After having miserably failed in my semester exams, our school principal had told me to come to school everyday and sit in the library to study during the school hours. So when the school had given us preparatory leave I would be the only 10th grader to come to school and brood in the library. And it was there when I first saw Maria.
Well that wasn’t the first time, I had seen her in our house meetings in which I hardly paid any attention to what was said, the same way I did in my other lectures. I had also gone up to the notice board in the Administrative Building once to have a glance at her name. It was painted there in bold letters- GREEN HOUSE CAPTAIN :- MARIA JOSH.
Initially I used to envy on you as both of you were in the same class but also wondered as why you never spoke to any girl and why did you distance yourself from girls and boys alike of different religion, were you afraid of Papa? I understand that we are orthodox Hindus who always sport the vermillion on their foreheads and fast on every Thursday and the fact that Papa is an active member and contributor to the Hindu People’s Union but common yaar we are the progeny of the 21st century, we ought to think out of the box and chide away all these traditional values which are harmful for the society.
Anyway, coming back to where I had left- Everyday, it used to be the only two of us in the library save for the librarian. I think she too must have been given a punishment similar to mine. It was quite a peaceful environment to study but two things distracted me a lot- One, was the cranking of the door which swayed with the slightest breeze and two, her face. I must confess she was very beautiful and after my stay at the library made mandatory by the principal I had got to observe her more closely. And to be honest I had fallen for her since then.
Once, Manish Sir was taking a quiz round for the 6th graders in the library and all the chairs and tables were occupied save for the chair beside Maria and a couple of bean bags flanking the roundtables. I finally drew out courage and went and sat beside her. She looked at me and it was the first time we had made eye contact with each other. She stole her eyes soon leaving me glaring at her. Her textbooks lay scattered all over the table and she did not make any efforts to clear her mess and make room for me. So I stacked a few books myself and put them decently on her side of the table. She again didn’t budge to have a look at those monstrous pile of Std.12 textbooks but was deeply engrossed in her Jerome. K. Jerome novel. Over the next few hours I stole occasional glances at her and found her secretly smiling and giggling while reading her book. Seeing her innocent gesticulations at that time, I firmly and innocently resolved to marry her.
Over the next few days I, being unmindful sat beside her even when all the chairs and tables used to be empty and she too didn’t seem to mind it. Maths, Physics and Biology seemed like a distant dream because I did not get relief gazing at the angelic beauty that sat beside me. As days passed I learnt that she used to read her novel from 8 AM to 10 AM sometimes stretching it up to 11 AM, study till lunch time which was at 1:30 PM. After lunch when the librarian used to move for home she used to sneak out of the library and gossip with her friends in the classrooms. And to be frank enough, that would be the only time I was able to concentrate on my studies.
Once while brooding over ‘The Structure Of The Eye’ in Biology, I finally spoke to her.
“May I know your name?”,I asked.
“Maria, Maria Josh”, she said as if she was Bond.
“Are you a Catholic?”,I asked because nothing else came in my mind.
“No, I’m a Muslim, my middle name is Tabrez.”
I was astonished by her reply, I thought she was mocking me on my weak interactive skills but her father’s name satiated my doubt.
“Aren’t you Sushant’s younger brother Shreyas…… I guess,”
“Yes I am, but how do u know it?”
“He keeps on telling me about you.”
I was again baffled by her response. ‘Did bhaiyya speak to girls?’ was the first question that cropped up in my mind. I had thought of asking you, but terminated that idea as I could imagine the aftermath of my move.
Thus I was successful in establishing a rapport with her and we started to talk a lot. Studies were like once in a blue moon for us. Both of us shared almost everything that shouldn’t have, just like I told her about my fear of cycling on the road and how I used to hold any elders hand while crossing the road except for father’s as he already considered me the coward of the entire Chaturvedi dynasty. Such things used to make her laugh and her laugh used to coax me. I never told her about our families’ orthodox nature but told her that I was a staunch atheist. This is something that I shared with no one, not even with Shravan, for I feared it might reach Papa’s ears and he would bash me up. I told her to keep this a secret and she did it.
She too used to tell me about her constant altercations with her parents and how she hated them as they put many restrictions on her liberty, the same many Indian fathers do for their daughters, the same Papa had done to Mrinal Didi by marrying her off to that rusty Aggarwal’s son just because they had demanded a meager dowry.
We used to have lunch together in the lunch hall everyday. Sometimes her friends used to accompany us. She had sensed that I was trying on her and to ward off my moves she had told me that she had a boyfriend. Of course I was heartbroken but at the same time I considered myself luckier than her boyfriend, as I got to spend more time with her than her him. The moment she would reach home, all her liabilities would be taken away and she would be cordoned off to her room with her textbooks. And hence she found solace with me and her novels, which changed every three days. I never asked her about her boyfriend and she too never asked me about my past relationships with other girls- I had none, albeit I had prepared some fake stories in my mind, in case the need be for I didn’t want to project myself inexperienced and inferior to her.
We were the best of the best of friends. She was the only one who ruled my mind. While sleeping or while procrastinating I used to to think about her, replacing the two of us with the characters of a romantic Bollywood film I had recently watched or sometimes with the characters of a pornographic film I watched with Shravan on his computer. I have to say she had appealing physiques, a luscious pair of breasts and a toned bottom like hers would have been any guy’s fantasy. Shravan told me that he found me lost, but I just smiled it away. He found it strange, I found it strange too but yes, I was in love. I was in deep love with a girl who followed a religion which our brethren was supposed to hate, a religion, Papa like his Union members used to reprimand and curse a lot.
Soon riots broke out just before the Assembly Elections when some politicians made hate speeches on each other. I still can feel Papa’s absence in the house as he too was involved in the riots along with his Union members. She had stopped coming to school and I understood the reason why. I patiently waited for the riots to end and those nine days in that quiet library only with the sallow librarian and the cacophonous door seemed like a nightmare with a hangover which never ends and it actually never did end.
In the morning assembly after the riots were quelled, principal requested all of us to maintain silence for a few minutes in the memory of the students who had lost their lives along with their families in the riots. He started reading a rather long list to which I paid no attention to and kept on searching for Maria’s face in the colossal crowd, but was shocked with utter terror and dismay when the list ended with Maria’s name.
I blankly kept looking at the principal who seemed a minuscule figure from the distance and tears swelled in my eyes and rolled down wetting my school shirt. Even after the assembly was over, I did not move from my place and helplessly kept gazing at the horde of children moving in a line. The librarian with his I- card dangling over his belly came up to me placed his hands on my shoulder and led me to the library. I read his name on his I- card- Mujeeb Rehmaan. I perused that he too was crying.
People died in the riots. Hindus died, Muslims died, many people died, along with the people their ideologies died, new ideas also came up. It doesn’t matter. This keeps on happening everyday in the remotest corner of the globe and will keep on happening till religion pervades in this society and each and every person tries to put his religion in a superior position to other persons religion. This game of linguistic chauvinism will continue till the last persons survives on this planet and bhaiyya I bet a thousand bucks that the last person will be an atheist who will escape unhurt.
The love of my life, who followed Islam, who fasted in the month of Ramzan, who was a Muslim died in the riots and my father who was part of these riots demolished my faith in his paternity forever. As I explained earlier, I would like to be that last person, the atheist who will stay alive after the war. So I am going to hide till the war ends and will only emerge when silence prevails with a resolution of existing permanently. I’m leaving the house, please do not try to find me, continue the war.
Your younger brother,
Folding the letter, Sushant rubbed his watery eyes and tucked the letter under his pillow, the same place where he had found it twenty years ago.