One after the other, houses around her became aglow with decorative lights. The dusk condensed its shade over the only two homes standing cheerless in the neighborhood. The air was quiet, as if it too was mourning with her. But Aashi knew that soon crackers would overwhelm the depths of the sky and the air would crackle with their sparks and resound with their roar.
But there's still time for that, she thought. A sigh escaped her lips as she peered into the sky.
The evening seemed too calm and the weather wanted to lull the mind away from all turmoil. A gust of wind fluttered in the curls of her hair as she looked back at the time past. Memories came rushing out one after another. They fluttered in her mind, crossed each other's path and mingled one into the other. And out of the past came Priyam's voice and took her with it.
‘Will you come with us, Aashi? We'll have such fun!’ Her best friend, Priyam, asked her.
Priyam was standing near the boundary wall that separated their houses. It was a nice and sunny October day just fifteen days before Diwali…a much happier Diwali. More than two years had passed since then. A lot had changed. But the memories of that time refused to let go of her heart.
Aashi could still feel how the morning sun had warmed her with gentle sunshine as she had walked up to Priyam and asked, ‘Where are you going?’
‘To our farmhouse. It is such a nice and peaceful place. Come along, we'll have a great time,’ Priyam had replied.
It didn't take Aashi more than five minutes to get ready and skip to Priyam's house. The door was open so she didn't knock. There was no need for such formalities. She walked straight in.
'Good that you have come. We are nearly ready,' said Priyam, pointing to a large picnic basket sitting proudly on the table.
‘What? Aashi is going too?’ Abhi asked more with shock then gladness. He was Priyam's brother. A very faint shadow of a frown appeared on his broad forehead and a strange fear reflected from his eyes. But just for a moment. ‘Oh, good!’ he said, trying to appear happy. ‘You'll enjoy the visit much more with her.’
‘Yes, I'm so glad she's coming with us. She makes everything double the fun.’
He raised his eyes and fixed them on Aashi. ‘Yes, she does,’ he murmured ever so slightly as he watched her delicate fingers going through her hair.
‘But I can't add any fun to the old songs that your brother keeps on listening. Don't you get bored of those sad and slow songs?’ she said, turning to Abhi, ‘I can't bear them for one minute,’ she added with a laugh. She was a fan of fast paced re-mixes and dance numbers and never missed the opportunity to tease Abhi of his fascination with old melodies.
He remained silent. His chest heaved and he seemed to hold his breath. His eyes remained fixed on Aashi as she turned away from him and chatted with Priyam. It took him a moment to let out his breath in a sigh. ‘I must go now. Have a nice time,’ he said abruptly and turned to go out of the room.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Priyam.
‘Aren't you all going?’ asked Aashi. ‘Priyam said you all are going.’
‘That’s what I thought too,” said Priyam, staring at her brother with perplexed eyes.
‘Oh, no, I'm not going. I must finish my assignment and submit it tomorrow. I can't possibly go,’ Abhi declared.
‘But you said you have finished that assignment, didn't you?’ said Priyam.
‘When did I say that? There's still a lot of work remaining. I can't go,’ he said and walked out of the room.
Just then Priyam's mother came out of the kitchen. ‘Hello, Aashi, good that you are also coming,’ she said and handed a large water bottle to her daughter. ‘Priyam, here, take this bottle. Where's Abhi?’ Mrs. Khurana asked. ‘Is he already out?’
‘He said he is not going,’ said Aashi, in a halting voice.
She had not seen Abhi as he struggled with his emotions. But somehow, she knew that it was because of her that he had refused. She had felt his stare burning in to her. She felt irritated and wanted to confront Abhi and ask him why he was so rude to her. Why whenever she came in, he always went out of the room? And why, oh, why did he stare at her like that?
He was handsome, good looking, and Aashi would not have minded that deep intense stare of his eyes if he had not been so quiet and self-conscious in her presence. He had beautifully expressive eyes that laughed with the joy of life, curly hair just like Priyam. A dimpled smile played constantly on his face, despite his serious medical issues. He had Hemophilia. Even a slight bump or bruise meant uncontrolled bleeding and emergency treatment for him.
There was a time when she herself had admired him for his wit and charm. But now, every time she came in his presence, a dark cloud seemed to engulf his bright sunshine.
Is it love? she often thought. No, it can't be... he knows I love his friend Raj. He just doesn't like me for some reason. That must be why he has started behaving so rudely to me. Oh! I hope that's it! she said to herself. I cannot reciprocate his love. I can't love a sick man! He can't even tolerate a slight bump! How can I spend my whole life with him and his Hemophilia? She had held such mental battles a lot in the recent past. And they always left her feeling guilty and heavy at heart.
Aashi was in love with Raj and she wanted no complications. So, unconsciously or not, she continued in ignorance of what he, for his part, was fighting hard to hide.
But it had not always been like that. There was a time when there was no tension between her and Abhi. He was her friend just like Priyam. They had such good time together and made a happy threesome. How happy that time was! Her mind wandered back to it and she smiled with the joy that happy memories often bring.
It used to be their daily routine to stroll around the neighborhood. That day too they were on their usual round, talking to neighbors, watching kids play and generally having a nice time. Gradually, evening faded into dusk and the Sun spread its spectrum over the horizon. And just on the verge of the fading light, the evening star glittered in all its beauty and seemed to be in a hurry to catch the departing god of light.
‘How beautiful!’ Abhi had softly murmured, staring up at the sky. He loved watching sky and considered it the most beautiful of God's creations. Aashi raised her eyes to look too. Suddenly, she felt a piercing pain and her hand went to her neck. The next thing she saw was a man running away with her gold chain and Abhi running after him.
‘Come back, Abhi!’ she cried out. ‘Leave it, come back!’
But he was already out of hearing. She felt wet warmth on her neck and saw blood trickling from the wound where the skin was grazed by the chain. Priyam led her back to her house and bandaged the wound. It was nothing serious. She was more worried about Abhi. An hour had passed and there was still no sign of him.
Is he all right? Aashi wondered again and again, praying for his safety.
Sitting there in Priyam's living room, she saw tension written on every face. His mother could not stop herself from crying and she saw Priyam wiping her eyes every now and then. His father was already out searching for his son. How guilty she had felt then. It was her chain for which Abhi had run after the thief
How stupid of him! she thought. She was not used to feeling sad, worried or tense. And now, all such feelings crowded around her and made her angry, irritated and even guiltier.
Many more agonizing moments went on their course before the phone rang. Abhi was in the hospital. He had been found lying unconscious on a street and some kind soul had taken him to the nearby hospital.
He was in a terrible shape. Left side of his face was all blue and swollen. His arms covered with red and blue bruises told the story of the fight he had had with the thief. He was still unconscious but thankfully, out of danger.
Next day, she went very early to Priyam's house. Abhi had come home. And even though he was confined to his bed, he was laughing and joking as usual. But she could see that he was in a lot of pain. Every now and then his face contorted and he winced.
‘Hello, Aashi, how are you?’ He said with a smile.
‘It’s me who should ask you that,’ she said smiling back at him. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Oh, I'm quite fine. No problem. But I got your chain back. See,’ he said pulling out her chain from under the pillow.
‘Why did you do it, Abhi? Just for a stupid chain!’ She could not resist herself any longer.
‘Stupid chain! My dear, it is a gold chain and on top of it, your chain. How can it be stupid'?’
‘Whatever. But it still isn't worth putting your life in danger for,’ she said, failing to keep her irritation from ringing in her voice.
‘He won't understand that, Aashi. He has always been like that. He loves to make his mother cry,’ said Mrs. Khurana. ‘Try and put some sense in his brain. I give up!’ she said and went out of the room.
‘I hope you have not had breakfast yet, Aashi, because mother is making Poha today and I know it is your favorite. Stay a while,’ Priyam said, going after her mother, ‘it will be ready in a few minutes.’
So Aashi was left alone with Abhi. She dragged a chair near his bed and settled down.
‘Does it hurt very much?’ She asked gently.
'No, not much. Don't worry.’
‘But you are such a fool! Going after that burly man knowing full well how dangerous it could be for you!’
‘No big deal. Any guy would have done the same,’ he said, with a shrug.
‘But you are not like other guys!’ she said, with a voice full of exasperation. ‘Any other guy does not need to go to hospital for every small injury. You should be careful and you know that, don't you?’
Abhi didn't speak but raised his eyes to look up at her. Aashi’s face was flushed with anger and her eyes were looking brighter than he had ever seen them before. The soft cloud of her hair draped her shoulder. The morning light from the window fell gracefully on her as she got up from the chair and came towards him.
‘Why don't you understand, Abhi? Do you know how worried everyone was?’
‘Everyone?’ he asked, looking straight at her.
‘Yes, and you playing superman! How can you be so foolish, Abhi?’
‘Were you worried too, Aashi?’
‘Now what kind of a question is that? Sure, I was worried! Not only worried, I felt so awfully guilty too.’
‘Because it was my chain you had risked your life for!’ she burst out angrily. Her own anger shocked her and silenced her for a moment. But she couldn’t restrain herself for long. ‘Oh, Abhi!’ she said, softly this time and with tears clouding her eyes, ‘Don't ever do anything like it again. It was... it was ... awful!’
‘Don't cry Aashi... please,’ he said, trying to get up from the bed. But he was too weak to do that and his body hurt too much.
‘I'm not crying,’ she said, forcing a flickering smile on her face, ‘but I'm very angry at you.’
‘Don't be,’ he said quietly and closed his eyes.
‘Are you feeling sleepy?’ she asked.
He didn't say anything just nodded his head.
‘Alright then, take rest. Do you need anything?’
‘No,’ he replied without opening his eyes.
“Ok, you need rest. Sleep now. I’ll see you later,” she said.
Abhi nodded again, without opening his eyes. He heard her leaving him, going out of the room and closing the door after her. He listened to her footsteps as she walked away. He wanted to call her, but didn't. He wanted to tell her, but didn't. He just opened his eyes and stared at the door through which she had just passed.
Something in him had changed. He wasn't the same any longer. Foolish she had called him. But he was not that. He knew too well what his chances in life were. Too well to allow himself to fall in love. He closed his eyes again, trying to squeeze out Aashi's image from them. But it had already been stamped on his consciousness. Even in darkness, this beautiful image glowed brightly, filling his mind till there was no space left for any other thought. Like a quagmire, it pulled him deeper and deeper in love. He was angry with himself for being weak of will. He feared himself while in her company and surrounded himself in a hard composure of rude silence.
Aashi couldn’t understand it. Or maybe she did, but refused to admit it to herself.
‘Come in, Aashi, it's getting cold outside,’ her mother called. Aashi was jolted back to the present. It had become dark around her, the wind had become chilly, but she didn't yet want to go in. She lingered on, walking slowly in the garden and looking at the sky bursting every now and then with sparkling fireworks. Loud sounds were reverberating the air as people celebrated Diwali.
Her eyes hungrily searched for a corner of the sky where the fireworks did not abuse its serene dignity. It was Abhi who had opened her eyes towards the beauty of nature. It was in his company that she had started noticing Nature. He loved gazing at the sky, and now she had acquired that passion too.
How happy I was on that Diwali! she thought, her mind again turned two years back to the happiness that was now lost forever. How beautiful and bright everything was then. Raj was with her adding good cheer to an already cheerful evening. But then, everything always appeared better than it was, when he was around. He was such a fun-loving person. Always laughing and joking and having fun. They were engaged and she looked forward to the day when they would be married. She felt so happy that even Abhi's reticent behavior could not perturb her.
‘Come, Aashi,’ Raj had called her, ‘we'll send off this rocket together and it will go up brightening the sky with our love.’
‘Not a chance,’ she had said, smiling coyly. ‘I'm scared of crackers. I can't do it.’
Aashi had once seen her friend's hand blown off when a cracker burst too soon. She was very young at that time and that incident had left a permanent mark on her consciousness. Never again had she played with fireworks.
‘Oh, come on, don't be a coward,’ Raj said, pulling her by hand.
‘Don't! Don't force her,’ Abhi called out, ‘she’s scared of crackers.’
‘Cool man, I don't want my wife to be scared of anything. And it's only a matter of seconds. Once it's over, she'll want to do it again and again.’
‘But...’ Abhi tried to say something.
‘Alright,’ said Aashi, cutting him short. ‘You are right, I must not be a coward,’ she said, slipping her arm in Raj's. ‘Let's do it.’
Abhi clenched his fist, but remained silent.
‘Good girl,’ said Raj, ‘there's nothing to be scared about. Just light it and turn back. See I can let it go from my hand. No need of any holder. I’ll just hold it like this, you light it and see it flying up from my hand.’
‘No, Aashi, that's too dangerous,’ Abhi called out in urgent tones. All of a sudden, his palms had become sweaty and a strange fear started throbbing in his breast. He looked pleadingly at Aashi, but she had long since stopped noticing him.
‘Come on, Abhi, don't scare her,’ Raj replied. ‘Don't make everyone a coward like you. I know you, you never try anything dangerous. You know, Aashi,’ he said turning towards her, ‘when we were at school, he didn't even play football or any other game for fear of falling. But why are we wasting time. Let's do it,’ he said and led Aashi to a corner.
Aashi didn't like him talking like that to Abhi. But she was too engrossed in Raj to give much thought to anyone else. He took a rocket in his hand and showed her how to light it.
Priyam and Abhi could see her trembling hand as she lit up a match and brought it near the fuse.
‘God!’ Abhi muttered silently while his hand clutched at the railing. In that single word could be heard all his love, struggle, fear and prayer for her safety.
The small trembling flame touched the fuse. Tiny sparks flew out. The rocket shot up, spreading many colored stars on the sky. The sky became illumined and the darkness hid itself in Aashi's eyes. She fell down motionless.
‘I told you not to force her,’ shouted Abhi, running towards her.
‘She's just scared,’ said Raj. ‘Damned cracker! See how it blistered my hand.’
‘Stop it! She's just scared, is she? Look at her eyes! What have you done to her?’ Abhi cried out, picking Aashi in his arms and taking her indoors. ‘Priyam, call the doctor immediately.’
Priyam rushed to the telephone. Only Raj remained standing outside, ‘I... what... Oh, no...my God!’ he mumbled and stood frozen to the ground.
The rocket had shot up, while she had remained glued to the spot when she should have moved away. She was blind now. The brightness of her life had vanished, taking Raj with it. The engagement was broken within a month. Raj shied away from her as if she had become infectious.
But Priyam and Abhi were still with her, now more than ever. They never let her pass a lonely minute. Abhi no longer ignored her. She was in need and he was there for her.
‘Don't worry, Aashi,’ he said to her again and again, ‘you'll be fine. You will see again. I'm sure of that.’
Her parents had listed her name in the hospital and a long wait ensued for the day when her turn would come to receive donated eyes. Months passed on and the wait continued. As time passed, Aashi became more and more dejected. Priyam and Abhi tried hard to divert her mind but she seemed to have lost interest in everything.
‘What's wrong, Aashi? Why are you behaving like this?’ Abhi asked her one day.
‘What's wrong? As if you don't know that!’ She stood up and went near the window as if to look out.
‘But, Aashi, you must be patient. This is just temporary. You'll be able to see very soon.’
‘When? It’s been over a year! I can't tolerate this darkness. All my life is ruined. My love, my career, all gone... gone forever,’ she said, without turning.
‘Nothing is lost, Aashi. You are young, you can easily build your career again. As for love, you'll soon find someone much better than Raj. He didn't deserve you. It's his loss more than yours.’
‘And did I deserve this?’ she cried out, pointing to her blank eyes.
‘No, certainly not. But you'll soon recover your sight.’
‘Oh! I can't wait any longer. I'll kill myself! This darkness stifles me...I'll...I’ll diet’ she said, bursting into tears.
‘Shut up!’ he said in a voice trembling with emotion. If only he could hug her, press her to him and wipe away those tears. ‘Don't say such horrible things. Don't!’ Few droplets trembled on the brim of his eyes too, but he forbade them to trickle out. The tumult of his emotions could be seen in his countenance as clearly as the restive flight of storm is reflected on water. But gradually, a resolute calm settled and a smile broke out.
‘You'll be able to see very soon, Aashi, I promise you that,’ he said.
‘Yeah, right. What are you going to do? Kill someone, take out the eyes and fix them on me?’ she said, forcing herself to calm down.
‘Probably. Why not?’
‘Okay, so what are you waiting for?’ she said. ‘Do it quickly.’
‘I will,’ Abhi said, taking her small hand in his, ‘but promise me, you'll never again talk of dying.’
‘Anything you say, sir. But first, I'm starving. Won't you get me something to eat?’ she said, with a little, forced laugh.
‘At your service, madam. Just a minute!’ he said and went quickly to look in the refrigerator.
‘Don't take long, Abhi, I'm tired of waiting,’ she called out.
‘You won't have to wait long... I promise!’ He replied.
The wait, indeed, was not long. Just two days and an accident. The call from the hospital came. The operation was successful. Her sight was restored.
He had fulfilled his promise.