This short story is selected as Story of the Month August’2016 and won INR 1,000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
The blaring sunlight was upon the balcony of my friend’s room in the deluxe ward. The heat picking up even as early as eight in the morning heightened my sense of desolation. If I opened the door, the sunlight would forcefully pierce the sick room and fall in an elongated patch with dust dancing in the brightness of the rays.
Life couldn’t have been worse. My friend was withering away in bed. ‘Chronic myelogenous leukemia’ was what they said. At this blast and final stage nothing could be done except wait and watch her die.
Sitting on the high flat stool that also served as foot rest, I spent the moments with her, trying to look as cheerful as possible but in reality trying to combat the rising anguish in me. The soft hum of the AC set the room temperature bearable, still I sweated profusely. I mopped my forehead and the back of my neck with my handkerchief from time to time. I was such a poor comforter I had no idea what to tell her, what to speak. But did she expect any comfort from me? She looked at me with eyes full of unspoken words, blank, hopeless, all dreams shattered. Even at this stage her brown eyes turned mellow with glow of true love when she looked at me. Every minute was a bonus to us. Death had come so close.
A mild tap on the door brought me quickly to reality. Aida gently pushed the door open and came in with a bucket and a mop smelling of phenyl. This is what the room needed, a thorough cleansing. The doors and windows needed to be opened allowing light and air from the outside world to enter the room to cheer the moods.
“So how are you feeling today?” Aida asked cheerfully and without waiting for an answer said, “You look really great. Looks like the medicines are working wonderfully. You are going to be discharged soon.”
My friend, Roshni, was in fact looking like the waning moon. She smiled wanly. She was used to Aida’s cheerfulness and positive vibes.
Aida’s entry into the room brought some kind of life into my eyes too, for suddenly all my melancholic thoughts stopped. I looked at her with a smile. She put off the AC and opened the balcony door. Swiftly a shaft of bright light fell on the floor. She went about putting order in the room, setting the chairs and the stool in place. She drew the curtains apart and threw open the windows. She then swept the room with wet mop and then with dry mop until the floor shone in the light. The smell of phenyl was quite welcoming as if it came from the outer world where life went on in full swing. She hummed a strange tune as she dusted the window sill. When she was done, she looked at us.
“Do you want me to shut the doors and the windows and switch on the AC?”
“No, leave it open as it is.” I said.
“The day nurse is on her way to give you a wash,” she winked at my friend and began to go out of the room. The heaviness in my heart returned and rapidly I swung back to my desolate feeling.
The day nurse entered with a bundle in her hand. Change over sheets, pillow covers, dress, sponge and soap.
She had a sour expression on her face. She said without looking at me, “Please,” and showed the door.
I walked out breathing deeply, with my hands in my pocket and sat cross legged on the sofa in the lounge.
Half an hour later she walked out with all soiled sheets for washing. I continued to sit there for some more time looking at the other patients and their plights. People weeping softly, people tying to walk with great difficulty, others consoling their relatives, all were suffering the same agony. The only thing common among the people there was their unspoken distress, an implicit connectedness of sufferings. One looking at the other with sympathy lent some comfort to one another. I saw her parents entering the room.
‘There’s nothing one can do against death. It is inevitable. Aren’t we all caught in the great cycle of life and death?’ But my mind refused to accept any thought. I walked aimlessly, kicking small pebbles and empty cigarette boxes. The question was how was I going to be without her? How would life be without her? When I passed by a departmental store, I caught a glimpse of my reflection on the glass door. I looked haggard in my crumpled shirt and jeans.
A marriage party was passing by, one group was dancing and the band was playing a popular tune cheerfully. The groom was on the horse, riding slowly. The festivities, celebrations, gatherings, get-together’s, appeared hollow to me. I had an urge to break free from all the ties of life. Then what would I do? If everything finally ended in death, why all these celebrations? Life lost its meaning to me. I walked to a juice centre and sat in a remote corner. The waiter came to take my order. I ordered for pineapple juice. When it came I sipped it slowly brooding over it, looking moodily about me, delaying, and prolonging time.
The day I met Roshni, I never thought I would love her so much. She was telling loudly to the class that was full of boys and girls, “Ya, I will give Roshni only if my Suraj is here.” Exactly at that moment I entered the class room. And there was a loud “Oooooh” from the boys. “Here comes Suraj.”
Later she told me how some boys had targeted her for fun saying, “Give us some Roshni.” But that was all three years ago. Life was brimming with hope and excitement.
Our friendship grew in a healthy way. I wasn’t a guy for fashion and fad, glamour and galore, put-ons and parties. I was quite contended reading a book or watching the news rather than spend the weekends hanging out, chilling out with friends in some bar, pub or club or discotheque. I enjoyed simplicity. Roshni wasn’t much to look at. She was fair and very ordinary. But she carried the feminine grace that was meant for home and hearth. Our love wasn’t physical. It was our attitude that set the compatibility between us. We met every day in the library. She would sit opposite me and do her work. Our communication lay in our silence and the togetherness spelt security. She was an accomplished and wholesome girl whose words were cheerful, affirmative and soft.
We never made a show of our friendship, never went out, never even once to the movies or restaurants. The meeting was always in the library right under the noses of every one and nobody knew about our friendship. And after all, why should anyone know about it?
Every night between nine and eleven we met on WhatsApp or sometimes on Face book and chatted. It became a routine but not rigid or inflexible. We never gossiped about any third person, it was always about ourselves, our dreams and aspirations, our future plans and our love and so on. Even in the college premises, we spoke with each other on our cell phone without even our closest friends knowing who it was on the line. We disdained publicity and more so the unnecessary gossips, and intrusions of other friends. But my friend Aakash was different. He sensed our love but never asked me even once whether what he guessed was right or even hinted at it at any time. Even I knew that some sort of chemistry was working between Aakash and Roshni’s friend Megha. But I chose never to talk about it.
We were now in the final year of our Engineering, specializing in Electronics. Our plan was to break the news to our families after the examinations were over, at the right time, in fact after the Campus interviews. We were sure to get a good placement.
Six months before the final exams she fell ill. It was just an ordinary cold and cough with fever. She came on the FB and messaged me that she was running high temperature and was under treatment. I missed her terribly in the College Library. I sms-ed her enquiring about her condition. But she kept adding on to the complaints- body ache, raging fever, tiredness, bone pain, sudden sweating, palpitation and so on. I was worried to death. But I was hopeful she would recover fast for she was so disciplined in her diet and timings. I told myself it could be just viral fever.
When I didn’t hear from her, I called her up in her cell. She said she was in a pathological clinic undergoing a whole lot of tests. The preliminary tests were inconclusive so she had to go for advanced tests.
My heart sank. Oh, God! Let it not be anything major. I prayed. I told her she would be okay. But she sounded weak and apathetic. That evening, I remember I went to a temple and prayed for her with my heart and soul. I begged of the Lord to cure her soon.
At nine I logged on to the net. She wasn’t there on FB and her WhatsApp status showed she was last seen two days back. I sms-ed her again. There was no reply. I called on her cell but the message came that the cell was switched off. I sat in utter despair for a long time. It was good that my room partner was not there. He had the habit of disappearing without intimation and that suited me. I switched off my laptop and went to bed with a heavy heart.
The next morning I sent her a good morning sms and waited for her reply. When I didn’t get one I called her up. She picked my call and said quickly she was going to be admitted. Blood drained from my face and my throat went dry. What do they suspect, I asked her? She said it was some blood disease. “Charge you cell and take it with you. Please let me hear your voice, Roshni”, I said with great pain engulfing me.
“Don’t worry there are medicines for all diseases. I will be alright and we will meet again.” she said and that was like reassurance to me.
Two days later she smsed that it was ‘Chronic myelogenous leukemia’ and there was no hope.
I went to the hospital to meet her. She broke into tears and for the first time I hugged her comforting her with a lump in my throat. She had developed purple spots on her face and hands. A part of me was also dying with her. Since then every day I went to meet her, and her parents would say, “See, your college friend has come.” They would either move out or go out for snacks. I felt sorry for them, their only daughter and on the throes of death! How would they take it? Who do they have for comfort? How cruel God can be……
I had long back finished drinking the juice but the straw was still in my mouth. After a few hours, the waiter asked me if I needed anything more. I paid and walked out wherever the path led me, moving slowly with the crowd outside the station, staring at people who meant nothing to me.
The sun set slowly and dusk was settling. Suddenly I became aware of the strange place I was walking in. I had entered into some hitherto unknown lane and was standing in front of a small crowd of children playing. There was a figure familiar to me, in skirt and blouse. I stared at her and she at me. Then she called out cheerfully, “Hello Sir, it is you! I see you in the hospital every morning.”
It was Aida, the char woman. How different she looked in her skirt and blouse! Quite pretty with her hair let down in front. She was a different woman in her blaring pink hospital overalls, her hair tied behind and with the bucket and mops.
“Why don’t you come to my house? I stay here in this small colony.” It was more like a slum but cleaner with one room shacks all built in a line. I went to her house. It was just a room with a make shift kitchen. An old woman was lying on the bed and her parents presumably, were sitting in the small settee, her mother knitting and her father reading a book in the bright tube light.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she said pushing a broken chair towards me.
“It’s alright,” I said.
Her father and mother looked at me and smiled. “They are my parents. They are both partially deaf.” she said. “And this is my granny in bed with asthma. To them I am the only hope.”
I was taken aback at her nerve in handling life so well.
“I must say you are indeed a different person. Tell me Aida, how do you manage life? How do you manage to be so cheerful and optimistic?”
“I am grateful to God for having a job-like, it provides for our food. I am grateful that I have a roof-like above my head. My simple thinking is to keep doing my duties-like as well as I can. And while on duty what do I lose by uttering a few cheerful words-like to the patients and their relatives? God has a plan-like for every one of us. We only have to play out our roles like it is given to us. What is the point in worrying-like? Even if you hit your head against the wall and cry the dying will not come back to life. So let go and move ahead. I am quite an illiterate person, but I have tasted life-like. I know what life is and how to lead it peacefully. Learn to accept reality and move on. Do I make sense to you?”
“Yes, you do, Aida.” I said already tears welling up in my eyes.
“Saab, you both are college friends or what?”
“Yes.” I said.
“She is a lovely person but how very sad.” she said softly.
“You know she’s dying?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “But I interact with her as if she’s going to be well and discharged soon.”
Tears fell fast and nobody minded it; I didn’t even feel embarrassed to weep in front of her.
I never met Aida in my life afterwards. My Roshni passed away four days later. I went to her funeral and stood there like a nobody. Almost all the students from the college had come. Many of her friends were weeping inconsolably. She was covered with wreaths; I too placed a wreath on her body which looked like a heart. Her parents saw me and nodded as though acknowledging our love. Though thoroughly broken they appeared stronger at that moment. I choked and crumbled and wept miserably.
They lifted the body and kept it inside the van, which was ready to take her to the crematorium. Her father and others got in and shut the door.
Aakash was with me, by my side with his arm round my shoulder. As soon as the van purred into life, her mother walked fast behind it and cried out with her hands stretched in front, “Roshni, don’t leave me and go like this, what will I do without you, my darling……”
But the van moved ahead and went round the bend and disappeared into the traffic. All the relatives, neighbours, students and friends stood there for some time weeping, wiping their tears, shaking their heads and began to leave the place.
I returned to my hostel room with Aakash and crashed into my bed. Everything appeared drab to me. I had lost someone so precious. Life had lost its importance to me. He sat without speaking a word. By evening he went out and bought some food in a packet. He laid the contents out neatly on paper plates, sandwiches and fruit juice. But the very sight and smell of food was obnoxious to me. He urged me to eat or at least drink the fruit juice. But I was completely spent lying on the bed. Something in me was dead. His cell rang and he took the call. He then told me it was his dad and that he had to accompany his dad on some business work the next morning and that he would be out of station for at least four days. He stayed till twilight and then took leave of me almost pleading that I should take care of myself.
Time hung heavily and ticked painfully slow. I lost my appetite, sleep and interest in studies. I lay in bed staring vacantly at the ceiling. Thankfully, my room mate had disappeared as usual or else his constant banter would have driven me mad. ‘Oh God, why did you take away my Roshni from me?’ I cried in despair.
On the fourth day, I got up with a heavy head and staggering steps. I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked awful with unshaven face and bloodshot eyes. I had to do something or else I would go insane. Firstly, I threw open the windows to allow a gust of fresh air to invade the room into which it had not entered for sometime. Then I took out my shaving kit and shaved. Now I looked like a skull with eyes sunken and hollow cheeks. The pallor on my face was markedly noticeable. I went into the bathroom and ran the shower which sent down a steady stream of cold water. The water running down my body refreshed me. I got into my faded jeans and open-necked shirt. As I went down, I heard loud and exuberant chatter coming from the first floor rooms. It was disgusting to me. Outside the sun had already set and the last radiance was also fast fading. I walked slowly as if I had come from a different world. It was too much to walk in the crowded street without any life left in me. The street lights were coming on one by one and suddenly the road was brightly lit. Many faces frowned at me as my shoulder brushed against them. Blood was pounding in my temples and my head starting aching with fatigue.
I quickly entered into a hotel and sat down. The waiter came and poured water into my glass. He stood beside me. “Tea,” I said.
“Looks like you haven’t eaten for days. Why don’t you eat something like sandwich, idli…”
“Okay, bring anything of your choice.” I said.
He brought a plate of cheese grilled sandwich. I took a very long time to finish it. Finally, when I was through the waiter even gave his hand to help me to rise. When I came back to my room it was almost nine.
My cell and laptop lay uselessly on the table. No one had called me, not even the ad-masters.
Following some unknown instinct, I booted my laptop. As soon as I logged on to the net, a notification popped up saying there was a message from Roshni. I was shocked. My heart started beating like a hammer against my ribs. I clicked and the message opened. Yes, Roshni had written a message to me before she died.
My Dearest Suraj,
This morning Aida told me she had met you in her colony two days back by chance. She said you looked lost, and extremely depressed.
I am writing this from my mobile. The font is too small and my eyes are hurting. But I must talk with you. Sooner or later one has to die. Everyone born must die, everything made must break. That’s the law of the Universe. I am repeating what Aida told you. Let go n move on.
I told my close friend Megha about our love this morning. She was surprised how a nerd like you can love anyone so intensely. We laughed a little and cried together. And do you know, your friend Aakash and Megha share a soft corner for each other in their hearts. I’ve asked Megha to support you emotionally. So don’t cut yourself out totally. You have a shoulder to cry on.
And one more thing, on the first of next month you will receive an e-card from me also on your birthday.
So you have something to look forward to. Do you know what birthday means? It means growing up!
For heaven’s sake study well and give your exams. Don’t forsake your duties.
No power can separate Roshni from Suraj. We are eternally linked.
Good Night and God be with you.
A great surge of emotion swelled up. I pushed my chair a little behind and bent forward. Covering my face with my hands I cried. When I was spent I felt light-hearted. I read her message over and over again till every word became etched on my heart.
Time trudged agonisingly heavily and with it I too moved on limply. I waited for the e-card ticking each day off the calendar till I came to the 31st. I kept my laptop switched on and waited for her message to arrive. I waited the whole day, but no mail or message came. It was now nine at night. I thought as usual at nine she would have sent. But no, nothing happened. Then it struck me I was still in the same month. At 00 hrs the month would change. Yes, I waited for 12 to strike.
I kept wide awake, waiting for the clock to strike 12. At 11.45 p.m a sudden gust of wind blew and ruffled the papers on my table. There was a flash of lightning followed by a clap of thunder.
I went to the window to close it and saw someone standing there outside under the street light. What? Roshni? It can’t be! I was dreaming probably. But no, she was there. My heart began to thud. She was calling me down. I had to go and meet her. I went out. Suddenly the lights went off and it was pitch dark. I needed a candle, or even just one match stick to light the way. I was both excited and terrified. I ran down the steps, all the doors were shut and there was no noise on the floors below, no one awake but how strange for everyone to be indoors and silent. I ran down the steps in twos and threes and came to the landing. It was dimly lit by the reflection of street light from outside. The warden was asleep in his chair, his head inclined to one side. I opened the door noiselessly and stepped out. I had to walk a good twenty steps. The wind was blowing a gale and it felt salty on my mouth. I rounded the building. Yes, that was the street light below my room! But there was no one. I ran like a mad man searching for her, calling out aloud “Roshni……”
Someone tapped on my shoulder; my heart gave a leap. I turned round and saw a cop on patrol, looming large over me. It now started drizzling and the drizzle turned into a heavy rain. He asked me, “Have you lost it?”
“What?” I asked him.
“Your senses.” he replied.
“Explain,” he said. “What are you doing at this time of the night outside the hostel? Are you a student? Do you want to be rusticated?”
“I am sorry, but I saw my friend from my window up there, standing here where you are standing and calling out to me. I came down to meet her.”
“Don’t you make up stories. I have seen your likes several times. They blurt out the truth in the station. There was no one here for the past fifteen minutes.”
“No, no please, trust me. Don’t drag me to the station and spoil my career. I am telling you the truth. I saw her under this lamp. She was calling out to me, asking me to come down. ” My words fell short and I began to sob; confused, and frightened.
“I’ll escort you to your hostel. Walk with me,” he said and I meekly walked with him turning back now and then.
He knocked and the warden opened the door.
“Does this boy belong here?”
“Yes, of course. What happened? He is one of the finest boys here. But how did he get out?”
“It means you should be on guard and not sleep on duty. The boy is in a daze. Is he a sleep-walker or something?” said the cop.
“No, he’s not. But these days he’s not in form. He cannot do anything wrong Sir. Please pardon him.”
“Well, I rest the case here,” the cop said.
He then straightened his cap and began to go out. The warden threw a frowning look at me. The lights had come on and I slowly went up to my room, pulled out a towel and wiped my face and head. I changed into dry clothes. The laptop re-booted and a URL appeared, and it was 00 hrs. I looked out from the window. The rain was falling steadily and there was no one outside. It must have been my strong fancy to have seen her. Or else a transference of thought; she used to say often to me, ‘If you think there’s a problem, you tend to get busy solving it.’ Maybe that was what I experienced.
I closed the window and sat down calmly. I clicked on the URL. The message opened and read:
For man, mind is the cause of bondage and mind is the cause of liberation. Mind absorbed in sense objects is the cause of bondage, and mind detached from the sense objects is the cause of liberation. This is the meaning of letting go….it doesn’t mean that you don’t care about someone anymore, it’s just that you don’t hold on…… realise that you have control only over yourself………This is for you to ponder about…..
Now get serious with your exams; make a detailed plan to study; follow the clock and keep doing your work………
The message was profound. I was dumbstruck. This is what exactly happened to me. For a full fifteen minutes my mind came off her thoughts though it was in search of her I had run, and I was busy solving my problem with the cop. I had lots to think.
I read and re-read the message. Strangely, I felt a sense of relief. Every day I read the message and tried to understand the meaning and live it. I took baby steps mentally to get absorbed in daily routine problems or situations, or people.
I had a huge task at hand…to develop a new set of habits. So I sat quietly and thought about my exam. I prepared a timetable to follow. The propelling force of my life was now the clock. I had to look at the clock and do my duties, including eating and resting.
On the eve of my birthday, I was unusually calm. I waited for her message and wishes. When the clock struck 12 at night, her message appeared. The card opened with the usual birthday song followed by profuse wishing….wishing me all the happiness of the world and many happy returns of the day. Then there was a message attached, it read:
Remember: – It’s not the possession of good things that bring happiness. It is the ability to enjoy what comes. Happiness is an attitude. Build it………
I want you to prosper and flourish…..fall in love again….get married and have lots of kids…..Build your happiness around you…..Goodbye.
I felt a piercing pain in my chest and sorrow overpowered me. Tears pricked my eyes. ‘Roshni, my darling.’ I said aloud and allowed the tears to flow.
Megha became my friend in distress and later my friend in peace too. On the last day of our exams, we sat in Café Coffee Day discussing how the paper was. Then our talk turned to weather. It was so hot and humid and people were expecting the rains. But there was no rain cloud in the sky.
Suddenly Megha asked, “What is the most powerful element in nature?”
Aakash said, “Sky, because it is immutable.”
I said, “Sun, because it is only the sun that gives light, heat, energy and life to all on this earth.”
Megha said, “No Megha is the most powerful element because only I can block Suraj and make Aakash cloudy. So you see how powerful I can be?”
“What? Are we talking about ourselves or the weather?” asked Aakash.
“Of course us, then what you thought? We are discussing the stupid weather?” said Megha.
Aakash widened his eyes and raised his eye brows. Their childish squabble was so funny that for the first time in several months I smiled.