White Nights

This is an old story I wrote for some short story competition. For some reasons unknown, I find it easy to read and soothing for the soul. Hope you’ll would like it too.


“Can’t you see I am trying to shoo you away?” my voice is stern this time.

But it’s funny how animals sometimes love you more than you deserve. Assuming me to be upset, Ginger rolls herself around my feet with affectionate meows. This time I kick her out of irritation which in due time I realize, was unnecessary and unintentional. Another funny fact- animals cannot read your non-verbal; Ginger does not accept my apologetic gesture and runs away. Ginger is a stray cat that lives in my building. Her mother died when she was few days old. She is fed by the families living in the building but is owned by none. That’s why everyone in the building is a family to her. I bet you would not have met a cat as friendly as her. Another fact about Ginger- she has many names; Ginger is what I like to call her as, owing to my love for ginger tea and her orange stripes. She likes this name and always responds to it too. We are great pals but today I am too busy to pet her. I have to clear my wall shelf to make space for my new TV.

I want to reconcile with my little buddy. I step out only to find out it is raining heavily and the afternoon is as cold as a winter night. My poor fellow is nowhere to be seen. I am going to look for her under the staircase, her favourite spot. She likes to spy on people entering and leaving the building from there. Last time when my mother visited me, she befriended the cat. The day she was leaving, Ginger wrapped herself around her feet not letting her go. It took me five minutes to separate her from mother. But today, she is not there too. Where else can she go? Is she really mad at me? Why are we humans so complex? Why are we not like other species- truthful, honest and raw? Is it the societal norms that keep on adding masks over our true feelings? Or is it time? Is time the most dangerous invention of humankind? It not only dictates the pace of life but has also turned man into a machine which runs on routine, seeks methods to increase productivity and consume food, water and air as a fuel. When does he live? Perhaps as a child, he does. A baby likes to stare at objects for hours, a kid persuades his grandmother to tell the same story time and again. I too want to relive those good old days. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop.

School days were undoubtedly the best days of my life- I had more time to enjoy myself and lesser things to worry about. I had an average middle class Indian childhood- minimal resources and infinite dreams. I was a star performer at school, excelled at studies as well as extra-curricular activities. Not that being centre of attraction pleased me but it certainly earned me many friends. Amisha was my best friend at school. She was very talkative and friendly. She was the one who introduced me to Shankar, her tenant.

Shankar joined my school when we were in class 10, a year before the most dreaded matriculation examination. This one year was perhaps going to decide my future, for my parents stopped my extracurricular activities for a year, my friends’ parents were hunting for good tuition teachers, cable TV connections  were discontinued, temple visits increased and consumption of Chyawanprash and Brahmi was at an all-time high. At such a crucial juncture of life, Shankar was sent from a village to a city along with his two younger brothers. Adolescence was a strange phase- most of the girls felt shy to talk to the boys, some were even attracted to them but my self-inflicted conceit made me loathe them. I held a euphoric mind-set that deemed boys to be stupid, confused and woman chaser. Shankar shattered that belief very soon. He appeared to be way more mature than his age. The first time I spoke to him, I felt an inexplicable connection with him. He was like my alter ego- calm, relaxed and mature. We were born on the same day. I felt we were twins- he was a brother I never had.

Shankar told me about his family. He was from a remote village situated on the bank of river Ganga- lush and green, with rich alluvial soil but scarce electricity supply. He belonged to a Zamindaar family. Although Zamindaari system was abolished a long ago, his family held a large area of land and hence had a strong influence over the entire village. He spoke about his humongous mansion with fifty rooms and a large hall with walls decorated with swords, large hunting guns, tiger skin and deer heads. He was used to many servants doing the daily chores of the household. But here he was, on his own, running the house with help of two other minors. He told me he was used to doing his own work even at his home. He was content there but due to frequent incidents of caste war in the village, he was sent to the unknown city, for safety. He said he wanted to help his father in managing his property. He just wanted to get education to learn more and not to earn degree as in his view, it would not help him in future. I was amazed to find someone of my age talking like a middle aged man. He often rebuked me for laughing hard. I was annoyed.

“Do you think I should not laugh loudly because I am a girl?” I asked.

“No one should laugh more. Life needs to be balanced. If you laugh today, you would cry tomorrow. It’s better to be stoic.”

This and few other ideologies of him earned him the title of weirdo but I would prefer to call him a maverick. Soon he became an important part of my friend circle and my parents liked him too.

Matriculation exams were just a few months away. This was the time when I sold my soul to the Devil. I started taking myself too seriously. Considering the amount of pressure my parents felt for my performance in the exams and the expectations my teachers had from me, it was the first and biggest battle of my life. I paid extra attention in the class, visited staff rooms during lunch breaks to get my doubts cleared. Greed, pride, jealousy and selfishness- all negative feelings dawned upon me. I refused to share my notes with my classmates. I gossiped about other classmates to keep my morale high. I avoided my friends and sat with other toppers to know their strategies. Consequently I lost all my friends but Shankar. He still visited me on weekends.

“How is your preparation going?” I asked seriously.

“What is there to prepare? I would write whatever I know. It’s simple. It’s not a rocket launch.” He smirked.

Pre-board exam results were out. I did well but Shankar topped the class. For the first time in life, I felt betrayed. I sacrificed everything I loved to get the best results and here was a guy who didn’t even need to study. I was heartbroken. Shankar came to congratulate me and advise me about my preparations but being sporting was not my cup of tea. Even though I minced my words, my face gave in- there was loathe, disgust and disappointment. He could read my face like a book. He smiled, patted my back and left. Following two months went like this- we shared customary greetings but didn’t talk.

Board exams were here. I was on an adrenaline rush- spending sleepless nights, always alert, eating less and hardly talking. On the day of mathematics exam, I felt like a frog thrown into a pot of water placed over a burner. I could feel the heat in my head, spreading to every last inch of my body. As I was struggling to accommodate the numbers in my brain, my palms were sweating profusely. After completing writing, I checked the paper at least five times in search of any calculation mistake. While I was on it, I looked on my right. I was shocked not finding Shankar on his seat. He could not have left early so it meant he did not appear for the exam. The sadist part of me was relieved to know that one of the competitors was out of the race but the innocent soul inside me was worried- He might be sick, he might have received some bad news from his family. So many possibilities were running through my head. The bell rang, exam was over and in the nick of time, I realized I had missed a step. I tried to write it down with all my might but the examiner pulled my answer sheet. I was horrified. I didn’t speak to anyone that day. I spent the night crying. Instead of worrying about Shankar’s well-being, I cursed him.

Amisha called me next day. She sounded like a zombie- cold and dead. She told me that last morning, her mother saw Shankar leaving the house with a suitcase. On asking him where he was going, he answered- “I am going to Delhi. I feel I messed up my exams this year. I will reappear next year.”

The news was not easily digestible to any of us. His family was already in Delhi, enquiring all relatives about his whereabouts. The period of waiting following the exams were the hardest. I spent sleepless nights- pondering more over results than Shankar’s fleeing. Sometimes I felt guilty about his elopement. It is not easy to be alone in an unknown city. Most of the time you feel like talking to someone especially before exams- about the pressure, parents’ expectations, future dreams and other stuff. And I knew I was the only person he confided to. Let me tell you- regret is the worst baggage you can carry on your mind. It doesn’t let you sleep peacefully and hurts your conscience really bad. With time, the anxiety for the results were replaced by guilt. My mind was engrossed in doing ‘what-if’ analysis. The ‘good girl’ image I had in my eyes was shattered forever.

Finally, the day of results came. I topped the school and secured third position in the city. Good wishes and free advice started pouring in. I had set the new benchmarks for the relatives and acquaintances to compare their kids with. I was content, I sighed of relief but was it the ultimate happiness I expected? I bet it was not. It was an eye opening victory- the sort of success emperor Ashoka achieved in the annihilation of Kalinga war. It was just a lap in the race called life but it ripped me off my precious childhood. I could see friends disappointed with their results, some were even sent to see the therapists. If you ask me if this entire saga was worth it, I would say no. Trust me, I have seen mediocre students performing better in life than the toppers because this first setback taught them much more. What did I learn? My literature teacher once gave me the Guru-Mantra of literature- empathy.

“If you are happy, you would find the universe laughing with you. Birds will sing, sun will appear warm and breeze will welcome you.”

I realized that empathy was not only the key to stories but also the key to life. This lesson helped me easing my heartache Shankar left me with years ago. With this memory of him, I give the last blow of my cleaning brush to the empty shelf. An old postcard comes flying down- sent around fifteen years ago by Shankar on our birthday, from Delhi.

Hello sister,

Hope you are doing well. I am confident you have already made your parents proud. I am trying to learn living on my own. It is really difficult here. I am working as a daily labourer, the wages are low but enough for me to eat two times a day. Nights are harsh especially during winter. I am trying to make peace with them but the cold simply overcomes my spirit. I realize how difficult it must be for my family to keep waiting for me. Hence, I have decided to give up this struggle and return. I don’t have any money to buy you a gift on your birthday but I wrote a poem on my experience of this alien city. It would overwhelm you but also give you strength to fight the dark times.

Delhi is a beautiful city. If you visit during winter, don’t forget to see the India Gate through the white fog- it’s mesmerizing.

Yours truly

Shankar

I flip the postcard. There are hundreds of words crammed into a small space. I read out:

When the steps are as heavy 

As the thoughts on my mind,

When the water fumes like fire

And the air smells of ice,

When the breeze pricks like needles

And carry away the yellow leaves,

When no one is in sight 

And there is loneliness everywhere,

The rude and cold darkness intermingles 

With the wild fog and warm streetlights

To take the form of an obscure companion

-White all over, occasionally stabbed by the car lights

-Soothing, mesmerizing, dazzling and intimidating.

O white alien! I wonder if I know you already.

It’s a bag of perplexing emotions that you open for me

The night is romantic and I am dreaming as always

That you are in love with my shadow playing hide and seek.

If it’s a short evening walk, let not the dawn come.

If it’s only a season, make the cycle of time stop.

But alas, it’s too late and I should be back into bed.

When you walk me to home and say good bye,

Your touch leaves me with a red blush

And when you open my fists to loosen my grip,

I am left with nothing but a deadly chill. 

I place the postcard safely between the pages of my diary and look outside. It’s thundering incessantly, giving an impression of a flickering tube light. There is no electricity on the streets and people are in mood of staying indoors. Poor Ginger comes back after an evening walk. As I said earlier, animals are funny- they don’t throw tantrums. I present a bowl of warm milk before her and we are friends again. With help of an old carton box, I am now making a bed for her inside my room.

Are you curious to know what happened to Shankar? He returned home after spending nine months on Delhi streets. It took him nine months to be born again. He gave up his zamindari and left for Delhi again to continue his studies. He is an engineer now and continues to write poems too. We are not in touch anymore but thanks to social media, I still get to read his awesome poems.

Chyawanprash – A medicine made of herbs and spices to improve immunity

Brahmi – A herb known to improve memory

Zamindaari – An old system under which powerful zamindaars held land, let people work on it and collect taxes.

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