Baherche Nath (God outside the temple)

 

Sauviragram,
Along the banks of Godavari,
17th century…somewhere near Paithan.

CIS:IS.12-1963

“FASTER! Don’t waste time. And don’t pick up that spoiled cotton” Naamdev was giving instructions to women of his family picking cotton from the plants. It was a harvest season and traders from Paithan would be coming in just few weeks of time.

If we could collect good amount of cotton in time, we can barter enough gold and goods for it” he thought to himself.

“Where is Ilaa?” Naamdev shouted as his daughter was nowhere to be seen.

None of the women deviated from their work, as they knew Ilaa would be whiling her time away somewhere, thinking of an ideal world she wants to be in.

An ideal world was still a dream. But for now, she had to settle for a peaceful place like ‘baherche nath’ (God Eknath outside the temple). It was a small passage along the banks of river Godavari which was famous for housing the tomb of Saint Eknath. It was also the end point of Paithan city connecting to Sauviragram village. Paithan housed the temple called ‘aatle nath’ (God inside the temple) which previously used to be the residence of Saint Eknath.

“I am sick of this! Why do we have to work in the fields when Arun and Ganesh get to learn about Vedas and Shastra from Dharamguru in the temple?” Ilaa grunted loudly.

Iravati and Padma simply looked at each other. It was a routine. Ila’s frustration at what men could do and what women weren’t allowed to.

“Let that be. You two! Now start reciting what I taught you the last time.” Ilaa ordered in the same tone as town’s Dharamguru used to speak.

“Umm…namo aadimaya bhagwati…umm” Iravati fumbled her words as she bit her lower lip trying to recall rest of the lines.

“Ohho…this is not even half of what I had taught you” Ilaa was clearly not impressed.

“Ilaa, can I ask something? Do you know how to write?” Padma spoke finally while double checking, if someone was around to catch them not working.

Ilaa was taken aback. But keeping her composure, she nodded ‘no’.

“Why do you ask, Padma?”

“I have heard in Paithan’s temple, where Saint Eknath used to stay, they teach women to write. And since you visit the temple with your grandfather regularly, I thought you might be…”

“Oh I wish!” Ilaa exclaimed. She knew it was not their fault not being able to remember the poems. But reciting to each other was the only way they could keep it in their memory…unless they learn to write, like Ilaa.

She had kept it a secret. She had been asked to, by her grandfather who had taught her to write. He was her secret mentor. He must have been more than 80 year old. One of the most elderly and respected ones in town. He hardly walked. Apart from his pilgrimage to Paithan every year, he was known to keep himself inside the house.

And while at the house, he spent his time telling stories to his grandkids – Ilaa and her younger brother, Arun. He would tell them about the history of Paithan and that of nearby towns. Paithan which was a capital of Saatvahan kings was later called as ‘Southern Kashi’ of our country, he told them. Arun was too young and maybe a bit immature to see, but Ilaa could notice her grandfather’s eyes were filled with tears when he said he had always wished to visit Kashi.

Amongst all the stories she heard from her grandfather, Saint Eknath’s tales were her favourite. ‘About his literature, his social work and his fight for equal rights to everyone’; she was mesmerized by his work. One evening before sleeping, the grandfather narrated them the story of “Bayaa daar ughad” (Oh goddess, open the gates). It was a poem written by Eknath addressed to Goddess Jagdamba. It was during the time when Vijaynagar Empire was on the verge of extinction. Social structure was shattered. Women once treated as equals were being sold and bargained in the daylight in Southern Kashi of Bharat-India. Saint Eknath then wrote this poem, demanding status of women to be restored to what once used to be during Vedic times. His poem inspired people and once again they stood together. Saint Eknath shone them the light needed to push the darkness of cruelty that had engulfed the town.

“So do you mean, women could also sit at temples and learn about Vedas like men do in our village?”

Grandfather decided to answer that question only once he was sure that Arun and his son, Naamdev had fallen asleep.
Ilaa was sitting outside the house, gazing at the star studded sky. The moonlight crawled along the edges of rooftops. He sat next to her and took a deep breath. It wasn’t the first time that she had asked him such a question.

He placed the lantern next to her and started scribbling on the floor. That night, Ilaa learnt to write her first few letters. And then few more the next night. The pace increased as she showed her acumen to her willing grandfather. Slowly she learnt to write the entire poem.

Today when Padma asked Ilaa ‘whether she could write’, it sparked a thought inside her mind. She could see the eagerness to learn in Padma’s eyes. She wanted to help her. And Iravati. And all other women of her village to write, to read, to be able to do the things that only men were allowed to do. She remembered how Dharamguru at temple had reacted, when during Eknath festival last year, she expressed her desire to learn alongside the men of the village. The crowd laughed and one head – that of Naamdev’s, stooped low in embarrassment, his eyes emitting fire. But she decided not to give up. She really wanted to learn.

That night Ilaa was sitting outside the house again, with the lantern keeping her warm.

Her grandfather’s coughing was the only sound in the asleep Sauviragram.

“You have gone crazy” he said as soon as he sat next to her.

“The plan is to teach our village in the language that they understand. Only then they will be ready to teach us”. Ilaa then explained the entire plan to him, with him nodding, asking her to reconsider, nodding again and finally saying yes. ‘You will have to wake up very early from tomorrow’ he reminded her. And determined Ilaa happily agreed.

The next morning Sauviragram witnessed a miracle.

Namo aadimaya bhagwati, anadi siddhamul prakruti” the first line of Eknath’s poem – bayaa daar ughad had appeared on the wall behind his tomb.

The entire town was shocked. Apart from Dharamguru and Grandfather of Ilaa no one could recite and write the poem in the small town. It was not Dharamguru and the old man could barely walk.

It was followed by one new line the next morning. The village people considered it as Saint Eknath himself scribbling it down, with Eknath birth anniversary being just around the corner.

Dharamguru was astonished, as he studied the letters on the wall next to Eknath’s , with the crowd behind him waiting for an answer to the miracle they had witnessed for the first time. He had not seen anything like this. He had not taught anyone. Grandfather of Ilaa had not left his house in past decade or two. Dharamguru took a minute or two and shook his head. He then turned to face the crowd.

“Saint has spoken! Our forefathers have called this tomb as ‘baherche nath’ (God outside the temple) and he wants us to follow his instructions” Dharamguru raised his hand as he spoke and the crowd folded hands in respect.

Dharamguru read the line written that day. It asked the village to collect sunflowers and place them at the feet of Eknath’s idol in the temple. They did so.

The next morning new line appeared on the wall saying ‘Nath (God) was unhappy with the village having abandoned his teachings’. Everyone looked at each other with puzzled faces. Trying his best to look confident of what was written; Dharamguru said, they should wait for next instructions to appear.

There was a week left for traders from Paithan and nearby towns to arrive. A week left for the village to celebrate the birth anniversary of Eknath. And this time the festival was to be held at even larger scale than before, for the God himself had walked along the banks of Godavari again.

That morning Ilaa stood next to Padma and Iravati along with their town men and women. All of them were looking at Dharamguru, who stood firm with his back facing them. Dharamguru’s face was bathing in sweat, his hands were trembling.

Bayaa daar ughad…(Oh Goddess open the gates)” he murmured the words as they appeared on the wall in front.

He finally turned and managed to speak – “Nath (God) has instructed. For us to be fortunate in trade for cotton, for our families to stay safe and blessed by him. He has asked us…he has demanded us to open the gates of the temple again. For women. For us to treat them the way we treat men. For the respect they deserve”.

There was a pin drop silence. The sound of Godavari’s water splashing the banks of village and thoughts of surprise, awe, and respect in everyone’s head played simultaneously.

Looking at the mute crowd, Dharmguru finally raised his finger pointing towards sky.

“Prepare to open the doors to our mothers and sisters on the auspicious day of Eknath festival”.

The crowd cheered in response. A faint smile spread across the Goddess’s face. She had once again shown the light to her people caught in the midst of darkness.

Little Winston

 

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Sunday late evening, December 1989.
Rajendra Nagar, Delhi.

“Not now, buddy. It’s almost nine. It is super cold. Let’s go home” Prateek told his roommate standing in front of Winston Bookstore.

“You go ahead. I’m going to take a look once. The chap had told me that they are getting a new stock soon” Ayush said with his eyes fixed on one of the oldest bookstores in the Capital city.

Prateek exhaled out fog once and nodded his head with an expression on his face that says ‘this has happened before and there’s no way he can change the outcome’.

Ayush, on the other hand, rolled up the sleeves of his Navy Blue sweatshirt and swung open the door of his favourite hangout place.

The old man behind the counter was playing with the knob of his newly bought Crown television set.

“We are about to close down for the day, son. The keys are up…”

“I won’t take that long” spoke Ayush and marched towards the section marked FICTION in bold Gothic letters.

Winston bookstore was quite old. More than 100 years as per the old man.  Ayush did not care much about the intricate details of its history. But he liked it for a couple of reasons.

First, it was the musty, dusty smell of that place. He would say that it transports him to another world.

Second, a tiny room behind the Comics section which only he knew about. On a busy day, when the bookstore would be filled with people more than Ayush, he would take a refuge in that room he called ‘A little Winston’. The old man did not mind as well, as Ayush had already bought more books in a year than anybody he had known for a lifetime.

For the first time, Ayush was not able to find anything interesting in the Fiction rack.

‘Non-Fiction’  – No.
‘Autobiography’  – No.
‘Education’  – No
.

So he moved towards the last section of the Winston.

‘Comics’.

The shelf’s top half was filled with Archie. ‘Archie and Veronica’, ‘Archie and Betty’, Jughead’…’ Ayush browsed through the stacked books. The bottom half of the section was a mixture of Marvel and DC comics. ‘Star Wars’, ‘House of Secrets’, ‘Conan’ and much more.

He pursed his lips and raised eyebrows in admiration of the effort of the owner to have gathered as much variety in the book shop.

Let’s pick up ‘Archie’ tonight” he murmured and as he said that, Winston blinked its eyes twice.

Lights went off and came back on. And went off again. And…off. Still off.

Ayush hoped in his head that he would not need to curse the state government again for the power shortage. To his displeasure, the power did not come back.

Damn!” He suddenly realised how scary the bookstore looked in darkness.
Struggling to find his way out and dropping a few books off the shelves, Ayush somehow managed to find his way to the front side of Winston. Near the billing counter.

The area near the counter was partially illuminated by light blue moonlight crawling through the crevices of the thick glass door. It was without the old man. The television set was already turned off. And the door. It was locked with ‘WE ARE OPEN’ sign facing inwards.

Oh no! Do not do this. Let me out. C’mon.

The keys are up…”

He remembered owner’s words.

“Up what?”

He glanced around. The entire bookstore was draped in darkness. How the hell was he going to find the keys?

Ayush thoughtfully scratched his forehead.

‘Little Winston!’

Yes. He normally keeps his torch over there” Ayush thanked his memory and decided to go check in the tiny favourite room of his.

Don’t think much. There are no ghosts. The bookstore is never haunted. 100 years old place. Oh, stop it. No, don’t think of Evil Dead. Think of good stuff. Think of… Don’t think at all, damn it.

Ayush brushed towards the end of Winston and was suddenly greeted with a cold breeze coming from Little Winston with its door pushed open.

“Holy shit! Who’s there?”

“Who the hell are you and who turned the lights off? It’s only nine” said the girl coming out of Winston. She balanced a pair of books on her one hand and moved streaks of hair off her eyes with another.

“I am…Well, first thing, I did not turn the lights off. And second, it’s not nine. It is ten thirty” Ayush said while trying to make out how she looked.

“Oh! Okay, I’m sorry. I guess…I guess I was a little rude. And is it ten thirty? I mean it was just Eight O’ clock when I went inside the Pumpkin room.”

“Inside what? It is called ‘Little Winston’ and not some ‘Pumpkin room’”.

“Says a guy who reads Archie?” She smirked. He was sure she had a smirk on her face as she said that. Not sarcasm. A light smirk.

“Hahaha funny! Anyway, here is the situation. Do not panic. But the store is locked. I mean it is shut. We are locked inside.”

“Yes, I figured that out.”

“What do we do now?” Ayush was rather perplexed by her lack of worry.

“We wait for it to become morning. What else can we do?”

“We can find the keys. I’m sure he keeps an extra set somewhere” Ayush was consoling himself rather than her.

“Stop panicking. It is all right” she said and flipped on the torch.

“Let’s go find the keys,” said Ayush, and she followed him.

Ayush focused the torch light onto the desks, on the top of books shelves. He tried to see her face as the light ricocheted off the window bars onto her.

She had dark brown eyes. Eyes that came at you like an arrow destined to hit the target. There was a confidence in them that said she knew people. What they could do and could not. She wore a pale blue shirt with sleeves rolled up just before elbows and a black skirt reaching mid-calf. Elegant as writers would call it or classy as magazines would like to publicise.

“My name is Nadia. You are?”

“Ayush. I’m Ayush”

“Ayush, hmm. What do you do Ayush?”

“Well, I am a writer and a photographer. I am here for a project.”

“Interesting” Nadia said before continuing, “Do you have those big-sized cameras that you mount on a stand. What you call it, umm?”

“A tripod. Yes”. Her interest made him smile.

“And what camera do you use? Tell me about it” she kept him busy as they searched for keys in all the possible corners of Winston. Upon the shelves, over the desk, under the desk, behind the counter and other places. Ultimately, they gave up and rested themselves on the leather couch kept for visitors.

“Yes, so you were telling me about your project” Nadia was not the one to let go of her curiosity.

“Yeah. I use Kodak Kodamtic 980. It lets me make pictures the way I see them. I think that’s the beauty of photography. Capturing something you have seen with your eyes and carrying that image gingerly in your pocket and presenting it to the world in the form as similar to the original as possible. I feel that’s the very essence of photography. Reaching places not everyone does. Seeing things differently and help other see it with your eyes. But sadly the definition of good photography is changing slowly to enhancing the quality alone. I keep arguing with the editors of magazines over the same, and they keep saying that the readers only want to see beautiful things irrespective of originality. But I do what I do. And so far it has worked well for me. Besides I feel that photography is incomplete without a story. So yes, writing keeps me busy too. In a pleasant way. I think life is too short to click as many places I want to and as many people I would like to write about.”

Nadia kept reading his eyes as he went on speaking. There was a certain spark about him. A spirited one. She watched the muscles of his forearm flex as he lifted a pile of books and wondered how strong his arms would be. He wasn’t particularly well built, but muscular where he needed to be. He moved fast. Like the wind. Yes, that was it. He was like the wind. Maybe he came with it. From somewhere, searching for her to spend time with, that night.

“What’s your favourite book?” He asked her and pulled one out of the rack.

“This is mine. The bridges of Madison County. Maybe because I can relate to it a lot. See here; these are my favourite lines” Ayush’s forefinger pointed to a paragraph on the yellowish page.

I look down the barrel of a lens, and you’re at the end of it. I begin work on an article and am writing about you. I’m not even sure how I got back. Somehow the old truck got me home. Yet I barely remember the miles going by…”

“It is one of my favourites too,” she said without taking her eyes off his.
“You know which are my favourite lines from it?” without taking the book from his hand, she leant close and flipped the pages until she landed on the right one.
“This!”

I am the highway and the peregrine and all the sails that went to the sea”. He says it to her remember?” Nadia looked up to see him looking at her already.

“You love people, don’t you Ayush? Maybe because you never stay with them forever. Like Oscar Wilde said, ‘people ruin romance by trying to make it last forever’. You, you know when to move to the next place. Shifting gears from one utopia to the next, before the reality jumps in.”

“And what about you? What is it that you keep seeking inside the pumpkin room? What is your kind of utopia?” he asked.

“I am a teacher. I teach the language. I teach because I like the sound of it. The sound of everyday routine. Simplicity keeps me happy. I like giving myself to it, as much as I can. Shakespeare, Hemmingway, Charles Dickens, Faulkner, Sylvia Plath. They all keep me occupied. But I see a different world coming up, Ayush. The world which is far less interested in spending time on one thing you love. Such as books. I don’t see many people who can spend hours in a library. Like I do. Like you do. The world where people keep running, chasing things. The technology that is coming up is kind of scary. I don’t see much point in staying glued to these television sets all the time to watch the world someone else is living. You think I’m making sense?”

“Of course you are, Nadia. I feel the saddest thing is everything is getting too systematised. They are setting rules and orders for you to live in. Right from what should be your education. How much time you are going to spend on it. What shall you become? They are making youngsters chase things they might not be supposed to. I mean who cares if you graduate a little late. Don’t become an engineer or marry by the age of 25-27 and don’t have kids in another couple of years?”

“I understand. And I think there are very few like you who still exist.”

“What do you mean?” He asked.

“I mean you are doing your own thing. I think that’s the most attractive thing about you. You know what you are born for. And you are doing exactly that. You are clicking.”

“And we are clicking” Ayush so badly wanted to say that, but just smiled instead. He thought she heard it anyway.

“You know Nadia, this Little Winston or Pumpkin room as you call it is actually a time machine. It lets you be in a time where you like to be. You want to live in the 70s, and it gives you just that. The golden period as they call it. And me, I’m running ahead of time or maybe far behind. I do not know where I belong. I feel I belong nowhere.”

“You belong here. In this conversation. Right in this moment. You belong now. You were not made to chase tomorrow or to stay back with yesterday” she said, and Ayush felt the sudden urge of telling her how much he liked her already. Is this real? Could this feeling be a little more tangible? He could hardly see her face in that dim light, and yet he found her so beautiful. He loved her already. What was love anyway? A mother of all feelings. An intense belonging to someone.

It must have been past 4 am.

Nadia titled her head to look outside the glass window. An azure sky was filled with December fog. Just the thought of how cold it must have been outside made her shiver. She wrapped her hands around herself and shivered sitting on a leather couch next to him. Her shoulder brushed against his, and he subtly put his left hand on the couch hoping she would rest on it. It took her twenty another minutes and several more conversations to do that.

He looked at her face and tried to read it from whatever he knew about her in the past four-five hours. There was a blend of emotions on her face – of contentment and weariness. Of being happy where she was and at the same time wishing she was somewhere else. He thought of kissing her closed eyelids and then laughed at his thought.

It was good. It was beyond rationality. It was not to be pondered upon, as to how close they got to each other in a matter of few hours. They did not want to think about it. They simply chose to sink in the feeling. Float along the surface of right and wrong.

The hour hand took another walk around the circular path. Nadia woke up, and he pulled back his arm, now aching because of having worked as a pillow.

“Here,” she said and pulled out a set of keys from her bag.

“You had them all this while?” his answer was met with a twinkle in her eyes.

“There’s something I want to give you,” Nadia said while stuffing her right hand inside her handbag. Chewing on her lower lip gently, a search was done for something she considered as the perfect souvenir.

“A mixed tape that I made for myself last year”, she pulled out an HMV cassette and put it in his palm.

Judging him looking at how old it was, she said “Don’t worry. It does get stuck in the recorder at times. But a turn or two of the wheels by a pencil shall do it. And once it plays, the effort is worth it. It has all of my favourite songs.”

She smiled the smile of a ten-year-old girl giving away her favourite toy just to make her younger sibling happy.

“I can’t wait to play it,” Ayush said and pushed it gently down the pocket of his denim.

“I have nothing to give you,” he thought out loud.

“Because I am hoping this is not the last time we meet”.

Nadia said nothing. Just dropped her eyes, and smiled a little.

“I think it is time for me to leave”.

She spoke and set her brown eyes on Ayush’s in the way she hadn’t in past six hours. As if she could read his thoughts.

While Ayush kept wondering if he should shake hands and or hug her goodbye, she leant forward and kissed his cheeks. He opened his eyes slowly and watched the best six hours of his life walk away in the purple mist of December 1989.

Leaning against the counter, he flipped open the note behind the cassette.
See me outside Royal Cafe tomorrow by 7. Don’t forget to bring your Kodak along. I have heard that photos survive time.

 

The ugly naked guy

Horror story

It must have stopped raining an hour back or so. But the night was still draped in the sweet scent of monsoon. It was a cold November night and it was making her lean more into his arms.

Looking up and kissing his chin, she closed her eyes once again. A big window of her bedroom was their favourite place. A window big enough for both of them to sit comfortably. He liked the view it gave from her 9th floor and she loved to cuddle with him sitting there.

“You still smell of beer” she said hoping to break his cloud of thoughts.

“Hmm” he uttered while observing the building as tall as the one they were in. The only difference being the building looked rather old. ‘They must have built it long back’ he thought.

Realising it had been some time he replied to her question, he looked down and kissed her forehead before she reached out to kiss his lips.

“You smell of it too” he laughed.

“What are you thinking?” She asked her routine question and he had his reply ready.

“I’m just looking at those houses. Do you see them? Few windows that are lit up, while the rest have fallen asleep. So many houses. So many stories.”

She looked into the direction he was looking.

“What business people might have at this hour? It is almost 2 am.”

“Check that window on the extreme right, the one with red light. Weird stuff. Who puts a red light inside their bedroom?” He exclaimed.

“It’s kind of scary. Don’t make me think about it.” She shuddered.

“And what about that window…” he held onto his thought as he said that, staring at a house roughly 2-3 floors down from theirs.

“Which one?”

“The one below…down there. Oh wait, I see someone behind that glass.
That guy is naked. What the f…”

“Oh my god. He is. Or maybe he is wearing a skin coloured shirt. Umm…no you’re right. He is naked.”

“Hahaha…this is like that episode from Friends, when they keep seeing the ugly naked guy staying opposite to their building.”

“But…” He tilted his head as he said that and continued “but what in the world is he doing sitting up straight like that? He is not even moving.”
He looked at the scene inside that glass window. A big thick glass window. The moonlight was glistening onto the glass’s edges occasionally.

“Do you think he can see us?” She held his hand and asked him like a five year old kid.

“I do not know. Maybe.” He was thinking the same when she asked him.

“He is looking over here only, I think” she was starting to get scared a bit.

“Why is he naked? Maybe he is watching porn. Or no, maybe he is just feeling hot. Are we not being too judgmental?”

“You’re right. Even we are awake as he is. Maybe he is thinking about us like we are.”

“Umm…screw him. Let’s go to bed. I think we are wasting the happy high feeling of beer.” He said and moved his hands over her neckline.

“Okay. Not so fast mister” she said while her eyes were still glued onto the window of Ugly naked guy.

“He is moving.”

“I know, I can’t help it” he laughed and continued his effort to unbutton her top.

“No baby. Him. The ugly naked guy. Look.”

“He turned around to spot the window and it was followed by something that shook their senses.

Ugly naked guy held a gun to his head.

“Oh fuck is he..?”

Before she could complete her sentence, the naked guy shot himself and a fountain of blood pierced out from backside of his head onto the wall behind. He fell dramatically slowly onto the bed.

“OH GOD” she screamed and he tried to comfort her and himself from what had just happened.

“What do we do? Should we call the police? No. They’ll question us only. What do we do?”

“Let me think” he was a bit irritated with her bombardment of questions.

After few seconds of going through an array of thoughts inside his head, he finally made a decision.

“I am going downstairs. There must be a security guard for that building. I think I might go with him and check.”

“Are you sure?” she asked him as if that would change his mind.

“I’ll be back. You can come along if you want to.”

“I do” she said and they rushed out of her flat in the dark hours of that midnight.

The elevator made an eerie sound while moving downstairs. Tonight it sounded more horrible than any other day somehow.

Both were lost for words. She looked at him and he gently put his arm around her. It did not make her feel any better, a thought she kept to herself.

“I want to go upstairs. I saw…I saw a man shoot himself. Over there” He did his best explaining to a half asleep night watchman.

“What! Where? I did not hear anything” watchman rubbed his eyes and looked anything but convinced.

But they led him upstairs. To the flat they approximately calculated to be on 7th floor.

They reached outside the house where they had witnessed the ugly naked guy kill himself.

She once again remembered the blood dripping down the wall and his impassive face. Cold dead face. She was not sure if she was strong enough to see a dead man. A dead naked man.

The watchman rang the bell and it was not met with any response.

He looked behind at both of them suggesting they had simply wasted his time.

He then rang the bell again.

Three of them looked at eyehole going dark and sensed the door knob being moved from inside.

The door was opened and a man in his late forties seemed rather irritated at being woken up at midnight.

“Sorry to disturb you Mr Kanth. But these two claimed they saw a man shooting himself. And they’re saying they saw it happen at your house.”

“Yes. The bedroom. The room facing the B wing building” he said as she tried to look inside the house.

“What bullshit! Nothing like that happened. What is this?” the man scolded the watchman.

But to their surprise, the watchman pleaded Mr Kanth to let them have a look inside once. He had his own reasons to do that. The reasons he had kept to himself throughout ten years of his service.

Mr Kanth finally agreed and the three of them entered the house. She followed him closely as she could sense there was something wrong.

Mr Kanth switched on the light and they saw it was nothing more than a perfectly normal house. He felt the grip of her hand going tighter as they moved towards the room, where they had seen what Mr Kanth had out-rightly refused.

Mr Kanth opened the room and she chose not to enter it. She let him though. Him on the hand, he was determined to find out what had really happened. He was scared too. But he was determined. He felt the air getting thicker as he got inside.

It was the same room. With the same wall behind. But without the ugly naked guy. The dead ugly naked guy. He saw the wall. Not a drop of blood.

On the bed, there was a kid sleeping with both his feet wrapped in a cloth and put onto a cushion.

“He had met with an accident. He lost them” Mr Kanth said watching him stare at kid’s feet.

“Sorry. We are sorry to have troubled you” said watchman on their behalf and the three left the house.

On their way back to her flat, he had no answers to her questions. Any of them really.

“You think we had spotted some other flat maybe?”

“No. It was the same one.” He replied and pressed 19th on the elevator’s screen.

Elevator again made its screeching sound as it took them back to her house.

“I don’t know what we saw. And whether Mr Kanth did something to hide.  Let’s try not to think about it as of now” he said and selfishly continued to delve into the same thoughts.

She did not say anything. She just wanted him to stay with her. She wanted to sleep in his arms. But she knew he wouldn’t stay back. He never did. And yet she hoped tonight he might will. For her.

“I am sleeping here tonight” he said to her delight and continued to speak,

“I have not parked my car inside. Let me do that. I’ll just be back.”

“Come back soon. I am still scared.”

“I know. I will” he said and rushed outside.

He knew what he had to do. He almost ran towards the building to spot the same watchman sitting there, staring at Mr Kanth’s bedroom window.

“You do know. There is something. I am not drunk. And I swear I saw a man shoot himself. I cannot be wrong. It was the same room.”

“I have no time for this sir” the watchman said as if he expected him to show up again.

“You almost argued with Mr Kanth at 2 am in the night. You did not need to. Something did convince you to do that.”

“Hmm…” letting out a big sigh, the watchman finally looked at him.

“Sir, it was what you said. What you said you had seen. The way you said you had seen it happen.
It was…it was something I had seen with my own eyes. After it had happened. At the same house we went to. It was about five years back. Mr Kanth did not reside in that flat back then. I remember hearing a gunshot and rushing to that house. That man was lying flat on his back. On the bed where we saw the little kid sleep so peacefully tonight. That man. And the expression on his face. I cannot forget that. There was a gun. There was blood. Oh so much blood. And the chaos that followed for days after that. Police. Detectives.  But you go now. Forget that you saw anything, if you did. Go home. I don’t have any answers.”

He let the watchman drown into his thoughts as he tried to make sense of what must have happened. Five years back? Oh the night, the midnight was getting freakier with every passing minute. Suddenly he was shaken by a sound of his phone ringing.

She was calling.

He felt guilty of having left her alone in the house. She must be scared. He swiped his thumb across the cell phone screen to answer the phone.

For first few seconds he could only hear her breathe.

“Hello! You there?” he asked as he moved towards the elevator.

“Hello…she finally managed to speak. Where…where are you?” he could sense her crying as she spoke.

“I am coming upstairs. What happened?”

“That glass window. That same window…please come to me right now. Please!”

“What happened? I’m almost there. You saw something again?” he imagined multiple scenarios in his head.

“Yes. That kid. That same kid in Mr Kanth’s house. He was sitting there in the window” she said and started crying again.

“What are you saying?”

“Ya..I saw that kid. He looked younger than he did when we saw him. He was sitting there and Mr Kanth…

“What about Mr Kanth??”

“Mr Kanth…he opened the window and pushed him down. He pushed the kid down…”

Not my cup of tea

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You would say I’m still a boy, if you ever see me trying to catch the train’s window seat. The world outside it still manages to keep me enthralled throughout the journey.

The other day, I was visiting Dahanu as per my work schedule. It was the last stop in Mumbai, almost kissing the Gujarat border. It would take me not less than 2 to 3 hours to reach there. But I had no complaints. The train crossing the river bridge and making da-da-dum sound always kept me engaged in conversation with her. It was monsoon and lush green lands on the both sides getting sliced by a river was a charmingly bucolic sight. It was well garnished with a row of mountains holding hands far behind the lands.
Fishermen could be seen taking their motorized boats filled with fishing nets and an anchor. None of them ever seemed bothered by the rhythmic movement of train wheels through their town. Maybe the train knew only too well how to march in tune with those tiny villages.

There were only few stops where passengers could get down and hop in at. Umroli was not one of them.
I think the little town wasn’t particularly happy about being left out. It looked morose watching the train speed past its old crooked platform. It was always deserted except for few dogs, elderly men and a tea seller kid.
The tea seller kid. The first time the boy caught my attention was, when he raised the tea kettle indicating he hoped to serve us. The train didn’t have time for the little boy and kept racing ahead. Next time I saw him again standing there and yet again the next month as I passed that station. I think the boy started to recognize me then, watching me study him. He started smiling at me. I didn’t smile back. I wanted to buy a cup of tea from him. But the train wouldn’t let me.
All I could do was to watch him stand there in shorts and a surprisingly clean white shirt. I wondered if he learnt about cleanliness at a school. And then immediately I hoped that he does go to school in the first place. I tried guessing how much he would be earning by selling tea in that little town of his.
It became a routine for me.

Few months passed. I had not been to that part of town. I had forgotten about the tea seller in my errands of work life.
It was raining heavily the day I was once again on my way to Dahanu. I was excited. I was hoping to see him again. I wondered if he would still recognize me. The train moved slowly that day for whatever the reason it was. The river was laughing its full mouth with rainwater and only few fishermen could be seen. I looked outside as the train approached Umroli village. The platform seemed even more deserted today. I could spot not more than 3 to 4 people. They didn’t include that boy. The barricade behind the platform was broken and was hanging down.
Platform was submerged in water.

“What happened to this place?” I exclaimed.
“It got flooded. A huge flood that swept away this and nearby towns” said the fellow passenger.
“How bad was it?” I asked.
“Bad enough for few people to go missing. Almost all of them lost their houses”.
“Hmm” I sighed and retreated back into my thoughts.
The journey seemed unusually long that day. I was trying not to think about the tea selling boy.
I reached Dahanu. I met my client. I changed the topic every time he spoke about the horrible flood. He offered me tea and I found it difficult to gulp it down.
On my way back, the train again moved at slow pace due to water on the tracks. Just a station before Umroli, a tea seller got into the next compartment. For a moment I thought he was the same boy. He wasn’t.
I knew I was not going to get down at Umroli someday, even if the train did stop. Although I thought about it several times.
I don’t know what happened to him. Maybe I will never find out.

But I’m a sucker for happy endings. In my story, he did survive. He reunited with his family. I would like to believe that he even found a little puppy dog. Yes, I would like to think so.

 

Clipped wings

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She dreamed of flying, when others were simply learning to walk, learning to cross the street. She was just nine, when she had made white clouds her home and felt wind was waiting to carry her along.

Twenty one and she had made it up there. Flying along with one of the finest airlines, smiling her perfect smile at 200 new faces every day. From one city to another, from another to the next one…she only halted for a while. She wished she didn’t have to at all. But life had some other plans.

And tonight she sang at Eleventh east street cafe, her new job it was since past one year. A favourite hangout place for the young ones in town. And they loved her at what she did – singing their choice of songs with an occasional melody of her own. For Him, it was his first time at the restaurant.

He had taken a small round table close to the fountain overflowing with water, which failed to drown her voice. She had conquered his thoughts, as she put her dark wavy hair on one side and the battle was already half won…by her. She sang American pie and he couldn’t help but hum it along. Feeling stupid, every time her eyes caught his.
He listened intently to her voice and wondered what her story was.  After all nothing entices an artist’s mind more than pieces of a broken heart. He knew she was much more than a singing lady tonight or any other night. Maybe a little late to go back, a too early to leap ahead. Tonight was hers though. This moment sang her song. Her dreams whispered into his ears in hushed tone as he held onto the words.

They had clipped her wings down.  But nothing could kill the magic in her voice.  If you listen closely enough, you could still hear the flutter of her wings…waiting for the cage door to be swung open. Her heart was jailed and tonight he melted his into a key. She sang all night, while he sat there scribbling on his notepad. Occasionally the glass of wine made it to his lips. But his eyes, they only held one vision in that crimson moonlight – of hers in the white dress, singing with closed eyes.

He knew he had to get past the lyrics somehow and she kept hoping her walls to be never brought down, by another man.  Having reached bottom of the glass several times, he felt more confident. He felt he knew her now, probably more than she did herself. He was sure of having unlocked the draft folders in her heart. And he penned down what he thought had been hiding behind those walls, waiting for the peek-a-boo to be played with the right heart.

Her voice resonated in the four walls that night and his words did the dance to the tune of it over the notepad. Dipped in the ink of feelings, they now left a trail of romance behind. The music stopped and he fervently tried to grasp the notes flying around. She sat back and relaxed, sipping onto the drink she had bought.

“You, you sing well” he said and she shook her shoulders in reply.

“I guess I do fine.” She said and he saw she wasn’t as pretty looking as she seemed while she sang. And yet at the same time very pretty somehow.

“You got the tale you were looking for?” She said with the straw flirting with her lips.

“What do you mean?” He smiled wondering if he had completely got her wrong.

“Your story I’m talking about, the one you were scribbling while pretending to sing American pie. I’m sure you had thousand thoughts in your head, with those characters doing a dialogue with your inner voices.” She smiled and offered him a chair next to hers.

He sat nervously feeling a bit stripped down and let her take the charge.

“I am Nadia. And what’s your name, writer boy?”

“Why don’t you read it yourself?” He smiled and handed over the notebook in her hands.

“I hope the ending is good, as I dreamed it to be” she said watching him read her eyes like ‘he’ used to.

“There isn’t one. She learns how to fly. He helps her do that.” He replied.

“And she leaves him behind? Yet again?” she asked.

“He was never hers to take along. She wasn’t his. They met. Like two kites accidently brushing hands in the sky. They were meant to carry on” said the writer boy.

“Well, she is happy that she met him after all” she smiled her perfect smile. After a long time.

 

Death clock

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Year 2033. September 24th. 9 pm News Hour.

Once again I blew air into the microphone tucked in my shirt, to check if it was working properly. It wasn’t my first speech on television. But I knew it well could be the last one.

Cameraman zoomed in and zoomed out and lights were thrown from both the sides. I unbuttoned my Laboratory coat and then buttoned it back again. I was nervous. It was big. It was going to be the biggest news of all time. But I couldn’t be proud of it. I wasn’t sure.

“Alright, we now go live in 4,3,2,1…!” said someone and I started speaking,

“Good evening everyone. My name is Dr. Roy and I’m here to share some important data with everyone.’’ I adjusted spectacles and flipped the pages of report book in my left hand.

“To begin with, we are all aware of the outbreak of PALS virus 3 years back which has now become prevalent in almost all the countries. Our team at Stark Genome Lab has been doing extensive study over the reports we received from diagnosis and post symptoms of the affected. And it is tragic to know that almost 88% of the world’s population is now infected with the virus. You might have been hearing news that there is no cure to this disease. And yes, so far it is true. A normal infected person will approximately have a lifespan of not more than 2-3 years. First year would have symptoms ranging from loss of hunger to that of hearing. Next stage is patient hallucinating. This stage ranges from few months to a whole year. And the last year would cause…would cause complete failure of immunity.

Having said that, I’m not here to raise panic. Rather my purpose is entirely different. Yes, maybe most of us have 1-2 years left on this planet now. But then one way to look at it is, we still have time.” I smiled for the first time as I said that and unbuttoned my coat.

“I’m a scientist. I believe we are considered to be the most boring profession out there. Maybe it is, maybe we don’t really look much outside our lab window at the colourful rainbow or even dew sitting over the glass. We don’t. We did not. Not until now. But today I want to tell you one interesting fact. Interesting and equally important.

Some of my colleagues, who are infected; quit their jobs few months back, some last week, some today. They packed their bags and went to Himalayas. Some have joined extreme sport; some I heard are learning guitar. Few of my patients have also decided to go back to hometowns. My friends are meeting their girlfriends and boyfriends from the past. People are partying like never before.
And so I called few of these people back to the lab one day. I got them checked again. And you guessed it right. They showed signs of improvement. I do not mean they will survive. But they are certainly not living a painful life. I do not know whether it was cold winds of Mountains, or backwater of Ganges, serenity of villages they are staying in now or arms of their high school sweethearts they went back to…that is sewing their muscles back, giving them strength to smile back at this bitch of a virus. I do not know. All I know is, it is keeping them happy. And yes in our medical term, raising their immunity too.

So I have decided that I’m going to join the clique and I am inviting you all.” I said as I took the coat off, followed by spectacles off my eyes.

“I am inviting you all to open your hearts, not be afraid of the virus. It is killing us, there is no denying that. But we could rather live each moment we have, than die a little every day. I personally, am going back to my house and I’m going to paint the canvas lying there from months. My wife was right I guess, I should have submitted my paintings at the exhibition long back. I don’t know, maybe people would call me a lame painter or an amazing artist. But I don’t want to live on Maybe’s now. Not anymore. I would suggest the same to you, friends. Stop watching news. Stop getting paranoid. Let your heart be the favourite thing you want to open first this Christmas.  I do not know if God exists or not. If there is going to be Noah’s Ark to carry his favourite fans. What matters is, we stop letting this life slip through our fingers as we pray for better one in next life. Fear of death is the only reason why some of us are still alive. Let us live now.

And yes don’t forget, you must visit Oakcity Festival this month end; for you may see some of my paintings on the display. I’m somehow very sure I will make it.’’ I smiled into the camera with tears of joy and hope lingering through them.

“Goodbye friends. That is all for this time. Have a great life ahead!”

Serious fall of a Humpty Dumpty heart

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This is a story of a little bird; I like to call my heart. It stays in the rib-cage inside my chest and locks itself out at the slightest smell of love. No, I have not cut down its wings. It soars high and falls worse than a Humpty Dumpty off a wall. I mean seriously. It keeps falling every now and then.

Just like it fell the other day, when I was taking my regular jog at Rock garden. I was jogging round and round…taking a deep breath while moving on upward slopes & trying to control my speed while running over the downward ones. My lungs bloated big & shrunk back for oxygen as I came to a halt near my favorite spot. I touched my chest with the right hand & could feel heartbeat racing high. Giving out a sigh, I sat at the edge of one of the benches and Hippy came running towards me. It stood near my feet gazing at me awkwardly and I smiled at it. It replied by jumping up in my lap and within few seconds it started making a purring sound. It definitely was the most innocent happiness I had ever come across.

And then I spotted her. Sitting at the far corner of garden with her big round spectacles sitting firmly over her sharp nose. I smiled and heard a knock on the door of rib cage simultaneously.

“Are you serious? We don’t even know her yet’’ I asked my curious heart man.

‘’And we would probably never do if you do not take me to her’’ came a quick reply.

“Well, what if she says no? What if she already has someone in her life?’’ I tried to keep him calm and locked inside.

But little heart man had already made up his mind and was ready to try his luck.

One of us took the other to the bench at far corner of the garden.

“Well, not many come here to do serious reading. I mean at least that’s what I used to think” I said to her after rehearsing and rephrasing it thrice in my mind.

‘’Depends on what you call serious reading’’ she said without lifting her head and I still caught the smile conquering her reddish cheeks.

“Yes. I guess, reading a novel as thick as the one in your hand. I mean most people just come here with a newspaper to read.’’ I said and checked on my heart, luckily still sitting inside my chest.

She turned towards me as I said that and put her dark brown hair behind her ears.

“You are right. But honestly speaking, this is my first time here. ‘Rock garden’. I really liked the name and I just decided to spend some time with it. You come here often?” she asked me and I spotted the little heart man in black suit crawling towards her sneakily.

“Get back you. You Humpty Dumpty. Don’t you do that again’’ I warned him and she waited for my reply.

“Yes I come here quite often. In fact everyday you can say. I like this place. I mean it’s so calm. All of us who come here are like friends of Rock garden, you can say. It’s so serene…”

“And yet kind of an escape’’ she completed my sentence.

“What do you mean, an escape?” I was puzzled and at the same time worried about the little heart man – now sitting on her lap and looking at her. He was going to hurt himself again. I knew it.

She folded the book in her hand and answered, ‘’Yes. An escape. An escape from reality. A much needed break for everyone you see around us. Be it kids playing football just for the summers or those middle aged women walking backwards over the green carpet to fight diabetes or simply youngsters using it as a platform to keep their bodies fit & toned. We are just travelers to this place. We would be waving goodbye to the Rock Garden as soon as our motives are fulfilled.’’

“I guess. But Rock garden does have true friends as well’’ I said. I loved the way our conversation was going. Well to be honest, little heart man had gotten me engrossed in interesting conversations earlier as well. And then I ended up putting a bandage on his wounds from the fall later on.

Nevertheless I continued to fall for this girl and said to her ‘’Yes Rock garden does have friends as well. Real friends. Like you see old Mishra uncle sitting over there?” I pointed at a man sitting on a bench across ours with his hands rested on a walking stick. “Or the brown kitten sitting near him? That kitten has made this place its home even before it learnt to jump over the bench. I call it Hippy. Love the way it looks deep into your eyes and then jumps up on your lap’’ I realized I had gotten carried away a bit with the kitten part, when I saw little heart man now sitting in her left palm.

She laughed a bit and asked me ‘’A cat-person, I see?’’

“Well if it qualifies as a pick up line, yes I am’’ I said scratching my hair with one hand.

“Haha, normally it does not. Anyway I never asked your name. I’m Ayesha. And you are?’’

‘’I’m Piyush. I’m a Lawyer. And you?’’

“I’m studying Literature. At DU.” She said.

“Oh I should have guessed. That’s why books and all.’’ I said as I searched for him. Little heart man had escaped yet again.

That did get me worried. I thought of the previous times it had flown away. And fallen for the ones who never cared for him. Little heart man would later come home to its rib cage with his head tilted and feeling all sad with teary eyes. I would then sit and console him for days.

‘’He had fallen once again probably. She did not even notice him sitting on her palm’’ I thought while she got up to leave.

“I guess I’m going to try and be friends too…’’ Ayesha put the book in her bag and said,

“You know with Rock garden. I guess I’ll finish up this novel here only someday’’.

I was still sulking over the empty space in my chest as she said that. I was going to miss the little heart man.

She zipped her bag up and gently put the other hand in the pocket of her blue jeans.

“Well to come to think of it, I’m thinking I’m also going to be friends with…” she took a pause to see me looking deep into her eyes and continued…”I’m thinking I’m going to be friends with Hippy too’’ she raised her eyebrows and waved me goodbye.

“There I go again. Return of Humpty Dumpty it is. Falling off the wall of love’’ I thought to myself.

“I love cats’’ she said as she turned around and I saw little heart man sitting comfortably on her shoulder winking his eye.

Before I could think anything, I felt something breaking into my mind…tiptoeing down into my chest and yes its beat rhymed perfectly with the tune of little heart man. A tiny red heart wearing a pink top and blue jeans was winking back.