Friday, March 10, 2017


Men at work - de-silting the well, taking out the sludge, servicing our source of water
It's not a pleasant job. I didn't realise someone was inside the well, to fill the bucket with the sludge. Unsung heroes

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Invitation

Sangeetha stood behind the mike and matched the scale given by the orchestra. The music director waved his hand and the orchestra began. Getting her cue, Sangeetha closed her eyes and began singing, her concentration only on the tune, the beat and the pitch.

When the song ended, there was total silence - she was used to it. She opened her eyes, and the applause from the director and the other assistants began. She smiled a half smile, inclined her head and stepped out of the studio.

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Friend In-Debt

Madhumita saw the caller's name - Leela. Her best friend, her childhood friend. And yet... she felt her heart tightening at the prospect of speaking to her. Reluctantly, she took the call. "Hi Leela, how are you?"

"Good. I have been wanting to talk to you for so long. But you never call!" Leela grumbled.

"I was planning to..."

"Busy, always busy. I don't know with what!?" Leela complained tersely.

Madhu rolled her eyes and said softly, "You know how it is. My work, yoga in the evening, managing the house..."

"And your treatment!!!" Leela added before Madhu could complete. Madhu was stunned and kept quiet. "Yes, you didn't tell me, but your mother did... I am going to take you to the best gynec there..."

"No, really!" Madhu tried to discourage her but Leela wouldn't listen. "If you were in Delhi, I would know whom to go to. But I have found a very highly recommended fertility expert. I am coming with Rashmi next week and take you to him..." Rashmi was Leela's one year old daughter.

"Really, Leela, there is no need. I am going to a good doctor and that's fine."

"Yes, but not the best!" Leela said without any room for negotiation.

Madhu rolled her eyes, resenting this intrusion. Samarth and she had been trying for a baby for the last two years without success. She was already stressed, and now she didn't want Leela complicating her life. But would that girl understand and respect her wish?

Leela was the daughter of an industrialist, Bhaskar, in whose company Madhu's father Jaidev worked. When the company went through difficult times, Leela was not even aware. Her father would not let her daughter be denied any luxury - be it the expensive schooling she received, expensive gifts or toys... Jaidev was forced to do so, though.

"What! You get to change your school! How cool is that!" had been Leela's remarkable reaction. "Dad, I want to change schools too! Make new friends! I will be stuck to this place forever otherwise!!!" Her father obliged immediately and she was enrolled in the school with Madhu. But within a month, she couldn't stand the very bourgeois crowd. "I want to go back," she screamed and brought the roof down. "I want Madhu also to come back..." she insisted once she was returned to the fold. Bhaskar obliged, stretching his already stretched means and funding Madhu's education too. Jaidev felt obliged to Bhaskar forever. But what about Madhu?

"She would have died of boredom in that school! Oh my god! Imagine, with none of us to keep her company!!!" Leela held public discourses for close to a year. Madhu felt her gratitude turning sour and wished she could return to that very bourgeois school, if only to escape Leela's boasting.

When Samarth joined the next year - they were in X at that time - Madhu did feel the gratitude return. Samarth was shy, quiet, and bullied by the other boys. Madhu tried defending him, but realised that it was harming him more for being defended by a girl. That angered him and he avoided her. Miserable, Madhu kept to her work and friends. She was both gratified and disappointed to see him become one of the most popular boys in the class because he was good at sports and in academics.

Leela complained, "Samarth seems interested only in girls who are into sports. You are so lucky that you play volleyball well! Coach me in the game," she demanded.

Any other reason, Madhu would have obliged. But to win over Samarth? Not at all! "You need a proper coach," she dismissed her friend, and was horrified to see her get one.

"But I can't play alone with the coach. At least in the initial days, Madhu has to be there... In fact, the entire volleyball team from my class can get trained by this coach," Leela insisted. Madhu couldn't help but notice that Leela had cunningly made Samarth also a part of her training team.

Now she was in a dilemma about whether to go or not. Her father made it easy for her. "I don't think you should be going for this," he ordered.

"I will," she rebelled and went.

"I knew, darling, that you will come. It is a great opportunity that you couldn't have afforded," Leela welcomed her with open arms and a barbed tongue. Madhu wanted to walk away, but feared her father taunting her about this for the rest of her life. And so she stuck around.

The coach had not expected much from this mixed group, and was stunned to see how well some of them played. He identified three boys and two girls, Madhu and Samarth included, for playing in the under-19, inter club competition. "What a lucky break!" Leela congratulated. "Good thing you came today!" Yes, she cheered the people who were selected and gave an elaborate party since she felt somehow it was she who was responsible for this good break.

Samarth indeed found himself bound to Leela, whom he thought was his Lady Luck. Madhu watched them jealously, but decided he was not worth crying over if this is what it took to win his attention. She could never match it anyway. Still, the heart will play by its own rules, and it did cry.

Because of their good academic performance, passing in the entrance with flying colours as well as their sports achievements, Samarth and Madhu got admission in the best engineering college. Leela, despite all the tantrum she threw and the money power, could not get it in the same college. She went to the best that money could buy, probably better than theirs, but was unhappy. "Madhu, my father will sponsor you. You join my college," she told her friend confidently.

"No thanks, I am doing what I want, here," Madhu dissuaded her firmly.

As Leela watched Madhu and Samarth becoming closer and closer, she made sure Madhu remembered her indebtedness more and more.

"Samarth and I are just friends," Madhu tried to assure her more than once. For Samarth still held a candle for Leela. But Leela, used to undivided attention, was alarmed by the strong bond these two shared. "That's because we have a lot in common, Leela," Madhu reasoned. She herself wished for the relationship to move to the next level, but was disappointed at how steadfast Samarth was towards Leela. It was even hard to bitch about her to him when she was annoyed. "She is insecure, that's all," he said with characteristic generosity.

Leela was the happiest when Samarth moved to a different city to work. And very upset when she came to know that Madhu and he kept in touch. But he knew how to handle her too. "Madhu is forever grateful to you for your timely help... Don't spoil it by being mean to her..."

"No, I won't be... He is right," Leela assured Madhu when showing her the message. "Isn't he just wonderful? I am so glad he and I are a couple. Both of us have your interest in our hearts," she said. Madhu inwardly rolled her eyes and decided to snap all ties. One was bad enough, two would be unbearable. She wanted Samarth's love, not his pity.

She left his messages unanswered. She didn't call or return his calls. When he stood in front of her in her office one afternoon, she thought she was hallucinating.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded without preliminaries.

"I haven't come for an interview and I don't know anyone else here... Then it must be to meet you!"

She got up and guided him to the canteen. "I didn't know you were coming."

"You would have had you seen my messages."

She mechanically looked at her phone. 223 unread messages from him in the last six months.

"Something happened and you just shut up. Now, I respect that. But I think I deserve to know what it is."

She felt tired. "There was nothing. Just projects and deadlines... And I am preparing for MBA."

"Story of my life. So why is it easy for me to send you a message a day but not for you to respond?"

"I don't know," she said and got up. He grasped her hand. "Madhu, don't leave me hanging like this! It was hard for me to take this break, but I have come to see you."

She jerked her hand free and laughed wryly. "Really? What does Leela have to say about it?"

"About what?"

"About your coming to meet me?"

He was silent, unable to answer. "Oh, by the way, thank you for giving me a character certificate to remain in her good books. I can't tell you how indebted I am to the two of you for keeping my best interests at heart."

He took a deep breath and got up. "I see..." And he was off, just like that...

Leela stormed into her house that evening. "When Samarth and you are having a good time, Madhu, remember to thank me. I cannot hold what is not mine, but remember that if he is yours, it is because I am letting him go without a fight," she declared with angry tears flowing down her cheeks and left immediately after, leaving a speechless Madhu behind.

But Samarth did not contact her, let alone propose. Leela remained cut off. Had Leela exaggerated a lover's quarrel and raised false hopes? Were they reconciled? Madhu couldn't focus on work or her preparations.

Finally, unable to stand the suspense, she messaged Samarth, "Sorry. I was upset."

No reply, just as she deserved, expected and feared.

When he stood again in front of her the next week, she started crying unmindful of her colleagues who shared her bay. Well... All is well that ends well. They married three years later, and had been married now for three years. "You have only me to thank," Leela said when Madhu handed her the invitation personally.

Madhu leaned forward and hugged her. "Yes Leela, I have only you to thank for my education, my sports, my husband... Every thing that matters to me is because of you"

"Don't be in a hurry to thank me! I am sure we are not done yet," Leela said, not without irony. Madhu laughed, glad that she did not begin her married life with the burden of Leela's ill will.

Of course, that feeling did not last. Many of their common friends knew about Samarth and Leela's long courtship. Leela was not above letting go of the opportunity. "I couldn't stand in her way, could I, when she seemed so deeply in love with him?" By the end of the wedding ceremonies, Madhu was totally fed up and didn't think she would look back to her wedding day with any special fondness. It was Samarth's good humour that had seen her through the day!

And now, this stress about not being able to conceive... Madhu sometimes wondered whether her childlessness was because of Leela, who herself had married and delivered a child within a year. Madhu dismissed those thoughts as mean and superstitious, but it recurred often.

She had not been keen on keeping in touch with Leela. And though Leela promised never to call again since Madhu herself never initiated a conversation, she couldn't seem to keep her promise! And now this trip! Madhu couldn't even wish for Leela's plan to fail! She just wished the trip would get cancelled.

She welcomed Leela and Rashmi with a warm smile when they came the week after. The next few days, Leela made sure that the purpose of her visit was not neglected. She fixed an appointment with the famous doctor, arranged for the treatment and was by Madhu's side, sometimes leaving Rashmi with Samarth.

Nothing helped, though. Madhu's body continued to reject any attempts at impregnation. Added to that, her failure in front of Leela humiliated her deeply. "Please leave, Leela... Whatever will be, will be," she told her friend in various tones, only to be met by stubborn refusal.

Leela's husband Guru joined them at the end of two months. When Leela talked of coming back in six months again, Madhu erupted angrily, "Just leave me alone, will you?"

"Yes, for now," Leela replied calmly. "But... I will be back," she said dramatically.

When they left that morning to catch the flight, Madhu leaned on Samarth and cried. "Madhu, I don't know why you torture yourself like this. I told you, I am fine even if we don' have children..."

"But I am not," Madhu retorted.

"Let's adopt..."

"Please Sam... Let's not talk about it right now..."

The phone rang. "Madam, there's been an accident..."

The car Leela and her family had been traveling in had met with an accident. Madhu and Samarth rushed to the government hospital to claim the bodies of Guru and Leela, who had died instantly. They traced Rashmi in the nearby police station. The child had had a miraculous escape, cushioned by her mother's body, and sat crying amidst strangers who were trying their best to placate her.

Seeing Samarth, the child toddled forward on unsteady legs and clung to him as they rushed about to complete the formalities.

Bhaskar - Leela's father, now an old man in his 60s - and Guru's father came down for taking the body with them to Delhi. Rashmi seemed to have forgotten her grandparents in the last two months of being away and wouldn't let go of Samarth. Madhu tried to prise the child's fingers free, but realised that Samarth too was reluctant to let go.

Bhaskar placed a gentle hand on Madhu and said softly, "We are old people and may not be able to take care for Rashmi well. Rashmi seems to have taken to you both well... Leela too would have wanted you to bring her child up..."

He looked at Guru's father, who nodded with tears in his eyes.

Madhu's eyes welled up. This time, she could not even say thank you to her friend. She would have preferred Leela tom-tomming her generosity yet again. The silence was deafening.
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