The woman was nervous. She was constantly fidgeting; crossing and uncrossing her legs, adjusting her hair, glancing at the thin sheets of paper in her hand.
Her name was Aishwarya and she had come here to get her first book published. Her name was called and she jumped up and hurried to the little booth at the end of the corridor.
“Close the door and sit down.” The person inside was a tall, thin lady. She had high cheekbones and expensive silver earrings. Aishwarya thought she looked rather like a Victorian era noble or a famous singer. They were all so rich nowadays.
She sat down and pushed the manuscript across the table without a word. Her voice had caught in her throat and she was sure it wouldn’t come back anytime soon.
The person on the other side of the table stared at her for a minute and then picked up the manuscript. “My name is Saina. Yours?”
Aishwarya cleared her throat three times as Saina crinkled her face in disgust. Then she found her voice. “Aishwarya.”
Saina turned to the first page of the script and cut her off. “’My (Hopefully) Amazing Life’ by Aishwarya K Rao. Wait,” she looked up, “the Aishwarya Rao? The one with… with that Lao-”
“Yes, yes,” said Aishwarya hurriedly, “That one.”
Saina raised an eyebrow, then gestured to the manuscript. “So this is like an autobiography?”
“Yes, you can call it that. It’s mostly from when I was ten, though, not much before.”
“And that comes to how many years?”
“Is this your first-time writing?”
“Yes, I was more of a speaker before, not a writer. But I decided to pick up the pen for the first time.”
“Well,” Saina muttered under her breath, “I’m going have my hands full with this newbie.”
“Nothing,” Saina replied hurriedly, “Nothing.”
She turned to a page in the middle. “I followed your news story for almost the full time it ran. This is a good opportunity for me to hear your side of the story.”
Aishwarya nodded, looking embarrassed and uncomfortable. Saina placed the manuscript in the photocopier just outside her office and handed the original back to Aishwarya. “You can take this. I’ll take the photocopy home and read it there. I need to give it my full attention. I mean, it’s a tad more interesting than the usual ones that come in here, yeah?”
Aishwarya nodded mutely. Saina sat back down and pulled out a small list. “Next,” she bellowed, “Who’s next?”
Aishwarya thanked Saina and left the building.
It was just before bedtime, when Saina picked up Aishwarya’s manuscript. She looked at her watch, then the manuscript, then her watch again. She shrugged and got into bed with the script. She put on the night lamp and began reading.
Ever since I can remember, I have been quick at everything. I was born one-and-a-half months premature. I began talking three months before my first birthday and walking two months prior.
Later, I also realized that I speak one point three times faster than the average human, and run extremely fast too.
Saina was bored. She was searching for a particular portion of the book. She flipped through the pages, scanning them quickly. Ah, there it was. The beginning of chapter three.
It was two days after my twelfth birthday that I met Feroze for the first time. He was twelve years older than me, and a good deal more talkative too, which surprised me.
I remember it quite clearly. He took over a little auto repair shop that I used to frequent. I used to help the previous owner a lot with the smaller scooters and bicycles. Feroze was equally welcoming.
He had a bright face with sparkling eyes and an attractive nature. He was a very likable person, and knew almost everything about everything. I never got bored the entire time I was with him. We became great friends soon enough.
The day he started working, I walked and looked at him suspiciously. “Where is Rathod Uncle?” I asked boldly. Rathod Uncle was the previous owner.
Feroze pointed to the back of the garage. Rathod Uncle emerged from the shadows, wearing a welder’s mask. “Ah,” he said, “My favorite little assistant! And how are you today?”
I grinned at him. “Fine, Uncle.” Then I dropped my voice to a secretive tone, “Who’s he?”
“Oh, he’s my new assistant. My friend’s son. He’s from the city apparently. He was just telling me about the wonderful aspects of city life before you came.”
Feroze smiled at me innocently. I walked over and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Feroze,” he replied, still smiling, “And yours?”
“I’m not supposed to tell it to strangers.”
He laughed. It was a deep, melodious laugh. “And I’m a stranger?”
“According to my dictionary, the definition of stranger is ‘one whom you don’t know enough about to consider a brother or sister, or family in general, depending on the age difference.’ So I think you qualify.”
Feroze laughed again. “Okay. Let’s clear this up now, shall we? How would you like to be my brother?”
“I think you’d be more of an uncle.”
“Uncle? Please! I’m only twenty-four!”
“You look older.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
Rathod Uncle looked up from his welding. “Feroze, are you going to help me or chat with Aishwarya all day?”
“I find the latter more fascinating.” Feroze replied, winking at me.
“Then you can go back to the city now.” Rathod Uncle said, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
“Okay, coming!” Feroze turned to me, “So, about my offer, do you want to be my brother?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Okay.” I held out my hand. He shook it and said, “Done. Now, come on. Let’s go help Uncle, shall we?”
Saina put the script aside. No wonder Aishwarya had been fooled so completely. He did seem genuinely likable. She would have also been taken in. She got up and locked the manuscript in her drawer and went back to bed. She switched the light off and fell asleep.
She didn’t sleep very well, and woke up an hour earlier than she normally did. Consequently, she had a whole hour and a half to burn at the bus stop. She sat for a while, staring at the traffic that passed by, then took out the manuscript from her bag. She had the time anyway.
Feroze took over running the shop from Rathod Uncle after three years. I began to visit him more and more frequently. I told him everything that happened to me, however personal. And even though he was a chatterbox, he had this wonderful ability to listen, which I unfortunately lack.
He would stay quiet throughout the complete story I was telling him, and then he’d clearly, objectively, tell me whether what someone did was correct. When he’d say what I’d done was wrong, I’d get all defensive and sulk in the corner of the garage, either reading or working on a scooter. But during that time, I’d think about what he said, and realize that it was true, and by the end of the day, we’d be reconciled.
Saina skipped the remaining part of the chapter; it was more about Aishwarya’s school life and her piano lessons. She skimmed through the pages of the fourth chapter till she found an interesting part.
I remember it was the eighteenth of October, two days before Feroze’s twenty seventh birthday. I stormed into the motor shop, cursing. Feroze raised an eyebrow, “What’s wrong?”
“This!” I wrenched a newspaper from my bag and read a headline aloud, “Tensions continue to rise as one EBSF officer killed on third day of ceasefire violation between Laore and Endhia. I mean, what’s their-” I swore, “-problem?!”
Feroze slid under a car and began hammering away at something. “Maybe it’s not completely their fault. Maybe they had good reason to do so.”
“Reason? That’s like saying we should let all murderers go scot free just because they have motive!”
Feroze didn’t reply. But I continued relentlessly, “And since when did you get so defensive about Laore? They’re all a bunch of-” I swore again, “-terrorists!”
Feroze’s face hardened for a second, then it was back to normal. “All I’m trying to say is there are always two sides to a coin.”
“Oh, you want to play that game? I can play that. Heads. Us. Good. Tails. Laore. Bad terrorists. You happy now?”
There was silence for a while. Then I asked, “By the way, what are you planning for your birthday?”
Feroze emerged from under the car, a huge grin plastered across his oily, grimy face. “I am going on a date.”
“A date? No way! You?” I laughed.
“No, I’m not kidding. We’ve met once before. I think you were at school when she came to have her motorbike fixed. We chatted, exchanged numbers, and have been talking ever since.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
He slid back and began hammering again. “I didn’t feel the need to.”
“It sounds like it’s straight out of a movie.”
“Who knows?” said Feroze, from under the car, “It could turn out to be as dramatic.”
“What’s her name?”
Feroze didn’t reply. I thought he hadn’t heard. I got up and walked closer to the car. “What’s her name?”
Feroze slid back out. “What’s it to you?” he said, in mock annoyance.
I laughed. “Okay, no, seriously, what is it?”
“I won’t tell you.”
And he didn’t. How much ever I begged and pleaded.
“Okay, fine,” I finally relented, “But at least tell me what she’s like.”
He thought for a moment. “A bit like you, but older.”
“Not even close.”
I punched him in the arm. He laughed. “She’s smart, though, and talkative.”
“What does she work as?”
Feroze frowned. “Now that I come to think of it, I don’t really know. I don’t think I ever once asked her about her work.”
I laughed. “Come on! Even you can’t be that stupid!”
Saina closed the book. Her bus was approaching. She got on and stared outside the window, mulling over this new manuscript. Aishwarya was already famous, having been splashed over the news. She wasn’t sure whether it would sell.
The news had mentioned that Feroze was rumored to have a serious relationship with someone, but couldn’t find out who.
Saina got off at her publishing house and spent the next three hours collecting manuscripts of all sizes and forms. It wasn’t easy to be an editor at such a coveted publishing house. It was a hard, thankless job; only the Chief Editor really got the recognition.
During the lunch break, she jogged down to her favorite restaurant and ordered her usual. She decided to make use of this time and complete a little more of Aishwarya’s book. It was actually well-written.
Feroze began disappearing for long hours together. He said it was personal matters back at the city; his mother or some relative was ill, but I didn’t wholly believe it. His face had become longer and paler, his eyes bloodshot, and his hair was a long, tangled mess. He laughed as often as before, but it was shorter and had a nervous undertone. In fact, there was a nervous undertone to everything he did.
That was also the day Laori militants entered an army camp and blew nearly the whole thing up. I remember vividly complaining about it to Feroze. He barely replied, which I didn’t mind at the time. I just wanted him to listen.
I told him the next week. I was leaving to a nearby state for higher studies. I was pursuing law at a prestigious university. I promised to keep in contact, calling every day. Feroze nodded. His eyes were filmy, but not a tear fell. Quite the contrary with me. I cried into my mother’s shoulder for almost an hour straight; I’d never been away from her for more than three days.
Saina finished her lunch. She had to admit, the book was quite interesting. It was funny and relatable, but the selling point she would use is that it told a wildly different story than the one portrayed in the news. It showed Feroze in a whole different light, and Aishwarya too.
Saina would pitch it to her Chief once she was done with the parts she wanted to read.
I got the news when I was in college, the last month of my last year. I was on the first train home, but I still reached only in four hours. It took me an additional two to get to the police station. So much for my supposed speed.
I stormed in and looked around. Everyone in the building was staring at me, and for good reason too; I must have been a mess. I was all sweaty and my hair was sticking up in all directions. My clothes were all shabby and I hadn’t even bothered to put on socks before shoes.
“Where is he?” I demanded. No one replied. Then a strong, burly man in a black suit stepped forward. “He’s waiting to be taken into our custody.”
“He has a right to a lawyer.”
“Yes, we know that. But you need to calm down first.”
It was a few minutes before I did. I took a deep breath and followed the man. I was led through the narrow, winding corridors of the station till I reached a dimly lit, small, cramped room. There was another person in it. I walked inside and turned, then gasped in horror.
Through a glass pane, I could see Feroze. He was seated at a table, handcuffed to it. His face was all bruised and bloody, his hair almost completely cut off, and his chest… it sickens me to even write about it.
I turned away to stop myself from gagging. I inhaled deeply again, then exhaled. “That’s it,” said the man behind me, and I could hear the mirth in his voice, “In through the nose, out through the mouth.”
Then I heard him mutter, “Delicate,” to the other person and laugh. I straightened angrily. I said, “I’ll go in now.”
They led me inside. Feroze looked up as we entered. For a moment, we stared at each other. I broke the silence. “Tell me it’s not true.”
“Tell. Me. It’s. Not. True.” I said, spitting each word out with fury and viciousness I never imagined I could express.
Feroze shrugged. He looked utterly downcast. But at that moment I didn’t care. With an animal roar I flung myself towards him. I landed just a single punch before the men caught hold of me and dragged me, screaming and kicking.
“Hey, hey! Listen,” one of them said, “You’re his lawyer, and that’s the only reason why you’re even in there! But no hitting him!”
I shrugged him off. “Okay.” I went back inside and sat down on the chair opposite him, my hands on the cold table. It felt like the only thing that could cool my burning rage.
He stared at me. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t give me that-” I swore, “-rubbish! It’s bul-”
“I’m sorry,” he cut me off. He took my hands in his. I withdrew them harshly. He winced, and then I saw his wrists. They were covered in scars and burn marks.
We sat in silence for a while. Then he said, “My fiancée-”
“Fiancée?” I asked sharply. He nodded. “We got engaged yesterday. They took the ring away.”
“Yeah, I suppose she’s a high-ranking diplomat, or don’t tell me, in the Cabinet itself? What did you want to do, extract classified information from her? Fake love!” I said, caustically.
“No,” he said, “She has a normal, civilian job. “And my love for her was genuine. I won’t tell her name, before you ask. It would put her in danger.”
I had a feeling he was telling the truth. “And how about your love for me?”
Feroze looked pained. “I didn’t think you’d question it.”
“Well, I’m starting to question everything you did. Was everything just a ploy, a fake?”
Feroze shook his head, sobbing. “You were real. My love for you was true. At first, I didn’t know what to make of you, but you were so kind and lively and you just lit up the whole workshop.”
“You told me you were my brother.”
“Do you still believe me?”
“I don’t know what to believe anymore.” I paused, hardening my heart for what I was going to say next, “I’m sorry, Feroze, but I’m not going to defend you. I love my country and I won’t defend a goddamn Laori spy.”
Feroze nodded, “Laore has already set me up with a lawyer.”
There was nothing more to be said, and even if I was going to say something, I would definitely regret it later on. I got up and walked out. I was taken to another interrogation room and grilled for hours, ruthlessly. But I had nothing to hide. I was let go the next morning.
I didn’t attend his trial. But I later found out that he was sentenced to death by hanging. It was to be a public execution in the market.
On the appointed day, I pushed my way to the front of the crowd. Feroze’s head was covered with a black bag. I turned and ran, crying freely.
Yes, I cried that day. Yes, I shed tears that day, not for a Laori spy, but for a fellow human being. Yes, I shed tears that day, not for an enemy of the State, but for my brother.
Saina shut the book, tears glistening in her eyes. She opened her desk drawer and pulled out a small photograph. It was a photograph of Feroze and her, the day they got engaged.