“I’m going off to Bangalore Amit. Next month. I’m so excited!” Naina said to Amit the moment he appeared in her doorway. He was in the habit of walking in noiselessly to startle her. But this time it was his turn to be startled. He screwed up his nose and asked, “What for?”
“Haha, I’ve to join Infosys as an intern. Isn’t that great!”
“Oh Infosys,” Amit said with a sullen expression. Then seeing Naina’s quizzical eyes, he added with a smile, “Well, that’s great, indeed. You succeeded in the interview. It calls for a party.” He realized that he could not bring more colour into his voice as he was rather upset with the news. For him it meant no pranks, no teasing and no sight of Naina from then on. The news was sinking in slowly and it gave him a headache. But he continued talking to her, in a monotone, in the delusion that all was not lost. She was standing right in front of him and he could talk and talk and somehow the news would recede to the farthest end of his memory. It was something like that.
She noticed his cheerless features and became silent. It was he who did the talking. He asked her what they had asked in the interview, who were present, how she responded and what the salary was, the perks and so on. Everything practical and humdrum that he could consciously pull out of his stock came out. At last he was exhausted.
She simply asked, “Amit, why are you not happy?”
He broke into a wry smile and said airily, “Who said I am not happy? I am happy for you. What a golden luck!” saying that, he got up and with a grimace walked out of the door. That was his habit. This was his second home. Naina’s house. It was in front of his home. He could watch her flitting in and out of her house from his window. It always brought a smile on his face. He could walk up to her open door and sneak in, look for her in her room, surprise her from behind or drop a new book on her lap as she sat at her desk working on the computer. It was fun disturbing her when she was totally oblivious of her surroundings, intent on something in the screen.
And as equally freely, he could make away with her things, sneak out of her room and walk out on her if she were shouting after him. He knew the shouts would die and she would resign to watching his form slowly disappear round the corner, where his friends awaited him with a football.
But that evening as Amit walked over to his friends in the park, he could not meet their eyes. He noticed their watchful gaze towards him. He could sense that they were wondering what disturbed him. Why was he not concentrating on the game? He tried to smile at one of them but there was no charm in that smile, no joy, no delight. No one smiled back. But as a habit they played on till it was dark.
Amit glanced at the other house, his favourite pass time house once before he entered through his own doorway. His mother promptly said, “Wash yourself while I serve tea”.
“Ma, I want dinner soon. I want to go to bed early tonight.”
“Ok, wash yourself and come down”.
Amit went upstairs wondering where the words came from. He had not thought of it until the words emerged on their own from the depths of his heart. Yes, it was his heart speaking now. It had not consulted his mind. But he was grateful that his mother did not contradict him.
She served him dinner. She watched his drooping shoulder and wondered if he had fever. Silently, she touched his forehead. It was ok. Then she cautiously asked him, “What’s the program tomorrow?” She was suspecting that he wanted to get up early the next morning and so he would go to bed early.
“Nothing, Ma. Just a little walk.” Amit was startled by the realization that he had understood what his mother was suspecting. He looked up from his plate and into his mother’s eyes. They were narrowed and focused on his face. He slowly shook his head. A shy smile spread over his oval face. His soft lips twitched and he attacked his food more vehemently.
His mother went away.
After dinner Amit went straight to his room and impulsively bolted the door. He did not want his younger brother, Sandy to disturb him. He just sat there at his study table with his keyboard jammed between his uplifted knees. He searched the desktop for an icon to click on but nothing came to him spontaneously. He searched and searched and then finally his heart decided for him. He went from one folder into another and into another where he had carefully saved some pictures.
These were pictures of birthday parties and games and functions in the neighbourhood. He selected one and zoomed in towards Naina’s snap. She stood among all the other friends, apparently clapping. Her face was blotched as he had zoomed in too much, but he watched it intently. He tried to recall the occasion but the effort tired him. Soon he slapped the laptop shut and reclined on the chair, his head tilted backwards so that he could watch the rotation of the ceiling fan.
His eyes began to ache and he rubbed them gently. He felt his pulse near the nape and decided to go to bed. He got up and switched off the light.
In bed he lay with his eyes open. He could watch the ceiling fan with its centre dark and a hazy circle in its periphery. He could hear the honk of a few cars. Everybody who worked till late was returning from office. They honked until their wives or a kid opened the gates for them to enter. He began to count. After counting six of them he closed his eyes and turned sideways.
Then his eyes flashed open. It was her voice. She was speaking animatedly to someone at her gate. He jumped up and went to his window. There she was, in her frilly nightdress. It clung to her like an octopus, he thought. And the sense of being strangled overwhelmed him. He did not recognize her interlocutor. The other girl was not from the neighbourhood. She was a visitor about to leave, yet Naina talked incessantly. He caught himself thinking: how foolishly excited she is!
He listened for a while as he hugged his pillow. She cried out bye a number of times before he could hear the clang of the gate and a final bang of her door. She was so close, he thought and now she would be going away.
He could hear the clock’s tic-toc and he wondered what time it was. But he did not look at the clock or light his mobile phone to check. He lay limp. His mind was a puddle of thoughts. He could not sort them out. He could not lay his finger on any and say, this is it. This is what I am thinking. Rather, he mused: it’s like noodles, all knotted together. He turned and twisted in his bed for a long time. He tried to close his eyes by pulling the pillow over his face, but he could stay like that only for a few seconds. He remained wide awake as if he feared losing something important. He strained his ears as if he was waiting for a particular noise, the sound of someone’s arrival. Or was he waiting for an answer to his misery?
The thought struck him after midnight. He looked at his phone. It was a few minutes past one o’clock. He dallied with it and soon came upon Naina’s number. Would she be awake? Not likely. He clicked and reached the send message box. Then slowly and deliberately he texted her: I love you. I can’t live without you. Amit.
There was no need to write his name. She knew his number. But he insisted. It was he who loved her. He wrote as if she would not understand him unless she read his name. He added himself, sent himself through the message. The message had to drive home, reach her heart. Heart to heart as it were. An SMS. Like SOS. He cringed with pain. He held the phone tightly, glared at it. He knew it was folly to expect an immediate reply but still he stared vacantly at the phone.
Gradually his heart ceased to bother. His limbs stretched out and sleep took over. The phone pressed close to his heart, his hand on it and the pillow over his face and chest. Somehow night claimed its share and let the day decide for him.
In the morning, Naina picked up her phone and was about to put it in her pocket when she noticed that there were five SMSs in it. She was in a hurry so she decided to look at them after reaching college. As she boarded the bus Rashmi waved to her from a distant seat. She started waving her hands energetically playing dumbsharard which Naina immediately understood. She was asking her to look into her SMS. After she got a seat, she took out her phone. There was a message from Rick and one from the tutorial group, one from her aunt in Australia and one from Amit. She read Rashmi’s message first. Then the tutes message. Then Aunty’s. And then Amit’s. By that time, the bus had reached college so she got off and put the phone in her pocket again.
She said to Rashmi, as they walked into the classroom together, “Amit has sent me an SMS in the middle of the night. Yesterday I had told him I would go to Bangalore.”
“So? What does he want?”
Naina sat staring blankly ahead. She could not grasp what the teacher was saying. Rashmi whispered something to her and she nodded vaguely. The teacher smiled as if she had understood her. After attending her classes, she read the SMS again and again. I love you. I can’t live without you. Amit. Those were his words but now they became hers too. She formed the words in her mind, I love you. I can’t live without you, Amit. It was as if he had formulated the perfect statement for her. It rang in her mind like an incessant call. She rolled those words over and over in her mouth smacking her lips, feeling her teeth with her tongue and gurgling in her throat. The physical involvement with the words was essential for her to feel the sheer force of its revelation.
As she got off the bus and walked slowly towards her home, she caught herself craning her neck to check if he was around. In her heart she knew that if she caught a glimpse of him she would simply turn around and run away.
He was not there. He was not back from his college. She quietly entered her house and went to her room. While she changed her dress she wondered what it was that she was avoiding. It was not possible for her to reply to the SMS. She knew no words with which to reply without being as direct as he was. And she did not know what to say to him when face to face.
Her mother noticed that she was pensive. She asked, “Naina?” with a shake of her head meaning that it was puzzling how one day she could be extremely jubilant and the next day utterly quiet.
Naina broke into a grin. “Mamma, what do you think? I’m going to Bangalore, nothing else.”
“I wasn’t thinking of that at all, my dear.” Her mother went away. She sat at the table with her elbows on it, cupping her chin with both hands. It made her look cute.
Amit woke up in the morning when the alarm rang. He looked at his face in the mirror and wondered if all that was real. Was he so grownup that he could propose to a girl, win her confidence and embrace matrimony? He shook his head. It was not yet time. Then why panic? Why did he write such a foolish thing to Naina? He shaved and took a bath in cold water. Feeling refreshed, he cast a side glance at her house and shook his head again. It was foolish. She went out much earlier. What was he waiting for? He’d better go to college. He picked up his phone and went downstairs. His mother served him breakfast and said, “On your way back, bring a kilo of sugar; will you?” he nodded.
While in the college he eagerly checked every SMS that he received. None of them was from Naina. Finally he decided that it would not be that easy. He would have to confront her in the evening.
When he reached home his mother asked, “Sugar?”
“Oh ! I forgot. Wait, Ma.” He went out again and brought a packet of sugar for his mother. She took it from his hand and gave a pat on his back, meaning thank you. He smiled. He looked wistfully at Naina’s house, knowing very well that it was the right time to make a visit. He called out to his mother, “Are you preparing tea for me? I’ll be back in a minute!”
While Naina sat cupping her chin in her hands, Amit entered panting. He glared at her as if he was about to pounce on her. But instead of saying anything he flopped into the sofa. Still his eyes were fixed on her. She looked at him from the corner of her eyes without turning her head. Slowly her lips parted into a broad grin. Her eyes twinkled and she screwed up her nose. Still she held her chin in her hands as before. Amit sprang up to his feet and planted a small kiss on her head and shyly went out. He felt like dancing but he just hugged himself, tucked his hands in his pocket and went back to his house. His mother served tea and he eagerly sipped it, scalding his tongue. Ouch!
Then he broke into a laugh. He could not control his laughter. His heart laughed and he with it. It came in short waves, like milk, like a waterfall, like a balm. He was thoroughly quenched. He could also feel his eyes watering. He stood before the mirror to examine his emotions. They were like a plain which was suddenly putting forth small saplings, bursting with joy.
He hurriedly changed and went to play football with his pals.
By the time Naina was ready to leave for Bangalore, Amit had cautiously extracted a promise of marriage from her. They kept their vows to each other. Neither parents knew, nor friends. Somehow, it was too early, they agreed.
In Bangalore Naina’s entire time was taken up in making new friends, getting acquainted with the job profile and the expectations from her. She learned many routes to and from her office. She worked out a routine that would suit her new lifestyle and concentrated entirely on work.
There were many things that began to impinge upon her relaxed mood. Sometimes a colleague complained and sometimes she was dissatisfied with something. She found herself over-stressed. At the end of the day, she came home with still some pending work and it involved late nights. She worked without care for proper lighting and soon developed irritation in her eyes. At first she splashed water to relieve her eyes. Then she stopped using the eyeliner. She applied soap to her face every time she returned home. Then she preferred a facewash. There was itching in her skin and many types of aches: backache, headache, stomachache and what not. She realized that with the end of college life, her golden days were over.
One day, waking up early in the morning after going to bed late, she noticed redness in her left eye. She thought it would go but when she returned home after work, the eye was still red as before. She splashed water over her eyes several times, but even after dinner, the redness persisted. The next morning it continued.
She showed the redness to her friend in the office. The friend exclaimed, “Conjunctivitis! See a doctor immediately.” She gave her a contact number and address of an eye specialist.
Back home Naina hesitated. She was tired and did not want to waste time waiting to see a doctor. She wanted quick relief. She started thinking: If it is conjunctivitis, any chemist would be able to prescribe a medicine. Why go to a doctor? But there are many types of eye flu.
She passed another day without medicines. Her condition did not deteriorate. She started thinking that it was not conjunctivitis after all. She passed the next Sunday without using her computer. The next morning she was convinced that the redness was due to over-work. She noticed that the redness did not spread to the other eye. She decided to skip a day’s work to take rest.
After sleeping a lot and spending time strolling in the shopping complex, she casually entered a chemist’s shop. She asked the man at the counter:
“Have you any medicine for irritation in the eyes?”
“What kind of irritation, Ma’am?”
“Err, my eyes hurt when I work on the computer.”
“Ma’am, you may need glasses. There is an optician over there.”
She went out and into the optician’s shop. The man at the counter directed her upstairs and she entered the chamber of an optician, who welcomed her with a warm smile. She was quickly examined and told that she did not need glasses but if she wished they could supply her with a little power to ease her eyes. She squirmed at the thought of having to wear spectacles and so she came downstairs indecisively.
She went back to her room.
The next morning she had a lot of work in the office and the day was spent without respite. Her hands shook as she held the railing of the stairs to her apartment. She looked at her face in the mirror and wondered if the redness had reappeared. There was no sign of it.
But the next evening she noticed redness again and a lot of irritation in her eyes. Tears ran down her cheeks and she immediately dialed the phone number her friend had given her. The receptionist answered her. He suggested that she fix an appointment with the doctor the next day between 10 and 11 am. Naina hesitated. It was office time. She asked for an appointment in the evening. The receptionist fixed 6 pm for her.
The next evening she reached the doctor’s cabin at the appointed time. After waiting for a while, she was ushered in.
The doctor advised her an eyedrop. She bought it and went home, happy to have been relieved.
Several months passed since she had met the eye specialist. Her eyes felt fine until one day she found herself unconsciously rubbing her eyes. The itching grew and she washed her eyes. Before going to bed she fetched her eyedrop and used it.
The next morning her eyes were bloodred. She was extremely puzzled. Why did she use the medicine! She threw the bottle away. On her way to work, she happened to locate a chemist’s shop open while all the other shops were still shuttered down. She impulsively stepped into it and asked: “Can you give me an eyedrop to get rid of this irritation in my eyes?”
The shopkeeper screwed up his brow and asked, “Are your eyes watering too?”
“No. Only irritation and redness. It had happened six months back too. It’s just overstress, I know. Nothing serious.”
“You can apply this three times a day,” said the druggist and handed her an eyedrop.
“12 rupees, Ma’am.”
As she took the eyedrop and walked over to the bus-stop, she wondered: the other eyedrop was for 150 rupees; this one’s just for 12. What do the doctors think of themselves? Catering to the demands of industrialists at the expense of common people. Good that I did not go to the doctor again.
Several months passed and Naina was happy with her eyedrop. She emptied one bottle and quickly purchased another and another. She carried it everywhere. When she came home during a week’s break, she showed it to her mother. Amit asked her to change her lifestyle rather than use a drug, but she happily tossed away the advice.
Her mother offered to take her to a doctor, a friend of hers but Naina refused. She said all doctors were humbug. They did not meet the needs of the common people. It would be a waste of time to see one. She was fine and then she did have an eyedrop. She returned to Bangalore.
One Saturday night as she was walking on the pavement with her friend, Vijji, a man crossed her path. He was so close that his arm struck hers. She was dumbstruck. He apologized and walked away. He was a good looking man and there was no sign of mischief in his action. Vijji called it an accident.
Then she pointed out to a particular store and suggested crossing the street. Naina was still shaking with horror about the collision with that man so she turned her head all around to be extra watchful. Vijji retorted: Why are you turning your head around so much?
“I can’t see properly,” said Naina instinctively.
In the store, Naina felt as if she was in an overcrowded room where everyone was bumping into her. She kept shifting her feet jerkily and Vijji got irritated with her behaviour. She said, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you remain still?”
“Eh, I am just watching out for safety.”
“Please, there’s nothing unsafe here. What are you afraid of?”
“I can’t see anything,” she replied unconsciously.
Vijji ignored her remark and said, “Come over here.” But as Naina turned to follow her to the other side, she bumped into a small stool which was kept in a corner. Naina stared at it as if it were some dwarf planning mischief for her. Vijji took her by the arm and ushered her away.
Back in the street holding on to several packages, they hailed a taxi and went home. As she entered the apartment she was struck by the dimness of the lights. She was sure that the lights in the shopping complex were rather dazzling and so the small CFL in her apartment appeared to be dim by contrast. So she did not bother anymore.
The next day, while preparing tea, she felt as if her kitchen slab had shrunk. She had to keep pulling her jars closer together to keep them within view. She blinked oftener and she rubbed her eyes to get a better view.
Finally she looked into the mirror.
In broad daylight, she noticed darkness surrounding her. She had to turn her head to be able to look at the clock while earlier it was possible to check the time without bothering to look at it. Her hands began to tremble and she held her palm to her temples to check the temperature. She quickly returned to her bed.
She woke up when she was hungry. After a quick lunch, she got into her jeans and went out calling Vijji over the phone. Vijji answered only to tell her that she was busy and would not be able to join her. She hung up.
Now Naina was all alone facing a catastrophe. Her life fell apart at the thought of her growing blindness. She wanted to call her mother and cry. But she resisted. She wanted to talk to Amit. But she reviewed her relationship with him and decided that this was not to be disclosed to him. She was not sure of his reaction.
Suddenly she remembered that he had asked her to change her lifestyle instead of relying on eyedrops. She quickened her pace as she turned homewards and quickly entering her room, picked up the eyedrop and examined it thoroughly. She read on it: if irritation persists, discontinue use and consult a doctor.
Naina realized that she had never heeded the warning. She had always had irritation and still she continued using the eyedrop. It was cheap and easily available over the counter. It was an unsupervised and absolutely self-administered drug. Self medication, she recalled from a TV program, is dangerous. As thoughts clamoured in her head, she felt exhausted and dropped on her bed with fatigue. She retired for the night and decided to seek an appointment with a doctor the next day.
As she had lost faith in the first doctor, she asked another colleague to suggest an eye specialist. With her help, she sought an appointment and met him. The doctor immediately put her to several tests.
He diagnosed that she was sharply losing her peripheral vision and it was a sign of glaucoma. It was an eye problem that was irreversible and only preventive measures were possible now. They could not recover the loss.
Naina was devastated. She went home in a daze. She wept bitter tears and cried out ‘sorry, sorry’. She called out everybody’s name whose advice she had disregarded.
Vijji met her the next morning and asked how she was. Somehow, human beings sense something fishy whenever anything abnormal happens. Although it is impolite to meddle in other’s affairs, this does not hinder anyone from thinking about them. The thoughts flash through one’s mind, as a perception, as a reflection, as a recollection. Human beings are equipped with insight into unnatural things. The unconscious mind registers a lot more than one would like to admit to oneself.
Vijji noticed that Naina wore a frown all morning. She went to the washroom often and came back with a flushed face. So she asked Naina how she was, emphasizing in her tone that she was not prepared to hear a lie.
I’m fine, said Naina. There was no smile accompanying her greeting. Vijji persisted, “Naina, you are not your usual self today.”
“Err, too much work Vijji; can we talk later please?”
Vijji was disappointed. She had expected a friendship that would break all barriers but Naina turned out to be conceited. It hurt her. And she decided to wait and watch. If Naina talked to her on her own after finishing her work, whatever that might be, and Vijji was sure there was no such pressing work, then the bond would be strengthened.
Friendship is both an obligation and a reprieve. At times it presses on one’s time and does not relent while at other times, it becomes a cleanser. Friendship is like sauna. One gets bathed in places where it hurts most and one is freed of the trouble of rubbing in what requires attention. In friendship one can lose oneself and also find oneself. No one ever thinks twice in friendship. I can give vent to my anger, frustration, qualms, reservations, biases and still hope to be pardoned and understood. It is an assured relationship where both love and hatred play like a see-saw. I would not like to lose a friend on account of my own troubles. Vijji waited, wondering how she could have hurt Naina. She waited to find out why Naina could not share her trouble with her. Why did she not take her friendship as given?
It occurred to her that perhaps because she had refused to go out with her on the previous Sunday, Naina thought less of her and might have looked up to somebody else for friendship. When at the end of the day, Naina picked up her bag and left without saying bye to her, Vijji sighed and turned inward for an explanation.
Naina did not disclose her problem to anyone. She took it as part of her fate. She quietly took the medicines her doctor had advised and went about her work. But in her heart spread an emptiness which gradually ate away all her affections. She grew cold and distant. She spoke cautiously, as if every syllable she uttered would spill out her dark secret. She stopped calling Amit over the phone and answered his calls with pithy phrases.
Even her mother could sense a distance coming over her. She coaxed her to take a break from work and visit home, but always met with a refusal. Sometimes when her mother called, Naina let the phone ring. She lay limp on her bed and rolled her eyes from corner to corner, checking if the blindness had increased.
Although the doctor always said with a smile, “Well, you are doing fine!” it made no sense. The same distrust for doctors emerged again. She visited him out of habit and desperation rather than hope. She visited the doctor merely to know how long it would be before complete blindness sets in. She met him like one meets the shadow of doom. She met him like one examines the dagger a hundred times before slitting one’s wrist.
Amit noticed the infrequency of her calls and became alarmed. He feared what every youth fears at least once in his lifetime: the fear of losing the beloved to someone else. How else could he explain her lack of interest? Living so far away, depending on the phone and hardly anything else. He could not concentrate on his work. So often when the phone rang he would pick it up with a pounding heart and so often he was disappointed! It was worse than the first sleepless night when she had announced that she would go away. That night there was hope. Now the nights were hopeless. She seemed already gone.
His mother observed his unease and asked him why. He shook his head silently and avoided her eyes. One day as he sat slumped on the sofa, his mother came over to sit beside him. She quietly said, “Amit, if there’s something you fear, try to conquer it by facing it. Don’t hide from facts.”
Amit thought about it. He found new meaning in her words. Although his mother had no inkling of what he feared, she had given him a message. He should gather the facts. There was no point in assuming things. There was no point in projecting his fears onto Naina.
He started thinking of an excuse to go to Bangalore. It would not be easy. Taking leave from office would be the easiest thing to do. But how could he explain it to his parents? Finally, he cooked up two lies. In his office, he said his mother was ill and to his parents he said the office was sending him to Bangalore.
Before leaving, he went to see Naina’s mother. He merely asked if she had anything to send her. Naina’s mother said, “If you had told me earlier, I could have accompanied you. I have been longing to see her.”
Amit’s eyes screwed up. He noticed pain in her voice and worry in her eyes. If the mother is also feeling neglected, something is seriously wrong with Naina.
In Bangalore, he waited in front of Naina’s apartment building. The gatekeeper would not let him in. When Naina arrived, he walked over to her with a forced smile plastered on his face. He observed the strain it took him to confront the situation. Even breathing sounded labored. Naina did not notice him at first. She hung her head low and walked with measured steps. At the gate, she looked up for a fraction of a second and then resumed her walk into the building. At that moment Amit called out, ‘Naina’.
She raised her head and turned around bodily. There she stood, facing the most unexpected thing. He stood facing her with a palpitating heart. It should not be like this, he kept repeating to himself. He could not lose her like this. Why is she so distant? Why is she so stiff? Why is she not happy to see me?
He moved a step forward. She did not move. He reached her and then she turned towards the gatekeeper to write his name. He signed and they entered the building both silent from their respective shocks.
After having turned the key to her apartment, after having dropped the bag into a corner chair, after having gone into the washroom and cleaned her face and eyes and after having stared into the mirror for a million seconds, Naina came over to face her soul.
Amit looked an innocent cup of nectar, ready to be kissed. His disheveled hair, sign of the strain he took to come all the way to see her, needed caressing. His beautiful eyes, almost wet with distress, full of complaint, appealed to her. She gathered all her strength to keep calm and say, “How are you, Amit?”
“Not good. You must know. How are you?”
“Yes, and you needn’t have taken the trouble to come here.”
“Who told you I have come to see only you?”
“Err, you had some work?”
“Your heart told you. You knew it from the moment you saw me that I have come to see only you. I have come to salvage the love that you are carelessly throwing into the pit of debris!”
“There’s no love left that you can save.”
“Oh? So who’s the lucky guy?”
“Amit, can we talk of something else please?”
“Yes, why not? The weather’s fine here! It rained last Monday. The flight was delayed by 40 minutes. I am soaked in sweat. I need a bath…”
“Ya, wait. I’ll get you a fresh towel.”
Amit waited as he was already sweating and panting. He knew the most difficult part was yet to come. It could be postponed for a few minutes, he thought.
After freshening up he suggested: Let’s go out for dinner.
Naina had no option but to comply. It was the easiest thing to do. Go out in a public place where he would not be able to shout at her. They went out to a restaurant and finished dinner without a word.
On their way back, when he made no sign of departing, she hesitantly asked:
“Where are you putting up for the night?”
“At your place.” He felt he had leaped over a hurdle, was suspended midway by a thin strap which might snap any moment now. He held his breath. He assured himself that he had a right to stay at her place. After all they were committed to each other.
She was quiet for a while. She could not think up an excuse to show him out. She could not say she had a boyfriend who would be furious with her when he learns that another guy had stayed with her overnight. She could not imagine her parents coming to know about it. She could not imagine making love to him and so she could not foresee anything dangerous in his putting up with her for the night. The only thing that she feared was conversation.
So she remained quiet. He landed gently on the other side of the hurdle. His heart calmed down and he silently followed her into her apartment again. He could not summon enough expressions to convey his doubts. It was as if his fears were baseless. She had no other man in her life. He became listless and his mind suddenly turned to the details of his flight, the other passengers and the rest of the journey, making speech flow easily out of his throat.
The lump in his throat gathered up when she arranged a mattress on the floor. Watching her prepare the bed, he wondered if there could be an intimate moment. She had so firmly recoiled into herself that he found it difficult to caress her. He lifted his arm tentatively and then let it fall on his lap. There seemed to have grown an immeasurable distance between them by her icy silence. Only a steely blow from his guts could have broken it. But he could not summon that courage, fearing that an already razed thread might snap any moment by a mere touch. He could not pressurize her into anything.
However, none could fall asleep with the presence of the other in the room. He could hear her tossing in the bed and she could hear his deep breathing. He sighed frequently, pushing aside one phrase after another, not being able to utter any of his thoughts.
Her voice stung him all of a sudden with “I want a break up, Amit. I can’t go on.”
“It’s all over. Think of me as lost.”
“But why, Naina? I love you!”
“No. Don’t waste your love on me. I’m a wretched thing.”
Amit’s mind wandered. Several possibilities showed up: living alone in a large city. Was Naina in trouble? Did she face a mishap? Was she being persecuted by someone? The dangers of a big city are too many and too weird. The newspapers are full of horrors, crimes being committed in broad daylight. What has happened that Naina cannot disclose to him?
After selecting from among his numerous thoughts, he said plainly, “Naina, I love you.”
Nothing else could be heard. The night was filled with weeping. His heart wept, tears rolled onto the pillow and he kept changing its position. His throat choked with sobs. He was only a boy, crying out in pain. So young and so long to go! Why could he not reach out to Naina, hug her and hide her in his warmth?
With an effort he sat up. He saw Naina’s shadow stirring. She was awake. He turned towards her bed. With trembling hands, he reached out for her face. And his fingers touched blood. Shocked, he leaped up, groped for the switches and turned them all on.
There she was, trembling and crying, hiding her tearstained face with her hands. She said,
“Why can’t you understand? I don’t want to marry you!”
“But why not?”
“Because I am dying! I don’t want to make your life miserable!”
“Cancer!” Amit checked himself and added, “Listen Naina, these things can’t deter me. I love you. You cannot die! Even the worst disease can be controlled!”
Naina sat up. She said, “Look at my eyes.”
“They are beautiful, Naina.”
“Can’t you notice anything?”
“I love your eyes!”
“My eyes are dying!”
Amit reflected. He sat straight, searching his memory for earlier signs of eye problem. He recalled a few things: the constant use of eyedrops, the difficult job, the pollution, the stress, the mention of quacks. And he suddenly understood. Naina had lost her self-confidence.
“Have you consulted a doctor, Naina?”
“Yes, and he says I am growing blind.”
“Okay, okay. So it’s okay. Why did you say you were dying! It’s not a big problem! It can’t be! The loss of sight is not the loss of everything!”
“Yes, it is! I’ll kill myself!”
“But no one kills herself because she’s blind.”
“I will. I will because I caused it myself! I ruined my own life. Now I don’t want to ruin yours.”
“Remember the eyedrops I used to take? They were cheap and the druggist handed them to me like toffee! They had steroids! The doctor says I have steroid induced glaucoma. It is incurable!”
“Amit grabbed Naina’s laptop which was lying on the table. He thrust it towards her and said, log in!
She opened it and logged in. Then the two of them spent the entire night looking up glaucoma. By the time it was daylight, the clouds that cluttered their minds cleared away. It dawned upon them that glaucoma does not hinder life’s routine. It was controllable and what one needed was only regular medication. They forgot their differences and sat huddled together. And when the sunrays broke into their room, Amit looked affectionately into Naina’s deep eyes and kissed them saying, “I love your eyes!”
… Indian Literature from India and the world over…
Dr. Anuradha Bhattacharyya is the author of the novel One Word (2016) that has won the prestigious Best Book of the year 2016, awarded by Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi. She has published 3 books of poetry, 2 novels, 2 academic books and has been featured in various international poetry magazines and anthologies. She is also an awarded short story writer. She is Associate Professor of English in a government college in Chandigarh.