The window panes might have sun-proofing on them. I can’t see a thing outside. White leather, metal and glass. The clothes stick to my skin; I am drenched in sweat. Holding on for dear life, my palms leave sweaty imprints on the leather. The car swerved with a screech and dodged umpteen obstacles with insolent ease, quite like an animal bounding with my life held between its jaws. The blade of fear cut through my rationality and penetrated into the delicate corners of my heart. Childhood prayers learnt by the glow of brass lamps came back to me at that moment. My lips, agnostic as they might be, chanted them. Tear rationality, throw the bits to the dogs, but my life it is too dear. Slowly, the route comes into view; some crowded street in some overpopulated city. TREE! I wanted to shout out, but before I could do that, the car drove me to safety. For the zillionth time, I regretted not knowing how to drive. I wanted to jump onto that vacant driver’s seat and steer my life to calm waters. Sadly, my only choice was to watch with bated breath as my car continued its joy ride ripping my being to shreds with talons of fear.
This time it was an oil-carrier, those huge giants on wheels which scream ‘HIGHLY INFLAMMABLE’ in bold capitals. Yes, life was drawing to a close. Flames would swallow the million dreams in my heart, they will devour the burden of promises that weigh down my shoulders, and they will purge my soul. Charred remains, neglected ash, no cooling tears. The end was certainly here. No! Unbelievably, the car sped through, past the oil-carrier and a milk truck, on and on leaving me bound by fear. The bells on the milk truck never stopped ringing…
The alarm had gone off…. The realization that all this was just a dream brought me little comfort, it troubled me for this was not the first time I had had this dream. The earliest memory of this same dream goes back to my early teens and with minor changes it kept on haunting me once in a while. There was a time when I was bent upon trying to uncover what my ego, id or whatever was trying to tell me, but then I lost interest when I heard what they say to people who dreamt of snakes. I turned to my journal for some comfort. As I started writing it occurred to me that this dream had enough substance in it to make a great story. In a couple of hours I was done with the story. It seemed stupid, cheesy and overly romantic. As I tore it up and threw it in the bin I noticed that my mother had been standing by the door for quite some time. “Do you realize that you have an exam the day after? Writing and all is well and good as long as it remains a hobby. You are not in any way special; your writing is just ordinary and please stop wasting time on it. You know very well that you have it in you to clear that exam. You have to clear that exam and I do not care even if you resign your post as soon as you take charge.” That was it. My day had begun.
‘How to prepare for the Civil Services Exam’, ‘General Knowledge’, a couple of yearbooks and countless number of CSR magazines lay on the table. I never wanted to write this exam. I knew that there was no way in the weird world that I would clear it for I had not worked for it and also my heart was nowhere near it. Just then, the phone rang. It was Mr. Saha, the editor of the newspaper I had worked for as an intern. He was my mentor and guide and he knew my dilemma. He asked me about the preparations for the exams and I told him that I was nothing more than a racehorse, a win or loss meant nothing to me; but the bets were huge and many had gathered with binoculars to see me run the race that would decide the course of my life. “Listen, I know very well that you do not want to write this exam and knowing you, I feel that there is a very good chance that you may clear it. I called you because I have a job offer for you and it is in Q.E. Iqbal called me. I had mailed him your resume and some of your works, he was quite impressed. The thing is, he wants to meet you in two days. If you are to make it to his office, I don’t think you can appear for your big exam. And please don’t tell me that you want me to take this big a decision for you. You have to decide what you want.” Without any further words, he hung up in a way that is so characteristic of him.
Q.E., I had been reading it ever since I was sixteen and I loved it. I used to dream about getting my articles published in it and basking in the glory and now, I get a job offer which I might have to turn down if I am not to break my mother’s heart one more time. I just love it when life gives me great choices. I went to the living room where my mother was chatting with my grandmother. I crept in there and told them about the job offer.
“We will consider that. What is important now is that you clear the exam.”
“I will have to skip the exam if I am to get this job. I want it so badly. My heart is in it.” I was in tears, knowing full well that they would never let me go. They did not disappoint me.
“You are not going anywhere and if I have to lock you up, I will do that. I know what is good for you and you know it too. Don’t waste your time talking about it. Tell me one reason why you don’t want to do the Civil Services”
“I can give you twenty”
“I will listen to all twenty after the exam.”
I went back to the room and slammed the door as hard as I could. It was the only way I could protest. My life was seriously fucked up. I would not clear that exam in a million years and I had no chance of taking up the job with Q.E. As I read about the constitution and the five year plans my mind wandered off. All through my life, I had listened to what my heart had told me to do and mostly that meant against my mother’s wishes, and it had not let me down. I thought of the one person who could help me out. I called Shreya, my best-friend. As I told her about all this, she said, “I am kind of busy right now, I am moving to Calicut where I got a job in a bank”
“Bank? But you wanted to start a dance school, right?”
“Those are just dreams. It is time that we move on. Renji got a job there too and he wants to see me as a powerful, independent working woman.”
“Even if you started a dance school, you would be a ‘powerful, independent working woman’, right?”
“Shut it. It is decided. Life is no fairytale for dreams to come true. Go slave hard and pass that exam. You can write bed-time stories later.”
As she slammed down the receiver, I realized that Shreya was mad at herself more that she was at me. I felt a burning hatred towards Renji. Who was he to play god in her life? If I asked her she would have told me that he is her god. Shreya and I were so sure what we were going to do with our lives and now, it was not in our hands any more. Puppets! As much as we do not want to be puppets we do not have it in us to sever the ties of love that control our every action.
In tune with my current mental state it began to rain and as always I ran out to embrace the first few drops as they hit the ground. Mom started yelling again. “Do you want to skip the test so bad that you are standing out in the rain? You are not 6 anymore”. Yes, I was not six anymore, four times six, actually, but still like a six year old I dangle from her little finger, hiding behind her sari’s pallu, reluctant to step out on my own. It is not that I can’t, it is just that it is she who is holding my hand, unwilling to let go. The wonderful thing about the rain is that it makes me realize who all I miss and who all I love and want to be with. My cell phone rang and I could not help thinking of the coincidence as I heard the voice that sung me to sleep on many nights at the other end. I could tell by the slight slur that he was out emptying his cup of sorrow.
“So, how are you doing? Preparations going on in full steam, huh? I heard that your exam is tomorrow, write well.”
I knew that he would not call me just to wish me the best for an exam which he knew I had no intention of writing ever. He did not keep me guessing what the big news he had to shove drown my ears was.
“Well, I, um, you know, my parents found this amaaaaazing woman for me, 38 C (wheezy laughter). I mean, I am going to get married on the next Saturday. I was not sure if I should call you. I am sorry that it did not work out between us, but I can never be the ‘chosen one’ (sad chuckle). One day she is gonna push you into some lucky, clueless bastard’s hands and I hope that he will love you as I do. Bye, sweetheart. I lorrrvvw…”
I realized that my face was wet like I was out in the rain. He was the best thing that happened to me, the only guy who really clicked. I used to tell him that we were two pieces in a puzzle that were meant to be together. But he was not gentleman enough, he was not what my mom had in mind for me. So, I bade him goodbye though I knew that he was always there watching me from a distance with a broken heart and a lit cigarette in his mouth. I destroyed him, us, me…. I could not let another love of my life just sail away with someone less deserving on board. At that moment I knew that I could not let Q.E. get away. My wallet and my life’s earnings; certificates and letters of recommendation, that was my luggage for my life’s most important journey, an escape from all that was yesterday to a new tomorrow. When Mr. Saha opened the door to his apartment to get his newspaper he found me standing there with a tearful smile. He gave me what I most wanted then, a huge hug and a cup of coffee. “Ready for Q.E.?” he asked with a smile. I nodded.
Iqbalji did not waste much time. He introduced me to my new colleagues as ‘Kavya, your new assistant editor’ as I stood there stunned. He walked me over to my cabin and told me what I was supposed to do and I said to myself, “Girl! You were born to do this job”. His closing sentence was, “So, wish you a great first day at work and I will see you with that write-up by 2? Is that a deal?” I nodded. Finance manager Koshy came down to see me with my first gift, the key to my apartment. I met Iqbalji at 2 with my write-up which would be the editor’s pick for the next issue of Q.E. Life had never been better, though I would love to make a few changes, but then it would be perfect.
As I went to my new apartment, a part of me kept telling me to chuck calling home as my apology would never be a good one but another part of me kept imagining what it would be like at home. Mom would be crying. Grandma must be telling her that it was all her fault: letting me go to another state to do my graduation and letting me decide when all of them were alive and kicking to take ‘good’ decisions for me. Dad would be silent as usual but would be heartbroken. My brother will get shouted at and made to swear that he will not ever commit all the grave errors that I had committed. Uncles and aunties whose names barely rang any bell would be pouring in corporally and otherwise with their condolences. The longer I thought about it, I wanted to put it off. I could not help feeling that I was being way too selfish and that all said and done I loved those people back there.
The phone kept on ringing. In my head I pictured my brother sitting in front of the television not bothering to pick up the phone and mom cursing him as she walked all the way from the lawn to the phone. “Hello?” I did not have anything to say. All my words were caught up in that huge lump in my throat. I managed to make some gurgling noise and then Mom asked, “Is that you? Are you happy now? Where are you? Come back home this instant. We have some talking to do. You cannot just sneak out of the house like that. We have paid for all your stuff for all these years and this is what you do? Walk out in reply?”
“Mom, I just want to tell you that as much as I love you, I am not a puppet to do your bidding. That was the choice that I made when I ‘sneaked out’. I speak with guys, I speak up, I don’t believe in god, I spend time writing what you call ‘the dirty stuff’, but I know what is good for me. The money that you spent, or would you rather say, wasted on me enables me to think on my own, to see what is good and bad and the world is not the same anymore nor are we. You cannot make me you no matter how hard you try. Please accept me for what I am for I have done things that would make many other mothers proud and I have learnt not to expect any appreciation for it. No matter what I do, I will always be ‘lucky’, the papers and subjects ‘simple’ and the examiners ‘lenient’. I am tired of trying to do you proud for I don’t think I ever can unless I will have to trade my heart for it. I make a lot of people proud and I am happy for where I am and what I have achieved. I have a job now and I can make a living on my own. I do not know how much money I owe you in bringing me up but I promise you that even it takes my entire life I will pay bit by bit for all the money that you invested in me. I am never coming back until I am welcome. And that day, sadly, will never come. So, bye.”
Emotionally drained and exhausted I fell into the couch and began to think of all that the word family brought back to me. There was very few family moments so I was not lost in a torrent of love or nostalgia or all that crap that people write about. But still there were the occasional conference cum family reunion trips, all four of us in that one cozy hotel room, jokes by the dinner table (once or twice a year when we all happened to have dinner together) and those long nauseating drives to dad’s native place. Dad would be driving for a straight three hours and mom would be sleeping for most of the time and we would be fighting in the backseat as the radio jockeys chirped on in their insanely cheerful high pitched voices. We stop at a gas station and dad gets into the backseat so that he can take the money out of the briefcase and then before I know it, the car is cruising at 100 kilometers an hour, past trucks, upsetting people on motorcycles, nearly crashing onto a stop sign. I can spot a huge oil carrier, the words painted in the brightest red ‘HIGHLY INFLAMMABLE’. I squeeze my eyes shut sure that this time no one can save me and then before I know it I am holding the steering wheel, taking my car to the place I want to go, safely. As I turn in my sleep, I smile.