He stopped dead in his tracks, there she was, the crowded vegetable market was the last place in the world he had expected to see her at, yet there she was…!
It could only be her..
She bent attentively over a heap of lemon and chillies and sorted them with an outstretched forefinger, slender and unadorned. As she picked one lemon at a time and put it with great care inside a small cloth bag hanging precariously from her shoulder, the plastic bangles around her thin wrists jangled. She tied her hair in a messy pony tail and wore a dull cotton salwar. He could catch glimpses of her face from amidst her hair, he had noticed how hollow her cheeks looked.
She was younger than him by about two years; very pretty and sprightly, yet today she looked old and weary. The last time he had seen her was more than fifteen years back yet surprisingly enough it didn’t take him long to identify her amidst the crowded bazaar’s hustle and bustle.
She still retained most of her features. One of his sister’s good friends, she was a rather cheerful and extremely talkative young woman but it was with utmost surprise that he observed how astonishingly different she looked now. She looked grown up, worn-out, afflicted with an untimely maturity.
He hesitated to walk up to her and say hello but there was no telling how she would react. What would he do if she failed to recognise him? What would he do if she did? Would she remember?
As she sat on her hunches haggling with a shopkeeper he noticed a particular refinement in the accent with which she spoke Hindi, quite amusingly though, she failed to conceal it. Her attempts at making her pronunciations as pedestrian as possible amused him even more. Neena was such a delightful mismatch amidst the hordes of sweaty vegetable vendors and Sunday morning shoppers.
At his second beckoning she turned around and looked up at him wide eyed. She unplugged her walkman and staring into his eyes stood up slowly. He could tell she was trying hard to summon up as much recollection about him as possible and he could tell she was struggling with it. Deciding to save her from any further embarrassment he said;
“I am Ram, Nayantara’s elder brother, remember?”
Almost as if in a flash her expression altered and her eyes lit up. With a quivering voice, she exclaimed;
“Oh Ram……how have you been? It’s been……”
“About fifteen years” he interjected, smiling, continuing on his mission to aid her in her struggle down the memory lane.
“Yes Ram, fifteen years, fifteen years is such a long time and gosh you look so different…!”, she chuckled.
“Yeah, I keep getting that a lot and I could say the same about you, so what’s up Neena, never expected to see you here of all people, how is everyone at home?”
“Well, one can never tell where one drifts off to with time, I am doing okay, what’s new with you?”
“I am doing good too, not much of a shopper, dad is inside choosing the fish for today’s lunch and here I am talking to you…..!”
He looked into her eyes and an old, familiar feeling, hidden underneath a decade and a half’s worth of pain and memories began welling up inside him. His Neena stood right there in front of him and he couldn’t decide how to react, what an idiot he was. He wished he could freeze the moment, forget about time, place and consequence and just hold her, hold her close and he could have bet she knew about it and had possibly felt the same way, only, fifteen years back. Breaking the pause Ram asked;
“So Neena, how is everything at home? How are your parents? I hope they’re doing good!”
Neena looked away. She immediately lowered her bag, picked up a handful of chillies and lemon randomly and stuffed them in her bag as if in a great hurry and then pulling out a ten rupee note she paid the vendor and began walking towards the market exit. Ram followed her.
“Neena…Neena what’s wrong?!”
“Nothing, I need to get going now, there’s much work to be done around the house!”
“Tell me please!”
She looked at him as though she wanted to ask him what difference it made to him how her parents were and why at all was he bothered. Where was he all these years? With great difficulty Neena withheld an outburst and contained her tears. Ram waited.
“Papa is no more with us!”
The lump in her throat made it almost impossible for her to speak and she knew she would not be able to hold for long.
“The business wound up because of law suits and we lost our home soon after, one morning we found him in his bedroom…..” tears welled up in her eyes and she began to choke badly;
As shocked as he was, he knew the worst was on its way;
“Rat poison…” was all she could say before she broke down completely.
The words hit Ram with twenty times the force of a speeding train and he stood there, frozen. The mid-day heat burnt his skin and made it impossible to stand inside the stuffy bazaar.
He looked at the frail girl standing before him dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, fighting a brutal battle to control herself, the cloth bag had long slid down her shoulder and now lay near her feet with it’s contents strewn around. Ram bent down to pick up the lemon and chillies and Neena hastily wiped her eyes and joined him.
Suddenly everything about the Neena he saw before him began to make perfect sense and he stood looking at her picking up the last lemon from the ground and dusting it.
“How’s aunty dealing with it?”
“Oh…..”, her voice even more quivery, “……..it hardly made a difference to her, she stopped recognising us, I mean, papa and I about two years back when she suffered her third stroke, it had a permanent damaging effect on her brain. Now she cant move a muscle….I give her a bath every morning, cook for her, feed her, wash the clothes, do the dishes and sweep the house…its all on my shoulders now Ram..”
A smile was something Ram had least expected from her after this but when she did, he couldn’t restrain himself any longer. He advanced towards her to embrace her, to assure her that she was not alone, that he had come, that destiny hadn’t crossed their paths again for nothing, she hesitated, stepping back immediately she looked around uncomfortably. Adjusting her cloth bag she said, “Raghav is waiting outside in the car, I need to get going now.”
“Yes, Raghav, we met last year at JU. He is pursuing the same Mass Communication course as I am. He is why I am alive Ram, he really keeps me happy. He is waiting outside at the parking lot.”
“I knew Ram, I always did, I saw it in your eyes all the time but it would’ve never worked between us, it wouldn’t have lasted very long, don’t ask me why but I knew it wouldn’t…..it was nice meeting you Ram, fifteen years is a long time...and you’re a big boy now!” , she said ruffling his hair.
“I should get going now…don’t miss me Ram, its not worth the heartache...what’s gone, is gone, things aren’t all that bad in my world now!”
Ram didn’t know what to say, although he stood there feeling miserable and wishing he hadn’t met her at all in the first place, his sadness was suddenly replaced by a strange feeling of confusion with Neena’s last sentences. What she said didn’t seem to make sense at all, neither did her great desperation to leave, yet he stood there smiling wryly at her as she waved her hand smiling sweetly at him. He waved back.
“Take care Neena, be in touch..!”
She didn’t look back at him.
Almost immediately, Ram’s father appeared out of nowhere with a Hilsha in each hand. Grinning widely he raised them up in the air for half the bazaar to see; “Call your mom and tell her to forget about the Chicken Chettinad, there shall be an Ilish-fest all through this week…!”
Before getting into the car Ram looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of Neena and her boyfriend, they couldn’t have left the market place yet considering the crowd that had built up in the paltry parking space. He stood on his toes and craned his neck to see as far as possible but she was nowhere to be seen. They were gone. Surprising, one would need to grow wings to get out of that parking lot that soon. Nevertheless, with a heavy heart, Ram got inside the car.
“Baba, remember the Balsaras….Neena Balsara….Nayan’s friend?”
“Hmmm I do….why do you ask?”
“Nothing, been a long time, I suppose you know about her dad and her mom…”
“Yeah…sad….very sad….theirs was a happy family. Remember the time you and Nayan would go cycling with Neena?…such a sweet girl she used to be…but such a tragedy…both mother and daughter…”
“They are all alone now dad, you can imagine how difficult it must be for them…”
“What do you mean they are all alone…?”
“Obviously, since Mr. Balsara is no more……!!”
“Have you any idea what you are talking about..? Has no one told you? Hasn’t Nayan told you anything about what happened to the Balsaras..?”
“No dad, she didn’t even tell me about Neena’s father in the first place…but what is it that I missed?”
His father rolled his eyes and sighed….
“Ram, a couple of days after Vijay was discovered lying in his room dead, frothing in the mouth because of the rat poison he had consumed, Neena and her ailing mother disappeared. A lot of people say both mother and daughter had gone into hiding because of the constant harassment by the police and relatives, some even say both mother and daughter went mad, anyhow, they were nowhere to be seen for days until one night a police constable discovered two bodies floating around in the Corporation tank. It was poor Neena and Mrs. Balsara….poor Mrs. Balsara was literally crippled, it’s a mystery how she jumped into the tank. The issue was hushed up and soon the Balsaras were forgotten….”
The hair on Ram’s neck felt like pin pricks and even his father could notice the goosebumps on his skin as he sat horror-struck and wide eyed. It looked almost as if he had suffered a seizure.
“What’s the matter Ram?”, asked his father glimpsing at him while keeping an eye on the road, “Take it easy son, things like these happen all the time, be strong, learn to take them head on…lets go home soon and I’ll ask mommy to make us some nice coffee”
But coffe was the last thing on Ram's mind. He was looking outside with an expression of utter bafflement and fear, he suddenly turned pallor and his face turned a faint shade of blue. A thin film of perspiration appeared on his forehead and his face slowly contorted as he began to whimper. Alarmed, his father immediately pulled over. He grabbed Ram and shook him desperately, trying to get him to talk but Ram just sat there, his gaze fixed at something outside and he sobbed inconsolably. He convulsed like a terrified little cat and his teeth chattered as his eyes remained fixed with great focus at an isolated old banyan tree at a distance. He was looking at something, something that was scaring him a great deal, something he had never imagined he would ever be ill fated enough to see. His father looked in the tree's direction.
From amidst the thick leaf cover, branches and the long dangling roots of the old Banyan, frothing from the mouth like a mad dog, perched a young girl, her neck outstretched like a hyena and her filthy, unkempt hair hung all over her face. A tattered cloth bag with its contents, chillies and lime hung from one of the lower branches of the tree and dangled in the wind. She heaved, breathing angrily and thin, transparent strands of drool descended over her salwar from the edges of her lips. From amidst those leaf strewn, filthy, knotted strands of hair he saw her milky white eyes and in them he saw fury, the unearthly madness of a wayward specter.
A little way ahead of them, a speeding truck suddenly skidded and fell over on its side and hurtled towards the car in which a father and son sat whimpering like children, staring at an old, deserted Banyan tree.