Miles Away

Disclaimer : This story is a work of fiction. However, all characters, monuments, institutions and places mentioned in this story are real. The author is aware that the thread of this story has resemblance to the incidents mentioned in Chapter 1 of Dan Brown‘s novel, Inferno. The author believes that she was inspired by the novelist’s fast-paced plots that revolve round an intriguing incident described back-and-forth in time. However, there is no content scraping or copyright infringement in this story and any similarity to the writing style of the said author is purely unintentional. 

 

I woke up from sleep after what seemed like ages. I tried to lift my hands, but I could barely move them. I tried to listen to the voices around me. I heard the beep of the life support devices and the muffled voices of people talking to each other. I tried to make sense of the  voices, but they were incomprehensible. The peculiar sterile smell of the place was strangely familiar.

My head was aching. I felt like I was being pricked by a million needles all over my head. A sharp shooting pain ran down my spine and I felt as if I being electrocuted. My pulse quickened and the machines attached to me started beeping vigorously. I tried to wriggle out, but I couldn’t. I felt very heavy. I could only manage to move my body a bit in response to pain.

It now occurred to me that I was in a hospital, probably in the intensive care unit. I tried to think hard, but I couldn’t remember how I ended up there. My headache was worse than the worst episodic migraine I’ve ever had, something terrible must have happened to me. The last thing I remember was examining a patient in my hospital.

I tried to open my eyes, my eyelids gave way despite its heaviness. The room was empty except for me and the medical devices. Looking around, I saw that I was supine on the bed, connected to an intravenous line. A bottle of 5% dextrose hung from the pole of the i.v stand like a hideous fruit on a leafless tree. The side rails of my bed were pulled up. I had fresh bandages on both knees. The tip of my finger was attached to the sensor of the pulse oximeter. I looked up the machine on my right side and found that my oxygen saturation, pulse and heart rates were within normal limits. A crash cart, covered with a green cloth stood at the right corner. An ECG machine with unconnected leads sat on the shelf behind my head. There was a window covered with curtains at the far end of the room.

I had no difficulty in figuring out where I was. I was in Calicut Medical College.

A nurse, dressed in blue scrubs hurriedly entered the room. She pulled the plastic stool from under my bed and sat down. She had a long pointed face, neatly threaded eyebrows and gentle, brown eyes. She wore steel rimmed spectacles. Her hair was neatly tied into a bun. It looked like she was in her mid-thirties. I could say from her demeanor that she was from South Kerala. She smiled at me, studied my face for a while, and picked up the clipboard and pen which was on the head end of my bed.

“How are you feeling?”, she asked in English, with a pronunciation suggesting an Oxford sojourn some time in her past.

“My head hurts badly”, I said. “Besides, I can speak Malayalam”, I added after a while of silence.

She looked mildly surprised. She continued the conversation in Malayalam, in what I thought was a southern accent.

“What is your name?”

“Netha Hussain”, I replied.
She noted down on the clipboard.

“Occupation?”

It was clear that she did not know that I was a medical student. Gone are the days when medicos and nurses knew each other very well.

“I am a writer”, I replied. Apart from being a medical student, I was also a writer. In fact, outside of the hospital, I always introduced myself as a writer. I was mildly agitated because she did not recognize me as a medical student. If the nurse did not know that I was a medical student studying in this college, there was no way I was telling her the same.

She noted down something on the clipboard.

“What day is today?”, she asked, after adjusting her spectacles that stooped beyond the bridge of the nose and was in peril of falling down.

“Tuesday”, I said without a doubt. Tuesday was the out-patient day of my medical unit, when we had to examine patients in the Casualty in the afternoon. I might have had an accident during work or on my way back home, and might have got admitted to the ICU of the same Casualty.

“Do you know where you are?”, when she asked, I knew that she was trying to test if I was oriented in place.

“Calicut Medical College”, I replied confidently. She had finished the questions to test my orientation in time and place. The next question would test if I was oriented in person. I smiled inwardly.

She stood up and reached out to a locker which was on top of the shelf where the ECG machine was kept. She turned the key twice, opened the locker, and took a camera out. I immediately recognized that it was an Olympus SZ-16. She swiped through the controls and turned the screen towards me. Written on the top right of the control button was my name.

“Don’t you touch my camera”, I snapped.

“Sorry. But I want you to identify this man”, she said firmly, pointing to the man in the picture.

It was the picture of a man in his twenties, wearing a t-shirt and grinning widely. I looked carefully. Though I found him strangely familiar, I had no idea who he was. I didn’t even know how that picture got into my camera.

“He looks European”, I said. “Probably from eastern Europe”, I added after studying his features.

“So, you do not know him?”

“I guess I don’t”, I replied truthfully.

She then swiped once more and showed the picture of another man. He was taller, and had similar features like the other one. I couldn’t recognize him either.

Then, she showed me a third picture. It took me a second to process what I was seeing. Then, my jaw dropped.

 

I was standing between the two men whose photographs the nurse had previously shown me. It was evident from the picture that the men knew me very well. Their t-shirts suggested that they were associated with Mozilla/Firefox. Being a Mozilla volunteer for over a year, I tried to recall who they were, but I did not have a clue. I had clearly lost my memory.

I was getting increasingly confused. I told the nurse that I did not know the context of the photograph. She smiled empathetically and asked me to relax.

She looked up the monitor of the pulse oximeter and scribbled something on the clipboard. Then, she went out to call the doctor.

In around ten minutes, the doctor arrived. He was a white, tall man in blue scrubs. He had a long pointed nose, golden hair and thin lips. There was a stethoscope around his neck. What struck me was that he didn’t look Indian at all. I knew that it was possible for foreigners to intern in my hospital, but since when did they start seeing patients in the ICU?

The nurse talked to the doctor in French. She said about me being désorienté and embrouillé.

Disoriented and confused. I knew enough French to make out what she was talking about.

“I am not disoriented”, I shouted at them in English.

The doctor looked at me and gave me a compassionate smile. He sat down on the stool near me and asked me in English if he could examine me. I did not protest.

He took out a pen torch from his pocket and examined my eyes. When he took out another torch, I knew that it was for testing consensual light reflex – so I placed the medial border of my hand on my nose to help him to shield the light. He looked amused at my gesture.

During the course of examination, I cooperated with extreme dexterity. After he examined for wrinkles on my forehead, I took the cue and shut my eyes tightly. Then, I blew my cheek, showed my teeth and grimaced, in that order, without being instructed to do so. I was helping him to test my seventh cranial nerve.

The doctor’s amusement turned to surprise. He asked me if I were a healthcare practitioner. I replied that I was a medical student. He asked many questions during the course of examination, and I knew that he was trying to assess my higher mental functions. He told me that he had to catch up with many patients that day, so he had to be really quick. We ended the examination with me demonstrating dysdodakokinesia and Brudzinski’s sign without waiting for instructions from him.

The doctor told me that except for a few superficial injuries on the arm and one knee, I was normal. It was a case of retrograde amnesia and he said I would recover soon. He told me that I had already started shaping new memories, indicating that it is a good sign. He assured me that he had looked into my CT scan reports, and had found that everything was okay. He left after giving instructions to to the nurse in French. I felt reassured. But I couldn’t yet recall the happenings that led to the hospital admission.  The nurse moved the window screens before she left and I could look outside the room.

 

 

The view was stunning. I could see a Gothic-style tower with a square tower body that narrowly pinnacled to an octagonal spire. The metal statue of the archangel Michael was clearly visible through the glass window. Thanks to my high school research on medieval architecture, I knew that I was seeing the 96 metre long tower of the Town Hall. This monument was unique, and has long been the icon of a city and a UNESCO world heritage site. People visiting this city never miss taking pictures of this monument. The tower looked even more stunning in the night light.

I swallowed at the thought of where I was. There is only one place in the world where this monument could be.

Brussels, Belgium. I was over ten thousand kilometres away from Calicut.

I now knew why the doctor spoke French, the native language of most Belgians, and why the nurse described me as disoriented when I recognized the place as Calicut Medical College.

The stark realization made me feel sick. What was I doing here? Did I meet with an accident? How did I end up in Brussels?

I scanned through the pictures on my camera hoping to recall something from my memory. On camera, I saw numerous pictures of people at what seemed like a party. It was evident that I has spent a long time with a bunch of people whose faces I could not recall.

 

Just then, the nurse opened the door.

“Am I in Brussels?” I asked in Malayalam.

“Good that you started remembering things” she said.

“Ahem, actually, I do not remember anything. I just made an intelligent guess on seeing this tower”, I said, pointing towards the window.

She sat down beside me, and started talking in measured sentences.

“The only thing we know about you was that you met with an accident while you were sightseeing with your friends. Your friends are busy at the hospital administration wing, entering your personal details into the hospital’s database, talking with the police and conversing with the Indian Embassy over phone. Personnel from the Embassy will reach here after 10 am in the morning to talk with you and find out if you need any help”.

“Actually, do you know how I reached Brussels? I only remember examining patients in my college-hospital in India”.

“I have no idea”, she shrugged. “Probably your friends know. They will be allowed to see you in a while. I suggest that you take some rest”.

After checking the i.v lines, she turned to leave. I quickly held her hand, making her look back.

“How, as a Malayali, did you land up here in Brussels?”, my eyes widened with curiosity as I anticipated her reply.

“You might already know that a lot of the nursing workforce worldwide comes from Kerala. I immigrated to Belgium 5 years ago, and I’ve been working here for the last 3 years. I figured you were from Kerala from your passport and I asked the duty doctor to put me in charge of you”, her eyes narrowed as she smiled.

“In fact, my duty gets over by 12 pm in the night, but I stayed on to ensure that you were alright. Now, that you are stable and conscious, I think I can leave”.

I was speechless for a while. I managed to say a ‘Thank you’ at last.

“There is an Indian nurse in the next shift. I have already called her up and asked her to take good care of you”, she smiled as she spoke. “And by the way, my name is Sheila. I have left my visiting card in your case record. If you have any trouble, don’t hesitate to call me”, she added.

I thanked her again. As soon as she was gone, three men and a woman entered the room. All were in colourful Mozilla outfits. I immediately recognized that they were the people I saw in the pictures.

“Good Lord, I hope you are alright”, the woman exclaimed. I later learnt that her name was Ana-Maria Antolović.

I smiled weakly.
“Sorry”, I said. “I can’t remember your faces, though you all look strangely familiar. I think I met with an accident and I can’t remember a thing. Not even travelling  to Brussels”.

“Big story”, the woman said. “You reached Brussels for the Mozilla Summit. We met you on the first day of the conference and became friends. You were returning to the hotel with us after the closing party of the Summit. As we were walking, an unknown driver speeded his car through the sidewalk and knocked you down. Luckily, you were not badly injured. You immediately fell unconscious, and we called an ambulance to bring you here”.

“The doctor told us that you would recover soon and be able to return to your country in good shape”, she smiled as she placed a bowl of fruits on to the eating board attached to my bed.
“Eat well and be strong”, one of the men said playfully.

“Thanks people, too bad that I can’t remember the time I spent with you”.

“You already have hundreds of pictures of us and the Summit in your camera. You will remember everything in no time”, the other man re-assured.

We had a hearty laugh together.

Sincere thanks to : 

* Ana-Maria Antolović, Dejan Strbad, Saša Teković and Stanić Mihovil from Mozilla Hrvatska, Croatia for letting me use their pictures taken during the Mozilla Summit 2013 in Brussels in October 2013.

* Neethu P.M and her elder sister for cross-checking the consistency of medical facts mentioned in this story.

* Jeph Paul for spending several hours in copy-editing and reviewing this post. 

* Neethu Santhosh, Neethu N.T and Sona Sathian for reading the story from a medical student’s perspective and providing me with valuable criticism.

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.


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 shrinked 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 pink 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 tell 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 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.

I don’t want to meet him again

Let me introduce before you Mr. Ronak (his name itself is weird, isn’t it?), better known as ‘padaakoo’ in my close circle of friends. There is practically nothing under the sun or above it which Mr. Ronak has no idea about. If you go to him asking help for a seminar, he would snatch your notes as if those were his own property you had run away with and keep you hanging up for a good length of time teaching you how ignorant you are on the topic. If you want me on my knees begging for mercy, ask Mr. Ronak to give me a lecture on ‘black holes’, or let him visit my home with an idea for an essay when I am planning to go for fishing. I feared him so much that whenever I saw him coming towards me from the other end of the lane, I immediately crossed the road. The most horrible fact is that he is my classmate.

I remember our first class in Physics. Our Physics teacher was enthusiastically explaining the properties of light, Corpuscular Theory and so forth( I was too busy to listen because I was having a good look at the girls sitting in the front row). “The velocity of light is approximately three hundred million metres per second”, she said.

“Two hundred ninety nine million, seven hundred ninetytwo thousand,four hundred and fifty eight as estimated by Michaelson’s method”,Ronak interrupted.

” You are right”, Ms. Physics (let us call her so) said dryly and continued her tale on Corpuscular Theory ( I was half asleep by then). “Long back Issac Newton had said-”

” In 1675, exactly”, it was Ronak again. We all stopped writing notes and gazed at him. He was beaming with pride. Ms. Physics turned red. She opened her mouth and closed again, showing a set of pearly white teeth (false teeth, I doubt) without uttering a word.She continued the class, keeping her eyebrows knitted. Occasionally, she asked a few questions, all aiming Ronak, but he was too intelligent to be outsmarted.

Ms.Physics turned our attention to Electromagnetic Theory(Now I was admiring the beauty of Mother Nature). Without any provocation, Ronak stood up and said,”Proposed by Maxwell, in 1873″.

This time,Ms. Physics burned with rage, surpassing red and becoming maroon. “Well, if you are thorough with the subject, why don’t you handle the class yourself?”, she asked him with a bit of sarcasm in her tone.

Ronak rose. He proudly stood near the blackboard and lifted a chalk piece. He explained all those stupid theories one by one giving accurate facts and figures. We listened,in a horrific sort of silence,wondering what Ms.Physics would do next. Fortunately, the bell rang soon and Ms. Physics left the class, keeping her lips pursed.

Day after day, his actions became more annoying.Whenever Ms. Physics or any other teacher explained something, he dramatically stood up and corrected the errors or simply added more details. He would submit his projects far ahead of time, and would win every quiz he had participated. He would work tirelessly in the lab checking and rechecking results. He even had written a letter to the publishers pointing out the errors in our Physics textbook. Anyone who stepped on the stray electric wires in his room and did not come out trembling, with spiny hair, blackened face and a permanently surprised look were far too exceptional.None of us fools could match his caliber. We feared the idea of being his partner in the chemistry lab because he made his partner repeat the experiments until he turned up with the correct value accurate to three significant figures (Moreover, it stinks!!!,hydrogen sulfide smells much better).

One day,to everyone’s relief, he was absent in the class. He did not come thereafter. Rumours spread that he had moved to another college. I was sure that the news was true because Ms.Physics looked more cheerful. Long after, we got busy with our own chores and forgot all about Ronak.

After three years,I passed out with a B.Sc degree (I shall not reveal my marks,they are tremendously good). I soon started looking for a job. Two months passed, and I got the first call letter for an interview.

On the day of the interview, I was particularly enthusiastic about the outcome.I was early to reach the scheduled office. I confidently walked into the interviewers’ room, to meet just one person, sitting on a turn chair on the other side of the table.”Good Morning, sir”, I greeted. He raised his head and kept aside the note he was busy writing.

He was pale and skinny.He glanced me through his steel rimmed spectacles and said “Good Morning, Please take your seat”.

His voice was oddly familiar. I examined his face carefully. I quickly scanned my brain and identified the person (After all, I am not a dung head) and I felt a kind of electric charge passing through my spine.I resisted the urge to kick him and walked outside the room, sweating.’No job’ is better than this job, I thought.

A name board was nailed on the wall close to the door, which read, “Ronak Singh, Managing Director”.

Digits and equations

 

 

During my school days, mathematics was the subject of my interest. I don’t claim that I was a wiz in maths, but I certainly was better than the guys who didn’t know the difference between differentiation and integration (Many students learn this part by rote, come up with the correct solution, but don’t know what it is all about). I used to carry a problem book, in which I’d note down all interesting problems and their solutions. I was enthusiastic about arriving the same result by following different methods.


My habit of playing with numbers earned me the title- GENIUS. In fact, I’m not a genius at all, but see how I create that impression. After the first period, one guy arrives at me with a very complicated looking problem. I look into the problem, study it for 5 minutes, look up the formulae for another 5 minutes and finally put it in my brains and solve it out in next ten minutes. The whole process takes about 20 minutes, and you can see that I am no genius.


Look the same problem from the guy’s perspective. He gives me the problem, waits for two minutes or so, gets impatient and leaves the classroom to hang out with other guys. When he comes back, he sees me engaged in some other work. He asks me if I have done the problem, and I say ,”Oh that was a piece of cake..”. He thinks that he didn’t arrive in time to see me finishing the problem.


After a few hours, another girl would come to me with the same problem. Now that I had practiced the problem once, I’d do it in a flick of the second. When the next guy comes, I tell him the answer even without reading the question. Soon, all of my classmates get convinced that I am a ‘supergenius’.


If any of my schoolmates are reading this, I swear, this is what happened. I’m not as smart as you think (if I were smart I wouldn’t have posted this article in my blog at the first place).


I don’t study maths any more. But Mathematics has made my thoughts logical, beliefs concrete and decisions fearless.

Of papercrafts and children

One fine July morning, I was lying half asleep on bed. I was too unlucky to be awakened by half a dozen kids who screamed into my ear with a toy loudspeaker. I got up terrified, to see six kids, each holding a balloon, jumping up and down and clapping. Their shoes were squeaking, which was infinitely more menacing. On the lead was my cousin, an LKG graduate, who grinned at me with worm-eaten, half decayed teeth, while licking a lollypop. She handed me a beautifully bound big book, like Santa Claus giving away an extra large gift on Christmas.

A two minute chat made it clear that I am to make paper roses by following the instructions given in the book she just gave me. I examined the book. “The Art of Paper Folding, Level 8”, it read. I was happy that they found me eligible enough to handle a Level 8 book, instead of taking me through elementary levels. They gave me a box that contained the required materials, which I emptied to find coloured papers, a roll of cello tape, scissors and glue.
The picture of a colourful rose, printed along with the instructions lured me into making it. I started with a pink coloured paper, following the instructions. It took half an hour for me to fold the paper into desired shape. By the time I finished obeying the last instruction, I ended up with a homogenous ball of paper, wound with cello tape. I was reluctant to call this paper ball a flower, but my young counterparts were looking at this entangled mass of paper with rapt attention, thinking that a paper rose would sprout soon out of this shapeless material. When I was sure that I would fail in my attempt, I stuck upon an idea.
“Which of my sweeties want ice cream?” I asked in a fruity voice, imagining to turning their attention from paper rose to ice cream. “We want the flower first”, they shouted in unison.
Their refusal to accept my bribe annoyed me. Determined to make the rose, I took a fresh piece of paper and started working. Let me teach these little devils how wonderful craftsmanship I possessed. I ordered for a stapler pin to join the pieces of paper when they got detached from the rose. I cut down pieces of paper, without any regard for instructions. I had my eyes only on the final, made up rose while I used paper clips, pins, nails and anything I could lay my hands on. Sweat flowed freely from my temples as I worked violently. I had started realizing that this newly made object is no better than the first , when I unknowingly stapled deeply into my thumb.
A sense of pain rushed through my nerves which electrified me. I managed to give my young monsters a faint smile before I disappeared into the washroom to nurse my injured thumb. I spent almost an hour inside the washroom, being afraid of the kids. I was sure that they would knock the door of the washroom and catch me ‘red handed’, but nothing happened.
So, I opened the door by a fraction, just enough to put my dumb head out. To my amazement, I saw the little Einsteins playing with the fine faultless paper roses they made!!!!