By Arghya Saha
Rahul had just taken a sabbatical from his job.
He parked his gleaming Spanish red Porsche at the parking lot overlooking the foyer of his 5 bedrooms duplex villa, part of the most up market housing complex in town. It has been years since he had the chance to see the evening light filtering though the mulberry trees on his courtyard. Autumn was just setting in; the slight chill in the wind was decipherable, the leaves were beginning to get the amber tinge, birds hurrying up to prepare for the winter. The light breeze had deposited the dry leaves against the sidewalk only to be carried away in by a gust of air from Rahul’s car as it backed into the parking lot. The squirrels playing on the boardwalk suddenly became aware of something close to them, raised their heads for a transient moment of surprise and scuttled to the trees. Rahul came out of his car without his usual pack of files and the heavily bulged laptop bag, which had since been his signature. He stretched his arms in the air and looked at the setting sun overlooking the car park. The sky was brilliant in amber with soft fluffy clouds with tinges of orange against the splendid blue sky. The distant hills seemed to have dwarfed against the massive sun sinking in its lap, only to be caressed rejuvenated by the wonders of the darkness to fall all over the valley.
The last six months had taken its toll on Rahul. So much had happened in these six months more than anything that would have ever happened to him all along his life. Unmindful Rahul stooped to put his right leg over the stunted wall of the railing, so that his shoes could fit into the slot left by the falling brick and rested his hands on the globe shaped light fitting which dotted the periphery of the housing complex. He breathed deeply like his Yoga instructor had advised him long ago, but he never managed to get it doing. He had gone though the Robin Sharmas and Deepak Chopras many times and had wondered when he could really sit down and try out these panaceas of life’s problems. He was so engrossed in the changing colors of the sky that he did not realize when darkness had engulfed the valley, He was startled when the globe light lit up suddenly, heralding another part of the day and he hastily removed his hand off the light.
He walked back lazily to his house a light whistle on his lips, shaking his head from one side to the other perhaps to feel that it was much lighter.
The last one and half years that he moved into his new house he did not find opportunity and time to see the place around. So after a quick shower he lazily put on his red kurta and kolhapuri slippers to make a round of the complex. He noticed the bread crumbs on the kitchen counter left by him while making today’s breakfast. Then he remembered he had corn flakes and fruits today morning, so these were remnants of some other day. Almost instinctively he looked at the life size photo of Rachna and murmured to himself, “I messed it again, dear”. He picked a couple of paper tissues and carefully wiped the bread crumbs from the counter and took them on the tissue and put them into the dustbin. A few flakes fell off the tissue on the ground, which again he carefully picked them up and placed in the bin.
Rachna was his school rival in almost all the extra curricular activities in school – debates, dramatics, recitation and even basketball – she was always the best and Rahul close second to her. It was only in academics that Rahul was consistently better than Rachna. Perhaps this indomitable urge to equal or excel Rachna did polish and metamorphose Rahul to scion the qualities he has mastered today and has taken him to these insurmountable heights that he has reached so early in his life. There was a spontaneous respect and regard for each other, which others around them termed as “wavelength”.
“Behind every successful man there is a woman, Rahul, so, choose the woman with caution”
“I don’t have a choice, dear. I do right things right the first time”
Like all love stories, Rahul and Rachna got married and quite early in life. Their honeymoon was restricted to lazy walks along Park Street, having pani puri at the banks of the river, three insignificant films in a single day, getting on and off local trains, not knowing where to go and finally the compulsion of spending the night in the deserted station waiting room, when the rain would just not stop. Fifteen days of complete togetherness with nothing particular to distract or observe no purpose, no hurry, no destinations to go. These tiny crucibles of such serene happiness did not come with price tags attached to them. They were priceless moments of treasure etched on their hearts forever. Everything else paled into insignificance for them.
“Honeymoon is about spending time together and it can be anywhere, because you do not get to see anything else” Rachna had said “Perhaps when we grow a bit older and possibly bored with each other, we will plan going to beautiful places” she chuckled. “Actually we cannot afford going anywhere, so a good consolation” Rahul said.
“Positive thinking, my prince”
Rahul and Rachna were swiftly sucked into the whirlpool of the “rat race”, which elevated them in leaps and bounds. A couple of smart moves catapulted Rahul to heights he never thought and provoked him to dare even further. With Rachna strongly behind him, Rahul never felt the pain; only enjoyed her presence and rose higher and higher up. Rahul saw the first and perhaps the only sign of pain in Rachna’s eyes when Dr Iyer announced gingerly that she was not pregnant, and this was the twelfth time it had happened. She was diagnosed for “Endometriosis” a disease which blocks the fallopian tubes and in her case exacerbated by her low back pain. The desire of have a child took them to the major hospitals in India and even abroad. The first loan Rahul had taken was for them to go for treatment as far as New Orleans.
Finally Rachna realized “You cannot have everything in life” sounding like those mantras of the monks. “We have tried everything and should not have any regrets. It is the will of God, Rahul, please accept it”
Then that fateful New Years evening and Rachna had just bought the bunch of dark red gladiolas Rahul loved so much. The unusual rain at this time of the year was like a sheet of water flowing from the heavens. The drunken driver swerved from the wrong side of the road and rammed into Rachna’s car. The impact was so intense that she was flung out of her car and she skid along the road to be stopped by the uprooted tree lying along the road. Three days, twenty surgeons, Rahul’s countless telephone calls, money flowing as if from the storm water outfall, nothing absolutely nothing could save Rachna. Rahul could still hear the simmering Rachna’s last words, “I want you to rise up to the stars and there we meet”. Her lifeless palms had slowly begun to become cold when Dr Shetty put his hands on his shoulder.
Rahul opened the door and a gust of cool breeze greeted him. The darkness outside was shimmering with brilliance on the moonlit night, crickets squeaking in almost continuous unison. The solidity of the hill sides were punctuated by the speckles of the kerosene lights of the tiny shanties here and there. All of a sudden all the crickets stopped and there was absolute silence. Rahul stepped out of his house, his feet on the dry leaves making a crackling noise as he walked towards the lobby of the clubhouse.
The lobby was sparsely populated with most of the tables empty so early in the evening. Probably everybody was within their cozy interiors watching television, teaching multiplication tables or maybe cooking a special dish and some even experimenting with new recipes. The large chandelier hanging down the half empty dome, with the other half decorated with glass beads on deep blue background seemed a bit like the sky above it. Rahul took his seat at one of the tables beside the glass glazed side from where the portion of the hills looked like a painting generally done by kids all over their art copies. He ordered a whiskey for him, for the first time after six months since Rachna had left him. The bartender put ice and asked if he needed water and Rahul asked him to top it up. He did so, pushed the glass closer to him and gave one of their plastic smile and left.
As time passed more and more people left the place and the chattering and the sounds of laughter and clapping of hands subsided. Rahul could hear the sound of somebody playing the piano. He turned around and saw a girl at the other end of the lobby playing the dark brown piano. She was playing one of his favorite numbers. It was quite late and did not notice when the girl had gone way.
Over the next few days Rahul spent the evenings in this lobby. He began to love the songs the girl played on the piano. One evening he decided to walk up to the girl and tell her how beautifully she played. He was surprised to see that the girl was older than he thought she was. She was quite fair with dark hair tightly braided into two halves. Rahul walked silently and softly put his elbow on the piano and said, “You play lovely music, what is your name?”
“Ishika. Ishika Bhatia” she replied quickly wiping her moist cheeks.
“Sorry. Did I bother you?”
“No, not at all. I see you every evening sitting at the same place by the window and you seem to stay longer than I do.”
“Then what makes you cry, my child?” Rahul asked, wondering if he had intruded into her privacy.
For her age Ishika was pretty cautious in the way she welcomed strangers and Rahul appreciated her apprehension and articulation of her words and accordingly tried not be seem overtly sensitive. Ishika sensed the genuineness of Rahul’s affection and concern and Rahul and Ishika “gelled” quite fast. Every evening the conversation extended incrementally and Ishika began to confide in Rahul many of her woes which she had being going through at this tender age. She told him how he lost his father, who owed a lot of his money to his flashy lifestyle, gambling and drinking. After his death his mother became a victim to some despicable sub humans whom she was forced to “entertain’ most evenings and how foolhardiness overcame her mother. Ishika mentioned one day that her mother was being pressurized to even get her married off to some loser fifteen years older to her and how she was petrified of the consequences. Rahul realized that Ishika’s mother had set out on a sedulous pursuit of bringing up her daughter, but which was fundamentally flawed. Rahul sensed the periodic acrimony in her voice when she spoke about her mother, coupled with a daughters love for her mother. This dichotomy seemed to bother Ishika, as much as it made Rahul worry of the consequences. Rahul enquired about Ishika’s academic interests and learned that she was excellent with numbers and loved mathematics. She had also shown him the certificates of some of the competitions she had won at the National Level. She had just finished her Class 12 examinations and had cleared the TOEFL as well.
“Nobody in this world will manufacture a lock without a key”, Rahul used to tell her often, not very sure where to find the key.
Rahul decided not to talk to her mother at her house, not even get introduced to her. He requested Ishika to trust him and asked her to convince her mother to come to his office next morning.
To start with, both her mother and Ishika were overwhelmed by the glitz and spank office located on the thirty fourth floor of Fontana Towers. Rahul came out briefly and excused himself for a few minutes, asking them to wait. Ishika could hardly recognize this man in his new avatar, she had never seen before. The chic tall secretary invited her mother to a large wood paneled room with what seemed freshly polished leather couches. The heavy woodworked door closed behind her and Rahul went about to complete the pleasantries of coffee, water, etc. “No phone calls, no interventions” Rahul advised the secretary in his deep rich voice. It did not take long for her to realize that she was in front of a very sharp and powerful person, oozing business every bit. What transpired in the next half an hour is something nobody knew. Rahul had made all the phone calls from his mobile so nobody in the office had any inkling of what was being negotiated within the closed door.
A month later, one early Monday morning, Ishika’s mother left for an undisclosed destination. Ishika got a part scholarship in a university in the US. She was scheduled to leave the same day in the afternoon, first to Delhi to clear some of the formalities and then leave for US at the earliest. Rahul had organized every tiny detail, as characteristic of him, and had blocked air ticket for Ishika for seven consequent days to cover any slips.
Wonder how time melts into years!
Fifteen years, and like any other morning Rahul enters his Porta Cabin office room of the UNICEF Project Office in Congo. He boots his laptop and logs onto the “Times of India” website to have cursory look at the headlines, as he has been doing as a habit now. He jumps out of his seat to see the headline screaming “Ishika Bhatia becomes the third Indian astronaut to be selected for Space Shuttle voyage”
Speechless, Rahul looks at Rachna standing on the photo frame on his desk. He was staring at her for long till the tears blurred the photo. He removed his glasses and reached for a paper napkin. Just then his mobile rang strongly - a sms arrived “My Angel, I am going to the stars. Please ask Rachna to meet me there!!” Rahul could not believe this and was overwhelmed that Ishika had tracked him all along – perhaps the only promise she had not kept, but wonderfully well done. He toggled down the message to find the number of the sender, but alas it was shown as “unknown”. Rahul could not contain his feelings. He sat down on his laptop and searched for the earliest flight to Colorado.
In another part of the world, a woman in her mid forties in some monastery in Darjeeling buys a pack of sweets for her friends. She folds her hands bows her head in front of an empty photo frame. A face she could see so vividly in her eyes.