After 10 years and having travelled 13,800 kilometres in the last 24 hours, I am once again sitting on the stair next to the pond. The pond is still. Puffed rice strewn by the visitors’ float on its surface - - food for the fishes that have made this pond their home.
A lone fish somersaults out of the water and dives back in, creating concentric circular ripples that travel outward from the centre.
I am caught on the last ripple of despair and dejection that travels further outwards.
The fish emerges again somersaulting, this time grabbing some puffed rice that float on the surface.
The fish seems to beckon me to complete the task that has brought me this far.
It was the scorching summer month of May. The mighty sun in all its glory was burning earth with all its energy, sucking out miniscule ounces of water from the tiniest cracks and crevices. The pond, with a few feet of water spared by the mighty sun's wrath, lay towards the wee end of the descending stairs.
I was racing down the stairs that descended to the pond, when I tripped on the last stair and hit the bottom of the pond landing on my bum with a huge splash.
As I stood wiping the water off my face and rubbing my sore bum with my palms, your shrill and loud laughter drew my attention. I saw you sitting on a stair, laughing your heart out - - at my stunt gone wrong.
I loved racing down stairs. I loved running downhill. I hopped, never walked. Speed, rush gave me the thrills.
I looked sheepishly at your sweet and chubby face. Your hair was neatly tied in two braids with blue ribbons that matched the colour of your long skirt. You missed a few milk teeth and the permanent ones were half way out, giving your laughter an innocent mischievous tinge. Your large eyes lined with kohl resembled those of a doe. Your dusky shade stood out prominently against the deep blue colour of your blouse. Your springy hair formed rings at your side burns. A small maroon bindi (a decorative dot worn largely by Hindu women) adorned your forehead. You wore colourful plastic bangles that matched the colours of your dress. Anklets with gungroos (small metal bells that make a pleasant sound) jingled around your ankles. The sound of the ghungroos striking each other had a rhythm that matched your laughter as you thumped your legs up and down.
I walked splashing through the water and climbed the couple of stairs to where you sat.
“I’m Shyam. What's your name?” I asked.
“I'm Radha. We shifted here day before yesterday. My father has been appointed head master of the local school.” You replied with a smile that exposed your half-emerged pearl whites.
“Will you come play with me tomorrow on these stairs? I'll bring my pallankuzhi set (an ancient mancala indoor game of South India) and some tamarind seeds” I offered.
“I like reading. I'll get my story books. We can spend some time reading as well” you said.
“Yes! Sure! Meet you here at 9 tomorrow morning” I had replied and raced off.
I met you the next morning as promised. After a few games of pallankuzhi, all of which you lost, you suggested we read. Being poor in English, I fumbled and tripped over words - - stuttering. You laughed your shrill laughter once again, thumping your feet.
“Never mind Shyam. I'll teach you English. We'll do more reading. We'll talk in English. You will pick up over time. After all, it’s just a language” you said.
I felt thankful. We ran around the grounds of the pond adjoining the temple playing catch-me-if-you-can. You ran lifting your long skirt a few inches up with your hands, to avoid tripping over its edges. Your ghungroos jingled loudly as you ran. Hide-and-seek was out of league. The sound of your ghungroos would have given you away.
The pond became our home away from home every day.
I sat crying on the stairs one day as you walked in.
“It’s ok Shyam, everything happens for the good” you consoled me.
Appa (dad) had left to live with his mistress a few blocks away. Though sad, I felt relieved for there would be no more fights in the house.
You sat with your arms around me as I rested my head on your shoulder. Tears rolled down my eyes leaving wet patches on your blouse. The pond fell silent. Even the fishes seemed to sense the gloom. None came to the surface to grab the puffed rice.
Your laughter fell silent that day. So, did the jingle of your ghungroos.
Everything around me that I loved mourned my loss.
My life had been a journey with many accidents on twisted roads. It had never been straight.
I was rushing home one day carrying the rush of happiness with me - - my report card. I had scored over 90 percent in English.
I ran all the way from school and never slowed down as I approached the front door. The weak and rickety latch at the centre that held the twin doors locked from the inside, gave away with the force I had picked up on my run. I barged in. My smile turned to shocked confusion as I saw my mother with uncle Mani. They barely had any clothes on.
I ran faster than I had ran home from school and stood panting at the top of the stairs that descended to the pond.
The pond was disturbed as well. The fishes were somersaulting out of the water and diving back in, disturbing the floating puffed rice on the surface. Maybe they disturbed the calm within the pond too, just as my mother had disturbed the calm within me.
I never went home that day. Mother did not come looking for me as well. I did not attend school next day. That afternoon, you came straight to the pond after school. You knew where to find me. You found me despondent and forlorn. You did not speak a word. You left.
You came back shortly thereafter, carrying a tiffin box filled with kuzhi paniyaaram (a South Indian delicacy). As famished as I was, I still refused to eat them. You refused to eat until I ate. We both ate, throwing small bits into the pond for the fishes. They picked at it reluctantly as we picked at our food hesitantly.
Your mother was very kind. Most times, I ate at your home and slept on a stair next to the pond. Your home was always welcome. But the dignified self-respected person I was, I mistook empathy as pity and stayed away, unless it rained too heavy to sleep under the banyan tree adjoining the temple pond.
The pond held all our secrets, the fishes too. They were the only one’s privy to our conversations as we sat talking and studying by the pond.
Topping the state board exams in the twelfth grade was my jackpot. I earned a scholarship and left my mother and my cursed past to seek my future. I left you and the pond as well - - the sole pleasantries of my past.
We'd lost touch since then until a year ago when I found your comment on my Instagram post. It was a picture of myself with my co-pilot. How strange that you had recognised me after all these years!
We stayed in touch for six months thereafter. Six months ago, you stopped answering my calls. I had no contact with anyone from the land I left years ago. I was left with no choice but to undertake the journey to put an end to the nerve-wracking ordeal I was going through.
I had laughed at our chats and phone conversations. It was the joy ride of thrills I had planned carefully. The thrill awaited me at the end of the ride - - or so I believed.
I saw the pointer on the speedometer touch 90 miles. I knew I was speeding. I looked out for cops with speed guns. I could not spot even one. If there was a noble prize for the person with most speeding tickets, I would have won. This was one stretch of the highway that cops played truant from. I smiled.
I was in no rush to reach the airport. I was feeling a whole new rush today. The rush of excitement, the rush of anticipation, the rush of the possibility of expecting the unexpected. My mind rushed into a whole new world of imagination. I took my foot off the accelerator and switched to cruise mode. I relaxed, enjoying the rush of speed.
I reached the airport earlier than expected. I had never flown this route after I left that land. The land that I believed cursed my past. The same land I then came to believe would bless my future. Unlike my car that gave me the freedom to speed, flying airplanes left me with no choice. I had to follow protocols. I had often wondered - - 'how would it feel to just open the cockpit window a crack and feel the rush of wind hit my face?'
We landed on time. I had some time to rest before I undertook the last leg of my journey.
I had not eaten anything since last night. The rush of excitement had driven away my appetite.
I could not sleep as well. Thoughts of meeting you after all these years gripped my mind. My heart beat with a new rush. A mixed rush completely devoid of any rhythm - - neither slow nor fast. It rushed at 90 miles and came to a sudden halt, picking itself to a crawl, stopping, hitting 90 again in a matter of 10 seconds.
I opened the book - - a novella you had gifted me via Amazon 6 months back. “A gripping tale of love, loss and battle fought” read the Times-Review.
I was never a reader. But this once, my mind rushed to read it. But I won’t read it in a rush. I brought my mind to a steady pace. ‘I live in a small town' …. began the novella.
The phone rang.
“The taxi driver has arrived” the voice at the other end informed.
I finished the last two pages of the book.
I started on the last leg of my journey.
After an arduous journey through bad roads and 6 hours later, I reached the small town a few kilometres away from Salem (a place in South India). I was tempted to visit the pond. But I rushed instead to your house.
Your mother was surprised to see me.
“Vaanga thambi” (a general way of inviting younger male friends in Tamil) - - she had fondly welcomed me. She disappeared into the kitchen to prepare buttermilk (a summer drink prepared with plain yoghurt and select Indian spices and garnish)
I saw the book shelf. An entire row was lined with books authored by ‘Amoha.’ ‘Must be your favourite author' - - I reckoned. My eyes fell on the small corner stand. A framed copy of my Instagram picture with my co-pilot stared back at me from the top shelf. Beside it was placed your framed picture. The pearly whites, now in perfect rows smiled at me.
I rushed to the waiting taxi and asked the driver to take me to the pond.
I carried the gift I brought for you and sat on a stair close to the pond.
You have left me a lifetime of love in your books. Amoha is the pen name you adopted to write about your love for Adwait - - the name you had given me in your books.
I climb down the stairs further to the pond. My heart that had fluttered with the rush of excitement a while ago beats in despair.
The rush that was my trademarked trait had unfortunately rubbed on to you. You couldn’t wait six months.
I go down on one knee.
“I love you Radha. Will you marry me?” I say the words.
'Do I hear a faint whisper?'
“Yes, I will Shyam. I am sorry for rushing to a conclusion”
“No! I am sorry for not rushing here soon enough” I whisper back.
If only you had not rushed and I had instead rushed here six months ago?
‘As Adwait finishes reading the book, he will know where to find Amoha' - - I recollect the last lines of the Novella you had gifted.
I unwrap the gift I brought for you. I lay the chain with a book shaped locket and the ring on the surface of the pond. I watch it sink to the pond bed.
A small prank I had played to take me on a joyride, for the rush of thrill that I believed awaited me at the end, has cost me my love.
I delete the picture of myself with my co-pilot that took me on my planned joyride, that has now proved too expensive a loss to bear. I had used it as proof of a lie that was the topic of our chats and phone conversations - - of my never married life. But there is no thrill at the end. I had travelled this far only to learn that you had landed with a big splash on your bum at the bottom of the pond never to rise again.
A beautiful fish jumps up in ecstasy and dives back in after grabbing few morsels of puffed rice.
'Are you camouflaging your tears in the pond or acknowledging my proposal?'