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Collected Works of

Ananya Aloke

INDEX

1. A case of mistaken Identity ............................................ 2 - 7


2. If...? ............................................................................. 7 - 12
3. India, my love ............................................................... 12 -13
4. Small lies ...................................................................... 13 - 20
5. Storm ............................................................................ 20 - 28
6. The change I want to make ........................................... 28 - 29
7. The Final Home ............................................................ 30 - 32
8. The land of the Han people ........................................... 32 - 33
9. The Truth ................................................................... 33 - 36
10. Twenty-one jars.......................................................... 36 - 37
11. Born Free.................................................................... 37 - 39
12. Dear Mother................................................................ 39 - 41
13. Sanitation and Survival............................................... 41 - 43
14. In quest of light........................................................... 43 - 44
15. Unbreakable relation................................................... 45 – 46
16. Urbanization – Boon or Bane........................................46 – 48
17. The key to Healthy Life................................................48 – 49
18. DeCosta’s House..........................................................49 – 50
19. Born Free.....................................................................51 – 53
20. Champa Mausi.............................................................53 – 55
21. Paradise on Earth.........................................................55 – 56
22. Epidemic.......................................................................56 – 57
23. Always on the Go.........................................................57 - 60
2

A case of mistaken Identity


It was all silent and hushed up in the stillness of midnight. The ghostly moon was gazing
down slyly through the dark clouds that swirled around her face like a witch’s ebony hair. The
stars had almost gone missing and were probably hidden in the moon’s dark cloak. On such a
frightful night, I stood in the corner of a silent graveyard.

My presence under the above circumstances may sound a little weird, but actually I was
doing my duty as an old, crooked and pretty much wrinkled watchman in the cemetery named
‘Marina Christian Cemetery’. I saw my fate inevitably pushing me towards the dark depths of
the burial ground. I was yawning, snorting and at times coughing deliberately to break the
eerie silence of that night. After putting myself into much inconvenience at such an unholy
hour for a few more minutes, my vigil finally ended into a fitful night’s sleep.

However, when I finally woke up at about 2 o’clock, in the morning, I saw a figure in the
graveyard, leaning over a very old and uncared grave. If the figure had not been tall and
slender with a slim prominent waist, I wouldn’t have realized that she was a young girl. This
is because it was pretty hard for me to trust my old blurry right eye, the only one among my
pair of eyes which functioned, if at all it did. So, I dug my hand into the pocket but couldn’t
find my glasses. After some serious effort my hand somehow managed to find it on the
ground below the point where I was resting. I put it on and looked up.-

The girl was gone…It came to me as a great surprise! For some reason I had this
impression that slender young women walk slowly and gracefully and not like a sprinter. I got
up and started walking cautiously towards the point where she stood a few moments ago. It
was the fourth grave from the right side in the second row. On the cross above it was
inscribed in bold italicized letters,

Harry J. Alexander
3

Born 23rd October, 1922

Died 7th June, 1948

I made a rapid mental calculation- it was 61 years old, oh, no, 62 years and what a
frightening coincidence! My father died only a day after! All the same, but...but...how could
this girl, so young had known of it? And why for God’s sake, should she have paid it a visit in
the dead of the night? I shivered as I looked up once again and it had nothing to do with the
cold. For a moment, I felt like a lifeless cadaver on the verge of a collapse but all of a sudden
the soul within me, shook up and reminded me that I was a soldier. A soldier, who had fought
many a battles in his youthful days and would have happily laid down his life for the country
but for an unfortunate accident where he lost his left eye to a piece of shrapnel in the war front
and was compelled to retire. Anyway, cutting to the essentials, I couldn’t yet grasp the reason
about what the girl had been doing there.

When I reached home in the morning, my old wife made me a nauseating cup of
sugarless tea, which had more to do with her memory loss than my diabetes or the vice versa.
I am not sure, anyway. As for the house, I would be much flattered to say that it gave the
appeal of a nocturnal painting by some great classical European painter of olden days, if only
this ugly old woman sitting next to me was not there, serving me tea with such aplomb.

“You, didn’t sleep last night?” She asked precariously.

“I have a night job,” I snapped through my gritted teeth. I could barely manage to keep
my teeth gritted although, because they were mostly broken, but I had to, for the pleasure of
it.

“All the same, you do sleep in your –er ... –workplace,” she displayed her genuine hatred
for the graveyard. In the old age people run from the shadow and sight of a cemetery and I
was virtually spending my nights there. For me, though, it wasn’t more than a dead shell. I
couldn’t blame her for this viewpoint, although I would have swapped almost anything and
everything I had, for an opportunity to do so.

I spent all that day without sleeping as I usually do, thinking about that unknown
mysterious girl. And that night as I set forth for my duty in the graveyard, I made up my mind
to keep myself awake till midnight. Then I thought to myself- ‘to hell with it, she would never
return’. My gut instinct however told me that she would. So, in the conundrum of conflicting
thoughts, all my energy got sapped and my determination to keep awake till midnight
evaporated. Finally, I fell into a deep sleep and woke up at about 1 o’clock to the sound of the
barking dogs in the not too distant village. Cursing this night job and the dogs for my
disturbed sleep, I again slid off into a slumber. I didn’t want to sleep but come on! After all I
was 67. But then I slept till 4 in the morning. At 4, I instinctively rose up and went up to the
same grave from the right side in the second row. Slowly, I walked around the grave. In the
threatening darkness, I found a parchment. It wasn’t here last night, was it?
4

No, the parchment sure wasn’t here because I had very well inspected the grave last
night, at my arrival. I took the paper in my hand and could make out the tall letters- d, f, g and
some others of this kind. The slant of the letters gave me the impression that they had been
written by a woman. I stuffed it in my pocket and sat restlessly on a boulder, waiting for
dawn. Then I tried to draw out my cigarettes but instead of the cigarettes, came out the
cigarette-lighter. An idea struck me to read the contents of the paper in the faint light of the
cigarette lighter. I tried but failed as it was too much for my old and infirm right eye.

In the morning, after a series of failed attempts, I could finally read the parchment, which
read-

Dear Harry,

I love this graveyard for somewhere it hides the last of you that I saw.

I promise, someday I will............. (the rest of the words were illegible).

Your love

Serena

My hands were numb with fear and the words: ‘I promise, someday I will....’went through
my mind like a lightning bolt.

But by the time I began to return home, some of the fear wore off. I hadn’t seen anyone
dropping the letter near the grave that night neither could I fathom the intention of the person
doing so. A part of the parchment had also appeared to have been torn considering its jagged
bottom edge. That evening when I returned to the cemetery, I realized that there was another
little piece of paper. Bracing myself for more surprise, I read it-

PS – I have found the one, who brought your end.

I placed this against the previous paper. I gasped. Yes, the PS. Was a part of the letter I
had found previously. But, could it be...?

These last words of the PS struck me once again – ‘who brought your end’ implying
thereby that someone killed Harry. I quickly came to believe that I was getting entangled in
some murder mystery. But oh, no, it was nonsense. The girl even didn’t know I had read her
letter to dead Harry. Maybe the girl was a lunatic. This made things far easier to digest albeit I
was stretching my imagination too far in this case. But then, you find me another
explanation... Exactly, there is none. That night was the most disturbed night of my life. I only
had an hour’s sleep before I was up again, beating my stick on the ground like an ideal
watchman. A couple of hours before twilight, it occurred to me what if this girl was herself
5

dead... “Nonsense,” I shouted clutching my fist and frightening a poor bird that perched on the
tree above me.

When I was ambling back home that morning, I remembered the girl’s letter. I had
decided to leave it back on Harry’s grave lest the girl should return. But then, even if she did,
she may not get it and would think that it had been swept away by the air. It was quite windy.
No, I am not being entirely truthful about this judgment. In this part of the country the air is so
very still during the winters, you may think it has been enchanted...

The following night in the graveyard I had a blood-curdling dream. It was an old one
but all the same. It was my recollection of a day, 62 years back.

‘On a cold foggy night Dad was driving a truck towards Court Mount road. It was far
from my town. I was sitting beside him, only 5 years old and beside myself with excitement.
“How do you move this huge, huge thing without pushing it, Dad?”I asked.

“I am steering it forward,” said my dad.

“What is that?” I leaned forward.

“This is the round thing called a steering and I’m holding and moving it either in
the clockwise or anticlockwise direction and pressing the accelerator pedal almost
simultaneously and the truck is moving- just like that!”

“But then,” I began, still not satisfied with the answer, “my toy truck has this
staring-sorry- stirring-steering thing and I do not have to do anything of the kind to make it
move.”

Our conversation continued in this vein for some more time and I don’t remember
when I fell asleep. Finally, when I woke up, saw my father leap onto the driver’s seat in a
hurry and recklessly rush down the sandy road. I felt scared because he looked tense and
desperate. It felt like a hell. That night after we reached home, dad had quite a frugal dinner
and he quickly went upstairs to his room and next morning we found him dead. He had
popped a huge number of sleeping pills the preceding night.

The dream and these memories repeated themselves whenever I was in a pressured
state. It does give me gooseflesh although it scarcely matters now. My wrinkled body doesn’t
allow it to be noticeable even. And then...Pardon me; I think I’m losing my head. I am getting
carried away by trifles. Maybe that is some part of the reason why young men find it difficult
to put up with us old people, isn’t it? Returning to the main issue, that night after I woke up,
all at once, I became determined to find out who the girl was and what she had been doing. At
once it seemed unusually important to do so. That is the effect of a strong will on our minds. I
wanted to bring a final end to this.
6

After I got up from a catnap at I think arround 4 o’ clock, I saw the girl again. She
may have taken a walk around the grave. At the moment she was about four yards into the
road. I got up and began following her. She walked slowly. I recognized her dress, the same
pale yellowish white gown, in the dim light of the occasional streetlights dotting the road side.
She kept running her fingers through her hair, as I concluded from the movement of her arms
and thick brown hair on her back. She was walking up a gentle slope. Thereafter, she took a
blind turn and I lost sight of her. Feeling slightly frightened, I walked as fast as possible
without caring about anything, I almost stumbled a few steps on my path. At times I wanted to
run back to the graveyard but couldn’t. My breath was shallow.

In the light of my cigarette-lighter I made out that it was 6 o’clock. It may have been a
quarter past 6 or 6:30 because my clock never functioned properly. Overhead the sky had
begun to lighten. In a while it would be dawn and that was a matter of great comfort to me.
Suddenly I paused on my track. There was the sound of light footsteps behind me. Someone
was walking fast towards me. In all likelihood it seemed to be a cat, as suggested by the
sound. I turned around and gasped in surprise.

The girl in the yellowish white gown stood a yard from me. She seemed probably as
breathless as me. She had turned around and walked rapidly to catch up with me from behind
the wooded section of the road. Finally I was face to face with the weirdest girl that ever lived
– one who loved graveyards. She was beautiful and young, barely 16 or 17. I understood she
wanted to talk to me, but why?

She asked with a tone of harshness, “What are you doing?”

I was shocked. I was old enough to be her grandfather. What did she think I was
doing? Yet it was a comfort to hear her talk. She was an ordinary girl. And suddenly I felt the
courage of the soldier I had once been. Coming to the present I said, “I am-”

“The watchman of the graveyard?” she interjected.

“Excuse me, lady, why should you be so interested..” She looked straight into my eyes
and suddenly I felt obliged to say, “Yes, I am. Yeah, who are you?”

“Serena,” she replied snapping her fingers at a taxi with black glass, which had
paused at our sight. She asked me to accompany her and I followed unquestioningly. I sat
down beside her to the left and kept gazing her with my right eye. After about 15 minutes, the
taxi stopped near a road-side bungalow on a highway very close to the Court Mount Road. By
now my mind had cleared and I was surprised to see myself sitting next to her.

The taxi-driver turned to say, “Here it is, get down.” The girl looked right into his
eyes and something strange happened. Turning around in his seat, the driver restarted his
engine and rushed further a few hundred yards and then took a dangerous turn towards the
Court Mount Road, all this time driving as if in a trance. I was looking from the driver to the
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girl, on the verge of speech. Then I gasped. I had realized what she was doing. She had drawn
out a silver handled something from the ruffles of her gown.

“No,” I screamed and launched myself on her to wrench the dagger out of her hand.

“You killed my husband Harry, you killed us both, with -...your truck, 62 years back,”
she screamed and attacked me viciously. I carefully dodged her a few times but finally
managed to subdue her by stabbing on her back a few times with the same dagger, and
throwing open the taxi-door, pushed her out of it with all my might. The body rolled out.
Then I saw a ghostly white, translucent vague figure of a woman who looked very different
from the girl’s body come out of it and skidded into a hole. She couldn’t bear the sunlight. I
was clutching my chest, panting vigorously and the fight had taken a toll on my decrepit
body. Then out of horror, clarity emerged.

The girl had screamed (before I stabbed her, moments ago), “62 years back.” And it
was 62 years back that my father took the extreme step of killing himself by consuming
sleeping pills. In the light of the incidents that took place then, I could clearly understand why
my father had got down from his truck and come back visibly disturbed after some time and
then driven the truck recklessly back home? He had died the very next day after Harry and
Serena left this world. In fact, he had possibly rushed out to find their bodies after the accident
and may be, Serena had seen him before she died. I looked much like my father. So the ghost
of this woman had mistaken me for my Dad. She had possessed someone-or entered a dead
person’s body- and attempted to avenge her and her husband’s death.

At that moment we were on the same Court Mount Road, the place where our truck
had possibly collided with her car some 62 years back. That is why she wanted to kill me
there. The taxi-driver was still driving in a trance, but I didn’t have the courage to restrain
him. When he finally stopped, I was shocked. We were back at the gate of the graveyard. I
instantly clambered out and rushed into the cemetery. I found Harry’s grave and next to him-

“Serena’s grave with the same date of death,” I whispered, “exactly.” Breathing hard
through my crooked nose, I dug open the grave and lifted the cover of the coffin. The body
had turned into powder and dust. Some part of the skull had remained. I took out my
cigarette-lighter and set the wooden coffin alight with some effort. As every bit of her earthly
remains turned to ash, I covered the grave and turned around in revulsion. It was perhaps the
only way I had, to get rid of Serena’s spirit, I guess.

Later I got to know that the body that I had stabbed was that of an orphan called
Hestia. It is useless to relate that she had been occupied by Serena’s spirit. I felt guilty but
have come to terms with this fact of my life. Six times I have gone around the sun. Six more
harsh winters have shown their impact on my countenance in the form of innumerable
wrinkles. If anyone, living or the dead, finds this, I have a genuine advice for him, or her- Just
go on, there is no point turning back.
8

March 2017

If...?
1

My head is hurting a little. My legs are hurting too. I yawn and stretch out my arms. Then
slump back in my chair, shutting out the glaring screen and the control panel from my view.
In other words, I close my eyes. Few moments pass by.

Then Nikita comes into the control room. Not that I open my eyes but I can hear her footsteps
and the rustle of her dress. She always knows when I am tired. Impatiently, Nikita shoves a
cup into my hand. I smile and start sipping the tea. My wife looks at me intently.

“What?” I ask but Nikita simply shakes her head. Her somewhat restless eyes wander about
the control room. This disturbs me. I forget all about my tea and keep gazing at her, until
those familiar eyes return to my face, “When would you talk to them?”

“Who them?” I ask before realizing, “This year perhaps.”

She laughs, “Is there anything like a year now?”

I grin back feeling a bit stupid. Surely not. But, owing to the 21st and 22nd century novels I
read, I cannot help using the word. Then Nikita is walking away with my cup. Boredom starts
sinking in as I watch her go and wish she wouldn’t. In the doorway, Nikita stops and reminds
me with an apologetic smile that we only have three kilograms of tealeaves left. I raise my
eyebrows. Three kilograms for thirteen members of the L.M.O.E. mission and that too for
another 10 years.

Well, that isn’t good news at all, I think. Then cross my legs and doze off.

When I had ended my watch of six hours in the control room, I passed it to Huan Chi. He
stood in the doorway twirling his moustaches. “The space ship is going pretty smoothly,” he
said and as usual, gravely.

We stood silent for a moment. Then I gave a few monotonous instructions and went to the
room allotted to my family. When I opened the door and looked in, Nikita was curled up in
her chair, fast asleep. But Vila was playing. She looked up quickly and was relieved to see
that it was me. I ran my fingers through her clumsy black hair. “Papa!” she squealed loudly
and giggled. She only stopped when her mother twitched and muttered in her sleep.

Afterwards, Vila went on saying something or the other. She had a breakneck speed. But I
listened so passively, that she stamped her foot and turned away in disgust. I felt like
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laughing. What else could I do? After a moment, I took off my glasses and lay down. Then
suddenly, she drew closer and began, “Papa?”

“Huh... What?”

“Do you know what Mamma says?” I glanced up quickly and shook my head. She went on
with an odd expression on her face, “She says that we will just keep wandering about in space
because you are never going to fix it up with the Fini-she-ans!”

“Finixians?” I asked, “Those that live in Finix planet?”

“Are they aliens?” She asked in a hushed voice. I nodded and saw a fear in her light brown
eyes. I sat up and put my arm around her waist. I was struggling with my own despair but
couldn’t tell this to her. Instead, I said, “Trust me, sweet. We won’t be travelling in this
spaceship forever. Another few years and then we will have homes of our own in a new
land!”

“In Finix?”

“Are you scared?” I asked. She nodded.

“Of being stuck up in space?”

“No! Of leaving the spaceship and getting stuck up on the land!” She said.

Later, I thought a lot about Vila’s words. For some reason I felt very sad. It took me a long
while to understand. That it wasn’t just Vila. Even I, at the age of forty, was scared. When I
thought how it would be like to leave the spaceship and land in Finix. I had spent
approximately thirty-four years in space and was willing to spend another forty like that. But
why? Why was I scared of reaching land? Now that I come to think of it, perhaps I knew.
Deep down, I had memories linked to land. Of how terrible it had been on Earth. Space was
heaven.

But few hours later, we entered Laventor solar system and then I had to make my decision.

There were three of us together in the control room –I, Huan Chi and Tom. It was a most
restless hour. Both hopeful and hopeless murmurs were heard from the corridor. “Let me do
it! I am the captain.” I told Huan who moved aside. I took the seat in front of the control panel
and started typing the first message–

‘Dear Finixians, we, members of L.M.O.E. mission-1, belong to planet earth. Due to certain
reasons, we have had to leave our native planet and we are in search of a habitable land
10

elsewhere. It would be extremely kind of you if you will allow us to reside in your planet. We
had sent a message to you from our planet about 34 years back.’

“Leave out extremely,” Huan said. I thought for a moment and agreed. Then used the
translator on the control panel and sent the message to ‘Finixian Inter-Planetary Affairs’
department. Huan was doing some paperwork. He kept counting on the calculator and his own
fingers. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“Let me think... two? No... Here, I have got it. It will take one hour for the message to reach
them.”

“How?” Tom asked.

“Don’t be silly. You know, until now, conversation was impossible. Why? Because we were
too far away! A message would have taken too long to reach them. And by the time their
reply reached, we would change position. So it will never reach us.” As he spoke, Huan kept
drawing circles on a sheet. His perception of the solar system. “But we have been travelling
for about 34 years. So... Right now, we are inside the Laventor solar system. And you see...
There are three planets here, Finix is innermost... They can detect us because we are past the
heliosphere. They would be able to send a response.”

“Okay that’s enough!” I said. I was irritated and wanted them both to shut up. Silence fell.
And in the same restless silence, three hours passed. Tom began pacing about the room. He
cursed someone or the other at random. I listened to him and didn’t listen to him. I was
looking around vacantly but could no more see the familiar boring room. Instead, I saw pretty
houses with pink walls, mansards and rosebushes near the door. Armchairs on the roofs. Was
all this possible in Finix? Did they have rose bushes? And...?

I was jerked back to real world by the arrival of a message. I read it aloud: ‘Yes. Your
message reached us some years ago. We had sent a reply to your planet. Did it reach you?’

I exchanged a glance with Huan and typed –‘No. We had been travelling and had cut contacts
with the ground-control.’

After another long wait –‘Okay. What is L.M.O.E.?’

‘Last Men On Earth.’

Two hours later –‘So was there an apocalypse on Earth?’

‘Yes.’ A long while passed. Huan was scratching his face and Tom kept rocking in his seat.

Another three hours later –‘We cannot have you in our planet.’

A rock seemed to drop on my chest. As Tom slammed his fist on the table, I got up shaking
my head. Huan asked if I was okay. Well I wasn’t. I was clammy and sick as I leant forward
11

to type the next message –‘Why? Isn’t it true that Finixians were the first to contact us six
decades ago?’

I have no count of how much time passed in between. Tom started talking gibberish. Then
their message flashed on my screen –‘Yes. But can you tell us how the apocalypse occurred?
And what if you cause it here on our planet? We want our peace.’ I turned to Huan and Tom.
My helplessness was reflected in their eyes. We were passengers of the same boat. If one
would drown, all would drown...

As if in a dream, I heard Huan saying something to Tom. They started arguing. How stupid! I
thought. Then I got up and said that I wanted to go out for a while. They shrugged. Yes, how
could my staying here or going out make a difference? Anyway, I went out into the crowded
corridor. Everyone was pressing closer, asking anxious questions. But I couldn’t reply. I only
wanted to see Nikita and Vila, the people I cared about most.

When I came back, I sat down and started typing so fast that even Huan and Tom stared at
me:

‘We are thirteen of us in the crew; none of us knows what is going to happen. Food will get
finished soon. We can’t return, but we will die if we don’t reach land. And that’s not all. The
last thing that most of us remember on our planet is war and the death of people we loved
most. My grandpa left me among total strangers at the age of five, hoping that I would
survive. Can you now let us in? Don’t think we are begging. But do think of little children
dying of starvation.’

After passing it through the code translator, I sent the message. I did it even before I knew.
Right now, I felt like screaming out and sobbing like a madman. Huan patted my shoulder and
I only wanted to throw off his hand and hit him. The reply wasn’t received for a long time.
So, I went to my room and somehow fell asleep.

I slept fitfully. Again and again, I sank into an old nightmare... of something that happened
years ago.

The world was shattered. I had lost almost everyone. War, war was the beginning of the end.
But the war was for food. And there was very little of it. The land and water had been
poisoned. Plagues followed each other like shadows. People were dying left and right. It was
the mid- 25th century. World War 5 had begun. It was then that L.M.O.E. mission was started
and some of the survivors were sent away to search for a planet elsewhere. At that time, I was
a little boy not more than Vila’s age. My only living relative, my grandpa, handed me over to
the mission. He couldn’t come; he was too old and sick. The last time I had seen him I was
12

crying. He wasn’t. But there was something in his eyes, which made them blink faster. He
was whispering to me, telling me to go away and save myself. Don’t think about me, he said.

That’s all I remember. But, back then, it was enough for me. I began to hate people. I lost
trust. Trust! More often than not, I wonder who invented this word! What does it mean when
people can go to wars and kill each other like butchers in a slaughterhouse? Perhaps the
Finixians were right not to allow us into their planet...

Suddenly I heard Tom’s call. He was babbling again in excitement. This frightened me. I got
up hastily and went out. What I saw surprised me. Almost everyone in the crew stood in the
control room. It was very noisy. Over the screen, I read the message:

‘Request accepted. People of Earth can immigrate to Finix.’

I cannot remember a happier hour in the mission. In my whole life, perhaps. Tom rushed off
to inform the pilot in the cockpit. I stood against the wall, my knees feeling too wobbly. For a
moment, I thought of grandpa, and felt a little cold. Then Vila ran to me. I hugged her and
said that it is wonderful to be on the land. Someone played music on the recorder. We danced
and ate, promising each other of happier days.

At that time, nothing could prepare us for what happened next. Suddenly the alarm rang. I
froze. People started dashing around in panic. Tom and I went to the control room but... We
realized at the same point what would happen. In a haze of fear and confusion, I ran out
screaming for Nikita and Vila. At the last moment, I found my daughter. Then there was an
explosion in the engine. And I felt that I was rolling, without gravity, and darkness sucked me
in.

What would be my story if...?

“Wake up! Wake up” Nikita calls, “Your watch is over.” I look up to see Nikita. And Huan.
He is waiting for his turn with utmost dullness on his face.

“Uh huh!” I say, rubbing my eyes. My head is still heavy. I get up, give Huan some
monotonous instructions, and go to the room allotted to my family. On the way, I bump into
Tom, yawning and snapping his fingers over his mouth. I go on following Nikita. In the room,
Vila asks me when I would talk to the Finixians. I smile and run my fingers through her hair.
It matters on just one thing –When would we reach Laventor Solar system?

“This year perhaps,” I say. Vila doesn’t understand. What is a year, she asks. I don’t reply but
lie down and close my eyes. I am still thinking about my dream.

February 2018
13

India, my love
The day fills with happiness and joy. 15 August 2047. The hundredth Independence day of
India. India my motherland. The land of unity in diversity. People of India had worked hard
and joined hand to forge common loyalty. From a country known as the land of snake
charmers it has become an industrial superpower. I remember my grandpa’s stories of his
childhood. When he was ten years old, India was struggling f or independence. Poverty and
illiteracy was the major problem. No electricity in their village, no medical facilities. People
were dying of hunger. Even there were no proper toilets for most of the people. And then
when I was 10 years old, it was still a developing country. But yes, we could smell a good
future. Beautification of country was going on with a great speed. The scenario changed.
Now, when my daughter is 10 years old, India is an economic leader. Well-educated people.
Low poverty rate. Water and electricity supply are 24-7 across the country. One rupee equals
two dollars.

Technology has progressed too. Made-in-India space planes. Before independence, at the time
of my great grandfather three hours were not enough to go from one city to another, close to
each other. Now high-speed bullet trains connect the whole country from Kashmir to
Kanyakumari and Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh.

Now poor people can also afford scooters or cars, because they don’t have to worry about
petrol or diesel. These can even be run on water. The roads are broad and very clean. Delhi’s
newly built Freedom Fighter’s Memorial is the tallest building of the world. Now I don’t
know what this country would be when my grandchild would be 10. But whatever it would
be, it would be so wonderful that I can’t imagine.

June 2018

Small lies
Harry

Betty’s eyes are very dark. I have been seeing them for years. But I notice the colour
for the first time. Or maybe lamplight makes women’s eyes look more mysterious. She
slightly tilts her head. “Do you really mean it?”

“Do I look like I don’t?” I ask, shutting my eyes and leaning back in the chair.
“Harry. You have gone nuts.”

I cannot help smiling now. “You must be kidding, Betty. I was always nuts.” The
room is silent. The house is silent. The world is silent. All is as perfect as it should be.
14

“What about Jim?” She asks.

“Jim? He will also take it like us. Or we may not even tell him.”

After a minute, she suddenly gets up. “You are a damn liar.” She pauses for me to
contradict or agree. When I do neither, she asks softly, “Can it really be so sudden?”

“Look.” I start. My sister will never know how much I want to hug her right now,
cradle her hands in my own, quietly whispering her name. To tell her –No, it will not. But
today I cannot do this. “I don’t know. Go, ask someone else.”

Betty gives a last blank stare and I look away. Then she storms out into the passage. I
take a deep breath and rub my forehead. Boredom begins to settle down when Jim appears at
the door. He asks me to put off the lamp at the earliest; we have a limited stock of light.

“I know. Thanks.” I reply, wanting him to shut up and go. I am no more in a mood to
talk to Jim or anyone.

Then I straighten up and pick my pencil.

Jim

A strange horror runs through me while leaving the kitchen. How could this man sit so
idly in the middle of this mess and make peaches and strawberries in glass bowls? But I am
used to life like this. Betty gets along great with him but I just hope that, for her sake, she
knows what he is. A freak. And that is all there is to say of him.

Back in the room, I revolve the chair and sit down before the computer. There is not a
single light here. Half of this room and a little bit of the passage is lit by the glare of my
screen. My hand reaches for the cigarette case but halts on its own. Cigarette, like electricity,
is a commodity that has to be saved. The generator is going towards shut down.

I shake my head and return to work. At 2339 words, my typing is still a tangled mess.
But I am scared to stop and think. Instead, I press ‘enter’ and move to the next line.-

‘One of the last of our villainous despicable kind, I admit that the man is the worst
thing the world made. He goes to wars like butchers in a slaughterhouse. He lies, cheats, hates
and until the last decade, he was the most highly multiplying creature. He was too selfish to
understand when he should die. Today land is all poisoned, like the water. It is a chaos. And it
is for the best that this is happening. By this, I mean whatever I have typed about above. If
you want to know the present year, we have a guesstimate. But before that please raise your
glasses to the end of our world.’

Harry
15

While returning from my general inspection of the basement, I pause before Jim’s
room and watch him working rapidly, his eyes fixed. He is my brother, three years younger
and still the strongest among us. Yet, something about the way he sits makes me understand
that he too has broken.

“Do you want to eat?” I ask.

“No.” He replies.

I sigh and go away to the kitchen to try to sleep. I do not think Jim really knows what he
types. But it is just a matter of words, lines, paras. About going from one word to the other.
One line to the other. We have always used them to mean things that we really mean and
those that we do not.

Betty

I get up to put aside the diary I have been reading, and stop before the mirror to realize
what I have become. Thin, pale, and almost blank eyed.

Harry had been lying from the start, whether he knew it or not. He said it would be
fine but the worst part of it is that I wanted him to. I made him do it by staring at him, through
him. Knowing that it will frighten him into lying.

Tearing my eyes off my reflection, I check my watch, go over to the calendar and
circle the number 31.

It is the end of August now. The fifth month of the last Nuclear War. Fifth month of life in the
basement. Fifth month of slow-starvation. Does it have an end? Yes. Everything has. I think
of what Harry told me today and feel the blood pulse through me.

Then blowing off the candle that I had lit when Jim turned off my lights, I lie down myself.
Then loosen the belt of my skirt.

Harry

I am walking slowly through a dusty road. It seems so strange to be walking on a road


after so, so long. There are endless stretches of lush green grass on both sides of the road.

Except that, it is a dream. I know but it takes power to wrench out of them.

Suddenly I recognize a man coming from the other side, holding hands with a shorter
woman with bob-cut brown hair about my age. I stop and raise my hat. They both notice me
but do not speed up. Nor do I. When he draws up to me, the man smiles. Then turning to the
woman, he murmurs. “Nice evening to meet such a handsome young man, isn’t it?”
16

“Sure.” She smiles slyly.

The man takes her arm, making her lean a little over him. He again looks at me.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?”

“She is.” I agree.

“She is your mother.”

I cannot take my eyes off her but then they say their goodbyes and walk away. I
change my direction to follow them. They keep laughing and swaying. I keep speeding up.
But they just seem to be going faster. I know it is one of the best couples in the world. Then,
there.

Someone suddenly takes my arm and turns me around. The force of his movement makes a
few curls of my hair roll over on my forehead. I am very close to him but I cannot even make
out his face properly. He is hooded. I begin to pant, “Let go!”

“Look ‘ere...” He lets go and laughs. “Come with me. Don’t waste time wandering.”

“But... I have to go in that direction.”

“Don’t.” He advises. “Come with me.” I try to look back but cannot catch sight of my parents
anymore. I get a little frightened. So I follow the stranger.

He takes me into a thin path into the meadow. It is getting darker but warmer. More sweet
smelling. More intoxicating.

Suddenly I find that on both sides of the path small baskets are lying, filled to the top with
peaches and strawberries. My heart beats faster. I stop and call out, “Wait. Can I draw these?’

“No. Have you got paper?” He growls. Disappointed, I begin to walk again, rising up the
grassy slope. Suddenly he stops and points at a pair of goats. “Can you draw these?”

When I tear my eyes away from the goats, very suddenly, I see that even he too is nowhere. In
the semi-darkness of twilight, I hasten back but then the road curves in to end at a house, dark,
dingy but open.

When I am inside, I shut the door. I do not want to but dreams are scripted. I look around and
call but other than spiders hanging from cobwebs, there in no one. Still it feel like there are
dozens of men and women here, even young pretty women in small skirts, slowly moving
aside, making way from me. When I am going up the steps, I realize that the walls are lined
with photos, of my father, of my mother, of my childhood. And heaps of people I do not
know. I take deep breaths. But I cannot bear to touch them. Something very painful happens
inside me and I hear soft hums, become clearer slowly. –‘Live. You can live...’
17

At the third floor, I suddenly grab my head and roll down onto the floor. I can feel hate like
pain. A wave of vomit seems to rise. I scream, “No you are liars. I have to die. Let me die.”

And they hum again, ‘live.’ Images flash on my mind’s eye. Mom dying of cancer, Dad
holding her in her arms. Then the same man lying dead, overdosed with sleeping pills. I know
it is long since past but I cannot get over it. I cannot get over what he left me to handle –a
younger brother and sister.

Suddenly I feel a pair of hands hold mine. I look up to see Dad. I think he knows what I am
going to do, what I have told Betty to do today. Shame wells up in me. I hang on to him,
struggling to talk but he whispers, “I know.” The figure disappears slowly. The hum softens.
And after a fit of confusion, I return to the place where I fell asleep. In the basement.

Jim

“Really?” I look around in surprise. Betty has just come from her room. She must have
been sleeping. Her eyes are heavy just like her lips. “How did you find it?”

“From Papa’s diary.”

I have just managed to print out the first eight pages and I have two more to go. I am
happy and irritated. But right now, I just stare at her. A strange emptiness grips me. “Our
Grandfather was a doctor?”

Betty nods. I feel worse. “Damn it!”

“Why? What’s wrong with a doctor?”

I laugh out suddenly. I do not understand how she can behave so naively. And I tell
her that.

“Shut up. Doctors saved lives.”

“Saved lives?” I repeat, horrified.

“You should have one to treat your brain.”

Just then, Harry appears at the door, looking much disheveled. He asks what the
matter is. But before he finishes his question, Betty asks what has happened to him. After that,
I do not take much much note of whatever they say. I guess he said ‘Nothing’ or ‘I‘m fine’ or
something else to that effect.

Betty leaves and I am sure that Harry will follow him out. He does not. He stands
leaning against the wall. I try to ignore him while turning over the page for printing on the
other side.

After a few moments, I ask him, “What?”


18

“Jim, you hate doctors?”

I meet his earnest look. It feels strange. I do not remember talking to him in the last
several months except for transfer of information.”Yeah.”

“In as few words as you need, why?”

“I hate life.”
He laughs a little at my reply. I am not surprised. I know his ways. He is trying to
unnerve me.

“But just think for a moment.” He starts, “if anyone came to you right now and said
that, he was going to... Or say, if you just now find out that you are going to die. Then?”

“Then what?”

“Will you want to die?”

I think of saying yes but the word does not reach my lips straight away.

“That means no?” He asks.

“Man is an animal. You cannot just say ‘think this’ and make him think that. If he had
understood so much, he would...”

“But he could not.”

“Why? Why?” I burst out, and turn to the computer to give the next print order. I have
to stay strong. Then, I ask as expressionlessly as I can, “Do you want to die?”

“No. Jim.” Harry says softly. I am forced to meet his eyes again.

“And that’s why people went to doctors.” I say, “Great! And then they went about
calling them saviors and great men. And whatever doctors were doing? Keeping alive people
who should have been dead.”

“It would be great if people could think like you want to. Then it won’t be such a mess
now.”

“You mean it?”

He nods. Something is happening. I can feel it in the air but not understand.

Then a soft, rich smell reaches my nose. Harry looks in that direction. “Feels like
coffee.” He says.

“Strange.”

Betty
19

“Long time since we had any coffee.” Harry says a few minutes after he has come into
the kitchen.

I hum. We had been saving coffee too. But now we do not need to. Suddenly Harry
draws very close to me. “Are you sure?” He asks. I turn, “Yes.”

He takes his arms around me. I press closer to him. His hands are cold. He breathes
deeply, feeling my hair. I know that I just want to be like this. In someone’s arm, like Mom in
my Dad’s. But that is not how things can go on anymore. “It’s terrible.” He says.

“It will be worse if we let it happen on its own.”

“Damn it! I wish Dad had never made the basement. We could die with everyone
else.” He says and then laughs. I laugh too.

Jim

Betty pours the coffee out for all of us and we sit down together after a long time.
Betty keeps scratching her neck. Harry looks the farthest amongst us. I think of the pages I
have typed. Why I have typed them, I do not know. But just now, more than anything we talk.
We do not start out on the coffee at first. We talk stuff about the basement, about the nuclear
war, about everything and nothing at all. For the first time in all these months, I start to feel
happy. Yes, it is still life. Even after whatever has happened. Hundred years later, no one is
going to know that one Jim had a mug of coffee. Heck I do not care.

Then I pick the cup and take a long sip. Then shudder, and look up at them, “what’s in
it?’

Harry and Betty pick their mugs together. I understand in one single moment what
they have done. “I’m sorry,” says Betty, “Even the last man has to die one day.”

One Hundred Ninety-one hours later, the generator ran out and the last lights on Earth
went out as well. It was a dark and quiet night. The year was 2997 and all very silent. Very
beautiful. There was nothing haunting, nothing scary. Because there was no one to haunt or
scare.

Just as perfect as it should be.

August 2018

Storm
I
20

Harry came back to his senses late at night in Megan City Hospital. The story of what had
happened at his place that evening had got around before that. Stories began to crop up.
Naturally. People wanted to know how it happened.

The next week Harry was taken to the place where he stayed for the next six months,
at least. For two reasons, I don’t know about his whereabouts after that. First, I left the town.
Second, I never again met Will, the only one who knew the story. Harry was a clever man in
one sense. He knew which questions would be asked and he knew how to avoid them.

A month later, Will went to see Harry. He had grown thinner and paler by then.
Because often he refused to eat. They talked little. But when Will got up to go, Harry stared
up at him for a long moment. Then asked: “Don’t you want to know how it happened?’

Will met Harry’s eyes the first time since he had attacked him. But something like
torture in them made Will stop, “Why do you think I need to know?”

“I need to tell.”

“Okay.” He sat down again, “Then, tell me.”

II

“Hello!” Harry answered the phone about half a minute since it started ringing. “Who is
speaking?”

“It’s me, Harry.” A woman. “Please, talk to me. I need to tell you something!”

“Rita?” He said quickly. “You sound awful. What happened?”

“I was just about to be murdered!”

“Murdered?”

“Yes. I was standing on my balcony. Suddenly someone came from behind. He


grabbed my waist and pulled me down. He was wearing a brown jacket and...” Rita began to
gasp. “He was strangulating me. We were rolling. Then I grabbed something and hit him on
the head. He screamed and let go. I tried to run away but, but then he called my name. I
looked back and you won’t believe it. You can’t.”

Rita began to cry. Harry rubbed his head, looking at the clock. It was past midnight
by one quarter. “Please, calm down Rita. Who was he?”
21

“You won’t believe.”

“Maybe I will. He was the man you last broke-up with?”

“Oh! My God. How can you know?”

“Because, Rita...” Harry had to bite his lip to stop himself from laughing, “I am sorry
but it’s the fourth time you had this hallucination this month.”

One o’ clock and twenty-one minutes. About an hour since she had called yesterday.
Somewhere, a couple of loons screamed their rip-the-air scream. Harry thought of Rita. He
was sorry for her. He wanted to help her but he didn’t know how. And she made him think of
someone else.

The pale yellow light of the bedside lamp streamed over his face. He closed his eyes
and lay still for another few minutes. Then sighed. It was no good. He knew he couldn’t sleep
again. A few months back perhaps he could. Outside it was raining very hard. The roads were
flooded. Trees were being torn apart.

He got up and started to look for something in his bookshelf. Most of them were
books on hallucinations, nightmares, depression and... Harry slipped ’Rebecca’ out and came
back to bed. It was one of his few proper books. He held it open before himself and started
reading–

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

“Who is there?” Harry called suddenly, turning towards the door. The bedside clock, hazy in
the lamplight, showed a quarter from two in the morning. Then the doorbell rang the second
time. He felt his heartbeat rise. Who could come at this hour and in this weather? He threw off
the sheets and got up from his bed. Putting the book back on the table, he left the room and
crossed the drawing room to the door, turning on another light on the way.

But when he pulled open the door, he first didn’t know where to look. Then he saw a
woman just below the bottom step. She was holding an umbrella very close over herself and
her body was wrapped in a long black raincoat. Her back was turned toward him: she was
going.

“Hey!” Harry called, “You... Did you ring the bell?”

“Yes!” She stopped, turning her face a quarter towards him, “Sorry. It was a mistake.”

“Mistake?” Harry asked, surprised. Still, in the haze of rain, he thought that her face
was familiar. “Where are you going? In this weather?”
22

“Please, don’t ask me anything.” She said huskily and walked away. A few minutes
later, the lights suddenly went out and the house plunged into darkness.

“No, actually I was going to the market. I have got the day off –Sunday. Then I remembered
that your house is on the way.” William took out his lighter, following Harry to the kitchen,
“so well, I came.”

“Coffee?”

“Without milk.” Will said and lit his cigarette, “It was the storm of the year.”

Harry shook his head, taking out the jar. “Storm of the century, Will.”

“Or Millennium?” Will asked. They both laughed. “A tree fell on my bedroom
window last night; cracked it.”

“Oh,” Harry said. It was difficult to sympathize with Will. He looked perfectly happy
with a cracked bedroom window too. But while spooning out the coffee, Harry felt Will
looking rather intently at him. Harry turned. “What happened?”

“No. Is everything okay?”

Harry suddenly felt the temperature drop a little. A centigrade or two perhaps.
“What?”

“How should I know? I just asked.” Will laughed a bit, “You are looking somewhat
ill. Is it flue?”

Harry turned back towards the window. It was still a little cloudy but clearing up now.
He thought of the woman who had knocked. Who was she? “No,” Harry said absently, “I’m
okay.”

A week passed since the storm. There weren’t any more storms. Not even rain. A week of
total boredom. Something about his house, about his street, the whole city in general irritated
him. On Tuesday, he had an argument with his neighbor about her Labrador trying to bite
him. A couple of days later, Rita called him up about something. Then on Sunday, he fell
asleep before the television in the middle of ‘Vertigo’.

Next morning, he woke in a much better mood than in last several days. Then, while
taking his showers, Harry slightly raised the bathroom window and looked down. It opened
the same way as the bedroom window. In the street, two boys were playing tennis. It was
getting colder now, trailing off into winters. Breeze blew like cigarette smoke. Not far from
23

where he stood were queues of white boxes and crosses stretching up to the lake. Harry didn’t
look at it these days but every night when he went to sleep, he used to stare toward it.

Milton’s cemetery is haunted.

“It’s not!” He said aloud, suddenly turning off the shower tap. He couldn’t bear
hearing the same thoughts repeatedly. “It’s the damned fools’ gossip.”

But that evening, when he got home, he heard someone’s whisper–“Help me. I’ll die.
Help.”

“Who is there?” He said aloud and turned on the lights. There was no one.

One afternoon Rita came to his clinic again. She was young. Dramatic. And very
intent on convincing Harry that he didn’t understand her. When she repeated herself the fourth
time, Harry stopped smiling. He dropped the pen on his notebook- “Rita! Listen, I am a
psychiatrist. What do you think you pay me for?”

“I know but I can’t trust you.”

“Your choice.” Harry said irritably, then bit his lip. He didn’t remember behaving with
any patient like this in these five years. ”Anything else?”

“I can’t sleep.”

“Okay, I will write the prescription. You can take sleeping pills. But take proper dose.
Be careful.”

“What about?”

Harry met her brown eyes and crossed his arms on the table. There was one thing that
he couldn’t tell her. That somehow, she made him feel desperate. “I want to tell you
something, Rita. Ten days later, I am going away for a few days. I have a friend Will. William
Dylan. He is not a psychiatrist. But if something happens, you can even call him up. He
will...” Harry paused to write a number in his notebook. He ripped it apart and held it to Rita.
“This is his number. He works in the Megan City Hospital.”

“One beer?” The bartender repeated.

“Yeah.” Harry nodded. He went back to grab a table. There he drank the first and after
a while, the second glass. He wasn’t a habitual drinker, and very soon, he felt things
24

becoming a little blurred. But he didn’t want to stop. He even started to laugh cheerily at the
bartender and the other customers. It was a happy giddy kind of feeling.

At the third glass, he heard a girl’s voice, “Can I sit here?’

Before he could reply, the girl slipped into a seat beside him. He slammed down the
glass, bending forward with it, still staring at her. She wore a white blouse with pink buttons
and a black skirt and one of her purple earrings hid in her small bob-cut hair. “You?”

“Yes. Why, don’t you know me?” She held out her hand, “Maria.”

“Maria.” He repeated.

She hastily leaned forwards and whispered, “Oh! Harry, I know your problem. Why
don’t you tell someone?”

“It was you! You rang the bell that night?” She kept staring at him with her dark green
eyes, in a strangely familiar way.

“You did.” He said furiously, reaching out to grab her hand. “You did. Don’t lie.”

“Yes,” she said, slipping back her hand, “I did. But didn’t you want me to? Why were
you sitting there?” Harry met her eyes, “You were waiting for...”

Everything suddenly moved out of focus. A strange fear ran through his veins. He
grabbed his head and fell forward on the table. He couldn’t hear what else she said. It was
pain like anything. Something flashed in front of his eyes. Then it passed.

After a few seconds, he managed to look up. The bartender was standing anxiously by
his table with another couple of men. They were carrying water to splash on him. “What
happened?”

“No. No. It’s seizure. Don’t worry,” He said huskily. He still didn’t know what had
happened and he was just as confused as the bartender. Then he suddenly straightened up:
“Did you... see the girl? Where did she go?”

“Girl?” The bartender exchanged glance with the other two, “Which girl?”

Harry reached the town of S. late in the afternoon. He soon managed to search out a hotel. It
had always been a tourist destination. So it was full of them. He filled in all the documents
and got the keys to Room. No. 56. Later that evening, he bumped into a man who thought that
he knew Harry. When he realized his mistake he simply shrugged, “I see but then, I never saw
you before. I am John Carry.” He held out his hand.
25

“Harry Lear.” Harry smiled, shaking hands.

“Vacationing?”

Harry met his friendly drunken look. “Mr. Carry, would you believe it if I say that I
am here because my house is haunted?”

“Haunted by what? Ghosts...?”

“Kidding.” Harry laughed.

And for the first few days, it really seemed that he was kidding. For the whole lot of
psychology books that he had read, a new place always does good to the mind. The city, the
hotel all felt great. The sun shined warmer here than in his part of the country. For a while, he
had no Rita in his life, no patients, no one to worry about.

On the beach, he started recognizing morning and evening walkers by their first
names. Which was great, because in his hometown, he didn’t even know his next-door-
neighbors.

At a café, he placed a bet with two men on a game of cards. He lost but he had a fine
time. Then one day at the beach, he spotted someone who made him stop. And perhaps she
knew because when he tried to reach up to her, she ran away.

That evening he decided to repeat what he had done once before. He drank down
multiple glasses of beer at a pub. He sat bated breath no more laughing like the last time,
waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone to come and ask to sit with him. To tell
him that she knew his problem. That he was waiting for her.

Nothing happened. He sighed, got up and left for the hotel. He was just about to turn
off the lamp and go to bed when someone knocked.

The phone beeped for about a minute before he could come on the line, “Please talk to me,
Harry. I am very scared. I am alone.”

“Alone...”

“Yes. Oh! something has happened to me. Please, don’t put down the phone. I trust
you. I think I am possessed.”

“Possessed...” Harry said, wiping his mouth. He was struggling to keep his balance.
“Ok! Listen to me. Maybe you are possessed. You are right. I am sorry.”

“Harry! What’re you saying?”


26

“Yes!” He began to gasp himself, “Yes, Maria. You want to kill me, don’t you?...
When anything happens, you come here knocking. Calling me. Whenever there... there’s
light, darkness comes.” He began to laugh, feeling the beer taking effect on him and wiping
his mouth again.”And when there’s peace, s...storm comes.”

Rita froze in her armchair, the phone slipping from her sweaty fingers. But Harry
didn’t stop- “Listen to me okay. Why don’t you understand? Why can’t you? Now... don’t put
down the phone. You come here calling. And when something happens to me, where do I go?
Who do I call, yeah?”

He tossed the phone away on the table. Then he himself swayed and gripping the edge
of the bedside table, he slipped to the floor of Room. No 56 of a hotel in the town of S. Just
then, he felt someone’s hands on his arm. Very soft hands. “You are beautiful,” He murmured
and grabbing at those arms, he pulled her down, the light of the bedside lamp brightening up
her lips and the curve of her body.

“What’s it?” She asked.

“I want you, Maria... I want...” He breathed.

The warmth of her, under the silk clothes, reached him. Her hair fell against his face.
He tossed back his head. He was afraid. He had her. He didn’t have her. He couldn’t think
anymore. He kissed her.

It was past six in the morning when the train pulled into the city, which was wreaked by a
storm some two month ago. And at this last station, the train was mostly empty. The sky still
had the bloodshot look of sleep-deprived people. Naked trees stood on both sides of the
railway track. Lights were still on at the station. The road was still dark. Little streetlights
shimmering in the haze. It is that time of the day when the wind seems to haunt, forget the
people, forget the dead. The wind haunts.

Harry called up Will and told him that he was back in town.

“Oh! Good. Harry,” Will was in a hurry, “I am calling from the hospital. It’s about 10
in the morning. One hour is left.”

“Of what?” Harry asked.

“Visiting hours.” He replied, “Can you reach here?”

“What?” Harry almost choked over his coffee.

“Okay, and don’t be in a hurry.”


27

“But, listen to me, Will. Why?’

“I... I will tell you later.”

Harry reached the hospital at about one and a half quarters from eleven. Will told him
about the whole incident, at least whatever he knew, when they met at the hospital. “When did
it happen?” Harry asked.

“Two days ago. At night. About eleven.”

“Panic attack. So she popped in the pills?”

“Yes. And then when she realized what she had done, she called me up and told me.”
Will said, leading the way in. The smell of medicines filled the room. He walked the row to
the last bed. Rita lay there. She looked blankly at him. Then at Harry.

Will looked from Harry to Rita. Harry met her eyes. Until then he always knew that
they were brown. But now, he thought they were green. Dark green.

And he realized that Rita was beautiful too. Very beautiful. Still. Harry quickly turned
and came out. After a while, Will found him standing by a wall, holding his head. He patted
Harry’s back. “It’s not your fault...”

“No.” Harry said, turning toward him, “Rita had called me before she did this. And I
said... I-I didn’t talk. I...”

“Why?”

“I don’t know...” Very suddenly, Harry turned and dashed out. When Harry reached
home, he threw himself in the sofa and turned on the TV. It blared on at full volume.

‘I know it Maria. You didn’t kill yourself to die. You never wanted to die. You wanted to
torture me. You love it. That’s why you took poison. You knew I loved you. And you wanted to
do it to me. But why me? Why me? What did I do? You come back every night. You...’

Harry stopped scribbling only when he heard someone ringing the bell repeatedly. It
was around six in the evening. He tore the note into pieces. He slowly brushed his eyes, in a
way that few people can pass off as brushing off hair. Nor could Harry. At least when he was
alone. Steadying himself, he got up and went to the door. When he opened it, he found Will
standing there. Harry asked what he had come for.

Will asked Harry to let him in, looking right into his eyes. Harry glanced away and
backed off towards the sofa. Will put aside his bag and sat down across Harry.
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“Why did you run away from the hospital this morning?”

“I didn’t.”

Will leaned forward to talk, placing his hands on the table. Suddenly Harry seized the
red covered notebook. “Don’t touch it”

“Harry!” Will started. Harry got up from the sofa. Will got up with him, drawing
nearer, looking into his eyes. They were swollen. He knew that he wasn’t sleeping. Will was
himself scared. “Oh! God, Something has happened.”

“What has happened?”

“You... You have lost it...”

“Shut up.” Harry shouted, for the first time meeting Will’s eyes.

“Are you mad?”

Harry suddenly threw away his diary and fell on Will. But Will was a healthier,
stronger man. And he still slept eight hours a night. They rolled down on the floor. Harry tried
to reach for Will’s neck. But he felt everything sliding off into the dark. “Maria!” He
whispered. His grip on Will loosened. He slumped back on the tiles...

III

When Harry finished, he was no more looking at Will. He was looking at the ceiling. Will
didn’t reply for a while. Finally, he asked, “Is that all?” Harry nodded.

“Just one thing” Will began, “Who was Maria?”

“I could have told you at the start if...” He struggled to supress one long exhale, “She
was my patient until she committed suicide six months ago.”

“If you knew it, how did you let her haunt you?”

“If I understood that much, how would I reach here?” Harry replied. Will got up and
picked his bag. His hands were still a little shaky.

Harry seemed to remember something suddenly, “When was Rita discharged?’

“Three days after you were hospitalized.... Harry, you loved her?”

“I love her. After Maria, only her. How long do you think am I going to be here?”

“I don’t know. Actually...” He looked about the room. “I never knew this. I just...”
29

“I know... It’s so funny. A psychiatrist in the mental asylum.” Harry bit his lower lip.
“Will? Do you also think I am mad?”

Will hesitated. Then: “No, I don’t.”

July 2018

The change I want to make


What if I could change just one thing? When I first faced this question, I started thinking from
noisy neighbours, disreputable street dogs, over-pollution and population. But some weren’t
my own concerns. Others, though important, were borrowed from newspapers and elders. So,
they didn’t seem like the answer. Suddenly, I realized that what disturbed me most was none
of these. No, it was a question, so familiar that it brought distaste to my mouth –‘What is your
surname?’

Being an Indian, I have heard this question more times than I care to remember. But in my
earliest recollection of it, I was seven. A girl Tara asked it on her first acquaintance.
However, noticing her rather demanding tone, I refused to reply. After a moment, she shot at
me ‘Are you a scheduled caste?’ Quite shaken, I asked what if I was. Tara angrily turned and
walked away, perhaps regretting that she ever spoke to me.

Since then, I wondered several times how the last name could mean so much. Honestly, there
could be a thousand, ten thousand or million people with the same surname! Slowly did it
seep into my stubborn brain that the question, instead of few simple words, is the backbone of
the whole Indian mindset. It stands for–‘What is your religion? Caste? Community? Are you a
Brahmin? Kshatriya? Or Scheduled caste?’

In our country, the topic holds such grip on people that questions about religion and caste are
the introductory ones asked in offices, banks, schools and by property dealers, neighbours and
literally everyone. While making friends, small children and teenagers too stick to the social
norm. The very norm that will one day dominate the choice of prospective brides and grooms
for them. I don’t know what good it does other than pushing people to live in separate worlds
–share the land and still not the country.

When my Grandpa was a lecturer, he recalls, there used to be one Professor Verma in the
same college. By terms and conditions, he could never be made to leave the post. But when
the principal came across another person with the same caste as his own he gave the pink slip
to Mr. Verma. It him left and his family consisting of a wife and three children, totally high
and dry. Plus, the new professor was both less educated and less capable. It happened some
sixty years ago.

In the Hindu society Brahmins and Kshatriyas are considered the first and second most
esteemed castes. In the past they respectively formed the clergy and the nobility but now you
30

can find them doing all kinds of jobs. Under them are the Vaishya, originally business folks.
They formed some sort of middle layer. At last are the Shudras or Schedule castes. They were
placed in the lowest ranks by the upper castes. Poor and deprived of education by religious
laws, obliged to do odd jobs like manual-scavenging.

But the mindset? How can it change when the surnames are keeping it alive? You can find a
person’s caste as soon as you know their last name. If there was just one thing I could change,
I would abolish the last name. Let people be known by their first names and exchange the
surname with their parent’s or grandparent’s name for recognition. Then in a few generations
they might as well forget that they belonged to a particular caste and belong to what is known
as India and at a later day, the world.

The final home


He leaned closer to the window with a faint longing. Outside, the wind blew on the tarpaulin
of the tent. The sky was getting darker, tinged with orange above the hills. Birds were flying
back home... home, he thought smiling to himself. Lucky they were to have a home to fly
back every day. But then the smile faded. He envied the birds. And it wasn’t a nice feeling
though one he could explain.

Ranjit turned away from the window thrusting his hands into his pocket. Some of the soldiers
were huddled together. They were silent. One had fallen asleep. Jaspal was trying to crack
jokes but no one listened to him. Ranjit told them he had something to do. Then sat down in a
corner and lit a candle with his cigarette lighter. His hands were shaking slightly in the cold.
Jaspal called with his usual cheekiness, “what’re ye doin’?” Going by his tone, Ranjit could
have been doing something very stupid.

“Does it matter?” Ranjit snapped. Jaspal didn’t reply. He instead got up and dashed out,
telling the others that he had lost his engagement ring somewhere. Everyone laughed. Ranjit
grinned as he took the pen and paper from his bag. Then scribbled –‘Dear Simran.’ He
stopped to cough... also because he didn’t know how to begin. When people write letters, they
talk about their homes. But Ranjit couldn’t. The only things that happened here, at the army
camp, were blizzards, skirmishes, bomb attacks and gangrene. Other than that, guns,
artilleries and shells. Even a cook had died last week. Ranjit sighed. Could he write all this to
his wife? Surely not.

Then his mind wandered away to Simran’s letters. Mostly her letters were stupid and boring.
But Ranjit found them funny... That reminded him something and he began absent-mindedly:
‘I got your letter last week. What had you asked about getting good tea or not? I didn’t get
31

your point. What we are given for tea is only boiled water. Nothing like your tea... And you
know, we haven’t anything to talk about either. In the evening, it feels very lonely. Sometimes
at night, I can’t sleep as well. It’s so unbearably cold. And when I think about you and
Munna, I never feel sure about anything. You are so far away. I can’t do anything and...’

Suddenly Ranjit was surprised, even frightened by what he had written. He thought of the
letter passing under the eyes of those who inspected their letters before they were sent from.
What would they think? That he had gone nuts.

Ranjit pulled himself together and tore it up. Then rephrased his thoughts and started again:
‘Dear Simran! How are you? How is Munna? I received your letter. So winters have arrived
there. By the way, it is getting cold here too. Snow-clad mountains, deep valleys. Apple
orchards. Kashmiri people in long woolen dresses, carrying their goats and yaks. Do you
know how their yaks look? Like balls of wool. They are beautiful.’

Ranjit sniffed. He hadn’t seen most of this but he made it up... He stopped again and looked
up. Somewhere outside a dog was crying. Ranjit turned back to the letter. He wondered what
Simran could be doing right now? Maybe standing by the window, combing her hair or
cooking. Or chatting with Munna. As he thought, Ranjit touched the pen to the paper but
words didn’t come. He wanted to talk about that little boy with bushy hair and beady eyes.
After all, Munna was his son. But they had never been together for more than a couple of
weeks. And the last time he had seen Munna... Suddenly Ranjit felt something heavy press
upon his chest. That last time....

It was some seven months back, at a railway platform in Gurgaon. Simran was talking
breathlessly and Munna was in Ranjit’s arm. Maybe a boy of four is too old for that but Ranjit
carried him anyway. Munna was babbling and Ranjit kept listening and laughing. Then he
pulled his cheeks, promised to return and put him down. Munna stopped laughing. Even
Simran fell silent. Ranjit felt an emptiness. He tried to smile but couldn’t. He instead picked
his bag, turned quickly and rushed towards the train. But after Ranjit had found himself a seat
in a general compartment, he stared out of the window and saw Munna who wasn’t laughing
any more, but crying, holding Simran’s hand. As the train began to move, Ranjit pressed
himself against the grills, trying to call out. But the train kept moving, slow at first, then faster
and faster... True, he didn’t have a home.

The shaking of the candle brought him back to the present. If he hadn’t caught it in his
fingers, it might have toppled over. But the flame died. Ranjit cursed himself and coughed
loudly. Outside, the dog began howling. Ranjit cursed the dog too. As he was struggling to
light the candle, Jaspal came in. He said he had heard something outside. But Ranjit didn’t
pay attention. He only felt irritated, wishing that they would shut up as he went back to
finishing the letter. He felt a little furious with himself. Honestly, why did he need to think so
much?
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Ranjit wrote ‘Yes, as I was going to tell, I would soon get my salary and then you could pay
the rent. I might also come back home next month. I am not sure, but maybe. Tell this to
Munna! It will cheer him up. And I will bring a woolen shawl for you and socks for him.
From Kashmir. And if it’s a nice long holiday, we could go somewhere together. What do you
say? Well, write to me soon.’

Ranjit moved to the next line and signed it –‘yours Ranjit’

Folding it in half he laughed lightly and tucked it away in his pocket. He could hand it over
tomorrow. Or so he thought. Then he joined the others in the camp...

That night he had an odd dream. At first, he saw Simran reading his letter to Munna and
smiling; after that Ranjit saw something out of an old nightmare. He saw a toothless, bad-
tempered watchman, some damp rooms, smelly beds and stuff that had never felt like home.
The place where he had spent all of his childhood. The orphanage.... After being orphaned at
the age of six months, it was his only abode... Maybe that’s what left him searching for a
home all his life. Could the search be over? Perhaps. Who knew?

Suddenly Ranjit sat up. Beside him, the others too sat up. They heard some violent noises
outside. After a few moments’ confusion, they knew what had happened. Someone grabbed
the wireless SAT phone to inform the commanding officer who ordered them to cross the
border and attack. Ranjit rushed to get his rifle. Several men around him were doing the same.
Others were running out to reach the bunkers. Shelling had started from across the border;
another aimless skirmish. Ranjit turned to Jaspal and screamed at him to go, hide in the
bunkers. But smoke and dust was rising. Everyone was screaming. There was chaos. Ranjit
didn’t know where Jaspal went. And he had been engaged two weeks ago...

Ranjit came out and ran towards the border, shooting almost at random. It was pitch-dark but
a few more shells were shot towards them. What would happen? Ranjit wondered. Then
someone appeared through the dark. Someone from across the border. Ranjit turned his gun.
But the first shot was fired at him.

The next moment Ranjit staggered back and fell face down on the ground, losing all his
senses... Moments ticked by. Finally, when he returned to consciousness, the world was
floating around him. As though from the far end of a tunnel, he heard Jaspal’s voice. But by
then the pain was leaving him. He smiled feebly, not even trying to get up. He thought again
of his home. But this was home... the final home.

February 2018

The land of the Han people


The land of the Han people is an incredible country. Bordering one of the most despotic
dictatorships, it has remained a vibrant democracy for the last several decades. With more
33

than 2000 years of lovingly preserved history, it has learnt to built a future that doesn’t
destroy the past. A quality that’s seen in its music, architecture and art.

In my own life I have seen how much we owe to South Korea. My house has a LG
refrigerator, television and computer. My mom has been using an LG phone for the last four
years and Dad has a Samsung Smartphone. Also most of my friends and their parents prefer
this Smartphone the most. South Korea has developed simply unbeatable technology.

Yet, this progress has never stopped it from being a melting pot of culture. I believe that
Buchaechum is one of the most beautiful dance forms of the world. Known simply as the Fan
Dance, it has performers gliding across the floor with coloured fans, easily reminding one of
spring blossoms waving in the breeze.

South Korea has some top tourist destinations too. A major port, Pusan is known for beautiful
beaches and a colourful countryside. Jeonju and Andong are filled with Buddhist temples,
museums and traditional 20th century homes. Buddhist temples, however, are to be all around
here, symbolizing the peace prevailing in this country.

All this and much more, that I cannot put into words, has made South Korea my favourite
country. Which reminds me that a few days before Samsung Galaxy J2 (2017) hit the Indian
markets, a friend had asked which would be my first choice if I had to go to a foreign country.
Then, I had said –“South Korea.”

August 2018

The Truth
“Don’t say that! And don’t expect Nancy to come running to you like a baby.” Mady trailed
with a sigh. Clay glared at her. More than an hour had passed and their conversations had
trickled into monosyllables. Clay was not being sentimental or rude, but anyway wanted to
see his daughter. Flash back to almost twelve years; it was a cold December afternoon in
Jacksonville, Florida. The divorce proceedings of Clay and his wife had just been concluded.
Mady came out of the courtroom holding their only daughter, Nancy’s hand. A few minutes
later Clay followed them while having an animated discussion with his lawyer, when a black
limousine pulled in out of nowhere. He halted his discussion, took leave of his lawyer and got
into the car. Before Mady could understand anything, the car whooshed out of her sight. It
was only after a few days, Mady realized that the black beauty Clay got into, actually
belonged to the widowed socialite and inheritor of a business empire by marriage, Carol
Davis.

Mady took a deep breath to loosen her tightening chest. She was in no way
interested to discuss about Nancy with Clay. And neither was she interested in Clay’s present.
She had come to see him only after his secretary made a desperate call from New York two
nights before, at a late hour. According to him Clay, before passing out, had said that he
34

wanted to see her once. However when she stepped into the ward, Clay had recovered
partially and seemed to be in a relatively happier disposition. Maybe it was a façade, as he had
already spent two weeks in the hospital since the heart attack. When Clay found that Mady
had come all alone, he peppered her with enquiries about Nancy. Mady could not stomach it
and felt suffocated. As she thought about leaving, something stopped her. Memories from the
past floated before her eyes. She was barely twenty-five when Clay, a handsome man in his
thirties, had proposed her and she was simply over the moon to hear it. Eh! Totally besotted
with him.

While giving a look to that luxurious private ward once again Mady said in a low
voice, “Nancy was too young then. She would often ask me, “When would Dad return? I am
afraid, she would never want to see you again.”

“Did you ask her?”

Mady shook her head.

“She knows you came here?”

“No.” She stared at him, “I would never want to be called a doormat.”

“What the hell?” Clay retorted with a bout of cough.

Mady looked at his face. The face of a sick man. Listless, charmless with every sign of
life evidently sucked out. His sunken eyes, extremely dull, with dark rings around them
looked terrible. She was accustomed to seeing him as a young, handsome man who reveled in
luxuries of life and would go to any extent to get them. “Remember? She was just five then!
How could I tell her all that happened.” She said and sauntered towards the window, to avoid
any confrontation with Clay. It was snowing outside but she could feel the chill inside.

All these years, Mady, being a single mother, had to do all she could to bring up her
child and ended up giving very little of her time to Nancy. Whatever money she got by way of
one time alimony was way insufficient to keep both ends meet. In this process the little girl
lost all her innocence and sweet memories. Clay meanwhile never came to see her daughter
even after court’s permission. She grew up into a teenager, with frustrations dug deep into her
mind coupled with addiction to alcohol. Worse, she had lost all her trust in love.

“Want a piece of cake?” Mady suddenly asked turning towards Clay. The words
almost struck him like a bolt out of the blue. Mady flicked a glance over those life saving
machines placed all around Clay. She knew it will not be proper to do so. Nevertheless, to
lighten the mood she tried it. Clay gave himself a little shake and threw his mind back to the
hospital reports. Well, he couldn’t eat them. But did it matter to him now? Certainly not. Clay
nodded. Mady sat down on the edge of his bed and pulled a packet from her purse. Tearing it
open, she held up a slice of cake and put it into his mouth.“Oh! Marzipan cake. I was dying to
have it.” He said.
35

“Yes, I know its your favourite.... And you also told me you had a horror of hospital
food.”

“When?”Mady kept mum. She still remembered the place where she met Clay for the
first time. It was her hospital, where she had joined only a couple of weeks back as a nurse.
Clay had visited the hospital on account of an accident, which had resulted in a minor bone
fracture. While she was assisting the doctor to get his right leg plastered, their eyes met. It
was rather a long look and love at first sight. Thereafter Mady couldn’t stop herself from
dating him. He was a handsome young technician, working in Henry Davis’s company. He
believed in living life king sized and went beyond his means to choose pricey gifts for Mady.
Eventually, a six month courtship ended in a marriage. Nancy was born two years later. Clay
would call Nancy ‘My Little Princess!’ and he absolutely doted on her those days. Just picture
perfect! What else could one desire?

Outside, the snow flakes fell faster than before. She looked at her watch and felt tense.
Clay wondered if she was thinking about going back. For some reason, he still wanted Mady
to stay with him. Meanwhile a nurse popped in to give a quick checkup. After finishing, she
sighed and asked Mady not to disturb the patient much as the mercury had shot up in the
intervening period. She administered him a few doses of a medicine and hurried out. Clay
stared ahead fixedly for a few moments, twitched his brows and asked for another slice of
cake. However, this time, Mady denied him the pleasure of having it. Then, she took her
purse, got up and hurried to the door. Before pulling it open, she said, “Take care!”

“You are going?... So early?”

“You should take rest and...May be Carol will be here anytime.”

“Nobody is going to come!” Clay said flatly.

“But why?”

“She left me.”

“When?”

“Five years back.”

She looked numb and backed down on the chair. Carol has left Clay! Why? She
looked puzzled. Clay’s vacant eyes were tucked at her face. Carol was about twelve years
older than Clay, the widow of his boss and a much-envied socialite in her heydays. When for
the first time Mady discovered about Clay’s affair with her, he had said pointblank. “I still
love you but I love her too. She is lonely and needs me all the way. I am her employee and
cannot leave her like that. Its as simple as that.” Mady had never forgotten those words.

After looking at the white and pink lilies in the bouquet, Clay continued, “ To begin
with, all went fine, but then she got involved in another relationship. She was kinda club
36

woman... I got used to her ways...but she was horribly snooty... Tried every damn trick to get
her back...” A deep breath followed, “I don’t know what I am living for! It is all so damned
useless!...” he broke off, banging his fist on the bedside desk.

“How long has it been like that? Since she left?”

Clay shook his head, “For years.”

“Even before she went?”

He nodded with a twinge of unease.

“I know. You have been lying to yourself. Isn’t it?” Anger pent up for years burst forth. “You
lied to everyone, to me, to Carol and to yourself.”

“Yes.” The word almost dropped from his lips. Desperately he sat up in his bed but Mady got
up to leave. “Listen, Mady. But- what... how does it matter?” He was talking fast, ‘‘Don’t go
away like that. I mean... I loved you!”

“Did you? If that was true, why did you go to Carol? For her money?”

Clay did not answer. Mady again took a deep breath, licked her dry lips, and continued with
harshness and excitement in her voice, “She was rich and she made you rich. That is what you
always dreamt of. You went to her because of that. How could you stoop so low, Clay? How
could you? You never loved anyone. You only lied. No one is going to come back to you.
We are no doormats.” Clay stared at her, words failing him. He was a damn liar, who had to
die all alone. It was a harsh truth. It hit him like a bullet. In a daze, he watched Mady say
goodbye and rush out. She did not even give a parting glance. Outside the snowfall had
intensified. Clay let the blanket slide off but it did not bother him. He laid back and shut his
eyes tightly. A couple of hours into the night and he was found motionless with his eyes wide
open, as if waiting. But there was no one to wait for.

September 2017

Twenty-one jars
My wife had been dead two months when it started. The first dream was of a glass jar filled
with white smoke. The dead body of my wife. Spiders. Blood. I woke up sweating. At first, I
thought I would get over it. But I was wrong. Some things never get cured. For weeks, I heard
voices and shivered on warm July nights. Once I collapsed in the bathroom. If I didn’t live
alone, I would have reached the conclusion earlier. That I had gone mad.

Well, I went to the psychiatrist. What he said I didn’t understand. Nor did I care. But the fear
of a lunatic asylum was killing me. One stormy day, I changed homes with no forwarding
address.
37

Next day I was in a far-off village. I got myself a maid. For a while, things seemed better but
they weren’t. After about a month, I began fearing that she would know my condition. Still I
needed someone. Or else madness would have driven me to tear myself apart. Somehow, she
found this out.

One December afternoon she came to me and whispered–“I know your secret. Go; see the
man who knows all things. He can cure any disease. He lives beside the lake.”

I was shocked but for some reason, trusted her...

After coming back at night, I was disturbed. But life was getting unbearable. I had to do
something. I sighed and made up my mind. I picked the flask and gulped the potion in one go.

Nothing could prepare me for what happened afterwards. I rolled down on the ground. People
say that we scream from our mouths but right now, every nerve of my body was screaming in
pain. Light flashed upon my eyes. Somehow, I staggered to the door. It was already open. But
I fell down in the courtyard. When I stared up, I whispered, “You? What did you give me?
Poison?” Then I fainted.

I woke up in a dimly lit room. There stood the same tall thin man in black robes. “The best
gift for my 527th birthday, dear!” He growled. A woman swam into view smiling. I gasped.
She was my maid.

“And my reward?” She asked.

The man laughed, turned towards the mirror and picked one of the twenty jars filled with
white smoke. He opened it and breathed in the smoke through his mouth. When he turned, he
suddenly looked twenty years younger. “Your reward?” He repeated searching his drawers.
At once the woman gasped and ran. But the man shouted, gripped her by her waist and thrust
the dagger into her chest... The blind cat swept past him, purring.

I felt like screaming but couldn’t. I had no voice. And looking around I saw I didn’t have a
body either. I had transformed into white smoke. My soul had been trapped in another jam jar.
On it was written –‘The cure for death.’

The man who knows all things was laughing.

February 2018

Born Free
“No. Never. Don’t say such a thing. My God! How can you...?” Tara kept repeating,
holding her head. Amar had just entered the drawing room. He was surprised by the tension
on her and Leela’s faces.
38

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Oh! You. It’s all your fault. We have lost everything...”

“What?”

“Ask her!” She screamed, pointing a shaking finger at Leela. “Ask your shameless
daughter.”

Leela for the first time looked up at them. She was not very tall, not very pretty. But
just as brightly her eyes shone now, you would notice her in a crowd. She parted her dry lips
but Tara burst out, “What will she say? I am telling you-”

“Well...” Leela broke in, “No one needs to say anything for me. Yes. I said I want
to...”

“Be a mountaineer?” Amar asked. For a long moment both women looked at him.
Then: “Leela, just listen to your Mom.”

“You want me to?”

“Yes.” He said, “she is only high-school pass. But she has been managing this house
for twenty-three years. She got married at sixteen and she has brought you up. Look at her
sacrifise. And look at yourself. Twenty-two years old. Post-graduate! But can you handle a
house like the the one she handled. At your age?”

“I can’t and even if I could...”

“Stop it.” Tara said, putting her hands on her ears. “Do you know Amar, you have
made her a boy! Was it important to take her to hill-climbing, educate her? Yes high-school is
okay. But intermediate, graduation, post-graduation.” She stopped to breathe deeply, “yes, go
on, tell her the boy’s family is coming to see her day after tomorrow and she is going to be
engaged next month. Tell her to take off these shorts and wear something proper that day. She
will carry the tray with tea for the guests.... ”

“No!” Leela suddenly backed off a step, her eyes widening with shock. “No! What’s
this? And besides who is he? I don’t even know.”

“But that’s not the point. I’m just asking you to dress properly...”

“I have already said I’m not getting married now.”

Tara was ready to rant again but this time Amar spoke, more quietly but clearly,
“Look... I have seen him. We both have seen him. He’s tall, good-looking. Bank manager. His
parents are rich. Even a girl like you cannot wish for more. And he isn’t asking for too much
dowry.”
39

“But I said...”

“It doesn’t matter!” He said sitting down on the sofa, “We know what’s best for you.”
For a while everything was silent. The clock struck ten.

“Tall... Good-looking.” Leela muttered but the words won’t reach her. Yes, she
wanted to be happy. She looked down at her feet... But could any tall, rich man, even good-
looking make her happy. And what kind of happiness? Happiness bought with her father’s
hard-earned money. Something began to hurt her.

“No.” She suddenly glanced up, “who says I will be happy?”

Her parents looked at each other.

“Why? ” Leela laughed a little, “Yes, say he is handsome, well-off. He may even love
me some day. But can anyone have enough money for this? I have always wanted to be a
mountaineer. I am healthy, smart. What does that boy think he is buying with his money?”
She stopped to gasp, “My dreams, my soul. My body. And who is selling these? You both!”

Amar suddenly got up, went to the girl and said disgustedly, “We are selling you?”
Then he slapped her hard across her cheeks. “Go to bed. What have girls become today?”

Leela burst into tears when she reached her bedroom. She fell on the sheets and her
pillow began to get wet . Every part of her ached as if tryting to tear apart. She was broken,
helpless. She remembered her father holding her hand while hill-climbing when she was just a
girl. Was he the same man who had slapped her just now? Should she poison herself? But
then she shut her eyes, imagining herself on a hill, surrounded by mist as far as the eye goes.

She raised her tear-streaked face and looked before her. On the bedside table three of
her trophies stood, shining in the moonlight coming through the open curtains. Leela kept
staring for a long time, then went to the window and laughted out.

Next morning her parents came to find two suitcases open on the bed. Clothes and
other things were sprawled around. Amar went to one open trunk in the corner and said
slowly, “This one carried her trophies and medals... empty!”

Tara picked a tiny note on the table- ‘I am going. Maybe some peaks are too high to
drag you two with myself.’

October 2018

Dear Mother
Dear Motherland,
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Millions of people are your children. I am just one of them. My body, my blood, my
everything is a debt taken from you that can never be repaid. I have eaten fruits and
vegetables growing on this land. I have played in your lap. I live here. My parents, grand-
parents, great-grandparents have all lived here. Even if they go to any other part of the world
they keep coming back to you every now and then to feel the warmth and love that you so
generously radiate. This is our true home. Can anyone other than a mother give so much
without asking for anything?

Yes, we are selfish. We have only been concerned about ourselves. In fact, so many of
us stopped caring at all about you. They chopped down the forests. Huge factories were built
in their place. Their toxic waste, disposed off in the wrong way, poisoned the land, water and
air. If this didn’t happen, you could have been the most beautiful part of the world. A country
with six seasons and all major land-forms, the mountains, plateaus, plains, deserts and islands!
The only land with both the majestic lions and ferocious tigers! Yet, today you are fighting
this battle against us, ignorant children who don’t even know how to care for a mother. Still,
you say nothing.

People, lost in their own victories and miseries, never stop to look at you. But you
have made them all. And you have also held out your arms to those who came from distant
lands. Some of them, in fact, never came to embrace you back but to plunge their knives into
the same bosom you pulled them to. They looted you, destroyed your natural resources and
lorded over you. So much of your blood flowed but at last, your own brave children got up to
fight for you. Many of them lost their lives. They laid it down for the sweet taste of freedom. I
haven’t seen that time but my heart fills with pride to think that I am born in the country of
the great freedom fighters, Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru
and so many others.

One day, you became free. The chains on your feet were removed and you walked out
elegantly into the sunshine of freedom. But you didn’t come out as one but two nations. The
part of it that came to us is now known as Mother India. A land where wind blows freely for
everyone, the lights glowing for all –for the Hindus, the Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Jains.
People of all religions, castes and creeds brought under one banner. Now we could all stand
up together against discrimination, poverty and ignorance in your name.

Still there are people in our own country who are ready to call you mother and then
loot it. These selfish people, from various jobs take bribes and cheat people. Some politicians
play with people’s emotions, dreams and hopes. Promises are made and forgotten. Unrepaired
roads cause accidents. Grains rot in granaries while ration shops cannot meet the needs of
their poor customers. And yet, who we to blame? We are ourselves guilty... for the silence we
have maintained, for our deliberate ignorance towards your sufferings, for the way we throw
food packets out of the car’s window in our own country and become prophets of cleanliness
in the foreign.
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Today you are free. Your children are not slaves of foreigners. We are developing but
still we are not ready to break all the boundaries between us. You taught us to embrace
outsiders and we aren’t even ready to accept each other! I am not able to understand why the
question, ‘What is your surname?’ and more blunt questions such as ‘What caste?’ still asked
at every nook and corner. Have your children forgotten that they have got you as a mother?
Do they just call you their mother and never give it a real thought?

In this very country, women are still not seen as equals. Seven decades after
independence, we can still say that a woman cannot do this or that, without even giving a
thought to the fact that after all it was a woman, who had given birth and brought them up
and you as our mother have fed millions of people. It is these people who kill a girl before she
is born, keep her away from education or force her to marry anyone against her wish.

Mother, you have made us and fed us for hundreds of thousands of years. If we have
stopped taking care of you, it is our greatest crime. In your lap, no child can be smaller than
another. We cannot give back what you have given us. But perhaps we can still serve you a
little. If we do not, then we have no right to live here. Yet, if we do nothing for you, you
won’t ask for anything. Because you are a mother.

May this letter reach you at the earliest. I am waiting for your reply. Please write to
me, give me some sign, some signals about how I can serve you.

With lots of love.

Your daughter,

Ananya Aloke

October 2018

Sanitation and survival


Once last year, I had travelled to Mumbai on the train. When the railway made its way
through slum areas I was wide-eyed at the extents human living could degrade to. Between
the tin homes, piles of garbage had been collected. Dogs were searching for food among
them. All the narrow lanes were dirty and from where I sat by the window I could look down
and see plastics lying along the track. The people there were visibly thin, weak and decrepit. I
kept wondering how these people live like this.

Sanitation is a very important part of human existence. It is a major factor on which


health depends. Without sanitation, it is difficult to survive. Illness would start burying its
roots in us. The Harappan civilization is known to have been destroyed by collection of waste
and unhygienic drainage system. I don’t know how much more or less worse it was then the
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sight in those slums mentioned above, but one thing is certain –It’s time we realize that lack
of sanitation can ruin our lives. And we need to find ways to tackle them.

(1) Start early–

At what age you come across a topic makes a big difference. If a person keeps
throwing banana covers out of bus and car windows until the age of 40, he is never likely to
change. But if the issue of sanitation gets introduced to children when they are as young as 5
or 6, they will not see it as an external issue only reserved for speeches, essays and missions
like ‘Swachcha Barat Abhiyan’ to which they have a total apathy. Instead they will link it to
day-to-day life.

(2) What about pets?–

For one reason I wish I didn’t have to say this. Like my parents, I too am a pet lover.
We had our own pet dogs, while staying in the village. But since our move to the city, we
haven’t domesticated any. In my opinion, pets in the cities create a problem for both owners
and other people. For instance, in our own city walking on foot has become very difficult,
especially after evening. Dogs have defecated everywhere. It’s true that many of these are
street dogs. But with regard to those which are domesticated, it’s to be said that pets are better
not kept in cities. But pet-lovers, while the decision is in your hand, remember that this kind
of life is also not good for your beloved companions. They need free-spaces to run and play
which they can never get here.

(3) Proper sewerage–

If the original sewerage system of a given place is poor, then mere improvements in this
regard can decrease diarrhea cases by about 30 to 60%. As per National Family Health
Survey-3 (2005-2006) 52.8% households had better sanitation facilities while 41% still had no
latrines within the house, among which 24.2% used public toilets and the rest, 16.8%
defecated in the open. In stated such as Andhra Pradesh, Bangalore, Karnataka, Hyderabad,
etc. half or more than half of the cities were found to have neither sewerage systems nor
running water. As we all know open defecation is a major cause for diseases, the government
must make it a point to see that as many houses as possible have latrines connected to a
proper closed sewerage lines.

(4) Wrong ways of garbage disposal–

A small pond very near to my place has turned almost black with disposal of garbage.
It is choking with plastic bags, bins, rags and bottles. During the rainy season, it is a breeding
ground for mosquitoes which is why diseases like dengue and malaria are on the rise here.
Garbage heaped on the roads can attracts houseflies. The municipal corporations should take
proper steps. Plastic garbage can be recycled while organic waste may be turned into
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compost. Not only will a productive activity take place, but also sanitation will be better
maintained.

(5) Cleaning of rivers–

In many villages of our country the rivers are the main source of water. They fish for
food, drink water from them and irrigate their lands with this water. But use of rivers for
disposal of garbage and chemical waste has led to their polluting. The water of many rivers
like Ganga, Narmada, etc. have become very dirty and unfit for human consumption.
Therefore, the government must set aside a certain amount for the cleaning of rivers and
encourage people to keep them clean for themselves.

(6) Use of media–

Media, these days is accessible to almost all the people through newspaper, radio,
television, internet, etc. This could therefore play a major role in improving sanitation. Studies
should be made on the state of sanitation in different parts of India and broadcasted on major
channels. Reports should be published on this issue in newspapers. In this way, it will
become a topic of national importance and more people will be drawn towards it.

(7) Public meetings and cleanliness rallies

While government has a duty to look after sanitation, first and foremost are the citizens
of our country. As is often said ‘there is strength in unity.’ Therefore, ordinary people should
rise up together and face the problem that lack of sanitation has caused. Public meetings,
discussions and speeches must be arranged. Ordinary people should go on rallies and together
clean their neighborhoods, streets and roads. As more people will sympathize with this issue,
it will gain more strength.

However, while writing this essay I am repeatedly reminded of the slums in Mumbai.
For me sanitation will actually be implemented only when it reaches all these poor people and
not just the rich living in Porsche localities. Then we will be raising the standards of the
people and help to better the lives and health status of all.

November 2018

In quest of light
When I tried to answer the question of what the most important discovery of the last
decade has been, I naturally had to ask and try to answer another equally vital question. What
is technology and what it has given us?

Frankly speaking, it has given us so much over the centuries that a thousand pages will
not be enough to document that while discussing medicine, communication, transport, space,
industry, etc. we always keep coming back to the incredible gifts that technology has
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bestowed upon us. It has transformed everything to such an extent that if our ancestors were
to revisit the world, they would think of it as a dreamland. Even the meaning of the word
‘technology’ is as wide and varied as its effects. Yet, broadly speaking it is the skill of
extraction and processing of materials. Beneath this simplistic definition lies the ocean of
knowledge and light that has both simplified and complicated our lives in equal measures.

Then, returning to the last decade, it seems that one of the most important discoveries
is the ability to carry light to those living in constant darkness. Yes, it definitely sounds
fictional, but it is true and is present and palpably so, in the form of ‘Bionic eye’.

For most of us who can see normally, it is difficult to imagine the pain and desperation
of blindness. It renders even otherwise normal and potentially talented people helpless in
many ways. An acute sense of insecurity clouds their whole existence. They are seemingly
enclosed by some kind of an endless wall of darkness built around them by fate, accident or
illness. As a result, they mostly fail to live life to its fullest.

It is true that certain people like Helen Keller, pianist Ray Charles and the dancer
Alicia Alonso have achieved greatness in their respective fields in spite of their trying
circumstances. However, at the same time, we cannot say what they could have achieved, had
they been endowed with a normal vision. Similarly, we do not know how many more like
them were defeated in their battle against visual impairment. While their pain is unfathomable
for us, perhaps in equal measure it is difficult for us to understand what joy the gift of vision
would bring to them!

In several forms of blindness, the failure to detect light in the retina at the back of the
eye turns out to be the main culprit. In the absence of certain cells known as photoreceptors,
the nerve cells cannot detect light. The person thus suffers from blindness. Although the nerve
cells cannot work on their own, they can still respond to electronic stimulation. It is this
concept, which formed the basis of bionic-eye as originally proposed by revolutionary
American scientist Benjamin Franklyn.

Broadly speaking, the whole idea of Bionic eye is to recreate the photoreceptors. It is
done by producing an array of stimulating electrodes and placing it on the retina. Thereby, it
is fed by a digital camera, which is meant to convert light into electrical signals that report the
intensity of light. In a bionic eye, the signals from the camera are sent to the stimulating
electrodes positioned in the eye. Fortunately, the nerve cells cannot detect the difference
between fabricated electrodes and natural photoreceptors and hence they get stimulated and
send information to the brain to provide the functional vision.

Although a lot of complexity is involved in, devising a product of such intricate and
sensitive function, but its success has brought cheers to the lives of many a deprived soul.
Several bionic eyes have been successfully implanted over the years since surgeons at
Manchester and Moorefield made history in 2009. Although the images that they give are still
45

only near perfect, but they are very much serving the purpose they are meant for. Hopefully,
that day is not far when a device like this would be at par with God-gifted eyes.

It reminds me of those words once spoken by the great Martin Luther King Jr.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that...”

True, he meant the light in a symbolical sense but literally speaking, light holds the
same meaning for those who are visually impaired. Now that the technology is able to drive
out the darkness from the lives of many such people through Bionic eyes, I feel that it is one
of the greatest discoveries of all times.

September 2018

Unbreakable relation
How are festivals important? Honestly, I do not know myself but I have many vague
memories of festivals that I have seen. And the Hindi ‘tyohar’, the Bengali ‘porb’, the
Kannada ‘habba’ and the Urdu ‘jashna’ bring the same pictures to my mind.

The smells of sweets and other dishes floating in the lane... Rope lights hung from the
nameplates of shops... Shopkeepers have decorated the bazaar. People have decorated their
homes. Glowing kandils of different shapes and sizes are beating the plain streetlights. Many
people have gone away while others, equally cheerful are still arriving with gifts and small
delightful children.

It is at this time that I tell myself, “Now it’s a festival.”

How many times has this happened to me? Once, twice... thrice... no, at least fourteen
times. India is a country of festivals. Many people travel across hundreds of miles to meet
their parents or families at this time. Festivals are a part of the normal life. People of all major
religions reside here. Few dates on the calendar are not adorned with the name of one festival
or the other. A lot of them are not even known to us. Still, how many are celebrated with so
much pomp and show?

Yes, I love all festivals because the word itself is very sweet. But my favourite festival
is Raksha-bandhan, the day of brothers and sisters celebrated on the full moon day of Shravan
and known by several names such as Saluno, Silono and Rakri. Although few people are
unaware of the main ritual of the festival I will still like to put it in few words.
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A sister of any age ties an amulet on the wrist of her brother, investing him with a
responsibility of protection if ever required. After getting married, women often travel back to
their parental homes or are escorted by their brothers for the occasion.

However, these days many people do not have the time for this travelling. So a huge
number of Rakhis are sent by parcel as well as e-rakhis through e-mails. Thus a part of the
ritual has now become symbolical. Which is perfectly okay as a Rakhi in any form is still a
Rakhi.

In a way, the festival also goes beyond the blood relations. Although cousin brothers
and sisters have always followed this ritual, now a modified celebration has cut across caste
and Hindu-Muslim divisions. This in itself is a huge step forward for the society that has
always been divided on these lines.

One popular story goes that when Rani Karnavati of Chittor became widowed due to
the invasion by the Sultan of Gujarat Bahadur Shah, she was failing to fight anymore. Then,
she sent a Rakhi to king Humayun. He immediately set off with his troops to defend Chittor.
However, as he arrived too late, the fortress had been already captured and the queen had
performed Johar.

Although such instances have been questioned, it is the sentiment that remains in our
hearts. Few cultures in the society celebrate this extremely special relationship. In a society
where morals and family values are disappearing, festivals are our last hope of keeping them
alive. Mostly these refer to the significance of sacrifice, selflessness and love.

Raksha-bandhan is also helpful for one kind of cottage industry. At this time, Rakhis
of all shapes, sizes and colours flood the markets. Some of them are heavily decorated with
beads, woolen flowers, etc. while others are lightweight and easy to parcel to your distant
brothers.

Another thing that has come into trend is the DIY or Do-it-yourself Rakhi. Videos
available on the net teach in simple steps how to make Rakhis on your own. Although not all
of these can compete with the ones in the market, there is the satisfaction of doing it with
one’s own hands. An art learnt.

Although there is still a lot to say about Rakhis, let us now return to the topic of the
discussion. What is the importance of festivals in our lives? I think it is more than we
imagine. Today our lives are filled with struggle and monotonous tasks. I am not saying that
festivals can bring about some holistic difference in our general disposition. I am also not
saying that there are no faults with the celebration of some festivals. For instance, ear splitting
noise of drum, pollution from crackers during Diwali and drinking of bhang on Holi. Such
practices have not only been accepted but also encouraged.
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Still, if we make a few modifications then festivals are beautiful things on their own.
Without them, it is difficult to imagine a single year or to make memories. The symbolical
meanings go far beyond the simple etymology... Just as the thread, that bonds a brother and a
sister with lots of love.

October 2018

Urbanization –Boon or Bane?

My introduction to anything like a big urban settlement has been quite dramatic and
sudden to say the least. It happened in the wee hours of 13 December 2010 after I got down
from a train at Bandra Terminus in Mumbai. For someone like me, coming from a small
village in some remote corner of the country, nights had always been some kind of a
punctuation mark appearing infallibly at regular intervals in the story of my existence. A
temporary pause for a nocturnal world, comprising mostly of wolves, owls, snakes, tigers etc.,
to survive and thrive. But here, like an Alice in Wonderland, I was bewildered to see what
presented itself as something quite mundane and compelling. Men, women and children of all
ages becoming very much a part of that nocturnal world and not in tens or dozens but
hundreds and thousands or even millions at times!

It is true that change is the rule of life and its better no sooner one accepts it. What is a
metropolitan today is likely to have been a city yesterday, a town the day before that, a village
last week and perhaps, a forest last year. Hah! But jokes apart, it is clear as daylight that with
the kind of developmental pace mankind is witnessing there is no stopping. But then, the
question arises, ‘Is there a need to put brakes to it at some stage? Well, the situation definitely
demands so.

As per the official definition given by our government, an urban area in India is
defined as a human settlement with 5000 or more people, where three quarters of the working
age men are not engaged in agricultural work. In other words, they are engaged in some kind
of industrial work or services. As per this parameter, we have already seen thousands of urban
centers come up around the country and even more of them are ready to follow suit at a
breakneck speed due to the tremendous increase of our population.

To make things worse, we are also staring at a monstrous problem of poverty. Poverty
and lack of employment is so palpably pervasive in certain parts of the country that increasing
number of people are having a hard time to make both ends meet. These people are
continuously on the move from villages to the cities and from one city to the other in search
of some kind of employment as successive governments have miserably failed through the
decades to address this basic issue.
48

But the result is no secret to anyone: Over-crowding of cities! Wherever the eye goes,
one can only see cars, trucks, scooters, factories, buildings and lots and lots of people. Do
cities really have as much space or resources to support all of them? No, certainly not. As a
result, we are witnessing greater poverty and an all-pervasive sense of hopelessness around
us. Slums are cropping up invariably in all the big cities. Sanitation has already gone to
smashes and garbage is piling up everywhere, like in the Harappan civilization towards its
end. Most of our urban areas, which are already chaotic, are now turning toxic
environmentally. They are neither properly planned nor sustainable.

We all know that clean air is important for good health but the state of air quality in
our country is woefully hopeless. Air quality index commonly known as AQI of most big and
small urban areas have deteriorated tremendously in the recent years. All types of hazardous
industries are coming up near residential centers of big urban areas. As a result, we can
sometimes see hundreds of extremely toxic chemical plants or units being packed in small
areas that come under the special economic or industrial zones. These industrial zones are not
only making the lives of people living around them miserable but also are also contributing to
polluting the atmosphere of the whole state or even the whole country at times.

But the phenomenon as mentioned above is now becoming quite a common incidence
in the name of industrialization. It is in fact a clear instance of how we are trying to be
blissfully or deliberately ignorant of where we are heading. For example, what is the reason
for the rampant increase in the cases of asthma and even, lung cancer? Certain reports say that
breathing in Delhi is equal to smoking 40 to 50 cigarettes a day. Even a study had been
conducted there to figure out the extent of deterioration in the quality of air we breathe.
White-coloured artificial lungs were put up outside by the prestigious Sir Ganga Ram
hospital. Within 48 hours, they reportedly turned almost black. Hopefully, such incidents or
reports exposed by the national media gain traction amongst the masses and they start taking
appropriate steps to mitigate the bad effects of pollution on their bodies.

And why just lungs? Kidney, heart, liver, intestine, brain, throat, eyes... Today people
are losing everything in this mad race for progress. They have no consideration for health. In
search of better opportunities, they are literally being sucked into a living hell where they
have neither access to clean drinking water nor good air. Moreover, the food including milk
and edible oil that they are consuming is also mostly adulterated. Vegetables grown around
these cities are toxic and lead to multiple physical problems and diseases that cannot be
initially diagnosed but can lead to fatal results later on.

Secondly, urban areas are also losing their ecological balance. Ever increasing
infrastructure and pollution are promoting loss of tree cover in cities. This can give rise to
environmental hazards such as flash flooding. Moreover, indiscriminate deforestation for
urbanization has also resulted in animals losing safe habitat for them. This is evident from
multiple cases in the recent times, where tigers and leopards are inadvertently straying into
49

urban areas due to the lack of forest cover and absence of preys at times. So, we are not just
bringing our end closer but are also pushing fellow creatures to the dead end.

Although I have said a lot about the banes of urbanization, but at the same time I
would like to point towards the boons it has come to be associated with. Ever since
urbanization gained speed in India, we have witnessed a great deal of progress and prosperity
in the society. Urbanization has brought with it hopes of good education and career to
thousands. It has also led to the unprecedented development of newer hi-tech industries.

But the environment and health factors need to be looked after, as their importance can
in no way be overlooked. First, forests need to be preserved as they are the lungs of nature.
They have to be protected by the government. Some other steps can also be taken, like for
instance, the government can set up or encourage businesses, factories, etc in rural areas and
give massive fillip to the development of infrastructural, educational and health facilities in
those places. Perhaps, the continuous flow of people into certain cities could then be slowed
down considerably and which in turn can then help bring about planned and sustainable
urbanization. Only then can urbanization be a boon instead of being a bane as is the case right
now.

Ananya Aloke

14 Years

The key to healthy life


If anyone expresses a wish to be healthy, first ask him –‘What do you feel about your
health?’ This question is very easy to answer and just as difficult to answer honestly. This is
true for a huge number of people today. Health matters to them when they start losing it.

There are many important factors but to top over them is one’s attitude towards health.
In big cities, people care about their physical state the least of all things. When they have a
health problem, they use medicines to relieve symptoms. Some of them are unknowingly
heading for a greater disaster. For instance, sleeping pills. These get less effective after a
period of continuous usage. Then, the dose is usually increased. After the dose gets high
enough, it may interfere with breathing to cause death. A study suggested that 5 lakh deaths
per year can be associated with sleeping pills!

Such notions are often questionable as many people take these medications for years
without side-effects. But this is a clear indication that a healthy life should also be natural.

To stay fit, exercises are a must. In this case, what suits one may not suit the other. So,
I don’t want to make improper suggestions. Nevertheless, strenuous schedules are a no-no.
Few people are habitual of sweating out in the playground or gym. So, it’s advisable to start
50

out by walking. Try to be on your feet for at least six hours a day. Climb staircase and cover
manageable distances on foot. Don’t spend too much time in front of the computer or TV. If,
like most people, you cannot continue alone, join a gym or yoga group.

But exercise is not everything. Food is equally important. Food should also be
nutritious, in terms of proteins, vitamins, minerals, etc. Timing is also important. Have dinner
early and take a gap of at least an hour before you are in bed. Try to nod off before 11, earlier
the better. You will be able to get up in time and, perhaps, go on morning walks as well.
Throughout the day, be sure to eat something or the other in a gap of four hours. Even if you
work under hectic conditions, try not to get it in the way of food.

Also, look out for what you eat. Adulteration is peaking. In cities, it is difficult to get
anything pure. Milk being sold in markets are, in certain cases, mixtures of shampoo, oil,
water and what not. Fruits like bananas and mangoes are being ripened using carbide, which
according to some studies, can lead to cancer. Vegetables are being made to look shinier and
more colorful using mineral oils and carcinogenic chemicals. Such things may have fatal long
term effects. Besides that, people should not be gullible toward advertisements. Many of them
are using false claims to market products. Our milk is 100% pure. ‘Such as, our company
produces pure whole-wheat biscuits or breads.’ They might be using colours to bring the
whole-wheat effect. Don’t blindly trust words like ‘best or 100% pure’.

Avoid too much junk food, like pizza, burger, cold-drinks, etc. Be careful with oil too.
Although it is impossible for most people to do away with cooking oil, moderation may work.
If you are using a particular oil, don’t close your eyes to other brands. Search for cold-pressed
oil which is processed naturally. People should be wary of consuming too much oil. It is
unhealthy, even when the oil is good.

In the final place, air and water pollution. Most big cities are not worth living because
of them. But leaving the city is a step most of us can not take. Rural people are continually
moving to cities. Still, if possible, be on the look out for cleaner healthier places.

Above all things, health has to be seen as important. To enjoy our lives, health is a
vitality. When and how we make time for it is not important. What is important is to do
something. For our fitness. A fit person is an asset for his workplace and his family. Everyone
wants a healthy life. What they don’t usually understand is that health is not bought or sold!
Like money, it is earned, saved and taken care of. That is the only key to healthy life.

DeCosta’s house
I often said that the voice of one DeCosta had made me an artist. We had never met
face-to-face. He was the first person to buy one of my paintings at a good price. But he lived
51

so far I could only chat with him on the phone. Mr. DeCosta congratulated me saying that I
made excellent paintings.

The remark had frightened me a little. Unlike my other paintings, the one DeCosta had
purchased was shabby and monotonous. It was my least favourite. After it was parceled from
the exhibition centre, I spent several days laughing that this man must be really crazy. But
since then, I found myself making more and more paintings in that fashion. Madly,
sometimes. It was the only kind that came naturally to me and they sold better.

Six years later, DeCosta’s thoughts still came back every winter season. While
painting, I imagined him. My mind played with that exceptionally rich voice until it had
drawn out a man who was charming and poetic. Sometimes DeCosta seemed to walk in and
watch me paint. It was sweetly stupid.

And I never exactly went searching for him. Once I had been to city S. on some
business and remembered that he also lived there. After a little search, I found his address and
went to his home. It was a bungalow with a garden of smooth green grass around it. Dozens
of flower plants and rose bushes. Then a man came, introduced himself as caretaker and led
me inside the house.

But my feet stopped at the doorway itself, “Whose paintings are these?”

“Many people’s.” He smiled, “I will go and call DeCosta.”

I was dumbfound. It looked like the most elegantly decorated living room in the
world. The paintings, including mine, the flowers in the vase, were all arranged to perfection.
I had never seen so much art within four walls of a room. I waited nervously for DeCosta,
imagining what we were going to talk about together.

The servant brought another man downstairs and introduced him as DeCosta. I could
say nothing for a moment. He was middle-aged, more aged than I had expected. But he had
the most intent gaze, I had ever seen. Our eyes met. He smiled. I stammered, “Mr. DeCosta,
you had bought a... painting from me several years ago. About six...”

He nodded. I again said, “It was called ‘The flower pot beside the camel.’ You had
spoken to me on the phone, as well. I only wanted to meet you once...”

Suddenly, the caretaker made some gestures to DeCosta and started laughing.
DeCosta’s face broke into a grin. He made a small funny sound. I could not understand
anything. Then the caretaker turned to me, “You had certainly not spoken to DeCosta.” At
once, I looked up at him and recognized the voice. He went on, “It was me. DeCosta buys the
paintings and arranges the rooms but he is deaf... Should I bring your tea?”

Ananya Aloke
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14 years

Born Free
“No. Never. Don’t say such a thing. My God! How can you...?” Tara kept repeating,
holding her head. Amar had just entered the drawing room. He was surprised by the tension
on her and Leela’s faces.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Oh! You. It’s all your fault. We have lost everything...”

“What?”

“Ask her!” She screamed, pointing a shaking finger at Leela. “Ask your shameless
daughter.”

Leela for the first time looked up at them. She was not very tall, not very pretty. But
just as brightly her eyes shone now, you would notice her in a crowd. She parted her dry lips
but Tara burst out, “What will she say? I am telling you-”

“Well...” Leela broke in, “No one needs to say anything for me. Yes. I said I want
to...”

“Be a mountaineer?” Amar asked. For a long moment both women looked at him.
Then: “Leela, just listen to your Mom.”

“You want me to?”

“Yes.” He said, “she is only high-school pass. But she has been managing this house
for twenty-three years. She got married at sixteen and she has brought you up. Look at her
sacrifice. And look at yourself. Twenty-two years old. Post-graduate! But can you handle a
house like the the one she handled. At your age?”

“I can’t and even if I could...”

“Stop it.” Tara said, putting her hands on her ears. “Do you know Amar, you have
made her a boy! Was it important to take her to hill-climbing, educate her? Yes high-school is
okay. But intermediate, graduation, post-graduation.” She stopped to breathe deeply, “yes, go
on, tell her the boy’s family is coming to see her day after tomorrow and she is going to be
engaged next month. Tell her to take off these shorts and wear something proper that day. She
will carry the tray with tea for the guests.... ”
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“No!” Leela suddenly backed off a step, her eyes widening with shock. “No! What’s
this? And besides who is he? I don’t even know.”

“But that’s not the point. I’m just asking you to dress properly...”

“I have already said I’m not getting married now.”

Tara was ready to rant again but this time Amar spoke, more quietly but clearly,
“Look... I have seen him. We both have seen him. He’s tall, good-looking. Bank manager. His
parents are rich. Even a girl like you cannot wish for more. And he isn’t asking for too much
dowry.”

“But I said...”

“It doesn’t matter!” He said sitting down on the sofa, “We know what’s best for you.”
For a while everything was silent. The clock struck ten.

“Tall... Good-looking.” Leela muttered but the words won’t reach her. Yes, she
wanted to be happy. She looked down at her feet... But could any tall, rich man, even good-
looking make her happy. And what kind of happiness? Happiness bought with her father’s
hard-earned money. Something began to hurt her.

“No.” She suddenly glanced up, “who says I will be happy?”

Her parents looked at each other.

“Why? ” Leela laughed a little, “Yes, say he is handsome, well-off. He may even love
me some day. But can anyone have enough money for this? I have always wanted to be a
mountaineer. I am healthy, smart. What does that boy think he is buying with his money?”
She stopped to gasp, “My dreams, my soul. My body. And who is selling these? You both!”

Amar suddenly got up, went to the girl and said disgustedly, “We are selling you?”
Then he slapped her hard across her cheeks. “Go to bed. What have girls become today?”

Leela burst into tears when she reached her bedroom. She fell on the sheets and her
pillow began to get wet . Every part of her ached as if trying to tear apart. She was broken,
helpless. She remembered her father holding her hand while hill-climbing when she was just a
girl. Was he the same man who had slapped her just now? Should she poison herself? But
then she shut her eyes, imagining herself on a hill, surrounded by mist as far as the eye goes.

She raised her tear-streaked face and looked before her. On the bedside table three of
her trophies stood, shining in the moonlight coming through the open curtains. Leela kept
staring for a long time, then went to the window and laughed out.
54

Next morning her parents came to find two suitcases open on the bed. Clothes and
other things were sprawled around. Amar went to one open trunk in the corner and said
slowly, “This one carried her trophies and medals... empty!”

Tara picked a tiny note on the table- ‘I am going. Maybe some peaks are too high to
take you two with myself.’

Word Count- 796

Name- Ananya Aloke

Title of article- Leela

Topic- 3

Champa Mausi
It all happened a little more or a little less than six years back. I was eight then.

One night over dinner, Dad had a small tiff with Mom about her habit of overburdening
herself with the household chores. Mom, as always, refused to give in to the charges that the
house was turning into a mess. Well, ‘turning’ isn’t the word as it had already turned into a
mess but when Dad gave vent to this feeling, the discussion turned into a tiff. They ordered
me to bed and so, I never found out what transpired between them. But the result was as clear
as daylight.

The next week, she came into our lives –Champa , a woman in her early thirties. But she
resembled someone if not double, at least 20 years older than her age. She lived in a nearby
slum and had somewhat betel-stained teeth. The most noticeable aspect about her, at least
what caught my attention, was her puckered up face and a somewhat discolored cotton sari
that formed her attire. To be sure, I certainly didn’t take a liking to her at first.

Champa often complained about the conditions of her slum and having to stand hours in rows
before the public taps and toilets, every morning. She always cursed herself for being so poor
and above all, illiterate. She used to ask about how my studies were going and told me to
concentrate more on it, less on playing. Quite irritated, I heard her and still didn’t hear her.
And she never expected a reply either. None of us knew much about her but yes, she was
extremely disciplined. You could set your clock by her, even though she didn’t have one
herself. Meanwhile, mom’s dependence on her increased and we would get nervous only by
the thought of her getting late. But I never saw her doing so other than a day in April 2010.
Two months after she got the job.
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That morning, Mom waited and waited but Champa Mausi didn’t turn up. I also took a leave
from the school as Mom wants that. Somehow she managed to send Dad to the office but yes,
with quite a delay. At home, work began to pile up. At last, she started doing it herself,
grumbling all the while. Midday went by.

Then, when mom was mopping up the courtyard floor, suddenly Champa Mausi materialized
at our doorstep grinning sheepishly. The next thing I knew, mom’s screams were threatening
to shake the roof and windows. I had rarely seen her so angry. She finished with the words-
“You are leaving. Don’t come from tomorrow! ”

“No! Don’t do so, madam, please!” she said, frightened.

“Why late? It’s nearly 1 pm.” To this Champa said that she had gone for Laali’s admission.
“What admission?” Mom shouted, “The other day you told me she is sixteen? You must be
looking for a groom for her?” Early marriages are still very common here in poor and
uneducated people.

Champa shook her head, “She wants to finish her Intermediate.”

“Intermediate! But... Who the hell is paying? Your husband?”

“I left him ten years ago!”

A single mother with kids, living in a big city like Pune! Mom’s tone changed dramatically
and she asked why? For a few seconds Champa stood looking down at her hands. Then she
told us her story.

***

Champa’s parents were labourers in Gonda, Utter Pradesh. At ten, she lost them. Her three
brothers married her off five years later. Seeing her off after the marriage, they practically
warned her never to come back. Soon after she reached her husband’s home in the nearby
state Bihar’s Chapra, she found him to be a rank drunkard. He spent, not only his own earning
on booze, but also snatched away whatever Champa earned, by working all day in the farms.
After a few days’ of conflict with his wife, he took to beating her up as well.

With no choices, Champa slowly started accepting the situation and her sufferings, until they
both increased in unexpectedly, after the birth of their daughters. First Laali and then Munni.
Her husband started beating and cursing her for the same. One evening, he burnt her hands on
the stove. Worse, he started treating Munni and Laali like stray dogs, kicking and hitting them
all the time. Champa couldn’t bear it but she had no choice. Still, Champa made up her mind
and secretly began to save money for the girls’ schooling.

Then, one day her husband found it out. He got wild with anger- because according to him,
every penny that she earned was naturally his property- and he hit her with something. She
screamed and passed out. Next day, when Champa woke up, down with fever, her husband
56

was beating Laali. Champa begged him to leave her but, when he didn’t, she suddenly lost
control over herself and picked up a rod. In frenzy, she hit her husband with it again and again
until he lost consciousness. Then she left the house and went to the station with Munni and
Laali. About two days later, they were in Pune.

When Champa had told this story to Mom, she for the first time noticed the large burns on her
hand. Mom asked what she wanted her children to do when they grew older. Champa Mausi
only said that she wanted them to study well. Since then, Champa Mausi came and went as
before, always with the same complaints. But in a way it seemed different. As for me, I came
to understand Champa’s story much later, when I grew older. She had fought, all the time...
evening, morning... day, night. Champa used to work as a maid in the daytime and from
evening to late night she stitched clothes for small roadside vendors. No Sundays, no
holidays. Sometimes she looked sick. And occasionally she was.

Then in 2014 Dad got a transfer and we moved to Mumbai. I was admitted to a new school
and made plenty of new acquaintances. We never got to know what happened to her or her
daughters. And eventually the place left vacant by her also got filled up.

Kashmir- Paradise On Earth


Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.

-Amir Khushrao

‘If there is a paradise on earth/It is this, it is this, it is this’

If there is anything in the world, I can call my dream place, it is Kashmir. Kashmir, the
northern-most part of India, is a magically beautiful place. The Dal-lake, popularly known for
boat-houses, is referred to as the ‘jewel of Srinagar’. And Kashmir itself is known as paradise
on earth. One thing about it has kept me wondering for quite sometime now –how can
anything so beautiful have such a scarred history?

Kashmir’s attraction is natural to me. Several decades ago, my grandfather had been
transferred there for some time. My father was then a young boy but the Kashmir that he and
my Grandparents remember is not the Kashmir of today’s newspapers or news channels.

Jammu and Kashmir lies just below China and shares borders with Pakistan and
Afghanistan as well. Kashmir’s weather is described as mild in summers while cool in spring
and autumn. But, in winters, it is so cold that many people temporarily move to Jammu.
People usually built two-storey houses here. The second storey is for summers. Ground floors,
meant for the winter, have no windows so that the people inside feel warmer. The roof on top
57

is used in the summers to dry chili powder and other spices. In such a climate, food is also a
major aspect of survival.

Yes, Kashmiri cuisine is noted for two things –meat and bakery. Most Kashmiris,
Muslims or pundits, are meat-eaters and prepare complex delicious dishes. As for bakery,
there are elaborately laid shops in Srinagar. A popular dish is baqerkhani or puff pastry,
typically eaten hot with breakfast. Kashmiris are also heavy tea drinkers. One popular drink
beverage is the ‘noon chai’ or ‘sheer chai’ which is a pinkish coloured salted tea. The locals
here strictly follow certain rituals of cooking and eating.

Still, Kashmir’s description can never be finished without a few words about it’s
landscape. I am myself deeply attracted by the snow-topped mountains. And houseboats. One
such houseboat has been immortalized by fitting a post-office cum philately museum on it.
Many tourists take a boat ride right upto the ‘floating post-office’ to post a letter or buy the
special post-cards with Kashmiri landscapes. This tourist attraction, the only one of its kind in
India, is seen at the Dal Lake. Gangabal lake, Gadsar lake, Nunkol lake are some other
famous lakes around here. Their picturesque beauty, added to the clear skies and hilly terrains,
was once so popular among film-makers, that it was repeatedly captured on celluloid.

Another thing that is famous about this unique place is the Vaishno Devi Mandir. For
those who have never made the pilgrimage, here are the basic points. From the base camp of
Katra, you have to walk about thirteen kilometers to the Mandir. But it is not necessary to
make the entire trip on foot. From Katra, you may easily take a horse, mule or palki to reach
Sanjhi Chat from where you have only two and a half kilometers to go. In spite of all
difficulties about 1 crore people make this pilgrimage every year.

Jammu and Kashmir is a cold place but colorful too. There are about 225 different
varieties of birds such as finches, robins, redstarts and hoopoe. The wool of pashmina goats
found here is used to weave the exclusive, soft and warm pashmina shawls. The favorite
vacation spot of the Mughals, it is today a region with major pilgrimage centers such as
Vaishno Devi and Amaranth. Films shot in Kashmir have also left their marks. A valley
northeast of Pehalgam has been named Betab Valley got it’s name from a hit-film shot here.

Kashmir has anything that I could wish for. Except for one. Peace. Today it is in the
news everyday for terrorist attacks or something similar to that. The latest among this is the
Pulwama terror attack. This makes my father and grandparents to reminisce what they had
seen there. Can this be the Kashmir where the festivals and feast are so charming?

Considering how stunning Kashmir can be, what I have written about it is nothing.
Kashmir is my dream place and if, on any day, peace is won back, it will again be what god
made it –paradise on earth.
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Epidemics
Man has always given huge importance to the development of medical science. As
accident, disease, natural disaster or any other cause of injury or death usually seeks remedy
in medical science. It has progressed too, and immensely, for that matter. Perhaps no other
science has grown as much as the science of cure. Personally, I don’t think that any science
may hold as much importance as this. The question is, in spite of so much progress, why do
we still have a natural disaster that, in Bill Gate’s opinion, can kill 10 million or more people
all at the same time.

Epidemic. In our general understanding of the term natural disaster, we always


include floods, droughts, earthquakes, landslides, etc. but we almost never consider epidemic
to be one. On the contrary, the largest natural disaster recorded is an epidemic. It is known as
the Spanish flu. Starting from January 1918 and going up to December 1920, it was also the
first of the two pandemics, that is, epidemics spreading across continents, which involved
H1N1 influenza virus. It killed at least 50 million. In short, man has always been threatened
by epidemics.

Epidemic is obviously a natural disaster as no man-made factors can be attributed to it.


It is the rapid spreading of an infectious disease. Some of the well-known ones are cholera,
small pox, typhoid, tuberculosis and swine flu. Nipah Virus was detected in a child in May,
this year, in Kerala. An epidemic maybe foreseen early enough but being infectious it just
keeps spreading. Often these diseases are air-borne or water-borne. So, before you can detect
it in person, he or she might have spread it to another ten or fifteen people.

But how do we prevent epidemics? First of all, they are spread to a large section of the
population in a very short time, about two weeks or less. It is not easy to control the situation
at such a short notice. To control an epidemic, we have to isolate the person suffering from it.
However, in certain cases we find that it is the hospital where the disease spreads highest.
Consider what happened in Kerala during the outbreak of Nipah virus. Other than the first
affected family, all the other cases happened in the hospital.

Clearly, in India, standards to prevent an epidemic or stop it early are not followed.
Because in Siliguri in 2001, 45 people died within weeks of outbreak of influenza and among
them, 30 were either health workers or casual visitors to the hospital. A hospital is after all
meant to cure illness and save lives. How is it that it is becoming a centre of further spreading
of illness? Such things are not seen happening in more developed countries.

Also, if an epidemic starts in a village or an undeveloped area, it is likely to be very


late before it is properly detected. In such a case, the people of that area will spread it
throughout the state and perhaps other states as well. This is the twenty-first century and
people are still dying of cholera and typhoid in our country!
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Epidemics have been happening for centuries but it is about time that we try to prevent
them and mitigate the losses caused by them. It is still rather under-rated among natural
disasters but as we can see in the world over, their intensity is decreasing. But we need to ask
ourselves whether our country is still in a position to face such a situation in such a way that
the losses can be minimized. For instance, better health care centers should be built in cities
and even in smaller towns and villages. Here the staff must be given directions to follow all
the international standards while isolating and taking care of an epidemic victim.

Especial care taken by the government about the general health of our population can
save us from huge epidemics in future. Or we will be able turn it into a less dangerous enemy.
Later, we might also defeat this great natural disaster, which will certainly be a huge leap
forward for the humanity.

Always on the go
What is stress? It’s not particularly anything. Although my understanding is rather
little, I still deny that stress has a real existence. And even if had, a man of this millennium
will be proud of it. Proud? Well, I hope I haven’t used a wrong word but let me give you a
picture of the modern man I was talking about. He seriously has a reason to be proud. I would
like to show my respect and address some words to him–

It’s heart-warming to see how you are always on the go. You wake up at six, hasten
around to get ready for your office, curse if you lose socks, curse again if you miss the right
bus but somehow make it to the workplace in time! When you have enough savings you will
buy yourself a scooter to avoid the trouble and then run around as many errands on it as
possible. You readily skip lunch. Is that all? No, I must also remind you that you have
admirably taken work to moral heights by considering it a sin to go to bed before midnight.
Friends see you once in a blue moon. But you are 100% sure that all this is for the best.

Yes, everything is for the best. This is known as trust! Trust that we have in the ideal
21 century work schedule. This is no one’s fault. In fact it is not a fault at all. Today, work is
st

a man’s God, the workplace his temple and the alarm on the phone his religion. Or else how
can someone wake up at it’s ringing after sleeping for say, four hours at night? Okay. I accept
that it is necessary for us to take things seriously in today’s day of competition.

But have you ever wondered why do we all go about discussing stress management?
Because we don’t understand what causes the thing itself. We ignore the fact it is our race for
a success that we don’t even understand. We say –everything is for the best. But do ask
yourself whether your ignoring your health, not meeting your friends, having conversation
60

with your family only while quarrelling or discussing property and getting back home long
after the kids have fallen sleep actually for the best?

I am also not in favour of taking life leisurely. But then, is stress management
possible? I don’t know but for a happy life on any day, priority areas need to be fixed up.

We are already overloaded. To top over it, if we fuss over small things, we will
certainly get bogged down by stress. Is it really more necessary for a home-maker, to keep a
house spotless or spend some time with her family-members? Stress is a big problem. There
can be no fixed ways to deal with it. If a set of things work for one person, they may be totally
useless for the next. For someone going out for a walk may be the greatest relief from worry
and boredom but for another it maybe a boring exercise.

What we really need is to give ourselves at least fifteen minutes a day. If you want to
rest, set an alarm and try to nap. Do something that will take a little time but refresh you. We
all keep saying that we haven’t got time for ourselves but what we don’t realize is that we
don’t need a whole day. Sit down and think what you will love to do. Breathe deeply. A
minute later you will find that you are a lot more relaxed!

Finally, one thing that most of us today deny is that we need conversation of the most
idle kind. Today we don’t talk, we discuss. We don’t debate, we quarrel. Lastly instead of
resting, we just sleep. Everything needs to be super quick. Surfing on the net can take two
hours but dinner should be ready in two-minutes. What are two minutes? I am sure that it
doesn’t take more than that to speak your heart out, to tell someone close that you are
miserable about something and need comforting. We mostly don’t do this. In our fear of
judgement, we keep dodging big problems, inviting stress. Then in some cases depression and
various mental problems start setting their roots. So much that one fails to understand what he
actually needs. He doesn’t necessarily need medicines to prevent depression or suicide. But he
does need to talk.

Here, let’s get back to the question. What’s stress? I am not philosophical enough to
give a good definition but I think that it has no real existence. It’s the emotional burden we
feel when we continuously keep racing against time and the limits that the needs for food and
rest place on our body. Right now, the prices of most things in the market are soaring high.
Those who aren’t married yet, know that they have to be financially settled enough to be able
to settle down in the other sense. And those people with young children are struggling to built
a family nest. At this time another lot of people wastes money in spite of knowing that it’s
precious and thereby, cause themselves further stress!

Altogether, I would say that things aren’t much better then Charlie Chaplin’s struggle
with machines in the 1936 movie ‘Modern Times’! Only I don’t understand which machine is
biggest and most difficult to handle. The ones that Charlie used, those that are in each of us or
the ones that regulate the whole world. Society in itself is a machine. Only, when we lose our
individuality we become like nut-bolts of this machine. Then we suffer from stress.
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What sets a man apart from a machine is the ability to feel stress and the need to fight
against it. We have to learn to understand what things really matter to us and then we will be
managing stress by knowing that it really is not there.