The Game of Cards

His fingers held shapes all four,
Spades, Clubs, Diamonds
And more,
He held the Queen of Hearts.

She sat across the bench
Dusk gleaming in her heart
It’s been a while she had seen him smile, 

It’s sad they had to part.

He thought it over in his head,
No, it wasn’t hard.
He chose the queen and leaned forward,
To win the game of cards;

Just a game of cards.

Drowsy sun framed slanting shadows,
Colours ruled the sky;
Purple hues and molten red,
He wasn’t ready to bid goodbye.

She knew the cards pretty well
She knew which cards were dealt
She knew the cards in her hand
She knew the ones he held.

She thought it over in her head,
No, it was not hard.
He’d pick the queen
And lean forward
To win the game of cards.

But he moved back
Face hard to read
She wondered what went wrong
Flawless was he at games
The cards were held too long.

He closed his eyes
And smiled inside
Yet his face was still.
It was tough to let her go once,
This time it’s tougher still.

To let her go another time,
To win,
Wouldn’t be the same.
To keep her once
Just one more time
He’d rather lose this game.

So he played the ace of spades
To lose, to lose to win,
Her cheeks were pink, he didn’t miss her wink
He won the real queen.

The King and Queen left together
Bowed the setting sun.
Their shadows merged in dusky palette
The Game of Cards was won.

Would You Like to Donate Blood?

I asked a lot of people at college whether they would be interested in donating blood. A common question was, “Who is it for?” I did not know who would need blood and when. I just wanted to donate blood because it felt right. A part of me was asking myself: Why was I absolutely ecstatic to let a needle pierce my skin? I guess there’s a certain joy in giving – which I cannot acquire by doing things for myself.

I went to the hospital confidently, but the smell of the medicines made my heart skip a beat. I looked around. There were so many patients and their caregivers. I was so lucky to just be a volunteer; I could walk in and out without the slightest worry. I made my way to the blood bank. I had two hurdles to cross – the weight check and more importantly, the haemoglobin count. I knew that my weight would not be an issue at present, but the latter worried me a little. There was a young woman right before me who could not donate blood due to low haemoglobin. Luckily, despite the low consumption of iron rich food on a daily basis (I have food at the college canteen every day), I passed. I guess I had the non-vegetarian advantage.

I went inside the room and settled down on a reclining chair. Other than a couple of hospital employees, everyone else in that room were male. Why were the women not donating? Were they unable to cross the second barrier? I did not think asking the staff for hospital registers to validate my hypothesis would be a good idea. So I sat there, looking at the other men donating blood. I looked at each of their faces carefully. Their experiences were myriad. One of them flinched and mouthed abusive when the process began, and in the next moment smiled and started texting vehemently with the other arm. The other men sat without a slightest hint of pain. The hospital staffs were polite and careful. They informed me that blood is in such a high demand, that they use up all of it within 10 days, though ideally they can store each bag for 35-40 days.  

It took the nurse a while to find my vein. The willingness to donate blood is only the first step. Finally, it began. How did it feel you ask? You would hardly be able to feel it – do not get discouraged by the syringe. It is fatter than the usual, but it does not really hurt. The entire process takes around 10 minutes. My hand felt a little numb and I felt dizzy for around a couple of minutes after donation, but it got better as I sat there cherishing the biscuits and coffee. I did not have any other side effects and everything was normal by the time I finished eating.

When I was about to leave, they gifted me a cup (I had no idea they would – it was a surprise for me). I came to the lobby and looked around. There were patients of all ages. How I wish no one needed my blood – there were no diseases and no emergency ward. But such an ideal world does not exist, so I hope it helped, in a little way. Can blood donation really bridge the gap between people? Can it move beyond our identities and unite us in a way? Or would the price of my voluntarily donated blood be unaffordable by a certain section of society? Lost in a world of dreams hope and conflict, I started walking away from the hospital; towards the hustle and bustle of the city. All I knew was, I would come back again. Maybe someone else would volunteer as well.

Would you like to join me?

To my Readers: Gratitude and Love

I don’t know who you are; whether you read the whole post, whether you liked it or not, whether or not you resonated with what I have written, just remember: you are really special to me.

WordPress does not tell me who you are, but it allows me to see the country you are from. I was pleasantly surprised to see that in the last two weeks, not only did I have readers from India, but there were readers from USA, Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh and New Zealand! I want to thank each and every one of you for taking time out of your busy schedule. You have filled me with gratitude.

Here’s a little something for you.

Wherever you are, I hope you had a good day. I hope you are feeling okay; I hope you remembered to have your meals, save some time for yourself. I hope you found a reason to smile today, a reason to be kind to yourself. If you had a bad day – here’s a hug from me. I hope tomorrow will be better. If you are on the other side of the time-zone, I hope find little joys today.

If you are reading this post, know that I care about you – irrespective of your identity. If you want to talk, reach out, let’s talk. I promise I will keep my judgements aside.

“Has she come home yet?”

It was a warm Saturday evening a couple of years back. All the teachers were supposed to get together in the staff room for a brief meeting after the school break. The staff room – alternatively used for computer classes – was adjacent to the main entrance of the English Medium School. Seven schools were parallely conducted in the same campus. The recess period and school breaks were a sight to see! Children are used to rushing out of their classes and running towards the unmanned main gate. Despite several attempts, we could not assign a permanent gatekeeper.

I was standing at the gate looking at the children in the campus. Some of them were chasing each other in the cemented school ground, some busy in their own world, a few kids were filling bottles and getting ready to leave. The others had left for home. After six days of school, Sunday was the only break for them. I looked at the direction of each of the schools and the setting sun. The meeting was about to begin.

The Headmistress had just begun the meeting with all of us when a girl came running inside the room. It was not an unusual activity for the children. More often than not, they would run inside to say something, absolutely unperturbed by the presence of over 10 teachers in a room. But this one was unusual, for she was shaking.

“A car…main gate…a man got out…took the girl in the car and…the car sped off”, she said animatedly, still shaking and then broke into tears.

We listened in stunned silence as she barely got the words out of her. Some of us gasped, while the others threw more questions at her.

“Are you sure?”

“Who else was there with her?”

“What car was it?”

“Did he drag her in?”

She shook her head. The Headmistress tried to calm her down. She spoke slowly after a while. A big white car stopped outside the main entrance of the school. A tall bearded man got out of the car and offered a chocolate to a girl. The girl refused. Then he offered the chocolate to another girl, who accepted. As soon as she took a bite of the chocolate, he put her in a sack, stuffed it in the car and the car sped off in no time. There was another man inside the car.

“What were you doing?” someone asked.

“I was talking to my friend outside the main gate. She had her back towards the car. This happened so fast, that she could not even look at the back. I saw the entire thing.”

She was inconsolable. We called her friend, who told us that she was indeed facing the main gate and her back was turned towards the road. So she did not see any part of the aforementioned event.

We went outside to see if a few children were still roaming around in the school or not. We wanted to see if the teachers in the other schools were there or not. We were not sure who the girl was. She could be from any of the schools. We saw one of the Headmistresses leaving. We explained the incident to her, but to our utmost surprise, she left anyway, nonchalantly. I was shocked to see such a reaction.

Then the idea struck one of the teachers. The only difference between the girls of the schools was in the colour of the hairband. They were all government schools, catering to children from the nearby low income community. Their uniforms were the same. The only difference was: children from English medium wore white hairband, children from Urdu medium wore black hairband and those from Marathi medium wore read hairbands.

“Do you remember the colour of her hairband?” the teacher asked.

She thought for a long time, visibly unsure of the colour. After a lot of thinking and probing, she said, “White.”

Alright, so it was one of our girls. Although the part about ‘putting her in a sack’ seemed a little far-fetched to us, we decided not to argue about the exact details. We took out the registers of each of our classes and started calling the parents of the children. By then, the children should have reached their houses. We called them one by one. Some of them picked up, the others did not, raising our anxiety. What was more shocking was the indifference of the parents when asked about their daughters. I am sharing an instance here.

“Hello Bhaiyaa, this is Leena calling for school. Has your daughter reached home after school today?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe? Could you please be more specific?”

“Perhaps”

Bhaiyaa, it is important, perhaps a girl has been abducted right outside the school. We are worried and we need to know it was not your daughter”

“Alright, I will tell you at night. I am outside. Ok Bye”

The kind of detachment started startling me. How would we ever know who is missing?

The other teachers of the school were receiving similar answers, while some of the parents were over enthusiastic to know every detail. We informed the local police station and the local politicians. They informed us about the CCTV cameras that were placed on the street corners and the girl was taken to identify the white car.

She identified the car without doubt. When we watched the video for a longer duration, we found that the car had crossed the road about four times. Further, the car could be tracked going towards the city and then it went completely out of radar.

The warm evening failed to soothe any of us. Anxiously we waited for some call, some parent to show up or new evidence which could lead us somewhere.

The grandfather of the girl was contacted and he arrived soon after. When we told him the whole story, to our utmost surprise, he laughed. He told us that his granddaughter has a very strong power of imagination. Last night at the dinner table, he had told her a story about kidnappers. How they come, offer chocolates to young children and take them away. She might have imagined the same to be true and narrated the story to us so convincingly that we all believed in it.

This new piece of information, which we hoped was true, proved more difficult to verify. We comforted the young girl and repeatedly asked her to narrate the story and think whether it had really happened or was it a part of her imagination. The grandfather stood and laughed.

“I am sure it was a fragment of her imagination”, he said, biasing her judgement.

Finally, she told her that perhaps she had imagined it all. The next day was Sunday. We would not know even if a girl had gone missing. We were still getting in touch with other parents. We waited in school till late at night and then slowly went to our houses, hoping against hope that it was imaginary.

Sunday passed without any calls. On Monday at the assembly we waited for some response from the teachers. Luckily none of the teachers had received any calls.

To this day, I hope it was just an imagination. That it was a white hairband. A family was not indifferent when their daughter did not come home at night. And all girls are safe, in their warm houses, like they should be.

Cancer Fighters and Caregivers

I have spent my summer vacations in a zillion ways since I was a kid. One involved regular hospital visits.

My grandfather was detected with cancer a few years back. Soon after, we became regular visitors of Tata Cancer Hospital in New Town, Kolkata. My grandfather used to pretend like they were family picnics and never failed to make me laugh, despite the venue. There were people from different parts and age groups. One portion of the hospital, which invariably broke my heart, was the kids section. There were colourful toys inside the rooms. I could not imagine the plight of the kids and their caregivers, till I met one in the cafeteria.

One day, as I sat at the table grabbing a bite to eat between two doctor appointments, a lady joined me at the table. A young boy followed her, grabbing his cold-drink glass very tightly. He gulped down two glasses of cold drink straight before looking anywhere. He was different from any boy of his age. He was shy, he was blushing at every little praise and most of all he kept fidgeting. I tried to strike a conversation with his mother.

“Good afternoon Ma’am!” I said.

She nodded politely. “Is this your first visit to this hospital?”

“I’m afraid so. How long have you been coming?” I enquired.

“Since forever”, she smiled meaningfully. “We have our names from the first days of this hospital. In fact, I have come from from another hospital.”

They have been visiting hospitals since he was a nine month old baby. When I met him, he was 15 years old. They have been fighting for the last 15 years! I was shaken from inside. The bravery of the mother and the son was exemplary. Some fights have to be fought, no matter how tired they make us.

I found out a little more about him. He liked watching Chhota Bheem. He did not go to school. No school would ever allow such an extreme level of absenteeism. He was doing well, till last October when he had severe Dengue. He recovered, only to relapse in January. In February, he had chicken pox. His body broke down again, making it compulsory for him to visit the doctor weekly these days.

“All the best to him”, I told his mother as she got up from the table. “I hope everything falls into place”.

“Thank you”, she replied politely. “There’s nothing more left of him”, she said before turning her face away with a pain-stricken smile. Rohit followed looking sideways, as if unaware of everything.

My eyes followed them to the end of the cafeteria, till they disappeared through the door. They were my heroes after all.

Ghee

My friend called and said, “A good thing about PhD is you get to read and write.”

My friend was partially correct. Let me rephrase, a thing about PhD is I have to keep reading and keep writing, because it will never be enough. Also PhD students stay at a place for far too long. Having done my Masters at IGIDR, I have overstayed my welcome. I have seen batches coming and going, fresher welcome, farewell and alumni meets; I have seen winters getting colder in Mumbai. I have made friends inside the campus who left and made new friends outside. To make it worse, I stopped talking to new students who arrive.

So today, when I was feeling extremely low about a certain work-in-progress, which has been progressing extremely slowly for the last one and a half years, I thought of staying in and ordering food. It was the end of another day of just another week. Let me rephrase, it was another day of just another week. It was not the end – I knew I would have to stay up late to work. Spending some time on various apps, I decided to go to the mess and have dinner. Little did I know how such a trivial decision would change my evening!

Of the items listed on the menu, I liked none. On the top of it, they were all over and the cook was freshly preparing meal for the remaining students. After patiently waiting for over 15 minutes, I was lucky to get warm and fresh food. Dal Khichdi – for those who know it – is to be savoured with fries, except, I had to savour it with fryums. I joined the nearest table dinner. Simran, a really jolly second year Masters Student, offered us ghee.

It was amazing. Someone mentioned at the table, “It reminds me of home”.

I sat there, enjoying my meal, thinking how this could never compare with anything I ordered from outside. Sometimes, more than the food I consumed, dinner was about the physical presence of people. The juniors were talking about trek and Goa, about classes, plans, weekends; I sat there soaking it all in. I knew where I would be during the weekend (no pointers for guessing that), I knew I would be agonising over what to write in that paper. I knew later tonight I would be struggling to find the right words, but at that moment, at that very moment, when I looked from one happy face to the other, somehow every negative feeling ceased to exist. The molten Ghee in our Dal Khichdi gave it a flavour it did not have, complementing it to such an extent that we could not help but fall in love with it. And all of us at the table, forgetting everything that had happened, was about to happen, the tests, assignments, papers research and progress – were talking, laughing and thriving in our mess food. It was more than I could ask.

I walked back to my room feeling more positive and refreshed than before. Here’s to a group that made me happier, here’s to Simran and the wonderful Ghee!

A Jar full of Sunshine

A ray of sunshine galloped all the way through the sky, manoeuvred its way through the playful clouds and knocked on April’s window. She ignored the sound and rolled over on her bed, hugging her purple teddy-bear. The energetic ray made its way through her yellow curtains and caressed her eyes. April hid her eyes with her tiny palm and then suddenly sat upright. She ran to her window, opened the drapes and a beautiful smile touched her lips. Her eyes gleamed in surprise. After months of rain and cloud, the sun was finally here! How she jumped with happiness, her laughter filling the morning air. The brown woodpecker paused for a bit and joined in the happiness. The blue kingfisher nodded in delight. The rain had washed the dust off the leaves and the sun shone upon the world – more beautiful than ever. April washed her face in a jiffy and ran outside in the woods.

It was a perfect Saturday morning. The sun had risen in its flawless glory, spreading its golden wings across the sky. The wind swayed along the light green leaves, playing hide and seek with the purple buds and sleepy flowers. The brown leaves were getting ready to shake themselves from the branch. The golden bees and scarlet beetles were prepping for the long day ahead. The world had risen to the twilight but far away in her soft bed, April was still in her dreamland.

Crimson plum hung onto the branches, the light green guava looked perfect and the grapevines looked elegant. April was fascinated to see the fruits, birds and bees. How she had missed them in the last few months. All of a sudden Chip, her pet dog, came running towards her. His chocolate fur moving with the air, he came and jumped on April. She laughed and hugged him. Yes, both of them were too excited to be in the woods in the morning. “Saturdays are the best!” April thought to herself.

She picked up a stick and they hurried towards the lake. They held their breath in anticipation of beauty of the magnificent lake. What touched their eyes was still far from what they could have imagined. Chip went to the water and started playing with the pebbles. April lay down on a tuft of green grass and looked at the clear water. The water was a home to all the clouds above and the ripples created new patterns in the same. The green trees cast their grey-green shadow in the water and protected the life that lay inside. She could see lotus flowers swaying in the middle, a duck wading in the water with its ducklings and colourful fishes running away in hurry. April could not help but wonder what lay inside the deep water. Were there big fishes? Was there a different world underneath? Do they possess the power of so many colours that touched her eyes so often? She made stories off the clouds and lay there lost in thought till Chip came and licked her all over her face.

“Yes Chip, let’s go.” said April and sat up. She had an assignment to complete. She stood up and took out a tiny glass jar from her pocket. Chip picked up his left ear and looked at the jar curiously. Then he ran around her, unable to wait for her explanation more patiently. She opened the tiny lid of the jar and closed her eyes with her palm. Chip picked up his right paw and covered his eyes. He loved her. A green frog hid behind a rock to see, a white swan paused in its way.

April opened her eyes in a minute, covered the lid and ran back to her wooden hut. A confused but happy Chip ran beside her. She ran through the hedges, the rocks and the edges, she ran through the low lying branches, past the old banyan tree who smiled, past the group of colourful mushrooms who bowed their head. She ran up the wooden stairs to her room, almost tumbling over a restless Chip. She kept it on her bed next to her school diary which said, “What is your most prized possession?” She took out her tiny pencil and wrote in her carefree handwriting, “A jar full of sunshine”. Now all she had to do was take it to the school and show it to her teacher. A month late – but she finally completed her homework. The Sun shone a little brighter and April basked in its glory.

Run for Your Life!

“I will run in the morning”, I think to myself every night. I wake up late, somehow get ready for work. The only exercise that I get is my brisk walk from hostel to student office, from cafeteria to computer centre and then I sit on my chair. The day comes to an end and my shoulders feel heavy. My whole body needs to be dragged away from my desk, to my room, where I slowly crouch on my bed. Waiting for sleep to overpower my senses, drift me away to another world where there is no work, no worries and no fear of deadlines. In between waiting for sleep and thinking about the day after, I tell myself, “I will run in the morning”.

I can feel my body becoming heavier. I feel like a sloth bear. Yet, I am terrified to go to the gym. I am scared shitless to think about checking my weight until my alarm goes off. I ignore the monthly reminders that flash on my screen saying “Check weight”. I cannot check my wait. I tell the logical part of my brain. Do I need more reasons to worry in life? Isn’t my daily work schedule and meetings enough for that?

I used to weigh 45 kg years back. Let me be more precise. I used to weigh 45 kg in 2015. In the last 4 years, I have gained a certain amount of weight which I am scared to find out. Wait, that is not true! Let me go back a little in time. In 2017 when I came back to IGIDR for PhD, I weighed 53 kg. Preposterous! Insane! When did this happen? I knew not. So I started running and I got my weight to 50 kg. Then there came a long break, like scorching summer between the monsoons (yes, face it, we do not have any more seasons in Mumbai). Slowly I started gaining weight and this time, I did not check. Till one day, a few weeks back. I walked to the gym. My heart was beating faster than usual because I had decided to find out what I had been hiding from myself.

I checked once. I checked twice. The machine must be wrong! Of course, sweetheart, my brain told me, it is always the machine’s fault. I had to give in. 54.7 kg. My personal highest and I thought I could not get fatter than 53! I almost thought I should gain a little more and go to Tata Medical Centre to donate blood platelets. But first things first; I decided to get my sorry ass off the chair and bring myself to the gym in the evenings. Yes, there were hurdles but I had to. It was not a matter of choice anymore. My whole family has serious issues of Type-II diabetes and I am walking towards it with bold steps. I decided to pick my feet and walk away. I had to run for my life. I have to run for the extra cup of hot chocolate from Grand mama’s Café. I have to run for all the tasty food that I am learning to cook.

I started running. This sentence reads better when I add a question mark to it. Running? It was brisk walking. It was making me believe that I could still run. For those of you who weigh more or those of you who are thinking what the big deal is about 54.7 kg, let me tell you my height and perhaps you would realise. I hardly cross five feet in height. Hence a 54.7 is not ideal for a person of my height.

I started running around my house. Every step felt heavier than the last. I wanted to stop. I kept pushing myself somehow. I wish I could tell you, I didn’t stop, that I ran against all hurdles. Well, my willpower is not that strong and my broken research agenda keeps adding to my weight. I stopped every now and then. I walked, I walked faster and then I stopped. Five rounds without stopping, each round of 1.2 metre. So yes, less than one kilometre and I would be happy, elated, out of the world! I continued nonetheless. My friends were supportive. Since research wasn’t going anywhere, technically even I was not going anywhere running inside the campus, yet my kilometre covered started increasing. Meanwhile, it was becoming more humid in Mumbai. Although a run outside my house made me very happy, I was sweating like a person suffering from hyperhidrosis!

After it becomes unbearable, Mumbai witnesses its first shower. Rain cheers me up. The next evening I am more determined. I walk out of my room and decide to push my limits. 20 minutes and 3 km. Can I do it like old times? I continue pushing myself and after the very slow 20 minutes, I do it. 4 years and countless days later, I complete a run. Something inside me broke. I can still do it. My confused brain tells me. I start feeling a sharp pain on my right leg and I ignore it. At night I sleep in peace. I am running for my life.

I take up a new challenge of completing 10km in 1.5 hours. An easy task to complete, my brain tells me, just requires determination. 1 hour, 29 minutes and 40 seconds. I complete my first 10 km sprint. What faith can do to people? What success can do to people? Give them a reason to believe that it is possible.

Now when I tell myself at night, “I will run tomorrow”, I follow through. How is my body reacting to it? Not very good, if you ask me, or rather, perfect on second thought. Every muscle lets me know that I am running. There is pain and there is hope. I come to work, even if it doesn’t go as planned, I know my success lies somewhere else beyond data and regression analysis. It lies in the deep forests, it lies in the hills. It lies in the uncovered lanes. It lies on the lanes and gym of IGIDR.

It has been almost 20 days since I have started running. This time I do not want to stop. With one success comes the next and I am ready for it. I want to run in a half marathon in December. My weight is still the same, in case you are wondering. What about my confidence in my abilities to run? I can see it dragging itself towards me. I feel lighter than before, better than before and more motivated. I can run a little faster. I can run a little longer. I can run and the thought itself is amazing.

The Stranger

It all started on one misty morning in October, when the clock was striking six. There were very few people to be seen and the stray dogs were scavenging at the corner of the street. Muskan, Nazreen’s mother stood at the courtyard watering the plants. Her husband was out for his business dealings as usual, her daughter was going to the school and her quiet and protective neighbours were waking up for another day. Nothing was different in her life; just like she wanted. Nazreen was on her usual course, hurrying towards the bus stand. She usually took twenty two steps straight, turned right then took fifty four steps to reach the bus stand but that day everything changed. After taking thirty five usual steps, she stopped. She heard someone reciting her favourite poem in a very deep voice. She looked around. It was hard to spot anyone in that thick mist. As per her knowledge, it was coming from outside the empty house, which always had a ‘to-let’ board stuck at the gate.

She belonged to a lower-middle class Muslim family. She was only allowed to go to school and to read nothing other than the usual course books. However, she stopped at a book store some times and flipped through the pages. On some days she would skip lunch and read novels only to rush back to school on time. Unknown to her parents she slowly developed as a reader and loved poetry in speciality. Their locality however, failed to have like-minded people. They believed in religion more than in themselves and they always looked for a way to break into a fight. Though she was born and brought up amid them, she grew up a little differently and hence she always felt left out and lonely. However, this sudden change surprised her and she took two more steps to get closer to the house. She saw the outline of a man, chanting the lines, quite oblivious to the outside world.

“But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice. “

She stood there amazed and the horn of her school van at a distance woke her up from her reverie. She ran to the bus stop. It was a different day and she could not help but think about the stranger. She could hardly wait for the evening.

The van dropped her off at the stoppage exactly at three-thirty-one in the afternoon. His voice was still ringing in her ears, but she did not find him near the house. The doors and windows were locked as usual but the ‘to-let’ board was missing. She longed to meet the stranger, to know him more. It was stupid and she had never felt this urge before. She reached home and went to her mother.

“Is there a new family in our locality?”

“Yes, I have been hearing about a Hindu. Why are you asking?”

“Is there a family?”

“Just a man perhaps.”

Her mother was not interested in the man or the family. He was a Hindu and that is all that she cared about. Their family was extremely orthodox and did not like conversing with any others, let alone someone from another religion.

“I think I heard him on my way to the bus stand. He was reciting Fire and Ice. I wanted to-”

Her mother was scandalized.

“Don’t even think of talking to him. We give you enough liberty; go to school and read your books. Talking about poetry and that too with a stranger? This is not something that we are going to allow. Don’t even mention it to your father. If he hears of it, I won’t be surprised if he locks you in forever. Do not bring shame to our family.”

With this, she got up and went away to the other room. Nazreen sat at the table for a longer time, contemplating on life. She failed to realize the barriers that human beings can construct to send another human being far away. She had to talk to him. She will hide it from her parents, if need be. She has heard stories in her family, but if Hindus were different from them, she had to feel it and convince herself. Her dad was always busy with his business and the mother with the household chores; they had no interest in anything that she liked. She decided to take a chance.

She left five minutes early the next morning to see if she found him there. She stopped when she heard his voice, trailing in the morning breeze, coming through the early morning mist from far away. She stood mesmerized. He was speaking in some other language which was not known to her but it sounded beautiful. She woke up at the sound of the horn once again and ran to the bus stand, his voice stuck in her brain for the rest of the day.

This grew into a habit. She would stop after her thirty fifth step and hold her breathe till she heard his voice and would stand there just to hear him say another line. She would smile and say the same lines in her mind. He knew many poems, so many of her favourites and she could not help but admire the stranger. One day, when she went and stood there, he stopped reciting midway.

“I know you come here every day.” The voice said.

She stood, not knowing what to do.

“Sometimes, when I recite Frost or Keats, you smile to yourself and recite them with me. At the other times you do not. There are many of them that you haven’t read. Why don’t you sit with me some day? We shall read all the poems together. I do not know who you are, but by your steps and your outline, I think you are a young girl. I am an old man. My name is Aniruddha Sen.”

She ran to the bus stop hating herself; for a moment she thought that she was actually going to run to him. She wanted him to teach her more. She wanted to see the world through his eyes. Was he a poet himself? She blushed at the thought.

 

Wherever there’s a will, human beings manage to find a way. After about a month, she found herself sitting comfortably in his room, looking at him reading his favourite pieces. It was a cosy room which seemed to have nothing but books and candles. It had a lot of colourful lamps which made his house look like some ancient magical palace. She folded her legs and sat four hours. Attending school had become secondary. She would leave his house in school time, just to come back home.

“You look very happy nowadays. I wonder what has changed in your life!”

Her mother said one evening after she returned from school. She smiled at her and said nothing.

“You remember your father’s words, right? You are not to talk to anyone outside your school. Never talk to a boy, ever. This is not the age. Our family will never accept it. We shall disown you.”

She was already trapped in his charm. It was too late. She was sixteen and he was sixty seven. What they had between them could not be named. Only a few feel those feelings and a fewer think about naming the relation. It was not something to be named. It had to be felt. It was the love for poetry, for humanity and emotions that brought them together, severing all boundaries of age or gender. A reader and a writer rose in unison to the apex of the language and plunged into the depths of the words, a little each day. Nothing else mattered.

“Do your parents know that you skip school and come here every day?”

“They have no idea.”

“Do you like going to school?”

“No. They do not teach me what I want to learn. They teach me what they want me to learn.”

“What do you want to learn?”

“The meaning of life.”

“Why do you think we live?”

She was quiet, she had no answer. But she knew in her heart that living for so long, he must have found a reason.

“I do not know. Why at all?”

She asked with keen interest. She saw the creases on his face, his deep brown eyes and his grey hair. He replied, looking a little disturbed.

“Me neither.”

With that, he went on to read the next poems which were about after life; a thing that scared her and amazed her a lot. She kept her head on her knees and closed her eyes. He was old, she was young. She had her life in front of her, her hopes, dreams, and ambitions but at that point she lived only to hear him recite another time. She loved his works.

“Why don’t you publish your works?”

“I do not think people will like that.”

“I will buy your book.”

He smiled. She looked at the flickering flames of the candle. He carried on with the poems.

“Ere the evening lamps are lighted,
And, like phantoms grim and tall,
Shadows from the fitful firelight
Dance upon the parlour wall;”

He paused to breathe. Then he looked into her eyes and said,

“I am blessed to have you here. You can listen to me, from my own diary. But if I ever get my work published, I shall send you my book.”

“I wish you do that. I shall wait. Do you write letters?”

He paused.

“I did.”

She felt a growing emptiness in her stomach. He did, for someone else. His emotions had long blended in with hers; she had become a part of him. He however, was lost in some other world. He did not belong there.

“Why do you live alone?” she asked.

“Do you believe that we need to be in a family to love?”

“No.”

She hung her head and pressed her eyelids closer, of course not. Look at her family, it was just a term given to them a long time back. Right now, all they did was following yesterday’s pattern. The movements were the same, the instructions were the same and even the emotions were the same. There was no love; just a mirage of some long lost history that once existed. She looked at the flickering candle and sighed.

“I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you. “

She put a finger asking him to stop. She heard some voices across the road. She got up and peeped out of the window and her insides dropped. It was evening, she had lost track of time and had forgotten to go back home. All her neighbours were standing outside his house and were looking up. She let go of the railing and sat on the ground, her face white in terror. If they found out that she was here, they would not let him live. All their poems on life seemed so far and distant.

“I think they have come looking for you.”

His face showed no sign of remorse or terror. He was new here and he had no idea how dangerous this place was. People would just look for excuses to take out their anger on anyone. A man who did not belong to their group was a target double quick.

“Do you have a place to hide? If they find me here, they will kill you for sure.”

His face was blank, as if he had seen worse.

“There’s a backdoor that leads to the next lane. Go out and get back to your house. I shall see what happens to me. That and never come back. I think I have taught you enough to live a meaningful life.”

She was almost in tears but too scared to make a sound. Outside, the crowd was increasing and the level of noise went up. She wanted to lie at his feet, to tell him that age, gender, religion played no value in her life and that he was the best teacher that she had ever come across but this was not the time. What she felt was much deeper and too intense to be put into words. Trembling, she parted her lips and breathed quietly.

“I shall write to you” He said.

“I shall wait for your letter, till my last day. I am serious”. She replied, her voice barely audible.

“Do you know why we live?” he asked.

She was scared beyond death still calmer than usual. She stood, wanting him to answer his own question. But suddenly she realized what he was about to say, somewhere, their brains were working the same.

“Hope”, they said together.

 

She did not stop till she reached her house. Her mother was waiting for her at the gate. What happened next need not be told. Her hair was trimmed; she was locked in a room and was kept without food for a long time. She had brought shame on the whole neighbourhood, their family and their religion. She had no idea why religion had to come in everywhere. They were not doing any sin.

She sat in the dark room, chanting the poems over and over in her mind. After almost a fortnight, her parents let her out. She was still locked inside the house and was never allowed to leave. She tried asking what happened to him and was beaten mercilessly each time but was never given an answer. She raged, she cried, she broke down; she thought of the worst. She was not caught red handed, so he might be spared but there was a high chance that he was killed.

Days changed to weeks and weeks to months. His teachings were engraved in her memories but her mind tried its best to forget him for better. A year later, slowly she had convinced her parents how sorry she was and that she would never do something like that again. She had realized how pointless it was. She promised to give up reading story books all together and live a life like her mother. She died, mentally.

 

One fine evening, her parents had to leave her alone in the house and go for an urgent work. She stood at the door, not knowing whether to stay there, or to rush back to his house, or to go and ask her cruel neighbours, what they had done to him. Slowly she gathered courage and after one long year stepped out of the house. She walked across the streets which did not seem to belong in her world anymore. When she reached his house, so many memories came flooding in that she almost stopped breathing. The gates were locked, the windows closed and the gate had a ‘to-let’ sign. She was almost in tears. He had promised her that he would write. She went to the letterbox. It was empty. She hurried back to her house, not knowing who she was anymore, where she belonged and life was so cruel to her. Physically, all she lived for was hope and everything shattered in front of her own eyes. There was no meaning in living a life that will never change. The one that runs in circles whose end is forgot.

She entered the house and locked the door. Her mind was numb, her head was heavy. Suddenly, she saw a parcel lying on the floor. She picked it up and found a little yellow parchment. She could hardly believe her eyes. In a neat and small handwriting, which was extremely familiar to her, it said

“Then the forms of the departed
Enter at the open door;
The beloved, the true-hearted,
Come to visit me once more;”

Holding her breathe she opened the parcel and found a new paperback book inside. It said, ‘Letters to Nazreen’ by Aniruddha Sen.

In a parallel universe, unknown to the rest of the world, she was reborn. The golden sunrays flooded the courtyard; the chilly wind teased her unkempt hair. Not fighting the tears that flowed freely, she breathed deep into the pages of his book.

[Written in 2015]

Where do you see yourself 5 years from now? (375 words)

I do not see myself five years from now. Three days back I was thinking of killing myself. With this prevailing uncertainty, how can I see myself five years from now?

Instead, let me ask you. Where do you see your firm after 5 years? Do you have a policy where you consider mental health as an issue and spread awareness and sensitise your workers about the same? Do you have a counsellor your employees can reach out to?

How would you treat your employees who are going through trauma/ stress/ depression? Of course, one way is to ignore the same and treat it as the ‘employee’s problem’. But think about an employee who is going through medication and is numb. All he or she is trying to do is survive. Her manager is appalled by her work and she is too sick to reply. Where do you see yourself in that situation? I hope you do not refuse to sanction sick leaves since you are unable to see the sickness.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not want you to treat me differently or have lower expectations from me. You want consistent effort, profit and client satisfaction and so do I. I am wondering if you are willing to adopt humane ways of dealing with all your employees and least of all, trigger mental breakdown.

In case you are sensitive and you accept that all of us can have days where we will be too messed up to work then yes, I will give you my best. I did not generalise by mistake. Every employee can have bad days for reasons that are beyond their control. When that happens to me, I hope you do not correlate it with my illness, worse still, establish causality. Just like the rest, I will have good days and I will work in the most efficient way. Just look at me as a human being and you will not regret hiring me for one moment.

I cannot promise you where I will be five years from now. I promise you, every day that I am working at your firm, I will try my best. I will learn the fastest, try the hardest and I will never let you down.