Sunday, 10 May 2020

os : Infinity in the palm of your hands - Prelude: Meeting and Passing

She was one of those students in the school who hung around the campus and its buildings even after school was officially closed for the day. While some pursued sports and other club related activities, she spent most of the afternoon in the library looking up old magazines and books and at times gazing out of the window. She helped the librarian by shelving books left by students haphazardly on reading tables and sometimes even performing an audit of the library on her own. She was easily favored by the librarian thus giving her a sense of independence and belonging in the school library. 

They used to be best friends in middle school. It was those times when moms didn't mind when kids jumped in puddles of rainwater or got their hands sullied by building bridges in sand. Moms weren't germ phobic and kids spent most afternoons goofing off - chasing butterflies, playing in brooks and listening to stories told by the old man at the light house. Best friends were made when two kids shared a pencil or helped one another during recess. Enmity existed for all of a week and the children generally made up with a candy or roadside cheap ice-cream. Simplicity existed in innocent minds uncorrupted by knowledge.

She often wonders, whoever said knowledge is power? Knowledge in her part had made her more distant with few friends. Knowledge of their perception towards leading a life being something or someone in society had made her head whirl in wonder. The striking contrast between her perception and her friends' was suddenly a differentiating factor which made them more and more distant with each passing day.

Cliques in high school were a translucent shadow of what the outer world had to offer. It had taken her three weeks to figure out the changes that had happened around her. The girl from karate class who she knew since they were in diapers had smiled faintly at her morning greeting. The subtle dismissal had pricked her sides and she had reeled in the sense of rejection from close to a half a dozen friends. She wasn't depressed about her place in the microcosm of high school but was dejected about changing lives and friends drifting apart.

It was only in her second year that the chasm between her and Armaan was so wide and deep that it was impossible for each of them to risk a jump. She had seen commotion in school corridor where Armaan stood in middle and kids around him cheered. His essay on seventeenth century India had been chosen and printed in a reputed monthly magazine thus commotion had broken through when the news reached few students. He was a popular boy whose idiosyncrasies made other students look at him in marvel while teachers thought he was overtly mature for his age. That day he passed her along the corridor with congratulatory crowd surrounding him and all he offered her was a three second glance and a nod.

Three years ago they had hugged and cried when his poem was published in local daily. She had treated him with an expensive ice-cream emptying out almost all of her pocket money. They read the book he won as a prize for his poem under torchlight right behind the local church's compound in late evening. When their parents found out and grounded them both, they had passed notes across streets using army of friends.

And now it was the same army of friends that surrounded them both yet she felt that they were already miles apart. She realized how far things had changed between them.

Best friends were only acquaintances now. It had left a bitter taste in her mouth.

She escaped to school terrace or the library from the daily grunge frequently. Her friends knew about it but never really brought it in sunlight and talk about her chosen seclusion from time to time. She was grateful for the friends that she had; they were fun, smart kids who knew when the line of privacy was not to be crossed. She admired them and respected them a lot. But there were times when the gentle comforting bubble of friendship and understanding felt too thin and almost ready to pop; the soapy surface glittered heavily in sunlight reflecting many pretty hues but she missed out the feeling of liberation while being enveloped in that bubble. The suffocation that she felt in group had gradually dissipated as months passed and the sudden pang of guilt and hopelessness that she felt when she passed Armaan in corridor, reduced to nothing.

The cold winter air stung her skin and she felt a feeling of freshness wash over her. There were less than half a dozen students in library as most were hanging out in local cafes trying to beat the winter with hot cocoa or coffee. She, on the other hand enjoyed winter more than any other season as she allowed the cold blast of wind send a fresh set of goose bumps on her arms.

"Why are you standing in cold Riddhima?" A voice interrupted her disjointed thoughts. She turned around to see Armaan standing three feet away from her thumbing through a 70s magazine. She stared at his relaxed stance and took a moment before she could formulate a response. It had been weeks since they had actually spoken even though they shared all the classes together.

"Isn't winter beautiful with calming gray skies and violet clouds holding up a parasol on us, cold breeze soothing the scars of summer and heartbreaks of autumn?" She smiled a greeting and responded without delving into pleasantries.

"It's very rare for someone to appreciate winter when no snow is involved. It's cold, wet, and dreary and the cold wind blasts rattle the bones", he said looking up from magazine. It was first time in many months they had spoken eye to eye about something not involving school. In past weeks the only exchanges they had was regarding homework or a book the other wanted to borrow.

"These cold gray winter days make me savor many endings in my life. Contrary to what others say, the despair and impuissance doesn't accompany me during winter. The bitterness of losing some things important gets more pronounced in this gray background which pierces my skin more than a cold blast of wind could. The howling wind solaces me with its lullaby, singing hopes of spring." She bit her tongue by the end of her words, an action which didn't go unnoticed by Armaan. He had noticed that while growing up, he had come out of his shell and became more social while she had withdrawn to a shell and had become more and more private with each passing day. His posse would always comment on how Riddhima had grown to a beautiful yet very quiet girl and that her aloofness to people outside her group wasn't something good to a seventeen year old ego.

"I didn't peg you as a tragic queen Riddhima. I have only known you as a girl of summer - full of fun and frolic. But then again that was back when the two of us were in our own world, is it not?" There was nostalgia in his voice. It was evident that he had missed her for the past couple of years when they progressed from junior high to high school. He had seen the gradual devolution of her spunk. There was an air of distant apathy about her which seemed to enunciate more and more with each passing day. She was the girl who had coaxed him to skip classes and go tadpole hunting in nearest stream. She smiled after every five sentences and giggled after every fifteen.

"It is when people intermingle their world with the one that's outside, conflicts arises. When we were twelve year old we skipped classes to take care of a puppy we found in the ditch. The decision didn't involve too many variables for us to contemplate on the outcome of our own persona in front of our peers. We knew that when we were found by our parents or teachers, we would be grounded and perhaps would lose pocket money too. Yet we did it. Why do you think so Armaan?" She sat on the window sill her yellow dress fluttering in the breeze. There was something utterly feminine about her, Armaan noted. It was odd to see her bright clothing in drab winter background. She swung her legs in a carefree manner making him reminisce their younger days. She cleared her throat when she saw that he was staring at her incessantly. He shook his head to clear out unrequited thoughts.

"Intermingling of my world with the one that of outside is absolute necessary for my own social evolution. Social isolation has more of an adverse effect in overall growth and progress of a kid than being safe", Armaan replied. He knew that he was mile off from what Riddhima was expecting out from him. But he didn't want to give her answer yet.

Her face fell at his convoluted non-answer which in the end was just bunch of random words. There wasn't a reason for him to hide and she had even provided him a perfect opening.  She asked him about the changes he had gone through knowing that the answer he was going to give her might eventually hurt her. And perhaps the answers she was going to give would hurt him even more. She didn't say anything but jumped down from window sill and looked outside. The cold wind teased her open hair and her eyelids closed due to force of the wind. She could hear Armaan slapping the magazine on the table and walk towards her.

"The liberating feeling that I felt as a kid died during the process of knowing more people, dealing with them and interacting with larger groups. Suddenly there were too many things to consider before I decided  to go out and eat an ice-cream - would my friends' love the place, would they like the flavors sold, is it too cheap or too expensive, will everyone have a nice time etc. The decisions were derived from a bunch of dynamic variables that changed from person to person. Many times obligations were expected to be reciprocated which meant I had to go out of my way to appease someone irrespective of my own prejudice against it. Didn't you go through that too Riddhima?" Armaan asked standing next to her. There were no words exchanged for handful of moments when he heard Riddhima sigh.

"I know what you are talking about Armaan and I don't disagree. Definition of our personality is so easily packaged and labeled for the entire world to see; they see a group they know it all. I want to scream at them for stereotyping our unique individuality but making the group abstract, you realize that we are really not all that different." She sighed in response. Armaan turned to look at her sharply. He didn't subscribe to generalizing or stereotyping mentality and was surprised that Riddhima to an extent actually believed in it.

"True, within a certain degree of abstraction all seventeen year old can be categorically summed up in a common paragraph and perhaps it would be correct too. But when the layers of our personality made up from years of knowledge and experience are shed, what you get to see isn't really a stereotypical seventeen year old. What you will see in an individual who is not like any other living being in this planet. No person can take that away from you Riddhima. You are who you are", he both answered her and made her realize that she wasn't the only one who felt that way - the sense of being lost in sea of people and a tiny scare of not being found. He knew the feeling.

"Meeting and passing people must be a common trend in life then?" She asked him softly. The howling wind had calmed down to a gentle breeze. Her summer dress now fluttered in the edges barely making any sound.

"Sure it is. We are all walking our own paths in life. Sometimes our paths intersect and then we start walking together. After a while we come to a crossroad wherein we either take same path or depart from one another. But when we walk together, we leave our footprints all over the dusty road imprinting our existence permanently in our memories. No one can take that away from us." He hoped he gave her enough ammunition to deal with her inner insecurities while they lived like they always did. Hair fell across her face curtaining her face from the rest of the world. He couldn't make out what she was thinking and her extended silence didn't help him either.

"I understand", she answered with clarity evident in her voice. These weren't issues that one could figure out in one sitting of conversation. There were things to see, to read to experience before a generic conclusion could be drawn out. The transition from childhood to adulthood had induced complexity and confusion in her which she struggled with on a daily basis. Armaan was like this fresh air that blew away cobwebs and dust and made things little more clear. Things weren't still as clear as she wanted them to be but it was a start.

"I saw you, you know? This summer at the library", He said turning away from her and seeing darkest shaded gray clouds obscuring sunlight.

"Saw me where?" She asked finally looking at him.

"In the back rack of the library where they store books which smell of old age and browned after being thumbed over decades. I saw you there sitting on an old wooden chair, this yellow summer dress clinging to you like a reincarnated lover due to sweltering heat and reading a collection of poems from an obscure author. I could clearly see you from the place I was playing volleyball and wondered why you never stood by the window and watched the world cavort in warmth and sunshine. When you did look out of the window from where you were seated, it seemed as if you were looking past the scenery outside, seeing through people and their ambiguities, piercing through summer heat and its golden yellow hue and settling on an epiphany that only you could understand. It is my most treasured memory of the summer."

They didn't speak for many minutes. Neither was looking at one another and their vision was fixed on students who were running on the tracks. The isolated library decorated the silence between them to one that of content.

"I have this dream quite often. I realize that I am in a train and am having a good time with lot of people. In few minutes the train comes to halt at a station. All the people in my compartment get down; some bid goodbye and some just hurry off from the train. I stand at the door wondering what happened in a single moment and this is when I wake up." Her anecdote only theorized what he had earlier said. He waited for her to continue.

"The feeling of being left behind when everyone seem to be moving forward grasps my bones in its claws and squeezes out all of my confidence and self-assurance. I am left in an ugly wake of ash and smoke." She went quiet again knowing that she had disclosed a part of herself that she had kept well hidden for more than four years. Given her age, that amount of time was lot. Armaan openly looked at the girl standing in front of him. It wasn't the time to give her a pep talk about self-assurance and things she can do to be happy. What she had to know was what he believed in which had him move forward when he fell into the same funk as Riddhima did.

"You know what happens next in that dream Riddhima? Before the train starts to move, a lot of people get in the train and share your compartment. Some are new and some you will see that you had met them before, in an older lifetime. But you know something? You will find that there are some people who are always on the same train as that of yours only that they aren't seated in the same compartment." Armaan hoped she understood the subtle implication for his words. Knowing her intelligence, he didn't doubt much about that. A small smile broke out on her face turning to a wan one in a matter of milliseconds.

"I think I will change compartments now."

He could only grin at her response.

Cold winter breeze picked up its pace and blew harder. She sits by the window of the now completely packed cafe in her yellow summer dress. Her friend from middle school tells her an anecdote about their classmate whose last name neither can remember.

Armaan meets her eye across the cafe and raises his coffee mug in a toast. She mirrors his action with a nod and turns back to guy narrating funny story from her childhood.


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