“Lets meet at 8 pm, the usual place. Okay?” Shalin chirped happily into her mobile phone as she stepped into the local train. Talking to Abi was always a pleasure and she would cherish every moment of their meetings. It had been more than two years since she first met him, but his presence still had the same strange effects on her. Her cheeks would warm up, her palms would perspire, and her heart would skip a beat and then double its beat after every memory. She loved the way he winked after his every joke, she loved the way he moved his head, slightly inclined, listening attentively to her every word. She loved the way he teased her. He made her feel so special, holding on to her arm, protecting her in that special way. As the train began to move, she adjusted her dhupatta over her shoulder, walked carefully into the train compartment and plopped into a space between two ladies. The trains at this hour were always packed and she was lucky to find a room.
‘Tonight, after dinner, I shall ask him to come to meet my parents’ she thought as she surveyed the train compartment. The compartment was full of ladies and children. All the seats were tightly occupied, and there were many ladies, who stood unsteadily in double rows. There was not enough room for them to stand and they kept swaying from side to side as they held on to the handle, on the bar above, while clutching their handbag with the other hand. Her attention was diverted by shrill cry of a blinded beggar singing a Bollywood tune. Some women took turns to stretch their arms to place few coins into his outstretched palm. A lady on her right was busy rummaging through the box of assorted clips and ear rings. A youth had squeezed his way through the crowd and had dumped the box of his wares onto her lap. In Mumbai, the local trains may be packed with flesh to flesh, but still; beggars and vendors always managed to find their way in.
Shalin found herself focusing on a dandy long earring in the box containing the wares. The red stone shone so brightly. ‘Maybe I could wear it today, I am sure Abi will love it’ she thought as she remembered how Abi always commented on everything that she wore. Whenever they met, he always started a conversation with a flattering compliment. He would comment on everything. On the color of her lipstick, on her new sari, on her attitude, he had commented each time. She selected one dangling ear ring with the red stone, from the box of wares and paid the youth ‘Today he might as well compliment me on this ear ring,’ she thought as she smiled at the kid, who was sitting at the far end by the window seat.
As she glanced beyond the window, she realized that she was nearing the station where she had to get off. It would take quite an effort to mill through this crowd to go towards exit. Slowly, she snaked through the crowd, left, right, sideways, pushing a little, sometimes a shuffle. Finally, reaching the doorway, she held on to the steel rod. ‘Abi, I am so excited, I am sure my parents will be so happy to meet you’ she found herself almost screaming as she waited patiently for the train to stop, bathing in the cool air that was blowing against her face. She started to whistle beneath her breath.
Then suddenly, she heard the loud bang. The sound so deafening loud that she could feel her ear drums burst. Her firm grip on the steel rod loosened, and she felt her body swayed out, with a sudden jolt, somersault twice up into the air, and drop down lifelessly on to the railway tracks. She heard the loud thud as her body hit the ground. The pain was exuberant. As she slowly opened her eyes, she looked at her mangled body. Her clothes were tattered, exposing her bare body, drenched in blood. She could barely move her arms. Her feet were like two logs of blood. She lay helplessly in the pool of blood, rich red blood. She hated this red color of blood. Red color can be so painful! It hurts so much. The hot tears blinded her eyes. Her head ached. The pain was too intense to bear. There was too much noise around her, people shouting, children crying, loud sirens, too much noise, and people running in all directions, calling out names. Then she felt ten pairs of hands trying to lift her body. She heard them faintly say something about some bomb blast. She didn’t care any more. ‘I wonder if I will meet you tonight. I don’t think I can, forgive me Abi, I really cannot’ she said for one more time as silence engulfed her and then darkness.
Abi sat at his desk, sketching a doodle. He often did that while he waited for the site to open during surfing of the net. The computer was so damn slow. He had to finish the assignment today and give his presentation the next day. ‘I don’t think I will be able to keep my appointment at 8 pm with Shalin today. I have got to complete this assignment on time’ he thought. ‘Maybe I should ask Riya to help me with this assignment.’ He grinned as he looked at the far corner of the office. Riya sat just few tables away, and she was a great company. He trusted his pal Riya to help him in such times. She was always wired to the radio station even while she was working. She loved to listen to music at the FM station. She would forward him messages of some silly jokes all the time. During lunch hour, they would share the meals in the office cafeteria. Sometimes they discussed office politics, other times he would help her to cope with stress related work. He often talked about Shalin. He had showed her the latest photograph of Shalin in his wallet. Riya would listen attentively as he ranted about Shalin endlessly. Abi could always rely on Riya. She had never let him down.
The beep on his mobile distracted him. There was a new message from Riya again. He looked slyly across to Riya giving her the smile as he read the message. ‘Hey..There has been a Bomb blast in the local train just now. I just heard it on radio’ As the message sank in, his smile faded. He jumped from his seat and took swift steps to reach Riya’s desk.
‘What are you saying? A bomb blast? In the train? When? Where? Are you sure?’ he was almost screaming now as he bend over and leaned against her chair..
Riya was surprised by his sudden outburst “Yeah…but…that’s what they said so on the radio….uh…..why are you so upset?” she stammered.
“Damn….thirty minutes ago, Shalin had called me. I hope Shalin was not in the train. Oh God, I hope she is safe. She had promised to meet me at 8 pm.” He paced up and down the office, breaking his knuckles and pursing his lips. There was too much commotion in the room by now. All the other people in the office had left their desk and were now surrounding Abi. Everybody was talking at once.
‘Hey Abi, what’s wrong?’
‘Shalin? Who is Shalin?’
‘Bomb Blast!..Oh No!’
“In the train? How many blasts did you say?”
‘Why don’t call her on her mobile?’
He dialed her number but there was no answer. He felt the droplet of perspiration on his eyebrow
“I am going to look for her” he said as he loosened his tie and rushed to his desk to get his car keys.
“Wait Abi, I will come with you” shouted Riya as she hurriedly collected her handbag and ran behind him.
As they drove down the streets, he kept muttering under his breath. At every signal, large crowd of people kept banging on the glass window asking for lift. There were many people walking on the streets looking for transport to ferry them home. Abi reached the station and went to look on the railway tracks. There were cops and people running. He passed the bloody limbs on the tracks. There was blood everywhere. Some men were carrying the injured on their backs. Some were carrying in the bed sheets. Wounded people were being transported to the nearby hospitals in ambulances and in private cars. But there was no sign of Shalin anywhere. He dialed Shalin’s mobile once again but there was no reply.
‘Maybe we should check in the hospitals” suggested Riya, as he returned to the car. They drove for nearly two hours on the crowded streets and visited four hospitals, each time looking through the list of injured personals and showing Shalin’s picture from his wallet to every doctor and nurse.
It was nearly 2 am, as they entered yet another hospital. Abi flashed Shalin’s photograph at the reception and narrated the description.
“I think there is one lady that fits your description, maybe you can have a look. We are looking for her relative. We have no clue about her identity.” said the nurse as she looked closely at the picture.
“Oh really” Abi’s face brightened up as he hurriedly followed the nurse into the ICU ward.
As they entered the ICU ward, amidst the array of tubes and machines, he saw her bandaged form beneath the white sheet. He instantly recognized her even before he actually saw her. Contented relief flashed an instant smile. Tears of joy rolled down his cheeks as he held on to Riya. Slowly they approached her bedside and looked at her bruised face.
“Thank God, You are safe” he whispered, as he caressed Shalin’s bandaged long fingers and waited for her to open her eyes.
Shalin sipped her coffee, as she stared at the string of yellow flowers dangling down the branch. The cool breeze was soothing. She loved to come here most evenings in this open-air coffee shop in the centre of the park. There were lots of people walking along the jogging track. A group of children played happily in a small island of sand pit. She loved to watch the young couples walk hand in hand. She loved to see the way they clung on to each other. It brought back the memories of her long walks down the sea shore with Abi. It seemed such a long time ago.
Shalin took another sip of the cooling coffee as she saw the yellow flower slip off the tree and fall on the ground and mingle with hundreds of yellow multi shaped flowers. It made such an intricate design on the ground with few dead leaves spread randomly in the thick carpet of yellow flowers and green leaves. His mind drifted back to Abi. How much she missed him. It was almost twenty years since she last saw him. Life had been so pleasant before that day of Mumbai’s serial bomb blast. Tragic disaster of one careless day had changed her life forever.
Abi and Riya had visited her regularly in the hospital. But the hospital stay had been so long. It seemed to last forever. She could still visualize his shocked expression when he had seen the empty space between her white sheets. Both her legs had to be amputated. Doctors told him it was necessary to sacrifice legs if she had to live. She had felt so sorry for herself. She hated the company of every visitor. Every night, her pillow would be soaked with tears. She dreaded to think about what life is like, depending on others? Life was not worth living. She wished she could end her life.
She was depressed all the time. Her depression increased three-fold as she saw the gradual growth of friendship between Abi and Riya. They always came together to visit her. He never came alone. Always she tagged on. Slowly she saw her love change sides. The flattering compliments, the mischievous wink, the protective arm, those teasing looks, all those loyalties were changing sides. While she lay in the darkness of her room, she would wonder if Riya and Abi were out enjoying the candle light dinner. Strong pangs of jealousy would cripple her heart.
Then one fine day it happened. What she had feared, it happened. Abi and Riya excitedly broke the news to her. They had decided to get married. They wanted her to share their happiness. She wanted to strangle both of them. Well, what could she do? She tried to bring a sweet smile, but it faded behind the curtain of jealousy. She consoled herself that she could not give the happiness that Abi deserved. She would have been an added burden to him. She had loved him too much. She had no right to be selfish. He looked so happy with Riya. Whatever happened was for the best. Life must move on.
As she savored the last sip of the coffee, her eyes dodged the orange light that penetrated through the trees. It was getting late. She had to get ready to go for dinner tonight. Important delegates from Australia were arriving today. Her hard work was finally paying off. Her finance company was going international.
Painlessly, she got up, took her cane and slowly limped on her two metal limbs and stepped into her shiny chauffer driven car.