Neha looked at the setting sun from the window of her apartment on the seventh floor. On the shiny silver road below, luxurious cars were rushing at lightning speed. The skeleton of concrete buildings spread out till the horizon. The amber hues of the sky brought an unsettled feeling. Uneventful Saturday evenings were a time to reflect for Neha.
Neha had been dating Abhi for almost two years now, but he hadn’t made the proposal yet. However, this time it was different. He had asked her for dinner in one of the finest hotels of the city, not one of their usual shady Chinese restaurants. She could still recall every fine detail of the day when she first met Abhi.
It was the last week of November, almost two years ago. Neha was in her late twenties. She was invited to the housewarming party of her college friend Prachi. Prachi was a year older than Neha, already married for three years to Kailash, a corporate employee. Finding a house at a posh location like that wasn’t easy but Prachi said that Kailash was a man of contacts.
Neha arrived at the location just before eight o’clock. She had light makeup on, wore dark pink lipstick, no eye shadow, and a peach coloured midi dress that fell just above her ankles. Above her slender neck, funky gold earrings sparkled. The door was open, and instrumental music was playing in the background. Neha realized it was the right apartment she had reached. Prachi always complained that Kailash was not into loud Bollywood songs but preferred slow instrumental coffee jazz. Neha thought Kailash’s choice of music was rather relaxing.
As she entered, she noticed the beautiful textures on the walls and the reddish-brown carpeting. A few guests were seated on the sofa, and some were talking over their drinks. There were three bedrooms, a beautifully lit living room and a modular kitchen which must be Prachi’s favorite who loved to cook all day. She had told Neha that she doesn’t mind being a housewife as long as she gets to experiment with cooking and baking. Of course, she posted them on social media later where they were adorned with likes and comments. Most of them were Kailash’s colleagues or their wives, and few were Prachi’s school and college mates.
There was a lot of noise coming from the bedroom that was located towards the east corner of the house. There were three men patting and complimenting Kailash over his newly acquired sound system to go with his 32-inch smart television. Prachi was wearing a bottle green saree with a matching sleeveless blouse and seemed to smile tiredly. She was elated to see Neha standing at the door.
“Hey Neha! Glad that you came.”
“Hey everybody this is Neha, and Neha this is everybody!”
Two men smiled at her and exchanged a quick hello, still examining the sound system. The third one waved with his eyes lingering a little longer on her figure.
Kailash shook her hand and told her casually to make herself comfortable.
Neha complimented Prachi’s look. “Oh, I starved myself to look this slim…” Prachi said with disgust.
“Come on, help yourself with some food and drinks. Over there” Prachi added, pointing towards the kitchen and the two ladies left the room.
“So, you finally got the kitchen of your dreams I guess?” Neha asked with a grin on her face and pouring herself a glass of red wine.
“Oh, took loads of money but I like it. I mean finally!”
“And I like the whole house. You are lucky to have a place like this of your own.”
“Yeah, and that took loads of money too. Now we are stuck with EMIs for maybe a decade or longer!” Prachi sighed.
“You can make money cooking, you know. Have you ever considered that?”
“I have but I doubt Kailash would ever approve of it” Prachi went on to banter a little more, but Neha wasn’t listening. She had met the eyes of the third guy who had greeted her with more sincerity than the others. He was smiling at her now from the other room. Neha noticed he was wearing a grey sweatshirt over faded black jeans and had handsome features. He was probably her age.
“Oh, you aren’t listening, are you? By the way, who would listen to a whining housewife!” Prachi said, frustrated. She then followed the eyes of Neha and saw the guy she was looking at. He immediately lowered his gaze out of self-consciousness when he noticed Prachi.
“You like him, don’t you?” Prachi teased Neha. Neha felt embarrassed upon realizing the situation. “Oh no I think he was just checking me out!” Neha said shyly. “And so were you! I will leave you both alone.” Prachi mentioned with a laugh and left.
He approached Neha with a broader smile and with a glass of beer in his hand. “Hi, I am Abhisek Das. People call me Abhi.”
“I am Neha Mishra. Nice meeting you.” They shook hands.
Over the next one hour they got to know a lot about each other. Abhi was a year older than Neha and worked in a law firm. He found it interesting that Neha was a Strategic Manager in a Bank. Abhi had spent some time in USA and Neha had been to South Asian countries for work, before settling in the metro in India. Abhi was getting over a bad break up and Neha had never been in a long serious relationship. She blamed it on work without giving him too many details. “So, you’re a workaholic?” Abhi asked. “Not exactly, just work hard to meet revenue targets at times” Neha answered with a smile. “I have a promotion next year and life will get a bit hectic after that.” Abhi mentioned. “Hmm happens. I understand” Neha said with a blink and they both smiled.
They met the following weekend for a drink and tried not to call it a formal date. But they were soon going out to parties of their mutual friends, hanging out at cafes and those Chinese restaurants before Abhi invited her to his little sister’s wedding.
Abhi’s parents were very courteous, and she liked them. Though she didn’t get to interact with them much as they were busy supervising almost everything. His sister was funny and cute. It was there at the destination wedding, overlooking the sea he had confessed that he liked her on the first day they met and in fact loves her now. It took Neha a lot of effort, but she finally managed to say, “I love you too” instead of just a thank you. Abhi said it was the happiest day of his life and they had kissed for the first time. The endless sea kept roaring beside them.
Since then, they had become the most adorable power couple. Abhi had worked his way to success and Neha had never given up. Now both of them in their early thirties were the talk of the town. Everything was planned for Friday night, it was going to be her big day, the gossip had made its way to her through her friend Prachi. “I heard Abhi has bought the most expensive platinum couple rings. Be ready!” Prachi had called her and told her with a lot of excitement the week before. Even their friends wanted them to settle for good. So, Neha was not quite sure whether she should be bothered about her past or be happy.
It was almost dusk outside her window. She pulled the grey curtains and sat down on the couch. She was in no mood to cook dinner. So she decided she would order food later. Her studio type apartment looked even smaller that day, but big houses had always made her feel unusually restless. So she had refused to relocate even if Abhi had wanted her to join him in his duplex which he had inherited from his grandpa. “I need more time.” Neha had said and Abhi had assured her, “That’s okay. I am in no hurry.”
Abhi was as usual travelling for work. He was right, his life had grown hectic after that promotion, and they didn’t meet very often. Neha didn’t complain much as in the past two years she wasn’t quite herself with Abhi. She liked his company, and their physical relationship was not bad either but there wasn’t much emotional connect. Only if she could explain to someone the trauma of her younger days but she couldn’t do that. She didn’t want their sympathy.
Neha didn’t exactly have a happy childhood. She was fifteen years old when that tragic event happened. Everything she had in her life before that event only appears to her as a fairy tale now, that was too good to be true. Her sister Nina was five years elder to her and was her role model when it came to studies or extracurricular activities. In a way she was a trend setter whom Neha wanted to emulate as she grew older. They had loving and caring parents who were both professors. Hers was a happy family. They lived in a small town away from the hustle bustle of city life.
It was the month of June and the onset of monsoon in the hills. Neha’s parents had to attend a wedding about a hundred kilometers away from the town. Neha and her sister were not much into family functions. So, they had decided to stay back home and chill while their parents would be away for the weekend. Neha still remembers that Saturday morning, her mother’s yellow ochre saree with golden embroideries and her father’s white suit. It was a bright and sunny morning when they all had breakfast together. The beams of sun entering the dining room, the wind brushing through the leaves of the deodar trees in the garden, gave a pleasant feeling. “Be an angel Neha. Don’t watch too much television and listen to your sister,” Neha’s mother said before departing. They kept waving at their parents till the white ambassador took a turn around the hill and disappeared. Neha’s father was in the driver’s seat.
It was supposed to be a fun weekend but within an hour wolf shaped dark clouds started covering the sky. The sun was gone, it started drizzling first and then came the lashes of wind. The weather had gone from pleasant to stormy rather quickly. Neha could see traces of worry on her sister’s face. “They wouldn’t have reached their destination yet, didi” Neha said in an anxious tone. “Hope they stop the car; hope they find shelter somewhere from the rains.” Nina said and added, “Let’s just pray, just pray Neha.”
The thing about death is, you don’t know when it will come and how, or what it will take from whom. We can’t always change fate; at times we need to accept it and make peace with it.
It was late in the evening when their two uncles and an aunt arrived with their parents’ dead bodies covered in sheets of white. The car had slipped off the road during the rain. Neha ran weeping into the bedroom, Nina just stood there not wanting to see her parents’ lifeless faces. The funeral and last rights were majorly performed by their relatives, uncles, aunties, and a few cousins. After all the rituals were taken care of, the family lawyer told the sisters that their parents didn’t leave much money or property except a little over one lakh and the house. Neha was not listening to any of this. It was her sister Nina who took the bold decision of selling the house to one of their uncles and move to the city. Neha wasn’t happy with this decision, “But it is all we have left of our parents didi. You can’t sell it off, just like that!” Neha confronted her sister.
“I know but we also need the money for your education and for our future,” Nina tried to explain.
“There is no future without them. I feel so lost!” Neha sobbed.
Nina felt as if she had grown ten years older in about a week and with maturity she explained, “I understand, our parents are gone but our lives must go on. We must live. Our parents wherever they are would want us to have a happy and fulfilling life. Do not give up like that. Do it for our parents and for all the dreams they had seen for us. You’re a bright student. They had high hopes for you, do not let their souls down. Please Neha, try and understand that we must get out of here and pick up the strings of our lives. We must keep going, do not give up yet. Be a fighter like papa used to say whenever we failed at something.”
Neha nodded, still sobbing and said, “Perhaps you are right, but it will never be the same again.”
Nina completed the final semester at her college and Neha completed school before they left the town. The big city provided a change of environment and Nina kept inspiring Neha to find a will to move on with life. After completing her degree in Economics, Nina started working in a Non-Government Organization. She planned their work and made field visits to the orphanages. At times she would take Neha along with her and both would sit on a bench watching the children play. Nina’s pay wasn’t that great, but it gave her a sense of purpose in life. They could afford a tiny apartment on rent not very far from Neha’s college and Nina managed to change two buses to reach the office.
Neha’s college life didn’t pick up well but gradually she made progress. She was a student of commerce in her junior college but would spend hours reading Emily Dickinson’s poems. Those verses only healed her as they rhymed with her pain, making it disappear for a while. She didn’t make any friends though and kept to herself most of the time.
Two years passed like a whip of air. Her grades were good, she had not given up, and Nina had been wise to be spendthrift. So, she got admission in Bachelor of Commerce in one of the finest colleges. Neha had been a little surprised to see her name in the finalist list on the college notice board, while Nina was waiting outside. Well, I am a fighter like Papa used to say. Didi will be happy to know that I made it. Neha thought to herself.
“This calls for a celebration at Dosa Plaza,” Nina said brimming with pride when Neha broke the news. The Dosa Plaza was just a three minutes’ walk from college. As they reached the venue, they saw the place was mostly occupied by the same college kids where Neha was supposed to start her graduation.
“I don’t think it was a good idea coming here,” Neha said after glancing at the ID cards of these guys, idly lying on the table. Same blue in color with the name of her college written on the top.
“Why do you fear? It can be a cool place to hang out at times,” Nina said with a smile and Neha wondered why she was being so liberal today. After all, three years of hard work had to follow.
“So, how does it feel to start graduation my dear? You’re a lady now,” Nina started the conversion after they had ordered two rava masala dosas each costing forty-five rupees.
“What lady? I am still seventeen, not yet an adult!” Neha mentioned, trying to avoid the conversation.
“That doesn’t answer my question dear.”
“I don’t know, it just feels weird a bit.”
“Try making friends then instead of spending too much time in the libraries. I am not saying don’t visit libraries but don’t do just that during breaks.”
“Okay I will try my best. I promise.” Neha tried to sound convincing.
“Just make at least one friend. Will you? Don’t worry you don’t have to give all the details of your life to that person. Not that there is any harm in opening up if you really trust the one.”
“I get what you’re saying. I will try.” Neha placed her hand on Nina’s and blinked. Nina smiled back.
Just then the waiter arrived with their order, and they munched on the dosas.
“They are delicious.” Neha said.
“I knew you would like it,” Nina mentioned with a smile.
Outside the restaurant’s window vehicles honked, bikes, cars, and buses. All rushing to some destination, and most of them in a hurry.
Neha reached college thirty minutes before her class. It was an old building of the sixties with red and white pillars. Remodeled a few years back but never lost its originality. It had high ceilings and electric bulbs hanging from it. The building had three floors and stood on a few acres of land with an abundance of trees.
The notice board said, Hall number 201 was where she was to have the financial accounting class. She figured out with the help of a housekeeping staff that it was the first hall on the second floor. She reached the hall only to see that the front two rows were vacant, and the seats were getting filled backwards. If you reach early, you can get the back seats. Neha thought she didn’t have to reach early as she would get the front rows easily.
She went and sat in the second row and a few more girls joined her. One of them was Prachi dressed in a black chikankari salwar suit with silver jhumkas and a narrow bracelet on her wrist. Neha was wearing a pale blue ikat kurta with white leggings and not many accessories, except the golden stud earrings of her mother’s.
“Hi!” Prachi introduced herself to Neha. She was much of a talker and went on about her father who was a businessman, her two elder brothers and mother who was a housewife. She was a year older to Neha because she was asked to drop a year at school. She was a slow learner but enjoyed cooking. “What about you Neha?” Prachi asked. Neha hesitatingly mentioned that she lived with her elder sister and her parents were dead. “Oh! That’s so sad. I am sorry,” Prachi uttered with concern. “Neha just said: “That’s okay” and remained silent. “So, you are not somebody who shares much about herself. I will keep that in mind.” Just then the professor arrived and by then most of the seats had filled up including the front rows.
Professor Mahesh was a good teacher and Finance was interesting, only most of it bounced over Prachi’s head and she had started yawning by the end of the class. It was followed by Microeconomics and English classes each one hour long. Prachi had almost passed out by then and was just pretending to listen. For lunch Prachi and Neha went to the college cafeteria.
Three years will have to pass like this, lectures, bus travels, cafeteria and may be at times dosa plaza. Oh, and she had forgotten to check the library, maybe some other day. Pocket money was good enough to buy books too. Nina had got a hike in salary after working for two years and her job was permanent now. Will they manage to have a decent and happy life again? Neha pondered, before brushing off the thought. After all, it is never going to be the same. No matter how much effort they put in, the concept of home had changed, forever.
A month later Nina had a field visit to an orphanage and asked Neha to accompany her that Friday evening. Sitting on the bench watching the children play, Nina asked Neha, “So, how is college going on?”
“It is going on just fine.”
“Made any friends yet?”
“Just one, her name is Prachi. Honestly, I didn’t have to put much effort to be her friend. You can say that she was the one who initiated it.”
“And you like her?”
“Yes, I like her but at times get bored of her banter.”
Nina just laughed at this and said, “Sounds like a free-spirited person, you friend Prachi.”
“That she is. However, like she says she is a slow learner, but she has two elder brothers who are commerce graduate to help her. So, I think she will just be fine.”
“Ask her to drop by our house someday,” Nina said with a smile.
“Now that you say I think, I must,” Neha said and smiled back at Nina.
Both sat for a while in silence. The younger kids were on the swings and the see-saws. The older ones were playing football. The sun was setting, and a few mosquitoes had started buzzing over their heads. Nina was the first to break the silence, “There are so many children in this world who need a home, I would rather adopt one than have my own.”
Neha chimed with her looking at the horizon, “Me too. Someday, when it’s time.”
Nina placed an arm around Neha which Neha reached out to hold. This was their new world without their parents, away from their hometown. They at least had each other.
Days and months crawled by and Neha was in the final year now. After college she had started preparing for competitive exams. Every evening she would rummage through the bank exam questions and prepare late into the night. It was during these days that Nina had started getting bad headaches, but she had kept it to herself. But that day she couldn’t take it any longer. The pain was just unbearable, as if iron arms were moving around her head and pressuring it. She had to tell Neha while trying her best to act as normal as possible.
“Is the pain too much? How long has it been paining like that, and how long have you kept it from me?” Neha was worried.
“Just a while, but I don’t think the painkillers are working today.”
“How long is a while, didi? Let’s rush to the hospital. Let me book us a taxi.” She also called Prachi to inform.
They both stayed in the waiting room while the doctor examined Nina. Prachi had never seen this vulnerable side of Neha. Neha had been strong, never asked for her help but today all she wanted was a friend by her side. She was crushed with burdens that had always knocked at the hatches of her mind. It had started raining outside and she felt a storm rising in her heart. What if something happened to Nina? What if she can’t stop what was predestined? What if her life was meant to be doomed and what if the sun was never supposed to rise in her world?
The cascade of thoughts kept haunting her before she was summoned inside. The doctor had examined Nina, given her medicine and the pain was reducing.
“However, it is a temporary solution, these medicines. We need to do a brain MRI,” said the doctor.
“But is everything alright? Is it going to be alright?” Neha was curious to know.
“We can’t say for sure unless we get the results.”
“How long will it take to get the results?”
“A week or two,” said the doctor and no further explanations were given.
A week later the reports arrived. A week that had felt like ages. Neha was devastated to learn that Nina had an incurable brain tumor. Medicine could only slow it down but couldn’t prevent the inevitable. The world which they had created with broken pieces had started breaking again.
Even in her last days with dark circles around her eyes, hollow cheeks and receding hairline, Nina had her unvanquished positivity. “Life must go on, live both our lives. Don’t quit preparing for your exams. Do not ever give up Neha,” Nina would keep saying. Atrocities of life do make you stronger and Neha at the age of twenty-one had turned wise and mature. Now she could understand her sister better and realized why Nina had taken strong decisions in the past.
Neha spent most of her days preparing for her final exams and competitive papers beside her sister’s bed. Often, she would sleep on the couch near Nina’s bed. Prachi visited them from time to time with flowers, fruits and even ran errands. Neha had wanted her to stop but Prachi never listened. No one knew how much exact time Nina had. Doctor said that it could be anywhere between three months to one year. Neha prayed like never before for one more month or maybe one more day, just a few more moments with the only person who was her world.
Neha not only passed her final exams but was top ten in her batch. She also got through one of the best Banks in India. That evening Neha had a quiet time with her sister. “Only if you could live many more years. I would give you all the comfort that you deserve and take all the responsibilities away from your shoulders. You carried too much burden for my sake,” Neha said hopelessly.
“I did what I could Neha. Now it’s your time to live a great life and about my life, only a miracle can save me.”
“Let a million miracles happen didi. I will keep praying for you.”
Miracles don’t happen easily in real life. They are more likely to happen in stories. Two weeks later Nina breathed her last. She just slept one night and never woke up.
When her parents had died Neha had felt a part of her had died forever and with her sister’s death she felt completely alone in her life. No matter how strong you become, when darkness falls it is not easy to find your way. She turned into a workaholic working even on most Sundays and public holidays. Her management team was impressed and funded her Master of Business Administration. After completing the course, she was promoted and thus became an indispensable executive of her Bank.
She moved out of her old apartment into the studio type one where she currently lives. She had learnt to relax a bit when she met Abhi. After one of their nights together she had told him about her life keeping the fine details to herself. It didn’t seem to bother Abhi a lot because he saw her as a smart independent woman. She had also mentioned a couple of times that she wanted to adopt a child and not have one of her own. This too didn’t seem to affect Abhi as he thought she would change her mind with time. He knew about the facts in her life, but her feelings were her own, she kept them to herself. Abhi didn’t sense that, so it had worked so far.
Friday arrived, she had chosen the best dress she could find in the store, a rather expensive one in black. If she had to do this, she would do this with grace. She reached the hotel an hour early. The table was reserved, everything about the place was posh.
The walls were a pasty shade of white and brown with huge paintings hanging on them, the floor was covered with red carpet and furniture was made of mahogany wood. She waited and waited, Abhi was late as usual. When he finally arrived, he was on his mobile and he signaled at her that he was winding up a call. He wore a navy-blue blazer over a white T-Shirt and blue jeans.
After about fifteen minutes they were seated on the dinner table. Abhi apologized profusely for being late and said that it was a big day. Neha didn’t mind as usual, or rather she didn’t care. Abhi ordered the dishes, he claimed that he had been there for business meetings and knew what was best. They chit chatted till the food arrived and ate in silence.
Perhaps he was waiting for the dessert, Neha thought, and she was right. After taking the last bite of the Choco lava cake he held out a shiny platinum ring and said with some excitement, “So, what do you think about making it formal?” Neha knew what she had to say, and she had run the conversation multiple times in her head.
“I have something to tell you, I never want to have kids”.
“Oh, there’s time, give it a couple more years,” Abhi mentioned with a smile.
Neha held his hand and explained to him that she would rather adopt one, like she had hinted before. It is okay for him to move on if he wasn’t fine with it.
“I never thought you were serious about adopting Neha. I always thought you would eventually prefer your own blood,” Abhi said, pulling his hand away frustrated.
As though she was aware of this reaction she just repeated once more, “You are free to move on.”
“Think about it Neha before making such a big decision.”
“I have thought about it repeatedly and I have already made up my mind, never to be altered,” Neha responded calmly.
“In that case nothing makes sense anymore because I had always wanted a complete family, with my own kid. I suppose we are over then,” Abhi said and left with utmost disgust.
He was not a person who creates a scene at a public place where he has been before with his workmates. Neha could comprehend that she had lost him forever but had no regrets. She always knew this situation would arise someday and Abhi would most likely disaccord with her decision. She had to be strong and move on with her life. After losing so many of her blood relatives, she wanted to provide a happy life to a child who has lost them too. After all, she knew what the pain of losing is.
She pushed back her dessert, finished her wine, and paid the check. Through the glass windows of the hotel, she could see the dark night and the glow of city lights. Nothing stays dark endlessly, and it is up to us to find the kind of light we want to bring into our lives. Tomorrow she would go to the orphanage, and she knew exactly what to do.
Mitra is a software consultant from Bhubaneswar with a passion for both technology and literature. Her poems have been published in Poetry Society (India), Muse India, Madras Courier, and Borderless Journal among others. She believes that she does not need a partner to complete her, and this ideology makes her a blahcksheep. She can be reached on Instagram at am_mitrasamal