Mehul & I

FRIENDS1
Mehul and I were best friends since nursery. I knew her from the first day of my school life when the tap of my nose and eyes were flowing with equal fervor, punctuated with loud cries of mourning. My teacher held on to my arm and led me to sit beside a small, quiet-looking girl. While the rest of the class resembled a battle-field-in-mourning with a symphony of cries in different scales and tempo – she was the odd one out. She was quiet but there was a welcoming grin taped to her lips. But what immensely attracted me to her was her earrings – that had a tiny golden ball dangling from each. I was amused. I took possession of her ear-lobes and began playing with the tiny ball of her ear-rings. She grimaced a little, having her earlobes being in control of a total stranger, but did not let go of her smile nevertheless. And from that moment onwards we became inseparable.

It was in our second standard that we realized that we were not just best friends in school but we also lived two lanes apart. That only helped us bond with each other better. We made total use of our vacations in the small attic room of our house, pouring over film-magazines that were ‘strictly forbidden for young people’ and drooling over the likes of Govinda and Rishi Kapoor. The fact that they were aging heroes and were gradually resembling oil-barrels over time didn’t disturb us one bit till one Akshay Kumar caught our attention.

We were also crazy fans of Pete Sampras and though “Love All” was the only sane tennis related word to us, his cute boyish grin just made our hearts skip a beat.

The attic-room was also our store-house of stolen items – grandma’s green mango-pickle, Mehul’s Aunt’s home-made Chawanprash and variety of biscuits and chocolates….When we were in eleventh class a stolen cigarette too made its way to our treasure-trove. We spent seventeen minutes trying to light it up with a matchstick and when it did light up it let out such a horrible fume that we spent the rest of our time trying to ‘ shoo away ’ the smell.

I adored and loved Mehul, more than any of my cousins or sisters but there was one thing that always bothered me – her beauty ! Mehul was not fair – more on the wheatish side but she had a strange kind of beauty that made people turn around and take a second look. She was perhaps one of the most beautiful girls in our peer group though she hardly ever bothered to take special care of herself. And though I was proud to have her as my friend I was secretly jealous of her. I hate to admit it but it is the truth that her looks were an annoying twitch that my heart faced every now and then. And that was one reason why I took special care of myself –taking time to match myself to the level of her beauty. But irrespective of the buried feeling in my heart I loved her too much to let go of her.

But it was not to be. We had just completed our twelfth class board exams when she brought in the news that her father was getting a transfer to Raniganj. It was the saddest day of my seventeen year old life.

There were still two weeks remaining for the transfer and we spent almost all of those fourteen days crying in each other’s arms. We promised eternal friendship to each other, vowed to write a letter every alternate day and call each other every alternate week. Though secretly we were not quite sure about the telephone call part because in those days when Pagers were the only modern gadgets and mobile phones were a luxury item even for the industrialists, phone calls were definitely expensive and way beyond the reach of teenagers like us.

The final moment came and we sobbed like children, not willing to let go of each other. Just before the Taxi zoomed away I pushed in a few jasmine flowers from our garden into her palm. “Keep these safely Mehul. Our friendship is like the fragrance of these flowers – eternal! Whenever you see these you would remember me.”, I told her. Two crystals of warm tears streamed down her cheeks…..

2

It always happens this way – the promises that we make as young people seldom stand the test of time – they melt away into the maze of our responsibilities and responses to life’s needs…And obviously the promise that Mehul and I made to each other couldn’t withstand the pressures of ‘growing up’. Letters became irregular and phone calls became rarer till it boiled down to sending only greeting cards on special occasions. That too stopped altogether when I went abroad to complete my education. Mehul became a part of my childhood-parcel of dolls, clips and memorabilia…..And she would have perhaps remained tucked away in an unknown corner of my heart had I not met one of my ex-classmates during my first shopping-spree after having landed back to my homeland after fifteen long years.

“ Nandita, aren’t you ?”. A pat and a strange squeaky voice had startled me from my bargaining marathon.
I took some time to place a name to the powdered face and kohl-rimmed eyes.

“ Vandana ? You are Vanadana, right ?”, I asked her, secretly hoping that my memory wasn’t failing me.

“Ofcourse yaar ! Where were you all these days ? And what are you doing now ? Married or not ?”…..her barrage of questions just wouldn’t stop.

“ Too many of them aren’t they ? So it is better we sit at a place and do this question-answer session”, I winked at her.

“ Yeah why not…”, She laughed out loud.

We headed to the nearest coffee shop and spoke for over an hour – starting from our school days to our career, family life – we covered almost every topic.

And just as I was paying the bill she mentioned about Mehul.
“ Hey, do you remember Mehul ? That best friend of yours?”

My heart skipped a beat. Did I hear Mehul ? But before I could ask she spoke again.
“ I met her about a month ago…At first I couldn’t even recognize her….Infact I wouldn’t have know it was Mehul had she not come forward to introduce herself….She can’t be recognized at all…To be honest, she actually looks horrific…..”.
Vandana must have read the puzzled look on my face; she toned down her voice and said, “ Vitiligo…she is suffering from Vitiligo. Shouldn’t be rude yaar but frankly with all those patchy look she did look kind of scary…”.

Something went amiss within me…I couldn’t believe my ears…Mehul ? The most beautiful looking girl of our group ? Could this really happen to her? Dazed, I somehow managed to note down Mehul’s phone number from Vandana before I bid her good bye.

I knew I had to call up Mehul….That broken cord of friendship had to be retied…..

3

The bus stopped at Chandanpara. “ Not very far away from Kolkata, yaar….just an hour’s journey”, Mehul had told me over the telephone, after her excitement had finally managed to ebb down a little. “ And when you get down at Chandanpara just take the road opposite to the bus-stand….walk straight, straight, straight…right through the gate ….into my arms”, she had giggled aloud like a child.

Chandanpara looked exactly the way she had described me – lush green trees, lazy cyclists and women washing utensils near every pond.

I re-adjusted my saree and patted my face with my handkerchief to lightly dust away the tiredness. Don’t know why but I had taken an extra hour to prepare myself today – compact, a light coat of blush-on, eye-liner….I didn’t forget to even add a dash of mascara to add volume to my eye-lashes. I felt guilty, angry and annoyed at myself for this cruelty but couldn’t resist myself nevertheless. Was I taking a sweet revenge ? For what ? Why ? Just because she was once more beautiful than I? I had no answers. But the selfish giant in me harped on the fact constantly that somehow I had to look good.

4

For a few seconds I blinked my eyes….I just couldn’t believe that the strangely uneven complexioned being, standing on the other side of the gate was actually Mehul. And as Vandana had said, she did look kind of scary. She screamed her lungs out for near about twenty seconds before embracing me tight.

“Oh Nandu, Nandu, Nandu I can’t believe it’s you ! Can God be so kind ? Oh Lord….I am the happiest today”, she shrieked in delight. Warm in her embrace, somehow I couldn’t reciprocate her delight with equal mirth. I somehow didn’t dare look into her eyes.

“Come in yaar…please, please come in”. She held my hand and led me into the hall of her pink colored house. There, inside the hall, more surprises seemed to wait for me. Six children ranging from about five to fourteen years sat on a sofa watching a cartoon programme on the television. Taking a break from their recreation they giggled as they watched Mehul behave like a kid herself.

“Yours ?”, I asked, staring at them in disbelief. “Yeah, mine”, she answered. I could sense the pride in her voice. I would have asked some more questions but I was startled by the appearance of a middle-aged man. He seemed to emerged out of nowhere – just like a genie – a perforated ladle in his hand and a towel thrown causally about his left shoulder. He looked handsome and had a childish twinkle in his eyes.

“ Ma’am just shove your bag anywhere around and sit down with my army. The potato curry is ready and hot puris are on their way….Hot puris and aloo subzi – that is a dream combo anyday and my speciality too !” His tornado-like appearance knocked me off my wits and before I could gather myself and re-organise my thoughts he spoke again.

“I am sure Mehul didn’t bother to mention about me so I am taking the responsibility of introducing myself – I am the caretaker, cook, driver cum manager of this small family. Incidentally I am also the husband of your best friend. “. Saying this he instantly broke into a thunderous laughter. ‘Belly Laughter’ – my French husband would have remarked, had he been around.
5

A hearty meal and loads of laughter later we sat at the banks of the large pond – Mehul and I. She had spread a mat under the shade of the mango tree just near the edge of the pond. Finally we were both left alone. An uneasy silence enveloped us – we really didn’t know where to start from. A heady smell of raw mangoes tinted with the smell of water wafted all around. A mild breeze played with the surface of the water – creating mild ripples and shattered shadows.

To my relief she spoke first. “ I discovered the first patch of white on my nineteenth birthday”, she said, not bothering to add an introduction. She continued. “ That birthday Ma gave me a saree – for the first time – a red one. I didn’t get to wear it that day. I showed the patch to my father. He took me to the doctor…..Ayurveda, Homeopathy…nothing seemed to work for me. I was upset but that didn’t bother me much. But what killed me was the reaction of my close-ones – my friends, my relatives, my neighbours. From sympathy to horror to unfounded fear of the disease being contagious – I had seen almost every kind of expression and response in those two years.

By that time I had completed my degree in nursing. I couldn’t bear it anymore. I applied and purposely took a job at a small hospital specializing in Leprosy treatment far away from my family and friends. There among the branded ‘untouchables’ and ‘outcastes’ of the society I finally felt at home….not having to bother about my disease or my appearance’. She paused a little.

“ And where did you meet your husband ?”, I asked her, trying to tie up all the lose ends at one go. She smiled. “You haven’t changed Nandu….the same impatient one! Yeah, that is where I met him. Amit was a doctor there. One day after duty hours as I was getting ready to go to my quarters he came rushing in – just like he did today….He seemed to be in a hurry. He scratched his nose a little and then said , “Will you marry me Miss Mehul ? I am already late for my duty hours and if you can just give a fast answer I would be grateful’ “.

I couldn’t believe my ears. “ Don’t tell me he actually did THAT ? Was that a proposal or an instruction ? “ .

Mehul laughed out loud. “ That was supposed to be a proposal”.

“And you said yes ?”

“ No, I actually said no !”

I was puzzled. “ No ? But why ?”

She took some time to answer and then said, “ Because I had a feeling that he was just being sympathetic towards me….just like the rest of the world”.

“ And what was his response ?”

“Would you believe it ? He scratched his nose again and then added, ‘Hmm…but I thought you would make a perfect partner for me ! But anyway, would you mind being a volunteer with me atleast ? I am planning to start a short stay home for the children of some of the leprosy patients – the ones who have been shunned by their own families. If you can join as a volunteer there….’ I understood that he was hardly bothered about my looks.”

“And you did what ? Refuse him yet again ?”

“ I too scratched my nose and said , ‘In that case Dr.Amit I would rather be your wife and a volunteer too!’ ”, Mehul enacted the piece and laughed out loud. I too joined her.

“So these children are the children of leprosy patients?”, I asked .

“Yes, except the youngest of them – that is my own contribution. The kids stay with us till their parents get a complete cure and are rehabilitated. The hospital has a facility for the spouses of the patients on a temporary basis. Amit goes to the hospital thrice a week and the rest of the days he is the caretaker here.”

I took hold of her hands . “What a wonderful work you both are doing Mehul! What a beautiful effort!”

“ It is ! My work has helped me wipe off all the ill feelings and hatred that I had harboured towards the world. I feel tamed. I feel complete. I feel beautiful once again”, she spoke in a soft hush.

For many moments we didn’t speak anything. A cuckoo somewhere sang her song. A fish raised its tiny head from the water and dipped back again. We remained silent.

Then as if remembering something she got up and rushed inside her home. She came back with a tiny brown envelop. She handed it to me. “ Open it”. I opened it. Four jasmine flowers – brittle, brown and almost-non-existent, tumbled out from within.

“ The jasmines ? The ones I gave you ?”, I asked her , bewildered. I could not believe my eyes.
“ Yes baba, those very flowers – a remembrance of our friendship…you know Nandu, I make it a ritual to take them out and inhale the fragrance whenever I find an opportunity”.

“ They are brown and old , how can they have a fragrance Mehul ?”, I objected.

“ To the world they are brown, old, brittle but I can smell their fragrance everyday Nandu….because to me they are still fresh, beautiful – they are a part of my childhood. Their beauty is embedded in my heart. I look at them through the eyes of my soul“

While she spoke I simply stared at her. She looked so content, it reflected on her face. I felt ashamed of the compact, lip-stick, eye-liner that I was carrying with myself.

The sun was about to set. A hue of the salmon pink sky was touching her face – it was as if the sun was adding colors to blend the unevenness of her complexion. She looked stunning. It was that kind beauty which I had never seen before. I guess, for the first time I was looking at the world with the ‘eyes of my soul’.

__END__ Continue reading

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The God of Sunshine

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1

“ Is THIS what I have to undergo in the name of vacation ? ”, Anu almost let out a scream.

“ But it was you who wanted a different kind of holiday…..hitchhiking and all that”, I chuckled.

“ Yes, I did…but to take the most difficult of all routes and traveling through God forsaken places like this is just too much…”.

She just wouldn’t be pacified. And there was no reason why she shouldn’t be angry. It was hardly a few seconds of stoppage at this hardly-visible-in-the–map station and there were more than twenty people trying to squeeze out through one single rickety door of our train coach. We didn’t have to ‘get down,’ we were forcefully vomited out of the train by the ‘force of the masses’. And as if to prove that mishaps were a part of our baggage, the first step that Anu placed was on a banana peel – carefully patterned like a wild-flower-in-bloom on the platform floor. And it was with sheer luck that her anti-gravity motion was arrested midway by many rustic hands, which were only too eager to help a ‘memsahib from the city’! She had no option other than to mutter a small, “Thanks, I am okay” , to avoid being the center-piece in this dingy but hardly-there rural railway station.

“ And now where ? “, my wife demanded to know.

“ There should be a bus-stand somewhere near…if we get a bus to the nearby city…”, I trailed off, trying to look for the way to the bus-stand. But all my eyes could see were women with their oily hair and coarse silver ornaments, men with black pigs and ill-fed goats, women selling corn-cobs and a lonely tea-stall.

As I tried to look further away, trying to discover the bus-stand or atleast an auto-stand I realized it had suddenly become too dark for a summer-evening. I chanced to look up into the sky – it was hazy-grey in colour and the sun was already hiding behind a thick veil of a dark clouds. My instinct told me that an unruly storm and rain was on its way. The tall trees lacing the station premises were already swaying quite violently. I turned to look at Anu. She looked pale.

“ Storm ?” she barely managed to whisper her question.

I knew she was anxious. There seemed a sudden increase in movement around us. Women sellers were winding up their wares, men were taking hurried steps to the nearby shelter – almost dragging their unwilling pets along and unruly children were being pushed to a secure place by their mothers. By then blobs of water had begun to fall from above – in slow rhythmic pattern. I searched desperately for that one nook which can shelter us for the time being. It was then that I discovered him. He was making his way out of the station, holding the hand of a boy of around thirteen-fourteen.

In all the mad frenzy that was happening around us he would have gone unnoticed- had it not been for his strange looks – his copper coloured hair and pale brown eyes. Amidst the browns and muted blacks he was definitely an odd one!

“Nalo?”, I questioned myself, bewildered…He was a few feet away from me and I could now see him quite clearly. Yes, ofcourse he WAS Nalo.

“ Nalo”, I screamed out loud. “Naaaloooooo”, I screamed out again – this time louder.

He heard my voice – at least I thought so – for he turned around to look at me. He looked straight into my eyes. I waved at him. He stared blankly at me and then turned back and walked away. As the rain drops entrapped me with their incessant fall I felt dejected, hurt and angry. Just how could he ignore me like that ? Just because…….

2

The first time we saw Nalo was amidst a shrub in the garden of our ancestral home. It was the first time and the last time we were visiting our ancestral house. Father was getting a transfer to Sri Lanka and in a sudden surge of ‘high-voltage’ emotion for his ‘own people’ and ‘country men’ he decided that we must pay a visit to his village.

“Not more than five days”, my mother told us – me and my brother Rohit.

It was more like convincing herself than us, for we were looking forward to see the ‘land-lordish mansion’ and ‘weapons belonging to the pre-British era’ – things that were often repeated by father. It was only when we landed there did we discover that the ancestral house more resembled an ill-assembled cake, broken and damaged at every corner, than a mansion and that the weapons included a rusted knife with a silver handle and a rifle whose only remains was a longish metal pipe.

So within an hour of reaching there and after a sumptuous meal when Rohit and I were already feeling the pangs of boredom set in, one of our uncles decided to take us on a guided tour of the family garden which looked more like an abandoned battle-field than a garden. It was there that we discovered Nalo. His pale brown eyes staring from behind the bush almost threw us off. In the fading light his copper hair looked frightening.

“Don’t worry. That’s Nalo”, our uncle introduced us.

He turned to look at father and whispered, “Remember Rani ? Batuk’s sister ? That girl who ran away with a guy from Uttar Pradesh? He is Rani’s son. Rani and her husband both died –leaving Nalo alone. He now stays with Batuk….”.

Father nodded his head and said, “Ah, so he is Rani’s son? But how come he has such a strange look?”.

“ One of his forefathers must have been some lonely visitor from Spain – may be…”, our uncle replied in a hushed tone and a mischievous grin. Father looked embarrassed.

But that was how we came to know about Nalo. And for the next few days he became an integral part of our lives. He was timid, would hardly speak but had strange tricks and games up his sleeve. He would take a small stick and retrieve a struggling insect from the spider’s web with utmost care so as to save the insect and not damage the spider’s web at the same time. He took us to his secret chamber – a dilapidated room of an abandoned school building. There he introduced us to his strange pets. There was a glass-jar with a piece of cloth tied to its mouth.- a roving, fat, green caterpillar devoured lime leaves within it.

“Another two days and then she will stop eating leaves and then turn into a brown pupa. And a few days after that a beautiful butterfly will come out – black with white and yellow spots”, he explained.

There was an old squirrel whose hind legs were badly damaged and had no option other than to stay in a broken cage built by Nalo and nibble on the fruits and nuts that he would bring along. There was also a hole in a corner of the room– a deep hole that he claimed to be his pet rat’s den! We did not believe that part of the story and neither got a proof of it for the next few days.

He was the one who got for us everything that was forbidden and warned against – berry pickles, tamarind paste with salt and chilly powder, rejected, worm-infested potatoes roasted in open fire…He would tuck the items under his loose shirt and keep the supply line on. His innocent face hardly gave away the secret of our reluctance to eat during the lunch time!

On the third day we decided to go to a fair in the adjoining village. Three of us had barely crossed the limits of our village when dark clouds hovered precariously over us. Within seconds it began to rain mercilessly. Three of us huddled under an old Banyan tree, watching the wrath of nature unleash.

“Uh, this looks horrible….What if it keeps pouring like this for many hours and we are stranded here?”, I was afraid.

“No problem….our uncle will come by a boat and rescue us”, Rohit chuckled. He was always the more daring among the two of us.

Nalo looked up to the sky and said, “ Don’t worry…this rain will stop in another two minutes…I can see the God of Sunshine take out his bow and arrow…he will destroy the black clouds…”.

God of Sunshine ? Rohit and I were bewildered….Nowhere in the near vicinity was any mortal soul, leave alone a God with his bow and arrow!

“ Ah,there, there he is…” , Nalo pointed out to a series of white clouds, playing hide-n-seek with the black rain clouds. Young that we were, we too tried to visualize the outlines of an imaginary God in the restless mass of clouds.

“Do you see him?”, he asked. “Uh..well…yes..why not….I can see him…strong arms, broad shoulders..”, I let my imagination run wild.

“Me too”, Rohit joined me. “ I can see his crown too”, my brother added more fuel to my imagination.

“ And now, within a few minutes, there would be sunlight”, Nalo said, almost in a trance.

I am still not sure how it happened but it did. Within minutes the rain stopped and a reluctant sun began to peep from behind the clouds. Rohit and I clapped in joy.

“And there you see his bow”, Nalo’s finger pointed to the horizon. The visual that appeared has been the most lasting picture of my hometown ever. In the distant horizon appeared a rainbow – a bright seven-colored one. The tall palm trees, the thatched houses faraway stood as a dark silhouette against the brightness of the rainbow. It was a visual treat I couldn’t forget in a long time!

The five days of fun and Nalo would have remained etched in our memory forever had it not been for the penultimate day when the disaster happened. We were sitting near the pond. Nalo was sitting with a can of wriggling worms, of which he was trying to hook one to the fishing rod. I was almost half-dead at the sight while he was doing his duty with alarming calmness. Just near the edges was an almost-uprooted palm tree which had bent towards the pond – so much so that it resembled a wooden pole.

Rohit was trying to walk atop the horizontal trunk, maintaining his balance at the same time. I was about to warn him about a probable accident when he actually slipped and fell into the deep waters below. Ploop! It was just a small sound but to me it sounded like a death knell. He didn’t know how to swim, neither did I! Both Nalo and I took a few seconds to realize what had happened; then panic took over me.

“ Nalo, jump…jump Nalo…save him”, I screamed my lungs out. Nalo simply stared wide-eyed at the pond. I had seen him swim earlier and I knew he was a good swimmer so I kept on coaxing him to jump into the pond but he just wouldn’t budge. As he stood there, dazed, I frantically tried to locate my brother in the pond. At one point I saw him struggling and at the other moment everything went silent – there was no sign of him.

I ran, ran and ran with all my energy and came back with my uncle, father and many more known and unknown faces. Nalo was still standing there – immobile. As my uncles and others retrieved the senseless body of Rohit I turned to look at Nalo. Holding him by his collars I slapped him hard.

“ Why didn’t you ? Why, why, why ?” . I shook him violently but he wouldn’t answer.

“Coward mouse! If something happens to my brother I will kill you”, I screamed at him. He remained silent. He simply stared at the waters.

We had to cut short our visit. Rohit was taken to the city hospital where he recovered in two days. But we never returned, nor talked about our ancestral village. We never met Nalo again!

3

“Imagine, he has kept the fire of revenge burning for so long!”, I nursed my ego.

“May be he was not Nalo afterall”, Anu tried to reason.

“Ofcourse he was”.

“ Perhaps he didn’t recognize you…that is more possible you see. You were hardly fourteen then…you are twenty nine now”, she laughed out loud.

“He did. I am sure he did. I even called out his name. I waved at him. He looked at me but simply did not acknowledge my presence”. I was in no mood to buy her argument.

“Are you by any chance talking about Nalini Master?”, a voice croaked from behind. I looked around, trying to discover the owner of the voice. Rain had almost stopped and there were two or three more people, apart from both of us, taking refuge in the tea-stall. A face with stained teeth smiling at us convinced me that he was indeed the speaker. The tea stall owner!

“ Nalini Master…is he the one you are talking about ? That man with copper hair? Someone long back had told me that his pet name was Nalo”, he repeated his question.

Obviously he was overhearing us all this while! Nalini ? I tried to rummage through my box of memories. Oh yes, indeed, Nalo’s good name was definitely Nalini ..…Nalini Kumar something…..a surname I just could not recall. Infact we had made fun of his girlish name!

I ordered two glasses of tea. The tea stall owner passed our glasses from his seat. With a blackish tinge and with droplets of leftover raindrops falling in it, it hardly looked inviting but I knew that that was the only way by which I could extract more information from the tea stall owner. He understood my cue.

“He is very popular here…people worship him like God”, he smiled.

“Why?” , Anu too became curious by now.

With an added member to the audience he was definitely delighted. He left his seat and came and stood near us.

“ Nalini Master came to our village as a teacher in the high school about five years back. Those days no master coming from outside the village would stay beyond a month or so”. He took a pause, looked around and then added in a lower tone, “You must be wondering why….I am sure you would be able to recall that these areas were once strongly under the influence of terrorists. They would just drop in at the school and take away young boys for training – to be terrorists. No one could object. If any one dared to protest…..”, he trailed off, leaving the unsaid words to our imagination.

“Yes, yes…all the masters from outside used to wind up within a month. No boys or girls could ever pass the secondary exams those days..”, an unknown voice spoke. One among the customers had already helped himself into our group discussion. The tea stall owner gave an annoyed look to his customer and continued with the rest of his story.

“ But little did anyone know that the timid-looking, soft-spoken Nalini Master had so much fire in his belly. As he taught the boys, he also told them about the need to be strong and resist all that is wrong. Like every other time the terrorists went to the school again. All the other masters ran away but it was our brave Nalini Master who locked all the bigger children inside a class-room and stood rock-solid near the main door. Don’t know the exact details but the terrorists went away empty handed….That was not all….he took the matter up to the highest level in the government. Security forces were deployed in the area….many arrangements were made…Young boys began resisting the lure and fear of joining the terrorists…Lot of development has happened in the last few years and everything has happened because of Nalini Master”.

“ But all this came with a cost”, the unwanted customer spoke yet again. “ The terrorists exploded a powerful bomb outside the school gate before leaving….poor Nalini Master bore the brunt. The impact so powerful that he nearly lost his vision and hearing. He can barely see or hear now…only when you are very, very close he can see or hear you…that is why he always goes around with the support of his students.”, he concluded.

“ But that has not stopped him from carrying on with his good work…Don’t know about his parents…someone told me that long ago, when Master was very young, they both had died…It seems they were all traveling by a boat to some temple when the boat capsized and his parents drowned in front of his eyes…thankfully some one managed to save him…Today if they had been alive they would have been so proud of their son!…He is such a brave man! ”, the tea-stall owner finished his saga. His eyes had already welled up. Then, as if on an afterthought he added, “ Sir, Iam sure he didn’t see you…or even hear you either….you really need to be very, very close to him….He must have looked at you just as an instinct…”.

I didn’t want to hear any further, I didn’t want to meet his eyes either. I didn’t want him or Anu to see my tears. I looked farther away – where the vast fields met the sky. Rain had stopped altogether and white clouds were over-powering the black ones….the sun was peeping from behind the clouds. Amidst the tufts of white clouds I could clearly figure out the outlines of a God with his bow and arrow – the God of Sunshine. Only this time he resembled very much like Nalo!

Image Courtesy: Pixabay

Beyond…..

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1

“Quiet children! Please, please walk in twos….”. Mrs.Nair tried to discipline the group of middle school students that she was leading.
“Excursions are a big pain in the….”. Mrs.Dev whispered into her ears, careful not to let the words reach the rabbit-eared among the lot of children.
Mrs.Nair couldn’t agree more but as a senior teacher she had no other option but to pretend deaf.
The road was rough, stony and wore a dusty look. No palace or even a hut was visible in the vicinity. Is the tour-guide taking the right way? Mrs. Nair began to wonder. She was about to speak up when the tour guide stopped in front of a tree – a banyan tree that didn’t look too old enough to be of historical importance or even a scientific marvel.
“ And this is a place where no tour guide of Muzaffargarh would ever bring you to!” The aged guide gave a seasoned pause. His modulation held such a promise that the noisy bunch of children were hushed into silence that very moment.
“Do you see this ?” He pointed to a near-obsecure, corner not very far away from the tree.
Spheres of various heads huddled to look down at the ‘precious spot’.
Amidst the dusty, red soil and a small heap of neatly arranged stones was a trident and crescent – both crudely welded in iron rods. With their base covered with dried remains of marigold and tube roses they offered a strange visual that could hardly be of any importance to school children on a study tour.
Mrs.Nair adjusted her specs and bent forward for a close inspection.
“And what is this supposed to be Mr.Ali?”
Ullu Banaoing!”. Someone giggled near her ears. She chose not to look that way.
The guide cleared his throat. “ This, my dear children , is a symbol of eternal friendship – of Haider and Kanu. No history book, no story book on our independence will ever have their names written in them but even today in the alleys of Muzaffargarh you will hear the saga of their friendship. And today I will tell you their story”.

2

“Haider….Haider are you here ?” . Kanu called out as loud as possible. He could hear his own heartbeat. Given a choice he would avoid the mango orchard of the Chaubeys anyday. The eerie play of light and shadow amidst the dense mango leaves were too frightening for him to overpower his lust for ripe mangoes. But Haider was different – he was fearless and physically strong at the same time.
“Haider yaar…please come out na !” , he pleaded, his eyes hovering from branch to branch, from tree to tree.
“Did you bring?”, a voice spoke from amidst the foliage. Kanu smiled to himself. Thank God !He held out his open palm. There, within the soft cup of his pink flesh a flattened milk sweet waited to be eaten. The sweat of the palm had already made it soggy and sticky. A loud thud and a quick swipe later it was gone with the speed of lightning into the mouth where it should be.
“ As soon as Babuji finished offering bhog to Kanhaiyaji I brought it for you Haider”, Kanu announced proudly.
“Hmm”
“And he did not even suspect that the sweet was gone”.
“Hmm”.
Kanu grew impatient. He had expected at least a pat from his best friend.
The sweet having traveled down his throat, Haider bent down and clutched the edge of Kanu’s dhoti.
“Nooooo yaar….this is a fresh one….mother had just washed it yesterday”, Kanu protested.
Nevertheless Haider nonchalantly used the edge of the dhoti to wipe his fingers and face. Then as if on an after-thought of compassion he took out a half-eaten mango from his pocket and placed it on Kanu’s palm. This gave immense satisfaction to Kanu. Like a true devotee of his hero he clutched his prized possession and smiled from ear to ear.
Then suddenly he remembered the real purpose of his visit.
“ Haider yaar, they are having a big meeting in your house – the entire mohalla is there!”
“ And Nanujaan ?”
“ He is the one who has called the meeting….they are planning some celebration!”
“Celebration?”. Haider’s eyes twinkled at the thought of celebration. He clutched Kanu’s arm and made his way amidst the wild array of mango trees without bothering to collect his booty that he had hidden in one of the tree holes.

3

There at the courtyard there were a lot of them – many people and many emotions – Badri Chacha, Osman Chacha, Manikram – the postman, Salauddin- the shopkeeper who soldmeetha golis, Poorna Chachi….
Haider revolved his gaze from face to face, trying to gauge the reason for the occasion. Eid was long gone and Diwali was still far away! But all he could hear were discussions.

“Do you really think it will happen tonight ?”
“ Yes, tonight it is. They even consulted the astrologers – either midnight or not. The rest of the days are not auspicious at all”.
“ Is the situation auspicious anyway? Tension is hovering everywhere….”
“ You all can never think positively! Atleast, at last we are getting what we deserve”.

Haider grew impatient. When will they talk about celebration? He ran down to his grandfather seated on the grand-chair, Kanu in tow.
“ Nanujaan, what is it they are talking about ? What will happen at midnight? Will there be a celebration of some sort tomorrow?”
Ahmed Ali pulled his grandson to himself and made him sit on his lap. He was immensely fond of the orphan lad and often over pampered him.
“ So many questions you have my love! Yes, tomorrow is a special day for us – for all of us! It will be a new morning, a new sunrise”.
“ And what will happen to the old sun ?”
Ahmed Ali laughed out loudly, so did the crowd. This did not amuse Haider one bit.
He looked angrily at his grandfather. His grandfather smiled at him in return.
“Well, the English will take back the old sun with them!”
“And who will put up the new sun then? Bapuji ?”
“ Well, not just Bapuji but all those who have fought hard to build the new sun”.
“ And when the English go will they take away Father Gordon with them ?”
Heart in heart how much he wished the answer to be yes! Father Gordon’s English classes were always a nightmare for him.
Ahmed Ali smiled just a bit; he dared not to laugh out loud again.
“Ahem…well….that is not possible right now I guess. Father Gordon will have to wait till my grandson completes his grammar lessons”. He tried too hard to suppress his laughter.
Disappointed, Haider sunk his face into the snow white mass of his grandfather’s beard.
“Lets now talk about the celebration then! This moment will never come again and we all need to celebrate!”, someone from the crowd remarked.
This was cue enough for Haider to sit up and take notice. Kanu exchanged a “see-I-told-you” smile with him!

4

Gandhiji stood smiling at him. He was careful enough not to let the golden disc slip off his hands. “Careful Haider…one step at a time”, Gandhiji warned him yet again. The blue sky was still so far away. The ladder wobbled a bit but he carefully placed his next step. “Don’t worryBapuji, I can do this in no time”, he assured. The white horse standing next to Gandhiji smiled at him. Suddenly it called out loudly, “Haiiiiiiderrrrrr Betaaaa”.
Haider opened his eyes in a jiffy. A face stared at him. The horizontal stripes of light and shadow from the bamboo curtains created a strange look. He sat up shocked.
“Nani? “
“Yes, your own Nanibi! Why are you so shocked”, the old lady pulled his head to her bosom.
It took a few more seconds for him to understand where he was. Then a familiar smell made way to his nostrils.
Sewain!”, he remarked. How could he fail to identify the smell of ghee, milk, cardamom and fresh vapour emanating from the pot of hot vermicelli!
“Yes! Get up my lad….It is a special day for all of us today.”, his Nanibi remarked. Her eyes were moist already.
He sprung up to his feet at that very instance. He rushed to the courtyard, hardly bothering to wash himself.
The courtyard was teeming with people- those who were there yesterday and many more. Each were having a bowl of fresh sewain in their hand.
He rushed to his grandfather seated at the same place.
“ Did they put up the new sun as yet!”
His grandfather looked up. He smiled but looked tired somehow.
“ They did, my love! But they broke the sun into two. Now we have only half a sun!”
“ And what about the other half?”
“They put it up elsewhere!”.
His grandfather’s words sounded like a riddle to him. Placing his palms above his eyebrows like a shade he tried to look beyond the dazzling brightness of the morning sun.
Why, it did look round, didn’t it ?

5

“ Don’t go close….it is still wet”, Haider warned his friend before he could even approach the highly creased piece of cloth hanging like a festoon between two parallel tree branches. Uneven, indigo coloured message in a horrific handwriting stared from the banner. Kanu squinted his eyes and tried to decipher the message.
“How will you read it, silly? It is in English!”, Haider proudly warned his friend, stressing on the word ‘English’.
“But I know a bit of it, na?”
“Huh! That is because I had taught you! This is not a simple English; it is only for big people”, Haider remarked, trying to fix up a botched letter.
“Still….atleast you can read it out!”, Kanu was adamant.
“Hmm well then…I will read out the alphabets one by one so that you learn the spelling too. Look here: I -N -D-I- P-E-N-D-I-N and then D-A-Y”. Together you pronounce it as ‘Indipendin Day’ “. He took a breather, having read out such a mammoth word.
“And what means Indipendin Day, Haider?”, Kanu asked eagerly.
“Indipendin means to be free. This day onwards we are free from the gora angrez – no English police, no English officer….Nanujaan has permitted only Father Gordon to stay back. The rest will all take their horses and go”.
“Won’t the horses become tired ? English land is far away, isn’t it ?”, Kanu was puzzled.
“That is not for you and me to worry about. We will only celebrate. Tomorrow morning the entire mohalla will take out the big rally starting from our house. We will sing songs and you and I will hold this banner right in front”.
“ Wow! Then I will ask mother to take out a fresh dhoti”.
Haider placed his hand over his shoulder and smiled.
“Stupid! We have to wear Khadi dress tomorrow !”
“Khadi?”
“Yes, Bapuji has made sooooo much thread with his own hands. We will wear dresses made from that thread!”
Kanu was disappointed, “But who will buy me the Bapuji dress?”
“ Silly! Who else but Nanujaan! Today evening I will go to Munafgarh with Osman Chacha and get cloth for both of us! Nanibi will make dresses for us!”
Kanu’s eyes lit up at the thought of new dress.
“ Then, when they light up the gas lamps in the evening I will wait for you yaar – right near the kite shop”.
“ Yes, wait for me – I should be back by then. And when you come, bring this festoon with you. It should have dried by then!”
All of a sudden Kanu hugged Haider. Not that his tiny hands could encircle his friend fully but he knew he had to do it.

6

It was only orange and red everywhere. Flames danced from every corner of the neighbourhood. Human shrieks and cries tore the serenity of the nascent night. Pools of human blood masked every bit of the dusty road. Haider stood staring at the macabre death of humanity. He could not believe his eyes. Was he really standing in Muzaffargarh?
The people at the railway station did warn them. “Muzaffargarh ? Are you crazy ? It is a boiling pot of human blood now – Muslims are killing Hindus and Hindus are chopping Muslims in return! “, the tongawallah had warned them. Could things have gone wrong within three hours? They did not believe him. But the sight that they visualized right at the entrance of Muzaffargarh took their breath away.
“ Run Haider, run! We cannot enter the area now. Let us go to Munafgarh. We can stay at Mehmood bhai’s place till……”, Osman didn’t have a word to complete the speech but all he knew was that they had to escape.
“But I cannot”, Haider spoke, as if in a trance.
“Don’t be crazy Haider. Your Nanujaan, Nanibi are big enough to take care of themselves but how will we escape?”. He tried to drag Haider by his hands.
“But I have to reach the kite shop chacha”, he began to sob all of a sudden.
“Kite shop ? Have you gone crazy ?”.
“ Kanu…Kanu would surely be waiting for me”
Osman could not believe his ears but he softened his tone nevertheless. “ No my son, there can possibly be no one there. Who knows if they are….”
Haider couldn’t care less. He looked straight into his uncle’s eyes and spoke firmly, “I know he will wait. And I have to go – at any cost”.

7

“ Open your eyes Kanu…open!”, Haider shook his friend once again. Kanu tried to look at his friend, surpassing the steady stream of blood flowing from his forehead but he just couldn’t. Every attempt of his would be marred by a fresh trickle of raw blood covering his eye-lids. The charred kite shop smelt of burnt flesh. Haider pulled up his friend’s head close to himself once again. “ Get up Kanu….Look I have brought Bapuji’s cloth. We will make dresses- same to same. We will walk in the rally holding the banner”. Haider broke down, sobbing incessantly.
Kanu’s lips broke into a faint smile, his eyes shut tight. “ I have kept the banner safe yaar”, he whispered haltingly. He managed to lift up his hand. Therein clutched between his fingers was the banner – the indigo blue of the words ‘INDIPENDIN DAY’ now merged with the fresh red of the blood.
All of a sudden, Haider stood up – placing the frail body of his friend on his strong shoulders.
“What are you trying to do now Haider?”, Osman shrieked. So long he had been a mute witness to the conversation but now he knew he had to intervene. They just couldn’t afford to stand there any longer. But before he could do anything Haider began to run – his friend firmly on his shoulder. He didn’t seem to hear anyone, nor had any explanation to offer. All he knew was that he had to run – away from this mad frenzy, away from this vortex of hatred.

8

Silence was the only sound at that moment, broken at times by the chirp of the homeward birds. The purplish-orange of the setting sun offered a perfect setting for the narrative.
“Then?”, a small voice quipped from amidst the unusually quiet students. “ Did they survive – Haider and Kanu?”, the soft voice spoke again.
The guide smiled sadly, “If only one knew what happened to them! No one could ever trace them again, nor did they appear in Muzaffargarh ever. Like lakhs and lakhs of riot victims after independence, Haider and Kanu too remained lost forever. But people of Muzaffargarh have not forgotten them. This tiny structure was erected as a memory to their ever-lasting friendship – a friendship beyond every hatred. People place flowers here and remember them till date”. He pointed to the trident and the crescent structure.
“Ahem…”, Mrs.Nair cleared her throat. But the trace of moisture in her voice was evident. “Well then children….we will now have to go towards the main road. Our bus would arrive any moment now”.
The children made a perfect line this time, in twos – holding each other’s hands more tightly and firmly than usual.
Mrs.Nair turned towards the guide, “ Thank you so much…This was the best part of our trip. How much should we pay you?”
The guide smiled, “You don’t have to pay Madam. I do it for my happiness. I volunteer for this”.
“Well then…thank you once again. Mr…. ?”
“Ali”, the guide smiled again, “My name is Ali”.
Some of the children looked back and waved at him. He waved back.

9

The last trace of human figure had just melted into the horizon. The guide stared at the vanishing act for some time. Then he turned around and let out a sharp whistle. A short, aged man with cropped hair and a knee-length dhoti appeared from behind the Banyan tree.
Chalo, get on with your work. My part is over.” .The guide seated himself on a boulder and instructed his friend. His friend grinned from ear to ear. Seating himself beside the Trident and Crescent structure he began to remove the small stones and boulders, clearing the mass of dried flowers along. Then with deft fingers and a soft nudge he dismantled the Trident and Crescent structure, cleared the dust and soil from the base and wrapped it neatly with a piece of cloth and put it inside a side bag. Having completed his task he turned to look at the guide.
Yaar, why do you do this? Year after year, whenever you see kids…..”
The guide looked at him and smiled. “ Did you see their eyes ? I notice their eyes every time ….This time too I did not forget to see their eyes – they speak volumes. Those children may have been friends of each other but they would now onwards look beyond the limits of friendship. They would know that beyond every difference, every religious boundary there is the power of human bonding that can surpass hatred.”
“You speak so well yaar”. His friend laughed.
“ Hmm… forget about me. Look at the sky, it is getting dark.”
The two men took their belongings and began to walk towards the main road, still chatting with each other, pulling each other’s legs.
Yaar Haider, say what you may but no one makes Sewain like your Nanibi.”
“ And no one milk sweet tastes as good as Uma Chachi’s”.

10

Epilogue: The children had all just got inside the guest house with the respective teachers. Mrs. Nair took out her purse to pay the bus-driver. Just then a figure appeared at the gate of the guesthouse. With three-fourth of his paan stained tongue hanging from between the clutch of his teeth, Mr.Mishra looked every bit a symbolism of embarrassment.
Arrey re re re….I am so verrrrrrry sorry Mrs. Nair. I had promised you the best of arrangement but could not keep my word.”, he apologised profusely.
Mrs.Nair looked bewildered. “But why, Mr.Mishra ? Everything was perfect. The bus came on time and the guide….”
“Yes, exactly- the guide….”, Mr.Mishra was too eager to carry on with his apology.
“ What about the guide ? Mr.Ali was just perfect for the children”.
Now it was Mr.Mishra’s turn to be surprised.
“Ali ? Who is this Ali ? That is what I wanted to tell you Mrs. Nair. The guide, Shyam Singh, ditched us at the last moment….Some family emergency….All excuses….I will not leave him alive. And he knows pretty well that he is the only guide in the region…trying to act too important….My name is also Patitpawan Mishra…I will ensure that the rascal…….”.

(Originally published at: yourstoryclub.com)

Image Courtesy: Pixabay