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The Walk

Mahendra is fed up of his daily routine and decides to set out for a walk. What he encounters and unravels on his little walk was way beyond his expectation.
 
“It’s a very unusual time to, umm… what they call these days…’work-out’…isn’t it?” said Neelam.  The sound of her giggles filled the air. The still air broke into a breeze, as though, listening to her voice. Mahendra, tripped on on the clumsily constructed pavement, and turned around.
 
“Umm..I..never knew  someone else was here too,” he faltered a bit. She giggled again. ” Don’t you look around while you walk?” she said. “I was just um…well lost in some thoughts,” replied Mahendra. “The world is not so good a place to be lost and not be aware of your surroundings, especially at night. You did not answer my question, though. Are you ‘working out’?” she replied. “Oh! No, No. Not at all. I just was a little….um…bored lets say…”
“Bored! Of what?” she asked back, barely letting him complete his sentence. ” Okay, look, that is none of your business….no…I mean…sorry I am being a little rude. I mean…Why do you want to know? I was a little stressed, so…” “So you came to take a walk? Interesting.” she snapped back. “Do you often come out on walks this way. I have never seen you here before.”
“As if you stay up every night to keep a watch on who comes here and who goes in this patch of land,” thought Mahendra. And Interesting? That’s what she thinks about his miserable situation, thought Mahendra. He was a little irritated now. He couldn’t understand what exactly was going on around him. Who was this woman and why was she bothering him. His work was not going as he wanted. He was fed up living in his shabby little.(..no miniscule, would be the word) apartment. The neighbourhood was so noisy, he could go both crazy and dumb at the same time. There were days when no one would want to speak even a few words to him and now he was here, in front of this woman, who was bombarding him with questions, whose answers she was not even letting him complete. 
“So I was asking do you come out on walks this way before?”  Her words broke his chain of thoughts.  Her big Kohl black eyes looked at him enquiringly.  Mahendra threw an annoying glance at her and started to walk away. But her eyes, they were so full of…full of something…he couldn’t make out what…like he had seen the look somewhere before…what was it and where it was, he couldn’t remember. His steps took a stop, he took a deep breath and turned back. Mehak looked…so sad, almost dejected, he thought.
 
“I…go out on walks…in the evenings mostly…my mornings are too hectic, generally,” he said. Neelam looked at him, her eyes almost glowing back. “Oh, very well then,” she paused.” Sorry, My dad always says that I speak too much, and that I ask too many questions,” she said.
“Asking is a good trait, you know, a curious mind is the best thing that you can have,” he said, smiling back at her. Neelam’s face lit up. Her smile could do what the moon did to the sky, he thought. “So do you often come here in the nights. The world is not a safe place to roam about, especially at night,” he said. Neelam giggled again. The air around him seemed to stir every time she giggled, he thought. “Yes”, she said, “The nights are so peaceful, everything is so quiet, so silent. Don’t you love the nights too Mahendra? Isn’t the night absolutely gorgeous….every little stir of the wind…how strangely pleasant the night breeze feels against your skin…”
“And how beautiful the dark sky looks with the stars, like some pixie filled it carefully with stardust. doesn’t it fascinate you sometimes, the patterns in the sky, how is it that they are so well thought of,”
“Like someone stitched diamonds onto it. It fascinates me sometimes, how trivial we are, when I look up…don’t you too?”
She looked at him.  She held his gaze for a while. They looked at each other. The rustle of the leaves, the tinkling of her bangles were the only two things that seemed to fill in the silence and  the space between them.
 
“Let us walk,” said Mahendra.
“I like roaming about, you know, it is something that I picked up from my Grandfather. He loved taking strolls. He would go out every evening, take a round on the street, many times to the temple, sometimes to the market. He would get goodies for me on my way back,” said Mahendra. “I came to this city a year ago. I got a job here. Not a very good one though. No friends, just annoying neighbours who like sticking their nose into everybody’s business. They get on my nerves! I have never been here, to this part of the locality. It almost felt like an adventure. But this place is peaceful..I never knew there was a garden here. “
Neelam laughed.”Neighbours, they often do that. I wonder why they do that! I had annoying neighbours too! Their tongues as though had a mind of their own. I wish they knew how to mind their tongues. My Great grandfather built it. Our family is quite a rich family you know…they owned this part of the locality. My father sold most of it though…just this garden and the house on the opposite side remains. You see there…the big one over there…the room with the light lights on is mine. It is too dark though…hardly think anything is visible.”
Mahendra strained his eyes to look…but it was too dark…he saw a light flickering in the distance, and guessed that that must be what she was talking about.
” So, your Great-grandfather owned a garden…”
” Yes he did….it looks less of a garden now, one of the British officers and he owned it jointly. After the officer left, my grandfather had the full ownership of the land. I remember when I was a kid I would come here and play among the mango trees, climb on them, and try to pluck mangoes. I remember there were a couple of guava trees as well…I used to love guavas…fresh guavas from the tree, sprinkled with chilli powder and salt….my summers wouldn’t be complete without eating guavas…the coconut tree you see right there, that one was my favorite too…I remember picking up young coconuts fallen around the tree with my brothers. Sometimes when the coconuts were nice and green, my grandfather would hire a man to climb up and fetch coconuts for us…we would then cut them open and drink the sweet water within…sometimes the coconut fell down on their own will as though they did not want to be brutally cut off from the branch…” She laughed.
 
The wind played with her hair, her bangles as she spoke. The trees, the branches, all stood in silence as if to listen to every word that she spoke. Mahendra was mesmerized. Who needed to see the moon when he could watch her every night. There were nights when Mahendra would come out just to look at the moon, there were nights when he fell asleep looking at the moon…he could watch this moon for the rest of his life, he thought. He would come again tomorrow, and the day after, and every single day that would follow. He would come everyday to watch her, listen to her,
“There was a jamun tree too you know,” she said. Mahendra suddenly came back to his senses.” I did not quite like it, you know…for some reason. In summer the jamuns would fall to the ground smearing it with blotches of violet…my grandfather loved Jamuns,” She said. “Really? What did you like then?” asked Mahendra. “Me? Ioved the flowers! I would wait every single day for the roses to bloom…I would roam about the rose bushes every evening tending them, watering them, checking for any new buds…I would watch them every night, watch the sky turn pink like them, till my eyes would tire and I would then return back home…How beautiful it all was….And during winter, especially, the whole garden would smell of roses. I would laugh, play, sing and just run about them the whole evening.” She paused a while, and pointed in the direction of her house, “You see there,” she said, “That’s where all the rose bushes were…there is a little mound there, over which is an overgrown Raat-rani…The Raat-rani would bloom every night…its intoxicating fragrance filled my room every night…the maid, a old skinny lady, taught me how to make a scent of its flowers.”
“Wow…it all sounds so wonderful…indeed…I wish I too had such beautiful moments…to share with you…I hardly have any.” said Mahendra. “But what happened to the land now…I mean, what went wrong…why is this land so desolate now?” he asked. Neelam’s face went pale. She stopped mid way, turned towards Mahendra, her eyes, suddenly going shallow and devoid of any emotions, and said,” Mahendra, it is too late, isn’t it? I think we should go.”
“Umm..Of course we should..Yes it is late indeed. But I was just hoping, if we could, I mean if we can meet again?”   He asked. “Of course we can.” She said. Her lips curved into a slight smile,”You promise?” She said.  “Yes!” he replied, dreamily. “Goodbye,Mahendra,” she said. Mahendra turned around and started walking home. The sound of her bangles, her laughter kept ringing in his mind.

Mahendra went back home. His head was filled with her thoughts throughout the day and when night arrived, and the moon glowed a dreamy white, he left his home, with a strange happiness and hope of meeting Neelam.

Walking down the road he went and stopped at the same spot where he had first seen Neelam. There was no sight of her. The night was strangely chilly, but dead silent. Not a leaf moved, not a branch stirred. He stood rooted to the spot like the trees around him stood rooted to the ground. Motionless, still, waiting for Neelam. And so the minutes passed but Neelam did not turn up. He thought maybe she was too tired. He decided to wait a little while longer. He had to meet Neelam. Their meet of last night had some sort of intoxicating effect on him. He waited the whole night and then left…disappointed. This went on for weeks…Mahendra would go with hope every night…only for it to be crushed every morning. One night he left again. He couldn’t get her out of his mind. Her laughter, her smile, her bangles, her eyes…had the whole night trapped into them…the twinkle in them…just like the stars. He leaned against a neem tree and waited. Soon, he fell asleep by the neem only to be woken up the next day by the choukidaar Harish. “Oh Saahib! What are you doing here. A respectable man like you shouldn’t be sitting here at this hour, and that too here, this way ! Shiv! Shiv!”
Mahendra opened his eyes…with great difficulty. It was still dark, he wondered what time it was. The choukidaar’s harsh voice was too harsh for his ears to bear and it was definitely not the first thing he wanted to hear this early in the morning. For once he wished that the bright torch-light that flashed in his face was the dreamy moonlight and the harsh bark of the choukidaar turned into the sweet, musical voice of Neelam. Mahendra sat up straight and leaned against the tree.” I…I was looking for a friend. She…She hasn’t turned up…I..I waited the whole night!”
“Friend! seems to special a friend! I don’t see many youths these days waiting for their friends in the dead of the night! okay Saahib…you looked like a decent fellow…So i am being patient with you! Now are you telling me or should i call the cops!” said the Choukidaar. “Look, I am not joking! I am waiting for my friend…her name is Neelam…She lives right opposite to the garden…see right there…” said Mahendra as he pointed to the direction of Neelam’s house. But he didn’t see any light flickering. “Where Saahib? There is nothing there…no house…this place is a wasteland…it is in fact a restricted area…didn’t you see the board outside….There isn’t a blooming flower here…leave alone a garden! And now there, who are you fooling ! Are you carrying any drinks! I see many youths enter here and exchange drugs and drinks here! If you have any…hand them now…i will let you go!” He said. Mahendra was extremely agitated now. “I have no drugs! I was waiting for Neelam! I waited the whole night! Do I look wasted to you ! You don’t believe me! I will show you….!” He said and started running with all his anger towards the place where he had seen the lights flicker. The choukidaar Harish followed him, running behind him as fast as he could. Mahendra was agitated. He had no friends all this time. No one who was interested in listening to him or talking to him…He had made peace with this lonliness of his. Then why…why after so long had Neelam come along and given him hope and then disappeared so suddenly !

They soon reached the place beyond the boundaries of the garden. But there was nothing there. No house. No lights, no garden, no guava trees, no blooming roses…nothing. Just rubble and ruins of some place burnt cruelly down. Some pillars remained. He stood there. in shock. Not believing what he had just seen. The Choukidaar came behind him, puffing, breathing heavily…chanting a mantra…and his voice stammering, barely able to speak, he managed a few words,”Saahib! Saahib! we must…we must go back. This place….the place ….Shiv…Shiv…is haunted….Saahib…let’s go back…I will explain everything when we get back to a safe place…let’s leave Saahib..”
Mahendra looked around blankly…where were the rose bushes…the guava trees…there was nothing there…all that remained was an old decapitated house…there was nothing….All he could think of was…Neelam.The Choukidaar had to literally drag him back all the way. Mahendra was in shock.

Mahendra woke up the next day. Harish made him tea and gave him some biscuits. Harish did not know what to do and had brought Mahendra to his home and waited patiently till he woke up. “You had high fever the whole day yesterday…how are you feeling now?” Mahendra looked rather confused. He tried to recollect everything that had happened. “It…It all feels like a bad dream…where…where did she go…” he fell silent. He ate the biscuits and gulped down the tea. “That girl sir…you keep speaking about…she…she died in a fire…there was a fire….” Mahendra looked up. He listened in rapt attention.

“I took up my father’s job when I died. My father was in-charge of guarding that patch of land. It was owned by a wealthy man, the girl’s grandfather…their ancestral property it was. The girl was a decent girl Saahib…and very beautiful…she hardly did anything wrong  until she went and fell in love with a gora Saahib soon after our independence. The family was too reputed…they couldn’t bear it when they came to know about it. They told her to stay away from the gora but love…love is a blind thing Saahib…you can’t bind love into boundaries, can you saahib? And so their love affair continued. Till one day….till one day the family found out that the girl was pregnant. The gora had left and the poor creature was left on her own…they were furious…her family…they did not understand what to do…her brothers…her brothers…were demons…they locked her up in her room…and set the room on fire as she slept. The family ran away overnight…the fire spread…burning down the place…those roses…the trees…everything. My Father had worked with their family since a long time…couldn’t do anything. He said the night was filled with her screams…her wails…her cries…her desperate cries for help. What was worse saahib…my father…my baapu knew about their plan and couln’t go against them…they..they would have killed us all too. They entrusted the duty of watching over the piece of land after they fled…and entrusted him their dirty little secret….” Harish broke down…Mahendra was in tears too…he couldn’t understand what to say or do. Harish gathering himself said,” The members of the family met in a car crash soon after the incident. My baapu and my family performed the last rights of the girl…or what was left of her. We would often hear screams at nights….the wails…the cries…but there would be no one there saahib…just those burnt down ruins….reminiscent of the ghastly crime that was committed that night…my baapu too died after the incident. It was her revenge i think…my mother thinks the same too…she avenged her death…I roam about the patch of land as I feel guilty of what my father did…for some reason…as redemption. And also many drunkards have made this place their adda…it is disrespectful to the girl I think….” he broke off.

Mahendra went back home. Thinking of what had just happened with him. Who was the girl he had met that night? Was it indeed neelam? He was puzzled. And if it was indeed Neelam…why had she met him? After all these years? He went back to Harish. “Maybe someone played a prank on me ! Maybe you are lying! Do you think I am stupid!” “It can’t be saahib…no one knows about the girl…no one knows what happened…no one except the family, me, my mother and my father,” “But then why did she appear in front of me…you mean it was her…ghost?” Both of them fell silent. The choukidaar wanted to say yes…but ended up asking him if he wanted some tea, to which Mahendra said yes. They had tea in silence. While he was on his way out, Harish said,” The girl never spoke to anyone saahib. Maybe she too felt alone…to tired of not having anyone around…All the men who end up in that patch are drunkards and drug addicts…maybe you were the first decent man she ever encountered in so many years…You should be happy saahib…maybe her soul is indeed at peace now,” he took a long pause, ” Sometimes, Saahib, when you have been lonely for so long, maybe a few minutes of warm talk are worth a lifetime. A few minutes can give one hope…and indeed peace”

On his way back Mahendra went back to the old ruins. He stood there with his eyes closed, and tried to imagine Neelam…her dark hair, her tinkling bangles…he imagined the sound of her anklets while she walked through the rose bushes…of her smile as she saw the sun set behind the horizon, turning the sky into the pink of her cheeks. He though of the look in her eyes that he had seen when he had first met her. He now knew what that look was and where he had seen it before. It was of the little glimmer of hope left after being alone for so long. It was of the little hope that filled his own cracked pieces of heart. It was the look of innocence undiluted by the cruelties of the world. And how, how on earth had she known his name…he never told it to her. “How did you know Neelam…How did you know..” he thought. He opened his eyes…the old ruins stared back at him and a faint smell of raat-raani filled the air. “Raat-raani? at this time? It is not dark yet…Maybe…Maybe She is just saying goodbye.” Tears came to his eyes as he thought of all that could have been if he had met Neelam if she had been alive. “The world indeed is not a good place to get lost in Neelam…I wish you too hadn’t got lost…If you are not careful…your own backyard can be the most dangerous place…I wish you had known this. We weren’t meant to be…but…in another life…some another time…we will meet again…I will build you gardens…we would watch the sun set behind the hills and we would be together…I will wait for you till then Neelam…I will wait for you…Always.”   

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