It was nearing sunset. The sky, a clear blue all day, was now a riot of colours, of criss-crossing paths made by rays of the evening sun. The air was still and silent atop the modest hill that was the town cemetery. In the midst of this silence sat two figures in black, side by side, on a bench. A boy-man and a girl-woman, the vigour of youth clearly defined on their faces, but their eyes betraying a life that seemed far longer than their years. Riddhima had her eyes set in front of her, looking at nothing in particular. Looking at nothing at all. Seemingly empty eyes. Clouded over by deep thought. She seemed to be suspended in time, thinking, remembering...in a trance and yet quite alert, aware of her surroundings. She held a single red rose in her right hand, which lay absolutely still on her lap. On her left, with his eyes set in front of him too, sat Armaan. He was in no trance though. He seemed instead to have an air of strength about him, along with an easy vibe of patience and understanding. He was here with her, for her, and would stay by her side. He knew it would take time, and was in no hurry.
* * *
I can still recall, clear as day, what it had been like over the years I had known Riddhima as my friend, and then as my beloved. I had been a fairly popular high-school chocolate boy. The widely known Armaan Mallik. And she had been something of a recluse most of our schooling years. I only knew of her as the girl with the specs who sits on the front seat and gets good grades. But she wasn't a nerd. Never a nerd. Had her own set of friends, and her own share of fun, as I now know, and her own different way of looking at life and living it on her own terms. The last was what had really drawn me towards her initially. Shreds of conversations, strictly about books, come back to me when I think about our school days. But it was really med school that brought us together. Finding a familiar face in a sea of strangers can be quite epiphanic sometimes. I can picture in my mind the day of the Orientation, walking into a large auditorium, and being immediately overcome by a deeply unsettling feeling, rather like having waded into the ocean, struggling with my lifejacket. Wave after wave of strangers had begun almost to pull me down, when I saw her. A single face blazing with strength and alertness, while the eyes clearly betrayed a vulnerability of the kind I felt in my own heart. We hadn't been friends in school. Barely acquaintances beyond examination weeks and assignment submissions. But when I saw her that day, I had no doubt in my mind with regard to who she was. She was my anchor. On the very first day of college, she was my connection with a sense of familiarity, and stood for an unseen, unknown bond which developed across a corridor, as her eyes found mine, and I saw in them an almost exact reflection of what my own must have conveyed. Her face in itself betrayed nothing, but her eyes were dizzyingly expressive. I remember looking in them and not being able to look away, more than once during the course of our journey through med school.
What I don't remember is when I fell in love with her. There are times when I think that I had always loved her, even before we became close friends. And then there are others where I just cannot put my finger on exactly what was it that gave way, and when. I just recall waking up one fine morning, quite acutely aware of being hopelessly in love with her. And afraid. Terribly afraid. For as long as I had known her, Riddhima had never been a particularly demonstrative person. She could be going through a myriad of emotions all at the same time, and yet you wouldn't see a line on her face that would betray it. What lay to my advantage was that I knew her inside out by now, and it took only a few words, a few unconscious gestures, or a simple look straight in the eye, to tell me that something was amiss even if no other living soul could grasp it. And it was precisely that which terrified me. What that look, those gestures, those words would denote, once she knew what I felt. I wanted to know, was desperate to know. And yet, I didn't want to, for fear of what that might mean not only for my love for her, but even for our friendship.
I kept it inside for a long, long time, before it couldn't stay in there any more, and made its way out on the evening of the farewell, outside, in the solitude of the hostel garden. I had fantasised about this moment more times than I could count, in my years of being in love with her. And with each fantasy, the ideas had grown more ambitious. First, a modest, clear moonlit night. That grew larger to accommodate a vast, beautiful lake, shimmering in the light of the starry sky. Still larger to make way for a simple, elegant and comfortable houseboat with sheer white drapes and candle-light, right in the middle of it. Yet larger to bring in words and phrases that might very well have put Shakespeare to shame. What really happened, of course, was nothing remotely like any of it. It was night, but a dense winter fog blotted out the moon as well as the stars. The hostel fountain, perhaps the poor man's vast lake in itself, had evaporated dry through the day's sunlight, and was now merely moist with dew. The houseboat was the hard wooden bench facing the fountain neither of us could see, courtesy the fog. And the words. Oh, the words. Halting, half sentences that drove Riddhima up the wall in her attempts to decipher them, until one snap from her dissolved the roadblock that seemed to have formed in my throat all at once. And then all of it came out in one go, flooding the bench, the fountain and the garden, along with Riddhima's senses with a good bit of surprise and a whole lot of confusion. Each word that escaped my mouth had, of course, led my heart to sink a level lower. This was so not how I had imagined it. Or anywhere near the most modest and unambitious proposal I could ever have conceived, really.
I was speaking non-stop, unable to keep the volley of words inside, and I knew a disaster when I saw one. The flood ended, and then absolute, stunned silence. I was too embarrassed to say anything at all. I rather wished the fog would engulf me, make me disappear. Maybe even drown me. I couldn't bring myself to even look in her direction. She didn't seem to want to speak either, and just sat there for almost ten whole minutes, after which I decided the fog was no good. I would have to do the drowning myself. And I gathered myself, stood up and turned to leave, when I felt it. She didn't say a word, or touch me, or raise her hand to hold mine. She was sitting absolutely still. But something had locked me into stillness too. I stood rooted to the spot, for reasons I cannot define even to this day, and turned my eyes to look down at her. And it was when she raised her eyes to meet mine that I knew. I knew I had her. Had always had her. There were tears in her eyes, and beyond the tears, a million emotions I could see rushing through her, reaching out to me wordlessly, soundlessly. I had then held out my hand, and I will remember as the most beautiful moment in my life, when she grasped it with hers, gently, tenderly, and stood up. Her reply was a simple four words. Four words that altered my world, made the sun rise right through the fog that night. "I love you too." And that was it. It didn't matter that I had no lake and no moonlit night. I had her, held securely in my arms, and that was all that mattered.
And that had led to a phase in my life which was, and is, the most beautiful part of all that I have seen and all that I have experienced in the years I have lived. I had her by my side. And I could just about conquer the world. But with time, I realised that there was something that lay not quite concealed, deep within those dizzyingly expressive eyes. Something that hurt her, haunted her. Something she could not conquer. As friends, I had heard her speak of her father, and his alcohol issues, and that hers had not been a very pleasant childhood, but she never seemed to want to talk about it beyond a point, and I respected her space. Why I never urged her to speak further is also because I understood. I have lived a life with an alcoholic father too, and so can to some degree very directly identify with what it must have been like. But I also know that every life is different. And everyone reacts to it in different ways. I made my peace with mine long ago. But while I saw that knowing I understood helped Riddhima feel comforted and no longer lonely, it continued to gnaw at her insides. It plagued her dreams, her diary entries, her poetry, everything. And I didn't know what to do.
* * *
It is an important day for me. More important than I can perhaps admit even to myself, even after all these years. I am Riddhima Gupta, and I have lived a fairly ordinary life, made extraordinary by its very ordinariness. Over the years, I have made persistent attempts to make myself believe that I have succeeded in doing what I have been trying to do ever since I could think straight: leaving my past behind. Having spent almost nineteen years in a house with something that often came close to having a semblance of being a family but never really became one, I will not drone it out in modesty, I have seen hard times. And yet, for the longest time, I never could bring myself to articulate just how hard it really was for me, living a life like a boundless circle, with the same routine repeated before my eyes every single day. My mother and I would spend the day in what shreds of peace we could gather, and then evening would bring my father back from work. It would also bring what I can only describe now as an invisible straitjacket. I would not speak out of turn, lest that should offend him, Ma would do exactly what protocol of domesticity dictated, lest he should find fault with the way the house was being managed in his absence. And it would get tighter and more suffocating as the evening progressed, one drink after another, then another, and another...and by the end of it all, there would be need for no more than an upturned slipper, or the telephone receiver angled wrong, or a drop of water spilled on the ground, to get him into a fit of rage.
There are times when I have woken up in the middle of the night, shivering, sweating, and terrified from nightmarish images of some of the most horrific memories of those times. My father sitting with a gun in his mouth, threatening to pull the trigger and end it all, a life of unemployment, the remnants of a bad childhood in a rural orthodox village, chronic depression...the tinkle of my mother's glass bangles splintering to pieces as she attempts to wrestle it out of his hands...the cuts and scratches on her arms, neck, after a night like any other...my father running at a twelve-year-old me as I begin to acquire a voice, and not being able to reach me because my mother is in the way, holding him with both her arms around his waist and her foot anchored against the wall, pushing him away, not letting him get anywhere near enough to reach me...the hand that appears out of nowhere as I sit eating my dinner, and smashes my nose to bits, and I make a run for it, with the hand clutching at my shirt to prevent my escape...and then my running...and running...away from the hand...away from the terror that freezes my very bones...and then a thud as I land in reality, in a dark room, and a comfortable bed spread.
For years this thud left me with a deep and miserable sense of loneliness. I ran alone...and I woke up alone too. And then, something changed. The Orientation at med school brought me right up to a familiar face across the corridor, and as my eyes met his, I knew I would heal. I just knew, right then and there. He was my anchor. My connection to a life outside the darkness. A life of light and warmth. A life of hope. Four years later, when he sat across a wooden bench in the dense winter fog, I could see clear as crystal in his eyes what my own had been trying to say since the very beginning. I loved him, with all my heart. I don't know since when, or how it came to pass, but I knew we were meant to be. After years of not having been able to articulate my pain, no matter how hard I tried, he was the first person with whom I felt I didn't need to. Because he understood. And I healed, just knowing that he was by my side. After med school, we moved in together, and my loneliness was gone. The nightmares persisted, but what I thudded back into was no longer an empty, solitary reality. When I woke up shaking, I would have his arms around me immediately, holding me tight, reassuring me that someone was there, someone who cared for me, someone who understood. And I would fall asleep in his arms, with my head against his chest, and the nightmare would haunt me no more that night.
And just as I was convinced that I had done it, erased my past from my memory as far as I could, there came a letter in the morning post. It was from my mother. My father had died from cardiac arrest, and I was to be at the funeral the next day. I don't remember what I did or how I reacted to it, but Armaan tells me that I stood absolutely still for a second, and then sat down at the table, the letter clutched in my hand, my gaze a little unfocused. But not a tear in my eye. And I recovered quite rapidly from the trance. I now remember vaguely that what bothered me more than the fact that my father was no more, was the fact that it stirred absolutely nothing in me. No sadness, or relief, or anything. Just numbness. And silence. I went into our room, and Armaan came and sat by me, quiet and comforting. And then the dam broke. I have never cried the way I have cried that day in my entire life. I cried for my father, I cried for my mother, I cried for all the horrific memories that clouded my emotional responses to everything for so long, I cried for the past I had thought I had left behind...I cried. And Armaan held me. He never said anything. Just held me in his arms, tight, and when I had calmed down after a long spell of weeping, wiped my tears away, and gently kissed my forehead, with tears brimming in his own eyes. Then, two words. "It's over." And it was. I knew in that one moment that what was wrong, what had always been wrong, was my constant attempt to run away from my past. My refusal, more than inability, to face it and express what I truly felt about it. One's past is a part of who one is. Mine made me who I am today. The way I think, the way I hold myself up in the world, the way I perceive the world around me, and everything...And when I tried to run away from it, it came right back by the morning post. My father's death brought all the way up to the surface everything I had buried deep inside in my attempt to drown it out of my system. And that day, I did. I let it all out. And it was over.
* * *
The sun had almost finished its descent into the horizon. The sky, but a moment ago a riot of colours, was now turning into a serene, calm dark blue. The stillness and silence atop the modest hill was broken when the black figure of the girl-woman stirred on the bench. Armaan turned to look at her. Riddhima was still looking forward, but there was resolve in her eyes. And there was hope. She turned to look at him, and smiled. A smile that seemed to come from the rays of the setting sun itself. Her eyes glowed softly with it. It was no overwhelming happiness. Just peace. She stood up, and stretched out her hand. His fingers entwined with hers as he stood up too, and they began walking towards the tombstone of the man whom they had buried this afternoon. All the relatives and well-wishers had paid their respects already, and had returned to their lives as usual. Riddhima's mother had been exhausted by so much to handle in such little time, and had also left immediately after the last guest, to get some sleep. During the burial and the final prayer, Riddhima had stood aside, somewhere behind the gathering, with that single rose in her hand. But she never came up to the grave. Instead, she went and quietly sat down on the bench. Armaan had handled most of the work during the ceremony, and he was tired too. But when he saw Riddhima, silhouetted against the bright sky, a slender black figure on the bench, he walked up to her and did what he always did. He just sat by her side. And waited for her to take all the time she needed for what she had to do. The two of them now stood before the headstone. Armaan let go of Riddhima's hand and took a step back . She stood there, looking at the tombstone for a few seconds, and then knelt on the ground. She placed the single red rose on the grave, and said, "May God bless your soul, Dad." With one final glance at the headstone, she turned and walked back to Armaan and took his hand. "Let's go home now." And that was all it took. There was happiness now. And there was peace. No miracle. Just peace.
There...done...I don't know why exactly, but I just felt like writing something tonight after a whole volley of exhausting assignments...I had no idea what it was going to be, but well, this is what came out of it...hope you have a good time reading it through...this is the first time I'm writing a One-Shot, and I hope it isn't too tedious a read...would love to know what you think...any comments, criticism, suggestions, or anything else you'd like to say would be most, most welcome...
Edited by nandinidev - 06 November 2009 at 1:08pm