Read Part 1 of the story here – Message in a Pen – I
The gang of ten was now two concentric circles – eight of us as a surreptitious circumference around Saahil and Neelam. We savoured their melting. We were elated when their meetings multiplied, when their eyes oozed their enviable blissful future. I kept raising doubts at intervals in various octaves, sometimes guilty of vehemence because I was scared for them. Neelam and Saahil would then sit with me and pacify me. They were devastatingly optimistic. It almost broke my heart but I always smiled in the end. Sometimes the gang agreed with me that the gap between their communities was too wide to be filled up in our lifetime. Honour killing was still a rampant reality. But Saahil and Neelam were sanguine, with a thick veil of love settled on their existence.
“If the need arise, will you contemplate running away?” I asked both of them once over a cup of coffee in the canteen. It was just the three of us.
“We haven’t thought about it but we might,” Neelam said.
“You haven’t thought about it or you are scared to think about it? Do you realize what will happen to Saahil’s family after both of you elope?” I asked. Both of them looked at each other.
Saahil had discussed the relationship with his family and his parents had no problems with the match but they made it very clear that their family getting insulted will never be a part and parcel of the deal. If Saahil had to elope or marry secretly, then he was on his own.
The couple persisted. The courtship was now about to complete a year. It was the first time that I had seen a woman blush a beetroot red at the sight of a man. The smile won’t leave their faces as their fingers found each other’s hands. Their eyes gleamed with dreams of their future together.
* * *
The lunch was eventful. The five of us talked about various lecturers and professors who taught us during the one and a half years we studied together. There were too many people we had mimicked and made fun of during that time. We lived it again, choking on our food as we laughed. Arnav clapped his hands while Kirti moved her head from one side to another and smiled. Our past danced around the dining table but the girls were not in it. It was a tacit decision to erase them. I had no idea how much Kirti knew and so I went with the flow.
I loosened up a bit by the time we finished eating. We clicked a few pictures. One of them had Rajat and Saahil sitting in front while I, Gaurav and Sumit stood behind them. It was exactly like a photograph clicked during our college farewell. The faces were not the same. Mouldings were seeping into our pictures with time.
“Arnav needs to sleep. I am going in the bedroom for a while,” Kirti said to Saahil and went inside.
“Come,” Saahil said as he held my hand and asked me to get up.
“Where are you guys going?” Rajat asked in alarm.
“We are taking a stroll in the park. The three of you can take a nap,” Saahil said.
I got up and went out of the house with Saahil as Rajat, Sumit and Gaurav gave difficult-to-comprehend expressions.
* * *
We had a preparatory break twenty days before our final examinations. Most of us stayed in the hostel because they were our last few days together. Neelam went home as Saahil would not let her study. She talked to him in the evening after reaching home and that was the last time any of us got a phone call from her.
No one had any idea what had happened for almost four days when a call came on Saahil’s phone one evening. The five of us were in his room discussing what to do next when the phone rang. It was Neelam’s father on the other side. He was shouting so piercingly that all of us could plainly hear his words. Saahil tried to reason with him but his reasons were not working against death threats. Fifteen minutes and an avalanche of swearwords later, the phone was abruptly disconnected. We sat in stunned silence. It was a perfect I-told-you-so moment but I kept my mouth shut. Saahil was blinking away tears.
“I have to go home and talk to my parents,” he said as he suddenly got up and started packing.
“Tomorrow,” Gaurav said.
“No, I have to go now.”
“I said tomorrow Saahil! You are in no position to ride a bike on the highway,” Gaurav said.
Saahil threw his bag violently on the floor. The clothes tumbled out of the bag. I got up to pick them up and kept them back in the bag.
He went home the next day to convince his parents to talk to Neelam’s family. They were very clear that Neelam’s family has to spit out the anger and talk to them in a civilized manner. Saahil called up Neelam’s father to convince him for a meeting. He was told that the next time he calls, his family will not find a single piece of his body.
“Please tell me if she is alive,” he pleaded. The line went dead.
I kept calling Saahil that day but he did not pick up his mobile. Optimism was now an unrecognizable corpse buried deep within the soil of practicalities; the practicalities of staying alive. I had never thought that I would wait for Saahil in our hostel room with my heart ramming into my ribcage with a deafening ferocity. I imagined reporting him missing to the police and then identifying his body. I imagined Neelam hanging from a ceiling fan, her battered body swinging slowly. Love had turned into a blinding pain from being blind.
Saahil came to hostel the next day. His face was different now. He had woken up from the dream.
* * *
We sat on a bench in the park. The weather was agreeable.
“Neelam is in America with her husband. They went to Egypt on a holiday. She loved the Pyramids,” Saahil said. I stared at his face for a while.
“Are you in..”
“No. Rajat told me. He got an e-mail from her one day. Now she writes to him sometimes to let us know that she is happy.”
“What about you?”
“What do you think?”
I silently stared at the swings moving slowly with the winds.
“You really don’t get it, do you? You saw what I went through, what Neelam went through. You saw her when she came to write her exams. After going through all that turmoil when I had no intentions of staying alive, here I am sitting with you. I am married and I have a kid. Would I be able to lead my life like this if I still loved Neelam?”
“But how can you fall out of love with a person like this Saahil? You were crazy about each other.”
“I am in love with Kirti and Arnav. Right now that is all that matters. Our life is not as one dimensional as it seems. The seasons change for a reason my friend. The pendulum swings without rest. The first few months were difficult, when she was forcefully married but there was nothing I could do. Her house had turned into a fort. I tried reaching her. You had left for Chennai. Rajat, Sumit and Gaurav were there but I knew that I had to come out of it or I would have gone crazy. Even then, when Kirti was refereed for an arranged match, I said no initially.”
“I told her about Neelam the first time we met. She was very understanding. She told me that she liked me but I cannot enter her life with the burden I was carrying. We started talking and said yes a month later. Neelam was already in America by then.”
“I am madly in love with Kirti. Don’t you see? She healed me. I was never so much in peace with my life as I am now. When I see Arnav’s face, I don’t remember any sadness that existed in my life. It was always about Kirti and me. This is where the path was destined to lead me.”
“I am happy for you,” I said as I caressed a piece of paper in my pocket.
to be continued…