This short story is selected as Story of the Month January ‘2017 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
Dev Kumar was a quiet, timid man. A middle aged, single citizen of Calicut, a small city in Kerala. He was not a handsome man, nor a content one. He was employed as an accountant in a fertilizer company earning an average salary and residing in small apartment on the second floor of a building which was within walking distance of his place of work. He was ordinary and mundane apart from the one talent that he cherished, the one skill which he passionately developed- that of writing. Dev, like most introverts, possessed a very vivid imagination which at this point was being put into the realization of his one true dream- to write his own novel and get it published. And he had begun many years ago, almost feverishly, to pen down a magnificent, yet simple story. The story of the journey of a man through the various stages of his life, beginning with his adolescence where his self-imposed ideology of falling in love with only one woman leads to his loneliness in his later years.
Starting with painful recollections of the adultery he had seen during his youth, resulting in the implosion of his parent’s marriage forming the base of such a decision, the first time he had fallen in love with the one woman he believed he would spend the rest of his life with, and how she subsequently left him. It was here that Dev had been forced to stop, having suffered the same obstacle that various writers, irrespective of skill, are often plagued with- writer’s block.
Due to this reason, the partly finished manuscript remained in his cupboard, picking up a coat of dust and donning Dev with one of pain every time he looked at it. He had few friends, and maintained no contact with relatives following the death of his parents, and therefore had a very limited social life. On this day, as he freshened himself and prepared for another routine day of work, Dev experienced the familiar pain of having to look away from his partly complete dream and having to focus on his unwanted source of livelihood.
He left his apartment at 7:50 AM, as he did every day, for he knew the walk took exactly 8 minutes and would allow the luxury of a few minutes to set up. Today, however, he was stalled minorly as there was a single handwritten letter delivered at his doorstep. He knew who it would be from, and the thought, for the first time in the day, brought a smile to his face. He read the familiar address:
Nafissa was the only woman in his life. No, she was not his girlfriend or his fiancée, but he greatly adored her. Nafissa Abdul was in fact, a 15-year-old girl living in the lesser developed areas of the vastly developing metropolis that was Cochin. She was extremely bright; however, her parents lacked the financial means of supporting her dream- that of becoming a doctor. Dev was her sponsor. He had met Nafissa several years ago, at the Medical Trust Hospital in Cochin, when he had taken his mother for a checkup. The girl, hardly 6 years old then, was a vibrant bundle of life and joy that fascinated Dev. And she had captivating eyes. Big, brown, and pretty like a doe’s and full of life, expanding and contracting in sync with her words and expressions. After a brief interaction with her in the lobby where she was running around unsupervised, he got acquainted with her parents who soon came searching after her. Upon realizing her ambition and inability to nurture her dream, he promised her parents to help pay for her education. Although reluctant at first, they soon gratefully relented because they could see no harm.
At the time, his mother and relatives chastised him for throwing away his hard-earned money at some stranger Muslim girl from the streets. He listened to it all quietly, at times even asking himself why he was doing it. But deep down, he knew the answer lay far beyond the charitable justification he gave to his mother or his fascination at the girl’s intellect. He knew there was only one reason he was doing what he did – she reminded him of Sana.
“Good morning Dev sir!”. He was broken out of his reminiscent daydream by the approach of his landlord Mohammed Ali. Ali had been employed in Kuwait but had been forced to return at the time of the Gulf War. His primary source of livelihood now was renting out the other two floors of his inherited family home; he himself lived on the ground floor along with his wife Noora and two young kids Iqbal and Nazir. Although initially skeptical of his easygoing nature, Dev soon began to take a liking to the man although conversations were largely limited to the daily greetings.
“I was going to bring in a plumber to check the pipes. There seems to be a leakage somewhere. I hope you don’t mind us entering your flat first”. Dev nodded his consent and continued his journey to work.
“Hey! You’re looking happier today. Finally made some headway with your book?” Dev looked up to see Rajesh approaching. Rajesh was his immediate junior at work, and since he joined two months ago, the two had started to develop a nice friendship. Since his parents were settled in Thrissur, Rajesh lived in a lodge. Due to this, he often accompanied Dev back to his apartment after work for dinner or coffee. He was one of the few people who would be able to force more than customary greetings out of Dev; their conversations would range from daily news, family and occasionally about their dreams. Dev felt that Rajesh was probably the only reason that the office was bearable. He was also the only other person who had read Dev’s manuscript.
“No. I got a letter from Nafissa. It says she’s due for her 10th standard exams in 3 months. Time seems to fly so fast.”
“Yes indeed. She wants to become a doctor, isn’t it? Better ask her to prepare well. Her “godfather” won’t be able to buy her admission into a medical college.”
Dev smiled at the sly remark and switched on his old computer. Rajesh was going through some files, copying some figures.
“Oh, and Dev, a friend of mine has come to visit. His name is Abraham George. We call him Abey. I hope it’s all right if he joins us for dinner tonight. I think you’ll like him. Actually, you might like him very much. He’s a publisher.”
Dev looked up, genuinely interested for the first time. Would his dreams of being a novelist finally be realized? He was afraid though, because his partially complete manuscript, shielded from the rest of the world, may not seem as precious to them as it did to him. The worry must have shown on his face because Rajesh soon said: “Don’t worry. Just let him have a look. I’m sure he can give you valuable feedback. Maybe he can help you make progress by giving ideas.”
The rest of the day passed by as uneventfully as the past 22 years had done for Dev at work. At 6:30, he switched off the computer and the lights and left for home. Near the gate, standing beside Rajesh and chatting rather animatedly was Abraham George. He was a tall, thin bespectacled man with a thinning hairline. He saw Dev approaching and warmly shook his hand, while introducing himself. Dev led them to his apartment, asked them to get comfortable, and went off to make tea.
Rajesh and Abey soon joined him in the small kitchen where the conversation, while the meal was being prepared, was steered towards the novel. Abey said that his wife and he owned a small publishing company in Cochin and that they were looking for their first big break by launching a new author as they couldn’t afford any of the established ones.
“The way Rajesh has been building you up, I’m sure that your novel is probably the front runner for the Sahitya Academy Award this year.” Abey said.
Dev shrugged off the compliment and told him a brief idea of the story, and the fact that he was now making no progress. “It’s around 60% complete, I’d say. But I don’t know how to take it further. I’m stuck. I just need some spark to just get it back on track”.
“May I read whatever is completed thus far?” Abey enquired.
Dev thought for a second, then went to his cupboard, dusted off the pages and handed it over to Abey who returned to the hall to read it. Soon, dinner was set, but even during the meal Abey silently devoured as much of the novel as he did of the delicious though limited meal.
Meanwhile, Dev nervously pranced about glancing repeatedly at Rajesh who gave him reassuring smiles. Finally, after what seemed like hours, Abey readjusted his spectacles and went up to Dev.
“The minute this is completed, I hope you will let me have the honor of publishing it. This is exactly the thing we need to get George & Sons Publishers back on track.”
Dev’s face broke into a relieved smile, and he shook Abey’s outstretched hand. At the same time, a fresh wave of panic washed over him. This nice man was now depending on him. What if he could never complete the novel?
“I want you to relax and focus on completing it at the earliest. Rajesh tells me you’ve made almost no progress in months. We can’t afford to be quite so laid back anymore. I’m sure that the inspiration you’re looking for will soon come to you. I cannot wait to read the rest of it and to bring this brilliant story to the rest of the world.”
Dev promised to try his best, and his guests soon left. Dev went to bed, and tossed and turned restlessly for a long time before he could get sleep.
Over the next few days, Dev tried to reread his work and to procced further with it, only to find that he just didn’t know how to move forward. Abey visited him regularly enquiring optimistically about progress, only to be disappointed. He did not lose hope and promised to stay in touch even after he returned to Kochi.
The days turned into weeks with the same stagnancy until around a month later when Dev received a phone call at work.
He froze. It had been nearly 23 years, but he would never ever forget that voice, or the person it belonged to- Sana.
Dev Kumar had grown up in Thrissur to a conventional Hindu family. They were not orthodox but his parents, Kumar and Maya were still extremely religious people. Dev too had been brought up with these principles, but he had always been slightly rebellious. By the time he was in college, pursuing B. Com, some of these beliefs had begun to wear off, although at his mother’s insistence, he still applied a bit of sandalwood paste to his forehead every day.
One day, in his second year while hurriedly running out of one lecture to make it in time for the next, he bumped into her. The first thing he noticed was her eyes. They were round and white, with dark brown pupils which were quickly contracting in anger. She had long, thick black hair which was straight and left open and her skin was the color of vanilla. For him, it was love at first sight. He remembered the moment and her first words to him “Who the hell are you?!”. He mumbled an apology before helping her with her books which were strewn on the floor. She angrily snatched them from his hands before walking off with her friends, glaring back at him.
He enquired about her to his own friends who told him that she was Sana Khan, First year Arts student. The next few days involved him trying to see her as often as possible although despite the encouragement of his friends he couldn’t work up the nerve to talk to her. After about a fortnight, she confronted him one day.
“Do you have nothing else to do other than trail behind me? Right from day one, you’ve been following me. Have you no life?”
Dev stuttered before looking into her eyes and saying “I’d rather be a friend than a follower”.
After a few tense moments (seemed like hours to Dev) she burst out laughing.
“That’s probably the most clichéd and lamest thing I’ve ever heard. But it was also pretty sweet. Hi. I’m Sana.”
And from then on, they were friends. They began to bunk lectures together, and were often spotted in the canteen, ground or several other places within the campus. The normally shy and introverted Dev began to feel closer to her than he had done to anyone else and began discussing about his dreams and aspirations with her. She too seemed to cherish the time they spent together. As it often happens in stories, and rarely in real life, love began to blossom.
His dreams and her aspirations had now started to become their dreams and their aspirations. Time seemed to fly by in a joyful bliss for the both of them. When he was in his final year, he proposed. She accepted immediately, but said she would need to seek her family’s consent and blessings. And that was when the problems began.
The Khans were rich businessmen from the Malabar while the Kumar’s, though not poor were no match for the financial competence of the Khans. Sana’s father, Ibrahim, was livid at the thought of an alliance with a Hindu, which would cause a blemish to the reputation of his perfect Quran-abiding, Allah-fearing family. The Kumars, though far less conservative, refused the alliance nonetheless on the grounds that their social circle and relatives would scoff at the idea of their son marrying an Islam. Left with little choice, the two young lovers decided to elope. However, Ibrahim getting wind of the plan, threatened his daughter that he would kill himself and the rest of the family if she were to run off and left a guilty, heartbroken Sana with no choice but to comply with her father’s wishes.
A forlorn Dev tried repeatedly to see her, until Ibrahim’s threat of involving the police forced Kumar to intervene and send his son off to Calicut for employment. Dev tried to persevere in his efforts to get in touch with Sana until he got a letter from his father that she was to be married off soon. He realized that although he never could, maybe she had forgotten him and moved on for the sake of her family. Dev’s world was shattered and he caved himself into it once again.
“Dev? Are you there?”
His hands shook now as they held the receiver, refusing to believe his ears, as tears welled up in his eyes.
“Sana…hi…how are you? How have you been?”
He could hear sniffles at the other end. And he wondered. After all these years, why was she calling him now?
“Sana, please don’t cry.” There was silence at the other end before there was the static beep- she had hung up. Dev blinked away the tears while replacing the receiver and it was a long time before he resumed working.
At around 6 o clock as he was winding up proceedings for the day, the phone rang again. He picked it up.
“Dev, I’m so sorry. About everything. It was all such a terrible mistake. I realize now that I should’ve come with you the day when you asked me to. I’ve been such a fool. Will you ever forgive me?”
Dev was overwhelmed with emotion, but he was happy. He finally seemed to have gotten his long-lost friend back- the part of him that seemed missing, was now gradually returning to him.
“I was never angry, Sana. I was just sad. Sad that…let’s not delve into the past again. How is your husband?”
“We’re separated now, Dev. It never worked out. He married me for my money, and I, I did so for my father. A couple of years ago, he passed away. So, we decided to end this terrible act. We’re now divorced.”
They kept on conversing for until the watchman came into the office and informed Dev that he had to close the office for the day. Dev looking at his watch was both alarmed and pleased to note that it was now 9 o clock, well beyond his usual time of departure. He quickly took down Sana’s number, promised to call her the next day, smiled at the watchman who stared at him incredulously for the unusual gesture, and hurried home.
After dinner, an uncharacteristically buoyant Dev opened his cupboard to pick out a book to read, when he noticed the manuscript. He took it out, reread it, and after nearly a year of inactivity, his story was back in motion.
Once again, time began to fly by for Dev who mentally felt as though he was back to being the same happier, almost carefree boy he was in college. He was making steady progress with his manuscript, and his conversations with Sana were becoming more and more frequent. He finally began to feel satisfied with life. One evening, a month or so after the first phone call, with the manuscript now only requiring minor finetuning, he made two phone calls: one to Abey, to inform him that he would be coming to Cochin personally to hand over the finished draft, and the other to Sana to let her know that he would soon be visiting her at Cochin.
As he left the next day day for office, there was another letter awaiting him at its doorstep. He smiled upon noticing the familiar handwriting and address of Nafissa Ali. As he pored over the contents of the letter though, his smile began to slowly fade. The letter informed him that the girl was suffering from a heart condition where there was a block in her heart that required imminent surgery. The letter contained the girl’s grievance and concern, not for the operation but that her parents were distressed at being unable to raise the Rs. 10 lakhs required for the same. The innocence and the selflessness in the letter moved Dev to tears. He knew he had to do something, but the amount was too substantial to be raised at such short notice.
He thought long and hard about that throughout the working day, and Rajesh who had earlier noticed his changed demeanor following Sana’s phone call and the development of the manuscript was also quick to notice the reverse transformation. Dev told him about the issue, and Rajesh offered to speak to Abey to seek an advance payment on the novel, but Dev knew about Abey’s financial condition and refused. Rajesh suggested asking Sana for money which Dev rejected outright. Then he remembered about the small plot of land in Thrissur that his parents owned and decided that if he could find a buyer quickly enough, he would be able to raise the necessary cash. Rajesh, whose parents were settled in Thrissur, promised to speak to them and to arrange an agent for the same.
Dev immediately wrote a letter to Nafissa and addressed it to her parents as well, promising that he would take care of the cost of the operation. Within ten days, an agreement to sell Dev’s only inheritance was made and an advance of Rs. 10 lakhs given, which Rajesh went and collected on behalf of Dev. The surgery was now a week away. Dev booked railway tickets that would allow him to reach Kochi the day before the surgery. Once again, he made the two phone calls to Abey and Sana and informed them of his plans.
The days passed by until it was the day of his departure. Dev doubled checked the currency which had been packed into a black briefcase, and packed the other requirements for the trip into a duffel bag. He walked towards his office and hailed an auto off the road adjacent to it when suddenly he heard someone call out his name.
He turned around to see Noora, the landlord’s wife, come running to him, tears streaming down her face. He tried to console her and enquired why she was crying when she told him that there was some threat of terrorism in the city and her husband, being a Muslim, was arrested. Even though Dev knew he was running late, he felt a pang of pity and promised to go to the station to try and do whatever he could.
He directed the auto towards the sparsely crowded police station and slowly walked inside. “Where do you think you’re going?” a constable standing at the doorway barked at him. Taken aback at the rudeness, he tried to explain about his situation and requested permission to consult a senior officer. He was told to go inside, where at a desk, the SI or sub inspector was seated. A few feet away from him on the floor a few youths and Ali were sitting looking dejected.
He approached the officer seated at the desk and tried to speak of his landlord’s innocence. In one swift motion the officer got up and slapped him hard across the cheek.
“Who are you to vouch for these vermin? I’m sure you must be their leader. Constable, search him!”
Stunned and stung by the atrocity, Dev struggled hard to maintain his composure while his belongings were ruffled through. The constable brought the suitcase of money to the inspector’s attention.
“Terrorism and counterfeit currency isn’t it?! Bloody rascal!”
“No sir. Actually, it’s advance I received for a plot of land that I sold. The money is to be paid for surgery for a young girl. I was actually on my way to Kochi for that.”
The constable who had been going through his belongings meanwhile came across one of the letters from Nafissa.
“Who’s Nafissa? Your wife? Or…?” he snickered.
“She’s the one who the surgery is for, sir. Please try to understand”.
“Shut up! Let the CI come. He’ll decide what to do with you. Go sit with those scums.”
Blinking back tears at the humiliation and the outrage, Dev went and joined the youngsters on the floor. As the clock ticked away, Dev knew that he no longer had any realistic chance of catching the train. After a long time, the CI (circle inspector) arrived.
“What is this mess? Why are so many people sitting here?” he asked.
“Sir, actually, since we had a terrorist alert, I thought we should arrest all potential threats and keep them locked up” the SI replied.
“And on what basis have you arrested these people?”
“Sir, they look suspicious and are Muslim so I thought…”
“Who the hell made you a cop?! Just for being a Muslim you’re going to keep people locked up?! Have you any evidence or anything against them?
“No sir, but…”
“Shut up! Not another word. Collect their details and then let them all out, right now. That’s an order”.
Dev, Mohammed and the youngsters thanked the superior officer before walking away. Dev then took an auto to drop Mohammed off at their house. Mohammed and Noora, both in tears, thanked him sincerely for caring enough to try and help when no one else did. Dev shrugged them off saying that he was sure they would help him if he were in trouble too. He then bade them goodbye and headed up to his room to sleep. He had decided to head to the bus stop the next morning and take the first bus to Cochin.
The next morning, Abraham George awoke happily. He was thrilled with the idea that he would be getting to publish such a great work of literature and he hoped that this would be the stepping stone for both his publishing house and the budding author that was Dev. He kissed his wife goodbye, said a quick prayer to the Lord and then set off towards his office on his motorcycle.
Sana Khan too awoke feeling incredibly joyful. She was going to meet the man she loved after almost 23 years. She took extra efforts with her selection of clothes, and make up even though she knew that despite the years, the old magic would still exist between Dev and herself. She felt as giddy as a teenager did before her first date. She got into her car and headed off to the Café where she had agreed to meet Dev.
Nafissa Abdul was feeling optimistic. Her parents, albeit worried by the operation on their daughter were comforted by the thought that the doctors were almost certain that the surgery would be successful. As they stayed with their daughter, they said a silent prayer to their Gods, also thanking them profusely for having brought the angel that was Dev Kumar into their lives.
Dev Kumar was at the bus station. He was looking forward to all his commitments for the day. He double checked his bags before getting on the bus. He approached a window seat, and made himself comfortable. With the pleasing thoughts of the events of the past few months, and the ones that would occur over the next few, he slowly closed his eyes and peacefully drifted off to sleep.
“EXPLOSION AT CALICUT BUS STATION! It is believed that the unpardonable act committed by terrorists has claimed the lives of over 50 people and injured as many as 200 more.”
But just how severely that blast had impacted the lives of three waiting individuals and their families would never be known to, or reported by, anyone.