I woke up to chaos.
Yea, I heard distant shouts that made my head ache.
I moaned and rolled over the bed. But, some part of me told that I wasn’t lying on my usual warm bed.
Eyes still fast closed, my hands meandered through the blanket’s innumerable crumples and finally groped for the bed.
I’ve been kidnapped.
I aroused myself to full consciousness and jumped out of the bed, startled.
“What?” I wondered aloud, surprised.
The walls seemed familiar, the scent of a known person lingered in the room and the photographs on the..
“O.H. M.Y. G.O.D,” I breathed out the words slowly and slapped my forehead hard, “I’m inside the room of..”
Just then Teju’s Dad shouted, “No! That’s gonna be my final answer,” as Teju entered the room.
She stood staring at me for a moment and it made me wonder if I was dreaming all this.
“Still drowsy?” she questioned.
I was tongue-tied; too shocked about my realization of my whereabouts and everything that happened around me since the last twenty-four hours.
“Hey!” she called out quizzically.
“Mm?” I responded.
“Oh, for God’s sake, I’m not gonna say anything romantic now!”
I raised my eyebrows. My head throbbed. Maybe was I knocked down by someone? Her Dad? Might be!
“The bathroom’s over there,” she said, pointing out to one corner of the room, “Go, and wash your face.”
I obeyed like a puppy.
I was in for disbelief when I looked at myself in the mirror above the basin. My hair was dishevelled, my eyes – a miserable sight and my collar buttons were undone.
What! Wait a second! I was still dressed in formals.
Did I come here after Office time?
I quickly splashed water on my face, shook my head a good number of times to know if I could remember anything at all.
A vague vision showed itself in my mind.
I stormed out, asking, “How did I land up here?”
“You, filthy drunkard!” Teju’s dad charged towards me.
“Whoa! Easy, easy!” Teju stopped her enraged Dad.
My blurred vision assumed full shape by now.
“Gosh!” I mumbled.
“Better be sorry,” he ordered and left.
My facial expressions pleaded innocence.
Teju crossed her arms and faced me.
“I.. I’m sorry,” I said, cursing myself on the inside.
“What’s all this about getting drunk suddenly?” she demanded.
“Well, you do know I’m not a teetotaller,” I defended.
“I’m aware of the fact but I’m not asking about that.”
“You said you’d leave me. So..”
She covered the space between us in two long strides and held my hand.
“You can’t protect me anymore. I mean there’s no need to. I’m already prone to pain now. There’s no point in you being in my life anymore,” she said.
“I can ease out that pain,” I argued.
She exhaled slowly and her eyes shifted their focus to the floor.
“This is gonna be hard for both of us. But, it’s the best,” she muttered under her breath.
“Trust me, it’s not,” I said, lifting her chin up.
She backed away a few steps.
“No!” she whispered.
It reminded me of her Dad’s shouts.
“What were you fighting about with your Dad?”
She stood still, her gaze uneasy.
“What was it?” I insisted.
“I told them that I wanna stay away from them for a while.”
“Oh, okay, I get the point. Your Dad must’ve refused to allow you to go away alone with me. That ‘No! That’s gonna be my final answer,’ I imitated her Dad, smiling, “was for this?”
She shook her head.
My smile faded.
“No?” I asked, puzzled.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I wanna go away alone,” she said.
It took me some time for her words to sink in. Guess, it must be my unclear head.
“I wanna have some ‘me-time’,” she said shrugging her shoulder.
“Teju, you got to be kidding me!” I said, shaking her shoulders, “You have to get treated regularly, be under medication and you can’t just go away on your own to somewhere. Besides, where will you go?”
I saw a sudden movement of a resolved answer in her eyes but she concealed them well immediately.
“I don’t know. But, somewhere,” she said, turning her face away, “You know about my over-protective parents and their social-status concern. They can only be so mean to me even at this ordeal.”
I realised that she had a plan in her mind that she wasn’t willing to share with me. But, no, I’m not gonna say yes to this. Let her call me ‘selfish’ or a ‘sadist’, yet it is gonna be a stubborn ‘No’.
“Teju, I’m asking you to marry me, but all you wanna do is run away,” I said, dejected.
Her eyes sparkled for a moment.
Was it for marrying me or for running away?
I neither could come to a conclusion nor rule out both the options.
“Whatever,” she said, leaving the room, “I need some time.”
From the next day, I kept checking on Teju for every one hour.
“Vinay, will you stop ensuring if I’m alive or not this often? This is eating my head,” she complained.
After apologizing to her Dad for my imprudent behaviour, I tried talking him into getting his daughter wedded to me.
Alas! All my efforts were in vain.
Her Dad’s ego overpowered any of my propositions.
Exactly twenty one days later, Teju was gone.
“She left this message for you,” her Dad handed over a piece of paper.
I recognised Teju’s scribbled handwriting.
You might even crumple this paper and throw away without even reading.
But please do yaar.
You’ve the best heart. Not many will agree to marry a ‘gonna-die-soon’ patient.
I guess I once had the best lover. You needn’t be one anymore.
You’re free of the liability. Happy?
Aren’t you so damn angry at me right now?
Lemme offer you a solution for that.
Break all the gifts I gave you. Stash all the photos and memories of us inside the bin.
But, don’t forget, I still love you loads and I’m gonna miss you a lot too.
Yet, I promise you I’ll be back before death. If you still want, you could marry me.
So, don’t follow me.
Take care hamesha.’
Dang! I should’ve seen this coming!
I boxed their sofa hard.
“So, what did the cold-heart leave you guys with?” I asked her parents, who came running as I howled in pain.
They too had got a similar message with add-ons like ‘Don’t call the police, Try living without me, please don’t give your damn ego a bullshit.’
“That,” I said, emphasizing on the bullshit thing, “is very appreciable, a snide comment.”
Ignoring me, her Ma said, “She left early this morning, around four. The neighbours were up by then and she had waved them a bye.”
“Oh, did she?” I asked with a mild surprise, “Pity, she couldn’t even bring herself to wave a goodbye to her own parents from the house she left.”
Before her parents could abuse me more, I left the place with little information about Teju’s original self that I hadn’t implored during our days of young love.
Eight months of stress.
The first few days after Teju had run away were hell.
I’d constantly stare at my smartphone in the nights hoping she’d call, like she’d every night. But..
“I never knew you could be this stubborn, Teju,” I’d say out aloud, looking at her photos in my mobile.
Well, don’t ask me why I didn’t stash them like she had wanted me to. I can’t go about following every stupid instruction of hers, except the last one – Don’t follow me.
Words can’t describe the turmoil I underwent through those freaking days without her.
She had been my reason for existence, ecstasy and endurance for four long years and puff! She disappeared into thin air!
Can you hear me snapping my fingers? Yea, just like that!
I receded to keep myself to myself some days, while a few other days my friends pulled me out to party hard and forget her for a night or two. They even tried matchmaking when my parents expressed disgust and worry about my behaviour to them.
Teju’s three closest friends, a girl and two guys kept haunting me, asking if I had any clue to her whereabouts.
But, we all knew the blatant truth – Commencing a search party to hunt her down would be futile. She might be anywhere!
However my first guess is London, United Kingdom – she always had a soft heart for the English place. The next is Paris, France – as that’s my soft spot. But, I doubted that she’d visit my place without me.
Memories of our long discussions about our world travel and exploring new, unheard places after wedding, flooded.
At last, I realised the reason why Teju left us all behind. She wanted us to experience her gone while she was still alive so that we could cope up after the real loss.
Yeah, for the first time after her disappearance.
My doorbell rang incessantly. Whoever was on the other side must’ve lived their life throughout, with impatience.
Grumbling, I opened up to the person, who left me for,
“Eight months and twenty three days, Tadaaaaa!” Teju loomed in front of me, a rucksack on her back and she in sporty tracks and..
“You’ve lost too much weight!” I cried, astonished.
Queasy, she expanded her jacket a bit.
I regained my grim resoluteness.
“By the way, who are you? Have we met before?”
“If we haven’t met before, then how can you be as precise as to I’ve lost a few pounds?” she guffawed.
She stood dazed at my doorstep.
“Don’t you dare talk with such cool attitude to me, sadist girl!” I yelled.
She tended to her cheeks.. with a smile.
Ah! That smile – it can melt anyone’s heart who has known her for long.
I opened my arms wide and she willed herself.
A tight, bear hug.
I embraced every moment of it, the touch, the feel, the smell – I never felt more alive.
“You’re the first stop I made since I stepped into Bangalore,” she said, “I didn’t even meet my parents yet.”
I tucked a strand of hair behind her ears and kissed her forehead.
“Aren’t you angry on me?” she asked without any hesitation.
“I was and oh yea, I am,” I said, loosening my grip on her, “but, I can feast for a while, to compensate my eight months, twenty three days of grief, grief and more grief,” and once again hugged her with all my might.
“I was right,” she said between her sniffs, “You’ve the best heart. How can you be so forgiving?”
“Because I love you,” I said without missing a beat, “And, do you know it’s meaning? Through joy and sadness..”
“Sickness and health,” she joined in saying, “I’m gonna support you. I won’t leave you to suffer alone,” we completed.
She nodded her head wildly and cuddled on my chest.
“Did you keep growing that beard hoping one day I’d be back to caress it?” she asked softly as her hands found their way to it.
“Oh, you noticed?”
“That’s the best part. Isn’t it?”
“Hamesha,” I said ruffling her hair. A bunch of hair got entangled and when I tried removing them from my fingers, the whole bunch just fell off to the floor.
I gasped in utter shock.
“Um, I’m sorry, I’m littering your home,” she said, picking them up.
Just then I noticed her pale face, blood-devoid eyes, lanky body and cheek-less face.
“Teju, were you under Chemotherapy?”
With uncertainty, she nodded.
She wiped away her tears with the back of her hands.
“Doctors,” she corrected me, “Every place I travelled to, I wanted to explore more. I badly wanted to quench my thirst for travel. But, I knew I only had a few months to live. So, I randomly went to Oncologists, and got my Chemo done after struggle.”
I looked in amazement.
“I extended a few more months,” she said happily.
“Is this the last month you’re gonna live or what? As you’ve come seeking me,” I asked with pain in my voice.
“Vinay, you do know I can’t be a cancer survivor,” she explained, “but, no, this is not my last month.”
“Where’s the usual ‘but’?” I asked, annoyed.
“But,” again a pause.
“Cut the drama!”
“I’ve entered stage four. No cure-mode.”
“Did you have a look at yourself? You don’t resemble the Teju I once had in my life.”
“I’m the vampire girl. Once I suck in blood, my muscles would bulge but my heart would freeze,” she said animatedly.
She reminded me of Bella in the climax scene from Twilight, Breaking Dawn – Part One.
“So, why did you come here?” I turned into defensive mode.
She decided to play along.
“To say a ‘hi’,” she said, with an unwavering smile.
“Fine then, I’ve got no time for some run-away kid, so ‘Bye!’” I sung.
She stood rooted to the ground.
“What?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.
“As to what?”
“As to where did you go? Blah, blah, blah?”
“Save that part, you’ll know soon.”
I knew she was anticipating me to ask her about us getting married. But, she kept me waiting, so, I do guess I need to have my fair game of ‘Tit for tat’.
“Okay! Hope you’ll be hanging around often, see you soon,” I said, showing her the way out.
She was shocked.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“This is not how you treat a cancer patient.”
“Oh! You want me to pity you? Sorry, I can’t anymore because I’ve finally found my love.”
She stood tongue-tied.
“Shall I introduce you to her?”
“Ah, yes, I know her. You want me to find the mirror?” she asked me winking.
I had the habit of asking Teju to take a look into the mirror whenever she asked if I was in love with anyone else before her. She still knew me well.
“Why the heck did you return home now?” Teju’s Dad shouted.
I anticipated her Mom to soothe him and compromise. But, she did nothing. Her face displayed happiness on seeing her daughter again and pain due to her inability to act against her husband’s orders.
She was of no help.
“And you!” he said pointing out to me, “Let go off her hand now.”
I only tightened the grip further.
“If you aren’t ready to accept your daughter back, then let me take care of her,” I said turning around to leave with her.
“Vinay, no,” Teju whispered out of their earshot once we turned.
“She’s my daughter and I’ve every right to treat her the way I want,” he hollered.
“Not again,” I muttered turning around again, “No, you don’t!”
“Excuse me?” he acted, as if he hadn’t heard what I spoke.
“You heard me right. You don’t have the right to treat her any way you like, not in the bad manner.”
“That’s my wish!”
“No, it’s not!” Teju spoke for the first time since her arrival, “No, it’s just not!”
“Well, till now you’ve followed my orders for your education, career and so will you, even now.”
“No, I won’t, not anymore,” she said.
“Are you ordering me to listen to your words?” he asked Teju emphatically.
She remained silent.
“You’re treating me like a beggar to accept whatever is offered with no choice,” he said, gritting his teeth.
“Sir, please listen. You’ve ordered her to work at the place you want, study the course you want, work only for the time you want, stay at home always as you want, marry the guy you want and for heaven’s sake, understand, she can’t die when you want!” I argued audibly.
My last line did the trick.
He reflected on it for a while.
“I..I,” he stuttered, “need some time to think.”
“Okay, till then she stays with me,” I said.
“No!” this time, it was her Mom’s voice that echoed the porch.
Her Dad’s temper rose.
“You’re not ready to forgive her,” I said, “So, till then, at least let me take care of her remaining soul.”
“She didn’t do a good deed to be forgiven so easily. She ran away! Do you know the embarrassment and humiliation I was put through because of her?” he said.
He came to her and gave one tight slap on the same cheek.
Her face reddened.
I wasn’t angry as he did the right thing.
He was right in a way of accusing her for running away. She’s proven guilty and so I can’t take her side. Besides, it’s a Dad-daughter-family-society thing that I can’t nose about.
Teju knew what she did was wrong. She lowered her head without any more squabble.
“How did you get the heart to abandon us and be on your own with all this sickness?” he asked, a few drops of tears descending down his cheeks, “Now, I’m the bad guy, isn’t it?”
Just like me, her parents too must’ve been through a torment. One can’t deny that point. I knew some decency to play the quiet type and not hinder his conversation.
Parental fondness – I’d like to term it.
Her Mom placed a hand on him, while he still fumed. His eyes burnt red in anger.
I knew how this scene would end. The usual Daddy-Daughter hugging moment!
The cliché repeats itself in any and every sentimental movie, be it Bollywood or Kollywood or any vernacular movie in India.
“Do you know what this society has branded us with?” he continued.
What! Hasn’t he forgiven his daughter yet?
He was still holding onto his societal status and losing out on familial status.
“This isn’t going to work out,” Teju said, facing me.
“What isn’t?” I wondered.
“Pa,” she spoke in an indomitable voice, “Cling onto your society as long as you want. If you’re not gonna forgive me, fine. Anyway, I never planned to stick around with you either.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t,” he retorted.
But his wife was.
“Are you gonna run away again?” she asked perplexed.
“I’m gonna marry Vinay, if he still wishes to.”
I blinked my eyes rapidly in flabbergast.
“Hey!” she called out to me affectionately.
“Yes! Yes!” I said in merriment.
I couldn’t believe for a second of the happenings around me.
She looked straight into my eyes and Jacob’s words from Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ echoed in my ears – ‘And then, it’s not the gravity that’s holding you anymore. She’s the one holding you. You’d do anything to protect her.’
But, I needed to do this the proper way.
I went near her Dad and asked, “Sir, would you like to give your daughter’s hand in marriage to me?”
“Teju, we sacrificed our desires, food, purchases to get you educated in a reputed School and College. Is this how you repay us during your last days?” her Mom asked.
“Ah! You did all this to get a fair return from me, isn’t it?” Teju fought back.
“Teju, that’s what every parent will expect. Don’t blame her for it,” I said.
“Vinay, you’re taking her side,” she said, placing a hand on head, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this.”
She paced back and forth.
“Step into her shoes too,” I said, placing my hands on her shoulders.
“Take your hands off my daughter!” her Mom yelled.
“So, you don’t want us now?” Dad spoke.
“It’s not like I don’t need you now. It’s more of like I’m sick of living a life for you. All these years..” she paused, “Pa, when I look back I see that I haven’t lived for myself. I decided it was about time I did so. That’s why I took off on my own.”
“Make it simple. Say those words – You hate us, we who brought you up with such tender love and did the right thing for you,” he scoffed.
“Right thing? Oh! Praise yourself! Did you ask me once if that’s the life I wanted? You asked me to do MBA, I did. You asked me not to hang out with friends, I did. You didn’t even allow me to gorge on the simplest pleasures of my life. Chocolates? No! Ice-creams? No! A Scooty? No! For every little happiness I yearned for, you said ‘No!’ My signature? I sign the way you want me to. I can’t even have freedom to design my own signature!” Teju broke down.
“We did everything for your betterment,” her Mom stated.
“Stop saying that! I didn’t enjoy what every child had when I was their age. You robbed my childhood Ma! You wanted to bring me up as posh. But, all I wanted was to go out and play in the street, mingle with people and explore.”
“Enough!” her Dad ordered.
“No, it’s not enough,” she said shaking her head, “You think I’m never being gratuitous? Huh?”
Teju was in full form. I realised she wasn’t gonna compromise this moment.
“I studied what you wanted me to! I’m doing a job I dislike, just because you are happy with it. This is just not me! Not the Tejashwini I wanted to see six years back! No! This ain’t my dream at all!”
She unzipped her rucksack and pulled out a book, saying, “This is me!”
From the way she was expressing herself, I expected her to throw the book on her Dad’s face. But, she knew better behaviour.
She thrust it into him and I angled myself to get a better view of it, while her Mom retraced her steps back to her husband.
“Slices of my life,” I read out the book’s title aloud and then I gasped.
“You.. you wrote that book?” I asked, startled, looking at her name printed in bold black beneath the title.
“Whoa, at last you turned a writer!” I said covering my mouth in awe.
Then, turning to her parents, she said, “The first copy of the book. It’ll be out in the bookstores in a few days. It’ll be my first and last book. This,” she nudged her finger forcefully on the book, “is my dream come true.”
Let me just brief you through the aftermath of Teju’s counter-responses to her parents as I guess, an in-depth detail would only make you hate her parents more.
Her parents still refused to agree to our wedding as they wanted to spend time with their daughter during those last days. But, the best part is, they realised their mistake of having coerced her to do things she disliked.
But, Teju had her way.
With some sort of undue influence, we both managed to convince our parents who halfheartedly agreed to our wedding.
It wasn’t a grand celebration though. Just with the blessings of loved ones.
However, her health worsened day by day.
I took medical leave of over a month from my office and took all due care.
She hid all her pain from me, every morning I woke up next to her.
“Is it so hard to bear?” I’d ask her, whenever she winced.
“Not when you’re with me,” she’d say caressing my beard.
But, I knew she was rotting inside and that I was incapable of helping her. So were the doctors.
She’d scribble something in a Diary that she maintained, (though she never allowed me to read it) or pencil-sketch something on the scribble-pad.
One day, as I was combing her dying hair, she exclaimed, “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone drew ‘The Last Leaf’ to console me?”
Tears trickled down my cheeks.
She squeezed my hand.
“I’m not in your destiny of togetherness. I’m neither your end nor the beginning,” she said, “I’m just a phase in your life.”
Two months and twelve days later, one rainy morning, I woke Teju up only to find that she had passed away during her slumber.
The week before had been the greatest of all storms she had to face.
“Are you Okay?” I’d ask her.
To which she’d reply, “Never better.”
I had been anticipating the end soon and had prepared myself mentally to deal with the situation when it comes.
Yet, it was a serious blow.
A week of grief later, I tidied up the mess Teju had left behind – her dress and her scent along with it, her favourite books and the favourite lines she had marked in them, her ring and her most precious – her Diary.
My eyes had dried up by then and my heart demanded to read the Diary soon, raising a false assurance that it wouldn’t break further.
She didn’t just leave a few scribbled pieces in her Diary; she left every piece of the last few months of her life etched in it, since the day she ran away from home.
She had visited the Northern parts of India mostly and her first trip was to ‘Jammu and Kashmir’. You’d wonder why. I did too.
Her Diary answers (I guess she knew I’d read it one day eventually):
May 23, Friday.
‘The northern borders that outline India doesn’t just belong as a part of our map, it outlines and borders, protecting the rest of the nation. I mean the soldiers. The military Jawans out there, surviving through the heat, dust and snow are the real heroes. If they’re ready to die for the sake of the nation without committing any sin, let me stop worrying about why God bestowed me with cancer. I realise now, just like the soldiers fight against the enemy, He wanted me to battle against my weakness and find my inner self, if not for the nation, for me.’
She had then traversed through Delhi, Rajasthan, Punjab, Shillong, Shimla and other states she had found appealing to her senses.
She had stated that she didn’t have enough currency to fly abroad.
Her words had a profound effect on me. Her lines sent a shiver down my spine.
June 24, Wednesday.
‘I smell the air of freedom.
The lanes of Rajasthan are so dusty and I see kids playing happily. I can hear their joyous chaos, their shouts, laughter, bad nick-names. A smile spreads over my face. I got onto my feet and then played with those kids. I laughed happily, so freely, not constrained by anyone. I’m living my childhood now! Hurray!
I wish Vinay could see me now. He’d be so over-whelmed.
I miss that idiot!
I do, a lot.
But, I must help him learn how his world would be, when I’d be soon gone.’
Don’t assume she had been strong throughout her journey. She had had her bad days too. She quotes on one such incident.
July 4, Tuesday.
‘The night’s so dark here. So are my hidden scars. That insecure feeling I had when my parents had assured me I’m living my dream (which sure isn’t mine) is now garbling and engulfing me.
My stomach hurts.
I can sense those cancerous cells eating away my intestines.
And the best part is, I’m smiling.
Death was the only thing I yearned for so much. Finally, here’s my blessing.
But when Vinay stepped into my life, I was wondering if I should love ‘Death’ a bit less than him. However, they had a parallel connection. I loved them both equally. I’ve often wondered why I still embraced ‘Death’ even after finding a reason to live – my Love, Vinay.
Maybe because I kept thinking I’d never make it big in life?
Or because of my worries about facing my parents’ decision?
Whatever, Vinay, this is for you – “Meet me when you’re done with the world. You’ll still find me waiting.”’
I can only deliberate.
I walked into her life, fought for her till the very end. To be her hero, I did numerous odd things. In my bitter coffee, I mixed her sorrow to make her smile again.
“You’re my hero. I love you,” she had confessed.
Yet, I ponder, was she a coward to praise Death to be her real hero?
Her last travel entry –
August 21, Saturday.
Today is my birthday!
I miss my parents and Vinay and my three idiotic friends.
I gave a gift to myself today.
A return ticket to Bangalore.
Doctors have replied in the negative concerning my health and persuaded me to accept the fact that I needed to be taken care of from now on.
But, the real gift is that, I’m gonna first see Vinay.
He was the kind of poetry that almost everyone failed to understand. But, when I did, I fell in love with him.
I wish he knew this.
He wasn’t a psycho like people who stole his shadow said.
He was and can only be ‘my’ lovely idiot.
This is gonna be my last travel entry. I’m gonna meet Vinay, yay!!!!
I do pray like every other lonely night I spent the last Eight months and twenty two nights that he’d still ask me to marry him.
(God, please, there’s no other person whom I wanted to be with the most. Help us rejoin.)
I’m leaving out all the travelogues she had written in her Diary as they’ve been well portrayed in her autobiographical book – ‘Slices of my life’.
Teju inspired me through her very few scribbled sentences that travelling helps one unravel history, myth, literature, love and life. Travel can be the best experience and in turn the best Teacher.
So, I resigned my job and am travelling light to the places she had wanted to visit. I do some odd jobs and spend the money for the rest of my journey. Her Diary is the only piece I cherish the most.
But I do have my own pieces of writing every now and then –
August 6, Sunday.
‘It’s my first birthday without you, Teju.
A lifeless birthday, I’d call, but a meaningful travel.
Yet one lesson I learnt during this sojourn –
When you were with me, it was as warm as a campfire in the winter. But, now, it burns, burns with intensity more than a forest fire.
Oh, please come back, my love.’