Fiction, Romance

Hope and Morgan Freeman are stupid!

You know, I always believed Morgan Freeman’s supposedly iconic dialogue from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, “Hope is a dangerous thing,” was utterly stupid. I mean what an Oscar-winning multi- millionaire knows about the emotion of hope and the countless aspirations that a human heart attaches to it. Nothing.

Seven months and 27 days later, I began to live by it. It all started that fateful morning, when Daddy was reading out the newspaper to me, while I played hide and seek with my Winnie the Pooh in bed.

Any TedEx speaker or some monk of the highest grade could not have consoled my bleeding heart; such was the intensity of the ‘news’. And for a split second, I could feel my soul escaping my now feeble body. All by myself, I cried back to sleep.

Hussain, knowing how melodramatic I could get, jumped in for some damage control. At 12:45, right after his Abbu left for their footwear shop, he woke me up with his repeated calls. Even with the glazing ‘poor connection’ notification adoring his screen, he could see me weep. His eyes suggested he could sense my despair that found an outlet in the form of tear beads that ran through my arms and settled on my lap, soiling my cushions. I was like an adamant toddler, crying for a candy that was too hard for her barely-there teeth.

“Do you…you…know…” I asked.

“I know…listen…I do know…calm down first”

“Skype is banned…,” I replied.

“In Pakistan…from 31st March…Yes I know but you need to calm down first, Jiniya. How do you plan on chalking out an alternative if you continue sobbing.” Hussain is my logical Pakistani and I am his emotional ‘cry machine Hindustani’.

“We won’t see…we won’t see each other again…Oh God! Please tell me this is a hoax…Why would they shut down? You and I talk over it daily. Skype is doing so well,” I ranted.

Honestly, it wasn’t. With hardly half a million accounts and far lesser advertisements, this announcement comes as no shock to Hussain Al Masseri. It was me who was in complete denial.

Before hanging up, Hussain commanded in his husky voice, “Just run through our loveliest conversation tonight and go off to sleep.”

“What about alternate plan?” I quizzed.

“One thing at a time, Jiniya,” Hussain signed off.

Right after the Liberation War, when Skype was still in fashion and a big rage among third world countries, Hussain ‘accidentally’ added me on Skype. A story I find hard to digest. It was my display picture, I am telling you!

In his whimsical voice, I found, like me, a true patron of Art. He had me on our very first call, just by reciting:

Out beyond the idea

Of wrong doing and right doing;

There is a field,

I will meet you there

He loved Rumi and preferred Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das over Manto. That was what set him apart from mere mortals; his ability to look beyond the obvious and hold his ground against all odds. Talk about the never-ending tension between our respective nations, he would snap, “An art lover never dreads the distance or loathes the boundaries, they go where words, music…their craft takes them.”

Hibiscuses growing in my mother’s garden caught his fancy for two reasons- he loved vibrancy and Karachi did not have it in abundance. On Sundays, it was our ritual to show each other hibiscuses of our lands. He would often wonder, “Just like us humans, even the flowers look alike. I don’t understand why this bloodshed.”

Hussain was born to a staunch Islamic father and a liberal mother. His Abbuji is the reason why we could not connect on Orkut, for he apparently knew about it all too well and learning about befriending a Hindustani would automatically make Hussain a kaafir. Hussain was queer and cryptic, he would never hang out with his mates from college and always branded them as ‘other people’ and called himself ‘not for this world’.

Despite the 12 o’clock curfew, we would stay up till wee hours of the night chatting away. About the magnificent Taj Mahal, the parallelly-running rivers right outside his home that would never meet, my broken bicycle, his blue eyes set on a chocolate brown chiseled face, his desire to study liberal arts, my love for Ashton Kutcher; our lives together.

The day after the terrible news struck, felt better. And Hussain made it all the more wonderful.

“Here is the plan. We both wanted to flee our countries since forever. Let us apply to University of Iowa, their acceptancy rate is 88%.”

“Daddy will never say yes to it.”

“He would…score 115 in TOEFL, both Iowa and Daddy will accept.”

“On a scale of 10, how sure are you about the results?”

“Almost certain.”

“Let us give this a shot,” I gave in.

“Good girl! Now comes the hard part. TOEFL, SoPs, transcripts are serious business and require immense attention. Therefore, we will talk on 31st March itself”

“But…”

“Listen, desperate times call for desperate measures. Give it your best and we will pose together near the Statue of Liberty.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

“Is there some other girl and you are doing this only to shoo me away?”

“Whattttt???…(laughs) Girls here think I need help.”

Help? He is way too smart for all of them.

Hussain and I are like two stark opposite characteristic traits of Bella from ‘Twilight’ saga; I was the one irrevocably in love and he preferred to suffer in silence.

With a little help from Mumma, I managed to buy two earthen piggy banks and labelled them: ‘application fee for Iowa’ and ‘visa process’.

I studied relentlessly, losing track of days and nights. All this because I had faith in Freeman’s conviction.

We will pose together near the Statue of Liberty.

The urge to end up in the same city was so strong that I no longer paid attention to Daddy’s rant on communalism or even helped Mumma with household chores. How could I risk TOEFL?

Even though laser wired fences and Benazir Bhutto and Atal Bihari Bajpayee posed hurdles on both sides of the disturbed nations, I somehow found myself wondering off to the forbidden territory. My mind was asking a thousand question per second? Has Hussain taken the test already? Has he cleared the visa process? I hated Hussain for the self-imposed ultimatum and even more for being able to stick to it.

Hibiscus seeds packed, woollen garments stacked up, and with a heavy heart, I hosted the farewell party for my friends and folks. “The excitement will kill me. Why can’t I call a day prior?…I hate diktats”

After pacing up and down the veranda, the ‘call of the century’ had finally come. Singh uncle from across the street could hear my heartbeats but who was complaining. I pulled off an extremely desperate stint; received the call after first ring.

“Look at you! You have grown so thin, been mugging away?”

My heart was pining for you, hence the weight loss. You idiot!

“You look malnourished,” I observed.

“Been thinking about me?” I teased.

“Hmmm…how are your plants? Nurturing them well.”

“Thanks for dodging. They reminded me of you, every day.”

“Do you want to talk about the time we were apart” I asked.

Stoic silence.

“Do you want to talk about our plan?”

“Oh, about that…So…I hate to break this to you now but my Abba passed away the month before and being his only son, I have to take care of his business and my mother here.”

“You said you were too unconventional to be domesticated.”

“I can shun the world but not them. I … have withdrawn my application.”

When were you planning on telling me?”

“Jiniya, please.”

“I better go, Ammi is a little disoriented these days. Good luck”

Call disconnected

Dialling

Call dropped

Dialling

Call dropped

Dialling

Call dropped

Dialling

Screen goes blank

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Fiction, Romance, Travel

Unlocked the locked only to never relock it again

What is it about mountains that she is irrevocably drawn to them, Jiniya wondered. Is it the morning fog that engulfs it or the fact that she can behold the entire city from the peak of it? Yes, mountains give her a sense of power. Like she owns the top of it, like she owns the entire stretch of land within the vicinity of her far-fetched imagination. Or, is it the calmness and serenity that a stand-alone, often abandoned mountain brings along? She will never know the answer. May be, she does not have to.

Jiniya, smart and overtly ambitious, is toying with the idea of a holiday, a way to escape from her robotic life in the urban jungle of Mumbai. Honestly, she has no reason to escape the glamorous life and seek shelter in the mundane rustic environment of an alien place, everything’s working in her favour- she has a job she loves, is on the right path towards realising her ultimate goal and has a loving family that always stands by. But like they say, we seek what we do not have and chase what is not meant for us.

Waking up at 6:30 AM, struggling to hop on early morning trains, over-eating during lunch and watching travel videos hoping to be one of the ‘daredevil’ girls featuring in them – she has done it all and now, she feels, she has done it enough. It was time to move beyond the fancy videos and tempting wallpapers. It was time to bruise the knees and tan the cheeks; it was about time she looked beyond her protective mother’s inhibitions and her possessive brother’s apprehensions. Jiniya had always dwelled under the shadow of her folks, which often felt like an abstract cage, and knew from a tender age that she had to leave. Just leave someday and disappear into the surreal rollercoaster called life.

She loathes living with her parents but must as they wouldn’t let her leave. On nights when she does not feel like ‘she’, Jiniya brainwaves hideous ‘escape plans’, which, of course, never see the light of the day. She has never played with mud or has never felt what it’s like to bunk school. She has never scrubbed any utensil after a sumptuous meal or moped the floor after puking from over-drinking.

But now, it is too late to bottle up her pent up emotions. Either she lets the wildness in her find an outlet in the form of a solo trip or she swallows the little sense of adventure left in her and be the ideal family girl that she already is.

“For me to fall on my face, I have to walk down that road first,” Jiniya convinced her self before buying the tickets to Jaipur.

Born to an immigrant father and a biracial mother, Jiniya had breathed her first in the lap of nature, Shillong, and went on to live there for 15 years before she took the plunge and moved to what she calls ‘a mechanical city’, Bangalore, whereas her folks shifted base to the ever-ferocious, unforgiving land of Mumbai. While she kept moving from one jungle to another, her heart remained entangled to the silent hills and the monstrous-looking naïve mountains. Jiniya, the uptown working girl, is now a withered shadow of her once vibrant self. Tall buildings and sky scrappers do not inspire her. Mountains do.

The day has arrived and she is leaving to explore that lies ahead. An alien destination awaits her and she has to befriend the strangers who inhabit there. How is it going to be? She does not know. Will they be welcoming? She could not tell. Yet, the joy of climbing the steep hills and rocky mountains filled her with unprecedented bliss. It is happening, life is taking a drastic turn and for the first time, this turn has not been predetermined by her parents or work, she is in charge of it. Her life’s remote control is in her hands, at least this time.

 The introduction was awkward, Raman speaks broken English that was incoherent even for someone like her and she, unapologetically, flaunted her impressive command over the language on him.

“He is so rugged and filthy, poorly-maintained individual,” Jiniya thought to herself. Fear of the unknown has gripped her gentle soul. How will they take the 250-stair long journey together on January 26? Even his dialect is as incomprehensible as his English. What if a Leopard shows up, will he protect her from it or run? She worried about their hiking plans and has every reason to. After all, he is a self-confessed ‘jungle boy’ and she is an urban lass. Chances of awkward silences dominating their uncertain trip together seemed like a possibility.

“I have nothing to lose, I will do it anyway. Wake me up at 6:30 in the morning. Let’s see the sunrise together,” she ordered him.

With no traces of sunscreen on his sun-kissed face and white flakes on his dirt-filled feet, Raman looked beautiful. She thought about the first time they had met, he was so shy that he wouldn’t even look into her eyes. He is a rebel child with a lost cause. The difference between their personalities was stark, he feared none and she feared all.

After initial discomfort, Jiniya and Raman climbed a few steps and broke into a hysterical laughter.

 “Are you stupid? There is no Leopards, I was kiddings only. Okay…if there is any of them, I will stand before you. I will protect you. Now come, let’s do a joint and eat it and phinish this one,” said the village boy to his city Maharani (princess), as he would lovingly call her.

And with every step, Jiniya was unknowingly breaking free from the shackles of her sheltered upbringing and ushering into a territory her folks would not approve of. She was learning to be independent and fearless. He was imbibing his ruggedness in her and she was stealing glances of his infectious smile. He would look at her and then look away. Embarrassed about being caught. She would laugh at him calling her ‘bawli chhori’ (crazy girl) and then wait for him to clutch her right hand with his left.

He exudes confidence. She knows no matter how nasty the road ahead is or how dangerous their way down is going to be, he has got her back. “I will stand before you,” he had assured her and she believed it with all her heart.

Meanwhile, Marijuana had gotten the better of them and they were laughing a little harder than before. He would crack silly jokes and take her pictures and she would laugh because that would make him happy. Or, was it the other way round?

Jiniya was in the moment- not worrying about the future and least bothered to recall her past. She was with him and he made her intrepid, cleansed her soul off all the sorrows she did not know existed.

“Have you ever seen the Tiranga (Indian National flag) dance so freely? I bet no,” inquired Raman.

Looking at the flag dancing aimlessly to the tune of the crazed out wind gave her a major heartache. It reminded of her own plight; 25 years of slavery to protocols that make no sense to her in any way. Independence does come with a price, she thought.

The Tiranga was looking celestially beautiful that morning, as if it had conspired to mesmerize its spectators. If God existed, He had instilled His divine powers in it so that it could dance its heart out.

“Thank You, Raman. I have been on international trips with my family but nothing matches the joy of witnessing something as sublime as this.”

“ Happy Republic Day,” said the predator of her heart.

“Happy Republic Day.”

While coming back, he did as she had expected. He took the stiffest of lanes and rockiest of paths but never, even for a brief moment, did he leave her hand. Amid peacocks dancing and pigeons screaming, she felt the urge to look at his sparkling eyes.

 “He is what I am not. He is who I always wanted to be,” she observed.

And for him, getting what she wished for is all that mattered. Like this one time, she had very softly expressed her desire to get a peacock feather and he went out of his way to get it. That was him, always putting others’ wishes before his. May be that’s why he has had his heart broken twice. Always lets heart overpower mind.

“So, what do you want to be?” he inquired.

“I am already a professional writer but would love to write books. Before that, I want to go to the States and do my Master’s in Creative writing,” she revealed.

“Nice! You know I want to be a cricketer but dream broke and my heart in pain before, not anymore… (giggles) and now I am here, to sow you this jungle Maharani. Tour guide and gaanja-baaz,” joked Raman. His eyes filled with sorrow of dejection. Those eyes were really the window to his heart for I could tell he is disillusioned but not disheartened.

“What are is your gifts plans on me?”

“Depends on what you want?”

“I don’t know, I feel sai… You say Na, what you get for me.”

“I will see what I can get, let’s go home now. My knees hurt so bad.”

Raman and Jiniya, oblivious to the conservative town’s judgmental stares and sniggering, lit one cigarette each and spoke about the journey they had just finished. He teased, she blushed.

She was embarrassed about her inability to climb, her big talks about wanting to hike more seemed so superficial now. Yet, if the partner is him, she wouldn’t be apprehensive about climbing even the Himalayas.

Their unmissable chemistry had everyone whisper about a potential case of tourist-traveller romance. Or may be they triggered it, after all she was evidently love-struck and he looked every bit in awe of her. Their eyes met every now and then but their hearts were conjoined by their poorly-written destiny. She was meant to go through failed romances and he was meant to have his heart broken. It was all meant to be, it truly was.

Some 1500-odd feet above that rocky mountain and bone-chilling weather, she found him and he found her.

Did she love him? ‘Yes’ would sound surreal and ‘no’ would look deceitful. But she has formulated a parallel form of attachment in her heart. She loved him like a prisoner loves his jailer right before biding adieu to the jail that had tortured him for years. She loved him like a bird loves the one that set it free from the cage. She loved him like a widow loves her new lover. She loved him like a woman loves the man who saved her from a near-fatal accident.

He has bailed her out of her miseries without really doing much. Sometimes it’s the vibe that counts and marks the beginning of something real that no fancy dinner date could even match up to.

She always wanted to free herself from the societal norms and live a gypsy life but something in her forbade from taking that route, he gave her the strength. He protected her from the unknown and fulfilled her wishes without asking for anything in return.

But, like they say, all good things must come to an end. Moreover, Jiniya has never been lucky in love, neither has he.

It was raining heavily and she was packing her bags, wanting to stay with him a little longer but giving in to the urge of going back to resume work.

“Here Raman! This is my gift for you, a notebook,” she said without meeting his eyes and embraced him with all her strength. Perhaps for the last time. He smiled at her briefly and then looked away. Dropped her to the bus stand and said, “I will write you in it(giggles)…I will miss you, bawli chhori.”

On the way home, Jiniya was again a 10-year-old, her old vibrant self has suddenly made a comeback. She could not help but reminisce her time with him, shedding tears and chanting his name under heavy breath.

“What did you get for yourself?”

 “A notebook.”

 “That is it? Nothing else?”

“No, Maa, can I sleep now? I am exhausted. Put out the light before you leave,” requested the bereaved soul.

“I thought vacations make people happy, you are just as cranky.”

Tucked inside the blanket, drowning in a pool of tears, she opened the notebook she had gotten for herself. Lifted the pen and wrote what she had been itching to write for so long. The only story that ever needed to be told, that will ever matter. Her story.

But it consisted of one word. A name.

‘Raman’

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