next morning, when we said goodbye, I felt a strange peace.
Perhaps I had lived my lifetime in a day.
Rohan never called me after that. I wasn’t around for his wedding. Two years after his wedding, I met him. As we sat across each other at the café, I found in those eyes something opaque and cold. They had stopped talking.
It was as if a dream had died in those eyes, as if a flame had been extinguished.
When we said goodbye, he kissed me on my cheek. It felt cold.
I withdrew, said goodbye and walked out into the night.
Ammalu amma stirred in bed at the sound of the bang from the mosque. She was always the first to wake up in the house. She got out of bed and went about her chores slowly, mumbling to herself. At 70, she still attended to the household chores. She grumbled when her daughter-in-law, Sarojini, stepped into the kitchen.
“When I was your age, I would be done with the morning chores by this time! Oh, whom am I to ask for a glass of water at this age?“, she remarked.
But Sarojini had learnt by now that it was best to not respond to any provocation from her mother-in-law. She heated the water and started to make tea. Ammalu amma muttered something under her breath and made her way to the verandah. Here, she picked up the newspaper, reclined on her chair and adjusted her spectacles. For the next several minutes, she read the newspaper, looking up only when her cup of tea arrived.
Anita and Ranjith came running to the verandah. They had picked up a squabble and were now creating a huge chaos.
“Don’t you want to know what happened to the squirrel that had entered the little boy’s house by mistake? Let me read to you! Come here, children!“, Ammalu amma called out to them. The children came over to take a look at the comic strip. Ammalu amma started reading out to them and that kept them preoccupied until their mother called out for them.
Ammalu amma stared at the trees in the distance. She thought back to those years when both her sons had been around. She had always taken pride in her sons; she bragged to the neighbours that they would never leave her. But the elder son had got married and moved out with his wife. The younger son had then married, and Ammalu amma always feared that he would move out too. She was prejudiced against his wife and though Sarojini took good care of her, Ammalu amma was never happy. However, she loved her grandchildren. She weaved her life around them. She told them stories, shielded them from spankings, and gave them little presents from time to time. Sometimes a sweetmeat. Sometimes clothes. Sometimes color pencils.
Ammalu Amma’s most precious posession was her betelnut box. She carried it all the time and refused to part with it. She guarded in it a stack of betel leaves, some arecanut and some lime. And beneath the stack of betel leaves, she guarded a stack of notes- money that she had collected over years. Some of it was money she had managed to save for herself. Some of it was money that family members deposited in her hands when they came to visit. She counted it many times in a day.
Occasionally, Anita would trick her. She would pretend to play with her betelnut box and stealthily take out a couple of notes. Ammalu amma was aware of this. But she would pretend not to notice. Anita bought herself sweets or clothes with the money.
However, Ammalu amma was wary of Sarojini. She would never count the notes when Sarojini was around.
“That wicked girl cannot be trusted. She will steal this money and buy sarees for herself. She will not give it to my son when he is in need of it. Nor will she spend it on my grandchildren. I must be careful!“, she would say to herself.
But in truth, Sarojini never bothered about the financial affairs of the family. She was a happy soul. She worked as a farmhand and was content with the money it fetched her. She was aware of Ammalu amma’s stack of notes, but she had no interest in it. Sarojini and her husband worked hard towards fulfilling the one dream they nurtured- of building a house for themselves. With a little more money, they could buy the land that they had in mind. Ammalu Amma could have made it easier for them by giving them her savings, but she had no such plans. ‘In any case, it will go to them after my death. So why now?’, she convinced herself.
Time went by and Ammalu amma grew older. The stack of notes in her box increased. But Ammalu amma’s health had begun to give her trouble. She fell ill from time to time. Sarojini took good care of her. However, Ammalu amma’s health declined steadily. She could feel that she wouldn’t live much longer.
One evening, Sharada, the neighbour, came to visit her.
“I have something important to tell you“, Ammalu amma said.
“Go on“, Sharada said.
“I have some savings. 10,000 rupees in total. I haven’t told anybody about it. I want it to be given to my son. But I don’t want Sarojini to know about it. She will use it all for her selfish needs. In the event of my death, inform my son about this money and ask him to buy the land he wishes to buy. Let me show you where I have hidden the money“, she said.
Sharada followed her to her bedroom. Ammalu amma sat down on her bed and started to unsew the pillow cover. Sharada was astonished by the stack of notes that lay within.
“Here it is. Mind you, not a word until I die!“, Ammalu amma said.
She counted the money, put it back in its place and sewed the pillow cover.
“Strange woman“, Sharada muttered to herself.
It wasn’t long before Ammalu amma fell ill yet again. This time, it was a fatal attack of pneumonia. Her condition deteriorated, but she refused to be taken to hospital. She breathed her last on the morning of a cloudy day, and the family attended religiously to her death rites.
A few days later, Sharada came to visit Sarojini.
“Sarojini, I have something to show you. Can you take me to Ammalu amma’s room?“, said Sharada. Sarojini led the way, perplexed. When they stepped into the room, Sharada gasped. The cot stood there, but there was no mattress or pillow on it.
“Where is the mattress?“, asked Sharada.
“Oh, I burnt it! Why do you ask?“, replied Sarojini.
“And you burnt the pillow too?”
“Yes…the very next day, I burnt the clothes, mattress and pillow! But why do you ask?” Sharada sighed.
“Your mother-in-law acted rather unwisely. She sewed in all her savings into her pillow, refusing to tell you about it. There were 10,000 rupees in all. With that money, you could have easily bought the land. Silly woman!“, said Sharada. Sarojini smiled.
“At the end of the day, money is just paper that will burn in the fire. It will leave nothing of itself“, she said.
“Let me get you a glass of tea“, she added and walked towards the kitchen. Sharada watched her walk, perplexed by her calm acceptance of such a big tragedy.
I don’t have to be reminded it is December. As November slowly rolls into December, I can feel it. A welcome transition all around me.
A little less humidity…
Clear blue skies…
Pleasant evenings when I can feel a little chill in the air….just enough to remind me it is December…
Winter blushes in the roses and bougainvillea in my garden, as they smile at the bright sunshine, their petals crisp from the cold that is unique to this season. A crisp and rosy freshness conspicuous by its absence otherwise in a tropical land where the sun and monsoons dominate most of the year.
A little red rose blossoms in the garden of my mind. Its fragrance is familiar, and it awakens a part of me that has been dormant all along-
The woman in me….
Womanhood is a unique facet of a woman’s personality, with a core of its own. A core that shares a delicate relationship with the human being and the individual in her. The three have an unspoken contract. When the circumstances are favourable, she is prolific. But when adversity strikes, she makes room for the other two.
In the blossoming of that fragrant red rose, I could feel the essence of my womanhood…
Delicate, fragile, exquisitely beautiful. Incapable of sustenance in adversity. Its need for the most sensitive, tender, loving care. Something that only a winter spirit was capable of. A winter that would wrap its cool arms around the freshness of the fragile petals of this flower, shielding it from the harshness of the sun.
Every winter unlocks the girl I once knew myself to be.
No…I was never pretty. But that was a strange blessing. It allowed me to be myself. It allowed me to be secretly infatuated, and build an imaginary world in my mind where I lived the moments I believed I couldn’t live in real life. I would laugh when my friends raised the possibility of falling in love. That was for them. Who would fall in love with me? And so, I continued living the life of a child in the real world. The dreams that my adolescence gifted me, I kept to myself. Locked up in a secret corner of my mind. I was content just gazing stealthily at someone I was infatuated by. I was actually terrified when that someone would come up to me and talk. Then I trembled, my legs shivered, and I was certain the pounding of my heart could be heard outside. I was terrified that they could read in my eyes what I felt for them!
I suppose I had a duality about me. Something my friends didn’t seem to have. I was adventurous, loud, crude, mischievous, fond of food, and I loved riding and driving. Conventionally unfeminine traits. My female friends were soft spoken, graceful in the way they walked and talked, very proper in the way they dressed, with rather feminine interests.
But within me was a feminine spirit I couldn’t articulate in the real world.
It took love to articulate it.
I still remember that day. That day when he stood before me, stammering and struggling. I couldn’t believe it was possible for him to run out of words. He was 6 feet tall and I was self-conscious when I looked up at him. It made him more self-conscious. I felt giddy. I couldn’t figure out if it was from excitement or anxiety. I couldn’t believe this moment was real! He stood there, tall and strikingly handsome, his eyes deep and probing, hiding a world beneath them. I lowered my eyes.
The rose blossomed for the first time in me and its exotic fragrance flooded my being. I transformed as my feminine spirit mustered the courage to spill out. It spilt out into the way I lowered my eyes when he fixed his eyes on me. Into the blush that I tried to conceal when he taunted me. Into my strides when I walked, hugging this feeling that was love. Into the bubbliness and exhilaration I failed to contain when he was around. Into the anxiety and restlessness I felt on days he was away. Into the tenderness I felt within when I held him close.
For the first time, I loved myself. I loved the unruly strands of hair that fell on my face. I loved the dreams that gleamed in my eyes. I loved the fragrances that lingered about me. I loved the softness of my cheeks. I loved the warmth of my skin. I had fallen in love with freshness and fabric and textures and colors and fragrances….almost as if they had abruptly been introduced into my world! Never before had I felt beautiful this way!
There was magic in the words he said to me…in the way he said them to me. They made me feel exquisitely beautiful.
As is the case with all impulsive beginnings, the endings are often tragic. So not very long after we confessed our feelings for each other, we fell out of step with each other. And we tucked it under the label of ‘Just an infatuation!‘.
Beauty is a season. And that season was gone. But the spirit of the woman within me had been awakened. My love had no recipient now, but I lived my life with zest and vigour. The memory remained fragrant, and I was content with that.
When love stepped in next, it came disguised in the form of friendship. I didn’t recognize it. It was slow in its evolution, and it was beautiful. A beauty different from that of impulsive love…
Love that invisibly, but palpably filled the infinity of the spaces between our interactions.
In those spaces, there was a strange missing and longing that spoke of our deep friendship. We were absolute monkeys, forever teasing and taunting and playing pranks on each other. But in the smiles we gave each other, there was an unmistakable trace of that love we felt for each other.
And yet, this love had not penetrated our thoughts.
It stayed as a feeling, and that was beautiful. On days we didn’t see each other, there was a gloom within that we refused to notice. It was ironical that all our friends jokingly referred to me as his girlfriend, just to irritate us. Eventually, I took the cue and I would irritate him, pretending to be his girlfriend. And he would pretend to be really annoyed. I would ask him to gift me roses and we had a bet on that. And one day, he surprised me by getting me a bouquet of roses. He pretended to throw them at me. ‘Don’t ever ask me for roses again’, he said. There were double-meaning statements we made to each other, and they hung in the air, uninterpreted.
And beneath this game of pretence, we never realized that there was a big truth hiding…waiting to be unraveled.
It finally grew strong enough to permeate our thoughts. I remember wanting to confront him on this. It was a very anxious moment for me because unlike my previous experience, we were thick friends, and I did not wish for anything to cause the tiniest crack in our friendship. I thought back to all those moments of overt concern and care….to those double-meaning statements….to the feeling that I could read in his eyes and in his gestures. It gave me the courage to ask him. I remember how I had held his hand and dragged him out after morning rounds.
‘Can I ask you something?’, I had asked. ‘I am scared though’, I had added. ‘If you want to ask me something, you better ask me now….coz I am in a really good mood right now’, he had replied. I looked into his eyes and felt he knew what was coming. I remember getting coffee from the machine. I remember how we sat next to each other that morning, sipping coffee. ‘So, do you see me as just a friend….or is there something more to it?’, I had finally asked. He was quiet. I had wanted to die at that moment. I looked at him and was surprised to see the sadness in his eyes. He reached out for my hand and stroked my hand affectionately. I had never seen him this sad. ‘I am not asking you for anything. I just wanted to know what you feel for me’, I had said. ‘I have loved you ever since you drew my caricature in class and passed it on’, he slowly said and smiled. I was taken aback. That was a term before. ‘I have loved you from a distance all along. But I cannot step into anything. It would only get complicated….for you.’ I nodded. Race was the issue. ‘I have asked my mother many times if I could marry an Indian girl. By now, she knows there is someone in my mind. But my father would never agree.’ We both sipped our coffee silently. I took a deep breath and asked ‘So are we going to let go?’ He ruffled my hair and asked,’Will you wait? 5 years or maybe more?’ ‘Why not?’, I answered. ‘Sigh! You have complicated my life. I was a carefree, happy-go-lucky boy. And you have made me a worrier now!’, he half-taunted. ‘So am I really your girlfriend now?’, I asked. He smiled, ‘You have always won.’ I pretended to frown. ‘I have let you win’, he said. ‘And I like to see you win’, he added.
We sat there for quite a while, holding hands. He stroked my hand gently and I did not want to leave. We soon saw the rest of our gang approach us and we quickly let go. They suspected nothing. The general taunting and mocking went on, but today my heart was not in it. I wanted to be alone….be alone with this feeling. I went home with the Chinese record I had just been gifted.
There I was at home, listening to a song in an alien language. But at this moment, it stood for everything that someone had felt for me.
Besides, I had always loved ballads. The phone rang. I picked it up. It was him.
‘How did you know I liked ballads?’, I asked him.’
‘Oh, I have spent enough time with you to know your taste for music, food and clothes’,he said.
In the one year that we were together, we spent our lifetime. I couldn’t believe love had this dimension to it. Nothing had changed between us, for we had that bonding right from the start. But now, there was a deep contentment we felt as we gave it direction. We went about throwing surprises at people on their birthdays. I remember the pup we gifted an animal-lover friend of ours and the fish we gifted to someone who took pride in his aquarium. We celebrated holi, diwali, Christmas, Valentine’s day, and even Chinese New Year together with a whole bunch of friends. We went go-karting, boating and bowling. We played shuttle and we played UNO and Monopoly. We went to donate blood together. We went to Coffee Day at Sadashivnagar to eat apple pie with ice cream. Those guys loved us because they were amused to see an Indian girl with a Chinese boyfriend. I always blushed when I saw them smiling at the spoonfuls of ice cream he fed me. He was like that. He always believed I was incapable of patience. I was always restless and too excited to sit still and cut the pie into little pieces or shell out prawns from the dish. I was like a child and he treated me like one. We drove down all the way to ‘Friends’ at Koramangala to eat fish and chips. I tried my best to like the authentic Chinese food we ate at ‘Lemon Grass’, and he gave me a knowing smile when I swallowed the expression on my face. He pushed all the dessert towards me and said quietly,’You can have that!’ The others smiled.
He had this habit of holding my hand whenever we crossed a road. He didn’t seem to trust me on that. The patience issue again. Ironically, he would encourage me to drive his friend’s car that I was always hesitant about, but that I wanted to. He would push me to try all those new feats that I would regard with conflict- a desire to indulge, mixed with hesitation. He was always proud of me. And so, I found my personality expressing unrestricted in a judgmental world. I was surprised to discover that I was really good at go-karting. Almost as good as him. I was beginning to differentiate between what I liked and what I didn’t….between what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at.
I loved the way he would ruffle my hair every time he thought something had upset me or disappointed me. My friends would look at me with envy.
For he cared. And he cared like hell. He sacrificed to care. The way only parents do. He could never bear to see me struggle or suffer. He wouldn’t let me do anything difficult; he would take it on himself. He was like the wind that wrapped itself around the milkweed- the grip loose enough to let it float free, and firm enough to prevent it from falling. He was like winter wrapping its arms around the delicate petals of the rose that smiled up at the sunshine, the arms shielding the flower from the harshness of the sun, while the rose basked happily in the warmth of this tempered sunshine.
Once in a while, we went to the Buddhist temple near the college where he had studied. He would look at that college building, make a sad face and say,’This was where I first landed when I moved from Malaysia. I was so lonely and homesick in this new country.’ It somehow made me sad too. He would imitate my expression and laugh. The truth was he couldn’t bear for me to be sad. He would instantly transform that moment into humour and make me laugh. The beauty of our relationship was that we communicated our love more through the silences than the words. And this was palpable. Not just to us, but to all the others in our gang who looked at us with admiration. We had squabbles too. And when we had them, they were bad. And yet, not once did I fear losing him. When they ended, I would always have tears in my eyes. ‘Crybaby’, he would make fun of me. And then ruffle my hair 🙂
I missed him like hell when he went home on holiday. We had all gone to see him off at the airport and I remember how the others taunted us and left us alone to say our goodbyes, pretending to look away. I remember how he had arranged for his friends to take care of everything for me while he was away. I remember how I hid in the rear of the car when we went to pick him up from the airport on his arrival and how he had guessed I would be in, hiding. I remember how he sat by his friend’s side, talking to him, while holding my hand quietly. I had missed that terribly.
The memories are too many. I can’t find the words to write them down any more. My heart is flooded with the magic of those memories and with a deep gratitude I feel.
To time and destiny that brought us together…
To the truth in the love he gave me…
There is none of the bitterness or sorrow that generally accompanies relationships that never culminated in marriage. Marriage is so far removed from love. On the darkest days, I only have to look within….to find the warm glow of a memory. There is none of the loneliness and emptiness that often creeps into our lives as time passes by. For I have the companionship of these beautiful memories. Memories whose fragrance permeated my soul- a fragrance I shall carry with me when I leave behind this mortal body.
A. Ayyappan’s poem, ‘Ente shavapetti‘ comes to my mind…
Perhaps if I were given the chance to write one more chapter into this memory, I would choose one day with him. To go back together and visit all those places that are tagged with those memories. To sit next to each other, stare into the nothingness, and cry. Cry with gratitude.
And to feel those hands holding mine and stroking them gently….the way I know them to. To feel those hands ruffling my hair again…
To realize the place that noise, nonsense and infatuation have in life, I had to lose them and rediscover them.
After a long long time, there came into my life this fleeting infatuation. I had almost forgotten what it was to have a crush. I had tucked away all memories of love and infatuation; they seemed to have been from a past life. In this life, I looked upon them as a luxury that I couldn’t afford. I felt too worn-out to look beautiful or appealing. My mind had sunk into some abyss from which I couldn’t see any way out into the sunshine. In the darkness of that abyss, the only sound I could hear was my own. It was frightening to hear my own voice in that eerie silence. My heart pounded so loud that I thought it would pop out! I felt terrified, uncertain and thoroughly muddled. I was so exhausted from fear that I wanted to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes, I saw myself. I had never imagined I would be terrified of my own reflection. The conflict within me threatened to break me into a million pieces. I fought to be left alone…to be rid of my own burden…to close my eyes and go off to sleep. But my mind fought back to confront me with nightmares…to keep me awake…to echo into my ears a million voices that sent me into a chaos. I had never before known that the most fearful vision was to stare into the abyss of one’s own unconscious. I almost thought I had left the realms of reality and crossed over to the opposite side. I dreaded the setting sun…the dark hours of the night…and its deafening silence.
It was at that point that I pulled myself together, realizing I had to stop looking inward. I guess I had been forced to look inward for a long time now. I was progressively moving into deeper planes of my mind, failing to see how deep I had travelled. It was time to look outward. I booked my tickets to Bangalore.
The night I left, I felt lonely and sad because I had no one to drop me. At other times, it had never mattered. But this time, I wished I had someone with me- a friend or a relative or a neighbour. But there was none. It had never been like that in Bangalore. Once in the bus, I felt better as I preoccupied myself with thoughts on how I would spend my days in Bangalore. I slept eventually and when I woke up, it was to discover that we had hit Bangalore before sunrise. It was 4.30 a.m. when we reached our destination. I hopped off the bus and smelled the air, as I always do. The question I always ask myself as soon as I land is – ‘Can this city succeed in its magic again? Would I still relate to it? Would it still instill in me all that I wish to feel?’ The breeze felt cold and nice, almost as if answering my question.
I don’t know why, but my first memory in Bangalore is always of dad. Perhaps because right from childhood, I would follow him dutifully as he took me around the city, lost to my perceptions of the city, trusting his ability to find his way around, irrespective of which part of the city we were in. The consequence was that I never learnt to find my way around, left to my own. To this day, I feel lost when commuting. Yet, I love exploring the city to dig out familiar vestiges….and collect as many as I can.
I guess I stood frozen there, lost in thought, my eyes silently caressing this vision of a city that has always received me with open arms. So I was a little startled to realize that I was being spoken to. I looked in the direction of the voice that had broken my reverie. A man with a boyish gleam in his eyes was the source of this voice. He was stretching his arms and legs and he probably realized that I hadn’t really been on this planet for the last several minutes. So he repeated,” Where do you have to go?” Someone from the travel agency patted him and walked by, and I realized that this man who had spoken to me was from the agency. ‘Hebbal’, I said. He looked away, stretched again, and then stared into the distance. For a moment, he too seemed lost, almost as if captivated by the feel of this beautiful city. And then he suddenly replied, ” We don’t have our buses going to Hebbal”. Meanwhile, another man from the agency walked towards me and suggested I take a rick. It was just 5 a.m. And I didn’t want to barge into my friend’s house that early and wake her up. I thought for a while, but there seemed to be no other option. I started walking towards the rickshaw stand, when the first guy called after me, ” Hop on to this bus.” I turned back to see him point at a bus that was parked there. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I boarded the bus. I asked a passenger where this bus was off to. Marathahalli was the answer. To my surprise, the man who had asked me to board, hopped onto the driver’s seat and started the engine. He turned to me and said,”You can get off at Marathahalli. You will get enough buses to Hebbal”. I nodded and sat back. Meanwhile, the other guy who had suggested me to take a rick came running and asked me why I had boarded this bus. “She can’t walk to the rickshaw stand with all that luggage. Instead, she can get off at Marathahalli and take a bus right there”, the driver answered for me. He took off with the excitement and exhilaration of a teen driving his first motor vehicle. I looked at him as he drove. He had a boyish charm and an infectious happiness that were hard to ignore. I looked out of the window- Bangalore city awakening from its slumber, gathering momentum…striking a chord with the momentum of the bus…the music playing up to this momentum…the boyish zeal of this man percolating my heart…my heart soaring. It was too good to be true. I wanted to hold on to this moment forever. I had forgotten what it felt like to be happy…zealous…light hearted.
When it was time to alight, the man gave me directions like I was a retard, but I absolutely loved the attention. As I walked towards the door, I could feel the happiness spill into my stride…the smile lighting up my face…and perhaps a tiny blush that burnt my cheeks. I summoned the courage to look up and thank him. He flashed a smile that made my heart skip a beat. “Happy?”, he asked, pointing at the bus bound to Hebbal. I was tongue-tied, so I just smiled. For a moment, time stopped as i met his gaze. This was the magic I had wanted to feel. “Stay happy always”, he said. I came around and hopped off the bus. As the bus moved off, I could see my reflection in the mirror. The reflection shrunk and the bus finally disappeared from view. But I was aware that my reflection in somebody’s mind would last a trifle longer. And that was the magic of a benign infatuation.
And thus, that phase of her life gradually found closure. She graduated and stepped into the infinity of the real world. She did not keep in touch with him. It wasn’t on purpose; the pressures and preoccupations of the next phase just took over. The demons associated with the loss of Abhinav had been laid to rest.
After nearly 2 years of that incident, she wrote to Abhinav, smiling at the memory of that phase. She felt nothing as she wrote that mail-no pain, no love, no spite. They met and as they sat across from each other, he smiled. He liked this transformation in her. He liked her this way, without the emotional vulnerability. He liked her for her strength- the way she had come out of that entire episode, though he knew nothing of what had actually transpired. She looked at him, searching her own mind for any residual feelings. But all she felt was freedom. The person sitting across her was like a new person- a person she did not know…a person she was willing to know, without any prejudices corrupting the perception. A person who may or may not be a part of her life. And the fact that it no longer mattered, made her feel free. She was able to talk to him, laugh and feel light. She put forth her slam book and he wrote for her. She smiled, and he smiled an affectionate smile. She loved this little slam book; it contained notes from people who had made a deep impact on her life, at some point or the other. People who had contributed to her self-discovery. Dr V had written too, just a few pages before Abhinav.
2 more years passed. She had been in touch with Abhinav, on and off. They lived in different parts of the world, and met occasionally. One September, a few months after she had met him, she thought back to their last meeting. It had felt good. Abhinav was right. When they had broken up years ago, there had been no real friendship between them. Infatuation had sparked that relationship. They were too young then and knew not their own selves. How could they then expect to know each other? It felt different now. They had met again at a time when they probably cared more about the companionship, than the direction their relationship was taking. Life was indeed alive with miracles and possibilities.
As she checked her inbox, his name caught her attention. She read through his e mail. ‘I am in love. And never before, have I felt this way. I think I was waiting for this person all my life.’ The mail was all about how they had met, and how love had taken him with it. She stared at the screen for a long time. She felt calm and relaxed. She felt good he had shared this with her.
When they met next, he was engaged. She wanted to hear more; she wanted to watch him narrate it all with excitement in his eyes. But he only gave her a long look. After what felt like eternity, he just held her hand and said, ‘Why are we like this?’ This once, she loved the silence.. her own silence.
For his wedding, she was not around. She opened her slam book and read through what he had written for her years ago. She turned the pages and landed on the note Dr V had written. It had taken her years to understand that what she had experienced during that phase of life, was a phenomenon they call ‘transference’ in Psychiatry. It had saved her life. On an impulse, she decided to meet Dr V. She made a trip to those premises that had formed the backdrop of her life then, and saw his name, written in bold letters at the entrance of his cabin. The nurse showed her in. ‘Dr V….’,she muttered. He looked at her quizzically? ‘Please have a seat. How can I help you?’ She was perplexed. ‘Don’t you remember me, Dr V? I was a student here.’ He frowned. ‘Were you? I can’t seem to recollect.’ She was about to pour out all the details of that episode of her life, when she impulsively stopped herself. After a long pause, she said,’That’s right. You see so many students every year. It would be impossible for you to remember each one of them. I was just passing this way…thought I would just drop in.’ He smiled. She rose, and slowly walked out. He smiled. She had unfurled into the individual he hoped she would….
If she thought she was magically rid of the pain of separation, she was wrong. It would return at the most unexpected times, and break her with greater intensity than before. The initial lift in her mood did not sustain itself. The craving for having Abhinav back in her life returned with more vigour. In every sense, she felt like a drug addict who had been taken off the drug abruptly. She suffered from severe withdrawal reactions and it made her realize how dangerously ‘dependent’ she had become on her relationship with Abhinav.
She hesitated going back to Dr V and opening up, simply because she feared that he would give up on her. But when days went by without progress and she found herself only sinking further, she had no choice but to go back to him. This especially happened when her moments of intense craving and desperation ended in her calling up Abhinav. Like a drug addict, she would seek his companionship. But his response was cold and when he hung up, she would panic in a way that was unbearable. Her panic was so profound that she felt she would rather die than contain that feeling within her. It made her run back to Dr V. But contrary to her fears, he never gave up on her. She couldn’t understand it. All she knew was that it was helping her. That would be an understatement. It saved her life.
Over time, she was less hesitant of seeking help from him. Her mind had learnt to trust him. She felt like a little child, learning to walk with him by her side. He on his part, was persistent and his words were always pearls of wisdom that could only have come from a deep wisdom of life and from an insight into the human mind.
And thus, it went on for a long time. She, Abhinav and him. Her mood swings. Her dependence and impulsivity that would lead her to call Abhinav and beg him to take her back into his life. And he would wound her more each time. This would land her at Dr V’s doorstep, and he would rescue her from her own self. Eventually, there came a point where she started bypassing Abhinav in this loop. Every time she felt impulsive and desperate to talk to Abhinav, she would just turn to Dr V. Her mind had learnt that the warmth and companionship she expected from Abhinav, was coming from Dr V. In the safety and security of the niche he provided for her, she blossomed. In an year’s time, there was no tell-tale evidence of the tragedy that had transpired in her life. She was the picture of happiness and she had managed to come out of her small, solitary world and become part of a larger world, with more people in her life and more meaningful endeavours. This was the first time she had unfurled her personality and connected to people from different walks of life…people who loved her and filled the emotional voids in her life in ways beyond what she could have imagined. Most importantly, she had become better as a human being. From that point on, she had a special reverence for suffering, and she never ignored it. She could leave people alone in their happiness, but she could never walk past their suffering. For this, she was loved the most.
She saw less and less of Dr V. He had taught her to fly and now that she could fly independently, she did not wish to burden him and take up any more of his precious time. But every time she met him, she expressed her deepest gratitude.
Diya walked slowly to the wards. Despite the exhaustion, she found the energy to see patients. She interacted with them and their families. It somehow made her feel better. There was one thing she knew. She wasn’t going to let him down. He had bothered to invest so much of his precious time and energy on her. She wasn’t going to make his efforts futile.
In the evening, she stayed back for the surgery. When she entered the OT, he was already there, talking to his colleagues, getting ready for the surgery. She felt strange standing amidst people she did not really know. She did not expect him to take notice of her. He surprised her by walking up to her and asking, ‘So how are you feeling now?’ She smiled through her mask and replied, ‘Better!’
He explained to her the background of the case, the diagnosis and the surgical procedure. She trembled as all eyes focussed on her. Just before he started, he closed his eyes in a silent prayer. She was touched by the gesture. She had only seen artists pray like that, just before their performance. Despite all the experience and expertise, there are so many variables to every event. Every artist prays for those variables to be favourable to his performance; his art is his God.
He started and the surgery went on for quite some time. At the moments that needed intense focussing and carried with them uncertainty, he was quiet. At other times, he spoke to everybody, and even joked. As the surface of the brain came into focus, she trembled with excitement. He was talking about the area he had exposed. She couldn’t refrain from asking,’Can I touch it?’ He smiled and said,’Go ahead!’ She felt this structure which always made her speechless, and her passion seemed to spill out. ‘Are you going to be a neurosurgeon?’, he asked. ‘No…a neurologist, perhaps. I am pathetic with surgical skills’, she replied. The surgery progressed, and she watched, enthralled to the core.
As he wound up with the procedure and started suturing the scalp, he asked her, ‘Do you want to suture? Done with your surgery and casualty postings?’
‘Yes, but I am not confident. I told you I am bad with surgical skills’, she answered.
‘Suturing is no big deal. You are gonna do this’, he stated.
As all eyes looked at her, she thought she would faint. She looked at him and realized he would not take no for an answer. Her hands trembled, but he did not criticize. He encouraged her and by the end of it, she felt she could do it again…and do it better! ‘Now, was that so difficult? You did it yourself !’, he remarked. She smiled gratefully.
Next morning, after rounds, he put forth his perspectives on neurology versus neurosurgery…and why he felt neurosurgery was more gratifying than neurology. As he concluded, he looked at her and added, ‘As for surgical skills, they come with time. Don’t go by your current clumsiness; you have only started. Give yourself time before you draw a conclusion.’ He got up and asked, ‘So, neurology or neurosurgery?’
‘Neurosurgery !’, she laughed. ‘This is how I want to see you always’, he said, and left.
She walked back to the wards. She couldn’t believe this. She was just not the person she was yesterday. She had barely thought of Abhinav in the last 24 hours. And even when the thought made a brief entry, she felt sad, but not lost and turbulent. Dr V had taught her the most important lesson in life- to look for self-worth within, and not outside.
The patient who had been operated yesterday was doing well. Coincidentally, it was his birthday today. At 70, he had survived a head injury and a surgery. He thanked his stars and thanked all of them. His family distributed sweets and Diya was happy to be a part of their happiness and celebration.
From that day on, she talked to her patients and their families about their lives. Until then, she had lived the life of a medical student, taking an interest only in their illness. But that day on, she developed a desire to know her patients- know them as individuals. She felt responsible for her patients. This built a cord of connection between them and her. Somehow, as they let her into their stories, her own stories receded into the background and faded away. For their stories had far more tragedies than hers…far deeper. It was here that she first practised the very attribute that the brain practised- to be oblivious to one’s own pain, and yet, feel a heightened sensitivity to the pain of others. Consciously, she was unaware of the silent transformations in her mind. But these reflected in her behaviour.