Wake Up, Life Is Calling | Chapter 1 of 3

Author: Preeti Shenoy | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1115 Views | Add a Review

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About the author

Preeti Shenoy , among the top five highest-selling authors in the country, is on the Forbes India longlist of the most influential celebrities. Her work has been translated into many languages.

She has bagged the ‘Indian of the Year’ Brands Academy Award 2017 for her contribution to Literature. She has also received the Academia Award for Business Excellence by the New Delhi Institute of Management. She has given talks in many premier educational institutes such as IITs and IIMs, and corporate organisations like KPMG, ISRO, Infosys, Accenture and many others. She is also an artist, specialising in portraiture and illustrated journalling.

Her short stories and poetry have been published in various magazines such as Conde Nast and Verve . She has been featured on BBC World, Cosmopolitan, Th e Hindu, Th e Times of India and all other major media.

She has a very popular blog and also wrote a weekly column in The Financial Chronicle for many years. Her other interests are travel, photography and yoga.

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:@Preetishenoy

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Praise for the author and her works

One of India's most popular authors.

– Cosmopolitan

India’s top-selling female author.

BBC World

Feel-good air, crisp and easy-to-grasp writing.

New Woman

Quick-paced read.

DNA

Positive and full of life.

Financial World

Woven intelligently with simple language… leaves a profound impact.

Exotica

Amazing how deftly she weaves her stories.

Eve’s Times

Keeps the reader hooked from the first page to last.

Afternoon Voice

Magnetic, engrossing and unputdownable.

One India One People

Intense fiction that plays with your emotions.

The New India Express

Preeti Shenoy makes it work.

The Hindu

Has something for everyone.

The Hindu

Heart-warming love story.

Bangalore Mirror

Show-stealer.

Deccan Chronicle

Keenly observant mind.

DNA

Wonderful, passionate, common story.

The Sentinel

Wake Up,

Life is Calling

When your mind is your greatest enemy

PREETI SHENOY

 

Srishti

PUBLISHERS & DISTRIBUTORS

S RISHTI P UBLISHERS & D ISTRIBUTORS

Registered Office : N-16, C.R. Park

New Delhi – 110 019

Corporate Office : 212A, Peacock Lane

Shahpur Jat, New Delhi – 110 049

[email protected]

First published by Srishti Publishers & Distributors in 2019

Copyright © Preeti Shenoy, 2019

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

This is a work of fiction. The characters, places, organisations and events described in this book are either a work of the author’s imagination or have been used fictitiously. Any resemblance to people, living or dead, places, events, communities or organisations is purely coincidental.

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the Publishers.

Note: Since the story is set in the early 1990s, Mumbai has been referred to as Bombay , Chennai as Madras, and Kochi as Cochin. The names were officially changed in 1995-96.

Printed and bound in India by Saurabh Printers Pvt. Ltd.

For Purvi, Atul and Satish

Prologue

 

I sit on the windowsill, staring out at the parking lot, so utterly alone as I watch people going about their daily lives. I dread waking up in the morning and having to face another day.

The book I am attempting to read lies next to me. I don’t know what I am doing anymore. The hours stretch on endlessly. I’ve been trying hard to finish an assignment, due when college reopens. But I am unable to focus. I feel inadequate, worthless, inferior. I should have never joined this creative writing course. I have no original ideas, really. Even my professor said so. I am just a sham. A pretender. Someone who couldn’t do her MBA and joined this course just to escape. All of this is so pointless and painful. Today is a holiday, but soon I will have to go back to college. And face them. I don’t want to. I want to stay where I am. A thought hisses and spits in my head like a snake:

Drop out of this course. This is not for you.

The more I think about it, the surer I am. I am considering how to tell my parents that I want to drop out. A second time.

That’s when I hear the door to my room open. I know it is my father.

I sit up straight. Not the medication again. I am sure I am unable to think because of the damn medicines. My parents insist I take them. But my head feels heavy when I do. My tongue becomes so thick that I am unable to talk. I am unable to think.

‘Please go away, I don’t want to take it,’ I say even before he speaks.

‘Look, I spoke to Dr Neeraj and he says you can take these. They helped you earlier, didn’t they? It was all good, remember?’ says my father as he stands there with the pills in his hand.

‘It was good not because of the medicines, but because I tried hard,’ I reply.

‘Of course you tried hard. Now be a good girl and take these,’ says my father as he extends his hand.

‘No, no, no.’ My fists are clenched into tight balls and I refuse to meet my father’s eye. I don’t want to look at him. Or at my mother who is right behind him. I can’t stand the helpless expression on their faces, the pleading looks, their panic, but mostly it’s the depth of their love that I can’t bear. They don’t deserve this. I have had enough. I cannot face them anymore. I don’t want to be a part of any of this. I have given them enough pain in the last one year when I had to be admitted to a mental hospital.

‘Please, Ankita,’ my father pleads. I detest the whine in his voice.

‘Don’t... Don’t say anything. Don’t enter my room. Get out!’ I yell, my eyes blazing, my voice high-pitched.

It is as though there is another person speaking from within me.

‘Listen, Ankita, if you don’t take the medication, you will become worse. Don’t you remember what happened?’ my father says in a calm voice.

I remember. I remember every single thing.

‘Please, Ankita. Just this one tablet. Take it, please?’ My father refuses to give up.

‘Get the fuck out. Now!’ I scream.

‘Watch your words!’ my mother yells at me. If there is one thing she cannot stand, it is my talking back, and refusing to do as I am told.

‘You…. You shut up!’ I yell back louder. I am shaking in rage now.

I pick up a paperweight and fling it at my father. It catches him by surprise, and hits him on the forehead. He drops the pills he is carrying, his hand going up instinctively to his forehead. I watch impassively as blood gushes out from the skin split open. His face contorts in pain.

‘You witch! Look at what you have done!’ my mother screams, as she rushes forward to help him.

He has backed off now, wincing in pain, clutching the handle of the door.

My mother rushes to the fridge to get some ice.

I am still standing there, rooted to the spot, staring at him. I cannot believe I did this.

I watch as he leaves my room.

Then I shut the door.

I fling myself on the bed and weep loudly, my wails smothered by the pillow. I don’t want them to hear me cry. My body heaves as I shout into the pillow, crying, sobbing. I don’t recognise the primeval noises coming from deep within me. I clutch the pillow hard. I hate what I am doing to my parents. I want this to end.

How much more do I have to endure? How much more? Weren’t all those months at the hospital enough? This is unfair… unfair… unfair. I recall the months at the hospital, the electric shock treatments, the occupational therapy, my life there and how I struggled to read, to get back to normalcy. I thought I had won. I thought I had succeeded. I thought I had conquered my mind.

I thought all this was behind me. I thought I had overcome all of it. But how wrong I was! The monster I presumed to have defeated has come back with a vengeance.

The pills my father dropped are lying by the door. I hate them. I have had enough of medication, doctors, psychiatrists. I don’t want any more of it.

A small voice of reason in my head speaks up. ‘Take the tablets. Take them,’ it says. I know if I don’t take them, I will probably have to be admitted once more. My father is right.

But the medication takes away everything. Makes me numb, drowsy, not myself. Wipes away my thoughts, empties my imagination. It is supposed to help me. But all it does is kill me. Kill me from inside.

I am frightened now. If I could lose control like that and hurt my father, there is no telling what I will do next.

I pick up the pills and walk out of the room. My father is sitting on the sofa with an ice-pack to his head. My mother glares at me.

‘I… I am sorry, Dad. I will take the medication,’ I choke on my words. ‘Are you hurt?’

‘It’s nothing, Ankita. Just a small cut,’ he says.

I start crying again. I know there is no escape now. I have been getting progressively worse.

‘Please make an appointment. Take me to the doctor,’ I say.

My worst fears have come true. The nightmare has started once again. Trapped in my body, trapped in my head, I am my own prisoner.

There is no escape.

1

 

Just Like Starting Over

 

Bombay

October, 1993

W hen you have survived something that almost destroyed you and have clawed your way back to normalcy, little by little, you think everything will be okay from now on. You are desperate to put the nightmares of your past behind you, looking for the smallest signs of hope. You clutch at even the tiniest positive bits, convincing yourself that they are signs that point towards a brighter future.

I was no different. I was full of hope, eager to start my new life. I had tied up my past neatly, sealed it tight in cardboard cartons with duct tape and kicked them out of sight. No more mental hospitals. No more Occupational Therapy. No more psychiatrists. I was going to a new college, a new course – Creative Writing at that! It had always been my dream, and I couldn’t believe I was now living it.

Though a tiny part of me felt guilty for wasting my parents’ money on the MBA course (they had paid the entire fees in advance – non-refundable), what took precedence was that I was finally back in the ‘normal world’, a world where I belonged , and would be soon doing a course that I loved. I did not care that the college timing was 1.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m., as Creative Writing was still not viewed as one of the mainstream courses, which were all in the mornings.

I did not care that I had to travel by the electric trains in Bombay. Getting into and out of these trains was an art in itself. Once inside, you had to know in advance which side of the train you had to get out of, as the platform could be on either side. Accordingly, you had to choose your position and park yourself there. The pushing would start precisely ten seconds before the train came to a halt. You could not evade the mass of tightly squashed human bodies, all exerting force in the same direction. You flowed out helplessly with the sea, gasping for breath when you emerged on the platform. The old me would have shuddered at the thought of all this. But this was the new me – freshly minted, raring to go.

My parents were still treating me like a delicate flower, even though it had been two months since I was out of the National Mental Health Institute (NMHI). They were protective and accompanied me everywhere. My every little wish was their command.

When I said I wanted to eat ice cream one night, my father drove all the way to Juhu, to a fancy ice cream parlour that had just opened.

I wasn’t used to my parents behaving like this towards me. I think they were afraid I would have another breakdown. Though I protested, I secretly liked it.

‘I am fine now! You don’t have to listen to everything I say,’ I said at the ice cream parlour.

‘We know. But this is a chance for us to pamper you. It is only for a little while, so enjoy it,’ said my mother.

‘Besides, it is also a chance for me to eat ice cream,’ my father added, and we all laughed.

They took me shopping to buy new clothes for college. They insisted that I should get a new backpack, new notebooks, and some nice stationery.

‘I don’t need any of this!’ I said, laughing.

‘It’s a new start, Ankita. We gave away your old college bag and notebooks when we moved here,’ my mother said.

While I was in the hospital, my parents had moved homes. The apartment was in a new building in Bandra, a coveted locality – a coastal suburb with a nice neighbourhood, large shady trees, a lot of greenery, pleasant neighbours and all modern amenities like a pool, a gym, shops as well as restaurants within walking distance. My mother loved it. I did too, but for different reasons. It meant that nobody knew me here, nobody knew my past, nobody knew of the crazy things I had done when I had bipolar disorder. I was free to forge a new identity.

On my first day to college, without my parents as chaperone, I felt free as a bird. I almost danced all the way to the railway station. I was humming and the backpack thumping rhythmically as I walked felt like celebratory drumbeats. As I sat in the train, and the stations sped past, taking me closer to my destination, I became ebullient. A little boy got into the train and began singing the latest film song: ‘ Baazigar, O, baazigar,’ he sang in a shrill pitch, as he made music with two flat stones, which he used like an instrument, holding them expertly in his hand. He made eye contact with me as he sang, ‘Tu hai bada jaadugar ’, and broke into a little jig. I chuckled in delight as I slipped a ten-rupee note into his palm, which quickly vanished.

Churchgate was the last stop and as the train came to a grinding halt, the passengers began streaming out. It was a short walk to the college. The college – a Christian women’s college – I knew would be similar to St. Agnes in Kerala, where I had done my graduation, as it was a sister institution.

Giddy with exhilaration, I entered the college building, an imposing structure – a white multi-storied building that stood like a fortress. A black-board at the entrance welcomed us – the new batch of students of the creative writing course – and directed us to the fifth floor, where our classrooms were located.

My classroom, surprisingly, had long red curtains that billowed ceiling to floor. The windows overlooked treetops, and there was nature all around. The parrots perched on branches were surely a good omen. The afternoon sun cast rainbows in the room, the light filtering in through the redness of the curtains. I loved my classroom instantly. This was even better than St. Agnes!

I had been locked away from the world for so many months. For everyone else in the classroom, all of this was not anything unusual or extraordinary. But I stared at the benches, the blackboard – everything. It had been such a long time since I had seen any institution other than a mental hospital. I revelled in this atmosphere, soaking in every tiny detail.

I loved it all! It was my own personal slice of heaven.

‘At last I am here,’ I high-fived myself as I made my way to the back of the classroom.

I didn’t want to sit right in the front, so made my way to the middle benches, my eyes scanning them quickly for an empty space.

My new life had begun and I was eager to dive in.

2

 

Like a Virgin

‘P ssst… Come, come, sit here,’ said a girl, patting the seat beside her. Though seated, it was easy to surmise that she was at least half a foot taller than me. Th e first thing I noticed about her aft er her height was her pale creamy complexion. She was so fair that she could easily be mistaken for a white person. Short brown hair framed her face, matching her deep brown eyes. She was a striking figure in her canary yellow kurti, which contrasted with her maroon pants. I found myself instantly liking her. Like the classroom, there was a warm gleam to her.

‘Hi, I am Ankita,’ I said as I placed my bag under the desk, sliding onto the bench.

‘Parul. Nice to meet you,’ she said. ‘And this is Janki,’ she introduced the girl next to her. Janki, much shorter than me, wore a worried look as she sifted furiously through her bag.

‘Hi,’ she said, barely looking up.

‘Hi. Lost something?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, my train pass. Can’t seem to find it.’ She frowned.

‘Has to be in your bag,’ said Parul.

I noticed it under the bench then, right next to my bag.

‘Is it this?’ I asked as I picked it up and handed it to her.

Her eyes lit up.

‘Thank you! You’re a life-saver… Er… I didn’t catch your name.’

‘Ankita,’ I said.

‘So, do you two know each other from before?’ I asked.

‘No, we just met. I invited her to sit here too. I choose my companions carefully. They have to pass my secret test,’ whispered Parul conspiratorially.

‘Oh! And how did you choose? What test did we pass to qualify?’ I asked.

‘I can read faces. You have a kind face. So does Janki. See that girl over there?’ She pointed to someone with a pointed face and straight hair in the front row. ‘I can tell she is a complete bitch. Don’t be friends with her,’ Parul said with certainty.

Janki laughed. ‘And how do you know that we are nice?’ she probed.

‘I told you, I have a sixth sense,’ said Parul.

I noticed that Janki was dressed very fashionably in a white linen top and a knee-length paisley-printed skirt with a crocheted lace border. Her shoulder-length hair was styled professionally and she wore pale pink lipstick. Her eyelids were lined with eyeliner, accentuating the almond shape of her eyes. She looked glamorous. Compared to them, I felt very ordinary in my usual jeans and a tee, my hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. Most of the girls in the class seemed to have dressed up, and I made a mental note to step up my style quotient.

‘So what is your background? Which college did you graduate from?’ asked Janki.

An innocent, casual question, but I found myself stiffening up. I didn’t want them to know anything about my past; I had to be careful.

‘I moved here from Kerala. I graduated from a college there,’ I answered after a moment.

‘Oh! So you are new to Bombay!’ said Parul.

‘Yes,’ I lied. It was not exactly a complete lie. It was a half-truth. I had indeed graduated from Kerala and moved to Bombay. There was no chance in hell I was sharing the NMHI episode with anyone, let alone people I had just met.

‘What about you two?’ I asked them, quickly deflecting attention away from me.

‘I did my BA Literature from Xavier’s,’ said Parul.

‘And I did my B.Com from SNDT,’ said Janki

‘I too did my B.Com! So we both have something in common,’ I said.

‘Then how is it that you both decided to do a creative writing course?’ Parul asked, surprised.

‘I have to do something till my parents find a husband for me. This course was just for a year, so it suited me. I hated-hated-hated accountancy, mercantile law and all that nonsense they taught in B.Com.’ Janki wrinkled her nose comically.

‘Oh! And you are okay with that?’ asked Parul, her eyes widening.

I had never met anyone like Janki. She was nonchalantly declaring that she was not serious about the course and was just waiting to get married.

‘I guess I am. I never really thought about it,’ said Janki.

‘What? Are you for real?’ exclaimed Parul.

Janki just shrugged and smiled.

‘And what about you? Why creative writing after B.Com? Don’t tell me you are waiting to get married too?’ Parul addressed me.

‘Of course not. I like writing more than commerce or accountancy. I want to write for a magazine or a newspaper,’ I said.

‘This is what I want too. I initially thought of doing an MA. But I felt this was more practical, as we have an internship here after our course. We get work experience, which is great,’ said Parul.

‘God – you two are so sorted, yaar,’ said Janki, as she rummaged through her bag, fished out a mirror and reapplied the lip gloss. I watched in fascination at how expertly she had done it.

‘No boys here. I wish there were,’ she said as she put away her lip gloss and mirror.

‘Was your previous college a co-ed?’ I asked.

‘No! My parents won’t let me to go to a co-ed college.’ Janki made a face.

‘It’s over-rated. I went to a co-ed college, and boys are nothing but a bore,’ said Parul, pretending to yawn.

‘I agree,’ I said, though I hadn’t thought about boys for a long time.

But I desperately wanted to fit in with them, and talk about whatever they wanted to talk of.

A professor entered the class just then. She motored in fast, breathless as she placed her books on the table. She looked young and was dressed very unlike a professor, in jeans and a shirt. All the girls stood up.

‘Hellooooo, girls! I am Nalini,’ she said, ‘You can call me Nuls.’

There were nervous giggles, as we didn’t know if she was joking or not.

‘Sit down, sit down,’ she said. Her voice was child-like and singsong. ‘I have discovered that the students anyway give nicknames to professors. So I thought I would choose my own nickname. Nice?’

‘What the hell,’ muttered Parul.

Nuls declared that she would be teaching poetry. She gave a brief overview of what we would cover, and how we would be writing poetry ourselves.

‘Any questions?’ she asked when she finished.

A hand shot up from one of the benches at the other end of the classroom.

‘Yes?’ said Nuls eagerly.

‘Do you always wear jeans to class, Nuls?’

The whole class laughed. Nuls laughed too.

‘I couldn’t find any formal wear. I was too lazy to do laundry,’ she declared.

‘Nuls, I have a question,’ another voice piped up from the front of the class.

‘Yes? And it better not be about my clothes,’ Nuls warned.

‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ asked the girl who had raised her hand.

‘Why? Are you planning to steal him?’ Nuls was quick to retort.

The whole class laughed again.

She was only a few years older than us, and she seemed very casual in her approach to the course. It was evident that she had not done any preparations for her lecture. The kind of things she said was what my eighth grade English teacher had taught me. I felt a bit cheated. My expectations of the course had been very high, and Nuls, though friendly, was disappointing.

Parul and I glanced at each other and I knew instantly that Parul felt the same way. Parul shook her head. ‘Nuls is nuts,’ she whispered.

I fiercely nodded. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Janki laughing along with all the others.

We had a break when Nuls’s lecture finally got over. We discovered a sugarcane juice stall across the road, opposite the college, where all the girls congregated during the break. We sat on makeshift benches which the stall-owner – a middle-aged man named Maneesh – had fashioned from bricks and granite slabs. He had named the stall after himself, and the red crude letters painted on the side of the stall announcing its name were now faded.

Everyone seemed to have formed their own groups, with Parul, Janki and me forming a trio. Parul dragged us and introduced us to another group of girls. They all had varied backgrounds, and their own reasons for taking up creative writing – ranging from wanting to go the US (which mandated a four-year degree for undergrad) to wanting to be in the same city as a boyfriend, to wanting to be in South Bombay and not getting into any other course.

No one was really serious about creative writing other than Parul and me. I didn’t care though! I was happy to be among all these girls, and join in the fun and laughter. I was Rip Van Winkle emerging from his slumber to join civilisation. This was something I had missed for so long. I wasn’t letting anything get in the way of my enjoying the world I had sorely missed.

The girls were excitedly talking and discussing Nuls as they sipped their sugarcane juice.

‘Do you think Nuls is a virgin?’ asked one.

‘She definitely is not.’

‘How can you tell?’

‘By the way she walks. After a woman has been fucked, she walks differently.’

‘What?! Get out of here.’

‘It’s the truth, I swear.’

‘Okay, let’s all walk, and you guess which one of us is a virgin, okay?’

‘Okay, I am in.’

‘So am I.’

‘So am I.’

‘Me too.’

There were hoots of laughter as each of the girls sashayed, walking one behind the other, and the ‘virgin-identifier’ declared her verdict on whether each one was a virgin or not, amidst peals of laughter and wolf whistles. The girls were quite rowdy and having been in a women’s college earlier, this kind of behaviour didn’t shock me at all. I was used to it. When women get together without any men around, there is a different vibe, a different energy. It was a lot of silliness really, but I reveled in every little bit of the silliness.

‘Your turns,’ said one of the girls suddenly, pointing at Janki, Parul and me.

‘Nooo!’ protested Janki.

‘Yes!’ affirmed Parul as she pushed her in front, and asked me to line up behind her, and we walked a few steps.

The virgin-identifier declared that Parul and I were not virgins and that Janki was. Parul couldn’t stop laughing, and I found it hilarious too. Janki too was wiping away her tears of laughter.

I knew what the truth was. I had only kissed, and never had sex with any guy. But these girls seemed to think that not being a virgin was somehow cooler. It instantly elevated your status. So I went along, and pretended she was right.

‘This group is a fun group, yaar!’ said Janki as we walked back to the class for the next session.

‘Yes! Stupid, but fun,’ Parul agreed. How could I even tell them how much this bit of ribaldry meant to me! So I said nothing and walked back to class with them, a huge grin on my face.

‘We didn’t learn much in Nuls’s class. All we learnt was a null,’ I said as we entered the classroom and took our seats.

‘Yes. But then that’s what the library is there for,’ Parul said.

‘Is it good? Have you seen it?’ I asked.

‘Yes, it’s an excellent one. We can teach ourselves all the topics that Nuls doesn’t cover properly,’ Parul said.

‘I hope the next lecturer is better,’ I remarked.

But as it turned out, the other lecturer was even worse. Mrs Amrita Tulapurkar was a middle-aged lady with a master’s degree in literature and a talent for making even interesting topics dull. She droned on in a nasal voice, mostly reading out lengthy passages from voluminous tomes as ‘examples of good writing’. We weren’t allowed to ask any questions in her class. During her lecture, Janki rested her head on the desk and fell asleep. Mrs Tulapurkar did not even notice.

By the time classes got over that day, the sun had already set. I wasn’t used to being out this late. After my sheltered days at NMHI, this was radical.

‘I wish the classes got over a little earlier. It’s so dark,’ I remarked.

‘Why, what’s with your fear of the dark? Afraid of Dracula?’ laughed Parul.

‘Actually, I'm afraid of losing my glass slipper,’ I retorted.

‘Eh? What glass slipper?’ asked Janki.

Arrey baba , Cinderella,’ said Parul.

‘What Cinderella?’ Janki asked, frowning.

‘What? Haven’t you heard of Cinderella? The fairy tale princess? What are you made of, girl?’ Parul exclaimed.

I was taken aback too. How could anyone not have heard of Cinderella?

‘Is she famous?’ asked Janki.

‘It’s a fairy tale, Janki. Haven’t you read fairy tales?’ I asked.

‘We weren’t allowed any story books. Only text books,’ said Janki.

‘What do your folks do?’ asked Parul, slightly intrigued.

‘Diamonds,’ Janki replied. ‘We own a jewellery business – mostly diamonds. We export, but we also sell here.’

‘Your family must be loaded! Where do you live?’ Parul asked.

We learnt that she lived in a joint family and they owned a massive house on Grant Road. Her grandfather had established the business, now run by her father and uncles. Nobody in her family believed that women should go out and work. Academics weren’t important.

‘What a cushy life!’ marvelled Parul.

‘What about you, Parul? Your turn to tell us all about yourself. Where do you live? What do your parents do?’ Janki asked.

‘Single child of a single mother, I live in Mahalaxmi,’ said Parul.

‘Are your parents divorced?’ Janki probed.

‘Ha ha. No. They never got married. I have never met my father. He is American. He was a part of a delegation that visited India. He stayed here for about a year when he and my mother met and fell in love. He wanted to take my mother back to the US and get married. But my mother chose to stay in India, as my Nani had been diagnosed with cancer at that time. She needed care. Nana had died while he was in the army. Nani was all my mother had, before she had me, of course,’ said Parul.

‘Oh, so you are half-white!’ said Janki.

‘Can’t you make that out from how I look? I thought it was obvious. But I am one hundred percent Indian on the inside,’ she said.

‘So you never met your father?’ Janki questioned.

‘No. I think he has visited us a couple of times. But I was too little to remember,’ said Parul.

‘What does your mother do?’ I asked, fascinated by her story. I had never met anyone like her before. I was liking her more and more. She was so honest and forthright. She was the ‘coolest’ friend I had ever made.

‘She works in the film industry. She has been an assistant director in many movies. She has also written a script,’ said Parul proudly.

‘Cool yaar! Take us to film sets sometime. Make us meet all the stars!’ Janki said.

‘It’s a drag, trust me. But, yes, will take you sometime,’ Parul promised. ‘What about you, Ankita? What is your story?’

‘Yes, tell us about yourself,’ Janki echoed.

We had reached the Churchgate station by then. There was already a fast train standing there.

‘Mine is an ordinary story. Just a middle-class family. Nothing exotic or interesting,’ I said.

I was happy my train was waiting, as I didn’t want them asking me any more questions. They had to take the slow train, as their stations were quite close to Churchgate. The slow trains halted in every station. I took the fast train, as it would stop only at Dadar and then at Bandra.

‘See you tomorrow, girls,’ I said.

‘See you tomorrow,’ shouted Parul, as I ran towards my train, feeling light as air.

When I got back home, my parents were eagerly waiting to hear all about my first day.

‘It was wonderful! It is just like my old college in Kerala. The girls are so much fun. I made new friends,’ I replied, pirouetting around the drawing room, a big smile on my face.

My parents were relieved.

‘Ankita, that is so good to hear,’ said my father, the relief and joy in his voice ringing clear.

‘Yes. How nice this is,’ said my mother. ‘I almost forgot – a letter came for you,’ she added. She held out an envelope. I knew from the writing who it was from even before I opened it.

Heart racing, I rushed to my room with the letter.

3

 

Here’s Your Letter

 

I was so familiar with his handwriting that I’d have identifi ed it even after a hundred years. Though I had written to him aft er my discharge from NMHI, I had never expected a reply. And here he was, replying aft er months.

26 th September 1993
Delhi
Dearest Ankita,
You have no idea how happy I was to get your letter aft er such a long time. Your mother was very sweet on the phone every time I called. She kept telling me that you were in a village in Kerala, and there were no phones there. I realised then that there was something not quite right, which was one of the reasons I kept calling. I will come to the other reason later.
I can only imagine what you must have gone through. I was deeply disturbed, and also moved, when I read about everything you had gone through. Why didn’t you reach out to me? I was always there. Though submerged in my studies, had you called, Ankita, I would have dropped everything for you.
The last year in IIT is always stressful because of placements. When I went home for the summer, I discussed with my parents and weighed my options and thought about whether to go for higher studies, civil services, study management or get a job. I decided I would work in India for two years and get enough work experience, and then decide whether to go abroad or study management. I will have more clarity then.
From September onwards we had companies coming to our campus, and the application process began. They held presentations, and we had to write tests. I don’t remember a single weekend I was free. Then the short-listing began. Everyone tries to get an offer in phase 1 itself.

I am happy to let you know I have two offers, and both from Bombay. I have accepted one of them and start my new job in a month! This was the other reason I kept calling you – I was so excited to be moving to your city.
From your letter it is evident that you are now very strong, and the worst is behind you. Still, I want you to know that I am always here for you. Always. All you have to do is pick up the phone and call me.

And soon we will meet.

Love,
Vaibhav

‘Oh Good Lord!’ I exclaimed out loud when I finished reading his letter. How could he just decide to walk back into my life? I wanted a fresh start. And if that meant severing all ties with my past, I would do it. After all that I had been through in NMHI, I felt I deserved a fresh start. But now he had got back in touch and spoilt it all.

I wasn’t sure he understood th e enormity of what I had gone through, even though he had written that he had. It was evident he had no clue. How could he even comprehend when I myself was grappling with it? There was no question of ‘reaching out’ to him, like he had mentioned in the letter. It had all happened so fast, like being swept away by a gigantic tidal wave. The anguish, the rage, the sheer helplessness of being confined to a mental hospital, the fight to get back to normalcy, the trauma. I couldn’t even begin to explain.

Granted that while in school, we had been in love – or maybe it was just a crush, I wasn’t entirely sure. After school, he had left for Delhi to join IIT, and I had joined St. Agnes for my graduation. We had kept in touch through letters and phone calls. I remembered how thrilled I used to be to hear from him. On my eighteenth birthday, he had told me he loved me. But all of this seemed to be from another life, before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, before I had to go away to a hospital to heal.

When I had written to him after I was discharged, explaining my silence and mentioning how I was a different person now, I had treated it more as a closure from my side. As far as I was concerned, I was done with my old life, and perhaps the people in it too.

I had been to hell and back, and I had lived to tell the tale. And now here he was, moving to Bombay.

Why? Why? Why?

I wasn’t happy about this development at all. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to meet him. But there was nothing I could do. He was moving to Bombay whether I liked it or not.

I put his letter out of my head as I rushed to college the next day. Parul was already in class by the time I reached.

‘Tomorrow onwards, let’s wait for each other at the station. It is boring to walk to college alone,’ she declared.

Today she was dressed in a peacock blue peasant top, a smart black tight skirt and boots. Janki wore a yellow top with puff sleeves, and a checked ankle-length skirt with tiny bows running all around the hem.

‘You guys dress up so well. I feel plain,’ I admitted, as I slid in next to Parul.

Parul looked at my jeans and T-shirt.

‘You’re fine the way you are. But if you want to go shopping, we can go to Fashion Street tomorrow. I buy all my clothes from there; I don’t mind going with you,’ she offered.

‘Fashion Street? What’s that?’ I asked.

‘Oh, you don’t know Fashion Street?!’ both Janki and Parul said together.

‘Do you also buy your clothes from there?’ I asked.

‘Oh, we have a darzi who comes home and copies all the patterns from any movie that you tell him. This one I am wearing is what Juhi Chawla wore in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, ’ she said.

She expected me to have not only seen the movie, but also to remember what the actress wore! I had no idea of either. But I nodded.

It was no different from my expecting her to know about Cinderella.

A professor entered the class then, and the excited chatter suddenly stopped. She was frail, in her early sixties, and walked slowly. Her bobbed white hair added to her aura of dignity. I noticed her string of pearls and pale pink dress with a matching formal jacket. She looked like the queen of England to me – distinguished, sophisticated and gentle.

She said we could address her as Mrs Hayden. She spoke about how she had taught literature in a prominent college abroad and how after retirement she had moved to Bombay and how the principal of the college was very keen to have her teach here. She said she would come in only thrice a week, and that she expected all the work she assigned us to be submitted on time. She outlined the topics she’d be covering in the first nine weeks – characteristics of good writing, figurative language, imagery, sensory details, point of view, descriptive writing and persuasive writing.

‘There are some ground rules I want to lay down,’ she said in her British accent, her voice so low that all of us had to be absolutely quiet to hear.

‘My first rule is that you have to be on time. If you are late, not seated and ready to begin your work when the bell goes, I shall mark you absent. Be respectful to everyone in the classroom – to your peers as well as to your instructors. Procrastination is a bad habit, and if you turn in your work late, I take away credits. I shall grade all your work on a scale of A to E. E indicates that the work is full of clichés and not thoughtful; A would mean that the work is highly original, highly successful and shows informed engagement with the literary genre. May you reach your goals as writers! I wish you the very best and I look forward to reading your assignments,’ she said.

With that she ended her little speech, and asked us to introduce ourselves.

There was not a single student who was not affected by her crisp manner and approach. After Nuls and Tulapurkar, she was a welcome change. We found ourselves sitting up a little straighter. After all of us in the class had introduced ourselves, she asked us what writing meant to us.

Parul’s hand shot up. I ducked out of sight. I didn’t want to be called out to answer this question. I wasn’t ready to face the class.

Mrs Hayden pointed to a girl in the front bench and asked her to answer.

‘Writing gives meaning to my life,’ she said.

‘How does it give meaning to your life? Could you elaborate?’ Mrs Hayden asked.

‘Ummm… aaah,’ went the girl. She had no answer.

‘Remember, you have to think about what writing actually means to you . Do not try and paraphrase what other literary greats have said. Also, they are people just like you who stuck at it long enough to become successful.’

Mrs Hayden then pointed to Parul.

‘Writing is something that will help me pay bills and my rent, my money for my bread, and hopefully some butter too,’ said Parul.

The whole class laughed. Mrs Hayden smiled.

‘Now that is a practical answer,’ she said.

I hunched over and scribbled in my notebook. I didn’t want to look up in case I caught Mrs Hayden’s eyes.

‘What does writing mean to you?’ I had written.

While the other girls were answering, I was thinking hard. My brain was furiously trying to find an answer. My hands were moving across the page almost on their own.

I stared at what I had just written.

Writing is what stopped me from taking my own life.

It was the truth. A truth I hugged close to my heart. A truth I buried deep within me. A truth I would never reveal.

So I shut my notebook, chewed on the tip of my pen and listened to the other girls talking about what writing meant to them, not knowing that this truth would become a noose around my neck.

4

 

The Visit

W hen Mrs Hayden gave us a break, we went to the sugarcane juice stall.

‘Bhaiya , put some plastic chairs here. We come here daily! Is this the way to treat customers?’ Parul admonished him as she sat on the slab, sipping her juice.

‘I can’t really do that. Th ose Pandus will then say it is a proper restaurant, and I will have to pay them extra haft a, ’ Maneesh said.

‘Pandu? What is a Pandu?’ I asked.

Maneesh guffawed. ‘She doesn’t know Pandu? Is she new to Bombay?’ he asked.

Parul and Janki both shushed me.

‘Don’t ever say it loudly. It’s a derogatory term for policemen. They get mad if you call them that,’ Janki explained.

The moment she mentioned policemen, it rekindled a memory I thought I had long buried.

Old memories have a way of resurfacing when you least expect them to. They clutch your heart, dredging up emotions you thought you had killed. I remembered how the police had tumbled out of their jeeps in Kerala the night I had kissed Abhi all those years ago. Recalling that incident felt like a sudden stab in the gut. If I had known at that point that he would die, would I have kissed him harder, or would I have refrained? What would have made it easier to bear what was to follow? I didn’t know. All I knew is that even after all this time, it felt like someone had torn out my heart and flung it aside. Half-formed regrets came rushing to my head, clouding my brain like mist. I had not even gone to see his body that day. I heard Appachan’s voice clearly in my head, breaking on the phone the day I had called him. This is the problem with life, I thought bitterly. It snatches away people who do not deserve to die. It destroys everything when you least expect it. It takes away all that you value and hold dear, leaving you with scraps of longing and regrets that gnaw at your soul.

‘Hello! You have gone pale and you seem miles away. Are you okay?’ Parul was snapping her fingers in front of my face.

‘Yes, sorry… I am fine,’ I said, as I took a deep breath and exhaled, furiously fighting my memories.

I did not want to remember the past. I had fought my way out. I tried to push it away, but it clung to me like a stubborn stain.

For the rest of that day, neither Parul’s jokes nor Janki’s comments and the usual chatter of the other girls had any impact on me. Outwardly, I smiled and joined in. Nobody noticed that the smile never reached my eyes.

I was so busy with my new course and my new friends that I had forgotten all about replying to Vaibhav. Each day brought new homework. I was very clear that I wanted to top this course. I wanted to succeed very badly. It would be my comeback, my redemption for dropping out of MBA and getting admitted to NMHI.

I was ready to do whatever it took. Anything that was assigned, anything that needed to be read, anything that the professors told us to do, I would do it meticulously, promptly and with great care.

I began frequenting the college library, with its very large collection of reference books. When I first entered it, I instantly compared it to the library at St. Agnes, its wood-panelled walls, its massive ancient ceilings and the warm welcoming feeling. This library was nothing like it. It was a modern structure on the topmost floor of our college. There were rows and rows of cold steel bookshelves. I didn’t care though! It held a well of knowledge and my thirst was unquenchable.

Soon I became a fixture there. Mrs Asthana, the librarian who had a reputation of being grumpy, began recognising me and smiling at me. I would be at the library very frequently, poring over reference books, finishing my assignments. On some days, I left home early and spent the entire morning there, doing my work till it was time for classes to start.

Parul and I had now begun competing with each other to see who would earn the higher grade, and who could elicit more praise from Mrs Hayden. It was a sunny rivalry.

It had been almost a month since my college started. I had settled down well into the new course with great optimism. Spending time at a mental hospital changes you in ways you can’t imagine. I had never thought that I would be able to read again, let alone write. I shuddered when I thought of the days I’d lost my ability to read. The time I couldn’t even read a children’s book seemed like a bad dream, even though it was only a few months ago. Most people take for granted that they can read. They don’t think twice about it as they go about their daily business.

For me, each word I wrote, each assignment I submitted was a triumph, a victory lap. It was a joy I couldn’t share with anybody. Nobody knew what it was like to be a prisoner of your mind. I had broken those shackles and, oh, how I enjoyed the freedom!

My parents were overjoyed to see me in this mode. The medications too had been stopped. I too couldn’t get over it!

‘I am NORMAL, I am NORMAL! I don’t have to take any medications anymore. I can READ, I can WRITE. Do you realise how GOOD that feels?’ I wanted to shout from the roof-tops. But, of course, nobody would understand. I would just be this fool mouthing gibberish to them. How could anyone even begin to imagine the darkness I had once been thrust into?

I ran my hands over the scar that ran across the back of my left forearm, extending right up to my wrist, a permanent reminder of my ordeals, of that bleak day I tried to slash my wrist. They were my secret badges, my medals. I applauded myself silently, celebrating on my own, inside my head.

The human mind copes with new realities, making adjustments in ways that suit it best. My mind had shut the door firmly on my past. It was the only way to move forward.

Whenever a memory from my old life came back to me, I would push it away, suppress it, till it receded. I would remind myself how fortunate I was to have this course, how good I was at all the assignments, and how lucky I was to have found new friends.

But the past has a way of catching up with you. It is not so easy to escape its clutches. I should have known.

If life was a house, then you could compartmentalise things you did not want to deal with by pushing them into a room which you never enter and forget all about. That is what I had done. I had presumed I could get by without ever opening that door. But as long as that room existed, it couldn’t stay locked forever. At some point you had to deal with what was behind the door, breathe in the stale air, the dust, the neglect in that closed room.

For me, that door to my past opened up when I least expected it. I came back from college one evening, and my mother greeted me smiling. ‘Ankita, there’s a surprise for you. Look who is here!’

I froze as I entered my home. Sitting on the living room sofa, waiting for me with a big smile on his face, was Vaibhav.

5

 

With a Little Help from my Friends

 

I stood rooted to the spot, staring in disbelief. ‘Hi, Ankita! Thought this would be a nice surprise,’ said Vaibhav, his voice deeper than I remembered.

My first reaction was annoyance. How could he just turn up like this out of the blue? And why was my mother smiling at him so benignly? How did he get here?

All my life, my mother had discouraged boys from visiting home, or my going out with boys. Though I was allowed to write to anyone, I wasn’t really allowed on ‘dates’. If I was going out with a boy, I hid it from her. I knew that my stay at NMHI had changed my parents completely, especially my mother. But this? I never expected this. It was a drastic change. I didn’t know what to make of it.

‘How come you are here?’ I asked. My words betrayed my displeasure, though I tried to hide it.

‘Four years since we met and you ask how come I am here? A hello would be nice.’ Vaibhav couldn’t stop smiling.

‘He called about an hour ago, and I told him the time you usually get home. He asked if he could come over and surprise you,’ my mother hastened to explain.

‘A nice surprise too,’ I forced myself to say, looking at Vaibhav’s happy face.

‘Let me get dinner ready. And, Vaibhav, please join us for dinner,’ my mother said, disappearing into the kitchen, not giving him a chance to refuse. It was evident my mother and he got along like a house on fire. Vaibhav was easy to like.

‘You look amazing, Ankita. You have grown even more beautiful,’ said Vaibhav as soon as my mother was out of earshot. His voice was low as he gazed at me with open admiration.

It took me back to the time when he had called up on my eighteenth birthday and played Jefferson Starship for me. It was a sweet enough memory and I appreciated the effort he made that day, carrying the tape-recorder in the cold Delhi winter, and waiting at the STD booth just to play that song. His words would have melted me back then. But today, they had no impact. The freshly minted me had a different perspective.

Of what use was looking beautiful? What you do with your life is everything. Beauty is not what you see on the outside. Beauty is what you are deep inside, where no one watched. My stay at the mental hospital had opened my eyes. But if I said all of it now, in response to his compliment, I’d be seen as weird. I had to filter everything that came to my head through the lens of ‘normalcy’ and not just blurt it out. This was something I was painfully aware of. So I did the next best thing I could. I commented on his looks.

‘You… You look older,’ I said.

‘Hahaha. I should hope so! I was such a kid back then,’ he said, as he ran a hand over his stubble.

Now that I had recovered from the initial shock of seeing him all of a sudden, I scrutinised his clothes. He was wearing a neatly ironed black cotton shirt and dark blue trousers. Almost six feet tall, hair stylishly cut, he now wore glasses and looked fit. We had been teenagers when we last saw each other. In the years we had been away from each other, he had transformed into a handsome young man.

There was an awkward pause, as we both didn’t know what to say. I had to say something quickly to dispel this uncomfortable silence.

‘So, when did you come to Bombay? Did you find a house? Tell me all the news,’ I said as I sat on the single sofa opposite him, forcing myself to make conversation

‘I arrived only this morning. And see my luck, I am staying close by, Ankita! It’s just a ten-minute walk to my place. I was so thrilled when I discovered that. How could I not see you immediately?’ he said.

Alarm bells rang in my head then. Uh-oh. Bombay was such a big city. Couldn’t he have found somewhere else to live? I didn’t want him so close by. Did he deliberately find a place in Bandra, knowing I was here?

‘Have you rented a place here, then?’

‘Oh, no. I can’t afford to rent a place in this area,’ he said. ‘At least not yet, anyway. I just moved into an apartment the company allotted. My office is in the Bandra-Kurla complex, and all the management trainees are given accommodation in chummeries,’ he explained.

‘Chummery? Is it like a hostel?’

‘No, just a regular flat I share with three other management trainees. The company has taken many flats on lease.’

Many of the multinationals had their offices in the Bandra-Kurla complex. So his explanation made perfect sense. What a relief to know that his moving to Bandra was not deliberate!

‘So, welcome to Bombay,’ I said brightly.

I didn’t mean it at all, but it seemed a good-girl thing to say.

My mother called out from the kitchen just then and asked me to lay the table. Vaibhav jumped up to help.

When we were seated, he asked where my father was. ‘Travelling on work,’ said Ma, serving us hot rotis.

It was a homely scene and Vaibhav looked at ease. My mother was serving him the dal now, and fussing over how he should eat more. He praised her cooking, telling her how much he enjoyed it. She basked in his approval. I looked at it all and resentment stirred deep within me. I hated it. I tried to analyse why I was feeling agitated about Vaibhav being here and my mother getting along well with him. After all, he was a friend. I was seeing him after so long. He had made the effort to come over. He was so amiable too. I ought to feel joy. But I didn’t. Instead, I was filled with something between mild irritation and dread. I think what irritated me was that Vaibhav had just marched back into my life like he belonged .

Long after Vaibhav left, the feelings of discomfort and resentment remained. Can a relationship continue when two people have had dramatically different life experiences and those experiences have changed one of them in a profound way? I wasn’t sure.

But Vaibhav saw nothing amiss.

‘You know, Ankita, it feels wonderful that even after so many years, and even after everything that has happened, we still have this. And you are just the same as I remember. You haven’t changed at all. And it feels so good to have an old friend in a new city,’ he had said as he waved goodbye.

If only he knew.

I was so disturbed by Vaibhav turning up unexpectedly that I skipped going to the college library the next morning. I found Janki waiting for me at the usual spot. The understanding between Parul, Janki and me was that whoever reached Churchgate first would wait for the others at the vada-pav tea stall near the exit that led to our college.

‘Ah, there you are! ’ said Janki.

Soon Parul too came along.

‘Let’s bunk today. It’s only Tulapurkar. Nuls is on leave,’ she said.

‘How do you know that?’ I asked.

‘Her cousin lives in my building. They all have a family wedding at Nashik,’ Parul said.

‘You are top-class when it comes to all this. Let’s bunk,’ Janki agreed.

‘Let’s take Ankita to places she’s nevers been before,’ Parul said.

They took me to ‘Khau Galli’, a two-minute walk from Churchgate station. It was a street lined with food stalls on both sides. I had never seen anything like it before. As soon as we neared the place, different aromas of food hit us. There was the smell of delicious biryani spices roasting in ghee, mingling with the fragrance of the condiments used in cooking various other delicacies. At the entrance there was a nimboo pani stall, and Parul bought ice-cold nimboo pani for all of us. Right next to it was a fruit-stall in a profusion of reds, oranges and yellows; neatly cut watermelon and mangoes and muskmelons vied for attention, begging to be eaten. There were stalls for every kind of food item, ranging from ‘Indian-Chinese’ like hakka noodles and Schezwan fried rice to aloo tikkis, chaats, samosas. The names of these stalls too were as varied as their menus and they amused me: Nikhil Pure Veg Stall, Dream Girl Dosa Stall, Lenin Pav Bhaji Stall…

A steady stream of customers stood around the stalls, eating from plates in their hands. The food, especially the pav bhaji, looked delicious.

‘God, this is making my mouth water,’ I said.

‘Come, follow me. I shall take you to a place where we can sit down and eat at leisure. All these places at the start of the street are crowded,’ said Parul as she led us further down the street, almost to the very end.

We went inside a stall hidden behind a large peepul tree, shielded from the crowd and the noise. The stall-owner greeted her as we entered.

‘Long time! Where is Freddy?’ he asked.

‘Will tell you another time, bhaiya. I have brought my friends today. Make the best ragda patties, okay? Don’t let me down,’ she said as we settled down. It was a tiny space, the walls painted a refreshing pale green. At the entrance was a picture of Lord Hanuman, right above the cash counter. Incense sticks and a lamp burning in front of it sent a peaceful vibe through the stall.

Though the furniture was Spartan – just plain white wooden benches and matching tables – the whole place was spotless. I was filled with a sense of calm.

‘You’re both okay with ragda patties, right? They are to die for,’ Parul checked our preferences, as she had taken the liberty of placing our orders for us.

‘Yes, let’s try it,’ Janki confirmed.

They started chatting about a movie Janki had just watched. I listened, barely participating in the conversation.

‘What’s wrong, Ankita? You look kind of lost,’ Parul addressed me. She had noticed how quiet I’d become.

‘Nothing, all okay.’ I brushed her concern aside.

‘You are such a bad liar, and your face is so transparent. Anything you feel is reflected instantly,’ Parul said.

‘Is it so obvious?’ I asked.

‘Yes, your face is like a movie screen,’ Janki said.

I smiled at that. Even for a simile she could only think of cinema.

‘So, are you going to tell us or not? Boyfriend troubles?’ asked Parul. I was surprised. She was astute. Could she read my mind?

I told them about Vaibhav turning up at my place, how annoyed I was about him making himself comfortable at my house, and the casual way in which he had presumed he could walk back into my life.

Both of them listened raptly.

‘So let me understand this – you had something going on with this guy in school? Then you guys kept in touch intermittently in college. And now he has come back?’ Parul asked.

‘Yes,’ I confirmed.

‘Do you like him?’ Janki asked.

‘I don’t know if I like him like that . I used to. Now he is a friend – that’s for sure,’ I said.

‘Just date him a few times and see how you feel. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy at all. At least he isn’t like how mine turned out to be,’ said Parul.

‘You have a boyfriend? You didn’t tell us! What’s his name? Tell us all the details!’ Janki ordered.

‘Had. Not sure if I want him back. I used to come here with Freddy. That’s his name. At first I was in love with him. But now he just seems like a good-for-nothing guy. He was living with us for a few months and he got too comfortable. I kicked him out now,’ said Parul.

‘What? He was living with you? Was your mother okay with it?’ I asked. I couldn’t imagine a scenario like that. It was so far removed from my reality. I don’t think my parents would ever be okay with a guy living in with me.

‘Yeah, my mother was okay about it. She is totally open-minded. She left it to me. I took him in as he had nowhere to go. He had defaulted on his rent, so his landlord kicked him out. He was staying as a paying guest. Then he moved in with us. But the guy just can’t hold down a job. He plays the guitar and thinks he is Bryan Adams. I have now given him a deadline to find a job. Hope he comes to his senses. Now your guy, Ankita – he doesn’t sound anything like Freddy. He sounds like a decent guy. Give him a chance,’ said Parul.

I had told them only half the truth. I had not told them about my days at NMHI. They had no idea what I had gone through. They had formed their opinion based on the inputs I had given them.

That was the problem with advice. Everyone gives advice based on the narrow prism of their own experience.

‘I guess you are right,’ I replied. I wasn’t going to contradict her.

‘Yes, maybe you will enjoy his company and fall in love with him. And we will have an Ankita-Vaibhav love story blockbuster,’ Janki said.

I smiled.

Maybe I would! Maybe I would surprise myself.

Sitting there that day in that stall, munching on delicious ragda patties and talking to my friends, all of a sudden the whole Vaibhav issue seemed easy-peasy.

6

 

This Charming Man

 

A few days later, when I reached home from college in the evening, Vaibhav was waiting for me in the lobby of our building. ‘Hey, Anks!’ he called out. ‘Your mother invited me to dinner again.’ He smiled as he joined me.

‘I think you must have invited yourself,’ I remarked dryly.

He laughed, treating it as a joke. ‘Of course, I just call up random people and invite myself over. That is my hobby,’ he quipped.

When we entered my home, both my parents welcomed him warmly. Vaibhav was a good conversationalist and he got along with my father just as he had with my mother. Going by my father’s animated expression, he was genuinely pleased.

I excused myself, saying I had to wash and change. I lingered in the bathroom, taking longer than usual, foolishly thinking that the more time I spent in the bathroom, the lesser time I would have to spend with Vaibhav.

‘Ankita, what are you doing?’ my mother called out. I had no choice but to step out then.

The table was already laid and everyone was seated.

‘Come, Ankita, we were waiting for you,’ said my father.

I joined them silently, taking the chair next to Vaibhav.

I was irked that my parents seemed to be giving Vaibhav the royal treatment. Like he was their future son-in-law or something. My mother had not even thought of checking with me whether it was okay to invite Vaibhav. She had just presumed it was fine.

Then things got worse.

‘You never told me Vaibhav loves badminton. I have asked him to join me in the mornings in the court. I would love to take it up again. It has been a while since I played,’ my father announced.

While I knew that Dad used to be a good badminton player in his younger days and had won prizes at university level, I had never thought he would actually want to take it up again.

‘Aren’t the courts in our complex only for residents?’ I asked coldly.

‘I am entitled to bring guests. And if we pay the monthly fee, we can get a pass made for Vaibhav. He can then use the facilities as our guest whenever he wants.’ My father had the solution already.

‘Thank you so much, uncle. I love sports, and the place where I am currently staying has no facilities at all. In IIT, I used to play every day. I was missing that. Now this has come as a blessing. It is very kind and generous of you,’ Vaibhav gushed.

‘Oh, my pleasure. I too will get to play. What is the point of having all these facilities if you never use them?’ my father replied. I scowled. Then I un-scowled. I didn’t want my parents catching my expression.

Vaibhav took a second helping of the vegetable curry Ma had made and praised it, making her glow.

‘Why don’t you join us when we play badminton, Ankita?’ said Vaibhav.

‘No, thanks. I have too much college work. Also, I don’t like badminton.’ I was quick and curt in my dismissal.

Vaibhav caught on to my mood. But he didn’t say anything then, not to me. To my parents, he was the life and soul of the dinner table. My father laughed at the jokes Vaibhav cracked. My mother asked Vaibhav about his family and he was only too happy to tell her about how much he missed Madras.

‘My hostel-mates became like family, aunty. But home is home. Nothing can replace that,’ he said.

Ma nodded in approval. Vaibhav was definitely striking all the right chords. The conversation continued and I answered in monosyllables when asked anything. I was sulking, but my parents didn’t notice. Vaibhav did though.

When I was seeing him off in the lobby of my building, he said softly, ‘Hey, if I’ve done something to upset you, it was not my intention at all. Look, I will tell your father that I can’t make it for badminton.’

It took me only a few seconds to decide. I couldn’t be unfair to my father, who was eagerly looking forward to playing with Vaibhav. I had never seen such excitement in Dad’s eyes for years. How absurdly petty would it be on my part to tell Vaibhav that he couldn’t come because I was jealous that my father and mother liked him? That would be immature.

‘Of course not! Please come. He would love it,’ I said.

When I got back home, my father said, ‘Good friends are a treasure, Ankita. Vaibhav seems to be a sensible young man.’

‘You are only saying that because he will play badminton with you,’ I replied.

My father and mother both laughed, and I joined in the laughter, even though I wasn’t really joking.

I knew Vaibhav was in love with me even after all these years. But I felt nothing more than mild affection for him. Sometimes I wondered if I felt even that. I tried to reciprocate his feelings for me, I really did. But when do hearts listen? It was far from the blockbuster love story that Janki had envisaged in her head.

That’s the thing about love. You cannot force it. You cannot fight it. If it comes, you gratefully accept. If it doesn’t, you can’t do a thing. All you do is go about your daily business, hoping it will come tomorrow, the day after, eventually.

But nothing prepared me for what happened next.

Sometimes, it is only when you lose what you had that you begin to value it.

7

 

Confident

 

‘E uphoria’, the annual cultural festival of my college, was upon us. The preparations had already started for this big event. Hosted by our college, this would see many colleges participate. Members of the culture club ran around like headless chickens, trying to coordinate everything – right from getting the sponsors to coming up with events, organising judges, sending out invites to various colleges, making a list of those who had accepted, arranging accommodation for them, getting the audio-visual systems installed and deciding the various venues where the events would take place. And all of it handled entirely by the students. A notice calling for volunteers for various committees was put up and many students in my class signed up. It was a celebration for the whole college. The enthusiasm was infectious.

One felt it as soon as one entered the college gates. Th e bustle, the colourful banners, students talking excitedly in almost all corners, buzzing like bees.

‘Let’s volunteer! It will be fun,’ said Parul.

Janki was all for it, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to.

Parul signed up all three of us to be part of the welcoming committee. We had several meetings with the members of the culture club, where they briefed us in detail on our duties. We would be in charge of coordinating stay arrangements, making sure our guests reached whichever place they had been allotted to and ensuring that their requirements were met. We were given specific instructions on everything related to making the students of other colleges and our special guests comfortable as hosts for the three-day festival.

‘They have to rave about our hospitality, please remember that,’ instructed Harini, in charge of the welcome team. ‘Is everything clear?’

We saluted like good soldiers.

The welcoming committee was an important one as we would be the ‘face’ of our college. We had to be aware of all the other arrangements as well. It was during one of these meetings that we learnt that our college had no official team for ‘Dumb Charades’. I remembered my days at St. Agnes. The inter-collegiate festivals were fun.

‘Come on, let’s sign up for Dumb Charades,’ I urged Janki and Parul.

‘What? For the college team? I have never played this in my life!’ said Janki.

‘There’s a first time for everything. I will teach you. I used to take part in school, and I was good at it,’ I said.

They were reluctant, but I submitted our names anyway. If they could bulldoze me into joining the welcoming committee, they could jolly well oblige me for this one, I told them firmly.

While writing down our names, Maya, who headed the events committee, asked me if there was anyone in our class who was good at public speaking.

‘You are looking at her!’ The words slipped out before I could stop myself.

‘Will you come for a trial then? We are choosing the college team, and we want to have representation from all courses, so that we choose the best. Come to Room 21 at 11.30 a.m. tomorrow,’ she said, writing my name in a register.

I had blurted it out on a whim, but began having second thoughts almost immediately.

‘Have you done public speaking before? You never told us!’ said Janki.

‘Yes, I have won a few prizes at college festivals earlier,’ I admitted.

The memory of my last public speaking event came back then, and I felt my hands go clammy as I recalled the details. How flawlessly I had spoken at ‘JAM’ (Just a Minute, where one had to speak without a stutter, pause or grammatical error for one whole minute on a topic given on the spot) at the cultural festival when I was doing my MBA. I remembered how engaging my little talk was and how everyone in the room had forgotten it was only for a minute, and had let me continue for a full three minutes. I recalled the giddy exhilaration I felt and how everyone clapped. I was also painfully aware that it was during my ‘highs’ or the ‘mania phase’ that it had happened. Dr Madhusudan had meticulously explained what I had been through, during my stay at NMHI. Now I was off medication, and was ‘normal’. I did not have the ‘special powers’ I had then. How could I hope to repeat that performance? Why had I gone and committed myself?

‘You are full of surprises, Ankita. I never knew you were so clever,’ said Janki.

‘Why? Do I look dumb?’ I asked.

‘Yes, you do look a bit of a bimbo,’ teased Parul.

‘What?’ I said, outraged. They laughed.

‘We will come and cheer for you. And after that, you can teach us Dumb Charades, now that you have entered our names,’ said Parul.

When I reached home that evening, I confessed my fears to my father.

‘I’m really nervous about it. I don’t know why I enrolled,’ I fretted.

‘You should think before speaking, Ankita. Then you will not get into such situations,’ said my mother. Her advice didn’t help. I only chewed my lower lip some more.

‘Look, what’s done is done. What is the worst that can happen?’ asked my father.

I shuddered. ‘I might freeze, I might be unable to speak,’ I told him.

‘So what?’ he said.

‘What do you mean “so what”? It will be terrible ,’ I told him.

‘Terrible? Really? The sun will still rise. The earth will still spin. Thousands of people will still go to work. What will really change? Nothing.’

‘Ummm,’ I said, still not convinced.

‘Things are only as terrible or as wonderful as you imagine them to be,’ said my father. ‘Always prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.’

‘I think if we hope for the best, we might be disappointed,’ I replied.

‘In that case, do not think about the outcome. Do your best by preparing for the worst-case scenario.’

I thought about his words for a long time. I had no idea then that I would use them later in a way that would change the course of my life.

Despite my father’s advice, I was a bundle of nerves the next day. I had read a lot of random things the previous night from my father’s large collection of books. I had also memorised a few quotes from Quips, Quotes and Anecdotes for Speakers, which I had found in the collection. I hoped whatever I had read would come to my aid.

My friends were unwavering in their support. They comforted me and told me I would be fine. Parul made me drink some water before they called out my name.

I went up on stage, and drew a chit from a bowl for my topic. Five minutes to prepare and then I had to speak. When I opened the folded chit of paper, I heaved a sigh of relief. My topic was ‘If life was an object, what object would you choose to represent it and why?’

I found it an easy topic. I quickly jotted down the points I would speak on. When I was called, I was surprised that the words flowed easily. Any nervousness I felt vanished the moment I was on stage. It was as though I had been transformed into a different person. I compared life to a coconut. I talked about how it is green on the outside, and that is what people see. I talked about how when we are young, the brown part is not yet formed, but as time goes by, how it gets formed and hardened. I compared it to the experiences that toughen us. I spoke about how we reveal only our outermost selves to strangers, the brown bits to friends, the white bits, the most vulnerable core, to only a trusted few. I spoke about how some people are so closed that they never reveal the white bits to anybody, and how it ultimately shrivels up and dies inside. I talked about how you never know what a person is till you reach the very core, and how sometimes the core turns out to be rotten, or not quite what you anticipated. I ended by speaking about how sharing our vulnerabilities help us form human connections, and how it is very important. I spoke fluently, confidently and clearly. There was a stunned silence in the room when I finished; every single person clapped or thumped their desk in appreciation.

‘Oh my god, you were fantastic! You should represent our college. I am putting you in the college Public Speaking team,’ said Maya. The others on the panel agreed. They patted me on the shoulder, shook my hand and said, ‘well done’.

Parul and Janki were delighted. ‘You are a chhupa rustam !’ said Janki.

‘No, I am not any Rustom! I am just plain old Ankita.’ I smiled.

‘No need to be so modest. Congratulations, girl! You made it to the college team,’ said Parul.

‘Now let’s practice Dumb Charades, since you signed us up for that too. You said you would teach us,’ Janki reminded.

‘Yes, I will,’ I said, wiping the beads of sweat off my forehead, and willing my heartbeat to return to normal.

Because of Euphoria, regular classes were suspended for a while. We went to an empty classroom and began our practice in earnest.

I explained the basic gestures to them. One word; two words; rhymes with; split word; name; man; woman. There were specific gestures that would make it easier for your team-mates to guess what was being mimed. Parul and Janki picked it up easily. I came up with names of movies, songs and books for them to mime and guess. Janki had a tough time not speaking out the word aloud while miming. She did it at least four times. She couldn’t stop herself.

‘Janki! If you do this, we get disqualified!’ warned Parul.

We practised for a couple of hours every day. Soon we became very good at guessing what our team member was miming. Our teamwork was great and we all got each other quickly, within 30 seconds. Parul got a stopwatch, and we timed ourselves, constantly trying to improve our speed. After we finished our practice, we would go to Khau Galli and gorge at Parul’s usual stall.

‘Ankita, I think whatever they give us, we should be able to mime. We have practised so much that we have run out of names of movies and songs now,’ Parul mused.

‘You are right. We have practised most of the things that come to mind. But we still have a comprehensive list of books to get through. In these competitions, they always give a lot of book titles,’ I said.

‘We haven’t practised book titles at all. Movies and songs we will be able to guess, but I am not at all familiar with any book names.’ Janki grimaced.

She was right. Unless we were familiar with the names of the most famous books, we would be at a disadvantage.

I made a mental note of this, and decided we would have to practice harder.

Parul and Janki were doing it for fun, but I couldn’t accept anything less than perfection.

I was playing to win. I would do whatever it took.

8

 

The Book

 

W hen it comes to ties between the opposite sexes, each little action can be interpreted in a hundred diff erent ways, especially if one of them is in love with the other. It was the same with Vaibhav. I spoke to him as I would speak to an old friend. I treated him the way I would treat any friend. I could see how elated he was with small gestures of mine that I never even gave a second thought to. It didn’t mean a thing to me, but that was not how he interpreted them. And yet, I couldn’t do anything differently, as it would be seen as being unfriendly.

Vaibhav had started turning up each morning to play badminton with my father. Ma would greet him and serve him coffee. On some days I would open the door, and he would give me a million-watt smile and then shyly look away. I would smile back, ask him to come in. I would then disappear into my room, saying I had something to finish. Vaibhav was fine with that, as my mother would take over. She liked chatting with him while he finished his coff ee.

My father treasured his time with Vaibhav. Whether Vaibhav had made progress with me or not was irrelevant; he had made great progress with my parents. Both my father as well as my mother seemed to be in love with him.

After badminton, he would go back to his flat. On some days I’d watch him leaving from my window. He had his badminton racquets in a deep brown rexine cover slung on his back. Drenched in sweat, his hair damp, he would walk away. He never saw me though.

On some days, when I got back from college, Vaibhav would be waiting for me in the lobby, Ma having invited him for dinner.

‘You know, I am making palak paneer tomorrow. I think Vaibhav will enjoy it. I will invite him,’ my mother would say whenever she was cooking something special. The only thing that changed was the name of the dishes she cooked. My father would nod.

‘Why do you have to invite him all the time?’ I asked one day in exasperation.

‘He lives so far away from his home. He must be missing home food,’ my mother replied.

If my parents sensed my irritation at Vaibhav coming over so often, they didn’t mention it. I had become an expert at hiding my true feelings about his visits.

My parents and he never ran out of topics to chat on. Ma had a habit of devouring the newspaper, and she would discuss something new that she had read that very day with Vaibhav. Surprisingly, he would have read it too.

‘Do you prepare for these discussions with my mother?’ I asked him one day.

He laughed like it was the biggest joke in the world. I hadn’t meant it to be funny and I didn’t know what he was laughing about. But my mother laughed too.

‘No, Ankita. I just read the newspaper every day,’ he said when he stopped laughing.

With Dad he spoke about various policies the government was implementing and how these would affect the industry. He discussed his training schedule, he talked about his work. He spoke about how, as a management trainee, he was learning about various aspects of the job, and how his training included several weeks in various departments so as to get a feel of everything.

One evening, as I was seeing him off in the lobby downstairs, I told him about being selected for the college Public Speaking team and practising for Dumb Charades. I mentioned that I needed a comprehensive list that had names of famous books.

‘That is wonderful, Ankita! I am so proud of you, and genuinely happy to hear this,’ he said, his eyes shining with delight.

‘Thank you,’ I said.

I now felt silly about my jealousy. Here was a guy so much in love with me, and who my parents liked too. And here I was, feeling irked. It was absurd, I chided myself.

‘Look up the Manorama Yearbook in your library,’ he said, interrupting my thoughts.

‘Eh?’ I asked.

‘The comprehensive list of books. The Manorama Yearbook has it. Look it up in your library,’ he called over his shoulder, as he waved and walked away.

I was determined to find the book-list to include in our daily practice. At the library, Mrs Asthana was happy to see me.

‘Hello, Ankita! You are coming here after so long. Forgot your way to the library or what?’ she mock-chided.

‘Ha ha. No, Mrs Asthana. We have all been practising hard for Euphoria,’ I said.

‘I have seen the madness of that festival for so many years now. I don’t know what it is with you young people. You all go crazy at these festivals,’ she said.

‘Well, it is a heady mix of youth and competition. There’s such a rush of adrenaline at the thought of winning,’ I confessed.

‘It is either the adrenaline or the testosterone in the air with all the boys coming over,’ laughed Mrs Asthana.

‘I guess that too,’ I said, though that part of it had not even occurred to me.

My only focus was on winning the contest. I wanted to hear the applause of the crowd ringing in my ears. I had been out of all this for too long. This felt like a resurrection, a redemption of sorts for all the time I spent locked away from everybody at NMHI. I craved recognition and adulation. Winning a contest also brought so much respect. I was hungry for it.

‘Mrs Asthana, I am now a part of the college Dumb Charades team, as well as the Public Speaking team. Hence, I was wondering if you could help me with some specific books,’ I said.

‘Oooh, that is exciting. Well done! What books do you want?’

‘I needed something like a list of famous books. An all-time list of the most popular books. Would you have the Manorama Yearbook? My friend suggested that,’ I told her.

Mrs Asthana furrowed her brows and pinched her nose. She closed her eyes as she tried to remember. ‘Hmm… Manorama Yearbook… Manorama Yearbook,’ she muttered.

‘Shall I look in the encyclopaedia section?’ I asked, trying to expedite her thinking process.

‘Have a look if you like. But I don’t think you will find it there. I know the book. It is a fat book. I am trying to remember where it is. We used to have a copy of it. But I am not sure if we still have it. I know all the books on the shelves, and I can instantly tell you where a book is likely to be.’

‘I need it badly, Mrs Asthana. Our team’s victory depends on practising those book names. Let me have a look, anyway,’ I said as I headed over to the encyclopaedia section.

I was rummaging through it when Mrs Asthana called out to me.

‘I remembered where it is,’ she said when I headed over to her desk. She handed a bunch of keys to me. ‘At the end of the library is the stockroom. Open it. You will find many cartons of books there. They are all books we have to dispose of. You can rummage through the cartons, it is sure to be there. We took some books off the shelves last year when we got new stock. I still haven’t gotten around to sorting them out and getting rid of them.’

‘Oh, thank you, Mrs Asthana! You are such a help,’ I said, taking the keys from her.

‘Only one thing. Please hurry and make it fast. I have got permission to close the library early today as I have to take my mother to the dentist,’ she said.

When I opened the door to the stockroom, I sneezed. Dust moats danced in the sunlight streaming in through the dirty windows. The musty smell of old books permeated through the tiny room, packed to the brim with cardboard cartons of various sizes. There were at least fifteen cartons, all piled haphazardly. Some of the cartons had books spilling on to the floor. How was I going to locate the Manorama Yearbook in this massive pile? But I didn’t have a choice. I decided I would look through each carton one by one.

I opened the first one. It was full of textbooks. I went through each title as quickly as I could. Then I pushed it to a side, leaving a dust track on the floor. The second one was full of old classics, mostly damaged. I went through all of them too. The next carton was again full of old textbooks. Going through each book in every carton was time-consuming, but what if the book was in a particular carton? So I continued my diligent search. I was on the fourth carton when Mrs Asthana peeped in.

‘Ankita, I have to leave now. Have you found your book?’ she asked.

‘Not yet, Mrs Asthana. I am only on my fourth carton,’ I said.

‘Sorry, child. You can come back tomorrow then.’ She glanced at her watch.

‘Please, Mrs Asthana, I need that book. We have to start practising,’ I said.

‘What do we do? I wish I could help you, but I need to lock up the library,’ she said.

An idea struck me then.

‘Mrs Asthana, would you trust me to lock up the library? I can do that. I shall come early tomorrow and even open it for you. That way you can come in a bit late too,’ I offered.

She considered it for a few seconds. I could see that she was tempted by the offer of my opening it the next morning as well.

‘Hmmm… Will you be responsible and careful?’ she asked.

‘Of course, yes! You can trust me,’ I said, elated that she had agreed to my suggestion.

‘Alright, bolt the door then, and remain inside. I don’t want anyone else walking into the library thinking it is open. When you leave, carefully lock the stockroom, as well as the main door. And tomorrow, open the library at 9.30 a.m. sharp. I shall come in around 11.00 or so,’ she said. She then pointed out the key to the main door in the bunch that she had handed over earlier. I assured her that I would.

After Mrs Asthana left, I bolted the door and continued rummaging through the cartons. I found the yearbook in the eighth carton. Just as I removed the yearbook from the carton, another book caught my eye. It was the title that attracted me.

The Best Way to Go: A Handbook on Suicide for the Dying read the title. The book was by an author I had never heard of. It was a strange book.

I picked it up and turned it over.

The back blurb said that the book was at the centre of a heated controversy that sparked a national debate. It was a crucial handbook for those who wanted to end their lives due to unbearable pain because of an incurable disease or terminal illness. I flipped through the table of contents. It had a detailed manual that gave instructions on how to commit suicide in the most efficient way, a chart that listed lethal drugs, legal considerations to be aware of, letters to leave behind, among many other things. I also saw that the book had spent several weeks on the The New York Times bestseller list, and it was a self-help book.

My heartbeats increased as I read what it contained. I felt the muscles in my body tighten. My palms went sweaty. I wasn’t aware that I was holding my breath and when I released it, it came in a shallow gasp. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. What had I found here? A suicide manual?

The memories of the two times that I had tried to take my life came flooding back, drowning me. I remembered how my father had grabbed the knife from my hand the first time and how he had found me on the terrace of our building the second time; I was in the grip of the lows of bipolar disorder then. I shuddered as I recalled how close I had come to taking my own life.

I sat there clutching my head.

Calm down.

Calm down.

Calm down.

I told myself over and over.

The book was calling out to me. I had to read this book.

No, I had to study it. It was mine.

I slipped both the yearbook as well as this book into my bag. I closed the stockroom and then the library carefully. It felt like my backpack had grown heavy with the weight of the book. The book was all I was aware of. I was dying to read it. I felt a dark energy present in the book drawing me to it with great force. I couldn’t resist it . A suicide manual… A suicide manual… A suicide manual. I kept thinking about it on a loop as I walked to the station.

I was impatient to get on the train and find a seat. Once I was inside the train, I took it out of my bag. When I opened the book, I got a surprise.

There was a small folded note inside the book, between the cover and the first page. I removed the note carefully. But before I could read the note, I saw that someone had inscribed something on the first page. Scrawled across the page, in large cursive letters were the words:

To my darling Ruth.
All my love,
MH

9

 

Killing Me Softly

 

T he book was a gift. To someone called Ruth. Why would someone gift a suicide manual to another person? What kind of a bizarre gift was this? Then I opened the note. It was a small note folded like a card, the paper a thick ivory sheet that looked expensive.

Be strong. Don’t hesitate. It’s the best thing you can do. I am with you.
xx

That was what the note said, the handwriting the same as that in the book. There was no name mentioned in the note, nor was there a date. I was puzzled. What a strange note it was. What did it mean? I had no idea. I carefully put the note between the last pages of the book.

By the time I reached Bandra, I had gone through the book and got a broad overview. The author had clarifi ed that this book was not for those who were depressed or suicidal. I got a jolt when I read that. As though someone had read my mind and discovered my guilty secret. The book mentioned the Hemlock Society in America, which advocated the right to die and assisted suicide. The name was derived from the highly poisonous herbaceous flowering plant that Socrates was said to have used to take his own life. The motto of the Hemlock Society was: ‘Good Life, Good Death’. The author had written elaborately on the need for compassion if someone with terminal illness and unbearable suffering did not wish to live anymore, and why we must respect that right. His own wife, diagnosed with terminal cancer, had ended her life with him by her side, with an intentional overdose. He had mixed the lethal drug in her coffee and held her hand as she died.

I read all of it with a morbid fascination. But I couldn’t complete the whole book as the train had reached my station by then. I was so eager to read the rest of the book that I almost ran the whole way home. When I reached the lobby of my building, I sighed with relief to see that Vaibhav wasn’t around. Today I just didn’t want to talk to anyone. The book was all I could think of. It was drawing me towards it with an unfathomable pull.

I greeted my parents as usual. But I was restless throughout dinner. My parents noticed it immediately.

‘Is everything okay, Ankita?’ my father asked.

‘Yes, all good,’ I lied.

‘Did something happen in college today? You seem a bit distracted.’ This was my mother.

‘No, Ma. I am fine. It’s just that I have a lot of work to do.’ I thought she would accept that explanation. But my mother frowned.

‘You told me that there are no classes now because of your college festival,’ she said. She was sharp, didn’t miss a thing.

‘There are no classes. But that doesn’t mean an assignment is not due. This was given last week, and I am to submit it tomorrow,’ I lied again.

I just wanted to get back to the book.

At last we were done with dinner, and I helped my mother clear the table. Then I rushed to my room and sat up long past midnight, devouring the book, my heart beating in my mouth the whole time.

As I read, I discovered that the author had repeated himself several times. He kept saying that it was for those in terrible, terrible pain. He described cases where there was no hope left at all. He spoke about how hospitals were incentivised to keep a person alive at any cost, but how that took away their dignity and, most importantly, their choice.

It was a fascinating read. I ignored all those bits where the author said the book was for people who had made a rational, voluntary choice to end their life. All I wanted to know were the best methods to kill oneself.

I learnt a lot from the book. The author had discussed each method of ‘self-deliverance’ in detail. While I had tried to commit suicide when I was going through the down phase, I had not thought about it so scientifically. This book helped me with just that. I now knew that plant or chemical poisons were not easily obtainable, and also that one might end up with brain damage if it didn’t work. Gunshot was violent, and also, everybody would not have access to guns. It was excessively messy too. When it came to pharmaceuticals, one had to be sure of the dosages needed and also the certainty of how much dosage would prove fatal. One could never be certain about the purity of the pharmaceutical and also the calculated dosage.

The method he most recommended was also the simplest one. All one would need was a plastic bag taped at the neck. Death by asphyxiation was by far the best, provided you didn’t tear it out in panic as an involuntary natural response. He recommended sleeping pills and alcohol before using the bag, so that you were fast asleep before you suffocated to death.

The author was also for leaving a suicide note behind, so that all loose ends were tied up. I kept thinking about the methods I could use to kill myself if had to. I had my doubts about using any of the methods recommended in the book. Putting a plastic bag on my head and taping it firmly around my neck was easy. I could also get alcohol easily as my father kept a couple of bottles of whiskey at home. But where could I get the sleeping pills without prescription? Also, what if I convulsed and threw up with the plastic cover around my head? These were possibilities I considered and thought about in great detail.

There were indeed no clean or comfortable ways to take one’s life. It was difficult. The author had given information about the medication to use, which ones not to use, which ones would work best and what to expect with each one. But they were all American trade names. I had no idea what they were called in India. The images used in the book, the diagrams, the step-by-step guides, the various tips, etc., I read over and over, till I almost memorised them.

When I finished the book, I was in turmoil. On the one hand I felt a huge sense of relief and comfort. On the other hand I felt disturbed and terrified. It was a strange, unsettling feeling. I was so agitated after reading the book that I now wished I hadn’t read it at all. What an idiot I was to have not only read it, but also studied it in depth. I wished now I could undo all that reading.

I had thought I was over that phase of my life when I had given up on wanting to live. I thought I had fought my biggest battle and won. And yet, with just one book, here I was thinking about death again. I hated myself then. How frail my mind was! How could I be this easily perturbed and swayed? Why was death drawing me towards it? Hadn’t I escaped its clutches twice? And here I was flirting with death once more.

I was restless. And yet exhilarated. I felt like I had climbed a mountain, and was now on the precipice, looking down.

My mind was in a churn. Words formed of their own accord and went around in whirlpools. I was overcome with an urgent desire to write down whatever was in my head. I could sense something larger than life that I wanted to express.

I quickly took out my notebook and began writing, as though in a trance. Words formed one after the other on their own. All my conflicting emotions and feelings were pouring out through the tip of my pen. When I finished writing, I lay my head on my desk and closed my eyes. I lay like that for a while. Writing whatever I had scribbled had exhausted me. When I finally gathered the courage to look at what I had written in my state of frenzy, I realised it was a poem that had flowed out.

The Void

Looking ahead into the future,
a void stares back,
occasionally decorated by specks
of people who seem to matter,
whom you seem to need
till they let you down.
Then you are back to the beginning
where the void still stares back,
suspended, devoid, untouched by time,
unaffected by the specks, now long forgotten,
not even a trace of memory remains.
All that exists is the void
still staring back.

I read the words again. I knew they came from a place deep within me. Whatever I had written was what my subconscious was telling me. It was not something I was consciously doing. What did this poem mean? Who were the people who had let me down? Who were the people who ‘seem to matter’? Why had I written it? I contemplated on the words I had just written.

Suddenly the poem was crystal clear. I realised in that instant why I was pushing Vaibhav away.

I had built a wall around my heart. I was so terrified that what happened to Abhi might repeat itself with Vaibhav. The logical side of me told me that Vaibhav wasn’t Abhi. Vaibhav was a different guy. But I also knew that when it came to love, all men were the same. They got possessive about the women they love. I wouldn’t be able to bear it a second time. I simply didn’t have the strength anymore.

When I was at NMHI, all my energy was focused on getting better, and be able to start reading again. The routines there had kept me busy. Now that I was on the verge of a semi-relationship (I didn’t know what else to call it) with Vaibhav, I was terrified. Most people associate love with feelings of pleasant, carefree memories. For me, the word love conjured up death and the sound of an old man’s wails. It was a word that strangled me. That was why I was rejecting it.

Abhi had let me down. By dying. I had fooled myself into thinking that it didn’t matter anymore, though every detail of the horrifying days that followed his death was imprinted on my soul. I remembered how I met him during a youth festival in college, how crazy he’d been, the letter he wrote to me in blood, and how relentlessly he had stalked me, despite my telling him I had a boyfriend. When I got admission in a Bombay college for MBA, he acted betrayed, begging me to stay back in Cochin, accusing me of abandoning him, of being too ambitious, of not loving him back. I recalled that horrible morning my mother read out a report in the newspaper of the discovery of Abhi’s body, and asked me if I knew him. I could only say that I’d known him in passing.

I would never know if Abhi had killed himself or whether it was an accident. His love had been too heavy for me to bear in the end, and perhaps the weight of it was too much for him too. We had both crumpled.

But now, he was dead. There was a big hole in my heart where love used to be. And here I was, trying to limp back to normalcy. Normal people didn’t do this, a voice inside my head told me. Normal people did not read a book about suicide, memorising all the methods to take their lives. You can never be normal, the voice inside my head screamed.

Shut up… Shut up, I wanted to say. I wanted to gag the voice. I wanted it to go away. But I was helpless. The voice continued taunting me, tormenting me. What are the best methods to kill oneself, the voice asked. I answered in great detail, without any emotion, narrating everything I had just read. Good, well done, said the voice.

It did not even occur to me that I was so clinical about it. The book I had devoured was about killing oneself.

Ironically, I treated it like my life depended on it.

10

 

When a Man Loves a Woman

 

I t was only in the wee hours of the morning that I remembered the Manorama Yearbook. I hadn’t slept the whole night, as I was so engrossed in the guide to suicide (that was what I had termed it in my head). I had been lost in the labyrinth of my thoughts. I was tired and exhausted now. It was already 4.30 a.m. I crawled into bed and shut my eyes.

I was woken up from deep sleep by my mother. Her voice seemed to be coming from somewhere far away.

‘Ankita, Ankita, are you okay? What happened?’

She was tapping me hard on my shoulder now, almost shaking me. I struggled to open my sleep-laden eyes.

‘Yeah, Ma, I am okay. I slept late. I want to sleep for a little while more, please,’ I muttered, pulling the duvet over my head.

‘It is 8.00 a.m. already. You said the same thing when I woke you up an hour ago. What is happening?’ asked my mother. She sounded frantic with worry.

That was the thing about having been a patient in a mental hospital. Every action, every little thing you said or did would be carefully scrutinised and measured against a degree of ‘normalcy’. I had to prove to everyone that I was ‘normal’. Any small deviation from the usual seemed to send my mother into a tizzy. I did not blame her. But I was groggy with sleep now, and after last night, all I wanted to do was rest my exhausted mind. I also had no recollection of her waking me up an hour earlier. I opened my eyes then.

‘Ma, please don’t worry like this. I am fine, really. I just want to sleep a little late today,’ I said.

‘After what happened....’ my mother’s voice trailed off.

‘Ma. This is not like that, okay? I am fine . I just had a late night ,’ I said, my voice up several notches though I didn’t intend to raise it. Couldn’t she just let me sleep?

‘Get up right now, Ankita. You have to sleep on time and also wake up on time. Else it will upset your bio-rhythm and change your body clock.’ My mother was firm.

‘Fine,’ I said, gritting my teeth, throwing off the duvet. I reluctantly got out of bed and headed over to the bathroom. My eyes burned with a lack of sleep. But I knew my mother wouldn’t let me sleep any more.

I brushed my teeth lazily, and considered what I could do with the book. Should I return it to the library? I wasn’t sure. I had studied it in detail. There was nothing more the book could tell me, yet I wanted to hold on to it. So I hid the book under a pile of clothes in my wardrobe. It was only then I remembered that I had promised Mrs Asthana that I would be in early. That swung me into action. I shed my lethargy in a jiffy.

‘Oh god, Ma. I’m late! I have to hurry,’ I called out. I hurried through the morning rituals at top speed and was ready to leave in less than ten minutes.

‘Wait, Ankita, aren’t you eating breakfast?’ my mother called out.

‘No time, Ma,’ I shouted.

But my mother had already made a sandwich by then and she insisted I shouldn’t miss breakfast. I rushed out of the house, sandwich in hand, without even brushing my hair. I had just scooped it into an unmade bun, and piled it on top of my head. I must have looked a sight. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t let Mrs Asthana down. I had promised her I would open the library for her.

I was late only by about fifteen minutes. I opened the library and occupied one of the chairs that faced the door, so that I would know if anyone came in.

I hadn’t even opened the Manorama Yearbook and now I had all the time in the world to go through it. Vaibhav was right. The book did have a section that listed the 100 greatest books of our times. I took out a pen and copied down all the names in my notebook.

Mrs Asthana arrived in about an hour. She was happy to see that I had kept my word.

‘Thank you for coming early and being responsible, Ankita. I can see you have been busy,’ she said, glancing at my notebook, where I had copied out the names of the famous books.

‘Of course, Mrs Asthana. How could I not? Should I put this Manorama Yearbook back in the stockroom?’ I asked.

I debated with myself whether or not to mention the suicide manual. It was not right on my part to have just taken it from the library. So I mentioned it. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the title, even though I remembered every word of it.

‘Also, Mrs Asthana, there was another book I took yesterday from the stockroom as it seemed interesting. I forgot to bring it. I shall return it soon,‘ I added.

But Mrs Asthana didn’t seem to care about it at all.

‘Oh no, no. Please feel free to keep it. You can also keep this Manorama Yearbook . I don’t need any of the books there. They are for disposal,’ she said.

‘Thank you,’ I said as I slipped the yearbook back into my bag.

I wished Mrs Asthana had asked for the suicide manual to be returned. Then it would have been off my hands. The dark energy in that book wouldn’t pull me to it anymore, wouldn’t whisper seductively to me in my ear. I could have returned it to the library and forgotten about the strange inscription in it, as well as the puzzling note. But that was not to be. I had taken something that did not belong to me, and in a strange way, I was now stuck with it. I didn’t know what to do about it. One part of me wanted to throw it away. But another part of me wanted to retain it. I decided I would deal with it later. For now, I had more urgent things to do, as I knew Parul and Janki would be waiting for me.

I thanked Mrs Asthana and left the library.

‘Where did you disappear yesterday, madam? You better have something good to show us,’ said Janki as soon as she saw me.

‘Yes, yes, I do,’ I replied and I took out my list of books.

‘Oh, look at this,’ said Janki as she snatched it from my hands and pored over it.

‘I just copied it off a book! Now come on, let’s practice,’ I cajoled them.

We practised most of those hundred book titles that day. We went over and over miming the names of the same books till we could guess any book title in less than ten seconds.

‘We’ve improved so much! I dare say we are good,’ said Parul.

‘Yes, but we can be even better. We are competing against thirty other best teams in the country. Remember that,’ I said.

I was pushing them to raise the bar. And both Parul and Janki had got the hang of it now.

‘We definitely will win at this rate,’ said Parul.

‘We better. We have just a few days left now. Janki, you have to see that you don’t slip up and mouth the words. Else, we will be disqualified,’ I replied.

‘Aye, aye, captain.’ Janki giggled.

It irked me that she didn’t seem to be taking it seriously, but I didn’t say anything. She had improved a great deal. And I knew we would be one of the good teams. We had practised such a lot.

Vaibhav asked me for a date that evening. He was waiting for me at the start of my lane, at the tea stall by the side of the road, having a cutting chai as I walked up to him.

‘Hi! Do you want chai?’ he called out when he saw me approaching.

‘Nah, I am good. Why did you change your waiting place?’ I smiled.

‘You have to move up in life. From the lobby of your building, I have now graduated to a tea stall.’ He smiled back.

‘Don’t you ever get tired of waiting for me?’ I asked.

‘Not if I know I will be getting to eat your mother’s delicious food later.’

‘What? So you are actually not waiting to see me? It’s all about the food!’

‘Of course! If I didn’t like the food, no way would I be hanging around your building.’

‘I thought as much. I knew you had an ulterior motive,’ I said.

‘You know me so well, Ankita,’ he replied. ‘But here’s what you don’t know. I have planned something for the whole of Saturday. Will you go out with me? I already checked with your parents, and they were okay with it.’

That indeed took me by surprise. Vaibhav had already asked my parents, even before speaking to me. But then, he was friendly with my father and mother, and it was only natural, as I would have had to ask their permission anyway. Still, I didn’t like it that he had asked them directly. He had destroyed my ‘first line of defence’. He had taken away the option from me, of saying I’d have to check with my parents. He seemed to be two steps ahead of me.

‘Ummm… well,’ I stalled for time, not knowing what to say.

‘Please say yes. Don’t think so much. A lot of planning has gone into this,’ he said.

‘Alright, yes,’ I gave in.

It was my first real date with Vaibhav. I felt awkward about it around my parents. During my college days, I had always talked to Vaibhav in secret. I had been comfortable with that. But now, my parents being so agreeable, I couldn’t get used to it. On the days that he came home for dinner, it was a different dynamic, as my parents were always around. Here, I would be alone with him the whole day. I wasn’t sure what to expect. This felt too ‘real’ and far too sudden. It had taken me by surprise. But I had already said I would go with him, and I knew he would be crushed if I backed out. Also, what excuse could I give?

Vaibhav did not tell me where he would be taking me. I pestered him as best as I could as we walked back home together.

‘What’s the point of a surprise if I tell you in advance?’ he asked.

‘I don’t like surprises. Honestly, I don’t. I like routines and I like to be in control,’ I replied.

‘Trust me, you will like this one,’ he said. ‘I will pick you up at 7.00 a.m. tomorrow. Be ready. And wear comfortable footwear,’ he instructed.

‘So you are off badminton duty?’ I couldn’t help being cheeky.

‘Off the joy of badminton, not duty. Also, your father is playing doubles with two other people we met at the badminton courts.’

He rang the bell at 7.00 a.m. sharp; my mother let him in. Dad had already left for his badminton. I heard the doorbell as I was getting ready. Vaibhav had specifically told me to wear comfortable footwear. So that meant I couldn’t wear heels. I could wear only clothes that went with my very comfortable walking sandals, which limited my choices. I fretted over what I could wear.

In the end, I wore knee-length khaki pants and a plain black T-shirt. I also wore a long chain with a large maroon diamond-shaped pendant with a silver dolphin carved into it. I decided my outfit was casual yet smart. I didn’t want to look like I had made too much of an effort. I did put on eyeliner, a bit of mascara and a light lipstick. Since I had never bothered with makeup while going to college, I could see that even with so little, the effect was dramatic. My eyes were black shining pools, my lips parted differently. I also left my long hair loose, combing it so that it came down in waves. Ever since I had left NMHI, I hadn’t cut it, and it had grown very long.

‘Ankita, Vaibhav is here. Are you ready?’ called out my mother.

‘Yes, Ma. Coming,’ I said.

Vaibhav was having his coffee, and he froze midway when he saw me. Our eyes locked. I held his gaze. The admiration in his eyes travelled all over my body, even though his eyes did not leave mine.

There were no words needed at that moment. If one could see love and choose a moment to embody it, then this was that moment. It was so obvious now. This was the look of a man hopelessly and completely in love. I recognised that look in his eyes.

Then I shuddered involuntarily.

It was the same look I had seen in Abhi’s eyes all those years ago.

11

 

A Kind of Magic

 

‘Y ou look stunning,’ said Vaibhav, the moment we were alone in the lift .

‘Ha, that’s just because you have never seen me dressed up,’ I said, brushing his compliment aside. I did not know how to accept it gracefully.

‘No, you are hardly “dressed up”. It’s just that you are naturally beautiful,’ he said, not taking his eyes off my face.

His scrutiny was making me uncomfortable. So I changed the topic.

‘Where are we going?’ I asked.

‘You will see!’

‘Are we taking the train?’

‘No, we are not! Your vehicle, m’lady,’ he said, making a sweeping gesture with his hand as we stepped out of the lift .

At the driveway, a smart chauffeur in uniform saluted us. As my eyes fell on the car, a sleek black shiny BMW, I gasped. I had never seen such a car before, except in magazines.

‘Good morning, ma’am,’ said the chauffeur, as he opened the door for me. With quick steps, he was at the other side and held the door open for Vaibhav too.

The soft black leather seats were so plush that I drowned in them. A lovely fresh citrus smell wafted over us. I was completely overwhelmed by all of this.

‘Do you like it?’ Vaibhav grinned.

I couldn’t get over the lavish interiors. I had never sat in a luxury car before.

‘This is beyond words!’ I said

‘Let’s go, Kumar,’ he told the chauffeur without mentioning the location.

The car soon joined the traffic on the main road.

‘Kumar, can you switch on the music, please?’ Vaibhav asked.

‘Oh, you planned music too?’ I raised an eyebrow.

‘Yes, I did!’ Vaibhav looked pleased. ‘Now close your eyes, sit back, and listen to this.’

‘Why should I close my eyes?’ I asked.

‘How many questions you ask! Just do as I say,’ he said.

I felt weird as I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes. I had no idea what to expect.

The speakers of the car reverberated with Jefferson Starship. It was the same song that Vaibhav had played for me on my eighteenth birthday.

People always talk about how music transports them back in time, back to happy memories they associate with a particular song. But whenever I looked back at my happy memories, I was also reminded of what came afterwards. Little had I known at that time how coldly and cruelly life would smash me, break me down, trample upon everything that meant the world to me, destroy me completely and then spit me out. I was so innocent back then, I had no idea what was in store. In some ways, I was still picking up the pieces of my life, even though externally it seemed as though everything was fine. My parents were happy that I was ‘okay’ and attending regular college. But deep down, I was struggling. I coped by studying hard, and drowning myself in college activities. It took my mind off… a lot.

In NMHI, I had learnt to focus on the present moment to get through each day. I had learnt how to do that painstakingly, by consciously directing my attention to only what mattered, that moment that day. Whenever my mind flew back to the past, I had to rein it in. Now Vaibhav was rekindling an old unwanted memory by playing this song.

I opened my eyes. I had outgrown this. I didn’t know how to react or what to say.

Vaibhav was looking at me expectantly.

‘Nice?’ he asked.

What could I even say? He was trying so hard to make me happy. How could I take that away from him?

‘Perfect,’ I said, wishing desperately that I could be genuinely happy. But a wave of sadness engulfed me.

The songs continued to play. He had chosen all the songs we used to listen to back then, and had thrown in some classics as well. There was Bryan Adams, George Michael, Madonna, Sting, Bon Jovi and Michael Bolton along with Elvis Presley and the Beatles. All romantic songs. Unfortunately, they took me right back to NMHI, when my co-inmates had gifted me the cassettes of ‘The World’s Greatest Love Songs’ just before my discharge from there. The last thing I wanted was to be reminded of my time in NMHI. I had shut that part of my life away in a trunk of Bad Memories and pushed it down deep within me. I wasn’t ready to open that trunk. But this music was doing just that. It was pounding on that locked trunk of bad memories, trying to force it open. The songs were painful. Each lyric pierced my eardrum. It hurt so much! I remembered the time when I was helpless, struggling to read. I remembered every single excruciating detail of my early days at the hospital. I remembered how abandoned I felt, how frightened, how helpless. A tsunami of thoughts rose inside my head. I was struggling to breathe, struggling to stay afloat. I was being swept away by the intensity of the pain. I couldn’t listen to this anymore. I wanted it to stop.

I shut my eyes tightly and tried to block out the memories. I tried to stop my thoughts. I clenched my fists, my fingernails digging into my palms. I was holding my breath.

Calm down, calm down.
Stop.
I don’t want this.
Not this.

Never this.

Suddenly the music stopped, and I felt Vaibhav’s hand on my shoulder. He looked frightened and concerned.

‘Ankita… Ankita – are you okay? What just happened? Oh my god, you are so pale,’ he said.

I opened my eyes. My body felt like it was not mine.

It was only then that I remembered to breathe. I swallowed, trying to speak.

‘I... I don’t know. I am sorry,’ I whispered.

‘Please don’t apologise. Is anything wrong? You look so tense. It’s okay,’ he said.

It occurred to me then that I must have spoken out loud.

I sat still, trying to calm down. I couldn’t speak.

‘Here, have some water.’ Vaibhav handed me a bottle.

I drank it in large gulps, and sat very quietly, willing my heart rate back to normal. Vaibhav watched me anxiously.

The car was weaving its way through Worli now.

‘Why did you stop the music? Did I say something? I am sorry, I didn’t mean to,’ I said after a while.

‘Yes, you said you didn’t want this, and shouted “stop”. And it is okay, Ankita; you don’t have to apologise. I already told you.’

I felt miserable then. I thought about how much trouble Vaibhav must have taken to create this playlist. He had rented a car, planned the day, and spent a small fortune. For me.

The voice inside my head laughed at me. Why are you pretending to be normal? You will only cause pain to anyone who tries to make you happy, it said. I tried to drown the voice out. But I couldn’t. It rang loud and clear in my head.

You are worthless, that’s what you are.

What are you? the voice asked.

Worthless , I replied.

I sat quietly for a while, not having anything to say. Vaibhav didn’t know what to do. I felt so bad looking at his anxious face. He didn’t deserve this. I wanted to make him feel better. I felt I owed him an explanation. I didn’t want to speak in the car, as I did not want Kumar to hear me. So my only option was to wait till we were alone.

‘So, are you still not going to tell me where we are headed?’ I forced a smile.

‘Almost there, Anks! Just a few minutes more,’ he said.

I looked outside; we had reached a part of Bombay I had never been to before. I wondered where he was taking me. Kumar stopped the car then, by the side of the road.

He was about to get out to open the door when Vaibhav stopped him. Then he turned to me.

‘Listen, will you be okay if I blindfold you and walk you from here?’ asked Vaibhav, as he took out a scarf from his backpack.

My first reaction was panic. I hated not being in control. I didn’t know how I would feel. But then, I had already messed up once in the car by asking him to stop the music. I knew this surprise, whatever it was, meant a great deal to Vaibhav. He had even got a scarf. I didn’t have the heart to refuse.

I nodded.

‘Alright, thank you, Kumar,’ said Vaibhav as he came to my side of the car, opened the door for me, and neatly tied the scarf around my eyes.

‘Allow me, m’lady,’ he said as he took my hand.

I was frightened. But I was not out of control. I was relieved that I could keep my fear in check.

Vaibhav put an arm around my shoulder and expertly guided me. I walked for about what seemed like 50 metres. There was no way of telling how much I walked, as my sense of distance was lost with my eyes closed. It is strange how taking away one sense organ makes you feel completely disoriented. I felt comforted by Vaibhav’s hand on my shoulder, and I felt excited too. His voice soothed me. He kept assuring me every step of the way that we would soon be there. ‘A few more steps. Careful now… Slow down,’ he repeated over and over. I smiled at the care and concern in his voice.

‘And now, ready?’ he asked.

I nodded again.

He removed the blindfold.

I gasped as I saw the Gateway of India rising up large in front of me. It was a sight I would never forget. Framed against the bright blue sky with white fluffy clouds, the sea in the background, and thousands of pigeons flying about, the colossal arch made of basalt and concrete stood majestically right in front of me. It was about 85 feet in height. I had only seen pictures of it before, and seen it in some movies. Seeing it up close took my breath away.

‘Wow, Vaibhav. This is amazing!’ I said. I forgot my fright, my anxiety and all the unease I’d felt in the car a little earlier. All that mattered was this towering structure, the smell of salt from the sea, the wind blowing my hair wildly in all directions, and Vaibhav’s hand still around me. I loved it.

We both stood there staring at it in awe and joy.

‘You know, I too have never seen this. Ever since I came to Bombay, I wanted to. And now I am happy to have seen this with you,’ said Vaibhav.

‘Thanks. It was a good choice.’ I smiled.

‘Want to feed those pigeons?’ asked Vaibhav.

‘I would love to,’ I replied.

Vaibhav bought a bag of seeds from a cute little boy who was selling the packets. He grinned impishly at me and said, ‘Tell bhaiya to buy one more, didi.’

I chuckled. The little boy knew it would work, and Vaibhav ended up buying two packets. Both of us walked to where the pigeons were gathered. We squatted to feed the birds that evidently were used to this. They seemed tame, and two of them pecked the grains right out of my open palm.

‘Look at these greedy pigeons,’ I laughed as I felt their beaks on my hands.

‘See? I told you, you would like it!’ said Vaibhav.

For breakfast we had bhel puri and poha from the numerous vendors selling them around the area. It was delicious. We sat by one of the platforms on the side of the Gateway of India, and ate our breakfast off paper plates with plastic spoons, engrossed in the magnificence of the structure.

‘Imagine, Ankita, this was built in 1911 to welcome King George V and the Queen on their maiden visit to India. This was the first thing he would see when his ship sailed in.’

‘How grand it would have been,’ I mused.

‘And what about King Shivaji there? That couldn’t have been made during British rule,’ I said, pointing to the statue opposite the Gateway of India.

‘I think that was made around 1961. It was unveiled on Republic Day,’ said Vaibhav.

‘Wow! You do know your history,’ I said.

‘I read up about it, Ankita. I wasn’t kidding when I said a lot of planning went into this,’ smirked Vaibhav.

‘What next?’ I asked him.

‘Are you okay with a fifteen-minute walk?’

‘Yes! See, I did wear comfortable footwear,’ I said pointing to my sandals.

‘Good, good. Come, let’s go!’

‘What about the car?’ I asked him.

‘You know, I have booked just a pick-up and a drop. Else I would have to pay for a full day and that was too expensive. We can take a local cab if you don’t want to walk,’ Vaibhav said. He looked apologetic.

‘Vaibhav! I was okay to travel by train too! Hiring cars is a luxury I am not used to,’ I said.

‘Come on then, there’s something I want to show you. And I promise you will love this too,’ said Vaibhav, as he led the way.

I felt light-hearted and happy. Even though this date had started badly, I was now enjoying myself. Vaibhav looked happy too. We walked side by side, making our way from Gateway of India.

I couldn’t wait to see where he would take me next.

12

 

Total Eclipse of the Heart

 

A fter walking for about five or six minutes, Vaibhav stopped at a fountain.

‘Our next stop, Wellington Fountain. This was built in 1865, and named after Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, as he visited Bombay frequently,’ said Vaibhav.

‘My goodness. You have memorised all these details!’ I exclaimed.

‘Yes, I believe in meticulous preparation.’

‘I am impressed,’ I said and I genuinely was.

‘Thank you,’ said Vaibhav with a gesture that was a cross between a bow and a curtsey.

It was a grand fountain. It comprised of a two-tiered octagonal structure made of basalt in a neo-classical style, and around it, at each point of the octagon, stood a marble statue, eight in total. Th e top layer was made of metal and had cast iron leaves. Th ere were some Latin inscriptions and Vaibhav told me they described the Duke’s achievements.

‘You know what amazes me about this city?’ asked Vaibhav.

‘What? The spirit of Bombay? How it went back to normal within a day, after the bomb blasts?’ I asked.

‘Oh, that goes without saying. But look at where we are right now. We are standing here, at a magnificent historic site, and all around it life goes on. All these people going about their daily business probably don’t look twice at it. I love how the historic structures here have become an integral part of the busy life in this city,’ said Vaibhav.

‘So right! I had never looked at it that way.’ I appreciated Vaibhav’s detailed explanation and insights.

‘Shall we walk on?’ he asked.

‘Yes, please,’ I replied.

This part of Bombay was unique. Full of beautiful, ancient Victorian buildings with decorative arches built during the British era. I loved the walk. We had nimboo pani from the roadside. The cool lemonade refreshed us and we walked for a few minutes more.

‘Next stop Flora Fountain, which you see in front of us, to the right,’ announced Vaibhav, exactly like a tour guide.

I gawked at the exquisitely sculpted architectural monument. Right on top of it stood a magnificent statue of a Roman goddess. Around this too were beautiful statues.

‘Isn’t this something?’ Vaibhav asked smitten.

‘It is, it is! And what is the history behind this one? Did you memorise that too?’

‘Of course. This one was commissioned in 1864 by the Agri-horticultural Society of Western India. It took five years to complete. The main statue was sculpted from imported Portland stone. James Forsythe was the sculptor. It is the Roman goddess Flora who you see at the top. Hence, it is called Flora Fountain,’ Vaibhav was ready with the explanations.

‘But this was just a fringe benefit. The real place I want you to see is just a few steps ahead over there. Come with me,’ he said, holding out his hand. He held my hand as we crossed the road.

I stared in surprise at the sight that stretched before me. The expansive curve of the footpath was filled with thousands and thousands of books piled high, stretching from one end to the other! It was a tower of books we were both looking at.

‘I had only heard of this. I never expected it to be this huge!’ said Vaibhav.

We made our way into the turret of books. I looked in wonder at the books piled higher than ten feet atop each other. I was Aladdin and this was my cave of treasures. There were all kinds of books – management textbooks, medical books, art books, coffee table books. Then there were tonnes and tonnes of paperback and hardbound novels. The sellers were sharp. The moment I showed interest in an author, the vendor immediately produced all the books by that author. He knew exactly where to rummage in the massive pile to pull out a specific title.

He said he had new books as well as second-hand ones and asked me which I would prefer.

‘Madam, pirated nahi , original hai ,’ he assured me.

I noticed a little girl about eight or nine years old squealing in delight as she had found Tintin in America .

‘Mom, please, please, can I have this?’ she asked her mother who was busy browsing through some art books.

Vaibhav was going through some engineering textbooks.

‘These are so cheap! You know I paid a fortune for some of these,’ he said.

‘We have a buy-back scheme also, sir. You can take these, and return after you are done. We will pay you fifty percent of the cost,’ said a vendor.

We spent a good hour there, just browsing through all the books. I picked up two Calvin and Hobbes books, and also a book of assorted poems that I discovered. I loved the illustrations and Bill Watterson’s imagination. At a bookstore I would have paid much more than what I paid here. Though Vaibhav insisted on paying for them, I did not let him.

‘No, no. You have paid enough for all of this. I can get this for myself,’ I said as I paid for the books. ‘What a place!’ I sighed happily as we walked away

We passed the statue of Dadabhai Naoroji, the intellectual and thinker after whom this road was named. He stared down at us with a book in his hand.

‘You think he bought his book from these stalls?’ I quipped.

‘Must have. He would have got a bargain for sure,’ Vaibhav joked back.

‘Where to next?’ I asked.

‘Wait and see!’ he said.

‘You are the king of surprises today,’ I said.

‘As long as my queen is happy, I am,’ he replied.

‘Your queen?’ I laughed.

‘I love you, Ankita. I have been in love with you since our school days. But then, you already know that,’ he said. He said it so casually, in the middle of a busy Bombay road, as we walked together. He didn’t even look at me when he said it.

If I hadn’t heard it so clearly, and if he hadn’t elaborated on the ‘school days’ bit, I could have laughed it off, pretending it was a joke. But I knew he was dead serious.

He didn’t even expect me to say anything. I didn’t know what to say either. So I just squeezed his elbow in response and we walked on.

If I had known what was to come next, I would have ended the date right there and asked him to take me home. But I didn’t. This was turning out to be so much fun, and I was greedy for more. It had been very long since I had gone out on a date like this. In NMHI, my days and nights were about carefully curated routines. There was no ‘enjoyment’. It was a regimented existence. After I came back from the hospital, I was focused on getting back to college, and trying to make a career path, trying to regain what I had lost by dropping out. I had worked hard, and never taken a break. Roaming around Bombay like this, with Vaibhav giving me so much of attention, made me feel… normal. Like anybody else. I was elated. After the hard time I had been through, little moments like these meant a great deal to me. I cherished this.

Vaibhav took me to a rooftop restaurant that faced the ocean on Marine Drive, the terrace of an eighteen-storied building on the sea-front, and the table he booked was in a private dining area, with a floor-to-ceiling window with a magnificent view. The whole place was full of trees in giant containers. Everywhere I looked, there was deep green foliage juxtaposed against a bright blue sky. Sunlight shimmered on the deep blue waters, the waves brighter than diamonds. It felt like we were dining in the sky. Even though it was a terrace restaurant, there was some sort of a glass cover, and I guessed that the giant vents that ran along the top of the walls, carefully integrated into the design of the restaurant, were for air-conditioning. It was cool inside.

‘You like?’ Vaibhav asked.

‘I like. How can I not?’

His face lit up like a lantern.

We sank into our leather chairs, facing each other. I could see the sea hit its fists against the rocks. How relentless were the tides. They receded and they came back, again and again. It was mesmerising to watch the waves. Then an uninvited thought crept into my head. I wondered if Abhi had watched such waves the same way and thought the same things that I did just before he drowned.

I pushed the thought away. I was here with Vaibhav now. I should not be thinking about Abhi. He was dead and gone. But memories have a strange way of creeping up on you, even when you don’t want them to. I remembered how I had read the newspaper report with horror and dread when my mother told me that the papers that day carried a news item about the body of a young guy washed ashore. I remembered how I had told my mother casually that I knew him in passing. Abhi’s words rang in my ears then.

Keep in touch, Ankita. That is all I ask of you.’

‘Pride has gone to your head, Miss Bombay.’

‘I am willing to wait a lifetime for you if you say yes .’

Abhi had asked the impossible of me. To give up my dreams of doing an MBA. And then, just as it was within my grasp, life had snatched it from me.

‘Hello! You are a million miles away! What happened? You look so sad,’ Vaibhav spoke, interrupting my thoughts.

That snapped me back into the present moment.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said.

‘Oh, please don’t keep apologising. Just tell me where you went to.’

I took a deep breath. ‘There’ so much that has happened, Vaibhav. There is a lot I haven’t told you,’ I said.

‘So tell me now. We have all the time in the world. I know you have been through some really hard times. But I don’t know any details.’ He was earnest and sincere.

‘It is just so terrible, Vaibhav. I am afraid I will cry if I speak about it.’

He took both my hands in his.

‘Look, Ankita, I saw this morning in the car that the music I played stirred something deep within you. I must admit I was a bit freaked by how you reacted. But you know what? I am here for you. Unless you share what is happening to you, how will I ever know in what way to help?’ Vaibhav looked at me with so much tenderness.

I felt I owed him an explanation. He deserved to know. Not just the bare minimum I had mentioned in my letter after I left NMHI. That letter had been written in a state of joyousness at having finally left NMHI. But now, here I was, fighting a battle with my mind on a daily basis. I needed a friend I could trust. I needed someone on my side. I needed someone who made me happy, like he did today.

Which was why I made the mistake of telling him all that had happened in my life, after we left school and he had gone to IIT. I left out no detail.

I told him everything that had happened ever since we parted and I joined St. Agnes. I told him about the election and how I had won. I told him about how I met Abhi, and how he had given me a ride home. I told him about Abhi’s letter written in blood, and how I had gone to Abhi’s house, and then evaded him when he kept declaring his love for me, a love I did not return. I told him about Abhi’s senseless death in a fit of pique that haunts me till today.

I asked him if he remembered the sixteen-page letter I wrote him. He did. I explained to him how bipolar disorder worked – and how that letter was written during my highs. I told him about how I had come crashing down when the lows took over. I told him in detail about the psychiatrists I had seen, how I had felt like a rat in a laboratory. I explained my fears, my sadness, my obsessive thoughts, my hatred, my suicide attempts. I told him how I had struggled to read and my routine at NMHI and about Dr Madhusudan. I held back nothing.

Tears were pouring down my face as I spoke. This was not something I had ever shared with anyone. It was not easy to talk about. I couldn’t meet Vaibhav’s eye. I looked down and told him how after facing all of that, what fun this day had been and how much it had helped me see the lighter side of life, which I had almost forgotten. Today meant a lot to me, in more ways than he could imagine, and I thanked him for it.

I realised only then that Vaibhav had gone completely quiet. When I looked up at his face, I was taken aback. His expression was grim. His lips were pursed, and his eyes were blazing.

All he said was, ‘You cheated on me.’

‘What?’ I asked in shock. Of all the things I told Vaibhav, this was what he picked up on? How was it cheating? I never slept with Abhi. It was Abhi who had kept chasing me.

But Vaibhav was furious. He did not want to listen to my explanations or anything I said. He had made up his mind.

‘You never told me you were this involved with another guy.’ His voice was soft, almost fragile. It was a statement he made, not an accusation. I could feel the pain in his words.

Sometimes people become bridges between your past and your present. My life was neatly divided into sections. There was a ‘before Abhi’ and an ‘after Abhi’. Then there was a ‘before NMHI’ and an ‘after NMHI’. Whenever I looked back at my life, all these divisions I had made in my head helped me make sense of it. They were clear and distinct to me. They were not connected. I had compartmentalised these sections and kept them separate. Once a section was lived, I burnt the bridge down and started a new life, on the other side. It was the only way I knew to cope and to retain my sanity. It was the only way to escape the clutches of my past and move forward.

But now Vaibhav had come into my life, resurrected as one of the bridges. With that, a little bit of my past had caught up with me. And now, by mentioning Abhi to Vaibhav, I had reconstructed yet another bridge to my past. By speaking about Abhi to Vaibhav, I had jumbled up the bridges and dragged them messily into my present life.

I had expected Vaibhav to understand. But he exploded in a range of emotions. I had never seen him like this.

‘If he wasn’t dead, I would have killed him myself.’

‘Am I competing with a dead guy?’

‘Why didn’t you tell me then?’

‘You cheated on me!’

‘How could you do this?’

‘Did you sleep with him?’

I answered all his questions patiently. But Vaibhav wasn’t listening. He was stewing in the juices of what he perceived as betrayal.

‘All this while I was thinking only about you. Ankita. In IIT, thoughts about you kept me going. And all this while, you were … fucking hell.’ I was aghast at his reaction.

The sudden outburst and the coldness in his voice filled me with dread.

What the hell had I done? Why had I told him everything? Of what use was it? It was my past. That was where it should have stayed. I had forgotten everything that was taught to me at NMHI. I was such a fool. I wished I could retract everything I had said.

I learnt that day that there is such a thing as too much honesty. I wished I had kept it all to myself. I wished I could go back to before I narrated everything in detail to Vaibhav. I wished I hadn’t mentioned Abhi at all. I wished I could turn back the clock to just a few hours ago, when we were at the Gateway of India or to the time when we were buying books.

Whatever happened to his promise of being there for me forever? I wanted to ask him that. But he was so angry and hurt, and I was afraid I would enrage him further.

‘Vaibhav, it was a different time. It was a different me,’ I pleaded. I hated myself for pleading with him.

‘You haven’t gotten over him,’ was all he said.

Vaibhav seemed to detest me now. I kicked myself for raking up bygones. I beat myself up for over-estimating Vaibhav’s love for me. I felt let down, as I thought he, of all people, would understand. But he had not.

‘It was way back in the past, Vaibhav!’ My voice was almost a whine.

I wanted his love back. I wanted him to look at me the way he had looked earlier this morning. But his eyes had turned to marbles.

‘Make no excuses, Ankita. This was before your mania or whatever the hell you had. You knew what you were doing. Don’t use your illness as an excuse,’ Vaibhav spat.

His words felt like a punch in my gut. I hadn’t used whatever I had been through as an excuse. I had merely explained. I wanted Vaibhav to be my strength. I wanted him to understand me. If he had not asked, I would never have revealed this. It would have stayed in my past, in my neatly slotted sections, tucked away deep inside, never to be opened.

But I had jumbled up the sections now. Vaibhav’s words crushed me in ways I never imagined.

What was worse, I had no one to blame for it, but me.

13

 

When You’re Gone

 

T he ride back home with Vaibhav was completed in silence. The mood had changed dramatically. In the morning we were buoyant, excited. Now we both sat without uttering a word, enveloped in a cloud of our own thoughts. I do not know what Vaibhav was going through. All I knew is that I just wanted to curl up into a ball and vanish from the face of earth. I wished this ride would end. If the chauffeur sensed the mood, he was sensitive and too well-trained to mention anything. He just drove on, pretending nothing was amiss.

I kept thinking about how badly this day had ended. What would Vaibhav do now? Would he break up with me?

The thought was unbearable. I could not imagine not having him in my life. When he had been coming over on his own, I did not value his visits much. But now that this had happened, I was terrified of losing him.

We don’t realise the value of what we have till it is taken away.

I thought of what it would mean if he vanished from my life. What would happen to his badminton sessions with my father? What about his conversations with my mother? How badly I had messed this up. How I wished and wished I had said nothing. How much I lamented telling him my story. What in the world was I hoping for? The look in Vaibhav’s eyes haunted me. He did not deserve that. I should have dealt with my own stupid mess, instead of dragging him into it with my big fat great confessional. How could I hurt him like this?

You always hurt those who love you. That’s all you are capable of.
You killed a good friendship.
You killed Abhi.
You hurt people.
You disappoint your parents.
You are worthless.

The thoughts kept going round in my head, tormenting me. I endured them silently. I was afraid to close my eyes, in case I spoke out aloud like I had in the morning. I bit my lip, clenched my fists, and bore it. Bore the words.

At last we reached Bandra. It was the longest car ride of my life.

‘Thank you for all of this, and… I am sorry, Vaibhav. I never meant to hurt you,’ I said as I got out.

‘I don’t even know what to say, Ankita,’ he said.

‘I… I have a request. Whatever you feel towards me, please, please, don’t stop the badminton you have going with my father. And the chats with my mother. It would be so unfair to them. I have caused them so much pain already. They are so glad when you come over. They look forward to your visits. It is a request from my side, Vaibhav.’ I swallowed my pride, put aside my ego, and begged him.

Vaibhav said nothing. He just shook his head, and asked the chauffeur to drop him home.

My parents were waiting for me in the living room.

Dad looked up in surprise as I entered. ‘Where is Vaibhav? I thought he would be having dinner with us.’

‘He had some work-related thing to complete. He asked me to apologise to you and Ma,’ I said without even hesitating. I sounded convincing. I knew my father would ask this, and had decided in the elevator that this was what I would tell him.

‘Such a pity. I had made his favourite poori and bhaji,’ my mother said.

‘Ah, good! I will have it,’ I said like I meant it.

This was easy. I actually sounded cheerful.

‘So how was your day? What did you do?’ asked my father.

‘It was great!’ I replied.

Over dinner, I went into a detailed explanation of all the sights we saw, the historic details that Vaibhav narrated, how impressed I was by all of it and how much I had enjoyed myself. I only left out the last bit when everything had gone wrong.

I was surprised that I could pretend so well that things were great and that I was happy. I was dying inside, yet I concealed it so well.

After we finished dinner, I took out the poetry book, as well as Calvin and Hobbes , and showed them to my father. He gave a cursory glance at the Calvin and Hobbes book. My father wasn’t much into cartoons. He was curious about the poetry book though. He wore his glasses, opened it and began going through the contents.

‘We grow accustomed to the dark by Emily Dickinson; The Wound by Ruth Stone; Alone by Edgar Allan Poe; Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox,’ he read out loud. ‘Why are all these poems sad?’

‘Dad, it is a book with a theme of sadness and pain. All the poems are chosen that way,’ I replied.

I loved the poems. I could connect with them deeply. I felt as if the poets understood my pain and expressed it beautifully. There was beauty in pain too. But I knew my father wouldn’t understand it.

‘Read some inspirational poetry, Ankita. Stay away from such depressing stuff,’ said my father as he handed the book back to me.

‘Ankita, you’ve had a long day. Go and sleep now,’ said my mother.

‘Ma, you are my sleep monitor. Do you count even the seconds I sleep?’ I teased her.

‘Yes, of course. I use a stopwatch to check. Now go,’ she joked and cajoled.

‘Oh, one more thing, Dad. Vaibhav may not come for badminton tomorrow. He asked me to tell you, but I forgot. He said that he has some training module to complete urgently,’ I told my father.

‘I see. That is fine then. We have some regulars there whom we play doubles with. One of them can take Vaibhav’s place,’ said my father.

When I went to my room, the pain of Vaibhav’s words came flooding back. I decided to read my book of poems.

Among all the poems in the book, The Wound by Ruth Stone caught my eye.

The shock comes slowly
as an afterthought.
First you hear the words.

It was a very short poem, which began with these lines. The words struck an instant connect. I read the entire poem and felt the truth of each word. I felt it was written just for me. I wondered who this Ruth Stone was. I turned to the back of the book, and there were a few lines written about her. She seemed to be a renowned poet with many books. I froze when I read the next line. Ruth Stone was quoted to have said that all her poems were ‘love poems written to a dead man’. Her husband had committed suicide and she had raised their three daughters alone.

Something clicked in my brain then. I rushed to my cupboard and rummaged among my clothes for the suicide manual. I opened it and read the inscription again.

To my darling Ruth.
All my love,
MH

Was this a sign from the universe? The suicide manual was gifted to Ruth, and the poem I had just read was by Ruth. What a strange coincidence! Both had something to do with death and dying. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. I felt I was groping in the dark for something – but what I was searching for, I did not know.

I read the other poems in the book too. They all spoke to me. They matched the melancholy I felt inside. The sadness at being misunderstood by Vaibhav was unbearable. Had I cheated him? What was cheating? How was it cheating? Had I promised him I would tell him every bit of my life? He wasn’t around anyway when I was in St. Agnes. We wrote a few letters and talked on the phone sometimes. How did that make me obliged to tell him about Abhi? More importantly, if I had, would he have understood?

Thoughts began whirling in my head. I didn’t know where one ended and the other began. It was happening again. Things inside my head were racing around at a terrifying speed. Fragments flew in all directions. I was losing control. I didn’t know what to do. I needed to do something. I needed to write.

I grabbed my notebook.

I began writing:

Love is not a contract you sign, where you commit to telling everything to each other. Love is when you feel understood without saying a thing. When you love someone, you accept them in their entirety. The bad bits along with the good bits. You learn to control your jealousy. You put their happiness above yours. You want the best for them. You wish them well. You tell them things that you believe are your absolute truth. You share your vulnerabilities with them. You show them your weakest side. You bank on their compassion. You never expect love to be unkind.
And when you lose love, it feels like you have lost a part of yourself. Forever.

I started crying at this point. Tears clouded my eyes and I couldn’t see anymore. A tear fell on the page I was writing on, and landed on the word ‘love’. The ink blotted, and the word faded.

I picked up my pen again. Then I wrote:

Love dies, and there is nothing you can do except endure the loss. It is the most painful feeling in the world.

I felt better after I wrote. The fragments in my head, the words flying around, the disjointed thoughts, all of it had come together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on paper. A long time ago I had come across a book, Notes to Myself . I decided that is what I would do too.

Whenever I felt my brain being ‘churned’, I would write a note to myself.

On the cover of the book, I wrote: LIFE’S LITTLE NOTES .

Then on top of the page of the piece I had just written, I wrote

Note 1 .

I read it again. It made perfect sense to me. It was an epiphany. While the pain of Vaibhav’s words did not go away, writing all this took some of the edge off it and made it easier to bear.

I went to bed after that. As I fell asleep, my last thoughts were whether Vaibhav would turn up the next day. I desperately hoped he would.

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Comments

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clara
preeti shenoy writes books so wonderfully as if all this happens in reality. i really loved some characters she had imagined... but felt too bad for such a tragic ending of his...
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Ritu
Preeti shenoy's book are so damn well written I just love reading it .
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Shrinivas
Mast
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