Saturday, November 03, 2007

Chapter 3 - The Final Month

“I’ve told you a million times not to drive fast.” Yelled Raj’s mom, after she had made sure that he was still in one piece.

She was a professor in Delhi University. Tough on the exterior and soft on the inside. She was one of the few women of her generation who chose to have a professional career. Her sisters had all gotten married and become housewives. She had gone on to get a masters degree and then a career in academia. This balancing act of her marriage, career and children had taken a toll on her. Not one to solicit help or sympathy, she had let her health suffer. Nothing too serious but she had chronic anemia which caused her to fatigue easily. On top of this, she would insist on keeping weekly fasts which made things worse.

“Aunty, not only does he drive fast, he never wears his helmet.” Neeta chimed in, trying to score brownie points with Raj’s mom. She had come over to the house as soon as she heard about the accident.

“Actually, I was wearing helmet and I was not driving fast. I mean how fast could I be driving? The traffic signal had just turned green.” Protested Raj. He wouldn’t admit it, but he kind of liked all the attention he was getting.

“Alright, no more riding the bike, I will call your boss to let him know that you have been hurt and can’t come to work for sometime.” Raj had been working at a small advertising agency owned by a cousin. He enjoyed the company of his cousin and making the small salary which gave him independence, but he didn’t think of advertising as a career and was starting to grow tired of the job. He didn’t protest at his mother’s suggestion. One more month and he will be in Boston.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chapter 3...contd

Riding a motorbike in Delhi wasn’t fun anymore, thought Raj as he stopped at the traffic signal and wiped the grit from around his eyes for the umpteenth time. A pall of soot and smoke hung over the city at all times. The rapidly going public bus fleet along with the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws spewed black smoke into the air. The air was getting so thick with pollutants that people had started wearing masks while riding two-wheelers. A white shirt would literally turn grey by the end of the day.

It had been a long day at work and all Raj wanted to do was to go home and get out of his sticky shirt. A nice cold shower and some tea would be nice too. It was Friday and later he had a date with Neeta. He hadn’t seen her in two days because of work and was really looking forward to tonight.

The traffic light turned green, and as he started to make a turn, he felt a violent jerk and felt himself flying in the air in slow motion. As he lay on the road, all he could do was watch while the grey contessa that hit him drove off into the darkness.

The motorbike was mangled, but Raj only had minor bruises…thank god for the helmet. Now for the more pressing issues at hand…the bike could not be moved, he was still a couple of miles from his house, he did not have a cellphone to contact anybody, and the culprit had driven off.

Hit and run was the rule rather than exception in Delhi. Traffic laws were scarce and the police lax. If any erratic driver was caught, it was usually due to quick-thinking passers-by. They would have to literally jump on top of the car to stop the car, and usually a mob would gather to thrash the driver. Most accidents got sorted out with the mob playing the role of the arbitrator and getting some money for dawa paani or hospital visit from the driver.

Not this time, there were no passers-by and no crowd. Raj waited at the side of the road hoping someone would see his condition and stop for help. Life in Delhi was hectic, but Delhiites were very good at helping stranded motorist. When the government does not provide infrastructure, citizens usually step-up to fill the void and the citizens of Delhi were no different. Due to the kindness of a stranger, he was able to call home for help.

The help arrived in the form of his cousin Sanjay. He was a street smart kid who had found books too tedious and had dropped out of high school a few years ago. Thankfully, his grandfather had a small business which was able to provide him with employment.

Running a small business in the 80s and the 90s was an art. The socialist bent of the government meant that for them, businessmen were irrelevant. As a result, the government made it as hard as possible for them to do business. There were licenses for everything, which were always scarce and required payment of large bribes to officials. Electricity was rationed, which meant additional money to the electricity department for extra grid connections. On top of that, you could always count on the local police inspector to come around for freebies.

Growing up in that environment, Sanjay had developed a deep mistrust of the police and the officialdom. So when he arrived, he had assumed the worst and stuffed his pockets with wads of cash. As luck would have it, just as Sanjay arrived, so did the police. Miraculously, some good Samaritan had given chase to the runaway car and managed to catch the driver.

All the police had to do now was to beat up the driver make money off him. To do that they also needed for Raj to file a report. Sanjay was wary of the police to begin with and even more wary of signing anything for them. His skepticism got the better of him and the end result was that they went home without filing a report. Only much later would Raj realize what a bad mistake that was.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Chapter 3...contd.

It was 2:00AM in the morning when Raj drove into the gas station. It was a cold winter night and there wasn’t a soul on the streets. The foggy conditions and the complete absence of any human presence made the city look surreal. Anuj was standing under the tree waiting nervously for Raj.

Anuj had started getting threatening calls almost a week ago. Initially, he had disregarded them, but now the caller had started mentioning the specifics of his daily schedule. This was alarming as it suggested that he was being followed. Discretion is the better part of valor, so Anuj had decided to stay out of sight for a while. Hopefully a couple of days out of sight would throw water on the fire. Raj’s family was in the process of moving out of the military housing in the secluded army cantonment, and so he had offered to let Anuj stay there for a few days.

“Thanks man, I was freezing,” mumbled Anuj as he got into Raj’s car.

“No problem man! We need to fix this though. Hiding is not going to help. You’ll be looking over your shoulder forever.”

“I know, I just need to sit back and take a breath…lets talk about it tomorrow,” sighed Anuj as he leaned back and closed his eyes.

The next day was spent making phone calls. One byproduct of a corrupt legal and police system is the emergence of influence-peddlers. Delhi was awash with these parasites. One didn’t need any particular talent to be an influence-peddler, as long as you knew a politician, or a senior police official you could parlay that connection into a lucrative business. The wealthy and the poor had a grip on most cities. The former, because they had too much to lose and the latter, because they had nothing to loose. The wealthy relied on their money for connections, and the latter relied upon their voting power and mob mentality. The professionals, who constituted the middle-class were usually the ones caught in the middle – Too poor to buy any connections and too well-off to be able to rock the boat and risk losing their dignity.

The fragile, albeit outsized egos of people caused numerous perceived slants and resulted in big business for the influence-peddlers. To handle the goons let loose by Mitu’s parents, Raj and Anuj were talking to people who might be able to intervene and arbitrate the situation.

After a week of harassment, a day spent currying favor with buffoonish intermediaries and degrading apologies to Mita’s loutish step-father, Anuj was free from the fear of being attacked and maimed just for falling in love.

Days like these made Raj feel glad that he was leaving the country. He had absolutely no interest in these petty ego games and just wanted to go to a place where one didn’t have to worry about ruffling anyone’s warped sense of self-esteem every-time one stepped out of the house

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Chapter 3...contd.

“Dude, I’m in deep shit,” said Anuj breathlessly on the phone.

“Take it easy. What happened now?” asked Raj absent-mindedly. Trouble was always following Anuj, so this was nothing new.

“Mita’s step father is after my ass…he found out about us.”

This wasn’t a new situation either. At some point in time they had all faced the wrath of an indignant father, hell-bent on protecting the honor of his child. When it came to deflowering girls, Delhi boys faced a two pronged challenge – first the girls themselves were very conservative, but even if they were willing, the specter of family honor and their fathers’ ire was a difficult obstacle to cross.

Anuj had been consistently providing education to girls in the area of carnal pleasures. Mita was a new girl he had been dating and things had been moving at a pretty fast clip, so much so that it was starting to turn serious. However, Raj and the others were concerned as Mita came from a broken family and had a history of erratic behavior. Not only that, but it was rumored that her mom had underworld contacts.

In Delhi, having underworld contacts was the sought-after thing. Every man worth his salt was supposed to protect his family. Since the police was usually busy running its own extortion racket, the more enterprising men sought out and cultivated contacts with the local ruffians, the much maligned Jats. These were essentially uneducated males from surrounding areas of Delhi, who were enthralled by the city life, or more accurately, their perception of city life. They imagined city girls to be loose and life consisting mostly of drinking and bullying.

The worth of school and college going males of Delhi was measured by their backing. This usually translated into how many politicians, policemen or Jats that person knew. Not that the three aforementioned groups were any different, the line between the three was pretty blurred. All three took pride in stripping the people off their dignity and wealth.

So long story short, Mita’s mom had found out about the two and told her new husband. The new husband had now taken upon himself to avenge the family’s honor that had been tainted by two young people in love. Apparently, this blow to the family honor could only be avenged if Anuj was soundly thrashed…couple of broken bones or a stab wound would be an added bonus. Alas, if Indians had as much concern for the country’s honor…the British would have probably been happy simply being traders.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Chapter 3 ...contd.

Within two days Delhi was back to normal. The politicians made the usual noises about “cross-border terrorism”, and the police was put on high alert. High alert usually meant that things got more chaotic in an already chaotic city. Police checkpoints and sandbags were set-up all over the city backing-up traffic and aggravating tempers. High alert also gave the police to extort more money from vendors and hawkers.

Gaddi rok re…”, shouted the constable as Raj approached a checkpoint, yelling at Raj to stop the car.

It had been a week since Raj and Neeta had started dating again, and they were driving back from Rishi’s house. Even though they were new into the relationship, they had none of the awkardness that couples have in a new relationship. Maybe this was partly due to the fact that they didn’t have the luxury of time. Raj had less than a year before he left for America.

It had been a nice and mellow party. Things had been really hectic the last week or so and this party had been a nice way of putting the events of the last week behind them. It had also been a good way of re-introducing Neeta to the gang and getting things back to normal.

“Are you married? your parents know you are out?” asked the cop with a glint in his eyes. He could tell that Raj and Neeta were not married and he could smell money. Delhi’s Best may not have been able to catch any criminals, but they had a spotless record of catching unmarried couples.

“No, she is a family friend, and I was dropping her home,” stammered Raj. He was a little dazed by this, and his thoughts were running a mile a minute.

Haann haann…bahut dekhen hain.” Sneered the cop. Delhi’s cops have the distinction of being totally egalitarian. When they smell money, they do not discriminate between the rich or the poor, law-abiding citizens or criminals. In fact, the criminals actually face a little less harassment as they have a running account with the police called hafta in local parlance. Every week, the local criminals deposit a percentage of their weekly earnings at the friendly neighborhood thana, as the police stations are called.

Madam raat ko kahan se aa rahi ho?” a second cop asked Neeta, as he leered at her legs.

It was past midnight and there wasn’t much traffic on the road. Raj was beginning to get apprehensive. The cops were drunk and had the trunk of his car open and were poking around it trying to find something. Raj had heard stories about cops planting drugs on kids in order to extort money from their families. So he decided to take a chance.

“We are going to the military airport to pick up my father, and I am supposed to drop her on the way.” Like all bullies, cops were afraid of people stronger than them and Military personnel still had the ability to intimidate them. Afterall, they didn’t want a crazy army man with a gun coming after them…that had been known to happen as well.

“Which regiment is your father?” asked cop number one.

“He is the commandant of the Black Cat division,” blustered Raj, knowing that it wasn’t totally accurate. His father was the commandant of an army division whose battle insignia was a black cat, however, in India, Black Cats is the name given to the Special Security Commandoes which had a big presence in Delhi. Raj hoped that this would be enough to intimidate the policemen so that they would let them go.

“Uhh…ohhh…ok….” Fumbled cop number one as he searched for a way out, “listen, I have kids your age at home and I was just looking out for you. Lots of criminals on the road at this time of the night.” And so saying he finally let them go.

Raj and Neeta sighed in relief, thankful that his father’s military career had at least one benefit.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Chapter 3

It had been two weeks since he last saw Neeta. It was a nice balmy October evening in Delhi. Raj loved the month of October. In North India, this is the month when weather starts getting pleasant after the humid monsoon months. Delhiites get a distinct bounce in their step as winter approaches. This is also the beginning of the preparations for the major festivals and the marriage season that follows. Bazaars start putting up decorations and shops start spilling out onto the pavements with their makeshift stands. Indians love to dress-up when they go out, but around this time, they seem to put in extra effort even in the clothes they wore.

Raj and his friends used to walk around their neighborhood bazaars. Indian cities didn’t really have too many pubs or arcades, so the bazaars used to be the regular hang-outs of single men and women. Boys would walk around bazaars flirting with any girl who wasn’t with a chaperone. Most often it was harmless fun, but Delhi being Delhi, there were always the puppys and the jats who went overboard. Puppy was the name given to the nouveau-rich North Indians who were known for their lack of etiquette and aggressive behavior. Jat was a catch-all phrase given by Delhiites to the country bumpkins who came to Delhi and indulged in crude and often-violent acts. This was unfortunate, as Jats were also a hardworking and enterprising community who lived and worked in farms and townships all around Delhi.

There was another reason Raj loved October. This was the month when Diwali Melas started around Delhi. Diwali Melas are seasonal carnivals that are organized every year before Diwali, which is a major Hindu festival. These are elaborate and drawn-out affairs. Every neighborhood worth its salt has its own mela. The success of each mela is judged by the number of people who attend it, which is actually predicated on how many pretty girls come un-chaperoned to each event. The mela organizers knew this and tried to attract this crowd by inviting college-bands to play at these events, and by promoting these events in schools and colleges. There was another factor that decided the success of these melas…the status of the neighborhoods organizing them. After all, if an event was organized in a rich neighborhood, it would have the best band, better security, which would attract the more liberal rich girls, which attracted a bigger crowd. This was Delhi…everything revolved around girls.

It was just after 6:00PM on a Friday and Raj had just gotten ready to go out to the first mela of the season. He was sitting in the living room, the TV blaring in the background, munching on peanuts as he impatiently waited for Rishi to come pick him up. He was about to call Rishi for the hundredth time when something in the TV caught his eye. A breathless reporter was standing in front of a familiar building as police lights flashed blindly in the background. Raj’s heart plummeted as he recognized the building…it was Lady Sri Ram College…Neeta’s college.

Over the last few years, India had been grappling with a violent insurgency in Kashmir. Recently, this had spilled into other parts of India as well. Apparently, terrorizing and killing innocent people was an acceptable form of political and social discontent. Delhiites were used to it. Over the last decade they had faced violence from the separatists in Punjab, which had just recently begun to simmer down.

Daily acts of random violence have a way of se-sensitizing people. People hear about a bomb blast and immediately check to see if their family and friends are okay. Once reassured, they go back to their daily business with an almost callous disregard to those who have suffered. It is an insidious de-humanizing virus that spreads quickly and quietly within societies faced with violence.

There had been a bomb blast on a college bus right outside Neeta’s college. According to news reports at least a dozen students had been killed. A dozen fathers had lost their daughters, a dozen dreams had been shattered, but Raj could only think about Neeta.

“Hello!?!”, a weak voice answered the phone.

“Neeta…I was so worried…just saw the news and wanted to see if you were okay.” Said Raj, relieved to hear her voice. “Are you all right?” Asked Raj, fighting back his tears.

“Yeah…I heard the blast, but I was in my room.” Replied Neeta.”My guardian’s daughter was on the bus…she didn’t make it.” She was sobbing now.

“Where are you? I am coming over.” All Raj wanted to do was to see her and make sure there was not a drop of blood on her body.

“I’m in my hostel. I’ll wait for you at the main entrance…” Just as Neeta finished her sentence, Rishi walked into the house. Raj grabbed his arm and rushed him into the car. “Lady Sri Ram…lets go…Neeta’s waiting.”

As Rishi and Raj pulled into the hostel they saw Neeta standing at the entrance. She was in jeans and a simple white shirt. She had her arms around her as if she was trying to hold herself up. The whole campus was in chaos. Parents and friends were running around trying to find their loved ones, there was the acrid smell of explosives in the air, and police was all over the place cordoning off areas and looking for clues.

“Neeta” whispered Raj as he jumped out of the car.

“Raj, thank god you are here.” Cried Neeta as she rushed into his arms.
Life is strange. No amount of planning will prevent it from taking its course. A single bomb blast took a dozen lives, and altered several more. In one instant, two souls, who had decided to save each other pain, signed-up for a lot more.

Chapter 2...contd.

As Raj lay awake in his bed that night, he kept thinking about his conversation with Neeta. Part of his mind rebuked him for telling Neeta about his US plans, but he knew that not to tell her would have been deceitful. He was tempted to pick up the phone and tell her that he had decided not to go to America. After all, there were some perfectly decent Business Schools around Delhi. They might be operated by fly by night operators, but as long as he got his degree, who cares? The more he thought, the more he realized how hopeless the situation was. He knew Neeta enough to know that she would never allow him to change his plans just for her.

India in 1995 was still a few years away from the technology boom, and jobs were still scarce. Especially for a non-technical graduate. He knew it was pointless, but he cursed himself for not studying hard in high school and not going to an engineering college, cursed his father for not having a business he could take over…cursed just about everyone and everything for his situation.

The next morning was slow and hazy. Everytime the phone rang, his heart missed a beat, hoping the call was from Neeta. By the time he pulled himself together, it was late afternoon and he decided to go over to Rishi’s house.

Rishi’s party had never really ended. As in most cases, when everyone else had left, the gang had stayed back. As always, the guys just drank more, and talked about girls. When Raj walked in next evening, they were all starting to wake up from partying all night.

Bunty was Anuj’s elder cousin and was also there. A plump guy with a ready smile and quick wit, he relished the role of the experienced advisor. He had an opinion on everything, from girls to music and he wasn’t shy about sharing it with his younger cousin’s friend. He had a great life and a killer girlfriend, so the guys usually took notice of what he said.

“Raj, buddy…you look deathly. Everything ok?” Bunty was the first to ask. The others simply got into the raunchy talk speculating as to why Raj might be tired after meeting a new girl. If it weren’t for the fact that he felt like shit, Raj might’ve actually laughed along with the guys…but not today.

“She dumped me!”…”what…whhh….” the whole room erupted.

“Guys…guys…shhhhh…settle down.” Bunty raised his arms, realizing that this was not a normal boy-girl thing that these guys were used to.

“How could she dump you? You just met her? What did you do to her?” Vikram was the first to get his questions out. Vicky was the playboy of the group. A fair, baby-faced boy of average height. No one could figure out what girls saw in him, but he seemed to have new girlfriends at regular, and relatively short intervals. His dad was a senior corporate executive and so he never seemed to be lacking in anything. His only goal in life was to score and then to score some more. He had dabbled a little in modeling, but that hadn’t been as successful as he had hoped.

“She realized that I would be going to America next year and decided that we didn’t have a future.” Groaned Raj.

“Dude, shit happens.” Chipped in Anuj. “You are going abroad soon anyway, so why take on extra baggage.”

“Raj, break-ups are not the end of the world. It hurts and it sucks, but guess what!?! move on. You only knew Neeta for a few days and to get all knotted-up over this is not healthy. Hindi movies make a big deal about first love and shit…but trust me…its all bullshit,” advised Bunty in a calm and forceful manner. “These should be happy days for you…you are working towards a goal, and not everyone at your age can say that about himself.”

And so the friends consoled each other, like they had always done over the past ten years. They had been through deaths in the family, break-ups, and disappointments together and could always count on each other for support. Young minds are unique, they tend not to dwell on things too much. So instead of sitting and moping, they all ended up going to a friend’s friend’s house who had invited them for a poolside party.

The party was at a farmhouse near Delhi. The house was a massive sandstone structure resting on pillars. As you drove down the long driveway, it looked like the house was floating on air. Someone had clearly spent a fortune building the house. Raj had never really hung-out with extremely rich people and he had always felt uncomfortable when around wealthy kids. This, he reminded himself, was the reason why he wanted to get out of the country. For an Army officer’s son, the options in India were limited, and none of them were appetizing to him. If he ever wanted to make something out of himself, he had to go to America where he could get a decent education and have a fresh start.

“I just can’t afford not to go to America,” he sighed to himself. At the end of the day, even if he didn’t go and stayed back with Neeta, they would have no future. The choice was not between Neeta and America, the choice was between despair and hope.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Chapter 2...contd.

Friday nights are the best. Raj thought as he tied his shoelaces. You can stay out late wake up the next morning and still have another day-off left. He was going on his first date with Neeta and he was really excited. Ever since he gave his GMAT, he was starting to feel a bounce get back in his step. The last few years had been tough, but now he felt that he was moving in the right direction. In less than a year, he would be studying in the US and the whole world would be at his feet.

“Hi, you look great!” said Raj as he picked-up Neeta from her hostel. “Thanks, I appreciate your picking me up.”

Rishi’s house was in a South Delhi neighborhood, minutes from Lady Sri Ram College, and they drove in silence to the party. By the time Raj and Neeta arrived at the party, Raj’s gang was already there. They were a group of five boys who had been best friends since childhood. Besides Raj, others in the group were Rishi, Anuj, Vikram, and Gautam. They had all met in fifth grade when Raj had joined the school. After a few years Raj had transferred out to another school, but the friendship had endured.

“Hey, here they come”, yelled out Rishi as he saw Raj and Neeta walk in. “Dude, what took you so along? Everyone is dying to meet Neeta.”

For the next half hour, Neeta was lost to Raj as she was appropriated by Rishi who went about introducing her to just about everyone at the party. Rishi was a low-key guy with a down-to-earth style that people liked and trusted. He had a large circle of friends, and his parties were always well attended.

“I thought you were lost.” Said Neeta as she walked towards Raj. “I think I’ve met just about everyone in Delhi today.”

“Yeah, Rishi’s parties get pretty crowded.” Sighed Raj. “Hope you are having a good time.” He couldn’t help thinking how beautiful she looked. Neeta was wearing a simple white salwar-kameez with a Rajasthani dupatta. She was standing close enough now that he could smell the faint fragrance of her hair. “God…how I wish I could hold her.” Thought Raj.

“I’m having a great time. My Friday nights usually involve some reading, and maybe a movie. So its definitely nice to hang-out with people I like.”

“Hummm…so you like me. That’s good to know”, gushed Raj.

“I like you. I’ll be honest about it. But this is all really new to me, and I’m not sure that I’m totally comfortable with it.” Replied Neeta. “My goal is to get good grades in college and hopefully get admission Delhi School of Economics for a Masters degree.”

Delhi School of Economics was a prestigious graduate school which was world renowed. Its graduates typically went on to become corporate executives, academics and world-class economists. Neeta saw this as an avenue of gaining financial freedom which would allow her to live an independent life.

“I respect that. I come from a professional family too, and I need to work for a living too. I’m trying to go to America to get an MBA so that I can get a good job and support my family.” Even before he finished the sentence, a pall seemed to descend between the two.

As evening wore on, both struggled to act as if they were having a good time, but both were thinking about their divergent goals and the problems it might present to them.

The party ended soon enough and it was time to drop Neeta back. As he pulled-up in front of her hostel, all Raj could think about was that he wanted to see her again. He really didn’t know what would happen tomorrow or day-after, but he could not bear the thought of not seeing her again.

“Hey listen, I had a fantastic time today. I would love to see you soon. Maybe…tomorrow?” asked Raj.

“Raj, I like you and want to see you again, but am not sure this is going to work out. I’m not sure we should see each other again” Those words felt like hammer blows to Raj. “I can see your point of view Neeta…but one can’t stop living out of fear of what might or might not happen.” Said Raj softly.

“Why walk down a path, which we both know leads to nowhere? You will be in the US in less than a year, and you will be there for at least two years. If you were going somewhere in India, one could still hope, America is too far away. Who is to say that you won’t find someone else there?”

There was nothing in what Neeta said that was unreasonable,”I’m not going to argue about anything you just said. There are a lot of ifs and I don’t have any answers. But I think there is a connection between us and the least we can do is to give each other a chance.”

“Raj, don’t you think it would be easier to break ties now rather than in six months? We’ve only known each other for four days and have been together for less than six hours. It would be foolish of us to get into something that can cause pain later.” And so saying, Neeta gave Raj a quick hug and quickly got out of the car.
As Raj saw her walking away, every fiber of his being told him that this was for the best, but all he could feel was a terrible emptiness in the pit of his stomach.