THE HERO.

‘Raman…That’s what your name is right? You want to marry my daughter but tell me one thing what made you think that? Neither your family has a good house nor do you have a stable job. I heard you work for the ironsmith…How you will pay for my daughter’s expenses? I must tell you your love isn’t meant to pay bills!’ the father spoke with distrust and disgust.

The lamps in the courtyard flickered as the wind blew. The wind was cold and harsh, swiping the dry leaves which cracked as they moved.

‘But father…I’ the girl tried to rebel but soon lost words after seeing the face of her furious father.

‘Diya!’ the father shouted, ‘Don’t you any shame left? You are a disgrace to our family. How will I face our ancestors after I die.’ Diya started sobbing at once. Her father had never talked to her like that. She ran inside the room. Her anklet made a musical sound as she ran which rhymed with that of the crickets in the nearby bushes.
‘Believe me I would take good care of your princess and keep her happy all her life.’ His eyes were filled with passion and he trembled with the immense desperation to achieve his love. ‘I have got a place in the king’s army sir…I would not work as a ironsmith now. I love her and I would do anything and everything to be with her.’
‘The king’s army? That would fetch some decent money…Are you sure that you are not lying young man?’

‘I have brought the paper with me sir,’ Raman handled a rolled document to Dita’s father, ‘Please sir have a look.’

The father opened the knot of the golden thread to spread the sheet. He went close to the lamp near the well.
‘So you are appointed in the chief’s troop…’ he said touching the king’s seal at the bottom of the paper. ‘Is it a permanent position?’.

‘I will be trained and examined for three months sir after which I could make it permanent’.

‘I work in the ministry…’

‘I know sir, Diya had told me once that you are very dear to the king. I would prove my worth sir and then come to you.’

‘I may seem harsh but I am a father. Diya is my only asset and I want best for her future. You are a good man and so I would be glad if you get a position in the army.’ he looked at Diya who peeped from the room with teary eyes. ‘If you prove yourself…I will take you as my son in law.’
‘Oh father!’ Diya ran to her father and hugged him tightly. ‘You are the best father in the world!

Jannagar, the state that they lived in was a Hindu state ruled by an Islamic ruler. Unlike the neighbouring countries here no was compelled to convert to Islam, no temples were destroyed, the tax system was good, people lived in harmony. It was a rich country in terms of culture, mines, grains and education. This rising power filled the neighbouring rulers with insecurity and jealousy. Enemies started forming alliances to stop the growth and bring down the ruler of Jannagar.
Hence it was necessary to increase the army strength and put more skillful people in the ministry. Raman thus got a chance to get into the army. He went through three months of rigorous training. He learnt to use the sword which he once used to make. Meanwhile Diya eagerly waited for him religiously in front of the masjid everyday and dress his wounds. The masjid was a magnificent structure which the ruler had made. It had four pillars in the four directions, more than thousand cells surrouned the major body which had large pieces of mirrors attached to it. At night the light from the numerous lamp would reflect from the mirrors and the place would look unbelievable. In the morning the mirrors would be covered with large pieces of cloth. In the evening the prayers from the masjid and the prayers from the nearby temple would merge beautifully to create a divine sound. Raman and Diya would sit around the pond behind the masjid for hours gazing at the flickering bright lights and listening to the soothing prayers.

‘The king is in danger dear… Enemies are all around us.’ Raman said to Diya. They sat near the pond dipping their feet in the cool water. The setting sun looked mesmerizing.

‘I trust you. You’ll save us and the king.’ Diya smiled at Raman.

‘I am serious Diya…Why do you think the sudden recruitments were made? Tomorrow the chief told us about a special troop training…’

‘Special troop training?’, Diya became serious now. Something was disturbing Raman and she could sense that. ‘What do you want to tell me Raman? You can tell me everything.’

‘The special troop would be appointed for the king’s safety. That means we would no longer be able to meet like this.’
‘You are on national duty Raman, I understand. The King’s a great man and he should be protected. You do your duty. I am so proud of you.’ Diya brushed Raman’s hair with her finger and touched his would in his forehead. ‘ I will wait for you. I promise.’

‘And what if I never return? What I …’
Diya put her palm on Raman’s lips and stared at him with teary eyes.
‘ You will… and if you don’t…I will come to meet you, I promise. You are my hero.’

The next day onwards Raman’s training for the special troop started. He with the other few soldiers were taken to the Royal palace to understand the structure of the great architecture. He was amazed to see the marvellous buildings and the concept. The ministry hall was giant with huge mirrors in all four walls. The officers told them to take close look into the mirrors. Raman went near to one the mirror. As he moved forward he could see the reflection of the other soldiers who were standing in front of the mirror of the opposite mirror.
‘Incredible!’, Raman whispered to himself and as he uttered the word the whole room filled with the echoes of his voice.

‘Yeah! We can see any person, any weapon he is holding and can hear every word he says or even whispers…So boys each and every thing has been specially designed to aid the security.’ the officer told the soldiers. ‘Now you may look above…Look at the ceiling’, the officer ordered.
Raman looked above. It was a chandelier. Sparkling and reflecting light.
‘It’s not any chandelier…It is made of diamonds! There is no fire allowed here to light the hall. Now…In the morning the sunlight is reflected by the diamonds and during the night the moonlight does the work. The hall is closed during new moon and I think you are smart enough to figure out the reason!’

Raman was overwhelmed by the palace with each fact he got to know and every thing he got to see. For the next few days Raman and the fellow soldiers were briefed about some unknown and hidden facts and paths about the palace. There was always something more interesting thing to learn than something they had just learned.
Diya on the otherhand was passing her days dreaming about meeting Raman and being his wife someday.

‘Raman! What a surprise…What are you doing her?” Diya’s father saw Raman outside the ministry hall. ‘Are you allowed to come here?’

‘Sir I have been appointed in the special troop…I am…’Raman stopped as the officer arrived.

‘Raman!’, the officer shouted, ‘What are you doing here? Go to the field now.’

‘Sorry sir…He is a kid…New recruitment…’, the officer said for justification.

‘Oh I know him actually…Is he doing good?’, asked Diya’s father.

‘Yeah, He’s bright sir and can be counted on.’ replied the officer, ‘I have to return to field for the class. It was nice talking to you.’

Raman went to the field all confused. He wanted to ask about Diya. He wanted to talk to her father about his progress. He wanted to show him his capabilities. But why the officer didn’t let him talk? Why he didn’t let him talk about the special troop?

‘Raman how did you forget about the secrecy?.’

‘Sir I am sorry but isn’t he in the ministry? He already has the knowledge about the troop. Doesn’t he?.’

‘No. And you did a horrible mistake for which I could punish you. The ministry doesn’t know about many things which the army and king decides. I am forgiving you this time. You are a good soldier but you must know to assess people.’

‘I don’t understand sir’

‘ I cannot say anything more than this. Return to your training.’

As the days passed, the heat between the countries increased. There were numerous meetings to dissolve matters and avoid the war. All was in vain. It seemed that war was inevitable. The enemy had also built an army…An army bigger than Jannagar…An army well equipped than Jannagar. Their soldiers were as pumped as that of Jannagar. But was only the opposite army the reason that the king and Jannagar was unsafe?
‘What do you think…Can we defeat them? Their army seems big!.’ one of the fellow soldiers asked Raman. There were sitting on the terrace and keeping an eye on the surrounding. The night was silent but windy. It was a new moon.The lamps and hurricanes went off every now and then. The light we enough to see each other’s faces.
‘They might be big…But we are more brave and size doesn’t matter my friend.’

‘Are you not afraid that may be we won’t be able see the faces we left at home?’.

‘Yeah…A bit but remember we are fighting for them. We have to protect them.’ Raman got tears forming as he thought about Diya.

‘What is that noise?’ the soldier cried. The bushes from the nearby jungle shuffled as a fire surrounded the palace.

‘Enemy…Bloody cowards! They attacked us in this dark.’ Raman ran to inform the chief. ‘You wake the other soldiers. Our brothers are sleeping they must be awaken!’ Raman shouted.
Raman ran as fast as he could to find the chief. Battling his way…Killing enemies…Facing the fire which was in the palace too. He reached the hall only to find out something he couldn’t even believe in his wildest dreams. The king was surrounded by the ministry officials. They were not protecting him but ready to attack him. The chief stood in front of the king to protect him. He was hurt himself. He was stabbed several times on his chest but still he stood like a true warrior.

‘Sir!’ cried Raman. He felt disgusted. He was filled with anger seeing the enemies within. They not only betrayed the king… They betrayed the country…The people.

‘Raman…Go to the city… Wake people up. Send the soldier here. Being killed in sleep is the worst thing to happen to warriors. Everyone must fight for freedom!’ the chief ordered.

Raman ran at once to the secret path to the core of the city that was the masjid. He looked back. The fire and the enemies were engulfing the palace. The silent night had turned to a storm of warcries and prayers. He reached the masjid. His legs were giving up. He panted heavily. He heard the prayers. The prayers of the masjid and the temple. The night was dark and it became darker with each moment though the city burned. He ran to Diya.
Diya was standing with other people. There was fear in their faces. There was uncertainty in the faces.
‘Diya we have been attacked. The cowards have shown their true colour. We have to fight. The whole country has to fight. Gather the youth. Man…Woman…Anyone and everyone has to become a warrior. The country is asking for blood.’

‘We will unite. We will fight.’ shouted one of the people. ‘Our country needs us….We have to fight till the last drop of blood in our body!’

‘I will bring the youth together. Raman…We will fight.’

‘I am going back to the palace. You all have to protect the people…Keep the spirit alive.’ Suddenly the fear and uncertainty in the faces turned to a strange spirit to do something. There was fire in everyone’s eyes…The blood of each citizen boiled.

‘Diya… I love you and you must know…There are enemies within…The betrayers. One is very close to you and me…’

‘No…Father?’ she uttered.

Raman sighed and looked at the ground. Diya came close to him and kissed him.

‘Kill him…Kill the betrayers…Kill the wolves.’ she said looking into his eyes.

Raman returned to the palace. The chief was aided by the other soldiers. Raman went in to save the king. Probably this was the closest he came to the king. Suddenly the chief collapsed on the ground. The king who was fighting with the enemies came running to hold him.

‘Raman! That’s your name right?’ the king called Raman.

‘Yes my majesty…’ Raman nodded.
‘Take the chief out of here. I am here with the soldiers’

‘But…’

‘I am the king…Its my order!’
Raman at once lifted the chief and went towards the door. He looked in the large mirrors. There stood Diya’s father with a dagger. He swiftly kept the chief beside the door and took out his sword.

‘You were never worthy to marry my daughter…The new King would make her the queen!’ Diya’s father attaked Raman. Raman at once passed his sword across the chest of the betrayer.

‘Your daughter will decide what she wants not you. You deserve death and that’s what you get!’ Raman took the sword out to stab him again.

Raman then took the chief to the masjid to keep him safe and told the students to serve him. He returned to the palace only to see the king lying in a pool of blood. Raman was exhausted and seeing the king dead broke his spirit.
He was losing himself. He was blacking out. He bleeded badly. Now the wounds started hurting. He closed his eyes for a moment. All he could see was Diya with a beautiful smile on her face stretching her arms and calling him. He opened his eyes. There was light! The first sunray hit the diamonds. There was light! He then saw his soldiers and the citizens rushing in. He closed his eyes again.
When he opened his eyes. He saw white cloth overhead. He tried to get up. It seemed as a tent. They were under medical camps the people had set up.
‘Let me help…’, the chief held him.

‘Sir! You are alive! What happened? I collapsed…I couldn’t save the country…the king.’

‘We couldn’t save the king and his family. But the country is safe for the time being. You saved us!’
‘We saved us. We fought….But where is Diya?’

Chief had no answer. Diya died fighting the enemy. She sacrificed her life. The silence of the chief was enough for Raman to understand. He went out of the tent and went to the pond behind the masjid. He dipped his feet in the water and closed his eyes. Diya flashed infront of him. She still stood smiling and happy. She was content and satisfied.

The chief came and sat beside Raman.

‘You have the right to grief but the country wants you now…The throne is empty and the neighbouring states won’t wait for long to attack again.’

Raman looked at the chief and asked, ‘But who is worthy to sit on the throne? The Royal family is destroyed. The ministry has fallen.’

‘True…The king was one of a kind. He was like god and should be worshipped. We have kept his body beneath the centre of the masjid as he wished.’ The chief handled a small vessel to Raman. ‘This is Diya’s remains…Her ashes…She wanted you to put her in this pond. Take your time and when you are ready…Come to the ministry hall.’

Raman took the vessel close to his chest and cried his heart out. He put the ashes in the pond water and waited till the sunset. ‘You are my hero…Diya. You will live with me.’

It was midnight when Raman reached the palace. The chief and other officials who fought the war waited for him. Raman went slowly towards the chief. He limped as he took steps.
‘Raman… We thought about it…We want you to sit on the throne.’ said the chief.
Raman was shook. He couldn’t speak for a moment.

‘I am not worthy…I am an ordinary ironsmith!’.

‘You are a warrior…You are a brave soldier! You guided the people towards the win. You filled them with spirit.’

‘I don’t know how to be a king…How will I …’.

‘You became the bravest soldier…You learnt. I will be there to make you a great king. I will get you close to the greatness of the fallen King.’

Raman had no answer to this.

The next morning with the blessings of the maulvi and pandits Raman took the responsibility of the king.
He ruled the state with glory and kindness. Jannagar once again stood back with the same prosperity. Raman declared Diya as the queen.

Diya lived indeed not only in Raman but also in the folksongs and stories as a hero!

Fifteen years of pure joy.

‘It’s just a dog!’, some people would say.
‘He is my brother…Tuffy Chakrabarty.’ I would shout at them.

It has been almost three months now that he has left…left forever. He left us on 2nd Nov 2018.
I know I could not hold him back forever but I know that I would hold the memories till my last day. It’s really difficult to believe that I cannot touch him or feed him or pet him. It’s sometimes difficult to breathe. You feel so heavy that you have to sigh. The pain around your throat when someone’s around and you want to cry out loud but you can’t. It is indeed difficult.
‘That’s why I don’t have a pet…it’s painful when they leave…’ people say.
I agree it’s painful but the pain is far less then the joy I would say. I know I am crying writing this piece. But somewhere deep down I have kept safe the happy moments our family had with Tuffy. Tuffy was around two months old when we adopted him from the streets. Sunita Masi who used to work in our house brought him to us. It was 12 Nov 2003. I was in fifth grade and my elder sister in seventh. I remember when I first saw him ticks were running all across his face. Tuffy was so fat that time that we called him ‘fatty’ but then dad pointed that what if he looses the weight. Dad named him Tuffy after dad’s favourite bowler from New Zealand. Thus was named my fifteen years of pure joy.
Now you must be wondering that this seems fun. Well sometimes it wasn’t. We never wanted Tuffy to be in chains. He was Indian Street dog and they don’t want to be chained but his naughtiness complelled us to do so. He would enter our neighbours house and eat their food. He once ate and defaecated in a neighbour’s house and need I say how furious the person was. Eventually when he learnt what’s wrong we let him roam without the chains. He would run around the colony, fight with other dogs, play with some of them and when was tired would scratch our door to get in. We would vaccinate him time to time, bathe him frequently (which he didn’t like at all) and sometimes even dress his wounds. Tuffy liked fighting I guess.
During those mating months he would be gone for four- five days. I would be worried thinking what if he doesn’t come back home…what if something happened to him…I would cry for him so much and every time he would come back on the sixth day proving my all ‘what- ifs’ wrong. When we brought Tuffy there was no internet or cell phones and thus we knew very little about how to do anything. Tuffy ate human food (which is in many ways may be harmful for dogs) and when we came to know that our food is not safe for him and tried to give him boiled unseasoned food but he didn’t touch it. He always demanded what we had.
My boy was not so brave but naughty enough to hunt sparrows and rabbits. Pom his friend would join his naughtiness and often both of them would land in trouble. Tuffy would tear currency notes, run away with shoes, chew furniture and destroy cloths.
In his later years he was as energetic as a pup. He never stopped to pick up fights. My dad had a transferrable job and so we had to move to different places. Tuffy moved with us to all those places. He loved to travel…he loved to explore new places or I should say mark new places…and most of all he loved to make new enemies.
People often ask whether I would get another pet since Tuffy is gone. Tuffy was more like my baby. I fed him, I bathed him, I cried when he cried. In his last few days he was unable to stand properly. I would support him and make him walk. He wanted to walk badly but he himself could’nt. It broke my heart each time he fell. It broke my heart each time he cried to pick him up. He eventually gave up food. As adviced by the doctor we ran some blood tests and the results were extremely painful. His kidneys were not working. I called up his doctor in trembling voice about the reports. We discussed about the last resort which was dialysis. But the prognosis was poor and Tuffy was too weak to take up the hastle of long queues and painful procedures. We continued the fluids for few days. Then one evening when I was all alone in the house watching television and petting Tuffy I thought of auscultating his chest. I took out my stethoscope and heart his heart sound and breathing sounds. They were perfectly fine. I kept the stethoscope aside and continued brushing his fur with my fingers. After a minute or so Tuffy was had a convulsion and suddenly everything was so silent. I palpated his heart and could feel the beats slowly disappear. All I could feel was my heart pumping hard. I still don’t know what I was feeling. He was gone and I knew that but I just kept crying and calling his name. He didn’t respond.
I often feel empty and often find myself crying. I sometimes want him so bad, I want to pet him…Touch him…Feel him. Its hard indeed after he left. Would I get another pet? Yes I might. My boy has a special place in my heart. He was my baby. None can ever take his place but Tuffy taught me many things. While growing with him I understood what trust, friendship and love is. And these are not just terms… they need to be felt and made…These words need a chance! And if I could give that love to someone again…Make someone trust in me again ….Make a lifetime friendship again, then why not.! Yes it will break my heart again…Yes I would be left empty again but what about the life I would give that someone. Tuffy enjoyed his life to the fullest. He visited places, ate good food, made new friends (and enemies) and made others happy. Why would I not give another soul the chance to be happy? I sure need sometime to recollect my broken pieces now and till I am not fully ready for the responsibility, I do need to wait.
So go ahead. If you are in a place to give a soul a happy life don’t let the chance go away. And I ensure you that the love and happiness you get in return in insane. Do your research…Know your responsibilities…Know your limitations and get ready for the journey.

And please adopt…Don’t shop!

Miles Apart.

Hey…So how was your day?’ Payal smiled as she held the phone tightly to her right ear. Her excitement could be measured by her tone.

‘Good. Yours?’ replied Randeep in an incredibly dull tone from the other side of the phone.

‘Great but I missed you so much! The best thing today was the girl I met..I…’

‘Payal…Baby can we talk later?’ Randeep interrupted Payal, ‘The head has come.’

‘Yeah sure…’ Payal’s excitement dissolved at once and now her tone matched that of Randeep’s, ‘ I’ll call you later’. Payal kept the phone on the dining table, finished the noodles she was eating, washed the dishes and went to her study. Her study was a small room with thousands of books and even more number of spiders and webs. The room was not at all well lit and had a layer of dust on the floor. But Payal never bothered to work in that space or else never bothered to clean the space. There were a bunch of papers lying on the study table. Payal sighed. She put on her spectacles and started counting the papers.
‘Sixty five? ‘, she uttered to herself, ‘But there are Sixty seven students in the class right? Payal count again!’ she counted them once again and this time seemed satisfied with the result.
Payal was a girl in her early thirty’s. She was a teacher by profession and was married to Randeep since the last five years. Payal and Randeep met in a matrimony portal. Randeep’s parents liked Payal a lot. Though before the marriage they never actually met each other in person they talked quite a lot on phone. Still after their marriage while Randeep worked out of the country and only came to his home once in a year, most of their ‘precious’ moments happened over the phone. Randeep worked for a hospital as a psychiatrist and was most of the time stressed due to the work load. Payal on the other hand was in love with teaching. She thought it as a way to express herself to people, though the people being ten years old but still this was her only way to be happy.
Payal while assessing the answer scripts suddenly looked at the wall clock. It was 1o’clock. It was already the next day. Payal wrapped the bundles, kept them at the corner of the table, she absentmindedly as other days forgot to switch the lights off and went to her bedroom. When she entered the room , the first thing she saw was the wedding picture. The wedding photo of Randeep and her wedding, framed in a beautiful wooden antique work. She purposely hung the picture in that wall so as to see it first when she enter the room, so as to feel that she is not alone, so as to never feel upset that she still after five years of marriage lives alone. She wanted to feel the warmth, she wanted to be loved, she wanted Randeep badly. The days were passing with a very little difference each day. She would write in her diary every day about her monotonous life but that day was different.
She took her diary kept under her pillow and started writing.

‘Simmi … That’s the name of the girl I met today. We shared the cab to work. She said she worked in the office opposite the hospital. There was something so charismatic about her! The elegance, the look on her face, the smile…She was so nice and the way she talked! I could talk to her for hours. After so long I felt that I actually connected to someone. Someone I could talk my heart out. Someone as lost as I am. But there was someone as annoying! Aggh…The driver. He kept looking back through the mirror. He kept staring at Simmi like a stalker. Except for the ride nothing interesting happened today. I hope I get Simmi again someday and if I do……’

The most unusual thing happened. Payal fell asleep while writing. She fell asleep without her sleeping pills. She fell asleep without setting the alarm. The next morning when she woke up the diary was still in her hand and the pen lied on the ground. She looked at the clock. It was exactly six in the morning. This was the first time in the five years that she woke up felling fresh and charged up. She felt as if she had completed her sleep which was incomplete for a very long time.
The first thing Payal would do after waking up was check her phone for any messages from Randeep. And everyday she would be upset seeing the inbox empty. Payal still managed to stay in a good mood after doing her morning yoga while listening to the morning radio show. She would get ready for the school. She had a good collection of bright coloured salwar suits from which she would choose her outfit after her bath. She would apply the vermilion in a hefty amount on her partitioned scalp and put a small bindi in the centre of her brow gap. The bindi would be in a matching colour with tag of the salwar. After packing her lunch and books, she would book a cab in share to her school.

That day she followed the same routine. When the cab arrived she was a bit surprised to see Simmi again sitting in the car.
‘Hey! Good morning!’ Payal greeted Simmi.

‘What! It’s you again. Good morning! Get in.’ Simmi was equally amazed.
The ride started and so did their talks.

‘How is your child?’ Payal asked. Simmi told about her four year old daughter the other day.

‘She is good…A little upset when mummy leaves for office.’ Simmi smiled at Payal. ‘What about you? Aren’t you planning to have a child? Five years is a long time. With age the complications of having a child would increase.’

Payal sighed, ‘Yeah I know but…Actually my husband…’

‘He is working abroad…You told me. Why don’t you go there then? I mean you can work there too, right?’

‘I am too afraid to go there.’

‘Why? Its just another country… Moreover you would be with your husband. You two would get chance to spent time together.’

‘Thats what I am afraid of…Spending time with him, knowing him. We have been married for five years now but we still haven’t talked much. When he is there he is so absorbed in his work and when he comes to visit me once or twice in a year, we usually spend time with his parents and seldom get any quality time.’

‘So basically you two are still strangers to each other?’

‘Sort of’ Payal shrugged. Payal noticed that this driver was also staring at Simmi like anything.

‘Sir…What are you staring at?’ Payal shouted at the driver.

‘I am sorry madam..’ the driver apologized.

‘You should ignore them,’ Simmi tried to pacify Payal. ‘So you don’t love your husband?’

‘I do but I am not sure he loves me or not…Sometimes it feels as if he agreed to marry me for his parents satisfaction’.

‘So you are afraid that if you found out that he doesn’t love you…You…’

‘I will be shattered. I am not ready for this. My parents separated when I was very small. I heard that they loved each other before marriage but I fail to understand what changed after marriage so I decided to go with an arranged marriage but here I am thinking…What if my marriage fails?’

‘But if you don’t try to get it sorted, your marriage will definitely fail. You..’
‘Enough of me!’ Payal interrupted Simmi, ‘Tell me about your marriage. You seem happy with your life!’

Simmi laughed to it, ‘The grass appears greener the other side. We have your school look!’

‘Oh! I again lost track of time talking to you. Hey! Can I have your number? I love sharing with you. We might not get lucky in cabs another time.’
They exchanged their numbers and Payal then went to her school. Payal as usual called Randeep after reaching the staff room.

‘Randeep …I have reached school. Have you had your breakfast?’ Payal asked while she took out the answer scripts from her bag.
‘Not yet…I will have it from the canteen. Did you sleep well yesterday? How are the new pills working?’
‘Actually I…’ Payal stopped for a moment, ‘Yeah the pills are great. When will you come home Randeep? I want to…’

‘Payal we have had this talk hundred times now…You know how important my work is! I am almost…’

‘I am getting late for the class. I am sorry to bother you ‘. Payal hang up the phone with frustration.

Payal went home early that day. She didn’t feel good. The way home she thought about her parents over and over again. She felt as if her fear was taking the shape of reality. Her marriage was failing. She went home, took the bottle filled with pills, opened the cap and poured all the tablets into a glass of water kept at the dining table. She looked at the pills. She looked at the pills settling one above the other. She saw the pills dissolving slowly and slowly with time. She took the glass and placed it near her lips. She was about to sip it but suddenly her hands seized to move. Her grip was loosening and she felt the glass slipping from her hand. The glass fell on the ground with pieces of glass scattered all over the floor. She sat on the floor for a while and then she suddenly stood up to reach her bag. Her fingers trembled as she searched for her phone. The tears were blurring her vision but she didn’t bother to remove them. She called Randeep who was the only person on her speed dial. It rang for seven-eight times but was not answered. Then she tried to call Simmi. The phone was unreachable. Payal tried to call them again and again hoping she could talk to someone or anyone. She finally fell on the ground unconscious.

The next day when she woke up she found the phone held with a tight grip in her hand. Her hands had some minor scratches due to the pieces of glass. When she checked her phone she saw 23 missed calls from Randeep. She looked at the time. She was amazed to see that she again woke up at 6. She wanted to call Randeep back but she didn’t. She didn’t know what to say or how to explain all the things she felt. She feared Randeep would not understand her.
She got a hold of herself and convinced herself to go to work. She wore a gorgeous salwar suit with matching gold jewelry. So wanted to feel good about herself with those glittery things. She skipped her breakfast intentionally and booked the cab.
Simmi was again sitting inside the cab smiling at Payal.
‘How is this happening?’ Payal got inside the car and tried to put on a smile on her face.
‘Hey…I tried to call you yesterday but it couldn’t connect.’

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with my network..You are not the first to tell me this. You seem stressed…Is every thing alright?’
Payal sighed and looked outside. She knew she needed help but wasn’t sure if she should tell Simmi everything. ‘Yesterday I …I fell…On the ground…’

‘Oh you have scratches too! Are you okay now?’.
‘I guess…So you didn’t tell me about your husband yesterday…How is he?’

‘I have a baby Payal but not a husband.’ Simmi smiled at Payal. She smiled as her eyes became moist. She tried to hide her pain with the smile.

‘What are you saying? Simmi you can tell me anything you want. I am listening.’ Payal forgot all her suffering for a while.

‘We were in love Payal…We were happy together…But not married yet. Then one day I came to know that I was pregnant.’

‘Did he not want the baby?’

‘He doesn’t know it yet.’

‘Why didn’t you tell him? I am with you Simmi. What happened? Did he do something wrong to you ‘

‘When I got to know that I was pregnant I wanted him to marry me. I had no other option. I didn’t want to abort the child nor did I want to pressurize him…He too wanted to marry me but…But his parents were rigidly against the marriage.’

‘Did he not ….’

‘He fought for us Payal but I backed out. I never wanted to separate him from his parents. I went away and gave birth to my daughter. When my daughter was born I heard from a common friend that he had got married and this time the girl was chosen by his parents.’

‘So he still doesn’t know about your daughter. She’s five now. What’s his name Simmi? Maybe I could…’ Payal looked at the front mirror of the cab the driver was staring at her with astonishment. Then she looked at the road. The car was about to hit a truck. Payal shouted at the driver to look in front and hugged Simmi as tight as she could.
Simmi whispered to Payal’s ear, ‘His name is Randeep.’ Payal felt a thrust and fell unconscious.

Payal woke up at the hospital. The first person she saw after waking up was Randeep. He was sitting next to her bed with his hands placed on her head.
‘Where’s Simmi? Is she okay?’ Payal asked with a trembling voice. She had bandage over her head and right hand.
‘Simmi? Is she someone from your school?’. Randeep asked holding Payal’s hand to calm her down.

‘She was with me when the accident happened. How is she?’
‘But I was told that you were alone except for the driver. The driver survived but still is under critical care.’
‘No Randeep. I shared the cab with Simmi. You know her Randeep!’

‘Calm down Payal. I saw your booking history. You booked the cab and it wasn’t on share. The company showed me the details. They are investigating into the matter.’

‘You loved Simmi very much… Didn’t you Randeep?’ Payal sobbed as she talked to her husband.

Randeep was taken aback. He didn’t know what to say for a moment.

‘Who told you about Simmi?’, Randeep asked impatiently.

‘Simmi herself said me that how deeply you two were in love with each other. You are a father Randeep. You have a lovely daughter. She is five now. Her number is saved in my phone… Please call her and talk to her!’

‘Your phone was destroyed in the accident…Why didn’t she tell me…’, Randeep looked at Payal. He knew how much pain Payal was feeling. He hid his past for five long years. He could not believe that he had a child. He wanted to meet Simmi and his daughter but he felt terrible that he took Payal for granted all these years.

‘She told that you two had a common friend. She knew about our marriage. I want to know if she is okay. Please call your friends Randeep.’

Randeep went out of the cabin and called all the common friends he had with Simmi. None could tell about her whereabouts except for one. He listened to his friends quietly and then went inside the cabin again.
‘Did you get anything? Randeep! Tell me…Why you seem so upset?’ Payal tried to sit straight with all the strength she had.
‘She named our daughter Preet and kept her with her aunt.’

‘Randeep please marry Simmi. I would love to step aside. I know you never loved me and you only loved Simmi. Randeep…Say something…’

Randeep came close to Payal and sat on his knees,’Simmi died a month ago…Payal..She is dead!’ Randeep kept his head on Payal’s lap and cried like a child. ‘She had a car accident and was bedridden for a month. She wanted to meet you and wanted you to own the child but before my friends could find me…She left! I was so obsessed in my work that I didn’t care to check on my friends or call them back when they called. I even ignored you…Payal I am so sorry.’

‘Randeep…I want to be the mother of your child…Please get her to me. Simmi was in immense pain and insecurity even after her death. I have seen her, talked to her ,felt her. She loved you so much!’

Randeep held Payal’s hand tight and took her into her arms.
‘I love you…Payal.’

The Deal.

Shilpa was meeting Kunal almost after a decade now. She couldn’t believe that she would ever meet Kunal in such conditions.

‘Vitals?’ asked Shilpa to the paramedic standing beside the strecher.
‘BP 80/50, PR 110, SpO2 84%…The CT and X-Ray plates madam’, the paramedic handed over the plates to Shilpa. Shilpa looked at the plates carefully and exhaled with her mouth.

‘CT is within normal limits but the lower limb bones are crushed…Admit him in the emergency surgery unit.The patient has lost too much blood. Please run the routine tests and arrange 3 units blood for transfusion. Also inform the blood bank to keep units in reserve. The patient may collapse any minute.’ Shilpa ordered the intern. The intern started to jot down the advice. ‘Its a road traffic accident right?’ asked Shilpa to which the intern nodded yes. ‘It would be a police case then…Send the ticket to my room after it arrives…Okay?’ The intern nodded a yes again.
‘Umm…Also write a refer to the orthopedic department and after they had seen the CT and X-Ray plates, sent the plates for a proper report.’

The intern ran and began to do things she was told. Shilpa went to her room and wrote a detailed note about the findings and the injury report. Meanwhile Kunal was placed in a bed and was visited by various doctors from different departments for opinions.

‘Police is trying to reach his family. There is nobody to give consent.’ Shilpa explained to the panel.

‘He should be operated now…His condition may worsen.’ suggested a surgeon.

‘But he’s not stable yet…And blood has still not arrived.’ the anaesthesist argued.

‘Doctors,’ Shilpa said in a low deep tone going closer to the monitor, ‘Tall peaked t waves!’ she pointed to the ECG.

‘Crush syndrome?’ the anaesthesist looked at Shilpa, ‘The lower limbs were crushed…We have to operate but there is chance of hypovolemic shock. Doctor Shilpa…What do you suggest? Its your case. Anyway the patient may…’

‘Call the team immediately. We will operate. We have to take the chance. As soon as blood arrives we have to transfuse’ ordered Shilpa.

The surgery was started and one hour had passed. ‘Doctor Shilpa you seem nervous…Your hands are shaking. Are you alright?’ one of the doctors asked Shilpa, ‘Its the first time I am seeing you so stressed, we have done such emergency surgeries earlier…’

‘Nothing doctor… Actually I know the patient personally’ replied Shilpa looking at Kunal’s face.

‘What! Shilpa are you okay? We can manage. The patient is almost stable.’

‘No. I am fine. I was in school with him. I didn’t remember his name until I got his ticket. I just…’ Shilpa stopped and again looked at Kunal. The surgery went on for another hour. Kunal was out of danger now.

Shilpa was exhausted by the long surgery and couldn’t go home. She slept in her cabin and was awakened by a knock on the door the other day.
‘Goodmorning Doctor…The patient has returned to conscious state, the police is here to meet him. Should we…’ the nurse stopped when she noticed Shilpa shutting her eyes. ‘Should I tell them to wait?’

‘Yeah…First I would examine the patient’s state, till then tell them to sit in the waiting room.’

Shilpa quickly freshened up and headed to the ward. Kunal was sitting with the help of the back support. He still had his oxygen mask on his face and looked drowsy due to the pain medications he was put on.

‘Goodmorning! Mr. Kunal…I am your Doctor, Doctor…’

‘Shilpa? Hey we were at school together! Don’t you remember me?

‘Yeah I do Kunal. How are you feeling today?’

‘I don’t know…I mean you chopped off my legs and…’

‘It was necessary so as to save you…You were dying and I had to save you anyhow. We didn’t had any of your relative or friends for the discussion and you were totally unconscious…We did what we thought was right.’ Shilpa sighed. ‘The police wants to talk to you and before you tell them about the accident I want to…’

‘What do I tell the police? I don’t remember a thing from the night. I only saw lights coming towards me and the next thing I remember is lying in this bed without my legs!’

‘I am sorry Kunal. What happened is unfortunate…But the police will investigate into it and I would not… rather cannot stop them from doing their job.’
After examining Kunal, Shilpa let the officers question Kunal while she attended other patients.

‘So what do you remember from that night? Anything and everything.’ the officer asked.
‘I was returning from my studio late that night on my bike and suddenly a speeding light came towards me. That’s all I have officer.’ Kunal sighed. ‘I might have had a little alcohol but certainly not much to jeopardize my riding. But wasn’t there any clue of what happened there? I mean the vehicle or something?’

‘I am afraid but no.’ replied the officer. ‘We checked the road thoroughly but haven’t got anything yet. Also to our bad luck the CCTV camera on the road was out of order. It is indeed difficult to find the culprit but we assure you we’ll try our best. Till then take care Mr. Kunal and if you remember anything…feel free to give us a call.’

‘Yeah sure..Thanks officer’. Kunal smiled overcoming the pain he felt.

Shilpa was heading home after the tiring shift she had but before going she stopped by the ward to talk to Kunal. Kunal was talking to the nurse and seemed disturbed.
‘Is everything alright Nurse?’ Shilpa investigated.
‘Doctor I have given the adviced pain medications to him but he is arguing to give him more. I told him…’

‘It’s okay, ‘ Shilpa smiled at the nurse and patted on her back, ‘I will talk to him…Please attend other patients.’

‘Kunal…I know you are in pain but we cannot give you more of the pain killers. It would be harmful to you.’ Shilpa tried to calm Kunal down.

‘It’s too hard. Its paining a lot. You can never ever imagine the pain.’

‘Hey, did you tell the management about your family or any known person? I am sure if you have a good company you would feel and heal better.’

‘I have friends but nobody is so much close to me. Moreover they have their lives to life…Many of them are my mere drinking partners.’

‘Family?’

‘Only my father who is least bothered about me.’ Kunal looked at Shilpa . ‘He disowned me when I denied to run the family business and started to follow my passion.’

‘So what’s the passion? May be that could help!’

Kunal laughed to it and looked at his legs which ended soon after the knees. ‘Dance…Dance is …Or I should say, was the passion of my life.’

Shilpa felt as if a dagger went straight through her heart. ‘Kunal I …I had …I am so sorry…I .’

‘You took my passion to give me life. Pointless life?’

‘No. Life is never pointless. I will help you Kunal. I promise,’ Shilpa held Kunal’s hand.

In the coming weeks Shilpa spent her spare time sitting beside Kunal’s bed and talking to him. She tried her best to provide the emotional support and confidence which seemed to be lost in Kunal after the amputation. They talked about the stupid stuffs they did in school. The classes, the classmates, the gossips of the classmates and more. When Kunal was stable enough to be discharged he had nobody or no place to go to.

‘Where would you go?’ Shilpa asked.

‘I only have my studio and that too is of no use now I guess… but I will figure something out, I have the strength now.’

‘I know you are better now but I still insist that you come to my place. It would be good for you. You have some disabilities now and…’

‘Right…I forgot I am handicapped now.’

‘I didn’t mean that besides you are not handicapped. You are a man with disabilities who still has the ability to serve the society and hence not a handicapped person…until you give up!’ Shilpa said in one breath.

Kunal smiled at Shilpa with astonishment. ‘You have done so much for me Shilpa…You even paid the bills. I don’t think I could take anymore favours from you.’

‘Okay then do me a favour…Live with me!’ Shilpa teared up while speaking. ‘You know I had feelings for you since a very long time. You ignored it. Even I ignored it afterwards thinking it may be for the good but it never turned any good for me. I still…After so many years have not found anyone for whom I could feel the way I feel for you!’

‘Shilpa I know that but think about it… I am not a good choice…I am not even a choice for you. I think it’s the sympathy talking. You will eventually feel burdened. I will make you slow. I will…’

‘May be I am ready to slow things down a bit.’ Shilpa shrugged and went closer to Kunal who was in the wheelchair. She bend forward to kiss him. ‘Please! I am literally begging you.’ They kissed.

‘You don’t have to. Last few days were something different for me. I was happy. The only thing which made me happy was dancing. And now that I can’t dance the way I did… the thing that brings me joy is you!’

Kunal went with Shilpa. They started living together and seemed to be enjoying every bit of it. Kunal started a new passion that was music. Shilpa would go to work as usual in the morning and when she returned in the evening, all the tiredness would just vanish listening to Kunal’s music. They would talk for hours.

‘Hey! Isn’t this your slam book?’ Kunal picked up a fancy thin book from the magazine rack.
‘Yeah…My first one.’ Shilpa replied. ‘I always keep my firsts in a special place.’
‘There is my note too…’ Kunal laughed as he turned the pages. Kunal rolled the wheels of his chair and went close to Shilpa who was sitting on the sofa. Kunal brushed her hair with his fingers.

‘Will you marry me?’ Kunal proposed.

Shilpa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. ‘I have something to confess to you…’ Shilpa seemed nervous. She took Kunal to the garage and handed him a broken rare view mirror.
‘It was my first car. I couldn’t get rid off my first so I had to at least keep a piece of it. It is the car…’

‘Which hit me?’ Kunal completed. ‘I know.’

‘What? I don’t understand you told that you didn’t remember any thing…’

‘I lied. I was conscious till you came out from the car and checked if I was alive. I also heard when you made the call to the hospital.’

‘Why did you not tell the police? Why did you save me?’ Shilpa cried.

‘To save me…Not you.’ Kunal laughed while Shilpa looked at him with astonishment. ‘I was finished…I was a complete failure. The studio was gone from my hands. I was heavily drugged and was about to finish my life. Then the best thing happened to me…The accident!’

‘So you used me to get all this..’

‘To get a decent life…You almost killed me but you saved me.’ Kunal winked at Shilpa.

‘You didn’t love me? I did all this for you and…’

‘Oh! You loved me? You too pretended didn’t you? You hoped to get out of the guilt.’

Shilpa wiped her tears and stared straight at Kunal’s eyes. ‘Yeah it’s true…I didn’t love you. But what next? Would you tell the police about that night?’

‘No but I want my reward to keep it a secret…’

‘So you are blackmailing me?’ Shilpa lifted her eyebrows.

‘Not at all… Think it like a deal.’ Kunal replied with cool.

‘Its a deal then…But marriage is off the table.’ Shilpa clarified.

‘Absolutely Doc!’ Kunal threw the rare view mirror in the bin.

The Pride.

‘Papa please let me study there…Please papa,’ Gauri begged to her father who was busy solving the soduko in the weekly newspaper. ‘All my friends are going there too and that is the best in the country.’

Gauri lived in a small town with her parents. Her father worked in a big company and was a respected person there. Gauri went to the best school in the town and was a bright student. Once in a while the family would go on trips and vacations outside, mostly in the big cities. Gauri was always intrigued by the city life. While growing up she always thought of living in the fancy big cities. She was fed-up of the narrow roads and the even narrower mindset of the people living in the town. So when she did complete her school, she was determined to study further in a renowned college in the city. She thought it was the only chance to get out of the boring life she had in the town.
The father sighed and folded the newspaper. He could no longer concentrate in the soduko due to the constant whining, ‘I told you that I would not let you stay alone in an unknown city. It is dangerous and you would not be able to live there alone.’

‘You are seventeen now and still cannot tie up your hair or wash your clothes,’ Gauri’s mother jumped into the conversation, ‘How would you manage there without us?’

‘Then come with me mom. And I know how to tie my hair or wash my clothes. You didn’t ever gave me my space to do those things myself. I wouldn’t be alone there. My friends would be there for me…Papa please ‘ Gauri sobbed.

The conflict went on for days until Gauri’s parents had to surrender to her stubbornness. They were reluctant to send their daughter so far but they couldn’t fight Gauri’s urge to get and explore the world on her own.

The first few days were the best for Gauri. She was finally out of the captivity of the overwhelming care and suffocating love of her parents. She was tasting freedom for the first time. The clean campus, new friends, the happening hostel life. She loved it but everything has a price attached to it. Soon she realised how badly she was missing her home, her mother’s food, her father’s boring speech. She missed the overwhelming care and suffocating love! She missed her small town. She missed the warmth she got in the town where almost everybody knew eachother. She got her new friends but missed the old ones she left behind.
Soon she found herself drowning in her routine. Her happening life started to becoming less and less happening. The boring lectures, the projects, the filthy canteens and the dirty hotel’s washroom. The only thing which she anticipated was the phone calls from her home and the vacations.

Then suddenly something changed. She once again started liking her life in the city. The change was a boy named Shoib. Shoib was a senior in the college. She met him in the second year of college. Shoib was like a fresh breeze in Gauri’s life. Gauri had many flings earlier but this time it was different, either Shoib was a perfect boy for Gauri or she was really emotionally vulnerable and looked for a support. Shoib helped her in her studies and projects, they would go out almost every night and spent the nights talking on phone. The bond was getting stronger. They were in love.
Shoib had an elder brother as his family. It was easy for him to convince his elder brother about Gauri. But for Gauri it was a difficult task to make her parents agree upon the relationship. When Gauri was in the final year of the college, Shoib got a government job and both decided to get their families involved. They wanted to get married.

‘Shoib?’ Gauri’s father frowned, ‘He’s a Muslim?’
‘Never. Gauri…this is too much. We have had enough of your tantrums but this time you have gone very far.’ her mother yelled.
‘But I love him and…’
‘Love…what about us? A Muslim boy? There was so many good boys in our community…’ her mother yelled again.
‘Mom..but I said I love Shoib… please understand…please mom…’ Gauri pleaded. She had cried enough to make her eyes swell. Her nose was all red and watery. She was trying hard but she knew this time it was hard to get what she wanted.
‘Enough is enough.. Gauri. We would never allow this boy into our family’, her father said in a shivery yet firm tone trying hard not to cry.
‘Then I guess,’ sighed Gauri wiping the tears rolling down her cheek, ‘I should get out of this family. I know you have done so much for me but …’ Gauri went to the door opened it uttered, ‘bye mom…bye dad.’
‘What are you saying…have you gone mad?’ the heartbroken mother tried to stop Gauri.
‘Let her go.’ shouted the father.
Gauri went out and slammed the door hard. She left her parents, her home and the town that day and promised herself to never returned.

Gauri and Shoib got married two years later after Gauri got into a decent job. Shoib mostly had to stay away from Gauri due to his posting. It was more like a long distance relationship except for some lucky days when Shoib had his vacations. It went like that for a year or so but one day Shoib left Gauri. Shoib went away from Gauri and never came back. Gauri was devastated and angry. She always questioned herself why Shoib left her alone. She sometimes thought if she got her parent’s support everything would have been different. If she didn’t marry Shoib everything would have been different. She often questioned the decision she had made so far.

Two months after that Gauri came to know that she was pregnant. She didn’t know what to do. She was happy that she has got someone to live with but at the same time she was worried whether she could give birth to the baby alone without any support. She was tempted to return to her home; to her parents but there was something inside her which didn’t give her the affirmation. It was very difficult. The monthly visits, the abdominal cramps, the frequent refluxed. She managed them alone. She again started questioning the decision she had made. She was approached by many people mostly males for help. She had many proposals for marriage again. But she denied them all. She still loved Shoib. She wanted to live with dignity. She wanted to give birth to a healthy baby with dignity.
After few months she gave birth. She gave birth to a healthy boy. She named him Armaan. Raising a child in the economic conditions she had was tough. It was tougher for Gauri as she even didn’t have the emotional or mental support. She missed Shoib badly but was strong enough to not breakdown. She again had questions to herself that whether she could give the boy a good life, whether she could make the boy a good human. Self doubt once again surrounded her.

Now Armaan was four years old. It was time for him to enter the school. Gauri made sure that Armaan got the best education. She wanted to get him admitted to the best school in the city. She got him trained to answer the questions ususaly asked during the admission interview.
‘What is your name son?’ the teacher asked Armaan in the interview.
‘Mohhemmud Armaan…miss!’ he replied in the cute voice. Gauri sat beside him and filled the admission forms and heard his son answering the questions without any fear.
‘What do you want to become when you grow up?’ the teacher asked. Gauri lifted her head to look at her son. She had not rehearsed this question with him. She was tensed. She then looked into the form. The next point in the form was ‘FATHER’S NAME’. She rolled the pen in between the fingers and continued to look at her son. She could feel her heart thrombing.

‘I want to become…’ Armaan paused, ‘l want to become a soldier like my father … Caption Mohammed Shoib…he died protecting our country.’ he then looked to his mother.
With his answer all the questions Gauri had in her heart were answered. She knew she had made the correct decisions. Her eyes filled with tears and her heart filled with pride. She took a deep breath and wrote in the form ‘Late Captain Mohammed Shoib’.

The Mirror

Rani looked into the mirror. She could see her pink coloured lips, the thick black eyeliner on the border of her eyelids, her perfectly plucked eyebrows, the shimmery blush on her cheek. Everything seemed perfect but then she noticed the thick black hair under her chin. She was very disturbed. She plucked the hair and gazed at it with tears filling in the corner of her eyes.
Rani was now 32 years old. A beautiful smart and independent woman living in the city with her overwhelming dreams. She looked into the mirror again and smiled thinking of the other night when Tanmay proposed her. That night was as perfect as she had imagined. The lights, the moon, the fragrance of fresh roses and Tanmay standing with the usual smile he carried on his face. Rani was becoming more and more impatient thinking about the moments. She wanted to call Tanmay and give him the answer which she didn’t tell him that night. She wanted to tell him how immensely she had fallen for him but was afraid of her past. Her past that ruined all previous relationships she had. The past which she had to tell Tanmay but every time she thought of it, her heart sank deeper and deeper.
Rani was identified as a male when she was born and named Samrat. Her childhood was full of confusion and pain. She wanted to play with dolls and wear a frock but instead she was handled a toy car and was dressed in pants. As she grew up, the pain and confusion also grew with her. She wanted to learn dance but was denied by her parents. Nobody could understand her. Her parents were embarrassed with their child. She had no friends since the boys in her class used to bully her calling her ‘girly’ and the girls just laughed at her. But she could do nothing. Academics was the only field where her sex didn’t matter. She excelled in her studies but still couldn’t make her parents happy. Like others they too thought she had a mental disorder. Like others they couldn’t accept her. She was living a life of a female soul but trapped in a male body.
Now it’s about 7 yrs she had not seen her parents. She was disowned by her parents the very day when they came to know that she had thought of ‘Sex reassignment surgery’ which is often casually termed as ‘sex change operations’. The surgery was painful. The emotional stress, the physical pain and the never ending self doubt, Rani had to bear it alone. She had to spent the pathetic nights in the hospital following the surgeries.
Now after all those horrible nights, Rani was living her life on her own terms. Her parents didn’t accept her but she had forgiven them. She knew it’s nobody’s fault but the ignorance. The ignorance of the fact that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are not interchangeable. Gender is the way a person feels or sees one self. She knew that this acceptance will take time. This ignorance will takes ages to disappear.
She took her phone out and wrote to Tanmay, ‘You need to know about my past. Can we meet at Sharma’s tomorrow?’
Her phone buzzed after a minute or so. It was Tammy’s reply. She opened the message.
‘I know what you want to say. I know your past. I know you were born with male genitalia. But you know what…I love you as a person. I respect you as the person you have become and your past doesn’t bother me at all. So….Coffee at Sharma’s tomorrow?’
Rani was shook to her core. She looked at the mirror again and smiled and tasted the salty tears. She felt complete. She felt respected. She finally felt accepted.

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS.

‘Ritu, There is a call for you at the reception.’ the warden told Ritu who was all covered in paint.

‘Yes, I am coming in a minute.’ said Ritu rubbing her hands on a cloth kept beside a huge canvas. Ritu was in the second year of painting. She has been in love with this art since her childhood. The love grew even stronger after she lost her parents in an accident. It was like a mechanism to cope up with the loss.

‘Hey Ritu here, may I know to whom am I talking to?’ she asked in a casual manner looking at spaces between her fingers which were still carrying paint.
‘Madam, I am from the insurance company your brother was working for. There is a very bad news….Avinash is no more.’ the man on the other side said, ‘You need to come to the city to receive the body’.

Ritu dropped the receiver and sat on the chair next to the phone. She remembered how she fought with her brother two years ago for opting arts. Her brother wanted her to take admission in a science college and believed it would give a more secure future for her. Tears rolled down her cheek as she repented not talking nicely to him for these two years. All they talked about was money. Even when Avinash tried to know about Ritu’s well being all she did was cut the line. Now that Avinash was gone, Ritu wanted to tell each and everything about her life,her college , her paintings to him.

Ritu went to her home the very next day and did all the rituals. Her brother’s colleagues helped her arrange things. Avinash was buried in the nearby graveyard where their parents were buried.
Ritu was left with some land property her parents owned and some money Avinash left behind. The land was in the outskirts with no good communication with the central part of the city and so it was difficult to sell the land. The money that she had was also not enough to continue her college. So she had no choice but to drop the year.
She decided to do freelance painting job to earn some money for living. She intended to save some cash to continue her college the coming year. She also needed a place to live since she didn’t get to stay at her Hostel and the quarter that her brother lived in was taken back by the company. Now finding a decent house in the crowed city seemed like the toughest task for Ritu. She neither had a stable job nor did she have good amount of money.

‘But the rent is too high, I do not have that much money. Please help me sir… please..’ she begged one owner.
‘I can not compensate with this house but I have another house in the next block which I can give in the price you want but…’
‘I will take it sir,’ Ritu jumped up with excitement.
‘But the house is …’ the owner stopped as of calculating whether he should tell her the truth or not.
‘What is it Sir? You can tell me without any hesitation. I will not change my mind whatever be the problem with the house’ Ritu assured him.
‘I do not know whether it’s true or not but I have got complains from the previous families living there that they have felt something spooky in the house. I bought the house some twenty years ago but the seller didn’t mention anything. Since then I have rented the house about three times and every time they have left saying it is haunted. That’s why I was reluctant to show you the property but if you need an accommodation at such small amount that is the only place that I can arrange.’

Ritu never believed in spirits and ghosts. She even didn’t believe in God so it was easy for her to make a decision. She took the house and was quite happy with the space. It was bigger than any other property she visited. It seemed quite old. She believed that since the house was so huge and old, people might have made stories to ruin the business of the old owner.
Ritu now wanted to focus on freelancing to get good money and make her savings. First two or three days went great she got some great deals in her freelance and house was not that bad except for the long and dark passages. The lighting in the house was also not great.
But then things started to get strange. Things were often getting misplaced, sometimes Ritu would be awake at midnight hearing some sound which she could not hear after waking up and sometimes wind would blow madly even when the windows were closed.

‘Hey…I heard you live in the haunted house. Don’t you feel anything yet?’ a lady asked Ritu while she was in the vegetable market.
‘No. The house is fine.’ she seemed annoyed.
‘But you should not live there. I have heard someone died in the house many many years ago and his spirit roams in the house.’ the lady whispered.
‘Oh! Good…I have company then. Its good to know I don’t live alone.’ she put on a fake smile and went ahead. The lady seemed puzzled seeing her reaction.

The moment Ritu opened the lock of the house and went in, a mouse went over her feet.
‘What! Mouse?’ she jumped on the table kept in the centre of the room.
‘So this is the ghost? A mouse…’ she sighed and laughed to herself.
Every night she used to set her canvases in the middle room which was like a dining hall and paint. After she finished the pieces she left them to dry, ate her dinner, put some bread in the corners of the kitchen for the mouse and went to sleep in a smaller room adjacent to the hall. Though the strange sounds which would make her awake every midnight didn’t stop but she did stop searching for sounds and believed it was the mouse. But she did notice that the intensity of sound increased day by day.

One morning she found the mouse dead in the hall where she left her paintings. The room was filled with the obnoxious smell of the dead rat but she still managed to get close to the rat and found that it had blood all over it’s body.
‘May be some other rat killed it. The neighbour has a cat which could also kill it.’ she talked to herself. She was still in sleep and as usual felt tired due to the interrupted sleep.
She went to the bathroom to brush her teeth. As she spitted the gargled water she saw a man standing behind her in the mirror. She at once turned back but could she no one. Each and every part of her body was shaken. She froze for a second. When she got hold of herself she searched the whole house for the man but could not find anyone.

‘Madam did you see anyone coming out of my house?’ she asked the lady next door who was busy watering her plants.
‘No my child,’ she answered in a very sweet manner. ‘Did you see someone in your house?’ she asked.
‘Yeah…Actually I am sleep deprived for many days, I think I might be imagining things. I am…’ Ritu was interrupted by the lady.
‘You must be careful. The spirit does not like anyone living in his house.’
‘There is no ghost or spirits. I am sorry for bothering you.’ Ritu was disturbed. She knew she saw someone but could not agree upon the ghost story. Though she felt something in the house but she was stubborn enough to ignore all the strangeness in the place. That house was the only option for her and whatever was the cause she was ready to fight it.

That night as usual she was awakened by the strange sound. This time it was louder and didn’t stop when she woke up. She traced the sound. She started to walk towards the hall were she put all her paintings. The sound could be heard louder. As she entered the hall the sound stopped. There was silence. She looked around. All her paintings were torn and distorted. All her paints were scattered here and there. She looked at her paintings with tears collecting in her eyes. She walked forward and saw something written on the empty canvas. ‘Go away’ it said in red ink. Wind started to blow madly in the space.

‘It’s my house!’, screamed Ritu. She now lost all control over her anger. Tears rolled from her eyes. ‘I do not care who you are…Or what you are but I won’t leave this house. How dare you ruin my paintings? What do you think of yourself? You are going to kill me now? Go ahead. I am not afraid because I have already lost many things in my life. You ruined the paintings…I was supposed to ship them tomorrow. Now …What…Will…I…’ Ritu started to become unconscious.

The next morning she woke up on the floor of the hall. The door bell rang constantly and probably woke her up. She got up from the floor, dusted herself and looked around. The paintings and the canvases stood as if nothing happened. Ritu was confused. She went through the passage to open the door convincing herself that all that happened the other night was nothing but a bad dream. She opened the door. The packers came to take the paintings.
After they had gone Ritu went close to empty canvas and brushed her fingers over it. She picked up the brush and took a generous amount of the red colour and started writing.
‘Are you here?’, she wrote with each letter showing the fine tremors her hand was having. She waited patiently . She kept rewinding the moments she went through the other night in her head. ‘Was all that my wild imagination?’ she whispered to herself. ‘Am I losing it?’

While thousands of thoughts ran through her mind she looked at the canvas. ‘Sorry’, was written below her question.
‘Who are you?’ asked Ritu aloud looking around the hall.
‘Anil. I used to live in this house with my family’ answered a husky but firm voice.
‘ So you can communicate with people?’ Ritu was anxious.

‘Yeah…If I want to. I never did in these years but you seem different.’

‘I don’t have much knowledge or experience regarding spirits and…’
‘Please stop calling me a ghost or spirit. It has been a long time I am talking to someone and it feels so great.’
‘Then why did you scare away the people who came here earlier?’

‘Agh!! They were a bunch of annoying persons and did make a lot of sound. You seem to be interested in painting. You are a great artist and sorry for ruining them.’

‘But you did correct them and so it’s okay.’ Ritu answered with a smile. She was excited for the fact that she was talking to a spirit. ‘So we are sharing the house then?’ Ritu asked with nervousness reflecting in the shrill of her voice.
‘Yeah sure. I won’t disturb you.’
‘Can I see you? I mean is it possible to…’ Ritu was now running out of breath.
‘If you are comfortable then yes but promise me you will not tell anyone about me. I want to live peacefully in my home.’

‘I would never disclose anything. I promise…’ Ritu stopped talking. She was startled when a tall man with a sharp face appeared in front of her. It was Anil smiling at Ritu.
‘You are so young. How did you…’

Anil looked at Ritu and then turned to the window. ‘I was sleeping in my room. Its the same room where you sleep and suddenly I don’t know how a massive fire broke into the room. I struggled hard to get through but failed. The next thing I know I am stuck here for about twenty years now.’
‘But why are you stuck? Was there any incomplete work or dream that you had? I have read in books that if someone has some incomplete work it might be difficult for him or her to leave.’
‘I know. I have been thinking about this for the last twenty years but I don’t know what is the thing which I have left incomplete. My parents passed away two years before me. I lived all by myself selling clothes. I had no other ambition or hobby. Its tiring now. I am living in nowhere.’ Anil sighed.
‘I bet it might be something like photography or learning guitar or owning a bike.’ Ritu suggested.

Ritu and Anil talked for hours that day. They shared their life experiences. Ritu would someday rent a guitar to teach Anil. They even tried photography. They spent time painting, reading and doing whatever came to their mind but nothing worked. It was about two months now they had become good friends. One day the door bell rang at the afternoon when Ritu was finishing one of her paintings. Ritu was not expecting anyone. The shipping guys usually came in the mornings. Ritu was irritated at the odd timing of the door bell ringing. She washed her hands and went to open the door cursing the person the other side of door.
‘Hey, I am Meera.’ a girl in her mid-thirties stood at the door carrying a small child.
‘Do I know you?’ Ritu asked looking at the baby first and then looking at the lady.
‘No. I was passing by and my son really needs to use the washroom. I am sorry to bother you but would you please let my…’
‘Yeah sure. Please come in.’ Ritu said.

‘What a lovely house! Who do you live with?’ the lady asked looking around as if searching for something.
‘l live alone. I moved here about two months ago. There’s the washroom’. Ritu showed her the washroom.
Ritu was startled by Anil again.
‘Who is she?’ he asked.

‘Don’t know. The boy needed to pee so I let them in.’ she looked at Anil and smiled.

‘Meera!!’, Anil cried.

‘You know her?’ Ritu was puzzled.
‘To whom are you talking to?’, Meera seemed even more puzzled.

‘She is my sister. She eloped with her boyfriend a year before our parents passed away.’ Anil told Ritu.

‘Do you know Anil?’, Ritu asked Meera who was still looking for something in the house. ‘Do you know him?’.

‘How do you know about him? Where is he now? How is he?’ Meera asked in one breath. She became more impatient each moment.

‘Ritu please ask her how is she…Is she happy? Is she still with that man? Please…’, Anil begged Ritu. ‘I promised mom and dad that I will find Meera and make sure she is happy. How did I forget my little sister!’

‘Meera …Are you happy with your life?’ Ritu asked Meera with tears in her eyes.

‘First tell me who are you? I came here to see my brother. Please tell me something…Please’, Meera broke down. Her baby was too little to understand why her mother was crying and he too began to weep.

‘Your brother is dead. He died in a fire but he is still here Meera. He is watching you.’ Ritu looked to Anil. ‘And now I know why he could not leave this world. All he wants to know is whether her little sister is doing good in her life.’

‘I am very happy. I have two kids with Harish and we are a happy family. I want to see you brother. I want to apologize about my deeds. I am sorry. Please talk to me…’ the desperate sister cried madly.

‘Your sister wants to see you Anil. She is happy and’, Ritu turned back but Anil was nowhere. Anil was gone forever.

Ritu took a deep breath and held Meera.
‘You set him free! You set him free Meera!’ Ritu cried joyously. Though she lost a great friend but still couldn’t be more happy for Anil.

The next day Ritu went to Avinash’s grave. She wanted to apologize to him for every harsh thing she said to him when he was alive. She wanted to make sure that Avinash was not struggling like Anil.
‘Ritu’, a soft female voice called from behind. As she turned back a young girl hugged Ritu tightly.
‘I cannot believe I finally found you!’ the girl sobbed and laughed at the same time.

‘I am sorry I didn’t recognize you…’ Ritu asked.

‘I am Swati. Avinash’s girlfriend…He was so excited about my meeting with you and now that we are finally seeing each other…he is lying beneath the soil’ she sighed. ‘I searched for you everywhere but failed. Why did you leave college? What have you been doing all these days?’

‘I didn’t have the money to pay this year’s expenses in college so I decided to drop this year…’

‘Avinash and I have been saving money for your college. He wanted you to follow your passion. He said you are the best artist he had seen in his life. You would not drop this year Ritu. I promised Avinash that I would take care of you and I will keep the promise.’

‘You loved him so much?’ Ritu asked Swati. Her voice was choking and her throat pained.

‘I still love him and you know what he loved someone more than me…And it was you!’