Hair tie

CHAPTER 1

She was walking down the hallway, lost in her own thoughts, when she bumped into someone and staggered backwards. Slightly annoyed, she looked up to see the guy smiling at her mesmerizingly. He had unkempt, longish hair and a stubble. He was wearing jeans and a short kurta. He was charming without making any effort. In about 5 seconds, she knew he was the guy she wanted to daydream about, he was the guy that would eventually fall for her. 

“Sorry..”, he muttered in his deep voice before walking away. She kept looking at him. A soft breeze started blowing and strands of her hair fell on her face. She blushed as she swept them away gingerly. At that moment, she felt beautiful. At that moment, all eyes were on her as though they had never seen such a sight before. She smiled and started to walk, unsure of where her footsteps would take her. What had just happened? Was she in love, or was she just enjoying the feeling of being noticed?

She was sure it was love. Even though she didn’t know what it was. It could be a thousand different things. Was it a feeling? Was it a physical sensation? Was it a decision? Was it an accident? Was it an attraction? Was it sex? Or was it a film plot that is designed to have a happily ever after? She didn’t have answers. She didn’t even have a reference point. Maybe her parents had loved each other at some point, but their love never looked like love. It looked like an appliance that did it’s job. Maybe her peers who were in relationships felt love. But their love didn’t look like love either. It looked like an entertainment subscription that helped them kill their boredom. Despite her confusion, she knew one thing – her love would be different. It would be real, strong and eternal.

“How many times have I told you to roll out the paratha from both sides, or else it doesn’t inflate?!”, a strong voice cut through the thick fear and anxiety in the house. It rang through everyone’s ears before making the atmosphere even thicker. “God knows how you people end up getting jobs in cities like Delhi. You all are good for nothing! I can’t even expect a good breakfast after waking up!”

Sanchi heard her mother screaming at the househelp in her room. She lay under the blanket at 11am in the morning, feeling angry and helpless at the same time. She slid under her blanket even more and tried to drift back into her slumber, where she could dream about the charming guy falling in love with her. That was the reality she wanted, but this was the reality she had to live. Something never felt right in this house. That something constantly poked at her, prodding her to accept something she didn’t want to. Sleep wasn’t her best friend, but it offered an easy escape. 

“This tea is cold and you have put too much ginger in it. I cannot drink this. Throw this away and bring me a fresh cup of tea!”, her mother continued to yell. Realizing that she couldn’t push it away any more, Sanchi slowly got up and slid her legs down her bed. She felt a strong urge to go and comfort her mother; she was clearly distressed and upset. Her hands were cold and her heartbeat was fast, but she had mastered this routine and knew how to power through it. With a deep breath, she tied her hair and walked out of the room. As she walked towards her mother, who was sitting down on a rug with her books and tea tray in front of her, she fake rubbed her eyes and pretended to have just got up from a lovely shut-eye. 

“Hi mumma, what happened? Why are you so upset?”, said Sanchi as she hugged her mother, Aarti.

“Hi beta…nothing, the usual. These people just don’t want to work. They want easy money. They’re all losers. Now tell me, how can we live among losers? How can winners thrive amidst losers?”, grumbled Aarti.

Sanchi looked down and nodded, “Hmm…when did you wake up?”

“Just an hour ago. I couldn’t sleep properly. The phone kept ringing and these guys kept bothering me each time there was someone at the door”, Aarti paused as she took a sip of her tea, “Arey Seema! Make another paratha, Sanchi is up! And make her tea too!” and then immediately turned towards Sanchi, “Did you sleep well beta?”

“Yes, I slept like a baby. What’s your plan for today?”

“I’ll hopefully get to go for a walk and do some yoga in the park if I get free from the house soon”, replied Aarti with a sneer, “What about you?”

“I have my theater practice at 6pm today. So I’ll leave around 5:30pm. We are working on that show I told you about…”. As she said that, Nirmala, the cook, walked out of the kitchen with a plate in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. Aarti looked at Nirmala and said, “Did you roll it out the way I told you to before?”

Nirmala nodded, “Yes, I did. It inflated completely”

Aarti smiled and said, “Chalo good. Sanchi, eat up. There are more parathas coming”

As Nirmala kept the plate in front of Sanchi, Aarti noticed the excess ghee on the tissue paper beneath the paratha and yelled, “What is this? There is so much ghee in this! How will she eat this? Nirmala can you do anything right? Take this away and bring another one!”

“It’s okay mumma, I’ll eat it. Leave it”, interjected Sanchi hesitantly. 

“No, why will you eat this? It’s her job to do her job well”, asserted Aarti, “drink your tea, she will get you another paratha

Sanchi tucked her hair behind her ears and began to stretch her fingers. Her chest felt heavy – as though there was a massive blob of clay sitting there. She felt like something had rendered her voiceless and immobile. She couldn’t do anything but sit and observe the events. She wanted to scream, she wanted to tell her mother to shut up, she wanted to get up and go back to her room, where she felt safe. But she couldn’t. She sat in her place and took a sip of her tea. Her mother’s attention wasn’t directed at her, but Sanchi’s entire attention was on Aarti. It was almost as though she demanded Sanchi’s attention. Sanchi feared that if she didn’t focus entirely on Aarti even for a moment, she would be harshly reprimanded for it, not to mention guilt-tripped. She noticed everything – the way her mother drank her tea, the way she looked outside at the trees, the way she shifted her weight to find a comfortable sitting position, the way she checked her phone, the tone of her voice, her words. She evaluated that the situation was fragile, and any trigger could lead to an explosion. Her words and mannerisms had to be carefully chosen. 

Nirmala walked in again, with another plate in her hands. She placed the plate in front of Sanchi, who was desperately hoping that this time the paratha was perfect. Aarti looked at it and said, “Yes, this time it looks good. See, this is how you should do it. You’re just lazy”

Nirmala smiled and said, “I’ll make more”

Sanchi had no appetite. But she smiled and started to eat, hoping the next one would be just as perfect. She desperately wanted to have a good relationship with her mother, but maybe her efforts weren’t good enough, because Aarti never seemed happy. Every morning was the same – Sanchi would be woken up by Aarti’s shouting, followed by a stretched out and slow episode of anxiety and stress, which seemed so normal to her that she didn’t spare a moment’s thought to it. Aarti would spend the rest of the day being upset at something or the other, and then hopefully leave for work without creating any drama. Sanchi hoped for a smooth evening all day, so that she could leave for her theater practice peacefully too. If things went south, she knew she wouldn’t be able to go either.

After finishing her breakfast, Sanchi observed her mother to see if she could safely excuse herself from this space. With her heart beating fast, she said, “I have to go to the washroom now”

“Yes beta, I’ll also start to get ready now”

With a sigh of relief, Sanchi got up and walked to her room. She closed the door half-way through, quickly picked up her phone and walked into the washroom. For some reason, being locked inside her washroom always made her feel safe. She couldn’t be harmed there. As her body recuperated from it’s anxious state, she looked at herself in the mirror. I seemed to have gained weight, she thought to herself. The version of me in my dreams is so much prettier. I need to be better. 

Sanchi Agarwal was a 17 year old girl, who wasn’t very fond of herself but dreamed of true love. She was in class 12th, hated school and only wanted to spend her time at theater practice, but felt disappointed each time she didn’t score well in exams. She constantly sought validation from people for every little thing, especially her mother – but hated being the center of attention at the same time. 

Sanchi was, in a nutshell, a conflicted girl who wanted to go far, but was still stuck at sipping tea in front of her mother.

Ever After

Naina flopped down on her berth, panting. She had almost missed her train once again. It was starting to become a pattern with her. Her friends said she would be awarded the Nobel Prize that day she made it anywhere on time.

She was travelling to Bangalore via Rajhdani Express for her cousin’s wedding. For some reason, she never enjoyed weddings. They always left her feeling morose. She supposed it was because they reminded her of the void in her own life..a void that had not been filled ever since her last relationship failed. Akash was the one for her, she believed it then and she believed it now. He understood her at a completely different level. However, what happened needed to be done despite and in spite of everything.

College was such a high in her life. It seemed a lifetime away now though, with reality having made it’s presence known. She had an amazing friend circle, and Akash was her friend before he became her boyfriend. All of them thought they would always be together. It had seemed so easy back then; to make promises of a lifetime and plan futures together. But the truth is that everything eventually meets it’s end, and life goes on.

“Madam, ticket please?”, a distant voice said, breaking her out of her reverie.

She looked up to see a paunchy TT looking at her with raised eyebrows. She opened her bag, took her phone out and showed him the M-Ticket along with her ID Proof. The TT stared at her for a second, then shook his head and muttered something like, “Today’s generation..”

She smiled as the memory of Akash mocking TTs in trains came back to her in a flash..

                                                                                      *

Nitin was an impatient person. He idly flicked through his playlist trying to find a good song while he waited for the train to move. He hated AC 3 tier. Whoever invented it deserved to be hanged. There was nothing worse than being suspended in a position in which you could not sit properly without getting your head hurt. Added to that was this extremely infuriating family in his compartment that simply did not shut up. The kids kept yelling, the mother was a very loud woman with loud make up, the father didn’t seem to care and his father kept dunking tobacco. Nitin was sandwiched between berths and this family. Literally.

Finally, he heard the final whistle and heaved a sigh of relief. The train started moving slowly. There was something about being in a moving train that calmed him down. He felt as though the hours that the journey lasted for, he didn’t need to live up to anyone’s expectations. He didn’t need to work towards something. He could just be himself and think about what he wanted.

Ever since college got over, his life had been a series of consecutive and quick steps. He didn’t get a chance to think about what he wanted to do, his family had already done that for him. He was to do an MBA in Finance whether or not he liked it. So he was now being shipped off to Bangalore to study in the Mount Carmel Institute of Management.

Swati always told him that Advertising was his field. She thought he would excel and do very well in it. He was creative and impulsive – a combination that had yielded very many interesting ideas. He had put up some great presentations in his classes as well.

She had had a lot of faith in him, despite the fact that he was temperamental and impatient. She always believed that he would get somewhere in his life. For some reason, when she left, Nitin lost his self-confidence too. He never realized how much of his strength came from her presence. After that, he never fought for what he believed in, and settled for what had already been planned for him.

He suddenly realized that the old man was trying to talk to him. He took his earphones off and said, “Sorry uncle, what did you say?”

“I said, are you also going to Bangalore?”

No, I’m going to hell, he thought, but said, “Yes Uncle, I am”

“Oh good, that’s nice. To meet family?”

“No, for my MBA”

“I see. That’s good. We are going to Bangalore to attend my sister’s daughter’s wedding. This generation is so modern, they select their partners on their own. But I like the groom, he earns well and does a good job. My sister is also happy…”

Nitin’s thoughts wandered away as the old man went on with his story. Indian train rides and random stranger conversations will always go hand in hand. I suppose my expression is not proof enough that I’m simply not interested.

He remembered when all four of them – Swati, Akash, Naina and himself had gone to Manali for a short trip. That train ride had been so memorable. Everything seemed fun, even the talkative families huddled around them. They chatted with random people and made random contacts. It was all so great. They played Antakshari with a family the whole way. It’s unbelievable how experiences can differ across situations. That was a train ride; this is a train ride too. But there was simply no comparison.

*

Akash smiled as he looked at a small girl trying to climb up the middle berth. It was 3 in the morning and he wasn’t sleepy at all, and neither, it seemed, was that girl. Her mother kept trying to get her to sleep but she simply wouldn’t lie down. Akash had been like that as a kid – hyper and restless all the time. His earliest memories were those of running down the aisles in planes and wreaking havoc in trains. As an adult too, he loved kids. He loved their innocence and honesty. People told him that he was quite the kid himself, so he never had any problem mingling with them.

He loved Bangalore as a city. He had grown up and done his schooling there. Some of his good friends still lived in Bangalore, and he had been wanting to pay them a visit for a while now. Since he had just left his job, he thought he wouldn’t find a better opportunity to go meet them.

He didn’t know how he sustained a year in his job, considering the fact that he was the most carefree and irresponsible person on earth. The world could be coming to an end and he would still want to talk about making a trip to Leh Ladhakh on a Harley Davidson. He was someone who lived in his own little world of fantasies. Reality was simply not for him. The only reason he took up that job was because his parents had been reiterating for quite a while that he was a useless son, and that he needed to do something in order to prove otherwise.

He had had plans once, back in college. But all of them included Naina. He never imagined that he would be left alone with nothing but fruitless plans. She was a huge support in his life. She stabilized him, gave him a sense of sanity. With her gone, things didn’t make sense anymore. In fact, his entire friend circle had made his life worthwhile. Their absence made him realize how much he had been counting on their presence. The memory of that day  still gave him shivers..

“I can’t do this, Akash. Not anymore”, said Naina, tears streaming down her face.

“Don’t do this, Naina, please. You know I need you in my life”, replied Akash in a trembling voice.

“Don’t you see, Akash? I don’t have a life of my own, I’m so busy managing yours! You need to grow up. Ever since Nitin and Swati broke up, you have been so invested in getting them and our friend circle back on track that you’ve forgotten about us. And this is just the last straw, Akash. I have been single handedly managing this relationship since the beginning”

“That is not true, Naina. You know-“

“Goodbye, Akash. I need to focus on my life now. I don’t want you in my life anymore”

If only he had stopped her. If only.

*

Swati woke up feeling disoriented. She never slept well in trains. She feared not waking up on time and missing her station, so she consciously slept light. She checked her watch, it was 6:20 in the morning. The train was scheduled to reach Bangalore at 6:40.

She sat up and stretched. One of the advantages of travelling in AC 2 tier was that you could sit properly. Sometimes she couldn’t help but feel glad that her parents weren’t too big on saving money like other households. She liked their financial setting – they spent almost as much as they earned. The present mattered more than the future, anyway. Mostly though, she was quite organized and saved money wherever she could. She liked making plans. They gave her a sense of comfort and predictability.

Swati did not like surprises, which is why her relationship with Nitin was a shocker, because he was possibly the most unpredictable person ever. He waltzed into her life and took it by storm within a matter of days. His ideas, beliefs, opinions and personality clashed so much with her own; but for some reason they also attracted her to him. They were a classic case of “opposites attract”.

He never paid much attention to her detailed plans about everything, and she never took his crazy ideas seriously either, but despite that they both had so much faith in each other. She still did not understand how that had happened.

But unlike fairytales, their relationship was not meant to be. It got harder and harder to sustain as time went by. Small squabbles turned into major fights and before they knew it, they had fallen out of love. One of their major fights culminated in them breaking up and deciding never to see each other’s faces. Their friends, Akash and Naina, tried to contain it and manage the damage, but nothing worked. Their break up led to the disintegration of their friend circle too.

By the time her anger had cooled off and she had begun to think clearly again, it was too late. Nitin had gone back to his hometown to live with his family, and her parents wanted her to help them out in their business. She regretted doing what she did. She didn’t know if their relationship could have lasted longer, but it shouldn’t have ended the way it did.

She was so deeply lost in her thoughts that she didn’t realize when the train stopped. Chaiwalas and Coolies rushed into the train to cater to the passengers. She quickly climbed down and started gathering her stuff. Her bua must have already reached the platform..

*

Akash was just beginning to enjoy the morning hustle bustle of the platform when he spotted her tying her hair. Naina was still very beautiful. He was transfixed on his spot because of shock. Is this how they were going to meet again after 2 years? Every unresolved emotion was coming to the surface..

Nitin was getting annoyed by a girl who blocking the doorway. She was trying to get her luggage out but was struggling a lot with it. Finally he said, “Mam could you please hurry! Everyone is waiting behind you!”

She turned around to face him. His jaw almost dropped. It was Swati. He could not believe she was actually standing in front of him. The girl he had fallen so deeply in love, the girl who drove up the wall..she was there, right in front of him. For a minute they just stared at each other, but then Swati broke the eye contact and stepped down from the train. Nitin remained rooted to his spot until a man shoved him in the back and said, “Please move, mister!”

Swati released the breath she had been holding. Nitin’s sudden reappearance had taken her aback her like nothing else. She didn’t want to confront him. Her heart was beating fast and she knew she was about to get a panic attack. She quickly picked up her bag and started walking fast towards the exit when she spotted someone else she had known – Akash. He was staring a girl tying her hair. It was Naina.

Nitin slowly walked towards the exit, lost in his thoughts. He had felt a rush of strong emotions when he saw her – anger, love, remembrance, pain, sadness, happiness – all at once. He suddenly bumped into a guy while walking aimlessly. He quickly said, “Sorry, sorry..I didn’t mean to-”

When he turned around, he received another shock. It was Akash.  At that moment, Naina too, noticed them. Her eyes widened in surprise. Between the tug of fight or flight, she always reacted by doing nothing. She stood there, speechless.

All four of them could not understand this extremely strange twist of fate. They had been on the same train, albeit different coaches, travelling to the same place. Naina, Akash, Swati and Nitin – four people who were inseparable in college, who could not imagine getting past one day without talking to each other, now stood in front of each other without having anything to say. 2 years was a long time, enough to create or heal distances. In their case, it seemed as though major distances had been created. All had been lost, except for some invaluable memories.

Swati was the first to make a move. Her Bua was waving at her. She walked past Naina without looking at her and kept walking. Nitin didn’t stop her. Not because he didn’t want to, but because he didn’t know how. He turned around and went in the opposite direction. This probably completed the circle of their relationship – they had come from opposite directions to be together, and they went in their opposite directions now that it was over.

Naina didn’t want to face Akash. Tears were threatening to fall down her cheeks. She was going to break down, but before he knew what had happened, she picked up her luggage and left. He was left staring at her retreating back, once again thinking – if only I could stop her. If only.