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A rainy evening-1997, Palakkad- India
It was raining like hell. Five boys raced through the monstrous monsoon at lightning speed. They were pedaling their BSA SLRs as hard as their strengths allowed them to. Visibility on the Kozhikode highway was almost zero since the rain-drops slapped every eye that went naked against it. But nothing seemed to deter the boys. They kept pedaling as if ‘The Undertaker’ was following them for a smack down. Earlier when they had started from their respective homes in Parakunnam, a marginalized settlement in Palakkad town, there was no rain. But by the time they reached Govt. Victoria College, it started raining like cats and dogs. Now there was no stopping since it was the most important day for one of them. His name was Vinay and the 17 year old was the one who was riding ahead of all of them. By the time they reached Chathapuram (their intended destination), most of the students were already out of Iyyar Sir’s Maths tuition class. The pouring rain was nothing more than a subdued drizzle now. The five men army circled the vicinity as if performing a slow cycle race. Vinay’s cold brown eyes searched for her. He looked a lot more handsome than his usual self with wet hair and rain-cleansed skin. His jaw muscles tightened when he saw her and that made his face look more angular. Vinay was sure she saw him, but was pretending otherwise. That made him really angry. Vinay dismounted his bicycle and kicked in the stand, right in front of Iyyar Sir’s house. Students started staring at him from under the umbrella. With the deliberation of doing something cruel or uncertain, he walked towards the girl. She had thick black hair, pony-tailed and hanging across her shoulders that hosted a brown Duckback school bag. The bag’s zip was half open. Like a rabbit shivering at the presence of a leopard, she shivered as Vinay strode towards her. She clutched the handle of her umbrella tight (as if Poppy Umbrella was going to save her) and before she could take another step, he blocked her progress.
Preetha did not move, neither did she have the strength to glance upward, for that would mean to look in his eyes. They were classmates for ten long years and he had proposed her last month. Vinay confessed that he had a huge crush on her from 3rd standard onwards. He also confessed that the sapling of a crush was now a fully grown tree of love. Though she believed a part of this story (a tiny part), she was 100% sure that a larger part cooked up. Well each time Vinay said he loved her, she vehemently said NO. But her blunt rejections seemed to make him more persistent. Now after almost 30 days and 30 nights, even she was not sure if her NOs were good enough. Now she had her own set of doubts. Whether she loved him or hated him; Preetha’s tender heart did not have an answer in black and white. She calculated that the best way out of this wretched situation was to avoid Vinay. That strategy seemed to have completely backfired. Vinay seemed to be more infuriated and agitated by this action of hers. He was following her with his bunch of cronies everywhere she went. She looked sideways and saw them standing there. The one in the front was Srinath, the fatso, he was Vinay’s cousin. And then there was Nirmal, Prasad and Vishnu. They were all with Vinay in this. One glance and anyone could tell that they were born rowdies. The only one who seemed to have a comparatively innocent face was Nirmal, who was also happened to be their classmate. Though tall and long haired, everyone called him Kullan or Shorty (she still had no clue why they did that). Looking at his innocent, expressionless face, she could not suppress a smile.
“In the class you won’t talk to me…so I waited near the library and later near the banyan tree near the entrance of the school… “
“I left through the back gate…” she replied looking down, not looking in Vinay’s eyes. She pursed her lips to stop an erupting smile.
“I need an answer today…” there was a kind of frustrated longing in his voice.
Silence is all that he got in reply.
“Tell me… do you love me…” his voice was timid this time and she could feel his sincere love for her in those words. But she was not ready…not yet. The ever so strong boy looked all too weak now. This was her chance to capitalize on him…
“Look Vinu its board exams this time…go and study well…”
“I want to study… but I cannot. All the time I’m thinking about you…”
“Get lost…or I will tell my mother…”
“Don’t threaten me ok…if there is problem talking to me here, see I have written my heart out in this…” He took something out of his pocket. Initially Preetha thought it was a hand kerchief. But then it was a love letter, a wet and sodden one though. By the time he handed it over to her, she was laughing aloud looking at the mix of water and ink dripping from that love letter. She took it anyhow, opened the fragile, ink smeared letter. She read its contents and looked into those eager brown eyes of Vinay. Then with a smile she said:
“Good. Now I want to tell you two things…”
“Really…” there was hope in his voice and eagerness in those eyes.
“The first thing is that you need to go for an English tuition for sure. With this kind of English you are anyway going to fail in paper1 and paper2…”
Vinay’s face became pale.
“Second thing is your approach towards me seems as unimpressive like this letter itself… I don’t love you… so keep this letter. Go and study for tomorrow’s class test…”
She pushed the letter into his hands and walked past him. Her strides were a lot more confident this time. Vinay was speechless and felt totally numb. At that instance Vignesh Bus came, she got into that bus along with tens of other students. Vinay stood there, drenched and disappointed. He kept gazing inside the crowded bus, searching for her. Then he saw a glimpse of Preetha’s beautiful face and his heart just missed a beat.
Five cycles and five pairs of dirty feet wearing white Paragon slippers moved in parallel. Vinay and his friends pushed their BSA SLR’s at a snail-slow speed. Everyone felt so stupid about how they had raced here to enjoy some real action and how Preetha had disappointed them all. There was an India-Pakistan day-night match going on. They all had bunked their afternoon class for watching the match and they had missed a major chunk of Pakistan’s batting for Vinay’s sake. Had it been India batting first, they would have killed him. Even then Nirmal was sad. He believed that his Cricket Gods would send him to purgatory if he missed even a single ball of an Indo-Pak one dayer. Curses flowed profusely as they walked their way back home. Each of them carried out a lengthy retrospection of today’s failure and unanimously came to a conclusion that it was Vinay’s love letter in English that was the root cause. And by the time they reached home, Pakistan had finished 295/4. And Abhi Kuruvilla was smashed for a disappointing 70 runs in just 6 overs for no wickets by Inzy and Saed Anwar. Vinay understood that the day was damned…for him, his state and his country.
Doordarshan News was the greatest kill joy of all next to KSEB when it came to dampening Cricket fever. The news never seemed to end and Vinay’s father could not afford a cable TV back then. He cursed everything under the sky for missing the precious half hour of the match when Sachin and Ganguly were in such a fantastic nick. Well, there was little or even no point in complaining since there was a class test next day. So he pretended to study while eagerly waiting for the match to resume on TV. Suddenly the news reader became a bit excited:
“Ippozh kitiya vartha (News update just received)…”
The DD news readers were seldom emotional since they lacked any kind of excitement towards any kind of news. India winning the match and India loosing the match would be read with the same tone. But all of a sudden, this lady on the screen seemed all excited. The sudden surge in the energy of the otherwise bored out news reader caught Vinay’s attention:
“…Arundati Roy becomes the first Indian Woman to win Man Booker Prize for her debut novel God of Small Things …”
The news went down a few more lines explaining the details of the prize. The News Reader seemed to stress on the fact that Arundati Roy was half-malayali and half-Bangali. Vinay was mesmerized. That news touched his heart. He remembered how Preetha had asked him to go and learn better English. He gazed with wonder at the photograph of a thin, unkempt, unconventional curly haired woman in her early thirties smiling at him from over the TV screen. They showed her photograph till they were done with the news. And once done, the news gave way for action packed cricket. But even as Sachin and Ganguly trashed the Pakis all around the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, the smiling face of Arundati Roy kept playing in his mind. He did not cheer aloud as usual when India beat Pakistan by 6 wickets with three balls to spare. Some unknown force seemed to have made a profound impact in that young mind.
It was after the first hour that Vinay was summoned to the Head Mistress’s room. He was playing pen fight with Nirmal and had won two successive games as well. That was when the peon came for him. Preetha had not come to school. As Vinay walked towards the HM’s cabin, he tried to reason out why. Especially on a day when there was a class test scheduled, there was no way she would miss a class. For an instance he cursed himself for causing all the trouble. But he could not help his actions. He was damn sure he can never make it till the end of his life without her.
In that room that smelled of chart papers and chalk powder, three grim faces were huddled together waiting for Vinay. The first face was that of his class teacher Smt. Mary Thomas, next one was the HM whom they (both students and staff) all lovingly called Rakshasi (‘coz she was a devil of a woman), the third and last face belonged to none other than Preetha’s mother, Smt. Sathyabhama. She taught English in the high school section… in the same school.
“How dare you give love letter to a girl whose mother is a teacher in the same school…” the Head Mistress thundered. But Vinay felt as if a bulldog was barking at him, it was only that fearsome.
Vinay stood still, with bent head and arms stuck behind in obedience and in total submission. He felt like he was being boiled inside the blue and white uniform, under those angry stares. He cursed himself for putting the love letter back in to Preetha’s half open bag seconds before she dashed for the bus. Now nothing could be done. He had to face the music.
His class teacher beat him with the cane a few times and few drops of tears did spill off his eyes. But he held on. Finally the head mistress commanded:
“Take your bag and get lost. Come with your parents and only after that you will be allowed inside the class. Now get out…”
As he left the room he heard the head mistress say:
“You need not worry teacher…we will get rid of this nuisance…” And those words stung him like no other word had ever done. He could not believe that Preetha would hand over the letter he gave her. No. That was not her. She loved him…did she not? He knew that she was sensible. No…something had gone wrong. Vinay brushed away his tears, took a long breath and then entered the class. There was so much commotion inside the classroom that hardly anyone noticed him taking his bag and leavening the class.
Preetha came to school next day. She looked for Vinay, but she never saw him. Neither his parents came. That day evening, she expected a visit from him and his gang in front of the tuition class. But nobody came. She missed his arrogant yet protective presence. Preetha went home totally sad and dispirited. She wondered what had gotten into her. She tried to inquire her mother regarding this, but mother was not interested even to talk. She kept blaming Preetha for not telling the truths in time. Preetha felt her mother was merciless when she told that had she not accidentally found the letter from Preetha’s bag, she would have never known about this stuff.
“I will make sure that boy studies in some other school…anyway he will not continue here…” her mother had sworn.
That night she could not sleep. She liked Vinay. But was it love? She hardly knew how to define her own feelings. A few drops of tears tickled down her eyes as she tried desperately for a peacfull sleep. Next day she waited eagerly to meet Vinay. But he did not come to the class. So she pretended to go to the water cooler kept near HM’s room every hour or so as an excuse to see if Vinay or his parents were there.
But No…nobody came.
Days turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months. There was no news of Vinay. She kept asking Nirmal about his whereabouts. And every time she questioned Nirmal, he kept telling the same thing, that Vinay had left the school and went somewhere else. And when she asked where, he would say he did not know. She knew he was hiding something. Board exams were approaching and she was finding it difficult to concentrate in her studies. Even her mother looked somber. One evening when her father had gone out, Preetha finally decided to confront her mother regarding this matter:
“What happened to Vinay… ?”
“WhhWhh…why…why do you want to know…??” , her mother was totally taken aback by her daughter’s new found boldness.
“I want to know…he was my friend and classmate for 10 years. I have every right to know…” Preetha’s face was flushed red and she was almost in tears.
Mrs. Sathyabhama came and hugged Preetha tight. Preetha broke into sobs as her mom caressed her hair, comforting her.
“Nothing…nothing my dear… he is safe…somewhere…we don’t know…”
Preetha pushed herself away and there was nothing but loathing in her eyes for her mother now.
“What do you mean by safe….? What do you mean by somewhere…? Did you not enquire?” she shouted.
“Yes we did. After one week, when nobody came from his home we called his landphone…”
“The phone was dead and….”
“Tell meeeeee……Amma….what happened…”
“Me and HM went to his home… it was locked. We checked with the neighbors…and…”
“They told that Vinay and his family left…”
“Where did they go…”
“Don’t know…nobody knows…”
Preetha shrieked and her mother rushed to her and covered her mouth with both hands. But still she shrieked at the top of her voice and tears ran purple down her cheeks. Her mother tried to calm her down. And that’s when she heard father honking the car angrily urging her / mother to open the gate for him. Her mother released the grip from Preetha’s mouth. She requested her daughter not to cry anymore and study well… but all the time Preetha kept saying:
“You are lying….you are all lying….” And she fell down over the cold marble floor, her dress completely drenched in tears.
Two years latter : A cruel summer afternoon- 1999-Shornur Railway Station
The sun scorched everything under it. The train became a box of static oven for human beings sitting inside. On top of sweat and heat, none of the fans were running. It was horrible. Preetha and her mother had come for HM’s daughter’s wedding and were sitting in the Shornur-Trichy passenger.
“The paalada was so good…ille mole…”
“ya it was ok…”Preetha replied totally disinterested.
She was sitting by the window seat. She looked out through the train’s window into the infinite, cloudless sky. Suddenly there appeared a set of migrating birds flying in a structured ‘V’ shaped formation. But the last two birds abruptly broke out and started flying in the middle, close to each other giving the formation a ‘<3’ shape. And suddenly Vinay’s handsome face came to her mind. Two years had passed since she last saw him. She had passed SSLC with distinction. She had prepared hard for Engineering Entrance and 10+2. But somewhere in her heart Preetha knew that she just did things for the sake of doing it. There was something missing in her life. She wondered what had happened to Vinay and where he would be right now. She found it amusing to think about him running the same thoughts as she did right now. A nostalgic, romantic smile crossed her lips as her heart pulsated a bit harder in response to her feelings.
“Are you feeling thirsty Preetha…” Her Amma asked
“Yess…it is so hot”
That’s when a voice cried at the top of its voice and walked towards where they were sitting:
“Chai chai…chaye chaye…Madam.. Chaya??”
Both mother and daughter were startled when they saw the guy selling the tea. The chaywala was also shocked.
“Teacher!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Vinay smiled lavishly as he kept the heavy tea cask with a bang on the train’s floor. Neither of the three could believe what they were seeing. Preetha was shocked…she felt like she was dead. Her heart literally stopped beating for a few moments. Sathyabhama teacher looked at Vinay with an open mouth which closed only after Vinay asked her if she wanted a cup of tea.
“Ahheemmm… No mone…no…we just had a heavy lunch…”
“Still…teacher…you both should have a cup of tea…please…for my sake…”
Preetha and her mother looked at each other and were wondering what to say when Vinay poured hot tea into two paper cups. They gave a feeble smile and sipped the tea.
“Nice tea…” Teacher said
“Mmmm…” Preetha nodded in agreement.
Silence seemed to bounce between the three. They all found it really odd being like that. Some fellow passengers were either dozing off or were busy with some magazines.
“So..mone…tell me what happened to you…?why you did not come to school after that day…?” Teacher asked Vinay, looking in his eyes. He hesitated a bit, but eventually decided to tell the truth.
“That day after I went from school, my father got a cardiac arrest. He was in ICU for 3 days, but we could not save him. He passed away on the fourth day. I was left with my mother and a little brother to take care of. They wanted to inform the school but I said no. My mother’s health is also not that sound. Already there were some bank loans waiting their due for long. My father was a failed businessman…so we disposed everything, settled our debts and ….shifted here…”
“Why you could have stayed there itself Vinay…?” Teacher’s voice shuddered as she spoke
Vinay looked at Preetha and then at her mom and then shrugged.
“No teacher…no…that won’t be good. Moreover I had to do a job without distraction… Palakkad is not good for that…There will be people who know me and my mother. My father has more enemies than friends. They would never let us live in peace there….so I came here….”
“What about your studies??”
“Studies and all will happen teacher… No problem…I will do some correspondence course or attend evening classes…that will happen someday…” Vinay gave a painful smile as he uttered those words.
“For that you need to get your certificates son…come to school one day…I will help you with that…” there was a sea of affection in her voice.
“So you are working as tea vendor??…How is the business….?”
“Business actually belongs to my uncle…Me and my cousin help him run it…today the guy who served tea is on leave…so I’m here as back up…”
Both Preetha and Sathyabhama Teacher seemed to have finished their tea; there seemed nothing to be said any more. Vinay looked at Preetha. She looked much more gorgeous than he had seen her two years back. She had groomed herself into a beautiful, sophisticated girl with richness sparkling out of everything she wore or held. He smiled at her and felt a little ashamed to be sitting and talking to them in shabby, grease stained jeans and T-shirt. He felt especially embarrassed about his apron that was not washed for ages. They spent a few more minutes in silence. That’s when Vinay’s fatso cousin Srinath came in shouting:
“Cool drinkseee…Cool drinkseeee…Cola, Pepsi, Thums Upeeee….”. His voice was a horrible baritone. It reminded them of coconut shell being rubbed on barren rock.
He looked even more menacing now and had put on a lot of weight in two years. Preetha got scared looking at him. But Vinay got up with a smile and introduced his cousin who looked bewildered. But Srinath looked at Preetha for a few seconds and once he recognized her face, he figured out the situation. He smiled at Vinay showing all his yellow teeth and Vinay pinched his cousin’s fat buttocks asking him to close his stupid mouth.
When all this was going on, Preetha’s mother had silently taken 500 rupees from her purse. The train’s high pitched horn blared indicating that it was going to begin its journey. Sathybhama Teacher tried to slip Rs.500 into Vinay’s dirty apron pocket.
“Keep it Vinay… this is for you…keep it”
“Teacher what are you doing…?? No way… please …keep it with you…”
Preetha’s mother struggled a lot but she could not make him take that money. Srinath looked at those 500 rupees as if he wanted to snatch it and run. But Vinay did not take it. The train started moving and was gaining speed. At that moment, Vinay took a big bottle of Miranda from Srinath’s ice bucket, tossed it onto Preetha’s lap. She looked in to his charming eyes and sat spellbound. Vinay’s tanned faced looked handsome and Preetha could see every bristle of his manly stubble. They kept looking at each other as if nothing else mattered and that moment was LIFE.
“Da come, train is moving…come Vinuuuuu….” Srinath shouted pulling at his T-shirt. The magic was broken. Vinay took the heavy Tea-cask and dashed behind Srinath. Both of them jumped off the train safely on to the platform.
Inside the train, Preetha took the Miranda bottle in her right hand and looked at it affectionately. A river of love flowed between her eyes and that bottle. It was summer and she was damn thirsty….as her mother watched her, she opened the bottle with a fuzz. She lovingly pressed the bottle against her lips and took a long lovely sip of Miranda. The chilled fluid seemed to move down like a snake within her. She felt refreshed and soothed out completely. Preetha felt like her body had finally met its soul and she took another long sip. Then she looked into the sky once again through the train’s window.
“The magic was broken, but love is still there…And he had given a lot more than he had ever taken…” her heart thumped hard against her ribs as her thoughts flew like another bunch of migrating birds flying towards an unknown destination.
Whether Preetha was Vinay’s last love, only time would tell….but for Preetha, he was definitely her first!!!!
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