Barnali Saha Neeru’s love

I

t all started on one beautiful spring morning when amidst the warping, bending and cracking of the world, tender flowers were blooming, the sun was shooting its delightful rays and everything seemed happy and contented. Neeru was unusually quiet that day; she knew something was definitely wrong in her otherwise amiable constitution. For the past couple of weeks she had been feeling a strange recklessness inside her; it was as if her heart were pounding inside her chest for no apparent reason. She was facing unusual mood swings – at one moment she was euphoric and in the other wrecked by some unknown anguish. Neeru was tensed; in the thirteen years of her life, no problem had ever vexed her like that. She knew she needed a diagnosis, but she was still unsure of the nature of the trouble. Confused, the night before, she had talked to her mother about it. “Maa, I feel strange,” she had said. Jyotsna, Neeru’s mother, was then too tired after her day’s work to even realize what her daughter was saying. She simply half-saw Neeru’s lips moving but failed to decipher what she said, and just replied, “It is all right, dear. Now, go to sleep. I have to get up early.” Neeru was disheartened; she turned to her side and looked outside. It was a full moon night; the mystic moonlight flooded the tiny room with a white glow. The fronds of the coconut trees swayed in the gentle breeze; the world looked magical to Neeru. There were tears in her eyes. The same unknown pain wriggled inside her, but she seemed to cherish it. It was like one tasty poison, a nameless, unidentified mass of emotion that was growing larger and larger. The feeling was consuming her, and Neeru knew she couldn’t run away from it. Now, there isn’t a lot to talk about girls like Neeru who were born in the not-sofortunate streets of North Calcutta. She was the unwanted third child of her parents and had realized the worthlessness of her presence early in her life. She was too tall for a girl of her age, emaciated, her cheeks were sunken and her skin pale. A sudden look at her would create the impression of a street urchin: starved and dirty, waiting in line for a bowl of hot porridge. But there was something in her eyes that might strike the onlooker as unusual and deep. Sadly, no body till date had noticed the depth in her.

People who have accidentally reached puberty on one fine day often spend long hours talking about love. They romanticize it, pet it like a connoisseur; they dream about it and wonder when they would delve in the ocean of love. At such an ominous stage of life, all incidents whether trivial or imperative lose their hearty significance, and in the void there glows the illusive emotion of love. It is as if these thirteensomething people were on a holy quest for some imaginary thing they have seen in movies or read in novels about. In Neeru's case it was a first hand encounter with

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Nikhil Sen that stirred up the confusion for her. Around afternoon on one ordinary Sunday two weeks back, Neeru was playing Kabaddi with the other children in the neighborhood. There were eight of them including two of Neeru’s best friends, Nilima and Rupa. There were two teams with four members each; a line was drawn on street using the jagged edge of a broken terracotta tea cup to act as the makeshift pitch for the game. The teams were standing on either side of the line. The boys were vying against the girls that day, and Neeru’s team was on a winning streak. There were giggles and silly jokes, the boys were calling each other names and there was humble street cursing. And then, amidst all the jollity, the strangest thing happened. The fourth round of the game was in full swing and Neeru was about to cross the line to the opposing camp. The players were ready; Neeru was breathlessly chanting the words “Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi”, her face drenched in sweat, her eyes focused on the goal of killing the opposition, when suddenly the musty odor of expensive cologne reached her like a whiff of fresh air sweetening the stifling atmosphere that enveloped her. It seemed too magical to be true. Neeru was in a trance; she balked in the middle of her jump and turned her head to see Nikhil Sen walking down the narrow side street. His dark black hair was lifted by the light wind; he was wearing a pair of simple blue jeans and a white shirt and was carrying a couple of books in his hand. He walked listlessly past the group, turned left at the end of the road and was seen no more. The magical smell also vanished with him. Neeru woke up from her trance when she heard, “Dumbo, what are you doing? You are spoiling the game.” Astonished, Neeru shifted her attention to the game and noticed, to her surprise, that Gopal and Abhijit, two of the members of the boys’ team, were holding her right arm. The other boys were laughing. “You are killed, dumbo! Now move out,” cried Gopal. Neeru realized what had happened, that in her trance she had accidentally allowed members of the enemy team catch and kill her. The game ended in a jiffy with the boys’ team winning the match. After the game, Rupa and Nilima accosted Neeru and asked, “What happened to you? Why did you let them win?” “I don’t know,” Neeru replied while trying to straighten out her thoughts. “What?” The girls looked at each other unbelievingly and then whispered something to Neeru’s ear. Neeru looked up surprisingly, her face blushed and she gave a mysterious smile. Afterwards they heard the sugarcane vendor ringing his handcart bell and rushed to get a cane. That night everybody was asleep; even Neeru’s father, who usually returned home only after midnight smelling of booze and cheap perfume, was home that night and was fast asleep. Neeru lay wide awake thinking about Nikhil. Throughout the night, Neeru relived the strange little incident in her mind over and over, and even secretly wished to tear down the walls of the room and rush into the streets once again to savor the whiff of fresh air. She wondered if he had noticed her; however, she wished he had not. She knew she looked awful, her hair was sticky and disheveled, the frock she wore was almost threadbare, there were sweat marks under her arms, and her whole get up was despicable. For the next two weeks, at almost every hour of the

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passing day, Neeru’s mind railed and yearned to smell the musty odor of Nikhil’s cologne. She waited, wide eyed upon the side street to allow her one chance to see the man who had ruined her almost perfect world. For days her wish went unanswered but her hoped did not die. Neeru had always lived on optimism. When things didn’t look alright, such as the time when her father lost his last job at the asbestos factory, the nights when he would come home drunk and beat her mother, or the times when the painful marks from her brother’s whip seared her skin, she had hoped that by some magic stroke all her anguish would fade away, and like the heroines in the Bollywood movies, one day she would be rescued by a real hero. But, for some, hope is just an accessory they can never afford to have. Neeru was probably too young to realize the fruitlessness of her hopes. When she was born, she had brought sweat and tears for her family, because soon after her birth her father got laid off from his job as a security guard at a jewelry store and her mother had to start working as a housemaid. Right from the very beginning of her life Neeru was held as a disgrace to the family and was often reminded by her two brothers that she was the living devil. She had memories of being thrown out of house by her father in the middle of the night when the cold winds tore her muscles and she stood in the doorway begging her father to forgive her for some sin she had no idea about. Neeru had often asked her mother, "Maa, am I really the devil?" Every time she had asked her the question, her mother would put the end of her saree around her mouth and cry. Then she would take her in her lap and caress her. Neeru loved her mother’s gnarly hands touching her head dotingly. However, she had never replied to her query and so Neeru had never known if she was indeed the devil her brothers talked about. Somehow, Neeru had gotten herself to accept her life as it was. She had learned to hide her wishes in her make belief games that she played alone. In her games she was everything she had ever wanted to be, one day she was a doctor and the other day, a teacher or an actress. Neeru had been forever jealous about her other friends who could go to public school and study. She often asked Nilima and Rupa about school, how it looked, what the blackboard was like and what the teacher taught. Her friends would talk at lengths about their lessons, about history, geography, the grave mathematical problems of addition and subtraction that they had solved in class. “School is fun; we also get free lunch. You should ask your parents to send you to class,” Rupa had advised her. But when Neeru gathered the courage to talk to her father about school, he laughed aloud. His loud guffaws almost ripped the tin roofed tiny hut. Her brothers laughed too. “She wants to go to school!! Outrageous, isn't it? She wants to study, funny girl,” they laughed and said. The following day Neeru was forced to take a job of washing cups and plates at the local tea stall. From then on she stopped asking her friends about school and stuck to more basic topics like love, Hindi movies and boys.

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It was a busy day for Neeru, like all other days of the week. It was an unusually hot day and Neeru was sitting in the washing area of the tea stall scrubbing the grimy utensils with an overused scouring pad. The stall had just opened an hour back and the first round of fresh tea was boiling in the charcoal oven. Neeru could hear the hissing sound coming from the kettle. All the while, as she scrubbed, she noticed how Rahim Chacha, the owner of the stall, mixed tea, hot milk and cardamom pods in a saucer and made his especial Cha while jiggling to an oldie that played on the radio. She laughed to herself seeing the old man dance. He is crazy, she thought and turned her attention to her work. “A cup of tea please.” Neeru looked up, astonished. It was a voice she knew well; she had heard it in the loud adda sessions in the neighborhood, expressing strong political views with furious energy. “What kind of tea?” Rahim Chacha asked. “Make it one of your special,” he said as he pulled out his wallet from his back pocket. Then he turned around to take a seat at the nearest wooden stool and Neeru saw him up close and clear. It was Nikhil Sen. Neeru’s heart almost leaped out of her ribcage. She thought she was seeing a dream and rubbed her eyes in disbelief, resulting in the washing powder in her hand going into the eyes. “Oh, God!” Neeru cried, “My eyes are burning.” “Go, wash them immediately,” said Nikhil rising up from his seat hurriedly. “Don’t worry, Nikhil Babu… That is nothing. Nothing will happen to her. She is a strong girl,” Rahim Chacha said. “What? I am a medical student – I know what I am saying, and she should wash her eyes real well, else she might have an infection or something.” “Neeru, go and wash your eyes,” Rahim Chacha said and Neeru ran to do as instructed. When she came back, she saw Nikhil sipping his tea from a tea glass. She peeked at him through the window beside the washing area. Up-close Nikhil looked dashingly handsome; Neeru thought that he bore an uncanny resemblance to King Khan. She stared at him spellbound and almost wanted to touch his dimples as they appeared on his cheeks every time he said something to Rahim Chacha. “Come here you,” Nikhil said as he caught a glimpse of Neeru staring through the window. Neeru didn’t know what to do, her muscles froze and she was unable to move for a while. Then she dragged herself into the store. “How are your eyes? Do they hurt?” Nikhil asked smilingly. Neeru could feel his warm breath mixed with the magical odor of the same cologne. She didn’t know what to say – she was utterly confused and tensed. Her hands were cold and she heard the quickened beating of her heart. Speechless, she simply nodded. “That’s good,” Nikhil said. “What is your name?” Now Neeru looked up shyly, her face flushed. “Neeru, my name is Neeru,” she said softly while Nikhil looked at her with kind amusement. “That’s a beautiful name,” he said, putting his hand into his pocket, and brought out a mint lozenge. “This is for you; now be a good girl and take care of your eyes,” he said handing the candy to Neeru. “Thank you!” she replied as she took the candy and then ran away to the streets.

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It took fifteen long minutes for Neeru’s heart to get back to its normal rhythm and twenty whole minutes for her hands to warm and her face to regain its color. It seemed that the whole world was rotating in the opposite direction and Neeru was seeing everything upside down. She stood in the middle of the street wishing to rewind time and go back to the moment, that one special moment when Nikhil had asked her name. For the whole day Neeru luxuriated in the fantastic memory of her exhilarating encounter with the man of her dreams. She was extraordinarily happy that day; after dinner, she stood before the mirror and examined her face. She noticed a change in her visage, her child-like look had taken a mature turn over time and she looked different from what she remembered. She turned on the radio and began combing her hair gently. “You are playing those atrocious Hindi songs again!” Neeru’s father screamed as he entered the house. He was heavily drunk and staggering, his words were messed up and his eyes were red like hibiscus flowers. Neeru tuned off the radio at once and readied to leave the room. “Where do you think you are going?” Her father dragged her by her hair. “You brought ill-luck to me and destroyed my life and now you are leaving?” he said, wrapping one end of his belt around his palm. Neeru’s mother heard the cries from the other room and rushed to rescue her, knowing how dangerous her man became in his inebriated stupors. “Leave her or she will die,” she cried. “You go away!” he pushed her away and began beating Neeru mercilessly. Neeru cried as the sensation of pain shot throughout her body. She could feel the blows bruising her skin. After a while Neeru became unconscious and her father kicked her body out of the house and slammed shut the door. It was almost midnight, when Neeru regained consciousness, and it was raining in torrents. A sullen sky covered with dark monsoon clouds bayed from the vaulted ceiling of the sky. Lightning flashed and sharp needles of rain poured relentlessly. It was a rain of vituperation; the gods seemed to be very angry. Neeru found herself lying crumpled on the cold street; her bedraggled bare body was covered with swollen, purple bruises. The street was vacant; nobody was there, not even a dog. The lamps on the street were shining with a dim glow. Neeru was cold and she shivered wildly, she tried to sit up but her limbs wouldn’t move. The pain made her cry. She looked around for help and found a lump of wilted bread on the ground. Somebody must have thought her a beggar and had thrown it to her. Neeru was hungry she tried to pick up the bread but her fingers hurt. Frustrated, she began to cry uncontrollably. She saw the closed door of her house and wondered what her father did to her mother. Meanwhile, Nikhil was returning from his friend’s place after a day of joint study. He was in the third year of the MBBS program at the Calcutta Medical College and the coursework was piling up every day. His parents had always wanted him to become a doctor, and spent all their savings on his education. They gave him the best they could afford: great teachers, good books, they even stayed back at Durgapur while their only

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son went to Calcutta and attended the medical college, staying in a small, rented house nearby. On his part, Nikhil worked hard, too, and now was only two years away from fructifying his parents’ dreams. As Nikhil turned the corner, he thought he heard somebody cry. He thought it was the rain. The almost dark street looked ghastly at night. He stopped and listened closely. There was a refugee colony at the far end of the road; the sound was coming from there. Nikhil brought out his flashlight and walked to the direction of the sound, his slippers sloshing in the rain water. The streets were already starting to flood, and looked haunted. What Nikhil had momentarily assumed to be a shadow on the side street turned out to be the frail figure of a girl writhing in pain on the ground, her pathetic little body shivering in the rain. “Neeru, is that you?” he exclaimed. Neeru was speechless, but this time in pain. When Nikhil noticed the deep purple bruises that covered her body, he almost felt like crying himself. He balanced his black grandfather umbrella in one hand and gently lifted the girl. “What kind of a monster does this to a child,” he kept thinking as he walked towards his residence, cradling Neeru. Neeru laid her head on Nikhil’s chest and sobbed. Once home, Nikhil cleaned her bruises, applied the anti-microbial cream, Neosporin, on them, and bandaged them. He laid Neeru down on his own bed and gave her a sedative. “You sleep here, and I will sleep on the couch. Just call me if you need anything, all right?” Nikhil said as he pulled the blanket on Neeru. Neeru grabbed his hand and asked, “Will you marry me, Nikhil?” Nikhil smiled in amusement and replied, “Sure, one day I will marry you.” He switched off the lights. Neeru lay in the darkness comfortably; it seemed that all her fears, her pains and anguishes had been veiled by the cover of darkness. She felt as though her wounds had healed already. She had felt Nikhil’s touch today, a touch she had dreamed about in her midnight reveries, but had never hoped to feel on her skin. She felt complete. She did not know if she would see Nikhil again in future, and even if she saw him she did not know what she would say to him. But at that point it did not matter; in fact, nothing mattered to Neeru anymore. For the very first time she was completely happy. It was a great feeling of newfound freedom from the cares of the world. She thought she was gliding. Outside the rain continued to pour; it was a sweet sound of beautiful romance, of exhilarating passion flowing through the veins of the world. It was the most beautiful monsoon that ever showered on the earth. The painful pleasure of first love sparked like lighting inside Neeru. She closed her eyes and kissed her own bandaged hand as she drifted to sleep.

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