By Vismay Kamate
Dearest Sushant Bhaiyya,
After my miserable failure in my semester exams, our school principal had told me to come to the school every day and sit in the library to study. So when the school closed for preparatory leave, I was the only 10th grader to come here and brood in the library. And that was where I first saw Maria.
Well, that wasn’t really the first time, for I had seen her in our house meetings in which I hardly paid any attention to what was said; the same way I did during my other lectures. I had also gone up to the notice board in the Administrative Building once to have a glance at her name. It was painted there in bold letters – GREEN HOUSE CAPTAIN: MARIA JOSH.
Initially, I used to envy you as both of you were in the same class but also wondered as to why you never spoke to any girl and why you distanced yourself from girls and boys alike of different religions. Were you afraid of Papa? It’s true that we’re orthodox Hindus, who always sport the vermillion on their foreheads and fast every Thursday. It’s also true that Papa is an active member and contributor of the Hindu Pracharak Samiti but, hey, come on, we are the 20th century generation; we ought to think outside the box and brush aside all these traditional values that don’t do the society any good.
Anyway, to come back to where I left, every day, it used to be only the two of us in the library, save for the librarian. I think she must have been given a punishment similar to mine. Although it was a peaceful environment to study in, two things distracted me a lot – one, the cranking door that swayed with the slightest breeze and, two, her face. I must confess she was very beautiful and after my stay at the library, made mandatory by the principal, I got to observe her more closely. To be honest, that’s when I fell for her.
On one occasion, Manish Sir was conducting a quiz for the 6th graders in the library and all the chairs and tables were occupied, except for the chair beside Maria and a couple of bean bags flanking the roundtables. I finally drew out courage and sat down next to her. She looked at me and it was the first time we had made eye contact. She looked away soon, leaving me glaring at her. Her textbooks lay scattered all over the table and she did not make any effort to clear her mess and make room for me. So I stacked a few books myself and put them neatly on her side of the table. She didn’t budge to have a look at that monstrous pile of standard12 textbooks but remained deeply engrossed in her Jerome. K. Jerome novel. Over the next few hours, I stole occasional glances at her and found her secretly smiling and giggling while reading her book. Seeing her innocent gestures, I firmly, yet childishly, resolved to marry her.
Over the next few days, I sat beside her almost unconsciously and she didn’t seem to mind it. Maths, physics and biology seemed like distant dreams because I couldn’t focus on anything other than the angelic beauty sitting beside me. I observed that she read her novel from 8 to 10 AM and sometimes even until 11 AM. Then, she would study until lunch time at 1:30 PM. After lunch when the librarian left for home, Maria would sneak out of the library and gossip with her friends in the classroom. And, to be honest, that would be the only time when I could concentrate on my studies.
Once while brooding over “The Structure of the Eye” in biology, I finally spoke to her.
“May I know your name?” I asked.
“Maria, Maria Josh,” she said as if she was Bond.
“Are you a Catholic?” I asked because nothing else came to my mind at that moment.
“No, I’m a Muslim, my middle name is Tabrez.” I was astonished by her reply. How could anyone named Maria Josh be a Muslim? I thought. I wondered whether she was mocking me for my weak interactive skills. But her father’s name put my doubts to rest.
“Aren’t you Sushant’s younger brother Shreyas…I guess.”
“Yes I am, but how do you know that?”
“He keeps telling me about you.”
I was baffled by her response again. Did bhaiyya even speak to girls? I had thought of asking you that but cancelled the idea as I imagined the aftermath of my move.
I was successful in establishing a rapport with her and we started to talk a lot. We sent our studies to the backburner. We shared almost everything that we shouldn’t have. I told her about my fear of cycling on the road and my fear of the dark and how I always held the hand of an adult while crossing the road, except father’s as he considered me the coward of the entire Chaturvedi dynasty. Such simple things used to make her laugh and her laugh used to charm me. I never told her about our family’s orthodox nature but I did tell her that I was a staunch atheist. This was something I had shared with no one, not even with Shravan, for I feared it might reach Papa’s ears and he would bash me up. I told her to keep this a secret and she did.
She, too, used to tell me about her constant altercations with her parents and how she hated them as they put too many restrictions on her liberty as many Indian fathers do to their daughters. The same thing Papa did to Mrinal Didi by marrying her off to that rusty Aggarwal’s son just because they had demanded a smaller dowry.
We would eat together in the lunch hall every day. Sometimes her friends used to accompany us. She had already sensed I was trying on her and, to ward off my moves, she told me she had a boyfriend. Of course, I was heartbroken but at the same time, I considered myself luckier than her boyfriend, as I got to spend more time with her than him. The moment she would reach home, all her freedom would be taken away and she would be restricted to her room with her textbooks. Perhaps that’s why she found solace in me and her novels, which changed every three days. I never asked her about her boyfriend, nor did she ask me about my past relationships with other girls. Though I had none, I prepared some fake stories, in case the need for them arose as I didn’t want to project myself inexperienced and inferior to her.
We became the best of friends. She was the only one who ruled my mind. While sleeping or procrastinating I thought about her, replacing the two of us with the characters of a romantic Bollywood film I had recently watched or sometimes with the characters of a pornographic film I watched with Shravan on his computer. I have to say she had an appealing physique – a luscious pair of breasts and a toned bottom like hers would have been any guy’s fantasy. Shravan told me that he found me lost, but I just smiled it away. He found it strange. I found it strange too; but, yes, I was in love. I was in deep love with a girl who followed a religion our brethren were supposed to hate, a religion, Papa like his Samiti members used to curse a lot.
Soon, riots broke out just before the assembly elections with politicians making hate speeches against each other. I still remember Papa’s absence in the house at the time as he too was involved in the rioting along with his Samiti members.
She had stopped coming to the school and I understood the reason. I patiently waited for the riots to end. Those nine days in that quiet library with only the sallow librarian and the cacophonous door seemed like a nightmare with a hangover that never ends. It actually never did end.
In the morning assembly after the riots were quelled, the principal requested all of us to maintain two minutes of silence in the memory of the students who had lost their lives along with their families in the riots. He started reading a rather long list to which I paid no attention. I only kept searching for Maria’s face in the colossal crowd, but was shocked when the list ended with her name.
I blankly looked at the principal who seemed a small figure from the distance. Tears swelled in my eyes and flew down, wetting my school shirt. Even after the assembly was over, I didn’t move from my place and helplessly kept gazing at the horde of children moving in a line. The librarian with his I-card dangling over his belly came up to me, placed his hands on my shoulder and led me to the library. I read his name on his I-card – Mujeeb Rehmaan. I realized that he too was crying.
People died in the riots. Hindus died, Muslims died. Along with the people, their ideologies died, new ideas also came up. It doesn’t matter. This keeps happening every day in the remotest corners of the globe and will keep on happening as long as religion pervades this society and every person tries to claim his religion as superior to those of others. This game will continue till the last person survives on this planet. And bhaiyya, I bet that the last person will be an atheist who will escape unhurt.
The love of my life, who followed Islam, who fasted in the month of Ramzan, who was a Muslim and, by and large, a human being, died in the riots, and my father, who was part of these riots, demolished my faith in his paternity forever. As I explained earlier, I would like to be that last person, the atheist who will stay alive after the war. So I am going to hide till the war ends and will only emerge when silence prevails, with a resolution of existing permanently.
I’m leaving the house. Please do not try to find me, continue the war.
Your younger brother,
Folding the letter, Sushant rubbed his watery eyes and tucked the letter under his pillow, the same place where he had found it twenty years ago.
Vismay Kamate is a keen learner and a voracious observer. He is in the final year of his teenage years and is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Media from the University of Mumbai. He has a great appetite for books and loves people. He resides in Navi Mumbai, India.
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