Over a cup of coffee

I first saw you on-stage at the public speech contest held at Vythiri when you were a high school student. I was a contestant at the versification contest at one of the off-stage venues, and my contest finished two hours later than expected, so you were half way done when I reached the main stage where you were speaking. The essence of the topic of your extemporatory speech, I later understood, was “Science and Superstitions”.

You were average in height, with slender build and narrow shoulders. You wore steel-rimmed spectacles whose refraction partially concealed the glow in your eyes. You were unconcerned about the heat of the media lights, the height of the podium you were standing on,the echoing of your voice from the huge microphones and the five hundred or more pairs of eyes which were watching you, measuring your every word, expression and movement.

Words seemed to flow from you effortlessly. “Science has reached to a point where the complexities of the Universe could be shredded into mathematical equations. Science has proved it that snakes cannot milk cows, that enchantings cannot cure diseases,that wine cannot be made out of water. Science proves facts beyond doubt. In science, every new breakthrough opens door to many new breakthroughs.”

Silence.  Followed by a huge applause.

Science should be the most powerful tool with which the educated youth should fight superstitions”. 

You paused to let the audience reflect upon the statement.

And we all are here, just in time to revolutionize the world with rational thoughts”. You ended.

You walked away from the stage before the audience could stop the huge applause. And that was the first time I saw you. I’d never forget the way you probed the audience, as if sending a message directly to me. I wanted to give you a handshake. But you happened to be so inaccessible to me at that time that I didn’t even attempt to meet you in person let alone giving a handshake.

On the next day evening, when the prizes were being distributed, I carefully listened to the list of winners to find out if you were one. Your name was announced twice, as the first place holder of the extemporatory speech and debate. A teacher from your school received the prize on your behalf, as you had already departed from Vythiri by then. You were to represent Kerala state in the National Contest to be held during next month.

Your name was Arun Prayag.

Long after, I accidentally saw your profile while scrolling through dozens of friend suggestions offered by facebook. I am not someone who likes going through the facebook profiles of random people, but there was something that made me to click on your name impulsively. It was the familiarity associated with your name or it was the gleam in your eyes that made me feel like you are probing my eyes: I am not sure which of these made me look into your profile. I discovered from your profile that you are my senior at college, and suddenly realised that you were the debater I saw at Vythiri four years back. I quickly scanned through the list of current students on the medical college’s website and found that you are now pursuing the compulsory rotating internship at the hospital attached to the medical college. You would have been posted in any of the twenty departments in the hospital, each of which is further broken down into three to six units. It was near impossible to find out where you were, unless I ask for information from one of your batch mates.

I went through the posts on your facebook wall and found that you were quite active there. You had posted statuses, links and comments about irrational governmental policies, emerging diseases and healthcare tips. You also had also shared anecdotes from your life as an intern. All these sounded very much like you, confirming my suspicion that you were indeed the debater I once looked up with respect. I overcame the urge to send you a friend request, fearing that you might not accept my friendship because you do not know me in person.

In the following days, I looked for you while I passed through the corridor from one ward to another, among the team of doctors that conducted morning rounds around patients lying down on mats in the verandah . You were expected to be the one without the white coat, kneeling down on the floor mat of the patient, wearing the stethoscope round your neck, explaining the details of the patient to the small group of white-coat-wearing senior doctors and jotting down the orders on the case record. You were not to be seen in any group of doctors I saw. You were never to be seen at any of the community events at college which made me think if you had shrunk to medical books the way many of the medicos have done. You were not to be seen at the entrance coaching institute like the many interns who choose to devote their weekends to study for the post-graduate entrance exams. You were not seen in the coffee-station where doctors, medics and nurses hung out after their ward rounds to gossip over a cup of coffee. You seemed to be literally non-existent. Eventually I stopped looking for you and forgot about you altogether.


It was a particularly busy day in the Outpatient department. In addition to the interns, medical students were also asked to help out the consulting physicians by examining the patients and explaining the findings. Names of people were being called out through the microphone every once in a while. People who were impatiently waiting for their turn had started to encroach into the cubicles of doctors to find out when their turn would arrive. The Outpatient tickets were being stalked on the physician’s desks from time to time by the green-uniformed nursing assistant. It was half past one in the afternoon when the queue in the OP thinned, when medical students were let go. I sighed in relief when I was finally released from work. Being too tired and hungry,  I walked my way to the coffee station anticipating to have some light snack before going to the lecture class which would start in 30 minutes.

The coffee station had glass-shelves, which displayed fried snacks of various shades of brown and different shapes – round, triangular or doughnut shaped. As it was late in the afternoon, there were not many people hanging out at the coffee-station. I bought a coffee and idli-vada, and sat down on one of the empty seats close to the entrance. After some time, a man sat down on the seat directly opposite to me, despite several other eating tables being vacant. I quickly looked up, and found that it was you.

“Netha, right?”

“Yes”, I replied. I was surprised that you knew my name.

“And you are Arun”, I said. You looked amused and all the more surprised to be recognized. You were amazed to learn from me later that I remember you from the high school public speech contest at Vythiri.

We talked. You told me that you know me from the organization I am volunteering at. That you had also joined the same organization a few months back. That your busy schedule at the hospital is keeping you from spending more time on volunteering. That you have moved from public speaking to digital writing. That you are planning to launch a digital magazine about medicine and health in Malayalam language. That you are reading Albert Camus’s ‘The Stranger’ and is thoroughly enjoying it. That you aspire to become a physician-scientist. That you had won the third place for the debate contest at the National level after winning at Vythiri. That you feel like it has been ages since you made your last public speech. That you are posted at a community health centre in a village close by, which justified your absence from the hospital.

I felt as if you were my acquaintance for a long time, though that was the first time we met. Our talk continued for a long  time even after we finished drinking the coffee. I had to interrupt and wind up our conversation to reach in time for the afternoon lecture class. We parted after promising to keep in touch with each other.

When I checked my facebook account that evening, I found that you had dropped a friend request.


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 costly ice cream at the 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.

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 the tooth fairy. She 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.