The aeroplane driver

Turning the pages of the big blue photo album, my mom spoke about your mom.

“Remember Sumithra, my roommate at college?”

From the album, she showed me a photograph of your mom, whose edges had soiled in the course of time. In the photo, your mom and my mom were sitting on a stone bench in front of a fountain in a garden full of red roses. Your mom looked beautiful in the blue saree whose end was draped around her clavicles, just as one wound wrap a shawl around one’s shoulders. The photo was taken during the college trip to Ooty five years before I and you were born.

I remember your mom vividly. She had gifted me a stuffed white rabbit (which I named Loonie) for my second birthday that played a tune if a key at its throat was turned – a toy which remained my favorite till it lost its fur after I gave it a bath in the shower. I loved her because, as a pediatrician, she only gave me sweet round pills (that came in a small white bottle) for every illness and never bitter ones like the doctor at my neighborhood. Unlike my mother, she used to wear a red dot of saffron on her forehead between the parting of her hair and sandal paste above her bindi. I, as a child, loved her for everything she did, even for the perfume she used and sarees she wore. I was five years old then.

Afterwards, your family shifted from Calicut to Thrissur. My family arranged a party for yours the day before you planned to leave Calicut. You were left with me in my room while our families dined upstairs. I gave you my building block set and yellow tricycle to play, just because my mom had instructed me to do so. You created a tall castle with the blocks, and rode around the room on the tricycle, blowing the horn everytime you crossed my chair. You said you had video games at home, a thing I hadn’t heard of. You refused to play with my dolls, saying that it is girly stuff. You flied my toy aeroplane using its remote control, and told me that you will grow up to become an aeroplane-driver. Your name was Arun.

Afterwards, you were called upstairs for food. You refused to eat the fried rice my mom had painstakingly made and settled for a bowl of icecream. Afterwards, you fell asleep on the sofa and you were lifted to the backseat of your dad’s car and you were driven home. That was the last time we met, apart from meeting each other after 14 years, at Ooty, as classmates.

After moving from Calicut, we seldom spoke of you. Both the families shrunk more into themselves that by the time I joined college, you were entirely forgotten.

One morning, your mom called up my mom on phone to convey the news that you were joining Calicut Medical college. I was about to join the same college, too. The phone call from your mom after a long time lifted up my mom’s spirit greatly so that she kept talking about Sumithra all the day and showed me your mom’s photo in the album.

As I turned the pages of the album, I looked for your photo, anticipating that at least one would be there. There weren’t any. Your form had long vanished from my memory, and remembering you wouldn’t help me much because you would have changed a lot over years.

After my first day at college, mom asked me whether I had met you. I said no because in my batch there were six people whose name was Arun. She asked me to look out for Arun Prayag, so I carefully watched while your name was called out when attendance was called out so as to see you.

And I saw. You had bushy eyebrows like your dad and almond eyes like your mom. You weren’t very tall, but you looked attractive in the black rimmed spectacles, black shirt, blue jeans and white sports shoes you had worn. I hadn’t expected you to be this handsome.

In the coming days, I saw more of you. You used to reach the lecture hall first, ahead of everyone. Sometimes, I used to reach first, but I would wait in the corridor outside the hall for you to collect the key and open the door of the hall. We would enter together. Although our eyes would meet, you never seemed to acknowledge my existence. You didn’t care to notice me, or anyone, for that matter. You seemed to be busy pressing buttons on your cell phone all the time, which I assumed, was an iphone. You had a very few friends, and you absented yourself from every non-academic function held in the college. People thought of you as a tough guy. You were indeed one.

New Year came. Our batch decided to celebrate the New Year at Ooty. I thought you wouldn’t attend the trip, but you came. We traveled in the same bus, you sitting at the far end of the back row, alone, and me with my friends in the first. You didn’t seem to be interested in sightseeing, and were fully absorbed in your Dell laptop.

Even as the bus stopped at various tourists spots, you hardly came out of the bus. Unlike others, you did not bargain for the goods you bought from the wayside vendors. You were, in total, a different guy.

I and my friend Sona took a snap from the same stone bench where my mom and your mom had posed for a photo 26 years ago.

At the end of the tour, it was time to exchange the New Year gifts. Everyone would pick up a random bill from the lot and would give her/his new year gift to the person whose name is on the bill which she/he picked up. The name of the new year friend was to be kept secret till the gifts were exchanged. Everyone had bought a gift for their respective New Year friends during the tour, but you hadn’t.

The gifts were to be exchanged during the campfire. I gave the gift I had bought for my New Year friend and wished her a happy new year. In about half an hour time, everybody had identified their respective new year friend and had exchanged their gifts. But I didn’t get any.

“Netha…” a voice called me from behind. I turned back. It was you. You gave me the gift you had in hand – a small rectangular package covered with shiny blue wrapper with a red ribbon tied around it, the ribbon knotted on top.

“Open it”, you said, which sounded more like an order to me.

I sat down, on the grass, a little away from the campfire. You sat close to me, looking only at the blue package I had in hand. I pulled one end of the ribbon, and it unknotted. I carefully removed the cellotapes around the package and took the gift out.

I was surprised.

It was framed photo. The frame was golden in colour, which had the words ‘friendship’ etched on it. The photo was of two kids, you and me, taken during the party at my house, 14 years back. I was wearing a red frock, and you blue shirt and black trousers. You were holding my aeroplane in hand and I was holding my doll. On the background was my yellow tricycle.

For about two minutes, neither of us spoke.

“Liked it?” you broke the silence.

“Yes,” I said.

“I am bad at choosing gifts”.

“You are not”.

We sat for some more time, speaking nothing, staring at the twinkling stars in the dark blue sky. A few metres away, our classmates were dancing and singing near the campfire.

“Netha…….,” you spoke.

“Yes?”

“I am leaving our college”.

Why?

Medicine is not my passion. My interests lie elsewhere. I have been awarded a scholarship….by the College of Engineering, at Glasgow, in the United Kingdom. I will be dropping MBBS course and will be joining aeronautical engineering.

Do your friends know?

I hardly have friends. You are the first person with whom I shared this news. I got the confirmation letter via mail today. I haven’t even told my mom about it.

I didn’t know what to say.

“Good luck,” I finally managed to say.

“Thanks,” you said. You got up and walked away.

Throughout the return journey from Ooty, we didn’t speak anything. After about a week or so, you obtained your clearance certificates and left the college. You didn’t even pause to say anyone goodbye.

She

I first knew her as Manish’s girlfriend. It was Manish who gave me her e-mail id. I looked up her profile on facebook to send her a friend request because Manish wanted me to do so. Because Manish was my best friend, I did exactly what he said.

“Hi, I am Manish’s friend. I have heard so much about you from him. Would love to be your friend, too. Plz accept my fb friend request. – Neethu.”

Once after she accepted my friend request, we started to meet each other regularly on facebook chat. In the beginning, we exchanged only formal greetings and talked about studies. Later I started knowing her well, and eventually, we became good friends overtime.

Her name was Shilpa. She told me that she had long hair, black eyes and lipstick free lips. That she always wore hair in braids. That her face was dark in complexion, and apart from a few blackhead outbursts, it was not special at all. That she always wore cotton salwar kameez with dupatta. That she arrived at the classroom organized and composed, with the assignments for each of the classes neatly stapled and placed in their individual folders. That she barely paid any attention to makeover and clothing. That it amazes her how she fell in love with Manish. That her parents think that she was shy and too devoted to her studies to bother with boys. That she was plain, boring and studious. That working on her laptop typing up her notes, marking off the books she read and sitting for hours alone in her room were more fulfilling for her than anything else.

We grew close, and so we started meeting on facebook chat every evening. I could tell everything about her- her future plans, her outlook about life, her philosophical views and everything else a girl could tell to another girl. I came to know that earning a Ph.D in Chemistry was the most important thing for her. I straightaway asked her if she could join me for pursuing research on biochemistry once she and I finish our studies, and she readily agreed. She taught me chemical kinetics and I told her about the patients I had attended to and the surgeries I had made a note of. She became the kind of friend I never wanted to lose.

One day, after I asked to, she showed me her photo blog. It was her secret possession, and less than 20 people including me and Manish had the privilege to gain access to the private space. There were countless photographs, each arranged as thumbnails which popped up into a bigger size once clicked, against a black background. It contained all photos she had ever clicked, but none of her own.


 

I was happy when you asked me to arrange for your accommodation at Calicut. You did not want Manish to know from me that you were going to Calicut, because you and Manish had decided to separate. I booked a room for you at Hotel Seashore, where you could enjoy watching the sea through the bedroom window. You said that I need not come to the Railway station to pick you up, and that I could come to meet you on the second day of your arrival, because you had to attend the interview on the first day. I was overjoyed that you would be residing at Calicut pursuing research for the next two years if you were to be successful in the interview.

You rang me up on reaching the hotel at Sunday night. You said that your classmate Komal has also come with you for attending the interview. I wished you good luck for the interview and assured that I would visit you on Tuesday morning. You said that you were excited to see the sea, and that you will be going to the sea in a motorboat arranged by the hotel for the tourists on Monday evening in order to take fine snaps. The last thing you said me was that you wanted me to talk with Manish again and that you would reconsider the relationship with him.

I fancied having breakfast with you on the rooftop of Hotel Seashore, sitting among small sparrows that hopped at our feet an table while eating hot dosa and fresh chutney under a glaring blue sky in the cool backdrop of the roaring Arabian sea.

I would be seeing you for the first time…

On Monday night, I was watching Six O’ clock news, as usual. The news reader was asking pointed questions to a minister who was alleged of a scandal. I was getting bored and was about to switch to another channel when I heard the latest news that an unexpected wave hit a boat owned by Hotel Seashore, and all four tourists who were aboard were missing. On TV, I saw the image of the Indian coastline and a red dot marked at the point which had to be Calicut. I saw an excited news reporter who enthusiastically reported that it was less probable that the missing tourists might survive because the motorboat did not have life jackets.

A chill passed through my spine.

I rang you on your phone only to receive the automatic message saying the user is out of coverage area. I looked up the hotel’s number in the directory and rang many times but the number was busy. I then looked up your blog and saw the last images you posted. A crow perched on a lighthouse. Three smiling people in the backdrop of the sea. A faint silver shoreline.

I closed my eyes in horror. Clearly, you have had a boat ride.

The next morning, when I should be on my way to your hotel, I rushed to the newspaper stand and bought the papers, reading each news, studying every picture, looking for the details of the missing people. I found none. I gathered from a news website that one unidentified body which was found from the sea was sent to the Medical College mortuary.

At about 11 O’ clock in the morning, quoting the travellers’ record (which had the names of the tourists who bought the tickets) a news channel produced a report giving the names of the four tourists who were aboard the boat.

YOUR name was there.

That afternoon, my forensic medicine class was held in the seminar hall just adjacent to the mortuary. I didn’t have the nerves to visit the mortuary, but I attended the class. For an hour, I listened to the class on ‘Death by Drowning’ without imbibing a word.

My mind was so full of you, my best friend….


 

After the class, while I was leaving the seminar hall, I saw a girl sitting in the Visitors’ room of the mortuary. She was too young to be present at a place like this where corpses outnumber live humans. She asked me politely if she would be permitted to see the body of her friend which was now in the mortuary.

While I was explaining to her that she needs prior permission, she read my name from the ID card which I had pinned to my white coat, and in a quick movement, before I could do something, she hugged me tightly.

“Neethu, I am Shilpa. My classmate Komal is no more…. And I am alive just because I canceled the boat journey and exchanged the boat ticket with her.… Komal had my camera with her, and uploaded three photographs before death took her away… Her body is now in this mortuary, Neethu… And I am here, waiting for her parents to arrive from Jaipur…”

Did I cry?

 

Soiled Giggles

“Ttoo…”

The balloon went off with a blasting voice. I, who was on my bed, sleeping peacefully, got shocked for once and sat upright on my bed. I rubbed my eyes and saw two girls whom I recognized as Chinnu and Ammu.

The two girls looked alike, except for the height difference. They were wheatish in complexion. Their faces were heart shaped and lovely. The elder one who wore a red sleeveless shirt and a long tight skirt had ponytails on either side of her head, tied tightly with red lace ribbons. The younger one had a white hair band on her head. Her emerald eyes seemed to reflect the green frock she had put on. She had a row of chocolate brown teeth, minus a front one. Both of them were giggling uncontrollably, their hands on their mouths.

“Giggling must be made illegal”, I thought, as I squinted to look for my spectacles. The idea of waking me up by blasting a fully blown balloon with a pin right under my ears should’ve been the elder one, Chinnu’s.

Now, for those of you who don’t know Chinnu and Ammu, I shall give a brief introduction. The girls are my uncle’s daughters and therefore, my cousins. The elder one, Chinnu is 10 years old and the younger one Ammu is 6 years old. Both of them were born and brought up in Riyadh. Today, they are at my home with their mother during their two week visit to Kerala.

“You promised us that you will take us to the beach”, Chinnu reminded me. Before I could set my foot on the floor, Chinnu caught hold of a pillow and began hitting my face. Ammu took another pillow and did exactly what her sis did.

The girls are a lot more lovelier without the pranks.

“Okay guys. Stop this”. I said with an air of authority.

They stopped hitting.

“I will take you to the beach this evening”, I declared.

They were overjoyed. They hadn’t seen a beach in their life, apart from the quick view from hundreds of metres above, while the plane landed in Kochi airport.

Now, both of them kissed me hardly, one on each cheek. It looked as if both of them were genuinely happy in torturing me.

“Sorry Neethu. My girls are naughty. Shouldn’t have let them wake you” , their mom told me while entering the room.

“It is okay, Aunty. Shall I take them to the beach?”, I asked.

“I’m afraid, you can’t Neethu. These girls will eat off your head. You won’t be able to manage them”.

On hearing this, Chinnu got hold of her mom’s saree and stated pleading. Ammu soon joined.

Finally, after about an hour of pleading, whining and weeping, we were granted the permission to visit the beach. The girls jumped up and down in ecstasy.

We left the home at 4 O’ clock in the evening. I let the girls enter the car through the back door, because I did not want any pranks played on me while I was driving. The back of the car had my medical books, stethoscope, lab coat, compact discs and a laptop. “Sorry for the mess, I said absentmindedly as I made space for them amidst the rubble on the backseat. They fastened their seat belts carefully, Chinnu helping Ammu. I too buckled my seat belt, copying the kids, although I did not have the habit of wearing them. I stepped on the clutch and as I was about to reverse the car, the girls’ mom said, “Take good care of them, Neethu”.

I nodded in accent. Then, I turned back, winked at the girls, and set off to the city. On the way, I slowed down the car when we reached my college (Medical College, Calicut) and Chinnu remarked that my college was bigger than her school.

I showed them the Mananchira square, Railway station and Lion’s park. The girls, who used to question everything they saw asked no questions this time, each one steadily looking through the side window. Ammu had the window glass lowered as far as she could, and the wind that gushed into the car blew the stray hair from her ponytails. It was for the first time that they were passing through Calicut city. What they were thinking, I could not say.

We stopped at an ice cream parlour. The parking lot was crammed with cars of the families who had come to the theatre for the film show.

I led them to the parlour. Ammu spelt letter by letter, P…U….S….H, and Chinnu said ‘PUSH’ on seeing the PUSH sigh on the door. They weren’t as playful as they used to be, the strange surroundings would’ve bewildered them. It is not easy to adjust to India once you are used to the comforts of Riyadh.

“Which flavor do you prefer?”

They stared at the selections, both of them straining on tiptoe. I lifted Ammu and placed her on top of the counter in order to give her a better view.

“That green one”, said Chinnu, pointing at pista flavored ice cream. The girl had an uncanny knack of choosing the most expensive ice cream on display. Ammu too wanted the same.

“Three pista icecreams”, I told the waiter, and chose the round table at the corner. The girls sat opposite to me, and the chair next to me was left vacant. They began eating enthusiastically, exchanging glances. Occasionally, the elder one gave the younger a few sisterly comments on eating hygenically. Though I was just 19, I wondered, just then, what it might be like to have a child, or be a child.

They took longer than me to finish their bowl, Ammu left hers half finished and announced that a second tooth is loose. So Chinnu ate the rest of the ice cream left in Ammu’s bowl as I held a napkin on Ammu’s jaw to arrest the bleeding. I put the loose tooth (a little, chocolate stained one) in my purse, and got up to wash and pay when we had finished.

Now Chinnu is going to pay the bill, I said, handing her over a hundred rupee note. She curiously examined Indian rupees, since she hadn’t seen one ever since, or any currency, for that matter. She unfolded the bill and marched towards the cashier.

As I and Ammu stood away and watched, Chinnu tiptoed and placed the note on the counter. When she received the change, she said ‘Thank You’ to the waiter. That was the first transaction in her life.

“Now to the beach”, I said while igniting the car to life. They smiled.

As soon as I stopped at the drive-in at the beach, the girls ran out, on the sands, bare footed. I locked the car and quickly followed them, because they didn’t know how dangerous a beach could be.

I held Ammu by one hand and Chinnu by the other while we chased the waves. The sand seeping from beneath their own feet was a terrific experience for them, I guess, because whenever a wave receded, the two would shriek and squeeze my hand tightly.
Then, we built a sand castle, and named it ‘Daffodils’ (that was the name of their house at Riyadh).While Chinnu was a great architect, Ammu kept interrupting our efforts by fitting lumps of sand at odd places and collapsing our little castle.

Afterwards, Ammu wanted a ride, sitting on my shoulders. (this sadistic event has taken place twice a day ever since the girls arrived at our place. The end result- backache) When I offered to lift her, she raised her hands and came into my arms. Meanwhile, Chinnu was collecting sea shells. After giving Ammu a ride on my shoulders, we sat down together and I told her about Jinn, the mystical creatures that often perform magic. She then checked my purse to make sure that her tooth isn’t missing.

“Hey, look!” an elderly man tapped on my shoulder and pointed to the sea.

The sight I saw caused my heart to miss one beat. Chinnu, looking for seashells, had gone so far into the sea and a giant wave had toppled her down. She was drowing.

Three men, who were playing volleyball, jumped into the sea for saving her.

The guys were expert swimmers, I guess. They got Chinnu out of water and laid her on the sand in no time. I checked her pulse, she was normal. I sighed with relief. Ammu cried loudly. Random people gathered around us, and I politely requested them to leave us at peace.

No one spoke while we drove home. I had to report the accident news to the girls’ mother without getting her faint. I was thinking of apt words to convey the news when Chinnu interrupted.

“Don’t tell mom about the beach accident”, she said.

“But your mom ought to know”, I replied, without looking at her, while signaling an overloaded truck to overtake.

Chinnu told something, but I didn’t hear. Her small voice was muffled by the loud noise of the truck toppling on to our car.We were crushed under the weight of the huge truck. I felt an excruciating pain at the neck. All I could hear was Ammu’s stifled scream before I fell unconscious.


Silence was punctured by the beep-beep of cardiac monitors. Occasionally, I heard a few voices- could be those of the doctors and nurses. But I couldn’t open an eye or move a muscle. My abdomen was hurting badly. I lay there, on the bed, listening to voices around me. It didn’t take me a lot of time to guess where I were. I was in the casualty. At my college.

I tried to recall the accident. The very thought made me squirm and shudder. What would have happened of Chinnu and Ammu ? I didn’t know. I wanted to ask someone, but my tongue wouldn’t oblige.

There I lay, on the bed, unaware of the happenings outside, within the safety of the casualty – Half alive, or worse, half dead.

Thanks to Adeeba Fathima for the title suggestion.

After an argument


Sometimes we chew each other to pieces
And go home with the scraps.
I got my share of scraps, when
I argued with you, my best friend.
The words that come to us are not chosen.
It all started on a trifle which grew,
as big as a heap of garbage,
as we threw each other rubbish.
The heat of our argument, I think,
could melt all snow in Siberia.
Back home, I stared at the carpet,
as though some loved one
is buried beneath the floorboards.
It was silent, except for the sounds-
of guilt that echoed in my heart.
I saw your red face instead of my pale one,
when I looked at the bedroom mirror.
Words are sharper than a two edged sword.
When I meet you the next time, I’ll say-
“Sorry, my dear friend…..”