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Saras was happy. He had no reasons to be otherwise. Life was looking up. At sixteen, recognized as a promising star both at home and in school, he basked in that comfortable satisfaction which comes with a clear conscience. While never a healthy specimen his body, nonetheless, was holding up pretty well. The heart was light, the mind unencumbered by fears, doubts or guilt. Not one to shy away from a challenge that appealed to his intellectual acumen or to his keen sense of morality, he was in the envious position of one to whom no hurdle appears insurmountable and who does not even accept the possibility of losing. It was by no means a carefree existence but it definitely was a life that was young and interspersed liberally with mellifluous melodies. That afternoon, sitting in the tempo that was carrying him home after another good day at school, he gazed out feeling at ease with himself and the world. The treeless landscape swept past while gusts of air played havoc with his rebellious hair. The Board exams had ended and his mind scanned the 'to-do list' he had drawn for the forthcoming summer vacations. So absorbed was he in his thoughts that he paid no attention to his fellow travelers. In fact, he never paid much attention to most people especially if they were strangers, blessed as he was with a singular lack of curiosity in such matters. He defined his Universe, the boundaries of which extended only up to where his imagination soared and understanding of which stretched only up to where his thoughts reached. It was an existence circumscribed by, and responsive to, only his version of beauty and purpose. He had not yet known the limits imposed by parental shortsightedness and societal intransigence. He was later to marvel at how well these limits remain hidden from view so long as one is on the right side of what is expected or accepted. Thinking about it many years later, he was surprised that he could not recollect something as definite as the date but could clearly visualize the way winds caroused her hair which blew all over the finely chiseled profile of her face. Sitting opposite him from, perhaps, the start of the journey was a schoolgirl- almost the same age as him- for whom he could have, well, launched a thousand ships and more. It was only now when the journey was ending that his eyes had spotted her and almost immediately he heard his heart whispering: take a good look for presently you have to get down and accept her disappearance into the whirlpool of time. A wistful smile caressed his face. He had been vouchsafed a Vision that would be lost from view in a few minutes but which, he was sure, would stay within him forever. He braved a second look. It was a sight to make any man feel good about the fact that he existed. The face was as ancient as Time and as ageless as Love. It evoked a terrible longing that went back to an era long forgotten; it unearthed unspent emotions of myriad hues; it brought to life unrealized dreams that had been dreamt in other times. It was a face that murmured serenity and breathed purity. The jaw-line was sharp indicating determination of purpose, the nose straight highlighting clarity of thought, the eyes sparkling with the brilliance of unsullied youth, the lips essaying a nature given to spontaneous laughter, the skin portraying health, the eyebrows reflecting a tendency for sudden anger without rancor, the slight frown radiating a charming restlessness. It was not the most beautiful face he had come across but it was a face that brought all the beauty inside him to the fore and would, hence, get irrevocably associated with the
concept of beauty in his mind. The hair, long and shining like sea waves being wooed by rays of the morning sun, completed the symphony. It was not that he came to realize all this later. No, the effect was spontaneous and all pervasive. It swept right though him, going within to depths he had no notion of and opening doors to places he did not know existed. He did not look back as he got down from the vehicle, paid his fare, put his bag on his shoulder and started to trudge towards the colony gate. There was no sadness, no desperation. He had seen someone remarkable and he had been part of something amazing. That was that. He entered the colony, checked the mail and made his way to his flat, his head bowed out of habit and his mind empty of thought. The stillness of the afternoon was presently broken by the sound of footsteps following him. On the curve he contrived to look back and saw destiny at work. For, just a couple of meters away was she, evidently a resident of the same colony and, like him, returning from school. A smile stole on his face but it was not one of happiness or joy. It was an acknowledgement of the fact that mysterious forces on their secret errands had suddenly decided to bestow their attention on him. He had been, for better or for worse, marked down by Fate.
Several chance encounters followed and each left a mark. Saras continued to live like he always had but suddenly he had more to live for and had something that commanded his entire being. Emotional upheavals of sixteen year olds are a subject of derision because they cannot explain what is happening to them and we won't deign to make an effort to understand. "Oh, it is a typical teenagers' disease!" is what we think and either dismiss it by adopting a supercilious attitude or try to ‘cure’ it by means that are more illogical than a whole lot of ‘tantric’ jargon. But to the sixteen-year-old in question, his is anything but a typical situation. The more he gets enamoured of somebody, the more difficult it is for him to understand that it is not anything or anyone outside of himself that he has fallen in love with. It is something within that has suddenly woken up and is demanding to be serenaded at outlandish hours and in crazy ways. The past melts away into nothingness, the present is like a blazing flash of light that leaves one thunderstruck and enthralled but not in a very good shape to carry out the daily business of living while the future is at once a confused amalgam of dreams and plans, hopes and desires, determination and nervousness. Suddenly there is something that one wishes to talk of all the time and, just as suddenly, one finds that it cannot be talked with most of the people that one associates with daily. Parents are the first casualties unless they are part of that rare breed which foresees the advent of such an event. Normally, the closer the child is to the definition of ideal, the more assured are the parents that their ward shall not fall prey to such ‘delusions’ and stray from the straight and narrow path, whatever that is. Normally, such parents are in for a shock. Also, those who think that they are their children’s ‘confidants’, just because they encourage their children to ‘discuss’ anything, fare no better. For call it whatever you will, the teenager is going through something that is not a matter of discussion. He may rationalize his feelings in due course but he is surely not going to have his parents do the honours for him. In a way he is lost and he needs help but something within him tells him that turning to parents would mean throwing the baby out with the bath water.
In such circumstances, a friend emerges as the proverbial gift from Heaven. Somebody near one’s own age, equally vulnerable to the infectious idea of falling in love, a companion who is willing to assist, listen, counsel and be available in whatever capacity one desires as one goes about living out a surreal reality. Saras, too, found one such friend in his schoolmate, Prateek. Prateek, the cool, balanced yet by no means indifferent or detached guy who, very conveniently, lived in the same colony and at such a location that in order to go to his house, Saras had to pass by her house. It was a perfect setting. It may be a coincidence that her coming into his life saw Saras climbing new heights of success and popularity. He made it through a tough competitive exam and was appreciated by his peers and teachers alike. Saras saw all this as a sign from Heaven proclaiming that his hour had come and gave all the credit to the girl. And, indeed, his hour had come but not in the manner he visualized. Heavens, when they send a message, encrypt it in such a complex manner that the odds of decoding it are stacked heavily against the recipient. Age, experience, temperament all betrayed Saras into believing that he was at the altar of being totally and completely in love with another human being. He did not realize that the event was a clarion call for him to go within, to leave harbour for a voyage of self-discovery and to harness his thoughts and emotions for achieving spiritual mastery. He did not see that the girl was but a wonderful catalyst to trigger off creative impulses. The possibility of her also emerging as a partner in this exciting journey towards greater self-awareness could not have been denied but that would have become clear only over a period of time. In no case, however, was she the final destination. That Saras thought so and that many in his position make the same error is unfortunate. If it is disgusting to treat other human beings as means to an end, it is myopic to see them as the end. People can be companions sharing with us the delights and the horrors of life but in no way are they the reason why we are here. (Of course, I am assuming that there is a reason why we are here!) However, it is instructive to note just why Saras and others like him make the mistake they do. The moment a person falls in love with himself because of somebody else’s entry into one’s life, it is but natural that one tries to connect the two events and convince oneself that what is essentially love for the self is love for the person out there. The creative faculties that suddenly come to the fore have an intoxicating effect on the nervous system. One feels at the top of one’s form and there is a strange joy that permeates the insides. It is like walking on the moon with fifth-sixths of the dead weight of everyday life taken care of. Naturally one feels exhilarated and may, unless he is a cynic or an opportunist, feel kindly disposed towards the harbinger of such joyous tides. It is this feeling that sixteen-year-olds are most likely to confuse with love. The role played by society is crucial. Should our moon-struck teenager be left to live out his fantastic dream, chances are that he’d either arrive at the real picture and bid adieu to his fantasies (but not to the magic he has been privy to!) or he’d succeed in developing a real bond with the girl. In the first case, he’d have known the heights his soul can climb to and the powers that lie latent in him. This would prepare him for his life ahead and help him understand just exactly what his inner being hankers for. In the second case, he’d not only know what he has to do and where he has to go, he’d also have company during the journey. But society would not leave him alone. It would try to force it upon him that his notion of love is hollow. Now, as has been pointed out above, the notion may be a misplaced one but it is by no means hollow and, in any case, attempts at stamping out the ‘fire’ only provides more fuel to it. It would also be the concerted effort of some to make the poor fellow feel ashamed of the sexual stirring within him. He would be made painfully aware of his ‘impurity’ and, as a reflex defensive reaction, he would end up hotly
denying the physical aspect of his feelings. This would be an unnatural stance to adopt and shall put him in a false position. Sooner rather than later he would be ‘exposed’ which would provide his detractors just the excuse they’d be looking for to paint him in the wrong. Almost at once, when he cannot be bothered with it, society coaxes him to rebel. And, he does just that, on terms that are vastly unfavourable, with no clear idea of what he is aiming at. Now, if the girl in question has a modicum of maturity, things may still remain within control. But since most females can divine the weakness of an argument with unerring precision but are deplorably woeful in gauging its potential strengths, they see no merit in making an effort to understand the confused yearnings of a tumultuous heart. All they can be sure of is that such passions, though flattering to an extent and making for some interesting conversation, are best kept at an arm's length. Perhaps, a lot of this is also due to the fact that they feel the onus of social disapproval more. Therefore, if the attraction is noted, it is overwhelmingly avoided / feared or only furtively relished. Nothing is done to provide the situation with balance, poise and grace- qualities in the absence of which soft feelings get translated into hasty, ridiculous and incongruous actions on the part of the boy who feels, incorrectly, that girls being girls would never initiate the process. Thus, already on war with the world, the boy also ends up making an effort to ‘impress’ the empress of his heart by means honest and not so honest. Needless to add, the war is always a losing one while the effort is always a useless one. The war is a losing one because it essentially leads to isolation and no boy can survive the harshness of loneliness and still remain the quintessential teenager. More often than not, what he mistakes to be the ardour of his love is actually the ego of a young soul determined to stand tall. The effort is a waste because what one should be aiming at is not to be admired by the lady but to be understood and to understand. In his attempts to impress, the boy moves further and further away from his true self and nearer and nearer to what he thinks the girl would like her ‘dream man’ to be. It helps if the two get more time together but even that cannot be of much use in cases where the notion of love has made its presence felt without there being any friendship or even an acquaintance to sustain it. Ideally, at this stage, there must be someone wise enough at hand to help the lad realize that what he must concentrate on is to get familiar with the girl after having first accepted that even though he may think her to be ‘made’ just for him-which is nonsense but we will leave it for the present- she may not concur and she has every right not to. Her refusal to show any interest whatsoever must be accepted with respect and no foolish notions like ‘a girl always pretends to be disinterested to begin with’ must be allowed to persist. Secondly, he must be made aware of the fact that a cold response, if it does come (and most probably would come), is by no means a statement against him or a reflection of the fact that he did not try hard enough. Instead, this should help him to finally turn his attention on making progress towards the main purpose – achieving enhanced selfawareness, greater self control, clearer self-perception and truer self-belief. It is only by recording some gains in these areas can he ever hope to accept himself in toto and, thus, be worthy of being accepted by somebody else. Like all intelligent boys, Saras compounded the problem for himself in two ways. One, he led himself to believe that no one can understand what he is going through and, hence, closed the doors to any sane counsel. Not that one was available but still, had he been kindly disposed towards the possibility, he might have made some efforts in that direction. Prateek did play a responsible role and often forwarded sound advice but as a man starting out on the road to self-discovery himself, he could not be expected to provide Saras with the sort of guidance that was required. The other problem was that Saras
attributed to the girl all the qualities he himself possessed. The possibility that she may be even more imperfect and naïve than he was never entered his head and he was actually proud of the fact that he thought about her in so unblemished and lofty a manner. But thinking ‘highly’ of someone without having a solid basis for thinking so except that the person concerned looks great, appears intelligent and acts in a matured manner in public is far removed from knowing who and what that person really is. One peculiarity that comes up almost without exception in all such cases is that the mind allows itself to believe that small, unconnected occurrences have profound import and colossal implications. So, when the girl congratulated him for clearing a particular examination and followed it up the next day by asking him for a loan of two rupees to board a bus, Saras led himself to imagine that there was more to all this than met the eye. The point needs to be underscored that in the absence of proper channels of communication, attractions, infatuations and fantasies hold sway rather than sound friendships, which may, in some cases, lead to love. This is not to deny the phenomenon of love at first sight but even in those situations, sustained, meaningful dialogue is a must if love is to lead to an enriching relationship. There should be avenues available to facilitate the process of exchange of ideas and, maybe, they are available but one has to be very lucky to find them. Saras wasn’t that fortunate or, perhaps, he did not try hard enough in that respect. Intuitively he did feel that there must be a communion between him and the girl and desired to establish some means of regular communication. However, their exchanges remained fleeting and, but in Saras’ feverish imagination, of little consequence. Part of the problem was that had anyone asked him why he wants to develop a more fruitful relationship with the girl, Saras would have tried to find some plausible reasons, none of which would have passed muster. It is very difficult for a young man to answer such questions, more so when one is constrained, as mentioned before, to either ignore or hide one very important (though most certainly not the most important) reasonphysical attraction. Indeed, one does one’s cause an actual disservice by even trying to justify a phenomenon like this. It has its own rationale and, howsoever fantastic, its own logic. One must be content with debating the whole experience with one’s inner self or in seeking advice from the ‘right’ person – somebody alluded to above- and not go about taking on the world with less than adequate arsenal at one’s disposal. It never pays and what’s more, even if it does, it isn’t worth it. Part of growing up is realizing that one need not answer or, indeed, have answers for all questions. Part of growing up is accepting that some battles must not be fought – not because one would lose but because there are better things to do than to get into an ugly scrap from which one would emerge a loser no matter what the outcome. Part of growing up is acknowledging that when one is following the urge within, one is liable to be misunderstood or, in turn, misunderstand the motives of others. Hence, the best course of action is to concentrate on one's own self.
No matter how the situation develops, it almost always reaches a flashpoint. At some stage, the leap has to be made over the abyss of uncertainty or else the whole thing has to be given up. Whenever the leap is taken, the mood almost invariably is of –Oh! Anything is better than not knowing – type of desperation and thus very rarely is the jump timed properly. Of course, with boys like Saras, things are a bit different. Riding on top of a huge wave, even while not looking upon winning a maiden’s heart as conquering a
battlefield, the idea that the thing is all but settled clouds the brain. Instead of desperation, anticipation of wonderful days ahead propels these well-intentioned but thoroughly muddled young men to take the jump. But, while the underlying factors are different, their jump is as ill timed as that of their less confident and more diffident counterparts and, if anything, the results are more disastrous because the fall is steeper and the disillusionment greater. Almost by chance but not quite, Saras found himself face to face with the girl and, in a voice that did not shake, asked for a few minutes of her time. The girl felt that they could discuss whatever he had in mind right then and there on the road, but he expressed a desire for a rendezvous on the terrace. The readiness with which she agreed only succeeded in making him feel surer of happy tidings. The fact that she mentioned something about discussing the syllabus for a particular competitive exam appeared as one of the several ways through which girls try to cover up their embarrassment at being asked out. The thought that she may be too immature to comprehend the situation did not bother him and the fear that she knew everything yet decided to act otherwise did not numb him till much later. They fixed to meet at six in the evening on the terrace atop Prateek’s house on the third floor and at six in the evening he was there and continued to be there for more than an hour but the damsel did not turn up. Predictable. A brief enquiry session followed the next day. Some lame excuse by the girl for not keeping her appointment and another meeting was fixed. This time, too, Saras waited for an hour before deciding to call it quits. But, while on his way down, he met her on the stairs- she was coming! He turned to climb up expecting her to follow. But she merely called out to him and again expressed her desire to talk the thing out – exams, wasn’t it? – on the spot. Saras got bugged. Why was she being so Goddamn irritating? Whom was she trying to put off by such a pathetic display? Curtly he asked her if she thought he had called her up to discuss exams and when she enquired what else then if not exams, he told her to leave and continued repeating that despite her mild protests. She left and so did our bruised gladiator. But gladiators are made of sterner stuff. They do not give up or, rather, they cannot give up. Urged on by the fantastic notions that had found in him an obliging host, his adrenalin rushing at the prospect of facing up to his destiny again and yet again till it is decided once and for all who is in command, Saras felt that there had to be a better way to handle the situation. Apparently the girl was not quite at ease with the idea of meeting him on the terrace and having it put in front of her directly. Shy? Afraid? He could understand that. The thing was to give a nice little letter to her somehow when she was all by herself and that, too, at some place other than the colony. But ever since he had joined the coaching classes for engineering exams, his schedule made it very difficult for him to meet her when she went to, or returned from, school – the best time to find her alone. Besides, he had a feeling that if he tried to do it by himself he may just end up failing once again. No, somebody else had to be roped in. It was not too difficult to convince Prateek of the basic soundness of the idea. What was more difficult to manage was to get him to agree to be the messenger. It did evoke a sense of adventure in Prateek but he was terrified of his mother and was certain that if the thing went wrong, he would be guillotined. Two arguments from Saras silenced him. One, nothing can go wrong because, lets face it, he, Saras -a decent guy known as such to one and all including the girl in question- would be writing a delicate letter in a decent language that would hurt no sensitivities and ruffle no feathers. Two, Prateek was his friend and also known to the girl besides being intimately acquainted with the facts of the
‘case’. He was the right man for the job, no doubt on that score. Also, they'll deliver the letter on the last day of school, before it closed for the summer vacations. Was not Prateek scheduled to leave for a long vacation to Dehradun that very day? All he had to do was to hand over the document, note the girl’s facial expressions carefully while she received it, report to him all the details and then proceed on a well-deserved holiday. The reasoning was spot on and now the thing was to write something really true and really nice. It was a task that set Saras thinking. The problem wasn’t that he was short of words and it certainly wasn’t that he was lacking the inspiration to come out with some beautiful lines. But he had a difficult decision to make - poetry or prose? He settled for poetry – free verse after a few unsuccessful attempts to rhyme his sentences. Aesthetics was all very good but when it stood in the way of a truthful expression of feelings, well, it should be sacrificed. The result was a long poem –titled, "Say Yes!"- that had three defects: one, it required a huge stretch of imagination for somebody to treat it as a poem; two, its subtleties were not very easy to grasp and, three, it assumed that the reader had a fair command over the English language. He did try to remove a few jarring sounds here and there, did make attempts to simplify the phraseology and did ensure to some extent that no big words dot the landscape but it was still a labour of love that had more labour shining through it than love. However, it was a sincere, honest effort except for one basic observation: he insisted that the lives of both of them would be ruined if she did not say ‘yes’. While he was tempted to believe that she’d be making a huge mistake if she threw him out of her life (a very remote possibility!), he knew he was stretching things a bit too far by assuming that this would ruin her life. Yet he went along with it because the lines looked good, justified the emphatic title and were certain to leave an impact. He did not bother to seal the envelope in which he placed the three pages carrying all that his heart had to say. Nor did Prateek find anything amiss in the fact that his friend did not even request him to refrain from reading the contents. After all, did not Prateek already know everything? And, maybe, somewhere deep within Saras wanted him to go over the contents and assure him that he had written nothing that was, or could be, construed as hackneyed, pompous or, what was worse, false. But Prateek being Prateek, just pocketed the document, nodded his head and tried his best not to let the fear in his belly eclipse the excitement that such a momentous occasion generated. They parted for the night, each knowing that their lives were poised for a huge change. The message had been composed and the messenger properly briefed. All that was left was to wait, always a difficult thing. But this time, Saras was strangely detached, almost like a mother after undergoing the ordeal of childbirth. He had given "birth" to a chain of events and though they bore his stamp and owed their existence to him, they were now something that was of him and by him but not him. The notion of personality - that carefully maintained veil of manners, customs, opinions and biases that we inherit and nurture all through our lives - is an impediment in the road towards true self-knowledge. We may identify closely with something but when the experience reaches its climax we are not there, so to speak. A criminal at the scene of his crime, a son at the deathbed of his father, a lover at the feet of his beloved, a blushing bride at the altar of the church, a convict facing a firing squad, well, a host of emotions accompany them but for a brief period of time they stand alone before being engulfed by the event and by their personality once again. It is in these moments that we can hope to have a glimpse of what we really are. Indeed, if only we are able to perceive all this completely, we'd be surprised to the extent we allow ourselves to be identified with the happenings outside and the notions within. We'd realize that we are more often than not
something other than what we think, feel and do in our waking hours. We'd also realize that we are a lot more than what we think, feel and do. Of course, it is not easy to understand what one is truly experiencing during moments of intensity and Saras, too, could not quite explain his detachment. However, as the day progressed, the detachment gave way to excitement and impatience and when the hour of meeting Prateek arrived, he was all nerves. Prateek was on time. He was ushered in with little ceremony and much haste. They sat facing each other in Saras' study room, the scene of so many of their animated talks and detailed planning. But now it was as if both were reluctant to break the silence. Indeed, none looked at the other for a minute or two before Saras directed a questioning glance at his friend and immediately knew that the thing had been done. The letter had been delivered and, as Prateek put it, received in a manner that betrayed little surprise and no alarm. Prateek shook his friend's hand and got up to go. He had his train to catch in the evening. They were both reasonably elated as they parted, each finding it difficult to wait for the dame's reply. But they knew that her decision would have to be extracted from her somehow for it was too much to expect her to come out with it openly and clearly (girls being girls and all that stuff!) Saras would have to manage that alone. It was decided that he would make a move after waiting for two-three days and that, too, in as low - key a manner as was possible. No need to attract everybody's attention.
Well, girls will be girls. What else can they be? They can be a lot less silly, thought Saras as he ruminated about what his parents told him some five days after Prateek's departure. The girl's mother had dropped in at Saras' house a day after her daughter had been approached. It was Saras who had opened the door and had gaped at the visitor who asked to meet his mother. The two ladies had a long chat in hushed tones so that he, sitting in the next room, could hear nothing. The contents of the hour-long discussion were not divulged to him that day or, indeed, for the next three days for he was appearing in a competitive examination. He, too, had not tried to ask anything. Today, after taking the exam and briefing his parents about his performance, he had been called to face the court-martial, only made worse by what his parents thought was a "mature" and "calm" manner of handling a "crisis". Put simply, they told him that the girl had read what he had to say and promptly informed her mother about it. Apparently she harboured no such feelings towards him and was not quite able to understand how Saras could have thought that she is interested in him in 'that' way. Her mother had decided to tackle the issue immediately for her daughter, she said, was rather scared. This she had done with minimum fuss by explaining the entire situation to his mother. Both had agreed that it was a delinquency on the part of an otherwise 'bright' and 'well brought-up' boy, which needed to be corrected, surely, but without recourse to anything dramatic or harsh. His father, delving into the pool of his own or, probably, his friends' 'misdemeanours' stated that such things do happen during adolescence. It was sad and rather unpleasant an incident and coming from him almost unbelievable but still he, Saras, would do well to put it behind him. It was good that the girl's father, known to be bit of a hothead, had not been apprised of the event or else all hell would have broken loose. The whole family would have had to face social ridicule and much worse. Sorry, son, you were way out of line. What were you thinking? And now, lying on the bed in his study room, Saras tried to ask himself the same question. What was he thinking? Well, whatever that may have been, he instinctively
realized two things: one, they all thought that they were behaving responsibly, all of them - the girl by reporting the incident to the proper authority and not getting enmeshed in all this 'nonsense' at an age when one is supposed to concentrate on one's studies; her mother who handled the situation in a straightforward yet graceful manner; his parents who had, first, patiently waited for him to take his exam and then, had broken the news to him with an appropriate mix of scolding, advice and guidance, labeling his act not as a crime but as a mistake. Two: while they asked as to what he was thinking, they all acted as though they already knew what he was thinking and they were all wrong, oh, so horribly off target. The series of events that would forever keep him at odds with what most termed as 'sane' advice had begun, the distance between him and his parents would, he knew that day itself, only increase with time for at the root of it was something quite fundamental: they had pinned all their hopes, reposed all their trust and formed all their opinions based on an incomplete understanding of who he was and what drove him as a human being. In thinking that he was in love with the girl, Saras was wrong. He hardly knew her. In dismissing his fervour as infatuation, his parents were wrong. It was love with the idea of being in love, it was a manifestation of the thought of sharing oneself with somebody else and it was a sub-conscious urge to explore one's nascent manhood. It was all this and it was more - it was an expression of the soul's desire to know itself. Saras knew as little about his soul's wish as his parents and, had he been made aware of this by somebody, would not have known what to make of it but he was certain that his parents had missed the true picture. He was surprised to the extent this weighed him down in the days that followed. With no Prateek to share his thoughts with, Saras spent his time alone in his study room, avoiding his parents, talking to no one, listening to songs, thinking and sleeping for long durations of time. Something had gone terribly wrong somewhere but where? Could he be that wrong? Could the girl not have said 'no' to him instead of rushing to her mother and if she had, would he not have accepted it? Could his parents not have showed faith in him by declaring that if he thought that he was in love then, well, perhaps he was and even if he was not, they'd give him time to find that out for himself while supporting him steadfastly all the way? Could they not have taken it upon themselves to effect a meeting between him and the girl so that he could have got the whole issue clarified and made up to her if he had indeed hurt her with his actions? With the benefit of hindsight, Saras could feel that, perhaps, he was demanding too much of his parents. Besides, should he not have walked up to them in the first place and made them aware of his feelings before taking any step? Even after what had happened, would it not have been better had he initiated some sort of a dialogue with his parents rather than shutting himself up in his room, all the while expecting them to walk up to him and set things right like they always had till that point? But these were the thoughts that came to Saras some ten years after those hot, arid afternoons and long, tortuous nights spent in solitude. He may not have been mature enough in the eyes of his parents to be in "romantic love" but by the same token, he wasn't mature enough to handle the emotional fallout either. It hurt somewhere deep within and he knew that the angst would stay with him forever. Well, the pain did stay with him all through at the subconscious level and surfaced unexpectedly on numerous occasions but it took him many years to realize that this was not because he missed the girl that much but because the incident made him acutely aware of the fact that he was not just somebody's son, brother or friend; that he had an independent existence and, like everybody else, a load of grief to carry which could not be shared with anybody. Only in his case, his extreme sensitivity made him more fully conscious of his loneliness while at the same time rendered him less capable of facing it.
The dreary summer months passed away slowly. Saras did not venture out much, half dreading the prospect of facing the girl. He did see her on a few occasions but managed to avoid a face-to-face encounter. It was not that he was afraid. It was just that the idea made him uncomfortable because he did not know how to show that neither was he apologetic about what he had done (though he was sorry for having caused any problems) nor did he feel any resentment towards her (though he was slightly irritated at the course of action she had adopted). The overwhelming emotion was one of numbness, of a strange disbelief that it had all panned out the way it had.
July came and with it came Prateek, all spruced up after an invigorating exposure to the salubrious climes of Dehradun. The doorbell rang one afternoon, Saras' mother opened the door and, to her credit, did nothing then or in the subsequent days to make Prateek 'pay' for his involvement in the 'fiasco'. Saras continued to lie on his bed even as Prateek made his way inside the study room, sat down and looked at him with an engaging smile. It was not to last for long. Briefly he was made aware of the mess and just as briefly he had summed up his reaction, "Shit!" When Saras came out some fifteen minutes later to bid his friend goodbye, they exchanged a glance that expressed resignation. But when they met later in the evening, neither could quite take what had happened at face value. As they went over everything again and again that day and for the next several days, both led themselves to believe that the situation was open to a different interpretation. Thus emerged the theory that the letter had been found on the girl by her mother who had then taken the matter in her own hands with the girl too scared to do anything but to comply with the set of directions handed down to her. Even if she was favourably inclined towards Saras, well, the fancy would not have been strong enough to face the subsequent onslaught and now she may be angry with him for having landed her in a soup. That was understandable. What they refused to accept was that theirs had been an irresponsible, juvenile action based on conjectures that had no basis in reality and one which merited such a humiliating response. Their pride had taken a beating. Their confidence in themselves had been shaken though, of course, for Prateek it was a justification of the feeling he always had about the girl - that she was still very much tied to her mother's apron strings. But, surely, it couldn't be that she was so unpleasantly jolted by what had happened that, given time, the initial attraction wouldn't rekindle? It made sense. They had to wait patiently, drop gentle hints that while they were hurt, they were not bitter and be on the lookout for the slightest trace of softness in her demeanour. The thought cheered them up a bit and they further resolved, feeling very noble while they did so, that they would not discuss the girl any more till she gave them the right to do so. No doubt boys at sixteen are fools, most of them, but wait before sniggering at them. It is infinitely less stupid to permit Cupid to take you for a ride at sixteen than to hand over your reins to Mammon, which is what most of us do when we reach adulthood. In any case, a boy can always grow up to become one of the 'men'. So, if he is behaving like a chump at sixteen, let him. However, the problem is: chumps, unless they wake up by themselves, are forced by the world to wake up and when that happens, they are likely to disown their feelings. Finally, one fine day, our chump-turned-successful man-of- theworld looks back and rubbishes the very notion of being in love. Tragic!
Anyway, our musketeers kept at their task assiduously. To their credit, they never lost hope and never despaired of waiting. They did not push their case but they did not give up either. They just stood their ground, the ardent paramour and the faithful friend, yielding not an inch. Saras penned down several poems, some good ones and learnt various songs. Of course, not much time or effort was devoted to studies and, if only he had stopped to consider it, Saras would have realized that one must do what one has to with all diligence if one is demanding the right to do what one wants to. A full five months passed and no sign from the girl. Then, one evening, as Saras and Prateek were passing below her window, a curtain was drawn aside, a face emerged, a pair of eyes looked in their direction for, perhaps, two seconds and, then, the figure retreated into the shadows slowly, as if reluctant to do so. The boys carried on, a bit dazed, looking nowhere till the road had taken them to a spot just in front of her balcony. And, as soon as they reached there, she came out and this time there was no mistaking it. She had come out for Saras and she stayed her ground. The signal had been given! Or so Saras thought. He turned towards Prateek, allowing himself a look of triumph, which was returned by his friend. They had not erred and the gods had, finally, given way. Relieved and excited in turns, they immediately got down to do some serious thinking. Every step from now on had to be carefully planned. After all, they could not let the girl down, could they? Yet, for all their intense brainstorming, no suitable modus operandi suggested itself. Like a child wanting the moon, they had only concentrated on what they desired, not on what they'd do if their wish were granted. Oh, sure, Saras was now required to approach the girl somehow. But how? And what then? No answers. Out of the blue, just when they had reached their wits' end, a piece of news came their way. Her birthday was round the corner, in fact, just two -three days away. This was the opportune moment. Saras had to wish her, hand over his gift and start the proceedings that would, they were sure, somehow culminate in long evenings draped lovingly with love. Saras got down to preparing a card – a simple one, with nothing to attract or dazzle. It was a sublime offering carrying no names and wishing life to give her all that she wished from it. In one sentence he had summed up his entire stance: I want to be in your life only if you wish it! The moment he wrote it he knew he had written the best sentence of his life. Years later, reminiscing about that moment, he had one huge regret: why did he allow himself to feel proud of that sentence? Did that make him commit the same error he had committed five months back – believing that just because he had come up with something beautiful and true, his work was done and that it would all be smooth sailing thereafter? Be that as it may, this time he was not like what he was on the previous occasion. No matter how hard he tried, some hesitancy remained. Five months of waiting had done much to make him question his instincts and he was more inclined to hold himself back. Besides, both he and Prateek, in spite of their efforts, were a bit confused about the actual date. All this meant that the day came and passed and he did nothing, absolutely nothing. It was the sound of people partying and having a good time late into the night that helped confirm what he had missed. No matter. If you wish that all of somebody's wishes come true, well, one day is as good as the other to convey that message. It helped that the next day was being observed as a holiday in his school while her school was open. He would deliver the card to her in the morning.
The next day, he got up and carrying the card in a small plastic bag, joined Prateek at the TT center situated within the colony premises. The center afforded one a fairly good view of the entire stretch of road from almost the colony gate to the bus stop – a distance of some 200 yards. Yet, as luck would have it, he spotted her only when she had almost reached the bus stop. It was certain that if he went by the normal route, he'd not be able to catch up with her. So, tucking the card inside his shirt, he made for the colony wall adjoining one of the side roads, scaled it with consummate skill and, dropping lightly on the other side, ran for all he was worth. It had been a deft display of youthful vigour and as he felt the cool morning air against his face, he could not but experience a thrill. This was the stuff dreams are made of. This was…but, hell, where was she? He scanned the horizon anxiously but she wasn't there. Some bus must have come along while he was busy jumping walls and she must have boarded it. He continued wandering on the streets hoping to chance upon her but had to eventually retrace his steps. As he walked back, a sudden change seemed to come over him. He felt like he was on a track to nowhere. It all appeared so strange. Here he was chasing somebody at eight o' clock in the morning with a card. No, he did not feel foolish. He just felt out of place, not expected, needed or missed, almost like an intruder. It was a crushing sensation and he did not even have the heart to chat with a waiting Prateek. As briefly as was possible, he narrated the experience and then left for home. By evening, he had resolved to change his approach completely. No more poetry, no more mooning over what could be. No, he would put his head down, study hard, make peace with the horrors of boring theorems, be methodical and gird himself for the long haul. He'd carve out a career for himself, win a place under the sun and then try his luck with her. No more of wandering on empty streets with a forlorn look. It was high time he grew up to be a man. Love was no child's play. It was serious business and romantic notions alone were not enough. He sat down at his study table and purposely picked up the topics he abhorred. And then, the bell rang. Since his parents had gone out, he opened the door and Prateek walked in with the news that she was taking a round of the colony for the past half-anhour or so and, surprisingly enough, alone. Wasn't this a golden opportunity? Darkness was approaching and very soon she was sure to turn in. That would be just the right time to approach her. Surely, it was now or never. Oblivious to what his friend had just decided Prateek felt he was bringing home news of the century. Well, it didn't matter that he did not know, for, as soon as he heard what his friend had to say, Saras himself forgot all about his resolve. Had he been reminded about it, he would have dismissed it as a product of temporary loss of faith - loss of faith in the magic of love, something that would somehow take care of everything as soon as she said, "Yes." Destiny was beckoning him. Life was waiting -waiting to be met head on and to be lived. He took the card and the two friends made towards her block. Once there, Prateek wished Saras luck and departed, promising to drop by his house after an hour. Night had now fallen and it was easy for Saras to become one with the shadows. Some ten minutes later she walked right past him, evidently not seeing him in the darkness and started to climb the staircase. He approached her from behind and called out her name, his heart in his mouth not because he was scared but simply because it was after a long time that he was uttering her name aloud. Months of silence were over and after days of waiting and hoping, they were again meeting on a staircase.
A million things could have contributed to the way things went between them during the next five minutes. But when he returned to his house, he dwelt on none of them and when Prateek came over, Saras took him to the kitchen and, then and there, consigned all his poems to flames. He would have done the same had his parents been around but it was good that they weren't. It added to the sense of pathos and drama. The empty house, the baffled friend, the smoke coming out of burnt sheets of paper, the set look on a tired face, the vacant eyes, the end of it all. He had been knocked down. The girl had eyed him with ill concealed irritation; had accepted his belated wishes peremptorily; had looked askance at the card he was holding out to her; had posed before him a cold, "Why?"; had directed a merciless look at him as he had fumbled and eventually managed to only utter, "Why?, Why?" in a bewildered tone; had declared icily, "I don't want it"; had not considered the pain in his voice as he had mumbled, " At least read it once", had declared again the same words, "I don't want it", had not even waited for him to finish his sentence, "If you don't want it, ok" and had started to climb back without a backward glance. He decided to- but never did- approach her again. He let Life take her away. He finally accepted that he never occupied so much as an inch of space in her Universe. He eventually realized that he had never known her enough to love her. But, over the next few years, as the memory of those days kept stealing over him with no conscious effort on his part, something was born out of the ruins: a revelation- There is nothing more real about life than illusions and no illusion is more real than the one called Love. For men like Saras, life would always be a test of Will, a parody of misunderstandings, a terrible loneliness, an indescribable longing, an interminable wait, an elusive search– all in all, a mad desire to live the biggest of all dreams: to experience a love so majestic that one would be compelled to agree with what a poet once said: "Love so great, so divine; Commands my life, my soul, my all!
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