This romantic story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
‘And they live happily ever after!’ has always been a favourite ending for me whether it is the movies or novels and that will never metamorphose into something that doesn’t spell happiness. Real life truisms are firmly grounded in my mind as a result of living in a materialistic world with volatile surroundings. Relationships to me are akin to glass pathways that crack at the hint of an argument only to be smoothened again with a promise of tiding over the shortcomings by celebrating the positive attributes in each other.
The monsoon of August of 1971 in Bombay; an era where commercial flicks stuffed with romance reigns in all splendour and the city displays it’s amazing infrastructure with puddles everywhere doling out a treat for children to sail their paper boats much to the dismay of the adult population who have to brave the rain’s fury and run about their business unabashed. I work at a suburban library surrounded by piles of old musty books that keep me grounded as each idealistically impart valuable lessons to tread on life’s challenging paths.
Catching a glimpse of him from the corner of my eye; tall and well built, he reads a few pages from various books everyday standing near the ‘Classics’ section. I look at him and wonder, “Is this my Prince Charming?” As always, he walks towards the counter and my heart begins to beat rapidly. Smiling at me, he says, “Thank you very much!” as I make an entry against his name; Abhijit Sharma.
“You are welcome. Have a pleasant day!” I say though I would have liked him to stay and say something more.
Looking forward to his visits becomes a daily routine. But now I feel a sense of abandonment and loneliness as he hasn’t stopped by for almost two weeks. How will he know that I’m attracted to him and reciprocate favourably? Maybe I should’ve at least given him a name and an address like Cinderella did when she left her glass slippers behind accidentally to enable her Prince to come looking for her. I feel foolish as I am falling in love with a person, with whom I haven’t exchanged any more than a smile and a few pleasantries on his way out of the library.”
The head librarian interrupts my thoughts when he says, “Come listen to the radio.”
The radio beeps and then falls silent while the sound of raindrops provides an effective rhythmic background to the silence. A gentle tap on the radio makes it come alive and it blares loudly. A newsreader announces in a grim voice,
“Turmoil is brewing after the General elections in Pakistan during the last winter. The government urges its citizens to remain calm. They assure the safety of the Indian people which is their priority. Also the government requests the people not to fuel or give in to rumours. Please wait for further information by tuning into the same station same time tomorrow.” We all let out a sigh!
Pondering over what I had just heard while arranging the books on the rack, I hear a voice say, “War is imminent!”
Turning around, I find Mr. Abhijit Sharma towering over the pile of books I had just set down on the ground. Six feet at least, his presence engulfs the atmosphere around me. I stare at him.
“How would you know that? Do you believe in rumours?” I ask sounding rather impolite.
“I can answer that over a cup of coffee,” he replies in a calm demeanour.
I must be blushing as I feel the blood rushing to my face. Letting out a sheepish grin, I accept his offer. I grab my polka dotted umbrella and together we walk to the door. He swoops from behind me and holds the door open. If he is trying to impress me with these gestures, he doesn’t know that he has succeeded.
The coffee and the light drizzle complement each other to set a mood for a light hearted chat. Instead I’m disappointed when I hear him say, “The nation is reeling under pressure of an attack. We must be prepared!”
“How can you be so sure? The government feels that the situation is under control,” I say taking a sip.
“I’m not trying to scare you but I feel the urge to tell you the truth,” he says with a hint of sadness in his voice.
“Now you are scaring me! What is it you know, that the rest of us don’t?” I ask looking into his face.
“War is imminent!” he says with conviction.
“I’ve heard that before, but how do you know?” I ask.
“I’m Captain Abhijit Sharma from the Punjab Regiment,” he says and I sense an authority in his tone.
A ‘War and Peace’ game plays on my mind where a corner feels exhilaration having admired a man with guts and good looks and another corner feels the pain of unnecessary egos marching the nations to the battlefield.
“I shouldn’t be revealing this information to civilians but I wanted you to know the truth,” he admits.
“Civilian! But of course, since you don’t even know my name,” I retort and turn to leave.
“I’m sorry. Listen, this isn’t easy for me. But you intrigue me,” he says a little embarrassed.
I start to feel sorry for putting him on a spot. “I’m Khushi Chopra and I have been working at the library for a while now,” I say extending my hand hoping for the beginning of a long association with him. He takes my hand and in a firm grip extends his warm intentions with a smile on his face.
“If I can be presumptuous may I ask you to coffee tomorrow as well?” he asks politely. I nod; only a fool will refuse his offer.
The next few days are witness to a beautiful friendship and perhaps a blossoming romance; but the thought of it being one sided scares me. The true character of a man unfolds itself when he is thrown into a situation without being prepared. One such evening as we sit sipping our coffees, we hear a loud noise. The first reaction for me is to run back to library which is across the street, but Abhijit stops me and says, “You don’t know what has happened and where. Stay where you are. I’ll go and check.”
“No, please don’t go. I’m scared. I’m scared for you,” I say and regret it as I look into his eyes. I feel he is going to despise the coward in me. All the weeks of putting up my best face had just drowned in a single moment.
He pushes me under a chair and screams, “Don’t come out of here, till you see me. Promise me!”
He is holding my hand tightly and I know that he is not going to let go till I say what is asked of me.
“I promise! But be careful!” I say and feel him releasing his grip and run ahead towards the scene of trouble.
In a few seconds, I see him disappear at the corner of a building which has taken the brunt of the blast. There is debris around and people screaming and children crying. I have this urge to run after Abhijit, but I dare not as I had promised to stay right here. My shelter provides me a vantage point from where I can see the commotion. Abhijit comes around the corner, covered with soot carrying a child in his arms. He screams, “Everybody stay calm and lie down on the ground!” The authoritative tone makes everyone obey and I’m elated at the respect he is garnering. A few minutes later, I see him carrying an old man whilst offering support to a young lad. My heart swells with pride. I think to myself, “This is my hero!”
The ambulance arrives and he helps people on to it. While waiting for the vehicle to leave he scans the area and catches sight of me. He waves and I wave back eagerly. After the vehicle leaves, he walks back towards the cafe and pulls me from under the chair. “It’s safe now! It was a gas cylinder blast. Minor injuries!” he says reassuringly.
“I was so scared for you!” I say almost regretting the words.
He smiles. I’m sure that I’m in love; love with a man with a steel exterior and a warm interior. His act of bravery impresses me and his chivalrous behaviour at every meeting makes me go weak at the knees. He walks me back to the library holding me close as I am still shaking from the experience.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says.
“I won’t be in tomorrow. Every three months, the youngsters in the apartment complex where I stay, host the day for the orphaned children in the neighbourhood. These children are victims of unfortunate circumstances and a day of happiness on their faces is a treat to all of us. It’s our selfishness to be happy that makes us do these little things! So I’ll see you on Monday!” I say waiting anxiously for his response.
“That’s a noble thing and when youngsters spearhead any campaign, it sends waves to the masses! Don’t ever lose it!” he says. Spoken like a true soldier! I can see he’s impressed. He continues, “I am to report for work on Monday. So I will see you after the war,” he says with a straight face.
“But…,” I say not realising that I am holding his arm suggesting that he stay back.
“What is it Khushi?” he asks.
“I’m worried. What will be the outcome of the war? Are you going to be safe? “How will this end?” I ask like a little girl wanting to know the end of a fairy tale.
“This is just the beginning for us, Khushi. But war will wreck havoc in both nations. Be prepared for any eventuality,” says Abhijit holding my hand and caressing my face.
That moment says it all! We definitely want to be with each other.
I am foolish when I ask, “When will you be back?”
“This is war! Just pray! Promise me that you will be brave,” he says and leaves me with a peck on my cheek.
“I promise!” I say and see his shadow turn around the corner of the dark alley. The light drizzle doesn’t stop me and I run after him, “I love you!”
I think I hear him say, “I love you too!” Did he say that? Will we be together? Will he be alive? The doubts leave an indelible mark on my mind and gives fodder to newer assumptions about this relationship.
Weeks turn into months and with it the glum winter of November approaches. We, at the library we decide to pray together every day in the hope of averting the war. I am scared and selfish as I think only about his safety. Abhijit’s voice rings in my ears, “War is imminent!” And with each passing day, the hopes of people are thwarted. On a cold day of December, the war begins! The radio beeps to inform the nation that men are getting killed by the dozens. The stench of death is felt everywhere.
Back at the library, I take the radio to the attic and turn it on a low volume. I don’t want to hear, Punjab Regiment: ‘Abhijit Gupta’. As long as I don’t hear names, there is a chance that he’s alive.
The next few days are spent in anxiety and the nights imagine horrors of the battlefield. The war is finally over with India emerging victorious, but my life and its future faces defeat.
My family is at the hospital cheering me. I don’t know if Abhijit is alive or not. My back hurts and I am given more morphine to suppress the pain. The fall from one of the trips to the attic to hear about my beloved on the radio resulted in a spine injury. The verdict came in earlier today; I can’t walk, ever again. I weep bitterly resigning myself to a life of a paraplegic.
Though there is peace within the country, the war on my mind continues. I mutter, “Is my condition going to be an impediment in my tryst to regain my lost love? Doesn’t true love triumph over all barriers as they did in all the fairy tales? Against all odds, the Prince manages to win over his Lady Love and lead her to happiness. So where is my Prince?”
It has been three months since the day I thought I heard Abhijit profess his love to me. I am at the mercy of a wheel chair with no future to plan for. I look through the little window in my dark room staring into oblivion with my hands on the wheels of the wheel chair. It’s finally dawning on me! I say aloud, “Who would want to marry a physically challenged person?” The tears make their appearance and stream down my face.
Reconciling with life and its depressive phases, I start visiting the library on a bright summer morning in 1972.
I ask the head librarian eagerly, “Has Abhijit Sharma been coming here?”
His silence says it all! The days had grown into weeks and weeks into months and I’m unable to comprehend his absence at all the familiar places. The place holds so many memories of him. I feel foolish for letting love play at the hands of nature! Again not being Cinderella and leaving her glass slippers behind might have cost me dear! So I keep visiting the library in hope.
Wheeling myself to the ‘Classics’ section, I try to feel his presence. The tears flow and I turn to hide them. “Are they for me?” I hear a voice. I feel the wheels turning without any interference from me. Here he is, sitting by my useless legs caressing my face. I hopelessly give in; he is holding me close to his face and kissing me. I oblige in retaliation to all the self inflicted abuse of worthlessness and pity.
“Where were you?” I ask angrily.
Still holding me, he replies, “The horrors of war had scarred my mind when I saw people being gunned down ruthlessly and I had to stave off the recurrent ghosts that appeared in every facet of my life leaving me helpless. I wanted to let my soul heal and love again before I came back here professing my love for you.”
Though I am relieved, I shudder and push him away from me, “No, go away!”
I close my face with my palms and mutter, “I am ashamed that you don’t see what you had admired earlier; a petite and feisty woman ready to take on the world. And now here I am, waiting for the world to dauntingly dictate terms of my life.”
“You look so beautiful, just the way I left you!” he says totally distracted.
“You liar,” and I am crying again; not realising that I am in his arms. “I cannot walk again, ever,” I say.
“I love you, let’s get married,” he says ignoring what I had just said.
“We can’t be together. I don’t want you to marry me out of pity,” I sob.
“Khushi, I have stared into the face of death. Each day brought me closer to understanding the fragilities of life as I saw my friends get killed on the battlefield. I realised that each day must be celebrated with what God gives us. I love you for what you are and not for what you could’ve been!” Abhijit explains.
“But we cannot be happy!” I protest.
“Happiness to me is accepting what is and not chasing what’s not! I want to marry you for a beautiful lifelong relationship based on mutual respect and not pity,” he says with conviction.
“I understand, but…” I say still sobbing.
He looks into my face and says, “I will fail my duty as a soldier if I pity and give a new lease of life to anyone, let alone you. I am trained to look beyond all limitations and respect an individual, even an enemy. Judging physical appearances is the limitation of the human mind. So, Khushi Chopra, will you be my wife?” he asks kneeling on one leg.
The seasonal changes with many autumns and many springs brought many a ride on the roller coaster of life; with Abhijit rising to the pinnacle in the army as well as playing the role of a perfect, sensitive and caring husband.
“Today Khushi and me celebrate 40 years of togetherness folks, so enjoy!” says Abhijit addressing the gathering who are invited for the occasion. He carries me around and helps me onto the wheel chair. Impeccably dressed with salt and pepper streaks on his hair, he looks stunning just like he did to the ‘young’ Khushi. The soft music sets the mood and I put my arms around him.
“Yes, sweetheart?” he asks softly.
“You have taught me to overcome my shortcoming by respecting me for who I am. Thank you for not letting me indulge in self pity and leading me to happiness,” I say, tears welling in my eyes as I slip something into Abhijit’s hands.
He opens his palms to find a yellowish ticket from a bygone era.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“A train ticket to Calcutta. I had decided to relocate from Bombay when I didn’t hear from you after the war. If you hadn’t showed up that day at the library….” I say.
“I will always love you!” he whispers.
She smiles at him. Love did transcend all boundaries by defying assumptions of the fallible mind and the glass pathway did smoothen in the arduous journey of life.