‘A Euro trip?’ asked an exasperated Ibrahim.
‘We want to go, too!’ shouted Hamza.
‘You’re not allowed, honey, and get ready or you’ll miss your school’ said their mother.
‘That’s what you always say,’ said the youngest brother, Umair.
‘That’s enough,’ said a voice from behind them. They turned and their father was standing at the door. ‘You have your mid-term exams from next week, you need time to prepare. With us gone, you’ll get more time.’
Hamza laughed out loud. ‘Are you really going to use that? You think we’re going to study when you’re gone?’
‘You better. I don’t want another earful from any of your teachers at school. And to make sure you behave, your aunt is going to be here for a few days.’
Their eyes widened. All three brothers knew they weren’t really going to go to Europe with their parents. But they wanted to make a big deal out of it so they could get a free reign when they were alone and their parents could shower them with gifts out of guilt.
‘No,’ Ibrahim stepped forward. ‘I’ll be here. I’m the eldest, I’ll take care of everything. We will behave, we don’t need babysitting. I’m here.’
‘Ha! Like you were the last time when all three of you kept sleeping while we rang the doorbell for over an hour? Not happening again, son,’ said the father.
Ibrahim looked down at his feet. ‘That was one time,’ he said in a low voice.
The father continued, ‘Your aunt will not be here all the time. She’ll just check in once in a while if you’re properly fed and have not blown up the house while we are gone.’
Their mother looked at them apologetically. ‘We won’t be gone long,’ she said.
‘That’s what you always say’, said Hamza, defeated, and then left the room to put on his uniform.
School was not a treat for Ibrahim. As he got ready, he dreaded another day of sitting in one corner of the classroom, looking at everyone having fun. He wanted to join them, but something stopped him. He didn’t know the jokes they were telling, what would he say to them? What if they didn’t like the idea of this shy kid suddenly jumping in? He could easily make a fool of himself. And then, out of nowhere, the classroom would start spinning, the voices went to the background, a black cloud filled the room.
‘Ibrahim?’ someone said from far away.
‘Ibrahim!’ they called again. Ibrahim opened his eyes, and Joel was standing before him. ‘Where are you lost? We are going to play catch, you want to come?’ he asked.
‘No, I’m good, thanks,’ Ibrahim smiled and said, calming his heart which was beating fast. Joel left, and Ibrahim regretted his words immediately. But he couldn’t bring himself to say yes.
He wanted to be able to tell someone all this. But an over-caring, emotional mother made him worry more about her than himself if he told her something; a thin veil between father and son made it difficult for him to share anything beyond marks, sports, and career with his father; two younger brothers had made him a senior figure and that image required him to listen and fix their problems, not the other way around.
Ibrahim went home and relieved himself the only way he knew how – video games … and his cat. For him, video games were an escape to a world where he had control, where he won.
Things changed when the new French teacher in high school came. She had a different air about her, something very captivating. Her energy rubbed off on everyone, especially Ibrahim. Her friendliness and ability to understand was different from the other teachers he had studied from. It comforted Ibrahim. On their last day, she took all her students out for lunch, and that particular incident opened him up to the possibility of interacting with people, and being comfortable doing it.
Ibrahim started making friends, he started being part of the groups. He would sometimes bunk tuition and go for long bike rides with his new friends. Things were going good. A happy, average life awaited him.
Ibrahim had lived in Bhopal all his life. When school ended, like the rest of the herd, Ibrahim went for entrance exams after entrance exams, trying to validate his identity in the only way the society accepted. On a visit to Aligarh Muslim University with his friend Ayan, he met Alisha. She used to go to coaching classes with Ayan. They introduced each other and things ended there. If only, though …
He got into an engineering college in Bhopal. The first two years went by in trying to adjust to the new found freedom, possibilities of having fun, falling in love with programming, and whatnot. Ibrahim was known for his programming skills. His friends would approach him for completing their practical assignments in exchange for doing his written ones. In the third year, Alisha contacted him.
They were due to submit their minor projects, and Ibrahim agreed to help Alisha and her friend. He never said no to anybody when it came to matters of studies, let alone a sweet, slightly shy at first girl. During the course of that time, they got closer.
She had a boyfriend who had left her and she was still in love with him. Ibrahim was her shoulder to cry on. She would complain about her boyfriend for hours at a stretch as Ibrahim glued the phone to his ears. Inevitably, Ibrahim started liking her, and a vulnerable Alisha felt a rush of emotions, too. Things got complicated when she couldn’t let go of her past, and Ibrahim suffered.
Caring for someone enough to not leave their side, yet not feeling a sense of importance – it is a difficult position to be in. By logic, you should move on from this situation. But you go on a guilt trip of being too selfish. At the same time, when you see yourself coming second every single time, especially to someone who is supposed to be the villain in your story, it hits at your self-respect. You demean yourself. It is very toxic. After months of being unable to face himself in the mirror, silently screaming at the person in there, Ibrahim decided to fix things. He ended all relations with Alisha. But life had more to teach him, because he had not yet moved on.
To put a cherry on the cake, when Ibrahim got placed in Tata Consultancy and came to Chennai, Alisha was placed there, too. Although Ibrahim had made it clear by now that he wanted nothing to do with her, he could not forget what she meant to him. Within a week of coming to Chennai, Alisha asked out one of Ibrahim’s friends, who said no. Within a month, she had kissed another guy in a flurry of emotions. And all this while, she kept trying to keep conversations with Ibrahim going.
Six months later, the entire batch who had joined the TCS training together decided to go for a Pondicherry trip. Gaurav was there, too. He had been chasing Alisha for months, and had become good friends with her roommate. It was Alisha’s birthday the next day, and things had been pretty quiet in her life lately. Ibrahim noticed she was a little lonely, too. So he designed a gift for her – a handmade piece of craft which had taken him weeks to complete. Gaurav got her a cat, thanks to the roommate. She liked the craft. She loved the cat.
Ibrahim did not contact her again, ever. On their way back from Pondicherry, for the first time since coming to Chennai, Ibrahim opened up to somebody. Shreya and Gargi were another two of his colleagues with whom he had lately started spending more time. He had no way of knowing then how invaluable part of his life these people would become. He told them the whole story with Alisha, and they were the ones who convinced him to close that chapter of his life once and for all. Sometimes you need your best friends. Sometimes, you just need new ones to start all over again.
The shyest, most introvert kid at school had come a long way. He was now hosting dinner parties at his place every month, had more friends in and out of office than some people had colleagues, and he was happy. He was happy.
He was spending more and more time with Gargi, the two being the only tea-lovers in their group. Their bond was getting stronger and stronger. He didn’t know he could be understood so well by somebody. The feeling was strangely comforting. Until then, he believed suppressing his emotions made him stronger. But Gargi taught him that he didn’t have to try to be strong. Letting his emotions flow would leave no weakness to hide. What she didn’t tell him was that it would have its consequences.
As he became more aware of his feelings, got more honest with himself, Ibrahim realized his reluctance to opening up originated from Alisha. While supporting her through every thick and thin, he unknowingly left himself out there in the wild, waiting to be rescued. But she never came. And now Gargi had found him, held his hand, calmed his heart, and walked him back home. Once again, what shouldn’t have happened, happened. The music in the background was too loud to ignore anymore. The winds were too strong to stand still anymore. The rain was pelting too hard, and the shelter was too far. He was drenched.
Gargi had a boyfriend. And unlike before, he was not the villain. He was Ibrahim’s friend. Gargi and Arav had been together for a few years, but nobody really understood how. She needed attention, he was always lost. She loved expressing, he kept to himself. She heard everybody, he ignored the world.
Ibrahim, on the other hand, was the most caring person she had met. From remembering to pick up her things whenever she forgot to picking her up at the airport and going with her to tests and interviews, Ibrahim was a man of small things. Small, un-ignorable things.
Within a year of joining, Ibrahim left TCS and moved to Poshmark for better opportunities. Gargi, too, resigned to focus on her MBA preparations and was serving her three months of notice period. During a post-dinner walk, having taken tons of them before, Ibrahim told her how he felt. She went crazy at first, but he calmed her down.
He didn’t know what to think anymore. Was he just a victim of overwhelming emotions? Yes, but aren’t we all?
They tried to keep things as normal as possible. They loved spending time with each other, and continued doing so. The three months passed, and she left.
Distance gave them a closure they were missing. They realized it shouldn’t be as complicated as it was. They were friends, probably best friends. And it was too precious to ruin. Gargi remembered how much she loved Arav, and even though people didn’t see reason in their relationship, they didn’t have to. It was unfair to all three of them for having uncertainty lingering in the air. It could either end then, or it could end ugly later. But it had to end.
All wounds heal with time, but not all scars fade. The moment they decided to end the confusion, to remove the sword hanging over their heads, awkwardness was not far. How could they pretend to not have said the things they said? Could they really be just friends again?
To some it seems unfair, but life is what it is. Distance brought more distance. Slowly, the calls were less frequent, the replies not as instant. When someone asks how you’re doing, and you say you’re fine every time, you know you have drifted apart. Eventually, they just lost touch.
By then, Ibrahim had spent over two years in Chennai, and he wanted to get out now. His father was working too hard in his business, and it had started taking a toll on his health. That gave Ibrahim another push. He left Poshmark, moved back to Bhopal, and joined a start-up called Pi-Car. His younger brother, Hamza, started helping their father in the business. Umair, the youngest, was still studying.
They were back to the happy little family that they used to be. The idea of having all three sons together was everything to his mother. Ibrahim had come a full circle. While growing up, there was not a lot going on in Bhopal. Not a lot of people, not a lot of opportunities, not a lot of places. But Ibrahim never felt caged because he hadn’t seen the world outside. Why would a fish mind an aquarium, if it has never seen the pond?
But now that he had travelled to different places, he realized what he was missing out on here. He felt the regret sometimes, but he didn’t have the energy to get out into the world again and put himself out there. He felt defeated.
Pi-Car was doing well. It became the first start-up from Bhopal to expand to other states. Ibrahim made a significant contribution to its growth, and was timely rewarded. Three years after Ibrahim had joined the company, Mohit was recruited. Mohit was an old friend. A very old friend. He was the one who had listened to all the rants when Ibrahim was upset about Alisha.
Mohit had joined as a legal consultant, representing a big firm that he worked for. Pi-Car was merging with Fern Motors, who were headquartered in the United States. They had to up their legal game, and hence the recruitment. He urged Ibrahim to move to the States. Mohit was going, too, and his recommendation was not going to be overlooked.
Hesitant at first, Ibrahim agreed and moved again – something his mother did not fully appreciate, but understood nonetheless. Getting out of Bhopal helped. Slowly, Ibrahim rebuilt himself. He left every part of his past behind him.
He started meeting new people, making new friends. Soon, he was hosting dinner parties again. He eventually settled in the States, got married, and had a small, happy family of himself. Life didn’t give him many more surprises.
Years went by, Ibrahim felt he needed to do more. On his forty-fifth birthday, he decided to call it quits on his corporate career, and started a non-profit for children who weren’t getting adequate education.
He retired ten years later, and spent his last days writing his memoir, and drifted off into the oblivion.