Chasing Tail – Aditi Sharma

It was cold that morning. Late December in Delhi brought its share of fog. Early morning mist wet the windshields of cars parked around them. They stood there, waiting for the auto-rickshaw to arrive. Aditi put her arms around her sister who was shivering. Their mother kept peeking into the fog, hoping the driver would arrive soon.

 ‘When will the movers bring our stuff, mum?’ asked Aprajita, Aditi’s elder sister.

 ‘They should reach around the same time as us, they’re all packed and were just loading the truck with the last few small boxes when we left,’ said their mother.

 ‘Is it going to be weird? Living away from everyone in a new, strange house?’ asked Aditi.

 ‘Maybe at first, honey. But the three of us will make it beautiful, won’t we? Who else do we need?’

 ‘I don’t know. Having dad back from Almora would not be so bad.’

 Her mother didn’t say anything. She knew it was hard on the girls. It was hard on her, too. More than anyone knew. But they had to do it for their daughters. The painful distance was only a matter of time, she thought. He would soon get a transfer back home, she hoped.

 It would be another year before her father came back. But a difficult, hectic life suddenly turned into a stable, happy family time. Years of struggle was now paying back. In Almora, Aditi’s father had worked himself to weakness. He was gradually regaining his health, spending all his free time with his family. After a long time, the house was filled with contentment.

 When Aditi passed high school, in one of their parent-teacher meetings, her English teacher told them the girl had a knack for literature. She could read between the lines like no other student. Her writing and articulation left people in awe. And she should definitely pursue this field of study.

 But this did not convince her parents of a stable career later in life. They had not worked themselves to death to see their daughter struggling to find her place down an uncertain career path.

 They moved to Meerut where Aditi spent the last two years of her school life. As it ended, she applied all over Delhi University for English Honours. But to be safe, her father had her apply for BCA which she never wanted to do.

 When her parents made her choose BCA over a potential admission in St. Stephen’s for Literature, she was furious. For months, she felt angry and held it in. Eventually, she settled in her college life as the fun there distracted her from her regrets.

 In her second year of college, Aditi saw an opportunity. Times of India were conducting a test, following which the selected candidates would get a chance to study journalism and get placed in Times of India itself. It was a golden opportunity. Aditi saw an exit, an escape route into a world she knew she was meant to be in.

 She gave her everything in that exam. She had never been more prepared for anything in her life. Clearing the written examination did not come as a surprise for Aditi. But now was the real test. The interview by one of the most prominent personalities of one of the most prestigious newspapers in the India. She went in and she made the interviewer laugh, she was confident, she was flying. It went so good Aditi was almost certain she would get in.

 Weeks passed, she did not get the letter. She was surprised, disappointed but moved on with her life. She was already studying Spanish from the Spain Embassy at that time, so she stayed connected to language.

 Two months later, Aditi was looking for an old book when she opened her drawer, and found a letter addressed to her name. She had gotten in. She had been selected for the Times of India course. But nobody had told her.

 Aditi flipped. She had never worked as hard for anything in her life as she did to get into this, and she had spent the last two months thinking she was not good enough. But she was. Anger seeped in. She was good enough. Her parents weren’t. They were selfish, and small-minded, she felt.

 She went to her father, who at seeing the letter in her hand, slumped into the nearest chair, giving up like he had been expecting this day to come.

 ‘How could you do this to me?’ asked Aditi through clenched teeth, shivering with anger.

 ‘You didn’t see –‘

 ‘No, I saw! I saw I got selected and you kept it hidden from?’

 ‘But –‘

 ‘What kind of a father are you?’

 ‘Aditi, lis –‘

 ‘NO, YOU LISTEN, DAD!’ she shouted. ‘I HATE WHAT I DO! FOR THE SECOND TIME I GOT AN OPPORTUNITY TO DO SOMETHING I LOVE AND YOU TOOK IT FROM ME! I GOT IN! WHO ARE YOU TO MAKE THESE DECISIONS FOR ME?’

 Her father stared at her, unable to say anything.

 ‘You were wrong, dad. You ruined my life. You were supposed to make it better and you ruined it! It’s because of your decisions that I will stay stuck in this frustrating course and field for the rest of my life!

 ‘I thought you were with me in this. You know what? I don’t care. I want to quit. I’m not going to study any further. I’m just going to quit. Why don’t you find a suitable groom for me, too? I’m sure you must have started looking! Get me married and I’ll fade away in my failure at home cooking food!’

 Her father had risked his health in the remote villages of Himachal, worked double shifts, stayed away from his wife so his family could have a comfortable life. So his daughters could have an education. After all this, he felt he had failed. His eyes welled up, and he looked down.

 Aditi suddenly snapped out of her anger. She just realized what she had said to his father. She rushed to him and sat on the floor beside her father. As she held his face and lifted it up, a tear slowly rolled down his cheeks and Aditi broke down. She buried her head in his legs and apologized. She got up and hugged his father and apologized again.

 Her father opened his mouth, hesitated, and said, ‘I’m sorry, beta.’ His voice choked. Aditi kept him in a tight hug. Moments passed. Time heals things.

 Later, Aditi saw the letter again, and saw the seven-figure fee structure and realized why her father had not shown her the letter. Aditi moved on.

 When college ended, Aditi joined Tata Consultancy Services in Chennai. She had been there for over two years when she landed a job in Amazon in Bangalore.

 When she joined Amazon, her perception of work culture turned upside down. Here, people had ambitions beyond the next appraisal. Amazon is a big company, with over 600,000 employees. And all of them believed that they were responsible for everything that happened. And indeed they were. The small cogs in the wheels were what started the chain effect, like a domino, which worked its way perfectly to the top.

 Aditi had a colleague, Zainab. Zainab worked as a UX designer, and in her after-office hours, she helped an NGO, St. Saviours who were fighting to keep the environment safe. They would organize campaigns, do silent protests against companies dumping their waste in the rivers, they would distribute flyers, and make online videos. Sometimes, they would collaborate with content creators online to share their message. All the members had committed twenty percent of their day job salaries for the NGO because funding was hard to come by. Those who didn’t have day jobs committed fifteen hours a day of their time to the NGO.

 Aditi had long held a desire to contribute in improving the worsening climate change. And this seemed like a good start. She joined St. Saviours. Being a product strategist gave her a lot of hacks for marketing anything. Getting attention online is the most powerful tool today, and she knew how to do it.

 So when a Karnataka MLA made an irresponsible remark about Mother Earth’s existence being all about feeding us and that we are doing nothing wrong, Aditi jumped at it. St. Saviours organized a campaign condemning the politician’s statement, they held silent protests apologizing to the Earth, and urging the minister to do the same in public. They made doodles, videos, and Aditi helped them make everything go viral. People finally heard what St. Saviours had to say. People supported them. Public outrage led to the minister eventually apologizing to Mother Earth in public.

 When attention came, the Saviours were asked to attend conferences and events highlighting environment and climate change concerns. Something urged Aditi to get out from behind the computer screen and on to the stage to be the one who creates the content, not just markets it.

 She started attending every conference, every meet, and whenever she got the chance, she would voice her opinion. The more time she gave to St. Saviours, the more struggling office became. She thought of cutting down at the NGO, because she had never wanted to slack off in her professional career. But just as she would do something about it, she was asked to give a speech at the Environmental National Sciences.

 Doubt seeps in faster than water through pipes. She was trying to get out of something, and now was getting pulled deeper into it. But at the same time, the opportunity was so exciting. How could she let that go? She went for it.

 One speech called for another. And then another. Within six months, she had emptied her leave balance account at the office and was travelling to different cities to talk about climate change and our deteriorating environment. She was risking loss of pay days when she decided to call it quits … at the office.

 Hesitatingly, slowly, after battling with a lot uncertainty, she had made the switch she had yearned for years without even accepting it to herself. She made St. Saviours her full-time job, and was leading the entire organization as other senior members slowly started to drop out because their jobs and family responsibilities didn’t allow them the time to do it. Aditi herself had been nudging off marriage proposals from her family. She had one focus – St. Saviours. She expanded it all over India, and put it on the world map when the organization pressurized the government to ban multinational companies from dumping waste in the rivers.

 It was a huge achievement, something environmentalist had been fighting for in their countries for decades. She was inducted into the UN at the age of twenty nine, and for the next ten years, travelled the world and spoke and influenced people all over to take small steps. Everything would pay off in the future. ‘And if we don’t do it,’ she said at one of the events, ‘we would be paying instead.’

 She had her life planned out beautifully. She was going to work till she was forty, then move to Scotland in a small house with a library in the basement and live out her days in peace and happiness. Sometimes, the things we find peaceful, we leave them till the end of our prime years. But why? Why can’t peace be the ambition behind our prime years? Why is it the last resort? Why is peace a destination, and not the journey? Sometimes, we leave it for far too long.

 Immense work pressure and travel gave Aditi two heart attacks in a span of one week and she passed away aged thirty-nine. One year before she was going to find her peace.

 People confuse peace with procrastination and ambitionless lives. They think it means settling away from the world in a remote place and doing nothing. But it doesn’t have to be like that. You can be in a place with a billion people or a few thousand. What matters is how many lives you affect. And how you affect them.

 When we wait to find peace at the end, we have already spent years building up the definition of peace and making it so delusional and impractical that when it comes, it leaves us disappointed. We realize living alone, not having anyone in our lives, does not feel as good as we thought it would. That all those years of struggle and dreaming … was just not worth it. And could you imagine a sadder end?

Circle Gone Wrong – Ibrahim

‘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.

Shackled, Unshackled – Avinash Kaushal

The motorcycle momentarily wobbled and Avinash almost dropped the two polybags in his hands filled with clothes, books, utensils, and more of his belongings. He tried to balance them both so this wouldn’t happen again. Fifteen minutes later, his father stopped the bike, took the bags from Avinash’s hands, put them on the ground, and just as Avinash got off to pick them up, his father turned and left. Without saying a word. For a few moments, Avinash stood there speechless. He knew his father was upset, but the boy was moving out of the house for the first time, he could’ve at least said goodbye, given some fatherly advice; hell, he could’ve scolded him for moving out but he said nothing.

 Avinash called Ishwar who helped him take his things to their flat. Now done with their fourth year of engineering, Ishwar was preparing for GATE, and Avinash wanted to do that, too. But his family couldn’t afford the coaching fee.

 So he moved in with Ishwar, and studied with his coaching notes and workbooks. There wasn’t always money to eat dinner, and Ishwar never let Avinash ask for it. Over the years, Ishwar had been such a friend to Avinash that that debt could not be repaid with money.

 Avinash didn’t grow up in a society; he grew up in a mohalla – closer to ground reality. A bunch of two-story houses lined alongside each other, on all sides of a rectangular area somewhere in the busy streets of Barabanki, some nine kilometres from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. In the centre of the mohalla, a lot of life happened. Everyone learned to play cricket, cards, learned to smoke behind an electricity pole, witnessed fights and reunions. Avinash would sometimes be caught playing poker with older boys, and would get a proper smacking at home for it. He once witnessed a girl, who was tired of her family tying her with ropes all the time, not allowing her to go out anywhere attempt suicide – she jumped from the terrace of her house, but got tangled up in the electricity wires going below her, and landed rather softly on the ground.  Avinash grew up very close to his mother. He could ask for the world, and he knew his mother would get it for him. A lot of his life went by dreaming about making his mother proud and happy. Once, he told her about a dream that he had been having for several months, and would continue for a few years, ‘It’s like … all these labour are working in the house, and the bottom one throws a brick to the man standing on the first floor, who would pass it on to a man behind him. And I’m the man standing on the first floor, catching and passing brick after brick when at one point, while reaching to catch the brick, I fall off the building and wake up.’

 Avinash’s mother smiled, ran a loving hand through his short, electric hair. ‘It’s because it has happened to you before,’ she said.

 ‘What?’ exclaimed the boy, suddenly excited, ‘Like in my previous life?’

 She laughed, ‘No, honey… when you were little, I think about two years old, you were on the terrace, and there was no boundary around it, you crawled to its edge and rolled over. You didn’t fall too hard or from a great height, but you fell unconscious. Oh! I have never been more scared in life.’

 ‘And that’s why I get these dreams?’ asked Avinash.

 ‘Yes. That incident developed a fear of heights and your heart remembers it. It is cool, right?’

 ‘I don’t know, it’s kind of scary, too.’  ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get over it now that you know what it is.’

 And just like his mother said, Avinash realized the dreams were less frequent, and when they came, Avinash didn’t wake up all scared and sweaty. The dreams stopped after a time.

Beemar padta that oh saare nuskhe aazma deti thi
jab chota tha maa dhuei’n ko aasmaa’n bata deti thi
Roti tab bhi thi, aur roti shayad aaj bhi hogi
ab door hai tab aansu phaas ke bata deti thi

 When Avinash went to college, he discovered a new love – drama. At first, he had joined the dance club. But he didn’t really find his feet there. There was no natural instinct pushing him to dance with or for a purpose. So he quit there and in the second year of his engineering, he joined the drama club, DRACULA. Now like a lost piece of puzzle, jumping from one home to another, had found its mother, Avinash fit into DRACULA. And like this boy was what the drama club was waiting for to go from nice to wow, everything was falling into place.

DRACULA

 Avinash was so engrossed in drama that there came a time when he would leave home at eight in the morning for college, and would come back at eleven in the night after drama practice. He had crushed street plays and gulped it down his throat.

 His father was not happy with him staying out so late. And for good reason, too. He had at times seen Avinash roaming around the roads, sitting in corner, playing cards and kanche with his friends. But his mother stood up for him, like always. She talked his father, and let Avinash continue with what he loved doing.

 Once, they had to go to Delhi to perform at an IIT festival. Now Avinash had never been out of Lucknow before this. And to go to an IIT to perform was not only overwhelming, but a little expensive too. But for the millionth time, his mother played her role of superwoman. Avinash went to IIT Delhi and soaked in the atmosphere – the captivating, electrifying atmosphere of one of the most happening colleges of the country.

 Delhi University creates some of the best street plays you will ever see in colleges. Watching them perform, Avinash stood there with his mouth open. It was like somebody had showed him for the first time what street plays should like. He went back to Barabanki with his head filled with ideas.

 He went into the third year of engineering, and now was the time to create street plays, not perform them. For some reason, however, Avinash was not selected by the committee. About ten days before they were supposed to perform, there had been no final script in place, not fruitful dry runs, and the panic was starting to settle into DRACULA.

 That’s when they called up Avinash, remembering how excited he had been at the thought of writing plays. He agreed immediately. And then came a few days in his life that he will never forget, and may never replicate. When you’re in the zone, you write well. But when you are the zone, you just become a medium for the things that are coming in from another dimension and just spilling over your diary.

 One of the sweetest moments of Avinash’s life is when the play was over and everybody was happy, they picked him and celebrated the writer that had emerged out of that engineering student.

 ‘It was the best play I’ve seen, Avinash, we’re all really proud of you,’ said the Dean.  It was in that moment that Avinash thought if he could write that, he could write more.

College ended, and took a lot of fun and carefreeness with it. Shit was getting real.

 Avinash and Ishwar were sitting in their small room with books, notes, and boxers lying all around when they received the forwarded email from their friend. It said ‘Tata Consultancy Services Drive’. Well, they thought, we have been studying anyway. Wouldn’t be bad to see how much we know. At least it’ll give us an ego boost if we get selected.

 They appeared for the drive and at the end of it, they had a job offer in their hands. Now think about someone who was studying from someone else’s notes, eating only as much as they’d need to survive, and still having an uncertainty over their future. Vulnerability soon overcomes you in these times. The image of being on your own, even helping your family who had given you their all, and then some is very tempting. Avinash accepted the offer.

 And then he moved to Chennai, and fell into a routine he had never imagined himself to be in. Corporate world was sucking the life out of him, but his motivation was coming from very far away to be concerned about this.  He continued writing poems, reciting them to a couple of friends, and then working his ass off in the office. For two years, not a lot changed. Monotony was getting into his head. He was seeking small approvals from who wouldn’t matter in a few years. The pressure of being the backbone of the family was starting to bend his back.

Girne ke baad sambhla toh maine chalna seekha hai
Darr mei’n bhi muskuraakar maine jeena seekha hai
Koi kaushal nahi’n ye likhna mera
Zindagi se bohot haara hu’n tab likhna seekha hai

 That’s when drama came calling.

 ‘Avinash? It’s Shilpa,’ her voice over the phone still like it was in college.

 ‘Shilpa? Wow, hey! It’s been so long. How’s it going?’ asked Avinash.

 ‘Getting by, we’re all getting by,’ she said. ‘I heard you’re doing great in the job.’

 ‘Who’d you hear it from?’

 ‘Umm … well, I don’t know. I mean, I just thought you would be, you were always so hard-working.’

 ‘Yeah, that’s been a pain in the ass last couple of years. So what happened?’

 ‘Nothing, we’re coming to Chennai. I know you’re there, do you want to catch up?’

 ‘We? Who else is coming?’ asked Avinash, slightly uncertain about whether he should meet.

 ‘Oh, you don’t know? I thought you’d have heard about us. DRACULA’s. We’re doing a few plays in Chennai.’

 ‘DRACULA’s? Is that what you’re calling it now? But hey, that was back in college. What are you talking about?’

 ‘No, yeah,’ she said, ‘that was back in college. But we continued. We formed an external group, and we are the DRACULA’s. We perform plays on social issues, and it’s going great. Chennai Art Theatre called us, and they want us to perform there next week. They’re even going to pay us. You should come.’

 ‘Wow, that’s … wow! That sounds really great, I mean … I didn’t know you guys had stayed in touch.’

 ‘Hey, you dove into so much studying and then job and everything, there was no point coming after you. Your family would never had allowed you to continue with drama.’ That pinched at a little knot somewhere in his stomach.

 ‘Yeah, yeah. Good, come to Chennai. I’ll try to come to your play.’

 ‘Cool, bye!’

 ‘Bye!’

 The following week, Avinash went to the Chennai Art Theatre. He met Shilpa and the rest of the DRACULA’s. He didn’t even know a lot of them. But they finally caught up. Avinash had been so out of touch with most of his friends from college that he didn’t know how DRACULA was doing. But the batch that had performed the play he had written went on to do more plays, and then more. They found a girl, or rather she found them, Juhi, who was had been into theatre for a few years now, and wanted to mentor a young group of enthusiasts. She transformed their lives. The issues she chose to make plays on were getting into the heads of small audiences. Now they were getting the recognition they had been working towards for over two years.

 Before they left, they planted a seed. They asked Avinash to join them. At first, he laughed it off. But they were serious. Shilpa had shown Juhi the play he had written, and a few poems he had posted online, and Juhi felt he could really be on to something there. And then they left.

 Avinash could not really concentrate on anything after that. He had never set his goals too high to achieve. He always wanted to be recognized for something, but despite his dreams, on a practical front, he never rose his head much higher than mediocrity. This could be his chance.  It took him fifteen months after the DRACULA’s had visited him in Chennai to muster up the courage to call them. They welcomed him with open arms. He knew his father was never going to support his decision, but well, his mother was there to negate that. But when he called her, she didn’t say anything. After a few moments, he could hear her sobbing a little, as if disappointed and too broken to scold.

 But Avinash was on his way. If he didn’t get the support from his family, the drama club was more than compensating for it. A sense of satisfaction was settling into his heart. They moved to Mumbai and things were happening faster than they had anticipated. They were performing more, earning more, and when stability was slowly creeping into their lives, his parents anger was fading with it.

Kuch khwaab bhi baithe hai’n rooth kar hum se
jinhe manaana abhi baaqi hai
Kuch raaz bhi zinda hai’n dil mei’n
jinko dafnaana abhi baaqi hai
Kaise chorh du mai ye zindagi ka pinjra
Zinda hu’n abhi khud ko ye
yaqeen dilaana baaqi hai

 Avinash also had an elder brother, Dhruv. He always wore his heart on his sleeves and it often landed him in trouble with teachers, professors, other children’s parents, everybody except his own family. He knew how to take care of family.

 Dhruv was a very emotional person. He was taken advantage of a lot of times. It was easy to manipulate him if you could come to him as a victim. He had cried for his friends when they told him they had no money, and then he would give away most of savings to save their businesses and they would still not remember him.

 As a result of wrong people around him, manipulative friends as he would call them, ever-growing intolerance in the air, and brainwashing from mainstream media, Dhruv was reeled into a group of vigilantes, who would cause occasional unrest in the areas they were responsible for as and when the politicians demanded. Things started to get out of hands, and Avinash had no idea, no time to know what was happening back home.

 A month long unrest, fear and uncertainty looming in the air one day made way for riots. It was not uncommon in Uttar Pradesh, but it was ugly nonetheless. Avinash tried calling home, but would never get a clear answer. Most of the times, he could not even connect his call, all the networks were down for the majority of the time to stop the agitators from communicating with each other.

 Eventually, everything settled down. The votes had been divided. People had been manipulated. Media had been sold. Propaganda had been served with revenge for dessert. Avinash’s father called.

 ‘Son, come home,’ he said.

 ‘What? What happened?’ asked an agitated Avinash.

 ‘Nothing, but you need to come home. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ And he cut the call.

 Avinash panicked, wasted no time. He took a flight that very night.

Kitne dino baad mujhe kuch kaam milega
Mai ghar jaaunga toh maa ko aaraam milega

 It was a connecting flight so it was just after dawn that he reached home. People were sitting there. He knew some, but not most. It was quite, gloomy. The air was heavy and it was hard to breathe. Sure, even the sun hadn’t risen then. But Avinash felt as though it never will.

 A broken figure of his father came into sight. He was fragile, thinner than Avinash had ever seen him. When he saw his son, he fell into his arms, sobbing. ‘Your brother … your brother … they … he’s gone, son.’

 Avinash’s knees wobbled but he kept his shape to handle his brother. But his senses had given way. Numbness ran through his body like cold ice. He could hear a scream somewhere in the distance. His tears felt hot on his frozen face.

 The riots had taken Dhruv’s life. He was right in the core of things. Avinash looked up, and saw his brother’s friends. ‘Dad? What are they doing here?’

 ‘Son, we have to stick together,’ his father said, pulling himself up.

 Avinash let go of his father’s grip, and crying, went straight to Dhruv’s friends.

 ‘YOU BASTARDS! YOU KILLED HIM, YOU ASSHOLES!’ screamed Avinash, landing a blow on whoever came in his reach ‘YOU FUCKTARDS HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE HERE! GET THE FUCK OUT!!’

 People rushed and held Avinash as continued to punch and kick in the air, shouting ‘YOU TRAPPED MY BROTHER!! YOU FOOLED HIM INTO JOINING YOU!!’

 The commotion had brought everybody out of their houses. The sun was starting to show from behind the mist.

 A sad, depressing few weeks followed that incident. Avinash didn’t go back to Mumbai. He stayed. He had to stay. But he had to do something about it. He had spent the last two years spreading awareness through his plays. He felt now was the time to walk the path he had been preaching.

 And then came politics. The root cause of every goddamn problem in this country. The seed of hatred. The real scum. Politics. Avinash went to Dhruv’s friends, who seemed to be sceptical at first, but talked to him eventually.

 Avinash had found his purpose. He was going to fix the only thing truly wrong with India. The only thing truly anti-national in a population of over a billion. Politicians.

 He devoted his life to politics. Well, a lot of it. For the next twenty years, it was extremely difficult to do something good in politics. There were forces pulling him down. But Avinash’s motivation was coming from too far away to be concerned about this. He did what he had to do, grinded through every obstacle that came his way, but he made sure he was walking the path he had preached through his plays all those years ago.

 Before his mother passed away in his arms, she smiled. She was not disappointed. She knew that all the times she had stood up for his child was worth it. She had lived an entire life with one of her sons, she was going to spend her afterlife with the other. She was content when she closed her eyes. In the seventy six years that Avinash lived, he never cried as much as he did when his mother passed away.

 His father could not live alone for long. But when he went, he wasn’t angry anymore. He was proud. Avinash had shattered the limitations his father had set. He could not ask for more.

 Retired, Avinash moved back to Barabanki, in his mohalla. And he spent his last years there, breathing in the prevailing peace, watching new life grow around him.

Found Again – Cijith Jose

Cijith stood in the middle of the road, his gaze fixed upon the showroom before him. He had walked past it thousands of times. He had spent hundreds of those dreaming about this day. He went in, trying unsuccessfully to act like a smart customer instead of an excited child. Two hours later he walked out with the greatest grin on his face.

 He was back at the showroom in a week. This time, all dressed up, ready for the first ride on his new Royal Enfield. As he roared past the traffic, he remembered all the years of school and college that he had drooled at those motorcycles from outside. To the world, it was not the biggest of achievements. But to the ones who achieve great things, these small victories matter the most. And there was no better way to celebrate a victory than a joint with your best friend.

 ‘I’ll fucking ride this bike up to my fucking bedroom, man’ said Cijith.

 ‘And then you gonna get it drunk and sleep with it, too?’ laughed Sachin.

 ‘Fuck you, man! Just pass the fucking thing.’

 ‘What’s going on with your job, CJ?’

 ‘I don’t know, man! I’ve been getting all the worst channels to work on. And I don’t know what to do, there’s no one to guide or fucking mentor you here. My MBA looks like a joke. Looks like dead end, Sachin. I want to switch.’

 ‘I might have something for you. There’s this drive for Bajaj Fin coming up. You want to try?’

 ‘Sure, asshole! Why didn’t you tell me before?’

 ‘But it’s in Hyderabad.’

 ‘Oh!’ Cijith had a serious thinking expression on his face, but his eyes had lit up. He took his time before, ‘I’m in.’

 Cijith spent the next few days preparing for the new job. Even as a student, Cijith had showed potential; not always academic, but he had a knack for talking to people. Even before he finished his MBA, he had landed a job in ITC which he rejected afterwards. He was not born in a business family, but he sure had those genes. One day, he planned to head a Fortune 500 company. The interview in Bajaj was not the most difficult thing Cijith had to crack, even though it eliminated most of the applicants.

 The offer letter came. Cijith was elated, but slight uncertainty still loomed in the air. He went to his father, rather hesitantly. He was sitting on the drawing room sofa, reading the morning paper.

 ‘Dad?’

 ‘Hmm?’ the father said, without looking up.

 ‘I’ve been thinking,’ Cijith treaded lightly.

 ‘Good.’

 ‘I’ve been in L&T for a year now, and there’s no growth.’

 ‘So leave it.’

 ‘That’s what. I’ve been looking for another job. And I got one in Bajaj.’

 ‘Good.’

 ‘It’s in Hyderabad.’

 For the first time, his father looked up. He put down the newspaper on the table, took off his reading glasses and sat silently for a few moments. The lines on his forehead twitched; he seemed to visualise how life would be. He knew once children learned to live out of the house, they didn’t come back.

 ‘And you want to go?’ he finally said.

 ‘Yeah,’ said Cijith confidently.

 ‘Do you think it’s a good idea? New city and a new company?’

 ‘Yes.’

 ‘Hmm … Good, good luck there!’

 That summed up their relationship since childhood. A field of love parted by a thin, unnecessary wall that both wanted to climb over. But the father wanted the son to ask for it, and the son wanted the father to call him. But it was how it was. And it worked.

 Two months later, Cijith was in Hyderabad. He left everything behind – the security of the house, the homely streets of Kolkata, he even ended a yearlong relationship. He was living in a 2-BHK with two other friends. The new job could not have started on a better note. The work was good, the team he led was great; things were falling into place.

 Sheen was not supposed to disrupt his life. But when has man ever had any say in that? They clicked the moment they met. No violins played in the background, but yes, some sparks shot out. Within a month, they were dating. Talking to her was dangerously soothing. Her presence slowed things down to normalcy, put everything in perspective, and made him happy. Happiness is always teasing. We will chase it for years in our clothes, cars, houses. When it disappears, we look all around us to find it again so we can chase it again. And we’re tired and giving up, it silently comes from behind, puts its warm hands on our cold eyes and says, “Guess who”. That was Sheen for Cijith.

 The work-load at every month-end is at a high. Last day of every month, everybody would have to pull late shifts and all-nighters. Like many other, Cijith took a break with one of his managers, and they went to a nearby theka, and had a couple of beers. They came back, resumed work. Around one in the morning, Srini from Risk Analysis Team came to Cijith and asked for dinner. Risk Analysis Team was exactly what it sounded like – RAT. They would find out what you did wrong, and they would rat you out. Few minutes into the dinner, Srini said, ‘What about drinks? You had any?’

 ‘Oh yeah, I just came back an hour ago,’ said Cijith.

 ‘Come on, man,’ scoffed Srini, ‘you know it’s not allowed to drink and come to office.’

 ‘Eh, it’s no big deal,’ said Cijith, more involved with his fried rice than in the conversation.

 ‘But Bajaj has a policy, man.’

 Cijith laughed out loud. ‘Fuck Bajaj, man!’

 Three days later, Cijith got a warning letter stating he had been found under the influence of alcohol inside office premises using offensive language. Scared, Cijith denied all charges, going as far as claiming he had never touched alcohol in his life and that someone was plotting against him. This should shut them up, he thought.

 And it did. They did not contact him again, or bother him in any way. Over a month passed. Cijith came to office and one of his team members were complaining about being unable to log in to the system.

 ‘Fuck you, man! It’s been months and you still can’t figure out this shit?’ said an exasperated Cijith. Just then, his manager walked over to him, took him into a corner and said, ‘Cijith, your termination letter came.’

 The world froze around him. He stopped listening, processing, breathing for a few moments. Then the panic started, but he didn’t show it. He went home, all sweaty and out of breath. He called Satish, who personally knew the Superboss. If anybody could fix it, it was the Superboss. He was in Pune at the moment, but since Satish asked so desperately, he tried to fix things from there. A couple of hours later, the Superboss called.

 They had found a video of Cijith confessing to drinking and coming to office. But that was not the breaking point. He was recorded as saying, ‘Fuck Bajaj, man!’

 The HR would never let that go.

 Sheen came home and when Cijith told her, she freaked out. She held his hand and squeezed so tight it hurt. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Cijith was overwhelmed, because he just remembered this was the first time someone had cried for him. This welled up Cijith and he let it out too. It was a sad evening.

 For the next three months, Cijith survived on his savings. He didn’t tell his family what had happened. He couldn’t. Getting another job was difficult because he could not show them the Bajaj experience, it would count against him. And how else was going to justify the one year gap in between? I left my job because I was preparing to get into Army. Well, that didn’t happen, and I want to get back into corporate is what he would say every time someone would ask. He got rejected from three companies before he cracked the interview at Leela Insurance.

 It was not the same, but it was something. Cijith felt he was really restarting. Barring one incident where he got drunk and followed Srini, the one who got him fired, into a public washroom and spooked him out, he didn’t hold on to his past. Not only that, his past was letting go of him, too. With Sheen, there were less conversations, less meetings. They both had something good going on and both were afraid of letting it go. They dragged it for a few more months, then called it off like adults. Cijith didn’t really want to end it, but he could not walk the distance Sheen had brought between them all by himself.

 Nothing was going to distract Cijith now. He left home to rise up in the corporate world. And he will. He never stopped looking for a better opportunity while giving his best at LI. Eight months down, he got a job in Fern Cars. And he moved to Chennai.

 Cijith was not unhappy. But there was an emptiness that he was filling up with work. A sense of loneliness which he was veiling with parties and senseless hook-ups. He was the hardest worker in the office. A lot of the times he was away in different states, fixing issues for his company. If there was a problem in his department, everyone knew Cijith would fix it. One time, a dealer in Mizoram was selling Fern cars for an unauthorized commission, and the money was not coming to Fern. Cijith had to fly out there to set him straight, cancel his dealership, and get all the money back. Someone who has been in corporate knows getting money out of someone is the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. At home, he was having his kind of fun. Getting high and drunk was not infrequent.

 He was still in contact with Sheen. They had managed to stay friends. And why not? She had been one of the most important chapters of his life. She had held him when he was falling. She had listened to him. She had pierced through his hard exterior with the softest of touch.

 Three years, three promotions. By 28, Cijith was managing over seventy people, and he was younger than some of them. It was clear Cijith was set for greater heights. He was one of those rare breeds who tore through ranks and responsibilities, and owned everything he touched. He had no plan of settling down any time soon. He didn’t want to be bogged down by the responsibilities of raising kids. He wanted to travel the world, but not like those hippies and philosophers do. He had no nirvana to find, he just wanted to enjoy the best available luxuries.

 One day, his boss, Venu called him to his office and said, ‘Cijith, you know we’re trying to acquire FL Motors.’

 Cijith smiled. It was his idea to begin with. ‘Yes,’ he said.

 ‘Well, they’re playing hard to get. They’ve turned down our initial offer. They said they’re not looking to sell.’

 ‘That’s what they all say.’

 ‘So I want you to go down there and convince them.’

 ‘Why me?’ Cijith knew exactly why him. It was through his anonymous connections at FL Motors that he obtained info that the company was taking blows harder than they could handle. They needed a big brother.

 ‘Because you’re our best hope.’ Venu knew exactly what Cijith wanted to hear.

 Cijith smiled again. Silent understanding of the other person was his favourite kind. He agreed, and they made plans for the following week. Cijith would go down to their headquarters, connect with his source, and touch FL where it hurt.

 Cijith landed at the Changi Airport where a Mercedes was waiting for him. It took him to a Hilton where his suite had everything he could think of. Just when he thought so, there was a knock at the door. Cijith opened, and an Asian girl in a tight, deep cut sequin black dress which stretched just below her hips stood in the corridor, her straight black hair falling effortlessly below her shoulders, and her golden heels brought her up to Cijith’s height.

 ‘Good evening, Mr Jose. My name is Maria. Mr Darryl down at the reception wanted me to give you this card and tell you that if you feel stressful or lonely in this big suite, the number on here dials me.’ She handed him the card and without waiting for an answer, swiftly walked back down the corridor. Cijith looked at her go, kept looking long after she had gone.

 He called the number that night.

 He slept less than he should have, considering how much work he had to get done. Cijith spent the next three days secretly meeting his source inside FL Motors. He then went to meet the representatives of FL.

 Cijith entered the conference room, and froze in his tracks. Sitting one place left to the head of the table was Maria. He recovered quickly and tried to act like nothing was wrong. As soon he took his seat, as far from Maria as he could, the old man sitting beside her cleared his throat. His demeanour was threating, and a bead of sweat appeared on Cijith’s forehead.

 ‘Mr Jose,’ he said, in his slow, hoarse voice, ‘you wild, foolish motherfucker.’

 Cijith spent the next half hour being bashed, threatened, and shouted upon by the old man. At one point, someone had to stop him from jumping on Cijith and smashing his head. How could he sleep with the CEO’s daughter? When the old man was done, he had Cijith thrown out of the building by security. He was warned if he came to Singapore again, he would shred him to pieces. He would later find out that his source in FL Motors was actually working for the Vice President of the company, who had staged this whole thing, lured Maria into the scheme, to screw over Cijith. But why him?

 A shocked and numbed Cijith took the next flight back to India. He was dreading going to office. He could not tell them what had happened. He would just say that his research revealed that the FL Motors was drowning, and it wasn’t a good deal for Fern. But soon after he landed, he received his termination letter before he could make it out of the airport.

 Cijith went straight home. This cannot be happening again, he thought. It was not his fault. How was he supposed to know? No, it wasn’t fair. He had been loyal to the company. He had given his everything to them. He was their best man. They should’ve stood up for him, supported him. But nobody was even taking his calls. Loyalty was supposed to be a two-way street. Cijith’s guilt was soon turning into anger. He was drinking, and he was getting high. It was not fair, he thought again. They can’t do this to him.

 He opened his laptop, and tried to log in to the company’s network. Yes, his credentials were still valid. A week earlier, Cijith’s team had negotiated dealership rights to a wealthy man in a remote area of Punjab. It was a weak market, very risky. The owner had pestered Fern for months, and even offered to pay them 5,000,000 rupees as a security against their investment. So if he could not sell the Fern cars, they could keep the money. Cijith’s team was supposed to send him an email by next week accepting his offer if he paid the amount up front, with all the details of where to wire the money.

 Cijith wrote the email instead. He accepted the offer. He sent him the details. He included nobody else in the email, of course, and he waited. The next day, Cijith booked a one-way ticket to Jamaica. The next day, the excited man from Punjab had wired the money. But it came straight to Cijith’s personal account.

 Suspicion arose, but before anyone would figure out what had happened, Cijith had landed in Jamaica. He did not plan on going back. He went to a cheap hotel who didn’t ask many questions. He rented a car, drove along the beach. His adrenaline had still not calmed down. What had he done? What more could he do?

 For someone who had visited beaches in Bengal and Tamil Nadu, Jamaica was heavenly. The owner of the hotel he was staying at was an old, spirited man. He was always singing and smoking weed. After a few months, Cijith started working for the old man, helping him in his chores, welcoming the customer, in exchange for living there for free. The old man saw how smoothly he talked the customers into taking smaller rooms for higher rent. It’s the cosiest one we’ve got, he would say. He being from another country also attracted more customers.

 The old man died four years later, and he had left the hotel to Cijith, who, with his corporate experience and business mind, turned it into a franchise. In ten years, Jose Homes (earlier Chill Out Inn) became the largest hotel chain in Jamaica. Cijith’s family visited him three times in those ten years, and never again. Eventually, they lost touch. Cijith spent his last days in luxurious peace – just the way he liked it.