Saturday, April 30, 2005

One Sultry Summer Evening...

It was a sultry summer evening when the young girl emerged from her French class into the growing darkness of the city. Since she lived on the opposite corner of the city, rickshaws usually refused to go there unless she paid them double fare and public buses that she usually relied on, catered to the unsavoury sorts at that hour. So on days that she had classes in the evening, she usually had to ask either her father or brother to work a little late so one of them could pick her up on his way home. That day both of them were out of town, so she swallowed her pride and asked one of her nice-gentlemanly-sort-of-male-friends to do her a favour and drop her home...

Being the perfect gentleman, the man in question rose to the occasion and agreed to come to the rescue of this dainty damsel. He was there on time. Her professor, as usual, took his own sweet time in winding up the class, so she came out a few minutes late. The first one to leave the class she came out slightly out of breath from running down to meet him, feeling guilty about having made him wait. She shouldn't have bothered for she found him lounging on his powerful bike, admiring the pretty dames that emerged from the other class. Cheekily reminding him that he had a fiancee waiting for him in another city, she tapped him on his shoulder and gestured to him to start up his bike. Her friend grunted in response, revved his bike and then turned around slightly with one eyebrow cocked waiting for her to climb on behind him. Bracing herself with one hand on his shoulder, she swung one leg over his bike, and settled behind him, taking care to tuck in her gossamer fine white Lucknowi kurta underneath her, so it wouldn't get entangled in the bike's tyres.

The bike shot off like a rocket into the twilight zone. He took the longer route via the Cantonment, as he was prone to. This route allowed him to show off his skills on the bike, since it had wider, better laid roads and wasn't subject to heavy traffic. So he could zip from one side of the road to the other, revving his engine up when he wanted and letting it idly coast along the slope when he felt like that. Meanwhile, she leaned back in her seat and let herself get lost in the web of leaves that covered the roads like a canopy. She loved doing that. It filled her with a feeling of exhilaration and made her want to stretch out her arms and let the wind caress her body. She had to restrain from doing that, lest her friend promptly stop the bike and ask her to hop off. Apparently only he was allowed to indulge in histrionics of any sort! The stars twinkled back at her through the leaves and the breeze ruffled her hair into a tangled mess. She'd have to spend a long time brushing her hair out when she got home...

Lost in her own world, she was taken by surprise when her friend suddenly stopped in the middle of the road cursing heavily. She looked beyond him to see a road block and a traffic policeman steering all traffic through a gate stating "Defense Area. Trespassers shall be prosecuted." The policeman informed them that the bridge ahead was undergoing repair and so they would have to take this small deroute that would bring them out into the heart of the city. "Just one left turn and then one right turn, and you'll be out of this Defense locality." Her friend wanted to turn back and go via the main city. She reasoned that if he did so, they'd have a very long ride ahead of them and urged him to take the deroute. After all as the policeman said, it couldn't take them longer than a few minutes to get out of this region and back on their usual track!

Little did she know...the tiny lane that wound it's way through what seemed like a Research campus maintained by the Defense, stretched on for an eternity before finally showing them out into strange surroundings. Densely populated only by trees, there was no sign of human population for as far as they could see. Darkness had spread it's shroud over everything, and they peered into the inky blackness of the night trying to figure out what area of this was. The looked to the left, then right, but all they could see were trees. No sign of human inhabitation. He turned around and glared at her. "And what would the madam like me to do now?" Refusing to see any possible danger in the situation, she relied on her keen sense of direction and asked him to turn right...

They must have been riding down the long road that cut through the trees for nearly half an hour when they passed a bunch of old villagers. It looked like a funeral procession. "At this time? And why are there only old people in the procession?" she leaned forward and asked her friend. "Don't ask me," he shot back, "you were the one who wanted to come this way!" A little later they crossed some men lounging under a Banyan tree. Deciding to stop and ask for directions, they turned around and asked the men which direction was the main city. In response one of the men lurched over and asked her friend what he was doing with a pretty young girl in such an area, after sundown. He was reeking of alcohol. Before she could even understand the man's insinuation, her friend had revved up his engine and shot off again. She wondered if they should have turned back from that road block after all. As though he was reading her thoughts, her friend spoke up and told her in a terse note that this was reminding him of the time when he was driving down such a deserted area and a bunch of drunk hoodlums stopped his bike and beat him up. He turned his head slightly and added, "I was alone that time. This time I have you with me and I'm answerable to your parents..." A sudden vision of a bunch of drunk men beating up her friend, before turning to her, sent chills down her spine.

Surely this little deroute cum adventure to narrate at home wouldn't turn into something she'd regret for the rest of her life? Pulling her Bandhini dupatta tighter around her body, she squinted into the darkness looking desperately for some landmark that would guide them back to civilisation. She shut her eyes, praying fervently that they would approach civilisation soon. Someone up there must have heard her prayers, for suddenly her friend exclaimed in delight. A few metres ahead was a bridge beyond which there seemed to be a small village. As her friend made his way across a cobbled she cursed under her breath, for with every bump her back lightly hit the back of his bike. It was hurting her in the same spot as she'd hurt herself when she'd slipped down a flight of stairs five years ago. She'd have one hell of a sore back the next day.

As soon as the cobbled path got over, they stopped at a Paanwalla and asked him how to find their way back to the main city. He asked them to go straight ahead and turn right at the third crossing...10 minutes later, they saw a familiar building loom up at them! It was a church that lay in the Cantonment region. Had they not been derouted they would have crossed it just a few minutes after that road-block. Instead they had spent over an hour riding through unfamiliar territory, their imaginations subjected to all kinds of horrific incidences and their backs getting screwed on cobbled paths, that were definitely not made for two-wheeler traffic!

Half an hour later, he delivered her safely home, none the worse except for a slight bump on her penultimate vertrebra that would probably require a gentle massage and a heat-pad later that night. Exhausted, she trudged up to her house, while he turned back to make the long ride back, across town to his own pad....

April '05

Friday, April 08, 2005

Reaching for the Stars

(Bellowing out with all the strength in her lungs) HELLO!!!

(Aside) I seem to have mastered the art of becoming invisible. It took me several years to do this, but now that I’m there, its not nice being invisible. Why won’t anyone notice me?? Damn but you there, standing there with the smirk on your face...listen to me! YOU!!!
(Screeching with impatience) Guess there's no undoing it now is there. Invisibility sure sucks though...Christ what I wouldn’t do for a tad wee bit of visibility.... hey...I think that girl saw Hullo??? Yes, you in the red shirt...odd, she looks at me like she’s seen a ghost...a little inconsequential wisp of humanity-once-been. (Fades away into the crowd of humanity....)

Shaking herself consciously, she forced herself out of the reverie. She turned to sit by the wall, overlooking the horizon. But now, her back was turned resolutely to the waves breaking behind her on the beach. The sea – it represented a myriad of things to her. At daybreak, it held the promise of life. The motion of the waves crashing against rocks, on the beach, retreating, only to return again, represented the cyclic motion of life. She was a firm believer in “You reap what you sow”. It will always come back to you, so do unto others, as you would like them to do unto you. She repeated that often enough didn’t she?

At this hour, when the sun no longer shone on the water, making it glisten and shimmer as the light waves bounced off the waves, the sea held a dark, haunting quality. It was beautiful no doubt, but it no longer beckoned to her. Around her, her friends sighed at the beauty of the sea in moonlight. Not her. She was filled with a sense of emptiness. The sight of the blackness, stretching out endlessly, away from her, reminded her that life seemed to move away from her. It filled her with a loneliness that she couldn’t escape from. It made her feel empty. A hysterical laugh threatened to escape from her throat. She was beginning to think like one of those sappy women on those soaps she held in disdain.

She tried her best to restrain herself from treading that beaten path once again. But failed. Her thoughts seemed to have a mind of their own tonight. Before she knew it she was back…

Back in the classroom. Conversation swirled around her. Mrs. Sharma was late for English grammar II. The others were making the most of the free time – a paper plane flew across the class onto the lap of a girl. She heard the girls giggle over the new boy in Class IX-B. And she sunk in further, trying her best to blend into the woodwork, bent over book. A little nobody, she was good, but not good enough. She has potential, but not the drive to get what she wants. Hadn’t she heard that often enough?

Her friend shook her. She looked at her and smiled weakly. Sorry, I got lost there for a minute. Of course I was listening. The beauty just overwhelmed me…Liar, a voice inside her whispered. She ignored it, but she found herself growing increasingly listless. How many years had it been? She had worked so hard at not being noticed, at staying away from the glare of the spotlights, that no one paid any heed to her anymore. Well she’d gotten what she wanted. She no longer stuck out like a sore thumb. She had a reputation of being safe, dependable, efficient. But that’s it. She could be relied on to do the job, to finish it, but come up with a new idea? HER? All those years had conditioned her to stop just short of reaching for the stars. Today no one thought she wanted the stars – sensible people don’t have dreams do they?

She did. What did that make her? A dreamer? No, that wouldn’t do. She didn’t want to be a square peg trying to fit in a circular hole. Sensibility had always been her armour against the world. Stupid! To allow herself to look over her shoulder after all these years. The darkness was bound to try and drag her back.

Life moves on. The waves continue to come and break on the beach…and stars? They were just gaseous masses in the universe.

May 2003