Gayatri took hold of the remote and blared up the television volume almost in a reflex. She sat up, making the sofa creak a bit, adjusting her bulged out belly to a less comfortable position. The face featuring on the TV was far more important at the moment than her bursting bladder. She hurriedly started dialling on her cell phone. “Professor arrested on sedition charges” read the headlines. It was Syed.
Syed and Gayatri didn’t mean to fall in love. But love happens when you least expect it. It creeps up suddenly. When someone needs attention, care, conversation, laughter and maybe even intimacy. Love doesn’t look at logic, or at backgrounds and least of all, religion.
Gayatri was from a very conservative South Indian family that went to a temple every Saturday. Syed bought goats for his family every Eid. That said it all. Their paths would never have crossed if it hadn’t been for that fateful day. That day when he walked into the coffee shop. Gayatri wondered if destiny chose our loved ones for us. Did we have any role to play at all?
She looked at her watch. Syed was late. They met every Thursday at five pm to catch up. Their conversation lasted for hours. Sometimes at the cafe, sometimes in his car, sometimes in places that she could never tell her friends about. They would never understand. And yet Syed made her happy.
Suddenly her phone beeped. He had sent a message. “On my way. Have something important to tell you.”
Gayatri stared at it and realised she had knots in her stomach. Thoughts flooded her mind. What did he want to tell her?
Gayatri’s insecurity made her feel more vulnerable amidst the crowd on the busy station road. Her throat dried up from all the invisible despise she thought she was gathering from around. She readily covered her face with the new clementine-hued dupatta she had bought. He loved the colour.
From break up to marriage proposal, from another steamy afternoon at his place to his family finding out about her, every single thought had crossed her mind by then. A bitter sensation was swimming through her subconscious. Syed had rarely been this late.
The black car door flung open in front of her. “Get in,” Syed has always been a man of small talks. She followed hesitantly.
“What is it, Syed? I am so tense!”
“Ah! Don’t bite your nails.” Syed calmly touched her hand and grazed it up to her arm; a sudden startle making him withdraw hastily to pull up the car window.
Gayatri was dying.
A desolate coffee shop, an untimely over-pour and only one umbrella. Their story had every ingredient of a captivating, happy-ending Nicholas Sparks or Cecelia Ahern. She was busy immersing her untold thoughts on the match her uncle had brought, into a calm espresso. He was sitting two tables across. The sky had had a mood swing and the drizzle began to adorn the glass walls of the coffee shop. He stood up from his table and rushed outside leaving his keys behind, probably regretting the rashness of not bringing an umbrella. Gayatri followed, with her own bright floral one along with his keys and things fell into place quite soon after that.
For the first few months, their names mattered the least. Even Lathika, Gayatri’s best friend from college, who had always been her partner in crimes, began to squirm a little about Syed and advised her against it. Gayatri didn’t bother. He made her happy and the other way round. Thursdays, they decided upon to meet up always. Slowly, things began to change, with Gayatri desperately declining to marry “the most suitable groom” right after her engagement announcement. The family, as usual, started growing apathetic as well as more intuitive towards her at the same time.
Syed’s father was an influential political personality in Kovilpatti, his family was reputed and respected by all. Everyone rejoiced in pride when his meritorious son as he bagged a coveted national scholarship for his PhD thesis in Literature. Even with the proliferating anarchy slowly consuming the health of the Indian secularism at his roots, following the certified change of colours all over the nation, it had little effect on this quiet Southern town that they both resided in.
The air inside the car was steaming up as Syed’s car drove through the whirlwinds of the town into the highway.
“Syed, where are we going? What is the matter? Please tell me. “ Gayatri was choking with anxiety.
“ Nothing, it’s just I was missing you so much” came Syed’s lifeless curt reply.
Gayatri was about to exhale in a dilemmatic relief when Syed continued, “ I WILL BE missing you so much.”
Gayatri at first pretended she didn’t catch it. She could not put up to the suffocation anymore, she pulled down a window slightly and hung her head out to get some fresh air.
Picture-perfect moments featuring the two of them for these past two years began to flood Gayatri’s mind.
They were clearly into each other from the very first moment. The first time, they just learned each other’s names, exchanged courtesies and had gone on their separate ways. Cupid wasn’t willing to give up so easily. The next Thursday, something made Syed take a detour on his way to the library and reach the café, Gayatri deliberately skipped her classes after lunch and arrived there. It wasn’t difficult, rather it felt so meant to be that they stole a kiss on that very day.
Gayatri remembered the first time they made love. Syed invited her to an empty home a pleasant boat ride later. One thing led to another and before long they were lost in each other.
She remembered how passionately he had kissed her that day, how delicately he had caressed every bit of her, how insanely they were deep inside each other as if it was the last day of their lives. She longed for it once more, right now.
Even though they grew closer day by day, they were never really comfortable talking about their families and cultures, unlike the other “normal” relationships. The reason was obvious. He was Syed Iqbal Ahmed. She was Gayatri Bharadwaj.
They were perfect. Or is it that they made each other appear perfect?
“Gayatri you okay?” Syed inquired, taking a sharp turn. Gayatri regained her way back into the present becoming aware of Syed’s fingers trying to wipe the unaware drops on her cheek. She smiled, but something inside prompted her to move his hand away.
A year into happy commitment and more importantly, without letting either of the families get a whiff, they came to celebrate at the coffee shop, another Thursday. Suddenly, a man with an air of self-endowed importance around him walked up to their Table.
“How are you, bhaijan? “ He grinned at Syed whilst checking out Gayatri sheepishly from the corner of his eye. Syed returned the courtesy with an embrace. They talked a bit in an undertone. Seeing Gayatri getting all pale from the unhindered glances, Syed had introduced her as one of his students that day.
Things only began to grow worse from this. It was the month of Ramadan; Gayatri’s family had an elaborate religious feast that day. She hardly ate thinking of Syed fasting the whole day. As she sat down for her daily prayers that day, engulfed in the healing aura of incense and chants, for the first time she began to feel a certain quandary in her mind. She thought about the differences between the two, which became more prominent now than the similarities they shared. She thought about the compromises she made, and she thought about the future, for the first time.
They had always carefully avoided that bit.
Her mind rapidly drowned into the abyss of a circumstantially changed surname and attire. The thought of altered food habits and rituals and environment shook her very core. She began to have goosebumps, tears messed up her kohl as she got up and left the mandap in a hurry, leaving everyone perplexed.
The night of Eid, Syed was upset for some reason he didn’t disclose. Gayatri quit asking after a while. He just kept on saying, “Someday our family might be forced to leave India.”He had an unknown dread in his voice. He called her up in the middle of the night.
“Gayatri, will you marry me?”
She still remembers every quiver in his voice, every drop of love and excitement as well as a nascent terror in his proposal… She didn’t take more than a moment to say yes.
It was municipality election time in Kovilpatti. Syed’s father was a portentous candidate, a potential winner for another year. However, with new power in the Centre, small glitches did begin to crop up over the past year, which could no longer be ignored now with elections around the corner. The candidate of the ruling party against him was Gagnesh Iyyengar, the head of the local temple trustee board. A man of orthodox ideologies, his main strategy was to inoculate the parasite of communal discrepancy into the very core integrity of the local population. Inevitably, his success in this was quick and effective, Syed’s father secular mindset failed to garner a similar multitude of feeling among the masses until he was forced to take over the same weapon.
This cold war reached its threshold with the mysterious death of a Hindu girl who had hung herself. The pathetic suicide of a poor girl was caked with baseless communal allegations and small and big feuds between the two religious groups have not been a rare affair since.
With passing days and growing tension, for some reason, Syed and Gayatri never again talked or rejoiced about the proposal. They never failed to meet up, they talked about their career, laughed, watched movies together, spent sweltering afternoon fogging up the car window…. But never did they ever talked about the future of “we” or the rising anarchy around.
Syed turned towards a puzzled Gayatri while parking the car near their coffee shop.
“Gayatri, you have to understand. You have to be strong now.” Syed held her hand as she broke into a sob. The grumpy cloud had again gathered over the café. It was another fateful day, she knew.
Syed didn’t waste much time consoling her, “ Let’s go inside” was the next thing he said.
With three or four prominent communal murders and several other identities disposed away at wee hours of the night, the election season in Kovilpatti did manage to gather some national media limelight. After a lot of hell, Syed’s father lost by a narrow margin to the radical Iyyengar. Syed was upset, Gayatri was terrified.
It had just been two weeks since the results day. Iyyengar had already filed a charge against the main Masjid of Kovilpatti bringing up land dispute allegations, only to be faced back with vandalism of his property along with the brutal rape and death of his housemaid within two days.
It was today only. Thursday for Syed and Gayatri, the Clementine Thursday, The Thursday of broken promises and unswept tears, the Thursday of destiny, The Thursday of everything to end or begin. Gayatri counted something on her fingers before getting out of the car.
Syed took a sip of his coffee and began to explain everything. He was curt and precise. Somehow, his parents have found out about their relationship, was not at all happy with it, as expected. So, they should stop seeing each other now.
Gayatri was inconsolable. She had already known this all the way up to here, still, she could not control herself. She showed up her ring finger, adorned with a dried violet grass-flower twine, a promise of getting married Syed had got her following the night of the proposal and tried to say something which was incomprehensive. Gayatri could see Syed getting anxious and irritated, the way she has never seen him.
An hour later, Syed dropped a drained Gayatri near her home. She was a poor sight by then. Hairs astray, the new Clementine dupatta wet to a pulp, eyes all red and blurry and bulged out. As Syed
helped her get out of the car, he could see her jawline trembling trying to say things she dared not say. The only thing Gayatri could feel in perhaps the last touch between them were pumped up beats resonating all through Syed who still held a calm face.
“Goodbye, Gayatri. Take care.” was all he said before abandoning her beneath a dimly lit light post.
Gayatri was getting pissed, the person on the other end was not picking up the call. The baby kicked her once in the meantime, which she kind of ignored because it was a pretty common thing these days. The news channels were playing on the same video clip of Syed with grey hair on his elegant sideburns, his face sunk downwards, being led to the police van cordoned by police personnel while being hurled curses by a furious mob. All he did was support for the freedom of the student’s union president of the prestigious institution where a tragic incident of communal violence had taken place a few days ago.
The call was deliberately cut off this time and Gayatri slid back into the couch, frustrated, and closed her eyes.
The next morning following the break-up, after a sleepless night of sobbing and fits of furious rages, and a mess of sleeping pills twirled up dupattas and sharp blades all around her room, Gayatri gave Syed a call despite his repeated request not to do so. He was about to leave for Delhi this morning only. It was switched off, probably in the Flight mode, she guessed.
All she did was type a word and mail it to him.
Some five to six hours later, her cell rang. It was Syed. She picked up fast but didn’t talk for quite a while.
“Gayatri? Are you there? “
“Gayatri is this true?”
“Please tell me”
“Yes, Syed. It is. My periods have never been this late.”
“Gayatri, I love you”
“I love you too Syed.” She could not hold her tears anymore.
“You can elope from there, right? You will come to Delhi and maybe we will shift to Kolkata or anywhere else with less of such disturbance sometime later. We will live together Gayatri. We can get married.” Gayatri was shocked to digest everything that Syed was continuing to blabber.
A chill crept down her spine. The thought of a bringing a baby into the world with a decapitated identity shuddered her very cores. She now knew in her gut that she loved Syed, but was never ready to have a future with him. All she had was fantasies inspired by books and movies. She realized now why the thoughts of a life post marriage with Syed never allured her, all those did be mere small pictures of an ideal home. Syed, on the other hand, turned out to be the one who had actually thought this through.
“Syed, I’m not well. Bye”
Gayatri did not return Syed’s repeated calls and texts for the next two days, occasionally leaving a short message of “busy”. She knew a lot harder work had to be done when the pregnancy test read negative.
The third day she left another message on Syed’s phone.
“I’m negative. Don’t try to contact me. Have a good life.”
That’s how it had all ended for them. Syed and Gayatri. The couple that dreamt of etching an example on the very skin of this society.
A week later, Lathika showed Gayatri pictures of Syed with another girl she has found on Facebook.
Curbing her midnight urges to call Syed, all ending in sobs, disturbed sleep or brutal infliction of self-injury, Gayatri had to consult a psychotherapist soon. She was under heavy dosage of anti-depressants and nerve-soothers for quite a while until her parents fixed her marriage with another “far more suitable” man.
Two years into her marriage now, she was settled in Delhi with Sachet and has never been more at peace, at least, until now.
Sachet didn’t have any idea about some Prof. Syed Iqbal Ahmed apart from the fact that he was arrested on sedition charges. He didn’t care much until he received a call from an anxious, frantic Gayatri begging him to find the number of this Syed Ahmed’s lawyer. Sachet was perplexed and quite frightened. He was a man of simple uncontroversial life. It was an impossible request to keep.
Still, seeing an inconsolable pregnant wife, he tried his best and could only manage the number of the news channel journalist who had taken the interview of Syed Ahmed a week ago.
Talking with him yielded no results. Gayatri was disturbed enough and with the hormones making a mess of everything she was not quite sensible at home and around. All she could do was spread the petition for the release of Syed. She had no idea why she was doing this, but somewhere, her heart told, he had no one else to him.
One afternoon, despite Sachet’s repeated begging to stop acting crazy and at least explain things clearly to him, Gayatri managed to sneak out of the apartment and carry the both of them to the site of protests near the university premises. Everyone around was naturally surprised but managed a fairly comfortable seat for her to join in. TV personnel were scattered around asking random persons for their reactions. Gayatri was an odd placement there, naturally, she was approached.
She began sweating thinking of everything that she could tell, all that she had been holding up for so long. Instead, all she could manage was, “Syed, I knew, and will always know you are an honest person. You don’t deserve such harassment. Free Syed Iqbal Ahmed.” She raised a slogan which was echoed on by the students and teachers around.
By some miracle of the One God true to all religions, humanity, Syed has released from custody soon after. In his short interview post-release, he said he still held on to the same ideals and demands. He went on to say some more about how the ongoing communal anarchy is creating the prospect of a doomsday lurking in the fate of the nation. He concluded thanking all his fellow teachers and the student community and the rational headed citizens of India for standing beside him. The interview ended with Syed looking straight into the camera, unknown mists gathering up behind his glasses, and finishing his sentence off with a smile, “ and Gayatri.”
Gayatri and Sachet were watching this interview quietly together in the living room. They have not made many conversations since that afternoon. No sooner had the prime time show ended, Gayatri stood up from her seat and began heading towards the kitchen murmuring, “ I need some tea.”
Sachet left out a sigh and followed it up with a cold question, “ For the last time, How do you know him?”
“Who? Syed? Oh, he was just a neighbour from Kovilpatti, the local councillor’s son.” Gayatri tried to sound as casual as possible as tears of content trickled down her cheek. The tears were long due, she thought and returned the smile to Syed.