It isn’t easy to feel heroic when you hobble into your room aided by two girls. But it is not very unpleasant either, even if you are leaning on their shoulders for support, and still groaning with every step you take.
Well, it had been a very expensive evening, for me at least. My wallet had been emptied, and my leg had been broken, or very nearly so. And yet, it had been rewarding as well. Just when I had given up on Nirvi and thought her completely lost, the Lemon Girl had materialized and in one fiery whirlwind of rage rescued Nirvi and Tiya.
And it had been a sight worth seeing, the way she fought. Although, try as I might, even that scene could not rub out the one I had seen before it. The way Nirvi had thrown herself in the hands of those scoundrels. How could she behave in such a way? Tiya would never have done it. In fact, I was sure that none of the girls I had ever known would have done a thing like that. Although some of them were quite modern and free thinking. My own sisters are quite modern too. But they would never even talk to a girl who had such hobbies.
‘Is she like that? My Lemon Girl? I wondered. ‘She isn’t, she can’t be, such a girl to seek such attentions just for fun,’ I told myself again and again. But another voice in my heart warned that I really couldn’t be so sure about Nirvi. After all, I barely knew her. ‘But she was behaving well enough till then,’ I countered that voice. ‘Then something happened. But what?’ I wondered. ‘What caused her to change all of a sudden?’
That was again the very same question I had been trying to find the answer for. That day, I felt like forcing Nirvi to sit before me and answer to a direct interrogation. But I already knew that it would be useless trying to get anything out of her against her wish.
However, she had become quiet, if not calm, as we returned to our homes. She responded to our banter in the merest possible words. And as soon as I was dropped off at my home, she dragged her friend away with the urgency of one wishing to escape from a pestilence stricken air. Well, she may think whatever about me, but I knew for sure her friend did not quite share in her dislike of my nearness. And that was enough for me.
I had my fill of the pizza I had brought, raced through all the channels on the TV for an hour and then hobbled over to my bed.
I had a very pleasant sleep that night. Whether it was because of the effect of the day’s exhaustion or the painkiller I had taken or the afterglow of the company I had enjoyed that day, I don’t care. I just know that I had a very pleasant sleep and when I woke up, it was to a pleasant surprise as well.
It wasn’t my alarm clock, but the door bell that woke me up the next day. The face of Tiya glimmered up before me. How worried she was about my injury. She must have come to check on me. I jumped out of bed, and then fell back on it again as my injury shouted out its protest. Slow was going to be the order of the day. So I slowly put my feet down again, slowly put my weight back on them, and slowly hobbled over to the door.
‘Hey, Ti…Nirvi, what are you doing here so early?’ I said, since it wasn’t Tiya standing and smiling at my door, but Nirvi holding a lunchbox and staring at it as if moving her eyes away might cause it to topple down.
‘Tiya has gone away. But she made me promise I’d check on you and see you are okay. And she made breakfast for you,’ she rattled off in one breath, extending the lunchbox towards me. I refused to take it. Instead, I turned and walked inside, leaving the door ajar. She had to follow. ‘And it is not very early I suppose since it’s already past eight,’ answered Nirvi, coming in. ‘At what time do you leave for office?’ She had yet not looked at me for even one moment.
‘I’m not going to the office today. But why has Tiya gone away? Sam said she will stay with you while he is away. And wow, how charming of you to let your guest make breakfast for your injured neighbour while you go on snoozing.’
That brought up a smile on her face and she relaxed a little. Her eyes flicked up at me for a instant, then shrank back again.
‘Thanks, I always try my best to be charming,’ she said, putting the lunch box on the table.
‘I know you do,’ I said. And I had always hated it, especially when she showed her fawning charm and mindless obedience to more mindless Sam. She often became like a robot, obeying his orders at a word, without a thought, and often it seemed without any expenditure of emotion either.
‘But why has Tiya gone away?’
‘She will be back by evening. When she promised to stay with me, she forgot she had also promised her cousin to teach her dance for a competition at school. Tiya’s cousin kept on expecting her yesterday, but Tiya forgot.’
‘Maybe she didn’t forget. Maybe she didn’t want to go. Who would want to waste whole afternoon teaching dance to a silly school kid?’
‘Tiya would. She loves dance and dreams of becoming a choreographer, or to have her own dancing classes,’ said Nirvi, easing up a little more and looking around the room as she spoke.
‘Nice,’ I said. ‘What do you dream about? Tiya told me you are a fantastic artist. Do you…’
‘I don’t dream about anything. Finish your breakfast. I have work to do at home,’ came the response. And the door that had been opening a little was banged shut.
I freshened up quickly and then settled down to breakfast.
‘I like tea with my breakfast,’ I politely hinted as I picked up a sandwich.
Nirvi got up and went into my kitchen. ‘There’s not even one clean cup here,’ she called out.
I was too busy munching on the sandwich to respond. And five minutes later, hot tea was served before me in a newly washed cup.
‘Have you had breakfast?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she said. Her eyes said something else.
Tiya and Nirvi were to have pizzas too on the previous night, as per Tiya’s plan. Tiya would have forced Nirvi to have at least one morsel more than Nirvi’s self-restricted ration. So it was compensation time now most likely, till Tiya came to force food down her throat once again. Tiya had told me enough about Nirvi’s eating routine. Becoming fat was Nirvi’s mortal fear and she did all she could to avoid it.
‘If I don’t keep forcing Nirvi to eat, I tell you, she would vanish before two months are over,’ was what Tiya had told me when we were ordering pizza and turning a deaf year to Nirvi’s please against it on the previous night.
Well, what Tiya could do, I could do too.
‘Yuk, this sandwich tastes funny,’ I said.
‘It’s just a cheese sandwich,’ Nirvi said.
‘Taste it, there’s definitely something wrong with it,’ I insisted.
She broke a little bit off the sandwich and put it into her mouth as if there really was poison in it.
‘It’s fine,’ she said. Her face showed she had found it better than fine.
‘No, it isn’t. Take a bigger bite and you’d know,’ I said, breaking a big portion and putting it in her hand.
‘No, I can’t. I have already eaten and…’ she protested, but meekly, as Lemon Girl’s eyes peeked out from hers and became glued to that piece of bread.
‘Come on, it’s just a little piece. It won’t make you fat,’ I said.
‘No, I have eaten…’ she said again.
‘Okay, then you can take this breakfast away. I am not going to eat either. And I’d tell Tiya I starved all day because of you,’ I said.
She accepted the poison and put it into her mouth. ‘But Tiya made this for you only,’ she said.
‘So nice of Tiya. How do you manage to make your guest cook for you? I’m sure my mother would like to know,’ I said.
A smile appeared on Nirvi’s face again and was reflected in her eyes as well. ‘She should choose her guests well. She should only have guests who love to cook.’
‘Wow, Tiya loves to cook too?’ I was impressed, even more, that is.
‘Yes, she dreams of becoming a chef one day, at her own restaurant, besides being a choreographer. She also plans to write cookery books. Her father too has written books you know, on yoga. Tiya also already has a blog dedicated to food. It has only two posts yet but she plans to start being regular at it very soon. ‘
I handed Nirvi a sandwich. She took it without a word this time and held it in her hand.
‘Tiya loves food. And she is so lucky too,’ she said. ‘She can eat cheese and butter for breakfast, lunch and dinner and still not get fat.’
‘Don’t worry, one sandwich won’t make you fat either. So eat,’ I said.
And she ate.
‘I too plan to become a professional blogger,’ I told Nirvi. ‘A tech. blogger. Tech. blogging is being quite a big thing these days.’
‘What is the name of your blog?’ she asked. Her eyes focussed on me with interest. She looked more at ease too.
‘I haven’t started it yet. I want to, but can’t find the time.’
‘Time is right here already, you only need to find a right schedule,’ she said smiling.
So, she had decided to be all preachy and wise now. Well, preaching was one thing I could never tolerate, too bad.
‘It’s not so easy when you are in a job and have a boss whose purpose in life is to prepare you for hell. You are lucky you never had to be a slave in a full time job,’ I said.
She became silent and looked away.
I picked up the tea cup and started sipping it. It was quite good.
‘I…’ came her voice, ‘too…had a job once,’ she said, ‘at a call centre.’
‘Oh, okay,’ I said.
A smile twisted out on her face, and then followed the flow of words. ‘One of my boyfriends had helped me to it. I got rid of him soon after, but decided to keep the job.’ Another smile, and her eyes looked up and bored into mine.
I was stuck, not by her words, but by the tone in which they were spoken. Totally blank. Totally emotionless. She had good practice at hiding her feelings.
I think I managed pretty well in showing no emotion at all too. I accepted her words as a common fact and asked, ‘Why did you leave that job?’
‘I found myself another boyfriend and moved in with him.’
‘Yes, my darling Sam.’
‘But you had no need to leave your job for that…,’ fool was what I wanted to say, but refrained. There was no telling how she would have reacted. And I wanted to keep her in the mood she was in. At least she was talking to me, really talking, I mean, for the first time. And that felt as satisfying as the delicious breakfast Tiya had prepared for me. Maybe even more.
‘How dirty your room is. Have you never cleaned it since you moved here?’ Nirvi asked, ignoring my words. She got up and picked up last night’s pizza carton from the floor.
‘I would have cleaned,’ I said when she returned after putting the carton in the dustbin. She looked around and picked up a CD from a chair. ‘That CD would go into that cover. And put it into that drawer.’ I said.
She did it.
‘And pick up those headphones and my iPod from the chair too and put them…,’ I began my second order to the robot.
But the robot was not programmed to slave for me.
She became still for an instant. Then she turned, folded her arms and fixed her eyes on me. ‘Just because I brought breakfast for you, it doesn’t mean I’ll clean your home too and follow all your orders.’
‘Why? You follow Sam’s all orders. Whether they are right or wrong, you never ever speak a word.’
‘You are not Sam,’ she said, ‘and I am not Nirvi to you, am I?’
‘I don’t mind Nirvi but…’ I began.
‘You don’t mind Nirvi?’ she interrupted me.
‘No, I only mind how she keeps the Lemon Girl in her hidden and locked away.’
‘Nirvi is not a good girl,’ she said, glinting a smile at me.
‘Who says so?’
‘Your Lemon Girl.’
‘Of course, since you keep her locked away.’ I had no idea where the conversation was going. But I decided to play along.
‘Your Lemon Girl wasn’t pretty.’
‘Yet she was the most remarkable girl I had ever seen,’ I said, looking straight into her eyes. ‘And she was real.’
Nirvi stared back at me for a long moment. Then she walked over to the table, collected her lunchbox and was gone the next instant. And I seriously wondered whether I would get the chance to lay my eyes on her ever again.
Nirvi came again, and that very same day. Once again she held a lunchbox in her hands. I took it from her hands at the door, but she followed me in anyway.
She did not smile, nor responded to my greeting. She looked a little lost. And in her manners was the same hesitation that I had seen when she had succumbed to the lure of the cheese sandwich in the morning.
‘What have you brought for me?’ I asked.
‘Nothing special,’ she said.
‘I could have made that myself. I was going to, in five minutes,’ I replied.
‘Just like you were going to clean this room, I’m sure,’ she said, rolling her eyes at the room that had somehow become more ‘decorated’ since her morning visit.
‘Did Tiya cook this too?’ I asked.
‘No,’ Nirvi replied. She walked over to the table and started clearing it and putting stuff away to where they were supposed to be put away. She worked quickly and expertly, without wasting time in displaying any of Nirvi’s delicacies and graces. And she wasn’t following any orders either. I took care not to give her any. In five minutes, the table had been cleaned and the lunch was laid out for me. Only one plate was there.
‘Where’s your plate?’ I asked.
‘I have eaten,’ came the answer again.
‘No use lying to me. Bring another plate or take this one away too.’
‘I’m really hungry,’ I said.
She stomped her way to the kitchen, stomped her way back, bumped herself down on the chair and looked as if she was about to meet devastation. But she let the devastation overtake her. She ate.
Much the same routine continued for two more days. Tiya spent her days with her cousin. Nirvi brought food for me, and I forced her to eat it. She never failed in making most marvellous grimaces while swallowing the poison, and yet, merciless as I am, I always managed to force it down her throat anyway.
Those three days eased off two of my nagging pains. One, my sprained leg got better. And two, I no longer saw in Nirvi’s eyes the painful urgency to hide herself from me. If it calmed her, it gave me a nice and pleasant sense of relief as well. Those three days had made her used to me and her eyes no longer seemed to consider me a torture for their sight.
By fourth day of my rest at home, my leg had become well enough to carry me to my office. But then, I was sure the office would survive quite well yet another day of my absence. And so I had found no compulsion to discontinue the rest treatment of my injured limb.
All had gone well at breakfast time. Remarkably well, as a matter of fact, because one of my joke had made Nirvi forget her new acquired laugh and she had allowed herself to approve that joke with her own, original and full hearted laughter.
By the time she arrived with my lunch, I had already searched through the internet and filled up my brain with several more jokes.
When she arrived, however, I happened to be browsing through the Facebook. And that’s what I continued to do while she cleared the table and brought in the plates and spoons.
‘What is your ID? I can’t find you,’ I asked her. ‘I found Tiya and Sam, but can’t find you even in their friendlist,’ I said.
‘I’m not on Facebook.’
‘Don’t lie. I’ll find your ID sooner or later, you know.’
‘No, really. I deleted my account.’
Just as she had deleted her job, her family, her whole past. But why? What lurked in the abyss of past that she was so desperate to escape? Well, I would find that out too, sooner or later.
‘Let’s create a new one for you then,’ I said.
‘I don’t need it.’
‘You are going to have it nevertheless. Now come and sit here,’ I said, settling down on the couch with my laptop.
‘I won’t use it.’
‘Come on, it would be fun. Besides, I’m getting bored. So let’s do it.’
‘If you are free, then why not create that blog of yours? You have a dream. You also have a chance to make it come true. Why are you pushing it away like that by wasting time?’
‘I would work on it, but first let’s get you back on Facebook. Why don’t you want to be on it anyway?’
‘No reason,’ she said, and settled down beside me on the couch.
The profile was soon made. I gave myself the honour of being her first friend. Then I added Tiya. The remaining additions I left for Nirvi to make, when she will.
It’s been so many months since. But she has not made any addition yet.
Well, little by little, Nirvi moved closer to peep into my laptop the more clearly. We moved to Tiya’s profile and browsed through her pictures. Nirvi had many stories to tell about those pictures. And she did tell them, laughing often, with real lemony delight brightening her eyes. Tiya loved Facebook and she had shared enough on it to let us last a whole hour.
‘Tiya loves taking pictures of herself, doesn’t she?’ I asked.
‘She loves herself,’ said Nirvi, smiling.
‘She is awesome. But how come she is still single?’ as was declared by Tiya’s relationship status on Facebook.
‘Oh, maybe because she is too busy deciding her career. She has no time to choose a boyfriend. She likes doing so many things that she can’t decide what she wants to do most. I tell her that if she does not hurry, she would end up being a teacher in her father’s school, just as her parents want.’
‘Her father has a school?’
‘Two. Primary schools. And he helps other people establish schools too, as a consultant.’
‘But still, she should have a boyfriend.’ And I was ready to offer myself for that post.
‘Well, I know that at least three of her friends are very hopeful of becoming that,’ said Nirvi. ‘She likes them all, calls them her best boy buddies, but none of them has yet managed to win her preference.’
So, there was hope for me. Good. And I had a good chance too. Tiya had already made breakfast for me.
I might have spent a long and leisurely hour dreaming about gaining Tiya’s preference, but Nirvi’s presence interfered.
‘Show me your photos now,’ she asked.
‘Sure,’ I said, and opened up my albums for her pleasure. This time, it was my turn to tell the stories. And I think she enjoyed them as much as I had enjoyed hers, though several of mine were totally fake.
‘And this is my family,’ I said, showing her a picture taken on a Diwali. It showed my two sisters standing with my parents outside our home.
‘Your sisters are pretty,’ she said.
‘And who is this guy?’ she asked, pointing to the dude who could also be seen in that picture, at some distance towards the right.
‘He’s our neighbour. Very intelligent guy. A doctor, and studying still to acquire some greater degree,’ I said.
‘He’s your younger sister’s boyfriend, isn’t he?’
‘Of course not. What makes you think that?’ Sisters are not supposed to have boyfriends, you know.
‘I think he is. And your sister is in love with him. See the way she is looking at him. I tell you, he just has to give a word and she will do anything for him.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, in a tone that should have silenced her. But it didn’t.
‘Oh? Don’t you know the meaning of anything?’ she said, raising up her eyebrow and irritating me even more with her fake laugh.
‘How dare you? How dare you say that about my sister?’ I burst out. ‘You have no right to. She is a decent, cultured and very good girl. Both my sisters are. They don’t go about making boyfriends. And even if he is her boyfriend, my sister would never…’
I don’t know what else I might have added. But I forgot all words when my eyes turned to Nirvi.
She looked as if a thunderbolt had struck her. Her eyes stared at me wide, her mouth was half open, and she had turned pale in an instant.
‘Yes,’ she said. I could hear the tremor in her voice as clearly as her words. ‘I have no right.’
She got up from the couch. She was trembling. ‘I have no right,’ she repeated.
Before I could grasp what was happening, she was gone.
‘Damn,’ was all that I could think of saying.
I had no idea what had happened. I knew what I had said. But I had no idea what she had heard in those words. It was clearly not what I had meant.
Before you proceed to the next chapter, here’s something extra!
Excerpt of Dream’s Sake