It is a little embarrassing-to type in random musings to be read by someone, somewhere is one thing. To be ‘read’ by people whom you know is another thing. Yet, it is so nice to know that so many of you celebrated my tiny victory.
So thank you very much for taking out the time to read this story.
The context: a short-story contest organized by TOI Books where the prompt was given by author Nikita Singh. These lines were supposed to be used ‘as-is’ in the story, within a word limit: “I didn’t think I would ever fall in love again. I know that everyone says that after a heartbreak, but the difference is that I’m not heartbroken. I’m not cynical, or pessimistic, or sad. I’m just someone who once felt something bigger than anything else I’d ever felt and when I lost it, I honestly believed I would never have that again. But... I was 22 then and life is long. And I’m feeling things right now that I haven’t in a long, long time."
It would be great if you could share your feedback too –on two levels:
a) What did you feel about the story-your first reaction?
b) What were the flaws/errors/logical gaps you felt? Questions you have? What would be a better story?
It would help me ‘hugely’ in my bigger project of writing a collection of short-stories about women we meet every day.
Phew-pasting the story I sent without further edits as Pooja, my chief reviewer is out of the country :)
Too numb to feel the rain soaking through her clothes, Naina slipped to the wet ground. She stared transfixed by the flames leaping in the dark; wild, unrelenting, and merciless. They were not merely cruel but scathingly indifferent as their deep red core devoured what was dead, reducing it to ashes that would get trampled into dust and then merge into nothing. Covered by a shed, they blazed alone after everyone else was chased away by the darkness and the rain.
Naina had walked in to the funeral ground out of sheer aimlessness, or maybe she was meant to be here. Something inside her had also died that day. Her dreams, her hopes, her plans, and her first and only love - a big part of her was dead now. Fire was supposed to be the messenger between the mortals and the Gods. In that moment, it seemed like the flames were burning inside her and the heavens were crying for her pain.
She had been so sure Rahul would propose today. Hadn’t he been hinting at it for weeks?
She still had to wait for years to complete her MBBS, then her residency and a PG degree; but surely they could get together as soon as he got a job? They had been in love since high-school and going away to a college in a different city had been heart-wrenching.
Rahul had found it unbearable: “What about me? Is being a Doctor more important than being with me?”
Naina knew Rahul was upset because he would miss her and so she had spent the last four years juggling between her studies and meeting Rahul. With the increasing pressure of studies and hospital duties it was becoming more and more difficult for her. Rahul had been getting frustrated. Maybe it was also because he had put his college degree on the back-burner to focus on his dream of playing football; and that too was getting nowhere.
Naina was sure of the power of true love to conjure up any solution and she held her breath as Rahul talked about his chances at football, his job offers, and his family’s hints at finding a girl for him. She realized he’d jog around the bush for hours and days so she’d cut in tactfully and taken charge of the conversation.
Rahul’s reaction had been completely baffling. He had acted surprised and sorry for her: “Oh Naina, I was afraid of this when you kept insisting on meeting me so often.” He told her about the girls who kept falling in love with him, his career plans, his family’s expectations…his words washed over Naina as she listened in a daze struggling to comprehend the words she was hearing “….never thought of you in that way…we were always good friends…will always be your friend…”
There were so many accusations she could have hurled at Rahul, so many truths to mock his words but she had known there was no point. She wasn’t sure whether it was pride or shock which made her smile at her own foolishness, agree to remain a good friend and walk out erect, smile firmly in place. She had continued walking, for what seemed like hours and miles till she had come to the deserted corner of the funeral ground.
The rain had stopped and even the fire was now an exhausted pile of embers. Naina dragged herself up and moved on.
Five years later….
Naina shivered and moved closer to the fire. That was a good move to stay out of reach of her friends who would pull her along to dance to the blaring music. On any other day, Naina wouldn’t have needed any coaxing. She would have been the life of the party, enthusing others with her ‘Joie de vivre’. Today she was still reeling from the shock of the day.
She had tried her best to wriggle her way out of this party. “I am too tired, you guys carry on...”
“Naina, it’s not a routine appointment that you can reschedule.” Her flat-mate Sonia refused to listen “It’s Holi and the date and time is fixed and you have to come. You can leave early if you want—or you might get over your stress and actually enjoy yourself.”
Naina knew she had to get back to normal and having fun with friends who cared, sounded like the best prescription for the moment. So she had dressed up and come but she was losing the struggle to keep her ‘everything’s fine’ mask on.
That one appointment kept playing on her mind like a video on a loop
When the nurse had announced ‘Next patient-Mrs. Komal Choudhary’, Naina had taken a quick look at the medical details before looking up with a warm smile, and she had frozen.
He was in the room; staring at her in shock, his wife nudging him forward as she greeted Naina politely.
Thank goodness for the nurse, who got them to their seats with robotic proficiency and began reeling off the patient summary to Naina. The jargon shook Naina out of the stupor of a woman looking at everything she had dreamt of, and lost.
“I have seen your file, Mrs. Choudhary. Before you and your husband make any decision, I’ll explain the options...” Naina shifted to her ‘efficient doctor’ mode as she blanked out all thought and talked about ovulation and sperms and timing to the man she had once thought would be the father of her own children, and his wife.
“I’ll write a few tests you’ll need to do and then we can meet with the reports sometime next week.” Naina handed over the file to the nurse already in position to whisk out the couple who had overshot their consultation time.
She was still shaking from the effort of not breaking down during the consultation as she stood staring at the flames of the Holi bonfire. It was supposed to be a cleansing fire, one which celebrated the joy of vibrant colors after a harsh cold winter. It reminded her of that fire years ago, the one which had scalded and ravaged her heart.
“Naina your dupatta is on fire!”
One of her friends yanked her back while another stamped on the smoldering dupatta. The ribbing started once everyone got over the scare “You must have been thinking of something really hot.” “Were you trying to become another Holika?”
“Do you want to go?” Sonia pulled her aside.
“Yes. But you stay on. I’ll call a cab.” Naina dusted the ash off her clothes and darted towards the exit.
Sonia ignored her as usual and walked towards her car. Naina stepped in and belted herself, too distracted to get into a futile argument. She leaned back and closed her eyes. She opened them a minute later when there was no sound of the car starting.
Best friends could be such a pain!
“Now what? I want to go home Sonia, I need to get out of these clothes.” She met Sonia’s stare head-on “And nothing else is wrong. I had a long day in the hospital and I am just tired.”
“You were thinking of that creep from high school who played football. Come on Naina, I know your Holi story. The way you still dream of that fairytale moment when he had touched your face to put gulal-that was ten years ago Naina. Grow up! That creep was sleeping with other girls while you were sending love-letters to him. He dumped you and married the Agarwal heiress-isn’t that reason enough to get over him?” Sonia paused for breath.
“I met him today.” Naina whispered.
Naina giggled, it was so rare for Sonia to run out of words. “…and that is why you were burning up...”
Naina cut her out, “Shut up! He had come with his wife for a consultation.”
“Oh, Naina. What rotten luck! How could you cope with that? Were you Ok? I hope he has enough sense to go to a different hospital next time; that will save you from looking for a reason to drop them as patients.” Sonia gave her a long look “You know you can’t be their doctor, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. I have to grow out of my teenage fairytale as you keep telling me. Today was a surprise, that’s all. I’ll have to learn to be ‘normal’ around him. Why should I run away?” Naina unbuckled her seatbelt. It didn’t seem like the car would be moving anytime soon.
“Because there are times when running away is the smartest thing to do! Look at yourself now. Why do you want to go through this and worse for months? Or do you actually want an excuse to meet him….”
Naina was used to jumping into the conversation the moment Sonia paused, “Hmm. You are right. I do need to find a closure with him before I can move on. And this may help me find... you know...the chance...Do you think I could prick him with a lethal injection or should I just bobbitize him?”
“That’s the spirit!” Sonia looked relieved for the first time that evening. “So do you want to go home and plot out the details of your sinister closure right now or go back to the party and have a drink to celebrate moving-on?”
Naina’s phone rang and she answered it before replying to Sonia.
“Hey…Oh I am perfectly alright...Yes perfectly…It was just a spark which fell on my dupatta...No...Actually we are still here…in the car parking…yeah...sure…”
“Dr. Manas?” Sonia had as usual, filled in the other half of the conversation herself “He heard that you were on fire and he came here?”
“Yes” Naina gave up fidgeting with her seatbelt and opened the door “And in answer to your previous question, we are going back to the party. They are bringing out the colors and the buckets and I need a good drenching to wash off all the soot on me.”
As Naina had assured Sonia, meeting Rahul and his wife was easier the next time. She even managed to answer his wife with a small smile and look in the direction of Rahul’s shoulder while answering his queries.
“It is a simple surgical procedure. I would recommend it. But you can always take a second opinion.” Naina offered them the excuse to visit another doctor as she returned the file to Komal. Rahul reached for it as Komal bent to pick up her handbag.
There was a zap of electricity as their fingers brushed against each other’s and Naina’s eyes met Rahul’s with a jolt. He looked haunted!
The door opened with a grating sound as the nurse ushered in another patient.
Naina stomped the memory of Rahul’s eyes out of her head ruthlessly, and focused on her work.
They came back for yet another consultation and then to plan for the surgery and then for the pre-surgery procedures. Naina managed to stay ‘normal’, polite and composed. Sonia eased up on her interrogations after every ‘The Creep’ appointment as she called him. She didn’t know about the accidental touches which were growing more frequent, the looks which tended to linger, the embers which continued to smolder.
After the time Rahul’s fingers rose almost as a reflex to brush back the stubborn lock of hair which kept falling over her eye, Naina recommended another doctor to them. “Dr. Mehta has an impressive success rate. He was my Professor in college and you are lucky he agreed to take you on.”
“Thanks Doctor, but I felt comfortable with you.” Coming from Komal, it felt like a warm compliment. Naina had stepped out of her irrational hatred of the woman she had been dumped for, and had started accepting her as a smart, beautiful woman who just happened to be a bit luckier. “Don’t worry. He is a wonderful Doctor and you can always call me if you want to discuss anything.”
Rahul had been the one to call. He also insisted on meeting her outside the hospital now that she was no longer his doctor. They did have a lot to talk about. They had been friends once and then lost touch completely. And now that Naina knew private details about his marriage, their conversations grew more candid and intimate.
Naina had been able to make out how things were between him and Komal from observing them together and picking up the nuances, but Rahul still needed to talk about everything. He was deeply unsatisfied and knew that he was living a mistake, but he was working for Komal’s father, he was going to be the father of her child and he didn’t think he had any other choice. Until now. The day he came and announced his decision to Naina, she knew she had found her closure.
“Are you sure?” Sonia had been surprised but thrilled with Naina’s decision.
“Hundred percent.”Naina was feeling at peace after a long time, “I didn’t think I would ever fall in love again. I know that everyone says that after a heartbreak, but the difference is that I’m not heartbroken. I’m not cynical, or pessimistic, or sad. I’m just someone who once felt something bigger than anything else I’d ever felt and when I lost it, I honestly believed I would never have that again. But... I was 22 then and life is long. And I’m feeling things right now that I haven’t in a long, long time. I knew we would take this step, but there was something holding me back. Now I can look ahead.”
Naina was resplendent in red as she leaned forward and added a dollop of ghee to the fire and repeated the mantra “…Swahaa.” The flames crackled merrily as they conveyed her prayers to the heavens.
Rahul stood glowering at a distance, watching her glow in the halo cast by the happy flames, blushing as Manas nudged her mischievously while he leaned in beside her to add his prayers“…Swahaa.”
Naina had been dating Manas all this time! She had been talking to Rahul as just a good friend! While he had been cribbing about his marriage and his frustrations, she had been contrasting them with how she and Manas felt when they were together. While he had been blurting out his clumsy plan to find happiness for himself within a stifling relationship, he had been helping Naina finalize an early date for her wedding with Manas!
Komal laughed with the rest of the crowd as Manas brushed back a lock of Naina’s hair and she elbowed him with a bashful look. Rahul crushed the bunch of flowers in his fist, resisting the urge to throw it in that fire as they burnt his hopes to ashes.