Stalemate

I would wonder what kept bringing them back to me. With their fists clenching and unclenching softly in unknown anticipation, they would look at me, their lips apart, panting as if to about to say something extremely exciting. But they would be silent just like my pursued lips as I shoved them away. I still remember the grime that they would be covered with. Was it their fault? Is not dirt and dust the rule of the world where there are no walls nor roofs?

Childhood is a fancy world to live in. Everything is important. You know everything and life is a wonderful story unfolding before your eyes. You are happy to believe that the world is a small place with a set of rules that you know well how to bend to your wishes. You have textbooks and goals. You have manners and ambitions. You know poetic verses by the heart and your imagination is vivid.

It is often at such an age that you believe you are going to change the world for good one day. You see problems and you see solutions. Simple solutions, believable, achievable, doable. And then you set out to make things right. There’s a fire within that burns, and you believe its insatiable till you make your journey right, and get the goal you aimed so hard at.

One morning, as I stepped out of the home to make my routine walk towards the playground, Neela broke her silent companionship, which I never realized when I was endowed with, by asking if they could play with us. I did not hesitate, I was not the one who would. I was rebellious, going against the dictates my parents had presented me with about staying away from them.

e4 … e5

We would play often after that day. On rainy days my friends would fail to show up. It was for the reason that their catching cold was an unsuitable proposition to their mothers. Who was I to complain, who had been branded unruly by his parents? And why would I complain, when I had another set of friends who would simply join my walk towards the park, springing out of nowhere with something interesting to share every day. They liked to ask about my day. I liked talking about my day.

Nf3 … Nf6

I once took a gift for them. It was not much, just a pack of Uncle Chips (yes, this story is of old days, and that brand was all rage back then). It was delicious, and it would crack on the tongue inside the closed mouth as the upper jaw pressed close on the lower. The tiny specks of salted potatoes was a bliss. I gave it to them when they appeared, while I was on the way to the park. Did they love it? Yes! Which kid does not love Uncle Chips? I promise myself to bring more for them in future. Not like I would get it every day myself, but 2-3 days of cajoling and good behaviour in the house did the trick.

One day Zimmidar asks out, enquiring the cost of the pack of Uncle Chips which we had devoured a few minutes back. I revert back with the 10 rupees price of the item. He is lost in thought for the rest of the evening, often missing the catch to my annoyance. Later at home, when I retrospect over the incident, I realize he must feel I was doing some sort of favour to them by sharing the chips with them. I decided not to do that again.

d4 … Nxe4

My regular ‘forgetting to bring’ the Uncle Chips must have made them suspicious. One day the first words Neela greets me with is if I can bring some Uncle Chips the next day. She goes on to describe how tasty it is and how they are missing it. She even says that she has had dreams of the Uncle on the green packet coming to life.

I ask her to bring one herself for a change if she was missing it so much. Her smile falters for a moment but then is back in a flash. Next day she carries a small tin tiffin box. I wonder if that contains Chips. To my delight it contains kheer. They refuse to have a share, saying their mother sent it especially for me. I am delighted, and the weight of the Uncle Chips lifts slowly, as the tiffin empties.

Bd3 … d5

But something had changed. I would carry the Uncle Chips less often now. Something coming from Neela and Zimmidar’s home was more frequent now. It was on a similar walk to the park when Zimmidar excitedly told me that his mother was getting a new child. That was thrilling, and I immediately expressed my interest in seeing the newcomer kid.

Neela looked less excited. Her face carried marks of weariness. I brought this up with the question of whether she didn’t want to have another sibling. She stayed mum. I joked that then they would have to share my Chips with another person. Maybe it would be better if I instead gave the entire pack to them. There was a momentary glint in Zimmidar’s eyes which I didn’t quite catch. It kept haunting me for the rest of the night. Was it happiness? Or jealousy? I decided to confront him about this the next day. He told me it was generous of me to think of giving the entire pack to them. I thought I registered some pain in his tone and asserted I was only joking. He said his life was full of jokes. I found it funny so we had a good laugh.

Nxe5 … Nd7
Nxf7 … Qe7

The innocence of childhood comes with the gift of forgetting. It was several days before I noticed Neela was very frequently absent from our playtime these days. I asked her about this the next time I met her. She asked me who takes care of me when I am sick. It was the mother, I replied. And who takes care of mother when she is sick, as asks. Father, I answered. And when both mother and father are sick? I told her that never happens but I thought about it for a long time. I concluded her parents were sick. I decided to visit them at goodwill.

They were not ready to take me with them. I figured out they probably needed to get to know me better so I invited them to my place. I could go to theirs once they realized I was worth the trust. Mother would not like it at all if they floor were dirtied by their grime-covered feet, so I brought them two pair of my footwear – an old pair of shoe for Zimmidar who was nearly a foot shorter than me, and my bathroom slippers for Neela, who was the same height as me. I remember the china clay plate mother threw at Zimmidar when she saw him entering the house. The plate and my faith in my mother shattered with the same chime of destruction. Zimmidar and Neela broke into a run and me into a quickly defeated fight with my originator.

Nxh8 … Nc3+

I broke my piggy bank that night. With the clinking of coins in my plams I determined to make my amends to the relationship that had undergone a hard blow. The following day no one followed me to the park. I had 3 packets of Uncle Chips in my hand. This repeated for a few days, till the packets started thinning and I was worried they would get damaged. I decided to make a trip in the direction in which Zimmidar and Neela would disappear. I must have walked some 15 mins when Zimmidar came running up to me and asked me to turn back. I told him I had brought Chips. He refused them and insisted on me turning back. I was stubborn. But he had aimed a rock at me with a determined expression and I retreated.

Kd2 … Nxd1

My house then saw a few tense days, with me on an indefinite hunger strike. The perpetrators of crimes would have to make their penance. When mother made kheer and put it into a neat plastic tiffin box, I kept my part of the deal and acquitted her from the charges I had pressed against her. But Zimmidar had again held a rock at me, and I returned more defeated than my mother.

Re1 … Nxf2

That was almost everything I was going to try. The Uncle Chips packets were eaten in the comforting privacy of my room, and going to the park was a lonely affair. For a few days, this did feel good. I was free to do or to not do. What drew me towards the route to Neela’s house was the excitement of seeing the newborn baby.

I spotted Neela first. She was laughing, sitting on a very low stool beside a makeshift stove made from bricks, burning cow dung. She was talking to her mother, who lay on a cot dangerously near the burning stove. She had a huge bump on her belly, which I realized was the upcoming guest to the home. If that is what we could term the yellow plastic sheet in the shape of two-sided sloping roofs, with sticks propped up on either side holding it up.

Bxh7 … Ne4+

Neela spotted me a while later. She smiled weakly, looking more worn out than the last time I had seen her. She leaned towards her mother and murmured what I assumed was my introduction. Her mother motioned me to come closer, asked what was it that brought me there. I replied I was there to see the baby. She sighed and looked at her belly, then looked up at me and smiled, asked me to be patient as it would take a few more days. We talked for some time, mostly about how the baby could become a doctor or an engineer one day. And then I left for home.

Rxe4 … dxe4

A few days later which I thought would be enough to have a baby I went over to Neela’s place with a fresh set of 3 Uncle Chips packets. The cot was missing. And so was the occupant. Besides the brick stove lay Neela nursing a baby on a sheet of plastic taken from some soft drink commercial banner. The newborn too was grimy. It was a girl. Neela did not get up when I sat down beside her. Her eyes had sunk in and she looked like she had lost weight. I asked her where was Zimmidar. Runaway, she replies. Will most likely come back soon she improvises, reading my startled face. Father? Walked out some 3-4 years ago. And the mother? She cries.

Bg6+ … Kd8

I return home in agony. Life had been cruel to Neela. What would become of the baby? My mother declined the idea of adoption without a moment lost in thought. I tried to reason with her, I made promises of being good. I went to my friends’ places on rainy days to convince their parents. I tried collecting money. I did raise some but Neela was no more at her home. The brick stove was broken and the yellow roof sheet is gone.

Nf7+ … Ke8

Neela and Zimmidar turn up every now and then, in the faces of these kids who come clinging to my now grown pair of legs. Sometimes I even find the newborn. They keep coming back in some anticipation. I do not know what I could give to them. I can no longer buy them meals at the cost of an Uncle Chips packet.

Nd6+

Whatever fire had burned inside me about making a difference, about being a harbinger of change has died away. Or maybe simply buried in the layers of ‘understanding’ of the world I had developed. I no longer walk to the park, no one accompanies either. The Uncle Chips packets too are a rare sight. I have dreams now, ambitions and friends who can come out to me on rainy days. Every yellow sheet beside the rail tracks reminds me of a home in which lived a Zimmidar with no land and Neela who played mother when I was only learning to colour mountains green and rivers blue.

I let things be as they were. It was a stalemate of my today and past.

The Final Phase Of Loving India

Every time she smiled that day, she broke me. And it’s said even breaking glass sounds lovingly musical for a moment.

We sat in the auditorium. The drama competition titled ‘An Ode to Shakespear’ which needed the students to enact scenes from Shakespearean plays and some other bullshit was going on. I sat sandwiched between the two teachers who had accompanied our 23 strong host to the hosting school, the Team Leader with an image of being honest and introvert and thus, good.

I stared infinitely at the stage where School #1, while I didn’t even care to know the school’s name, acted out a scene from The Merchant of Venice, where Portia saves precious scoundrel’s life. And that’s when she came. You know how it happens in the movies, right? A bomb in a red frock electrifying the scene with her amazing smile? Yes…exactly the way you just imagined it!  But then my life hasn’t got the meticulous direction of any internationally acclaimed professional and she made an entry from behind where I couldn’t see her till she was crossing over to the other side of the row of seats followed by her 3 classmates.

I gaped for a moment in the dark and then took the wise decision of closing my fish-like mouth before any special notice of my expression was made. She found me and quickly whispered, “Come with us, what are you doing here?”

I shot up like a dart from my seat. Yes! She had hit the bull’s eye! What was I doing there and then how was I going to endure the next 3 hours in that position? The boy behind her was in for a shock as I suddenly materialized between her and him. And then finally I escaped the little hell of sitting between two highly orthodox lady teachers with a clear expression of triumph on my face.

I found a seat vacant beside her. Wait. Let me introduce her before you deduce something drastic about her: she was one year senior to me and was the Head Girl at school and there was no possibility that I used to have butterflies in my stomach whenever I saw her because she was a senior. Like, who cared?

She caught me stealing glances of her and confronted me red handed, “Did you really mean it when you said I was looking like a joker?” It came rushing to me that I had said she looked like a joker while she climbed down the many stairs of the auditorium sweeping them with her frock, about 2 hours back. I grinned sheepishly.

“You want the truth?”

“You want to lie?” her reply made me laugh and I decided she deserved the truth.

“Well, you looked ‘bhayankar’. Translate it to English and you’ve the word,” it translated to ‘terrific’.

“Thanks!” she said with apparent relief on her face. I stared at her while she tried to get updated with the on goings in the auditorium.

“People will now say a junior is hitting on a senior,” she stared back at me. “I’m wondering if you’re a professor’s daughter,” I grinned.

“Sorry dear, I live with my uncle first, who is a sharp-shooter in the police and second you’re not an IIT fellow yet, so better hold your horses,” we laughed.

“You’re threatening your junior, I can do you in on ragging grounds,” I smirked.

“Hello!” she was apparently in a mood to show this squealing junior the dust in this bout of words. “I’m an Indian lady, protected by more laws than I care to count and I can do you in for a lifetime at this very instant.”

“Save me, good gods!” I feigned scare and leaned back. We had both leaned too close  to the limit of being socially accepted. “This beautiful lady who this ruffian here had been eve-teasing is aware of the all the laws which were never enforced since their birth! What am I going to do now! Save me!” I grinned to her shriveled up nose.

“Poor joke,” she finally snapped and looked away angrily.

“Don’t worry, people like me are still alive,” I said in a mix of apology and reassuring tone.

She looked at me momentarily with shining, admiration filled eyes before I continued, “People who love hitting on the beautiful senior.”

If her face was shriveled like a dry brinjal till now, now it was a roasted dry brinjal. I grinned wider than ever.

She balled her hand into a fist, not knowing what to do with it, brought it down on her own thigh.

“Yeah,” I mocked. “Shit happens.”

She stared wide-eyed at me, eyes filled with fury and admiration at the same time. Her lips quivered in the vain attempt of wording her thoughts.

“Exactly,” I explained. “That’s why I though you looked like a joker back then. You see, I have a knack of seeing the future.”

She turned away instantly. Not having anything to fight with, the opposition had called for cease-fire as it appeared. Battle #1 won as the School #2’s performance came to an end.

What was I doing? Why was a gibbering away like an idiot with this girl? I had never felt the need to talk to her much before today, then why today? I saw Macbeth vowing and swearing as the three witches worked hocus-pocus at their cauldron. What was the meaning of me acting so foolish? Why couldn’t I simply collect myself and be the solitary-reaper I once was? This was not the Anubhav Singh I knew, this was the ‘forever-happy genius playboy’ image which Allahabad had forced me to live with.

I held my face in my hands and doubled over in the
chair.

“Anubhav?” she called softly, concerned.

I chose to ignore. There was already too much conflict of emotions in my head. I didn’t need any more.

“Are you tired?” the concern in her voice forced me to look up.

“Yup! This mask is too heavy,” I replied from the trenches of my turbulent sea of thoughts.

She stared clearly fuddled.

“You can’t see it,” I grinned. Anubhav, good fellow, she doesn’t understand a single thread of your heart. Whatever made you flow in that lot of philosophy has gone over her head. “A good mask never reveals the true face.”

She stared clearly fuddled.

“I’m crazy right?” Help her, she’s lost track. This is the moment where you either put her on the train of lies or the one to truth where you must open up. And you know it well that those who don’t understand you, hate you.

“Yes,” something seemed to click in her head. Your jig-saw fit. She’s picked up the easier journey on your train of lies.

I looked up to the cieling. A multitude of lights of various hues danced creating a perfect imagery of the huge mess of thoughts inside me. Why was I lying to her? She can’t hurt me. She won’t. Why was it then that I had come so close to truth and then backed off? What was it that scared me? Was my history so scarred that I was afraid of revealing it?

“What are you thinking?”

I shook my head, forcing an unconvincing smile. Damn her. Why did she have to use the same words as my special someone would? And the tone. Were both of them batchmates in the class of ‘Questioning Boys’?

“You’re too silent all of sudden, so…” she whispered.

I have to think you see, a good actor knows all his lines beforehand.

“I’ve just now found the answer to the question that has been bugging me for an year and a half,” I whispered back, and nodded sincerely.

She sat quiet for some time. I took to calming my mind. Closed my eyes and concentrated on the soft background music while School #7 showed us ‘Et tu, Brute!’.

“Can you tell me what’s been troubling a crazy soul like you for so long?” and for the first I saw she didn’t mean the adjectives.

“You want the truth?”

“Can’t help it,” she smiled.

“Fine,” I took a deep breath. A good breath before the hardest part in the act. “Have you heard of Artificial Intelligence?” She nodded. “There is a branch in it which deals with understanding natural language. Its termed Natural Language Processing.” She listened like a good student. “What troubled me was how to extract information in a multi-dimensional array from a huge paragraph, analyze the extracted information and derive facts and assumptions from it.”

She took a deep breath. You’ve got her again on the other track. Congrats buddy! Well lied.

“Anubhav,” she stared hard at me. “What’s your age?”

“Seventeen,” I replied truthfully. Though my birth certificate showed sixteen.

“Hey!” disbelief ruled her face. “I turned seventeen 4 days back!”

“Yes, you came distributing chocolates in a lovely dress and when I was the lone one who clapped, our class teacher half-killed me with his dagger eyes.” I recalled.

“You’re elder to me!” she seemed to be quite happy about it.

“Exactly 11 months elder. And yet I see that your ears are bigger than mine,” I chuckled.

She quickly covered her ear on my side with her hair crudely and fumed in indignation. I had once said to her, “People with bigger ears are usually stupid.”

That’s enough. Take off this mask, Anubhav. She has the right to know the person she’s talking to. You’re cheating on her emotions with this act. Let her know what kind of hopeless she’s dealing with.

“You know,” she still had the rage in her eyes as I spoke not looking just in them. “A few days back while I was coming back from school, I made a huge mistake. We use to stand under that banyan tree at the crossing. That day when we reached there, I found none of our hang-mates waiting. I was with my two classmates.” I looked at the aurora druggedly pulsating on the ceiling. “Then came this little girl in tatters. She had a infant on her. Probably her brother, both equally filthy. She put a palm in front of me. I didn’t have a single rupee on me. I looked at my friends and urged them to move on quickly. She dogged us a long way. Then she found an elderly man and her palm was still empty as she put it in front of him.”

I looked at her. The colors on the ceiling reflected on her face.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she said softly. “You didn’t have anything with you to give.”

“That’s where I was wrong,” I could no longer look into her eyes. “I had love to give.”

She stared at me fuddled.

“I could have apologized to her. Am I that big man I couldn’t even speak humanely to her?”

She stared at me fuddled.

“I am a smaller man since that day. A much smaller man. There are hundreds of them out there. Everyday I see them, wonder about their lives. We have money, we dream of bikes and mobiles, we get them. They don’t have money. But they still have dreams, right? What happens to their dreams?” I looked back at her. “Their dreams die everyday only because they were born where we weren’t.”

“You want to make me cry?”

“I want to give them all a life. I want them to dream and have their dreams come true. There are millions of them in this world. And trust me most of them are much more intelligent than you and me, you can’t deny it. I want to give that intelligence a better option than stealing.”

She stared at me. I don’t know what she thought then. I was too lost in the relief this release of emotions had brought.

“I’m going to call you a ‘Saint’ now on,” she muttered.

“Don’t,” I laughed. “I’m a junior hitting on his senior. Emotional drama is a part of a writer’s life.”

She took a deeper breath this time. Apparently cursed her gods twice or thrice.

“You believe in love at first sight?” I asked her.

“Ummm…no,” she replied after a bit of thought and looked at me, expecting another volley of unpredicted words.

“Wow! That’s a nice miser!” I grinned. “I fall in love at least 50 times a day! Every 15-30 minutes!” I traced a hand around the auditorium. “Today it has been every 2-3 minutes.”

She stared harder. I roared with laughter.

“How is it that one moment you’re something and the other moment entirely opposite?”

I quietened immediately. “Look around yourself. From every student in this room I sense talent. They’re the bests from their school. I fall in love with that talent. And then I think about those children out there in the slums. If these puppy-faced-big-eared-mumma’s cherries have so much talent, then what amount of talent is India losing out there? And again I fall in love. We’ve hundreds or say thousands times the population strength of Japan, yet where are we? Do we even have a percent of refinement in us as they have? What would happen we brought forth all our human resources? And as the final phase I fall in love with the thought of an India which develops at half that population ratio.”

She stared dazed at me.

“What is it that I can do today and now to achieve my dream?” I asked.

“Nothing,” her voice betrayed the dejection. She made no attempt of covering her ears which she had bared in tucking her hair behind.

“We can’t. Right. And that’s why I choose to be merry at the moment. If I were to go down with depression now, will you stand for them tomorrow? No? So, its better I keep myself healthy. They say,” I smiled. “Laughter is the best medicine. Besides, I am not a miser.”

She balled her hand into a fist, knowing not what to do with it, brought it down on her own thigh.

“Yeah,” I grinned. “Shit happens.”

India almost there…

Its time you ran.

No, not after your pretty girlfriend or that wallet of your dreams. God knows there are enough fools in India doing that. We hardly have any need of more youth sharing that load. Its time you ran for India.

Run, for that old lady you refused a coin while you crunched your tasty Uncle Chips. If you’ve ever travelled, you’d probably have faced the embarassing situation where old, children or differently abled people came seeking a few coins. And most of the times you’d have turned away or maybe you had granted them their coins. Coins…how many do you think you would need to survive for a single day? 40…50? Well, that was easy…now what if I told you, you have to do it everyday. Every single day till god took you for his? Coins…is it still enough?

Run, for that cousin at your village who would never know what you were talking about when you spoke of Whatsapp and Akon. If you have ever cared to look past his embarassed smile, you’d see him hating himself for being able to do nothing about his situation. You’d see the longing in his eyes of getting to know the world, getting to know what makes Facebook so addictive, to know how Google and Hermionee know-it-all, how you could know when your friend is sitting oceans apart and typing a message to you.

Run, for that ever-smiling boy who collects the garabage from the street corner where you dump it and forget all about. Know what he searches in what had no value to you. Know which treasure allures him in the garbage you wouldn’t touch once it was in the dustbin. Ask him what he’ll do once he gets tired of this. Do you know where he disappears everyday after he has found his bounty in your trash? Would you do the same if you were in his place? Or does your mother’s oh-my-darling-teddy manners she taught you don’t allow you to even imagine it?

Run, its your time. There were people before you who ran and fell. Few got up and ran again. They fell again. And this time none but handful got up and limped to glory. Limp, crawl, drag yourself to answer of all the questions I’ve asked you here. And once you reach them all, you’ll know…India is done with walking. Walking was what Gandhiji did when your grandfather was in his green days.

Its your day. Its your time. Run, India, Run.