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"You must go," said Rula.
He probed her eyes. Not a wince of pain. No urgency, no request. How can she possibly ask me to leave her for a year, he thought.
Her eyes were the playgrounds of innocence and love, of sweet nothings, unspoken promises and undying faith the three years he had known them. In them he had discovered himself; learnt to laugh at himself and the world. And to believe in the Buddha and the futility of survival.
"Raj, I know it will be difficult but not impossible. The society won't accept us, Raj! You must go to England and work for our future. Our marriage, our life, the oneness we have cherished and yet can't fulfil. The final battle! I know you play only to win... you will win, Raj!"
He felt a touch of cold steel. A knight being armoured by his lover's eyes.
It was a battle since the moment Rula walked up to him that morning, three years ago. She had yanked the cigarette out of his mouth and smiled. "It's not a need," she had said. "Follow the path of the Buddha. You'll cleanse yourself and live with nature, in unending love."
It was a battle the very moment she playfully placed the hat on his head in the superstore and carefully sized him in her eyes. "Hmmm... Raj, my cowboy!" she had giggled.
And the ferocity of the battle struck him when she had told him that she was Muslim, 27. A good six years older.
They knew the battle was for real - and vicious - when the wrathful stares in the marketplace would only make them clasp their hands tighter. In East Midnapore, a small Muslim-dominated township in Bengal, India, leave aside falling in love, even staring minute-long at a burkha-clad woman could mean certain death with a halaal ki chaaku (butcher's knife). Either that, or you are a bhikhari (beggar).
... The rickshaw-wallah pedalled furiously from the college to Rula's mohalla (locality), blinded by the ferocity of the droplets, shouting orders to the vegetable vendors and the hen and chickens every once a while, ...
Raj, clean-shaven and with the locket of 'Om' dangling on his never-buttoned chest, and with a cocky, so-what-if-I'm-a-Hindu walk, could never pass for a Muslim, try as hard as he might. He couldn't understand why nobody would respond to his aadaabs (greetings), and then gave up altogether.
They knew the battle won or battle lost would still be a battle lost. Yes, they could defy traditions, rituals and society, and perhaps leave the stink and the stares for another place, another life. Happily married, a world Rula would often lovingly mention as apna chota aashiana (our small heaven). A certain victory, but built on the certain social ostracism of twelve innocent souls who, till now, merely watched in the light of their dimmed lamps, in horror yet fascination, the love bird among them take flight, soaring yet higher each passing day. Among them were Raj's six unmarried sisters and Rula's 58-year-old widowed mother.
They knew there was no going back from the battle the moment their lips met under the leaky hood of the cycle rickshaw, the first day of the monsoon East Midnapore so eagerly awaited but could only lie naked to its fury. The rickshaw-wallah pedalled furiously from the college to Rula's mohalla (locality), blinded by the ferocity of the droplets, shouting orders to the vegetable vendors and the hen and chickens every once a while, unmindful that Buddha was embryonic, love was absolute, and his passengers half-drenched and lost in Nothingness on the thatched backseat.
... He knew it was not just a battle to win his love, but also what Rula had once said, "Buddha's supreme test: You Vs You," which all had to take in this world. ...
Raj had got admission to a university in England. A surprise he least expected. Now, it was to be his chief weapon to win Rula, to transcend a consciousness only limited by his existence in East Midnapore and its orthodoxy.
Yes, Rula's eyes armoured him. He knew it was not just a battle to win his love, but also what Rula had once said, "Buddha's supreme test: You Vs You," which all had to take in this world.
He would return to East Midnapore after a year and marry Rula, and bring her and their families to England. He was to be the Knight of Emancipation.
England was cold, wet. And quiet. Quiet to the point of eeriness, thought Raj.
He was in awe of the university building: a huge red-brick structure, with a majestic black-dial-golden-hands clock to crown that seemed jealous of the freedom the flag above it proclaimed to the wind and the lush green countryside.
England, he found, was a land of plenty. There were slinky little cars and big ones; superstores that had everything, from bread to delicacies Raj thought only the Queen could afford and savour; microwaves not needing the effort of burning coal and damp wood; and washing machines that saved time and energy beating clothes by the riverbank.
England was friendly. Nobody to leer at the 'Om' dangling from his neck. None seemed to bother about the goodluck threads grandma tied on his wrists. And, when Raj said "Hello", people would smile. He would walk a so-what-if-I'm-an-Indian walk, a little wary of his brown skin, and wondered why people wouldn't bother to ask where he was from. No, it wasn't racism, he realised. It was freedom.
England was a technological wonder, too. Raj found the email to be a faster way to write to Rula about England. It would reach her in a flash, not a month and the drunk postman.
He wrote a letter to Rula:
I am fine here. Can't believe I've come so far from you. Missing your laughter already.
The university is very big, with lots of cars and trees.
I have the Internet here. Remember Rafiq telling us about it when he came from the city? I will write to you every day of our separation, it will reach you faster than lightning. You can also reply very fast. But for that you will have to go to Rafiq's shop once a week. It is very far, so ask Akbar Chacha (uncle) to cycle you there every Saturday after college....".
Three Saturday's later, as East Midnapore readied for the holy Ramzaan and the aroma of meat and spices giggled with the little fairies in shiny salwaars and ittars, strings of colourful bulbs dancing the festive spirit, Rula, with a longing none could cipher, set forth for messages from her Knight. Thirty miles on a bicycle, across the railway crossing and the burnt factory. Akbar Chacha was a pious soul; twenty years ago, he had sworn his life to Rula's family as her Abba (father), his master, lay lifeless with cholera.
Rafiq welcomed her inside the shack. A computer on a small table took much of its space. He served hot chai (tea), prattling about the computer to make her understand.
She read the flickering screen:
The university is very big! I have a big, comfortable room to stay. Boys and girls stay together. One problem: here they don't use water to clean up after defecating! They use paper. Scant respect for paper, isn't it? Also, I don't have a bucket and mug to take bath. They have bathtubs. I almost fell asleep in the morning soaking myself in the warm water! And..."
I have a German boy and a Jamaican girl as neighbours. Last night I was talking to them. The boy told me he loves other boys and not girls! They call them gay here. The girl is big size. She is always cooking, and leaves the kitchen smelling of burnt meat..."
I cooked for the first time today. Potatoes and rice. I met Dimitra, a little Greek girl on my corridor. She always plays loud music..."
My teacher said I am a good student. Felt happy. I saw Dimitra smoking. I told her not to. She laughed, and said she drinks alcohol also. She is not a nice girl. I bought books..."
I can see the hills from my window. Quite beautiful. Dimitra asked me why I am always serious, as if I my mouth was swollen after a bullock cart accident. I didn't reply. Missing you..."
Today is Saturday. No classes. I feel so lonely. Dimitra was playing loud music and I asked her not to. She was smoking cigarette also. I asked her to follow the path of the Buddha. She laughed! Then became angry. She said her parents separated leaving her alone ten years ago, where was Buddha? She asked me if I had seen Buddha. I said no, so she asked me to leave her room. One year seems a long, long time, Rula..."
Raj would often sit by the window in his room, staring at the hills yonder, and the easy flow of cars as they descended in an English orderliness. A lone tree, denuded by autumn, stood barely an arm's length away. So bare, Raj wondered. Spring had to come. He would look at the tree, and at the lights shimmering off the wet roads, and again at the hills, wondering what was it that his eyes longed for.. Tired, he would often doze off on the low chair.
Rula would brave the scorching heat to read her Knight's love notes.
Six more months, then you shall be in my arms! Today Dimitra saw me writing to you and asked me to write to her also. She said she will write jokes to me to make me laugh. Why should I laugh at her jokes?
One late night, as Raj shifted positions on the chair, half-asleep after gazing at the roads too long, he heard a soft thud. He moved his aching hand from under his head, and cocked his ears. A distinct noise, again. And again. He stepped out to check. His watch showed 3:30 am; his thoughts jumped to the clock at the bus station clock in East Midnapore and its hourly chime at 9:00 am, and then to Rula, who, he knew, would be getting ready for college this hour.
... Raj knew that now, the battle won would still be a battle lost. The Buddha had taken His test ...
There was not much light in the corridor, just the moonlight seeping in from the glazed glass. He checked his movement.
Two levels below, sprawled on the staircase was a slender figure, the face half-lit by the moonlight seeping in and yet lit by the shine of golden hair.
Raj rushed forward. He cleared the hair off the face gently. It was Dimitra. There was blood on her small forehead, and the alcohol that her body refused to accept messed her clothes and the cold, hard ground beneath her.
He lifted her in her arms, and carried her up the 40-odd steps. He put her down once he reached there, and slapped her once, and again. With eyes not wishful of being awake ever, she pointed to the purse tied to her waist as Raj gestured for the keys.
It must've been early afternoon when Raj woke up. No, it was not pangs of hunger. It was a knock on the door. A quiet, pitiful knock, much like his grandma's ageing, pawless cat at home, wishing to be let in.
He opened the door. It was Dimitra. The way he had left her on the bed. Only, she was standing, and her eyes straining to be awake. Her hair was a brazen mess, and her black dress still bore stains of her sinful addiction to liquor. The soft corridor light from above and behind her gave her slender, crouched body the glow of a sinner.
"Thanks, Raj...I'm sorry, I am very sorry...."
She covered her face with her hands and sobbed uncontrollably.
And suddenly she thrust forward, near enough for Raj to gently flick her hair in surprised anticipation, and then close enough to feel the softness of her body's length to his, her silky, golden hair leaping for protection under his strong chin. Her hands opened to hold him closer, tighter, even as tears wetted his shirt and her face. He ran his hands over her face softly, and looked at her eyes. Pain, remorse and longing made them glint in uneasiness, fighting to fix a gaze. The perfume had managed to stayed all night long on her dress. She drew closer, and her lips caressed his. He stood unmoved, he stood his ground as her lips slowly devoured his, like a blob of half-melted butter on a loaf, helpless under the swish of the knife.
Outside the window, unknown to the world, a single leaf had peeped into Spring.
Raj knew that now, the battle won would still be a battle lost. The Buddha had taken His test.
In East Midnapore, Akbar Chacha pedalled as fast as his aching legs could in the baking sun.
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