This short story is participating in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
The news came today morning. I was about to start for office when my mobile beeped. The name on the display was quite unexpected. Mira masi was crying like a baby. I felt so distant, both physically and mentally. Mira masi was telling so many things but my senses blurred out; all I could hear was a frantic scream of a child, “No! Don’t fall! Take my hand. I’m right here.”
After trying my best to console Mira masi, I kept the phone down and reached for the drawer of the bedside table. There was a photograph, now turned pale yellow on excessive usage. I took it in my palm and stared at it; two girls, eight or nine, are playing by the sea. Dad wanted a photo of ours but we were too engrossed in play to turn back at the camera.
After the news, couldn’t think of going to office today; but couldn’t stay at home either. My heavy heart needed some fresh air. Almost as if in a trance I started walking towards the beach. Cove Island beach is nearly thirty minutes’ walk from my house; we usually drive or take the bus no. 3 but today I was not in my right senses. The blue water was drawing me like a magnet with some inexplicable force.
When I reached there, the place was pretty crowded for a weekday morning. Actually Spring Break has started in the schools, so the place was mostly full of kids and their parents. Sky was a bright blue-and-white giant kite with the seagulls tailing it all over.
It was my bad luck that memory didn’t give me any respite. I spotted these two little girls sitting on one of the boulders and playing; both having their back towards me. The sight mocked at me because the yellowish photo in my hand was exactly a mirror image of that. Only difference is that the photo was taken thirty years back, the place was not a Connecticut beach by the Atlantic gulf but a Bay of Bengal sea beach named Digha in West Bengal and one of the two girls is lying on a mortuary bed right now.
Tina had a disturbed childhood. Her father left her mother and got married again when she was only two. She also had an elder sister, Mina, who was six then. To sustain the family, her mother took a job of cooking maid in the nearby households. The girls joined her by the time they were hardly eight or nine. Tina was of my age when I met her one Sunday morning. Mira masi was doing the regular household chores and Tina was standing by the window curtain; enveloping herself in the dark brown velvety comfort.
Mira masi was able to convince Mom that our household needs another helping hand to get the chores done the right way, so Tina became a regular to our house along with her mother.
I didn’t have anyone to play with but Tina after returning from school. Mom and Dad both were doctors at the SSKM Medical College of Kolkata and we lived at the hospital’s staff quarter. Thankfully my parents were liberal enough to let their only child mingle with a daily maid’s daughter. So Tina and I soon became best friends.
Mira masi couldn’t afford to send her daughters to school but I would give all my used books to Tina. She had a knack for learning. Every evening Tina used to sit by my table when I memorized the daily lessons. She asked me to repeat the pages again and again thus helping me prepare my lessons better. Stories from Tagore’s Sahaj Path and history of Alexander the great was particularly her favourites. I read her from the comic books too. Her giggles on the Captain Haddock’s antics still resonate on my ears.
Once we made a weekend trip to Digha during the Christmas holidays. Though Mom was reluctant to take someone else’s daughter’s responsibility, Tina joined us on my insistence. Mira masi was sceptical too and started crying as if we were taking Tina out of the planet. Both of us were ecstatic; it was our first visit to the sea. Whole day we spent on the beach building sandcastles and diviing onto the sea from the large boulders. Those boulders were slippery and quite high for eight year olds and Mom and Dad were obviously scared but we were fearless. My heart leaped with the thought of that afternoon.
Suddenly there was a loud shriek and I jolted back to reality. One of those girls slipped while trying to catch a seagull and was about to fall onto the water when her friend caught her hand just in time. The mother screamed in panic. Everything went back to normalcy soon after. I relaxed and thanked God; two accidents in one day would have been too much for me.
My phone beeped again. Akash is calling. Gave him the sad news. Akash never met Tina but he knows her from my reminiscence. Memories of that eight year old Tina are unusually vivid in my mind till date and I keep repeating them on and on; perhaps because that was when fate torn us apart.
My father got transferred to Mumbai the next summer. Though I and Tina vowed to meet every year on our yearly visits to Kolkata during the Durga Puja and I did that for the next six years or so, but it was never the same again. We were growing older. I was a Mumbai girl now; studying in English medium school. The shanti-living Tina was no match for my status. My school, my lifestyle, and my friends all were different now and so was I. That innocent bonding was fading slowly and we could both sense it.
I completed school, graduated in mass communication from St. Xaviers. Tina joined a household at Salt Lake as a full-time maid. Mira masi were still working at my grandparents’ house and every year I would enquire about Tina from my grandparents but the feeling was not the same anymore. One year I heard about Mina, her elder sister, being burned to death by her in-laws just because Mira masi couldn’t pay the dowry. I felt appalled but slowly drifted back to my own whirlwinds. Couple of years later, I heard of Tina having eloped with a local Muslim bus driver and getting married. I felt happy for her though grandma was cursing her for not marrying within religion. Few years later I heard about her little son being born and I felt excited. But all these were just few pieces of news to me, nothing more. Life was tumultuous to me as well and I couldn’t spare much time to think about Tina. Only the photo in my drawer was yellowing day by day just like our friendship.
I got married to Akash couple of years later and shifted to Stamford in USA. It was a new struggle for me, to settle down in a foreign country with a complete stranger. Soon Rohit came to my life and I got too busy with him for the next five years.
Life was running smooth until the voice of Mira masi drifted me back to Tina today morning.
Still I wondered why Tina mentioned my name in her suicide note. I was not a part of her life in the last twenty years. Mira masi must have taken a lot of pain in finding out my contact details and making an international call as per Tina’s last wish, but why? I realized I didn’t ask Mira masi how and where she died; maybe I could figure out the missing puzzle then. I decided to call Mira masi once again; morning I was too shocked to pay any attention to her details.
The sky is violet now. Those little girls are gone. Only a few seagulls are accompanying my solitude. The crimson setting sun has created a visual imagery of the last days of Tina as I listened to Mira masi.
She was describing the last five years of Tina’s life; how her husband would beat her up every night, how her three year old son died of a road accident two years back, how she had another miscarriage just two months back probably caused by her husband’s torture, how the tortured Tina returned to her mother’s house with the hope of starting life all over again but Mira masi refused to accept her back because of societal pressure as she was now a Muslim man’s wife and how Tina had nowhere to go but commit suicide to get rid of her miserable life.
I heard it all in a stunned silence. My heart was icy; it couldn’t wring a single tear drop.
But why did she go all the way to Digha to take away her life? Was she trying to tell me something? Was it because of that she asked her mother to convey the news to me at any cost?
Yes, I understand it now. Thirty years back in that afternoon at Digha, she slipped off the boulder but I was there to hold her hand at the last moment. I screamed with my lungs bursting out in fear, “No! Don’t fall. Take my hand. I am right here.” Today there was no one to utter those words when she made her final dive. She expected her best friend to there be by her side in the days of her misery but I wasn’t there. Maybe she tried to reach out to me in the last few years but I was too far away. So in her desperate attempt to remind me of my onuses, she made her last leap from the same boulder in Digha where I once rescued her.
Today, by some weird trick of fate I witnessed the same episode getting enacted in front of my eyes. Maybe it was Tina who performed it for me to awaken my lost conscience. Today that little girl saved her friend’s life exactly the same way as I did thirty years ago but will she be there for her thirty years later? Only time will tell that.
I stood up and unconsciously started climbing up the boulder where those two girls were sitting earlier. My feet were tumbling on the slippery rock now flooded with high tide water. Just the instant when my mind was preparing for its last leap, I felt the cold trembling fingers of an eight year old girl in my right hand; as if we can still rescue each other just in time.