Don’t go far off, not even for a day, because,
because, I don’t know how to say it:a day is long
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.
Don’t leave me, even for an hour, because
then the little drops of anguish will all run together,
the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
into me, choking my lost heart.
Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;
may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.
Don’t leave me for a second, my dearest,
because in that moment you’ll have gone so far
I’ll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?
June, 15th, 2014.
Central African Republic,
Nineteen civilians, including three Central African MSF staff members, were killed during an armed robbery on the grounds of MSF’s hospital in the northern town of Boguila, on June 13, 2014. After this tragedy, MSF reduced its activities to essential services only. The risks associated with delivering medical and humanitarian aid in strife-torn areas of the world remain high.
MSF: Head of Staff: “This appalling incident has forced us to withdraw key staff and suspend activities in Boguila. While we remain committed to providing humanitarian assistance to the community, we also have to take into account the safety of our staff.
This was the news that greeted Arnav from airport TV screens even as he passed through immigration and customs and emerged into the startling bright sunshine of Central Africa.
His chest constricted painfully and his face turned ashen. With superhuman strength, he found his name among a sea of waving name-cards. The hotel he had booked a room in provided airport pickup service which seemed like a blessing in a strange land with unfamiliar language.
When he asked his suspiciously underage appearing driver, who spoke in broken English, to take him to the MSF hospital first, he’d agreed without demur, earnestly assuring him of his familiarity with the exact location of the hospital.
With his luggage stowed in trunk, he settled back in an antiquated model of Fiat, his eyes swirling with prayers behind the aviators, his heart pounding with fear.
That thirty minute ride to the hospital plus the time it took to be assured of Dr. Gupta’s safety were some of the worst moments of his life.
On the way to the hotel, as he sagged with tiredness, hunger and relief, there were two predominant thoughts in his mind, both of them supremely angry.
“This was your last MSF appointment, Dr. Gupta, I’m going to make sure it is”
The second thought was in response to a tip he was given by a friendly staff member regarding Dr. Gupta’s current whereabouts.
“What the fuck are you doing in India now?
To his credit, these thoughts were immediately followed by a humble reminder that he probably deserved this wild goose chase. With a sigh, he croseed his arms and gazed at dusk dropping on the run-down town of Boguila.
Later in the evening in his hotel room, after several failed attempts to call Anita to confirm Khushi’s presence in India, Arnav sank down in an arm chair dejectedly.
It was just as well that fate took pity on him at that point and decided to lessen his misery by sending serendipity his way.
It was Aakash choosing that day and time to face time him. It didn’t really surprise him at first. It was something they’d been doing regularly since Tampa in an effort to maintain with their long overdue reconnection.
“Guess where I’m calling from”, he said with obvious delight even as sounds of his mom talking to someone wafted in from the background as did the sound of laughing children, traffic and rain.
It wasn’t that hard to guess.
“India”, Arnav replied, “What are you doing there? Visiting family?
“Yes, I’m here with Ma to help take care of some business for her. Just some property in Lucknow that she wanted to sell. Considering the amount of help she has here, I don’t even know why she wanted me by her side. Anyway, I’m enjoying this break”.
“Is Payal with you too?
“Nope. She’s pregnant so didn’t want to travel”.
“Congratulations. When are you guys due?, Arnav asked perfunctorily with his head throbbing, when the realization sank in.
Akash was in India.
Sitting up straight, Arnav cut him off in mid sentence.
“Have you any idea where Khushi is right now?
His voice sounded odd and it made Aakash pause and stare at him with half puzzlement, half curiosity.
“Khushi, as in my cousin, Khushi?
“Yup”, Arnav replied tersely, rubbing the evening shadow on his jaw with one hand.
“Of course, I know where she is. Allahabad”, Aakash replied with his eyes narrowed, “A short drive from Lucknow”.
“What is she doing there?, exclaimed a normally impassive Arnav, his eyes vexed at the prospect of another long air travel in front of him.
“Visiting her Maasi’s house for a cousin’s wedding”, Aakash said, looking surprised at his tone, “In fact we just talked a few hours back. She’s fine. She was supposed to be on an MSF assignment which got called off due to security concerns, so instead of going back to US, she decided to join Anita for the wedding. I think the assignment was somewhere in Africa. I forgot the name of the place”.
“Boguila, Central African Republic”, Arnav supplied drily.
“How are you so sure?
“Because that’s where I am right now”, replied Arnav, his face regaining it’s normal impassivity
“Alright, Arnav. I think you have a lot of explaining to do. Start from the beginning”.
Three days later,
Khushi got out of the bed with a splitting headache. Her eyes burnt and her throat felt like sandpaper. With much of the night spent in weaving thoughts around Arnav, Khushi had woken up sick and furious with both herself and Arnav.
Taking care not to wake up either Isha or Anita, whom she shared a large double-bed with, she stepped up to the wardrobe and slid open it’s door.
Her eyes simmered with anger and determination as she found her handbag and fished out a small object from it.
After a moment’s hesitation, she went to the door and opened it. As she stepped out into the spacious drawing plus dining area, she could hear quiet voices coming from Sumita Masi’s room. They were mixed with the tickings of a clock and faint chirping of birds outside.Watery sunshine streaked in through the crack in the curtains behind the piano.
She paused for a second, thinking how similar they sounded to her own parents. Her heart squeezed with a bittersweet longing at their thought…
Just like her parents did every morning, her uncle and aunt enjoyed their daily bed-tea with companionable silence, groggy conversation, lightly buttered rusks and newspapers.
Khushi opened the front door and stepped out into the verandah. Into nascent sunshine and birdsong filled air. It was the first cloudless morning in weeks and nature seemed to be reveling in it.
The early morning breeze had an after-the-rains crispness. It ruffled Khushi’s hair as she strode down a gravel path towards the back of the house, still clad in a T-shirt and pajamas.
Last night’s raindrops still clung to Gulmohar trees that flanked the narrow path on one side. They glinted in the sun, sprinkling on Khushi with every gust. Lost in tumultuous thoughts, she didn’t notice.
She’d soon reached the large kitchen garden at the back. The reek of wet earth and vegetation encompassed her, evoking half forgotten childhood moments.
Rajveer, their septuagenarian mali , who’d been with the family for decades, looked up from a bed of cucumbers and mixed gourds after hearing her feet on wet gravel.
“Do you want something, Khushi beta?, he asked, his face wrinkling in a smile. He and Khushi shared a friendship of sorts. It had built slowly over scores of childhood summers spent playing in his garden. When Khushi and her cousins lent a sympathetic ear to his waxing eloquent, in chaste Awadhi, on topics as varied as the curse of arthritis, the fickleness of weather, the wickedness of new fangled foreign fertilizers, various conspiracy theories concerning seeds from Cheen and Amreeka, and his grandson who showed every sign of flowering into another Tendulkar; they were rewarded with his permission to maintain tiny patches of personalized kitchen gardens.
“No”, she smiled in reply, the stress on her face dissolving momentarily with memories “I was just taking a walk”.
She turned around, her fingers tightening around what her fist held. After briskly walking for a couple of feet, she turned around a corner and came across a heap of leaves, pruned out branches and garden waste under a tall jamun tree.
She came to a standstill under it, her heart thudding painfully. She didn’t even notice the rain swollen jamuns littering the ground. Normally, she would’ve reflexely bent to pick some.
As she hesitated for a moment, that woman’s image, her voice…drifted to her.
Her eyes flashed with fury. She let her fingers relax, letting that little shikara fall on the garbage heap below.
She walked away with warm tears smarting her eyes and thoughts of a hundred terrible things happening to that little boat perversely hounding her mind.
She had almost reached the verandah when with a muttered profanity she turned and rushed back to it.
Oblivious to a pair of curious dark eyes watching her from a window, she picked it up again and looked around confusedly with tears raining from her eyes.
She needed this closure, she told herself.
A tall bottle brush tree caught her eye. It’s gnarled trunk had a small knothole which the cousins had once named Boo’s hole after the famous character from To Kill A Mockingbird.
And that’s where she rested the boat before turning her back to it, trying to convince herself that she’d just closed a chapter in her life.
At the same time
Like a serpent, the blue and white train slithered across the monsoon-lush plain rhythmically rolling from side to side. Skirting around undulating hills, passing by waterlogged paddy fields, crossing bridges over swollen rivers. Villages with mud-houses, hamlets and slums with graffitied walls, desolate platforms of unknown stations , never-ending array of electric poles and cables…all flashed past the train windows whilst rain thundered and bounced off of the curved roof and ran down the window panes in thick, relentless streams.
Leaning against the doorjamb, Arnav let strong winds ruffle his hair into disarray. The train had slowed down for no apparent reason, as had the rain, and the clouds cracked allowing sunshine to escape in columns of golden vapor.
With his eyes soaking in the slowly shifting landscape, he puffed a cigarette desultorily. It was a guilty pleasure he’d struggled against for years and had last renounced at the time of Aarav’s birth. That had been his longest period of abstinence which had lasted for over four years.
To a casual observer, his face appeared serene and contemplative but a slanting beam of sunlight illumining his features revealed evidence of some hard years. Echoes of choices, ripples of vicissitude, blaze of ordeals.
Yet, despite it all there was an unknown quality in his bloodshot eyes that spoke of strength and a man’s quiet determination to rise and begin again. It spoke of the invincibility of the human spirit and of that whole that emerges greater than the sum of all parts.
He straightened as the train shuddered and clanked into an unexpected halt in the middle of remote countryside. The sudden yearning in his heart was like a physical pain.