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.

The Key

Guy De Maupassant and Roal Dahl are my inspirations for short stories. Hope you like this. Feedback is appreciated.

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“What do you want to eat for dinner?” asked Sunita, as per her routine.

“I don’t know, whatever you want” replied Madhav distractedly, his eyes still on the television.

“You’re just going to complain about how I keep making the same thing!”

Madhav sighed irritably, “Fine, just make Paneer!”

Sunita shook her head and went back to work. This was a standard conversation in their house. Every day at 6 in the evening she would ask her husband what he wanted to eat for dinner, and he, wanting to get the conversation over with quickly, would reply with anything that came to his mind first. But it seemed as though Sunita could never really please everyone in the family, which included Madhav, their son Rajat and her father-in-law. If Madhav craved Paneer, Rajat always wanted to have chinese and her father-in-law, whom she called Bauji, always wanted something simple like Daal. It seemed like deciding what to cook for dinner had become her life’s existential question.

She thought that it was just one of the pitfalls of being a housewife in a middle class home. She had got used to the cycle, and it was her comfort zone. She was content.

Their son, Rajat, was 12 years of age and like all boys of his age, loved smart phones, hated ghar ka khaana and was obsessed with his PlayStation, something that his father had consistently refused to buy until very recently. He was not very academic, but was extremely inquisitive. Everyone in the house was exasperated with his never-ending questions. A normal conversation with Rajat went something like this:

“Mumma, what are you watching?”

“I’m watching Balika Vadhu, beta”

“Why is everyone so dressed up all the time?”

“Because it’ fiction, and that’s how they make it appealing”

“Why are they replaying everyone’s reactions again and again?”

“To make an impact”

“Why are they talking to themselves? We never talk to ourselves”

“Rajat, enough! Go do your homework”

Her father in law, Vikramlal Singh, was a patient of diabetes. He was extremely prone to a heart attack at any time because of the condition. Although they made sure that he got his treatment regularly, the doctors said that some part of the risk would never be eliminated. Deep down, Sunita knew that his time was drawing to a close, and that nothing they did could stop that from happening. But despite that, she put in all her effort into making his last days as comfortable as possible.

Her relationship with him had always been earnest. He never treated her like an outsider. Yes, he had his demands but he never tried to enforce them with anger or manipulation. He had given her time to settle down in the family and get used to the environment. She had got to see his vulnerable side when her mother in law died. He was shattered. It was then she realized that he had lost the only support system he had – the person he had spent more than fifty years of his life with. She must have been such a seemingly permanent figure in his life, that her absence was now more real than anything else. Strangely enough it was her who comforted him more during that phase than Madhav. He was more engaged in fulfilling his duties as a son, and had neither the energy nor the time to be emotionally available. Or perhaps it was simply because a man couldn’t be seen being vulnerable in their culture. It somehow subtracted from his manliness.

 

As was her daily ritual, she climbed up the stairs to Vikramlal’s room to give him his medicines. Her body clock had now adjusted itself to the demands of each hour. She didn’t need to look at the clock to know the time anymore. She considered it to be an exceptional skill, and often dreamed about conducting time management workshops for corporate professionals simply because she had a natural flair for it.

Bauji, it’s time for your medicine, you need to sit up”, she said vaguely as she walked directly towards the medicine cabinet.

He was lying on one side and didn’t stir as she pulled out the drawer and picked out the medicines. She walked over to his bed and shook her head in slight exasperation – he always did this when he had to take his medicines.

Bauji, you need to stop this drama right now, it’s not going to fool me”, she said in a knowing voice. He didn’t respond. She walked forward and lightly shook him. When he didn’t respond then either, a flicker of panic ran through her body. She shook him harder, and he simply turned and fell on his back. Realization crashed over her like a strong wave and she reacted instinctively.

“MADHAV!”, she yelled out of blind fear as she fumbled around to find the cordless phone.

“MADHAV! Come here right now!”, she yelled again.

Finally managing to find the phone, she dialled the nearest hospital’s emergency number with trembling fingers. In the meantime, Madhav and Rajat came rushing in to see what had happened.

“What happened?!”, cried Madhav as he rushed forward to check his father’s pulse.

“I think he’s had a stroke!”, she replied in a quivering voice, while waiting for the emergency line to respond, “C’mon, pick up! this is supposed to be an emergency number!”. Finally, after the phone had rung 10 times, someone picked it up.

“Hello, Fortis Hospital. Emergency. What can I do for you?”, replied a cool female voice.

“Hello? Yes, I need an ambulance immediately at 64, Sector A, Vasant Kunj! My father in law has had a stroke!”

“Please hold mam. Let me check the availability”

“But-”

The call had already been put on hold. She paced around in anger and panic with the phone against her ear. She chanced a glimpse at Rajat who was rooted to his spot, shell shocked. His brain could not comprehend the situation. He was standing at the foot of the bed, staring at his immobile grandfather.

Madhav suddenly got up and said, “Forget it, let’s drive him to the hospital. There’s no point waiting for an ambulance”

At that moment the lady on the phone got back and said, “Mam, I’m sorry, but there are no ambulances available as of now. But there might be one available within half an hour, would you like me to send it?”

“WHAT?! We can’t wait for half an hour!” cried Sunita. In the background, Madhav repeated, “Listen to me Sunita, forget it! Let’s take the car and go!”

“I’m sorry mam, there is nothing we can do here. If you tell me right now, I can make the booking for you or else -”

Madhav snatched the phone from her hands and cut the call, “We’re going. Where are the car keys?”

“Must be in the key basket” replied Sunita as she made to dash out of the room.

“Wait! Help me carry him downstairs first” said Madhav.

With a lot of difficulty, they both carried him downstairs and placed him on his wheelchair. Sunita then went to check for the car keys in the key basket. They weren’t there.

“The keys aren’t here!”

“What? But I kept them there when I walked in..where could they have gone?” replied Madhav

“I don’t know..Rajat, did you pick up Dad’s car keys?”

Rajat meekly shook his head and said, “No mumma, I haven’t seen them”. Perhaps he realized the gravity of the situation, because for once he wasn’t letting his inquisitive nature get the better of him.

“Damn it!” cursed Sunita. Tears had now begun to form in her eyes as she paced around helplessly. Madhav went into a frenzy as he looked for the keys in the room, wrecking everything in his path. He pulled out drawers, threw out papers, smashed vases in a hurry and even pricked himself on the edge of a table.  Rajat, too, had begun to weep. It’s uncommon for children to see their parents crying; they consider parents to be infallible. Perhaps the stench of desperation and helplessness had affected him too.

“Maybe we should just ask Chopra ji to take us!” said Sunita. Mr. Chopra was their friendly neighbour who lived right next to him. He had always been cordial with them.

“Okay, yes, let’s do that” replied Madhav when his search came up empty.

 

***

Thankfully for them, Mr. Chopra agreed immediately and pulled out his car. The ride to the hospital was in agony. Every moment wasted was a moment closer to death, and Sunita didn’t think she could deal with another upheaval so soon. Tears were flowing down her face endlessly, and she wasn’t even aware of Madhav’s arm around herWhen they reached the hospital, they yelled until someone came rushing and carried Vikramlal to the nearest ICU. Everything after that was a blur. The on-call doctor was paged, who came running in. They spent an hour trying to revive him – everything from CPR to Defibrillation to atropine injections, but nothing worked. He was declared brought dead.

The days soon after were a series of compulsory rituals. The official cause of death, as declared by the doctors was Hypoxia. The fact that he had diabetes acted as a catalyst. He had been having problems in breathing moments before his cardiac arrest. He could have been saved had they been a few minutes early. Sunita felt as though she was reliving the old phase again, except that this time the pain was much worse. The same old people, the same old condolences, the same old superficial crying. All she wanted was some solace to deal with her grief, not people swarming around her, least of all those who did not really care at all.

They didn’t really leave the house for 4 days except for the funeral. Mr. Chopra drove them. In fact, he had really stepped up to help them, because they weren’t really in any state to do any marketing. The kriyakaram was done. The ashes had been safely kept in a kalash in the mandir. A big photo had been mounted on the wall, with a flowery garland adorning it. Some relatives were still buzzing around the house, talking about Vikramlal’s glorious life. Some of his friends were still trying to console Madhav, explaining to him that he was now the man of the house in every sense.

In order to feel a sense of normalcy, Sunita excused herself from the sitting room and went into her room. She wanted to do something that was a part of her routine, she wanted to feel distracted. So she gathered all the dirty clothes from the room and carried them to the bathroom. She was going to wash them until fatigue overpowered her grief. But as she was about to wash Madhav’s jeans, a pair of keys fell out of his right pocket. She picked them up and almost dropped them again out of shock. They were their car keys. He was wearing the same jeans the day Vikramlal died. Her brain seemed to have gone numb, she didn’t know what to think.

At that very moment, Madhav knocked on the door and said, “Sunita? Please come downstairs! Everyone is asking for you”

And she just sat there, staring at the door for an eternity.

 

Almost in Love – Short story

I’m in the process of uploading some of the old stories that I had written long time back. I hope they aren’t rubbish.

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He gulped down another shot of vodka. It burned his insides as he felt the strong liquor going down into his stomach. He signalled the barman to re-fill his glass, his hand trembling and vision fading in and out of haze. The barman stared at him for a couple of moments, and then, he mustered up his courage and said, “Sir, I think you’ve had enough. You should go back ho-”

The man cut him off impatiently and said, “Just do as I say. I’m paying y-you right? So cut the crap..and refill my glass” He faultered as he spoke, words blurring into each other, making it difficult for the barman to make a distinction between two different words. But he heard that he had been asked to do his job without retaliating. He nodded softly and turned around to prepare his drink.

On the other hand, the man felt his brain blacking out. He suddenly felt weak, his vision now completely askew, he percieved everything to be two in number. He felt drained and tired, and closed his eyes, hoping that his head would stop spinning like a spinning top. He slowly laid his head on the bar table and closed his eyes once again. He saw her…
Not long before he had envisaged the woman he loved in his mind, he heard a voice.

“Wake up, Anupam !” That was certainly not the voice of the girl he was dreaming about. He heard the voice again, this time, even louder and clear, “For god’s sake Anupam, Wake up !”
He reluctantly opened his eyes, through his still blurry vision, he saw the outline of a girl standing next to him, trying to wake him up. Inspite of his distorted vision, he could recogise the familiar touch of the girl. It was Mitali. His best friend. It was always the same. He would get drunk on Saturdays and she would rescue him from the miserable and embarrassing state he always landed himself in. He felt her slap him lightly on the head. He groaned as he massaged his head gently, “What was that for ?”

“For screwing up my saturday night once again” she replied through clenched teeth. It was pretty much clear that she had grown sick and tired of his habit. He felt sorry for her too, but he had never asked her to rescue him in the first place. She was free to leave him on his own. He wouldn’t mind, but something always brought her to him…he always wondered what it was that made her worry about him.
“You passed out again, and here I am again, rescuing you from this shitpot…again” she finished with a sigh. Anupam was way to dizzy to even listen to her rant, leave alone comprehend it. He was weak and tired, and all he wanted was to lie down and sleep. He felt himself descend into oblivion once again. And all was black.

He woke up, rubbing the back of his head to ease the tormenting pain in his head. He resolved that he would never drink ever again in his life. He failed to consider his past record of such resolutions. It must have been his 100000000th resolution, and yet he ended up getting drunk in the same bar every saturday. He looked around. He was in his house, for sure. And he had no doubts that Mitali had brought him here. Who else ? She is the only one who gives a damn about my existence, he thought as he got and walked towards the bathroom.

Anupam had not been so sombre 1 year back. Infact, he had been the happiest man alive. He had everything – success, wife,a kid and everything else that constituted a perfect life. Until one fatal day, all of it met an untimely end. Radhika, his wife of 2 years, had been travelling to her parent’s place with their kid, Ashna. Their plane crashed on it’s way to Bhopal. No one survived.
It had taken precisely 6 months for Anupam to accept this truth. But looking at his post-acceptance state, one would agree to the fact that he was way better when he was in denial. Atleast he ate. Atleast he slept. Atleast he didn’t drink. Atleast he lived..even if in a false expectation. Anupam’s life had become miserable. His life had shattered and no one except one was their to pick the pieces up – Mitali. She had been his friend since they were only little children. Inspite of enrolling into different colleges after passing out, they mantained contact.

After that incident, Mitali supported him in every way possible. She was always there when he needed a shoulder to cry on. She stayed up till late in the nights just to listen to him crib and cry, and never complained. And now that he was indulging himself into alcohol, she was visibly concerned. She kept telling him that alcohol was only a temporary escape, and he needed to overcome his grief, not run away from it. He genuinely appreciated her concern and tried to move on, but failed each time.

But Mitali never stopped trying. Although she was sick and tired of his awful habit, she knew she would never give up on him. Because she loved him. It was a simple fact. And she realized it not long after Anupam finally accepted that his family had indeed, been torn apart. She felt her heart break each time he wept. She wished she could do something to ease his pain, infact, she was ready to take it on herself if it took away his suffering, but all of it was in vain.  She tried to tell him that she loved many times, but each time she tried, it seemed as of her mouth zipped itself tightly whenever he was infront of her. She was scared of losing the friendship they shared. But it was also a burden on her heart, she knew that if she didn’t tell him about her feelings anytime soon, her heart might literally explode.

After hours of introspection, she decided that she had to confront him and confess her feelings. She no longer could bear that burden on her heart. She might lose her frienship in the bargain, but she was willing to take that risk.

Anupam opened the door to his flat and entered, with two bags of grocery hooked on his fingers. He slowly walked inside and placed them in the kitchen. He turned around and saw Mitali standing right behind him. Her sudden presence caught him off guard and a surprised expression formed on his face, “Hey Mitali, What are you doing here ?” He asked her, moving away from her to retreive a bottle of water from the fridge. She shifted nervously in her place and said, “Anupam, I needed to talk to you..and I had spare keys to your flat, so I decided to pay you a visit..”

He smiled at her, “Ok…What’s wrong ?” He enquired, moving slightly closer to her. She glanced at him and saw the casual expression he was looking at her with. It only increased her nervousness, “Nothing’s wrong…” She began, at a loss for the right words, “I just…I think that I…Anupam I..” She was fidgiting with her fingers, trying to think of what to say. He stared at her confusedly, “Mitali..are you ok ?” He asked her with concern in his voice.
Mitali nodded slightly and took a deep breath,now or never, “Anupam, I’m in love with you”

She had said it. She had finally confessed her feelings to Anupam. Her heart was thumping so loudly in her chest, that she could catch it’s rythm. She was taking deep, heavy breaths, trying to calm her nerves. His expression was completely blank. She could not deduce any possible feeling from his face. His lack of reaction was beginning to make her feel that she had made the wrong move, and now she was going to lose his friendship forever. A feeling of disappointment arose within her, and instantly she felt tears sting her eyes.
After quite a few long and silent moments, his face broke into a wide smile. A genuine smile, that actually radiated happiness. She stared at him for a long moment, and then looked into his eyes, and for a fleeting moment she thought as if she saw ‘love’ in his eyes…for her.

Without responding, Anupam stepped forward and embraced her in a warm hug. This hug was different from the ‘friendly’ ones they often shared, this hug, unlike others, made her feel safe and content. She felt as if she was finally home.
And she knew, that Anupam may not have fallen completely in love with her, but he did feel a deep emotional connection with her that ran deeper than just friendship or a casual crush. He was still healing, and she didn’t want to force him into anything. So she decided that she would not give up on him this time either, and she would wait for him to come to her.

The ties between had not crumbled, infact they had strengthened, as now Mitali was in love with Anupam, and Anupam was almost in love with her.

Chasing Life – Part 2

He asked me as if he knew what must have conspired between the two of us. He knew, I thought. There was no point in lying.

“Well, she uh..told me that her family had conspired to put her here. To get a share in her father’s property. She told me she didn’t really belong here”

He was quiet for a while. Then he said, “Dr. Neeti, All I can tell you is to be careful of what you believe of what comes out of these patients’ mouths. They’re smarter than you think”

I wondered for a moment if he was implicitly telling me that Smita was lying. Did he know more than he was letting on?

“Sir, you must have read her file. Is she lying to me?” I asked before I could stop myself.

He contemplated my question for a while before answering, “I can’t share the details unless the family approves. But I can tell you this – the events are true, per se. But what she said about her family’s intentions and her own..well, those are as clear to me as they are to you”

I felt even more confused than before. I wanted more details, and it seemed as though he understood my longing to know more, because he said, “I can understand how baffling this might be for you. But this is how it is. Intentions are the toughest to understand. Take it from someone who has been there, done that”

My brain was in overdrive and I heard his advice only distantly. I nodded vaguely and eventually said, “I want to have a look at her file. Let me know when her family approves”

He nodded and said, “I’ll let you know as soon as possible”

With that, I took his leave and walked out of his office. I have 6 more days to go, I thought, maybe I’ll be able to figure it out by then.

There was no answer from her family over the next two days, but I still spent a lot of time with her and other patients in the wing. Smita, as it soon transpired, was a smart girl who loved reading literature and watching movies. She was in her second year of B.Com when she dropped out and decided to pursue her passion for writing full time. She showed a lot of her stories and articles that she had worked on after being admitted. I had to admit, she was quite talented. It was obvious that she was extremely passionate about what she did, because she went on talking about it for hours.

I met a few others patients who had rooms close by. Almost all of them parroted the belief that they didn’t belong here. Each one had a story to tell. But none of them convinced me as strongly as Smita had. It was not about what they said, in fact, 2 days later Smita’s story was still the most implausible one that I had heard; it was the vibe of hopelessness and misery that they carried around themselves that gave them away. Their eyes had the sort of blank look of being lost in limbo – of not knowing which path they would take if they were to start walking again. They smiled, but it was as mechanical as their routines.

Their routine included a daily hobby class where they were allowed to pursue a hobby of their choice from the list of given activities. It included chess, carom, painting, reading and a few outdoor sports like basketball and badminton. Everything happened under supervision. Everyone was thoroughly checked for any object that they might use to harm themselves at both the entry and exit. Reading, ofcourse, was Smita’s hobby of choice. But she soon became bored because there were more books about the economic development of India and biographies of politicians than literature. Another one of her favourite hobbies, she said, was playing cards.

“Each year at Diwali, I loved playing cards with Papa”, she said with a smile, “We invited a few good friends over and played all night”

I smiled back and said, “My family does that too. Except I’ve never played any card game before”

“Are you serious?” she said with a chuckle, “You haven’t played either Rummy, 3-2-5 or bluff ever?”

“I think I played bluff once, a few years ago. But I was pretty bad at it”

“Oh in that case I would love to play with you, it would give my ego a boost!” she said and we both started laughing.

“So they don’t have cards here?” I asked when the laughter had died down.

“No. I wish they did though, I would literally play all day!”

“With whom? Are there other people here who like to play?”

“I don’t know, but I’m sure there are”

At this point my phone buzzed and I excused myself to see what it was. It was Dr. Mohan’s message – ‘Please come to my office. Smita’s bua is here’

I wondered why she wanted to meet me. I had only requested to see her file, not meet her family personally.

“Hey Smita, I have to go to Dr. Mohan’s office. He says it’s important”, I said to Smita as I turned to face her.

“Okay, when am I seeing you next?”

“Tomorrow” I said with a smile.

As I walked towards Dr. Mohan’s office, I thought about why I had decided against telling Smita that I was going to meet her Bua. It was an instinctive decision and it had felt right. Maybe I just didn’t want to make it so obvious that I was on her side. Maybe because I had doubts about it myself.

I entered his office and found a lady dressed in a simple Salwaar Kameez sitting in a chair. She seemed to be in her mid-40’s and looked very collected. She smiled as she saw me and stuck out her hand, “Hello, you must be Ms. Neeti, the intern Dr. Mohan was telling me about”

I shook her hand and said, “Yes. Nice to meet you”

“I’m Archana, Smita’s bua”

I had not forgotten about the allegations that Smita had laid down against her family. I kept reminding myself to be objective and not let my friendship with her cloud my judgement, but try as I might, my preconceived notions kept poking me again and again as I sat down with her.

“So Dr. Mohan tells me you want to see her file?” she asked.

“Yes, she has told me a few things that I would like to corroborate”

“I have had a word about this with Dr. Mohan, and unfortunately, I can’t let you have a look at her file”, she said gently.

That came as a blow. I wasn’t expecting this. In fact, I had never doubted the outcome of my request and was looking forward to finally getting a look at that file. She seemed to surmise as much from my look of disbelief and said, “I’m sorry, but this is a very sensitive matter for us and we only let very few people in on it. But I can answer all your questions. That’s why I’m here”

Which would mean that everything will be told from your point of view, I thought as I looked at her. Why would she not let me at least have a look at it? Even as the question formed in my mind, I began to doubt her intentions. My subconscious started telling me, once again, that Smita was right. There was something fishy here. I looked into her face, which was lined with age and sculpted by experience. To someone who was not privy to Smita’s story, Archana’s explanation might have been good enough. But I could not ignore all these signs that only pointed towards one thing.

I finally opened my mouth and said, “I only wanted to see it for academic purposes”

“I understand, but even then, I cannot allow this. I’m sorry”

I was silent for another few moments and then said, “She told me that her father had left her a lot of property, and the only reason she is here is because you put her here” I decided it was best to be blunt right now.

She sighed and said, “You believe her?”

I considered the question for a moment, “So far, yes”

“It is true that her father left her a lot of property. But none of us are vying for it. We might be a joint family, but we have never eyed my brother’s property in that way. The only reason Smita is here is because of her own suicidal tendencies”, she replied slowly.

“You make it sound like she’s attempted suicide plenty of times, but there was only this time that she had ingested pills, mistaking them for headache ones-”

Archana cut me off at that point and said, “Which is not true. She knew what she was taking. They were benzodiazepines for her depression. She had it all planned”

I shook my head, “Even if what you’re saying is true, how is one attempt enough to put someone in a suicidal wing for a month? Wouldn’t outpatient counselling have been enough?”

“Would you rather we wait for her to have 10 attempts under her belt before admitting her?” she asked in a pained voice.

I didn’t know what to say. It was Archana’s word against Smita’s. The file must have had everything (or lack thereof) – history of Smita’s alleged depression, attempted suicide and every other evidence of mental illness, but Archana wouldn’t let me see it. I was beginning to feel extremely frustrated at this point. It was like being lost in the middle of a maze without the support of a compass.

Eventually, I simply nodded and said, “I didn’t mean to intrude. I’m sorry if you felt that way”

“That’s alright. I can understand why you must be curious” she replied.

At that point I took my leave and left. Instead of making anything clear, this conversation had only made things murkier for me. If anything, I had begun to trust my gut about Smita even more. Archana’s outright refusal to let me have a look at her file was odd for sure. It seemed as though Dr. Mohan believed her as well. He didn’t utter a single word during our conversation. On my way out, I waved at Smita in farewell. She smiled at me and waved back. I’m right, I thought to myself.

Next day (which was also my last day), I bought a new pack of playing cards for Smita on my way to the institute. I remembered how happy she had looked at the prospect of playing with a pathetic player like me, and I decided that if I couldn’t help her get out, I could make her happy for a while at least. I walked into her room and gave her the box. She squealed with happiness and said, “You read my mind, sister!”

“Well, now you can get your game on and show everyone what a player you are” I replied with a smile.

“Absolutely. I think we should start with bluff first. It’s for noobs like you”

I mock-frowned at her, “Sure. Let’s start”

“Hey we don’t play bluff with two people. We need at least four”

“Okay..so who do you suggest we call?”

“Well, I think Jyoti and Nandu might be interested. They seemed happier than everyone else, at least”

“Okay, you go fetch them. I’ll wait here”

“I can’t. Their rooms are on the first floor and I can’t go wandering off alone to any floor that I want. It’s against the rules.”

“I see. Okay, no problem. Tell me their room numbers, I’ll go and call them”

She smiled, “Great. Go to room 204 for Jyoti and 201 for Nandu”

“Right. Be back in a minute”, I said as I got up and walked out.

I took the stairs and reached Room 204. It was open. A nurse was ticking off points off a list and a girl who I presumed to be Jyoti was sitting on the bed.

I cleared my throat and said, “Jyoti?”

She looked up and replied, “Yes?”

“Hi, I’m Dr. Neeti. Do you know Smita?”

“Oh yes, I talk to her sometimes. She’s a nice girl”

“Yeah. I’m a visiting intern for this week. I’ve been interacting with Smita for 6 days and she tells me you might be interested in playing cards with her”

Suddenly, the nurse looked up and said in alarm, “What cards?”

“Well I bought her a new pack of cards today. She said she wanted to play bluff but it needs at least four people so I…”, suddenly my eyes slid out of focus as my brain put two and two together. The nurse was already rushing past me when reality struck me hard and I turned on my heels and followed her lead.

We thundered down the stairs, scaring a few nurses and patients lumbering around their floor. We skidded to a halt in front of Smita’s room. The sight of blood greeted me as everything around me faded into a blur. I was vaguely aware of two more nurses and Dr. Mohan rushing into the room to tie a cloth around her bleeding wrist. All I could see was her white face and immobile body. The card that she had used to slash her wrist was lying menacingly next to her.

Someone was yelling, “Code red!” repeatedly. I felt someone pulling me back as they dragged a stretcher inside the room. As they carried Smita out of the room, I heard her feebly mutter her last word, “Thank you”

And I was left standing with the burden of that word for an eternity.

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So here it is. I decided to conclude it in 2 parts instead of stretching it on further. I hope you liked it! Feedback will be appreciated.