Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Park

The sky was overcast with grey clouds. “Grey as my heart” thought James to himself. The park remained nearly empty this time of the year; monsoons drove people to the security of their homes. It was a beautiful park, built around 100 years ago, when the British roamed its gardens. How it survived the bulldozer and development of the city was still beyond James. He loved the park. It was over 500 acres in area, adjoining the old canal which was its prime source of water. A streamlet from the canal had been taken in the park, which was crossed by bridges and waterfalls. Clusters of trees of mango, banyan and bottle palm gave it a feel of a miniature forest. It had its fair share of wildlife too, with peacocks and rabbits and mynas. James himself being a wildlife lover had never been able to identify all the species of birds in the park. During the monsoon calls of peacock could be heard distinctly. With all its beauty and places of secrecy, it proved a natural oasis for the lovelorn couples, searching for a place to share some private, intimate moments. James never considered himself a part of these ill reputed youngsters. He always used to stroll on the main walk, hand in hand with Nita, with her head on his shoulder, feeling proud and protective towards her.

Nita, so many memories were attached to those 2 syllables, his whole life seemed to revolve around her. Monsoon had been their favorite season of all. It had, only been a year since they met, but the seeds of their romance were sown in this very park, at this time of the year. It seemed like yesterday, when he thought about it, when he had stormed out of his home in anger, after a squabble with his mother. He had come straight to the park on his bike, knowing it would be empty at this time, and sat down on a bench. At that moment he saw her. She looked like an apparition at first, dressed in a white Salwar Kameez, so unsuitable for the weather, with her head bowed down. Then he realized she was sobbing silently. Forgetting everything about his own anger, he felt a sudden rush of tenderness towards her.

“Why don’t you understand James, I said it’s OVER. There’s no use talking about it. I admit it is me. I can’t be with you anymore. You stifle me, my thoughts, you have occupied my life in a way that there’s no space left!”
“But Nita, please, for god’s sake, tell me what happened? Just 2 days back everything seemed to be going so well! Why now?”

That trivial gesture of extending a hand of support had turned out magnanimous changes in both their lives, which they hadn’t anticipated. James still couldn’t fathom how else it would have turned out. Everything fit into place like clockwork, as if god himself played the hand of their fates. Maybe it happened because both of them were troubled by grievances whose origin went beyond them. Nita had lost her father in a road accident a few days ago, and James had never known his father. James didn’t need to say much to comfort her, the look in his eyes upon hearing the news was remorseful, full of images of a normal childhood never known or felt. The silence enforced the feelings of friendship between them, and they took a walk, each of them lost in their own private universes, yet so fatefully linked.

Time went by slowly as the dark recesses of a storm drain gurgled up the torrential waters and days parched into a dry windy autumn. Leaves too tired of holding onto the ever aging trees emboldened into the bright golden red colors before falling on the ground, to be raked in and cremated. Trees stood with their bare arms letting out the pain and grief left behind their old companions, readying themselves to face the dreary cold. Birds screamed out in rage trying to protect their denuded nests. However amidst all the agony and anguish, the park had acquired a solemn beauty. During evenings the golden hue on the ground and on the trees reflected the one above, with the setting sun, sending out robust colors into the clouds. People of all ages congregated to drink in this magical combination.
In this season of falling leaves, the friendship of James and Nita was sending out sprouts of affection and love, a lush bright green, with a shine of hope which belies any form of depression or pain.

“OK, then listen. This is the only and the last time I am saying this to you, and we will never talk after this. You are younger to me James, not by one or two, but 6 years! Do you know what that means? It means I am growing older faster than you, and you are not even in a college yet. I can’t wait that long James, I can’t, and there are too many responsibilities to take care of. I won’t turn a blind eye like you towards MY future. It’s in the best of our interests if you forget me. My uncle has been looking for grooms for me, and he says he has found one which we will be able to afford, but it has to be done in the earnest.”

Age, how it works like an imperious sorcerer, turning the most beautiful of faces into a wrinkled, haggard paper machete, or converting a bland bottle of wheat husk water into expensive delectable alcohols. They had tried to deal with the issue of age difference with all the tools of emotion; humor, concern, indifference, but it never seemed too immediate to affect the bliss they had discovered. In effect, they became fugitives from reality and pragmatism, hiding from the looming danger until they could no longer be seen by it, escape from the tentacles of darkness and pain and misery which threatened to jeopardize their love. The addiction was too great to absolve, the intoxicating fumes of a drugged rose taking control, paralyzing mind and body. The question he asked himself now, was, was it all worth the effort? Were the sleepless nights amongst the whispering bottle palms, with the insipient moon casting a demure glow, without a future? The first rose, the first touch, the first kiss… they all mocked him.

They used to stroll on the main walk, made up of checkered cement bricks which formed a cross pattern, in the cracks of which young grass buds came out to be trampled over. She always envied his height, and complained that she looked so puny with him. And he told her how frail she looks to him, like a jasmine bud, a tender white, to be cared for against the ravages of time and people. Hand in hand they drew the landscapes of future, exchanging dreams and fears and their very souls.

The sudden thunder drew James out of his reverie as he gazed at his surroundings. He realized he was sitting on the cold marble bench, on which she sat that day. It was right in front of the main gate, but hidden by a row of bushes. That’s why he was not able to see her immediately when he came inside. He raised his head at the sudden cawing of a crow nearby, and saw Nita, standing at the gate.

“Nita, didn’t you realize this the year we were together? If you had seen this coming then why didn’t you withdraw earlier? Have you been thinking this through? All those days of passion and proximity, the vows of love, what were they Nita?”
“Don’t bring that into question James. Don’t drop to levels so low!”
“Then what about love? Were you just playing with me?”
After a long pause, Nita replied
“Yes. It was all made up. I never loved you for a single day of my life.”

Nita! What was she doing here? And she had a bouquet of roses in her hand. She was standing there, looking around for someone. Her gaze was restless, and tired. His first thought was that she has come to meet her to-be-husband. It seared his mind and brought a cold jerk throughout his body. The venom of envy and pain was seeping into the edges and sides, darkening the grey heart. He immediately hid himself behind one of the dark banyan trees, and observed her actions. An impotent rage trapped in his eyes. At the same time he felt low and base. A traitor to the love he had committed himself to. He stood riveted in his hiding place, as she made her way down the wet concrete, towards the marble bench. She sat down with her back towards him, her long black hair tied in a bundle. Time stalled during those few moments, when he felt her closeness, he was sure she would feel his warm breath on her neck. But she seemed to be in another world, and the distance seemed too wide to reach across and touch her.

With a brisk step she got up and started walking towards the other exit of the park. He was deeply puzzled by her actions, and kept at a distance, not losing the sight of her. The other exit was hardly used; it led to the road which crossed the canal into the unpopulated suburban part of the town. Her pace increased as she reached the narrow bridge. He noticed that a part of the old railing was not there, with debris on the ground.

James took a long deep sigh
“That was all that I needed to hear Nita, It says everything to me. You won’t hear from me, ever again, that I promise you. I just wish you had never come into my life.”
Without waiting for a reply, he disconnected.

He came out of his house, his head in a swirl. Everything stifled him, the roads, the numerous faces and voices suffocated his thoughts. He instinctively gasped for air. Making his way out of the busy streets, he rode his way into the nearest bar he could spot. He had never had a drop of alcohol in his life, but today, he needed out, he needed to shut out everything and recede into his innermost shell, into the safety of the self, in a world blurred by intoxicating spirits.
He didn’t count the number of drinks he had had, he didn’t count the bills out of his wallet as he paid the bill, but the only thing that appeared again and again in repetitive drudgery were her last words. The more he drank, the more the assaults and assailants increased. His eyes misted, and tears of misery came out of his lonely orbs.

She reached the other side, and took a right turn. He remembered this path; he had been here once, long ago. After a few minutes of walking on the deserted road, she reached the front of a gate. At a distance it looked like a garden, with well maintained green grass on all sides, but as he went nearer, he saw hundreds of mounds, with a white cross on each one of them.
His heart skipped a beat as he realized the fault and shamelessness of his thoughts, and the need to go and comfort her accosted him. But he was feeling powerless. He couldn’t hold the gaze in her eyes, he knew that. Had someone died in her family? Or was she visiting an old grave? Guilt stabbed his soul as he tried to imagine the pain and agony she must be going through. And he like a selfish insolent fool was standing behind trees, hiding from who he loved the most.
He remembered his father was buried here, and how he had been here as a kid, not realizing the value or importance of so many mounds and people crying or laying flowers over them. He had stopped coming here with his mother as he grew older, not wanting to grieve something he had never known.

He came out of the bar. It was dark and windy. Rain seemed imminent any moment, with the sky growling disapproval. He tried to collect his thoughts, thinking of places to go. He couldn’t go back home, facing another quarrel with his mother would only worsen his state of mind. He needed peace, comfort, and a sense of belonging. Where he could submit himself to past and forever be there, if only he could!
The park! That was the only place he could think of going to. With some effort he started his bike, and raced towards the only place he could call his own, of his heart, for his heart.
He lost sense of direction and sight.

She stopped at a fresh grave. Funny, how a grave can be associated with a word like fresh. It’s as if both belong to completely different connotations. She bowed down and laid the flowers on the grave, and started crying.
Without stopping himself anymore he came forward to hold her close, but a chill went down James’s spine, the numbness of a thousand needles in his limbs, as he read the epitaph on the headstone.


The roads were particularly slippery and difficult to negotiate on that rainy night, when James lost control of his bike, and rammed into the bridge railing, head first, falling into the canal. Death was immediate, and was caused by a fatal concussion. His body was identified and laid to rest in the old graveyard by his mother.