Never trust the rains. Not when you have lost a ton of outdoor fun as a child to twisting torrents. Nor if your classmate’s skull was squished like a melon under a passing truck when his bicycle slipped in a rain-fed mire. Or much later, if you stood under a dripping tree for hours waiting for the girlfriend who would rather frolic with the rich man’s son.
Cloistered together in the auto that evening, the normally wispy fragrance borne by Zenia swamped me with a bewitching force. The feeling hung like a thick mist in the cocktail of pounding rain and high-pitched drone of the auto, zig-zagging its way through a deluge of tail lights. Soon the rain started catching up with us through the flanks and worse, from a slit in the rexine roof at the top. The steady trickle turned into a watery wall between us as we had to shift farther away to dodge it. Looking through the corner of my eye I could see her sitting straight and gazing at the void ahead.
“What does the rain remind you of?” She sensed me watching.
“You tell me, Zenia. You are the princess in the chariot,” I said. “I don’t remember many nice things!”
She laughed heartily at that. “Am I a mushy fool out of Mills and Boons?”
“No, I am quite sure you are not. Yet, you vaguely remind me of a princess whom I met in a book somewhere or probably in a game that I played”.
“Do find out and tell me,” she quipped.
Zenia indeed reminded me of a forlorn princess under some jinx. But unlike the Princess who was abducted by the evil vizier of her father in an adventure game, and put on the terrace of a crumbling castle, Zenia was out there in open, free as a bird. Still, there seemed to be an invisible cage incarcerating her, whose bars were painful to touch and perceptible only to her. Was she hiding a thunderstorm behind that serene exterior? Was something chipping at her soul even as she walked, spoke, laughed, lived and looked grand? And just as in that game, was there an hourglass somewhere with the sand trickling down steadily for her too?
“I like the rain but it does invoke mixed emotions in me,” I said at last.
“And I had always wanted to run in the rain as a child, droplets nipping at my face like pins. Only, they wouldn’t let me do that.” Zenia said thoughtfully.
“Are your parents strict?” I asked.
“They were never there to be strict or anything at all when I grew up. They had died in an accident while I was still an infant.”
“I am so sorry!” I mumbled, feeling like a swine.
After a brief silence, she started telling me about her farewell in Tokyo and how she had received an i-Pod as a parting gift. She wanted me to try it. The music instantly lifted the soul. We started discussing music and we both agreed on Norah Jones. My favourite was ‘Don’t know why’ and she felt charmed by ‘Come away with me’. I wondered who she would want to go away with in the night, instead of me. The rain came to a stop with a suddenness as if cued. We fell silent again.
Zenia had a brother who was settled in Chicago and many thought she would go there for higher studies and eventually end up living there. At some point, I asked her whether that was true. She kept brooding for a long time at that and nodded her head saying ‘probably yes’. Even though I had known it all along, it hit my gut like a javelin.
“Never mind!” She said after a while. “Have you heard of Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq?”
“I would think so,” I said.
“Life cast me inshore, death took me away,
None a wish of mine to drift either way.”
As she quoted Zauq in a soft, modulated voice, she seemed alone like a tree under the night sky. The auto took the last vicious turn on the road.
Zenia was strangely subdued the following day at office. We didn’t meet till late in the afternoon when she needed my input in some document. Keeping to monosyllables till the end, she smiled wanly as she turned to go.
On the other hand, Nina, the queen of melodramas, was gleaming like a pearl. She was oozing honey and kicking off animated discussions at the coffee machine. Since I was also a bit distracted, I didn’t pay attention to the extra-curricular activities taking place around. However, just as I was about to leave for the day, Nina ambled meaningfully to my desk, something she rarely did, and asked me if I was aware of an SMS doing the rounds.
“Should I be bothered?” I asked.
“Maybe you should!” she said with a smirk.
I collected my bag and dashed for the favourite local train. I was eagerly pulled into the crowd with the usual round of rowdiness and back slapping. Yesterday, it had been Nilesh, the Big-Mouth’s birthday. He had a cake specially made for the ‘train-mates’. Everyone wanted to know why I had missed that.
“Oh, he is moving around with a model these days!” Someone let the cat out of the bag. That set the Big-Mouth going. The Big-Mouth who didn’t even spare the signal posts from his wisecracks.
“Oh, O! Now that you say, I know, I know! I’ve been watching and watching you well, my boy! I know, you have finally found someone you can flash off. Good for you, boy! You are getting older fastest of us all, aren’t you? Are you taking solid profile shots with your SLR, yet? ” Clearly, he had noticed me and Zenia rushing together at the platforms.
But the Big-Mouth had a heart worth its weight in gold. He’d leave no stones unturned in helping the distraught and the injured. For those, dead in the daily warfare of commuting in Mumbai, he just folded his hands though. Like me, he was also a father of twin daughters and he would shoot foam bullets at me. His bias was apparent to all.
I kept thinking of Nina’s smirk and the reference to some SMS that night. I remembered she had been barely able to contain the smugness in her face the whole day. Was the SMS, whatever it contained, a handiwork of hers? I kept running the faces in the office through my mind’s scanner time and again. Faces of Manish, Pranav and Ronil welled up among others, without presenting a credible source of felony, for reasons good or bad. I felt an urge to call some of them and find the hell about the damn thing, and possibly, have it forwarded to me. But I let the moment pass.
Zenia remained withdrawn for a few more days after that. Sadly, it rubbed a few egos the wrong way and she lost several followers to Nina who had transmogrified into an accomplished socialite. Eventually, I quizzed none other than Zenia one day when we took an auto again for the journey homewards.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said quickly. “I’ve been preoccupied with filling up piles of application forms and then sending them overseas of late.”
“Which place it is going to be, then?” I asked.
“As of now, I truly don’t know,” She said thoughtfully. “Maybe I will go to my brother’s at Chicago and do it all from there. It should make life a lot easier.”
A tranquillity seemed to have settled about her that day and she seemed willing to speak about things that touched her deeply. She said she didn’t feel pain about passing away of her parents but sometimes she felt like crying for not knowing what they were like. Are the days brighter and the nights calmer when you are a daughter? She talked about someone in office, how she felt his eyes glued to her breasts even when she was miles away from him. I learnt that even though she was very much a part of the i-Pod culture, she remained grounded to her roots. She rarely missed her daybreak and bedtime prayers, the Fajr and the Isha. She would duly observe fast in the month of Ramadan and stay away from i-Pod and other distractions for the whole period. She was embittered by the hypocrisies and prejudices that people flaunted like medallions. Her niece at Bangalore was her abiding love and my daughters reminded her of them.
Somewhere along the stream of her confessions, she told me she would resign by the weekend and will leave for Bangalore to be with her niece. Her tickets to Chicago were already booked for the coming Wednesday. She would probably never return.
I wondered how Nina would react to her departure. Probably go berserk with joy? I tried not to think about myself.
She did resign as she had said and slipped away quietly. However, she needed to settle some dues to the company before she could be finally discharged. I spent the entire Monday waiting for her listlessly. But she didn’t turn up at all and her phone remained switched off. But she appeared next day in the afternoon carrying a gift-wrapped box, calm and composed as in her earlier days. She walked straight to my cubicle and put the gift on my table.
“This is for you, so that you have a tough time forgetting me!” She was smiling hard. “And in case you are wondering how you will carry it home in a bustling train, we are riding an auto again!”
After a brisk farewell organised by the office, we set out on our last journey together. We realized we had chosen a noisy auto once it started moving. Also, something seemed to be wrong with its engine as it frequently missed beats and even came to a halt with a jerk on a busy intersection, to the annoyance of the traffic police. The driver was hauled up to a corner where a bunch of them checked out his papers and fleeced him of some cash. He returned cursing profusely.
“Is there a problem with the auto?” I asked him.
“No problem with the auto,” He rasped. “It’s the engine. Never trust a Muslim!”
We sat there as if slapped.
He went on to explain how he had trusted a ‘Muslim’ with installing a CNG kit in his petrol vehicle. He had paid a hefty sum for kit but it was paying him back with hell, barely two months after the job. He also added that the others who got theirs from people of different creeds were laughing their way to the highway.
Somehow, there seemed to be an abnormally high and noisy traffic on the road that day. We had to speak quite loudly to be heard. After a while, I realized I had been getting repeated calls from someone. I fished out the mobile phone to check. It said, 49 missed calls; Home: 31; Manish: 18. My heart skipped a beat. God, what could be wrong? I had trouble calling back Home and managed to get through after many, many attempts, my heart racing madly all the while.
“Where in God’s name, are you?” My wife was howling at the other end.
“I am fine and coming home! Is there a problem or something?” I asked.
“If you are in a train, get down fast and come by road! Bombs are blowing away the trains left and right and thousands have died!” The call got disconnected after that.
I looked at Zenia who was also reassuring someone over her phone, “Oh, I am fine…. I am fine. I am not in a train…”
Now I started calling back Manish and it took me several minutes before I could connect to him. “Sir, where are you?” He sounded agitated. “The first class coach of the train which you used to board daily has been blasted beyond recognition. It is all a mess of twisted metal, limbs, blood and dead bodies now… I was in the coach behind it. I have been looking desperately for you! Sir, life is cheaper than turds in a gutter— I have a confession to make, forgive me today if possible. I was the fool who shared that SMS about you and Zenia in an auto…”
Suddenly, the agitated driver was also babbling with someone over his phone, “Bombs… Mumbai… Pakistan… Muslims… Terrorists!!”
The thought of others who used to travel in that doomed coach struck me like a bolt. I frantically tried to connect to Nilesh but his phone remained ‘switched off’. I kept ringing Swami who was also part of the group and he picked up the phone after a long time.
“Hello! Mihir bhai? I can’t hear you —where are you now?” He demanded.
I told him where I was.
“Some bloody bomb went off in our coach!” His voice was weak with pain. “My ears are still ringing and I can’t hear properly. I have a deep gash in my head. Mihir bhai, Nilesh is no more. I am so sorry! I found him on the track after the blast. I couldn’t find his head.”
I kept staring at the mobile phone that had gone silent.
“Someone you know died?” The prescient driver asked with the wisdom of the netherworld. “What did I tell you, Saheb? Shouldn’t this Hindu-Muslim thing have ended with the partition in 1947? Why did we listen to that Gandhi?”
My mind wandered back to Nilesh who was lying headless somewhere on the tracks. The ‘Big-Mouth’ had slipped into that biggest mouth of all. I remembered when I had bumped into his family last year in a mall and he had introduced me to his wife and twin daughters, ‘meet the other one with twin dolls!’ His wife had eagerly invited us for a family get-together. Where were they now? My heart leapt to my throat. Did someone tell them? Or is life still the same for them, the evening just another page in the book of life? But, someone had already burnt the manuscript.
Zeina had been waiting for me to calm down. The auto’s engine had taken to a soft purring, cowed by the clamouring of the humans. I passed on the bits of news of the carnage to her; I told her all I could remember about Big-Mouth. She fought a battle with her eyes for a while but then let them go in the end. Sometimes, when I am thinking back of that day, I pull out my handkerchief to wipe away her tears from my fingers.
She said the end is unforgettable after all. Who knows whose tears one is shedding?
(This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental and unintentional.)