The Guardian

“So, have you decided the city yet?” asked Arvind.

“I don’t know. I am constantly torn between raising our child closer to nature, or letting all three of us have better opportunities in a metropolitan set-up. Small towns are ruled out since the chaos in such cities like our hometowns is only of a different kind. They are just aspiring to be like big cities in every manner possible. You want to live there for more peace and quiet. The only thing you’d get there is more time, and you wouldn’t know what to do with it. Yes, more savings too. I don’t know.”

Vaidehi had never been scarce with words. She spoke as she thought– like a flowing river of ideas, opinions, merits and demerits, emotions, right or wrong and what not. There were only a few people in her life who could figure out the coherence in what she was saying, or at least they tried to, out of the love they had for her.

She continued, “Now two options remain, either to stay here or get transferred to Bhutan. Currently, I’m on Bhutan. I can open an Indian restaurant in Paro or Thimpu, whichever is closer to your site. I could homeschool our kid in Science and Maths apart from regular school and he or she could come back to India for higher studies. It would be such a wonderful life in the mountains. But there is no comeback route if we get frustrated of too much peace. I hate not having options. Urgh! Let’s not spoil this moment in practical discussions. Let’s just be silent for a while.”

The sea was roaring 20-feet below them as they were walking on the higher ramparts of the crowded seaside fort. The clouds were shaking off the last of their water in the form of a light drizzle after heavy rains. As a wave crashed over the cemented shore down below, she felt gratitude wash over her, for the father of this 7-month old child in her womb. The man who took care of her world while she was floating around in her fantasies. The man who gave wings to her fantasies, his practical mind hoping that her flight would lead them somewhere, while his hands sturdily holding the reins of their chariot horses until she was ready to take flight.

“I know that you would love our child even more than you love me. And witnessing that would be the most wonderful thing in my life”, she said as she slyly slid her hand in his. He didn’t get awkward for doing that in public, so she knew he was feeling it too– the magic in this moment.

The spell was broken by a raw but friendly voice. It was one of the guards of the fort.

“You can’t go further, Saab. Minister Saab will be coming for a stroll. He is staying in the circuit house nearby.

That spot had become over-crowded on account of all the people held up there. They all seemed content watching the sea while standing there, having a good time with their families or friends.
This part of the rampart was overlooking the entryway from the circuit house, down at the sea-level. The gate led to a wide cemented area of about a square kilometer, which converted into a fringe road along the sea. It was built in such a way that except during high tide, the waves crashed by the shore but didn’t wash up that fringe road.

“Is that area down there still open for visitors?” Arvind asked the guard.

“You can hire a motorbike, walking is not allowed. The speed limit is 40 kmph”, the guard replied.

“We won’t exceed that anyway”, said Arvind.

“It’s the lower limit, Sir. So that people would not block the road by stopping in between the ride.”

It sounded absurd. And dangerous. Arvind turned to Vaidehi.

“It doesn’t seem safe to me, especially in your condition, and with all the mist hanging around. Let’s skip the adventure for another time. What do you say?”

Before she could answer, a commotion had stirred the crowd. They looked in the direction everybody else was looking. The minister was entering from the circuit house gate on a motorbike, with an attendant riding it. Apparently, he had decided to take the adventurous fringe route, without bothering to inform the inconvenienced smaller-than-life commonfolk stalled up on the wall.

The crowd didn’t seem bothered though. Indians have been numbed by VIP culture for so long that they do not feel the injustice anymore. They had diverted their attention from the sea to catch a glimpse of the minister they had only seen on TV, in real life. Oh! How they would boast to their family members back home.

All of a sudden, the motorbike skidded, the rider lost his balance, and both the rider and the minister came crashing down, just a few metres from the entry gate. The audience was shocked, but Vaidehi was almost surprised at the lack of insensitive jeering and mocking by the crowd, which is common in such situations these days. The riders weren’t hurt at all, only embarrassed, and were already brushing themselves off now. In that spur of embarrassment, the minister shouted something from the midst of the fort personnel who had come to his aid, pointing in Vaidehi and Arvind’s direction.

The guard standing there got an instruction on his walkie-talkie, and started mercilessly beating an 8-year old girl standing nearby. His abuses conveyed that the minister supposedly had seen her laughing when he had fallen down. Vaidehi knew it wasn’t true; she had been standing a foot away from her and there had been a shocked silence all along. Her heart pulled to her mouth watching a kid being beaten up like that, but she couldn’t make herself step in between the madness. For the first time, something stopped her from speaking out against injustice; something made her fear the consequences. Something inside her belly.

As the rest of the crowd stood watching and did nothing too, it stopped in a couple of minutes, and everybody went back to what they were doing. The kid’s clothes had been torn from places, but she wasn’t crying. Vaidehi couldn’t stand at that place anymore and without saying a word to Arvind, she started walking away from the scene, trying to recollect herself.

For the first time, she understood why people don’t raise a voice. Even worse than the guilt of inaction was the realization of helplessness. She now knew that whomsoever would have protested at that time would have been dragged in to become a victim of the brutalities of the powerful. She would not let this matter go. She would take this up to the media, Vaidehi decided. She sat down on a stair and tried to breathe to let open the knot in her chest. Suddenly, she thought of Arvind. He might be worried about her.

She walked back to the place they were standing earlier, wondering how come Arvind didn’t follow her and sat beside her, since he has been especially considerate of how she is feeling all the time these days. He must have thought she needed space.

She found him sitting on the floor by the rampart wall with a small group, watching her with relief mixed with concern in his eyes as she sat in front of him. There was the beaten girl with her little brother and their 21-year old uncle who was weeping silently.

“So, Palak Paneer and Butter Naan are your favourite? And which ice-cream flavour do you like? Do you want to eat up here or at the restaurant?” Arvind was asking the little girl.

“At the restaurant”, she said merrily.

“Come on, our brave little princess”, he said, as we all stood up to leave.

Lifting the girl up, he wrapped his free arm around Vaidehi’s shoulder. Heaven was right here beside hell, with the sea waves crashing along the shore and his arm around her shoulder. There was no perfect place to live. But there was nowhere else she would rather be.

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Fragmented Heart

Dark corners of a cave
Waiting for some light,
forever.
Crevices on a rock
where raindrops don’t reach,
usually.
To quench a certain thirst
To give a little warmth
To relieve for a moment
from this cold, hard place
called life.

Perspectives

She was nervous, and scared. The usual pre-examination jitters mixed with the almost painful excitement of her first excursion away from hometown for career, her first step towards ‘being on her own’. She had appeared for quite a few pre-medical tests in the last months, but all of them had centers in her city itself. This was her first exam in Delhi.

School had just ended, and with that, an era. The last few years had been confusing. Surely, she wasn’t a child anymore, but the elders treated her like one. She longed to move out of her home for college, survive it magnificently, and show them how ‘grown-up’ she was. She had waited for the school to get over and had worked hard to be able to design her life on her own terms. Her outstanding grades and an interest in Biology had made Medical education an obvious choice. She might need to drop a year to get a good rank in the entrance tests, but the coaching would be in another city too. So in a way, this was her moment.

She suddenly became aware of her father’s arm around her shoulders. He told her that they had to get down at the next station – Rajiv Chowk, and take another train on the Yellow Line. While getting out, the crowd at Rajiv Chowk station was overwhelming. Her father’s hand found hers amidst the crowd and steered her through that madness. He asked a couple of boys about the directions and a few moments later they were being automatically steered down the stairs by the crowd towards a metro train, whose doors had just closed after a lot of desperate effort.

The display above showed another train in two minutes. Her hand was still in her father’s. She had known that there was a ‘ladies’ coach on the front end and in keeping with her ‘plan for independence’, she had already convinced her dad that she would take over from here, alone. Anticipation is always so different from realization. Her heart was pounding against her chest, so badly that she could almost hear it through the noise of the incoming metro. But she had to do it.

She signaled her father that she would proceed from here.

He asked, “Are you sure?”

She said, “Yes Papa, I’ll be fine.”

“All the best, beta.”

“Thanks”, she said, briefly meeting his eyes, while he reluctantly let go of her hand.

The father stood in his spot for a while and watched her go. His little princess, in a big, harsh world. It broke his heart to leave her alone to deal with it. He knew it was important for her life. But he had been there to protect her all this time. How could he suddenly not care?

With heavy steps and a heavy heart he exited the station and took an auto to a nearby hotel, prepared to sleep through the longest five hours of his life. Her little bird was sprouting wings. He will have to let her fly.