‘In that book which is
My memory . . .
On the first page
That is the chapter when
I first met you
Appear the words . . .
Here begins a new life’
– La Vita Nuova By Dante Alighieri
“Terror does Diwali shopping in Delhi–killing 55, hurting 155,” the old newspaper clipping proclaimed as it trembled with her fingers.
Those weren’t just numbers, even if they had been correct. Those were people blown into bits. And people left behind to die in bits after them.
But Aashi had died quite enough. It was time to start living again.
She would have torn that paper and thrown it away. But her fingers didn’t obey. She wanted to erase its black words entirely from her memory. But she could not, not yet, anyway. For there was her father in that paper, one among the fifty five dead.
Aashi could not let go of the dead. But it was time now for her to start living again. She had already taken her first step back into life.
Life, though, was no longer how she had once known it.
‘But it won’t last long. I won’t let it last long. I won’t…I won’t!’ Her head was held high as Aashi chanted these words, but her shoulders drooped. Her fingers crushed the peacock-blue fabric of her skirt. Her feet stomped at the ground, and eyes cursed the very dwelling place she had fought so hard to acquire.
‘What? What you won’t let last long?’ Urmila asked, fixing her sleepy eyes on her daughter.
‘This! This thing!’ Aashi said, pointing at the house they had moved in just that day.
Renting a house for herself and her mother was to be the first happy step to her independence. But the limitedness of her finance had forced Aashi to confine herself into a structure she didn’t even want to call a home.
‘Oh, it just looks old but…’ Urmila mumbled.
‘Old! It looks ancient! They should rent it out to ghosts. Only dead people would live in such a place! And I tell you, Ma, if I live here much longer, I would surely join their group too! It’s so small!’
‘It’s good enough for the two of us. Besides, you weren’t very happy even when we were living in a bigger home. I don’t know why you had to be so rude to your uncles and aunts. They were only thinking about your wellbeing. It’s not good for a girl to walk out of her own home and live alone in such a dangerous city,’ said Urmila.
‘They were NOT thinking about my wellbeing. That house was NEVER my home and you really should stop being so afraid. The city is not going to eat me!’ Aashi blazed with fury.
She knew her mother didn’t agree with her decision of living alone. But then, it was the only thing Aashi could have done to escape being married to the dork of her uncles’ choice. They had gobbled up all that should have been hers. There was no way she would let them gobble up her dreams and happiness too.
So, Aashi had done the only thing she could think of. She had started up quite a noisy bit of revolt and declared that she would rather kill herself than marry the guy they had chosen.
The uproar of indignant relatives perhaps cannot be compared to actual pandemonium, but there certainly was considerable sound and fury to be heard echoing within that household for the next few days. It’s another matter, however, that after an appropriate display of shock and rage, and a lot more of sorrow and grief, the family’s dearest child was given the expedient permission to leave the fold and do what she would with her life.
And so, without any hesitation or fear, and with a cheque of fifteen lakh rupees that combined in it the cost of her father’s shop and house, Aashi had walked out of her grandparents’ home.
She had no regrets in leaving her family. But her mother’s tears did burden her heart with a bit of guilt.
‘Don’t worry, Ma, we’ll be alright,’ Aashi mumbled, regretting her fiery outburst in a second. She put her arms around Urmila’s shrunken form and forced her anger to stay out of her voice. ‘Everything will go just as I have planned. And I’ll soon shift us to a better house too. Till then, I guess, we’ll just have to make do with this stifling, miserable place.’
‘Aashi, I don’t mind this house, and you know that. It may be small, but it’s in a good locality. We are lucky that we got it for so cheap,’ Urmila said, patting her daughter’s cheeks.
Aashi nodded at her mother’s words. She knew her mother was right. But what to do if the tranquil satisfaction that came so easily to Urmila was beyond the reach of Aashi’s impatient heart? After all, it was just one room attached to a tiny kitchen and tinier washroom. The rest of the area had been left vacant and converted into a garden. Aashi was sure that even that effort had been made only because the owner was too stingy to cover it up even in bricks and so, had converted his love for money into a love for foliage. A lot of time seemed to have passed however, since even this love had found any indulgence. It was now little more than a tangle of bushes where the struggle for survival had given way to total anarchy.
Curiously though, the house somehow boasted of a compact garage on the side.
‘Nothing but a cowshed,’ Aashi called it and looked wistfully instead at the neatly painted and properly locked garage next door.
She spent several minutes staring at this garage and then the house to which it was attached. That house was small too, according to her standards, but looked decent enough to be called liveable. It was neat at least, and properly built. But that only served to make her rented home look even more miserable.
So she turned away from it and settled down on the doorstep. Urmila had already dozed off. Aashi too leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes. She desperately needed to call forth the dream that she had kept with her despite the loss of everything else.
She put herself on a large balcony of a palatial house and looked dreamily down at the gorgeous garden spread around. There was the steady sound of manly footsteps approaching her. She turned and looked at him, love dancing in the lustre of her eager eyes.
‘If only I had blue eyes, or green perhaps! How wonderful it would have been,’ she thought as she dreamed.
But then, the audacity of her black eyes was irresistible too. She had often admired it herself, feeling sure that a writer must have composed some pretty amazing lines while describing her eyes, had she been the heroine of a novel.
Of course, she was not a heroine, and life wasn’t a novel either. She was just an ordinary girl, being forced to live in less than ordinary world.
But her dreams were perfect. They had perfect love, perfect romance, luxury and above all, a perfection in manly form too.
And she could almost see him, see his tall, handsome form standing beside her on that balcony. There were his arms around her slender waist, his eyes tickling her with their caresses…he opened his lips to say something, to murmur some sweet words of admiration perhaps…
PEEEP, PEEEEP, PEEEEEEP….!
The car’s horn jolted Aashi back to her own little house and the mockery of a garden that was there before her eyes. Sudden dread throbbed up in Aashi’s heart and beads of sweat emerged on her forehead. She hated loud noises. She dreaded them. Every loud sound reminded her of the explosion that had killed her father. It terrified her and left her trembling and feeling nervous.
But try as she might, there was no escape from such sudden loud explosions of sound. All Aashi could do was to take quick deep breaths to ease the panic and try to stop her thoughts from reverting back to that horrible day.
The horn blared again. Aashi clenched her mouth tightly, took quick deep breaths and looked out towards the road. Next moment, an old Maruti rolled to a halt near her gate.
She stared at the car and watched on as a girl stepped out of it from the passenger side and quickly went over to unlatch the gate of the house Aashi had been examining just few minutes ago. The car rolled in and came to a halt again.
‘Thank God, Sid’s not here yet,’ the girl said as she quickly shut the gate behind her and rushed to unlock the garage while the young man in driving seat waited patiently.
‘Told you we would reach in time,’ the young man said, ‘but you never listen to me.’
‘I just didn’t want us to be late, Abhi,’ said the girl. ‘Aren’t you coming in?’ she asked when the car had been driven into its garage and the garage gates secured.
‘No, let’s just wait here. It’s past six, Sid would be here any minute.’
‘That’s exactly why I can’t wait. You know well how hungry he would be when he comes,’ said the girl as she unlocked her house and went indoors. The young man on the other hand strolled up to the little swing that stood in a corner of his garden.
‘Now at least they’d be quiet!’ Aashi thought.
She had turned her eyes away as soon as the car went inside the garage and now tried to pay no attention to the infuriating squeaks that the swing was making next door. But it really went beyond Aashi’s limited power of endurance when the young man broke out into a whistling fit, quite out of tune but loud enough to startle Urmila out of sleep and make the lady look wide eyed at her new surroundings.
‘Go inside, mother,’ Aashi said, not bothering to lower her voice, ‘there’s too much noise outside.’
The whistling stopped suddenly and so did the swinging.
‘Hello?’ a smooth, clear voice sang out as the young man quickly walked over to the low wall that formed the boundary between their homes. ‘Sorry for disturbing you. I didn’t know anybody was here, or I’d have kept myself and my swing quiet. Nice sort of welcome that I’ve given to our new neighbours! I’m sure the squeaks of my whistle were just as terrible as the squeals of my swing!’ he said, ending his long stream of words with a laugh that rang more with embarrassment than humour.
‘It’s okay, dear,’ Aashi’s mother replied, ‘I wasn’t sleeping.’
‘Well, it sure is nice to have neighbours again. It gets very lonely otherwise. By the way, I’m Abhi, Abhinandan Mathur. You must have moved in today,’ he said.
Aashi hadn’t looked at him yet as she had kept her head resolutely turned away. But she had to admit that he had a nice voice. She wondered if he worked as a tele-caller.
‘Yes, today. Me and my daughter and our two bags,’ she heard her mother say.
‘It’s a pity that we weren’t here to greet the four of you when you came. But now that we have met, if you, your daughter or your two bags need any assistance, I and my sister and all our bags and baggage are right next door!’ he said with a chuckle.
Aashi rolled her eyes at the ridiculousness of that joke and wondered if he was habitual of trying such dull-witted retorts.
She turned her head a little and observed the neighbour that was being just a bit too friendly, as it seemed to her. She looked at him, and despite her not very benign feelings, didn’t find too much to disapprove of in his person. Of course, she had to quickly move her eyes away from the stump of his left arm. But other than that, he didn’t lack much in the way of her fine-tuned ideas about a good-looking man.
He was tall enough, a bit on the leaner side, but that went well with his boyish face and the curly strands of hair that steadfastly clung to his forehead, despite all his attempts to brush them away. He was fair too and had brown eyes that looked remarkably happy. And indeed, they were happy. Openly, sincerely, even eagerly happy, enlivened with the joy of a true and honest heart that loved life and desired to live it to the fullest, no matter what.
A more careful observer might perhaps have noticed some dark embers in those eyes too. But Aashi hadn’t yet given so much thought to him or his eyes, nor even to his amputated left arm or his very obvious limp. There was nothing so remarkable in Abhi to arrest Aashi’s attention for that long. He was handsome, but not extraordinarily so, had a charming face, but not breathtaking and his faded T-shirt showed that he clearly had no dressing sense to boast of.
And thus, it was just a wry resentment that she felt when his eyes turned towards her and forced her to get up and introduce herself.
‘Hello,’ she muttered in a way that threw any greeting out of the word. ‘I’m Akanksha Sharma.’
‘Aashi,’ Urmila added helpfully.
‘Akanksha, that’s a nice name,’ Abhi said, greeting her with a smile.
‘Thanks,’ she muttered.
‘Sorry for disturbing you with my whistling. I didn’t know somebody had moved in here,’ Abhi said.
‘Your whistling disturbed my mother, not me. But you did break my dream by making such a racket with your car’s horn.’
‘Oh, well,’ he said, ruffling his hair and spreading his lips in a sheepish smile, ‘you can continue your dream after I’m gone. I promise I won’t break it again.’
‘Yeah, as if I would get back that dream of mine as soon as I close my eyes again,’ she said with a little laugh. ‘It’s lost forever and all because of you, Mr. Abhinandan!’
‘Call me Abhi, everyone does. And I’d call you Aashi,’ he declared.
Aashi shrugged her shoulders. She did not much like the way in which he had declared his decision, instead of asking her what she would like to be called. But then, she herself preferred to be called Aashi, so that was okay. Besides, she had already become habitual of finding people lacking in such polite delicacies. It didn’t surprise her now. There really was too much of grossness in the real world.
‘So, Aashi,’ Abhi continued, entirely unmindful of the act of incivility he had just committed and preparing a question in his mind that was to shock Aashi’s fine sensibilities with even a greater jolt, ‘how old are you?’ he asked.
Aashi looked at him with surprise. She certainly wasn’t expecting that question and didn’t know whether to laugh or be angry at his impudence.
‘Oh, I beg your pardon,’ he quickly said, as he read his own mistake in her shocked eyes. ‘It’s just that you seem exactly my sister’s age.’
‘Your sister?’ Aashi repeated, not knowing what else to say.
‘Yes, my sister Priyam. I’d call her now to meet you, but she must be busy in the kitchen with her hands deep in some batter. But why don’t you join us for tea. We’ll make a nice little party, all five of us.’
‘Five?’ Aashi’s mother asked.
‘Yes, you two, me and my sister and our best friend.’
‘Sid?’ Aashi asked, remembering the name she had overheard.
‘Siddharth, actually. He comes here every day and we have tea and dinner together. Come around at six-thirty and I’ll introduce you to both of them. Now I’ll run off and inform my sister of the little party I’ve arranged. After all, she’s the one to make the realarrangements,’ said Abhi and limped inside his home.
‘Seems like a nice young man,’ Urmila said as she walked back to her chair.
‘Too early to say,’ Aashi mumbled as she settled back at her doorstep.
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