There is a complete silence for a little too long. Neither of them speaks until Viraj finally breaks the silence.
“I’m really sorry mate,” he says.” I shouldn’t have brought this up.”
Ritwik says nothing. Viraj heads to Ritwik’s car and returns with a bottle of mineral water.
“Here, have some water pal,” Viraj offers the water bottle.
“What do you want from me man,” Ritwik says. I ain’t got no money. You can take the car if you want, that’s all I have to give you.
Viraj looks at the empty bottles of scotch and whisky lying on the gravel footpath. And the stench of booze was enough to know that Ritwik was dead drunk.
“You know mate what you’re problem is,” he says. You’re a coward. That’s what you are man. You don’t have courage to face to odds, courage to stand strong, courage to fight. And you’re giving up at a time when your family needs you the most.
“I don’t have a fuckin’ FAMILY,” Ritwik shouts. And who the hell you think you are, telling me all this shit.
“Whatever you say buddy, but I ain’t gonna let you do what you were trying to do here,” says Viraj.
Ritwik didn’t say anything. Instead, he faced toward his right.
“This…this is where I proposed to her four years ago,” Ritwik laughs in pain. “She was standing right there and I bent down on my knees. How happy we were back then and now, now, nothing is left for me to stay here.”
Ritwik broke down again. Tears emerged from his eyes and smothered his face. Once again, there was a complete silence and once again, Viraj broke the ice.
“Listen Bro, I know it must have been very hard for you,” Viraj says. “But this is not the way. You must keep fighting. You have your whole life ahead of you. This certainly isn’t the end.”
“To hell with your sermons and leave me alone,” Ritwik warns in a gentle voice.” What do you know about love anyway? Do you even know how it feels when you lose someone you love? Forget it. You’ll never understand.”
“You’re right,” says Viraj, being more lenient. I’ll never understand. How could I? I’ve never lost someone I love after all. Or wait, there was someone. You wanna know who that was?
Viraj pulled out his wallet, opened the flap and showed it to him.
“Look at this photograph,” he says. Look at him. He is my son. And I loved him more than life. I still love him and I always will. Radhika and I,…we lost him five years ago. But call us mean, selfish or whatever, but we can’t stop living. Because if we do, then two families will fall apart.
The words fell heavy on Ritwik and sedated him for a while. He didn’t say a word and listened to him patiently while Viraj narrated his story.
I never really got a chance to find love on my own. It isn’t like I never tried. I went out with some girls a long time ago. But none of them found me interesting and it didn’t work out with any of ‘em. For I couldn’t be the kind of guy that girls like to date. I didn’t know how to keep a girl happy, I didn’t know how to be romantic, how to make her feel special. And in the end, I admitted the fact that I can’t be loved. And then I met Radhika and things began to change. Unlike the others, ours was an arranged marriage and I don’t say it wasn’t difficult. Of course it was. And for the first few weeks, we barely talked to each other. But love requires patience. For it takes time for the two souls to unite in way that the bond lasts forever.
And though the things weren’t supposed to happen this way, it was our son who knitted us together in the tough times and gave us strength to fight the odds.
April 9, 2008 (7 Years Back)
We used to live in Mohali with my parents but then Radhika got a job in Chandigarh and mine was there too. So we decided to move in to Chandigarh. Prithvi was 3 years old at that time. We hired a small apartment in sector 4 and lived there happily for the next five years. By then Prithvi was getting young and we admitted him to a big school. But from the first day itself, I noticed he wasn’t happy. However, Radhika assured me that he’s fine. “It takes time for a boy like him to adjust in a new place,” she would say. There’s nothing to worry about. He’s going to be okay.
But as the time passed, things only got worse. His performance fell, he started eating very less and sometimes at night he would scream so loud that the voices were hard to ignore. We assumed he was having nightmares but he never told us anything. Seeing this happening again and again, Radhika and I decided to sleep in his room with him for some days. The first night itself, we heard him mumbling weird things in his sleep.
“This is my seat. I don’t want to go there. Please let me sit here. I just wanna be alone. Please,” this was all he kept saying in his sleep. But now it made sense. Maybe it was some class teacher who wasn’t treating him right and we knew it was time for us to pay a visit to his school, for it was the only place where we could get the answers.
We took a day off from work and we visited his school the following morning. The school Principal treated us well and promised to take a strict action against the teacher if what they were telling is true. Prithvi’s class teacher was called to the Principal office. Miss Kavita Sharma was young, fair and taller than most of the female teachers you’d find in the school. She seemed to be in her twenties, must have graduated quite recently. But there was something about her that instinctively told me she couldn’t torture or even tease a kid. When we further questioned her about Prithvi, we got answers that we hadn’t really expected. First off, Miss Sharma swore to God and assured us that she’d never even touched him or chided him for all that matter. She told us that the boy barely ever spoke up in the class. He would just stash himself up in a distant corner and sat there quietly all alone. She also told us that she hadn’t seen him in the class for about a week or so. This revelation was perhaps the most shocking one for both of us. Prithvi had gone to school all this time and if he hadn’t attended the classes, then where the hell did he go. Not only that, we found out that he still wasn’t in the class while I’d have him hopped on to the school bus just hours ago? What on earth was he up to and where is he right now?
The thoughts were driving me insane. On further investigation, we found out that Prithvi didn’t have much friends in the class. But there was one, Ravi his name was. He was the one who sat with Prithvi sometimes, had lunch with him on several occasions and accompanied him to the bus. When we talked to Ravi, everything seemed to fall back into pieces. He told us that Prithvi was being bullied by a bunch of notorious goons in the class. They didn’t let him sit with anyone in the class and that’s why he always had to sit alone in a corner. They ate his lunch and gave him the leftovers to eat which he would usually through away instead of eating. Anyone who ever talked to him would become their next target. So everyone in the class preferred to keep a distance from the boy. As he broke into tears, he told us that they compelled him to stay away from him and tease him just like they did. He told us that they threatened to beat him if he didn’t do so. And so he had to insult him in front of the whole class and he hadn’t talked to Prithvi since.
With every word that he spoke, the rage inside me was shooting up. I was losing my temper surely enough. I knew it won’t be fair to do so, but for one moment, I wanted to slap those boys on the face. No, even worse, I wanted to break their nose and cripple them up. Imagine a boy who had no friends, who had no one to talk to or even share his feelings. Imagine a boy who was being bullied every single day for the last three years. It was then that I realized he wasn’t always like this. I remembered those jovial moments when we lived in Mohali. He used to be larger than life. Prithvi loved to hear stories when I was home. He liked Peter Pan and Vikram-Vetal stories the most. On Sunday’s we used to play cricket and it was something they he could do all day long. He loved cricket, told us that he wanted to be a top batsman like Sehwag. I remembered how he looked at that time and then I remembered how he looked now. That bright smile was gone, it was nowhere to be seen. I realized that my true son was lost somewhere in time. And within minutes, all the rage turned into dejection, heartache and remorse for not being a father that I should have been. I wasn’t there when my son needed me the most and for that, I couldn’t forgive myself.
When we asked how and when he disappeared, Ravi told us that the boys who bullied him once threw a paper plane at their new Maths teacher when he was solving an equation on the board. When the teacher turned around and caught the plane, he found a funny sketch of him drawn on that paper with a pencil. When the teacher asked who did this, they blamed it on Prithvi. When the teacher questioned, Prithvi didn’t say anything. He knew that if he said something, they would hurt him later. So he kept quiet and the teacher assumed that it was him who did that. The teacher beat him with a ruler and punished him to stay out of his class for one week. Ravi told us that no one had seen Prithvi in the class since then.
We didn’t know what to say or do. Radhika was already in tears. I was just about to say something to the Principal when a boy came running and said, “He’s back. Prithvi has come. He’s in the class.” The ground seemed to be shifting right beneath our feet. All these things were happening so quickly, we didn’t even get time to reckon what to do. Hearing that, we ran to his classroom without wasting a moment.
As we were approaching, he spotted us from afar. I don’t know what happened but he must have panicked seeing us all running toward him and he just ran away from us like….like he had seen a ghost or something. He was running tirelessly and he kept looking at us over and over again. We were on the second floor and there was a tiny grill right ahead of him. I tried to stop him but before I could do anything, he accidentally ran into that grill and the holocaust took place. On the spur of a moment, everything went dark. Radhika fell down on the floor, finding it hard to accept what she just saw. I ran down the stairs and was accompanied by the staff members. My heart was pounding with every step that I took. Prithvi was badly injured by the time we reached but he was still breathing. In a matter of seconds we carried him to the school van and left for the hospital. The hospital was not that far away and it took us about 15 minutes to get there, another 5-10 minutes gone in taking him to the ICU.
The situation was critical but the doctor had assured that they’ll try their best and the rest is in the hands of God. For the first time, I saw myself so vulnerable before the God. I prayed, I literally begged for the life of my kid. I tried to be as strong as I could, but still couldn’t hide the tears forming beneath my eyes. 5 minutes gone. 10 minutes gone. 20 minutes gone. Every second was worth a life time for me. Finally, the door creaked opened and the doctor emerged from inside, removing his face mask. My hands were trembling, my legs were shaking, for this was the moment that would decide our son’s fate.
The doctor didn’t look me in the eyes. He was silent and he didn’t even look up.
“I’m really sorry Mr. Gupta,” he said. “We tried everything we could.”
The ground shifted beneath my feet. This was the end of it. My kid was gone. I would never see him back again. Minutes passed. The staff members were comforting me. Radhika wasn’t even informed yet. After a while, I sat down on a bench and I realized it wasn’t my son. It wasn’t my son who just died. My son was already dead. He died years ago, he died bit by bit every passing day and I couldn’t do anything. Those boys killed my son and I considered myself equally responsible for that, I still do.
Yes, my son was an introvert. And this was his only crime. A crime for which he paid the price….with his life. You know what the thing is, “after all this time, there’s still no place in this world for an introvert.” No matter how rational we become, how perceptive our thinking is, we just can’t comprehend the one simple fact that some people are different. Some people are hard to understand. But that doesn’t mean you can make them your play things, treat them like a toy. My son was just 9 years old. Yes, he was different. But he was a boy too, he had his dreams too. Like every other boy, he also wanted to be something. But he just ended up being an introvert. But who made him that? Us. The society.
Ritwik was dumbstruck. The words echoed in his ears over and over again. All his bewilderment was gone in a flash. Even after hours of getting drunk, he came back to his senses and the self-detestation was no longer there. In fact, it was now replaced by the sense of solace. He felt terrible for what happened to the boy. And then he realized that he’s not the only one in the world who’s going through this sort of pain. Viraj was right. Despite of all that happens in life, we can’t stop living. Yes, life can be brutal at times, it can crush you with the heaviest force there in this nature, it can break you to your bones but it can’t take the spirit out of you. The spirit to endure, the spirit to fight and survive.
He had to live. If only for the ones who loved him. He had to live for his parents, his sister and his love for Yashika. He remembered what Yashika had told him once when he took her to Goa for a long weekend. With their arms intertwined and their wrists holding tight, they were sitting by the end of the shore at Baga Beach. It was 5:40 in the morning and the sun was about to come up. They had spent the whole night partying at the beach and they were in no mood of going back to their hotel room which was just minutes away from the beach. It was all dark by the time but as the minutes passed, the sun began to show its magical gleam. Soon enough, the bright and vibrant rays of sun splintered through the darkness and just as they witnessed the most beautiful sunrise of their lives, Yashika made him promise her something.
“I’ve had the most beautiful time of my life with you Ritwik,” she said.” I will always love you to the moon no matter what. But you know what?”
“What?” said Ritwik.
“No matter how perfect it may seem as of now but I know there will be a lot of dark days ahead. And I just want you to promise me one thing that despite of whatever trouble this life may cause, we will always find our way back to each other. Promise me that you won’t break down when darkness takes over. No matter where you go, no matter what you do and how you do, I want you to know that you’ll always find me there, right by your side. Promise me that just like this sun, you will never let the darkness tyrannize you and that you will never forget this beautiful dawn and how it changed our lives.”
“I promise you my love,” he said. “You have my word.”
To be continued…..