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.


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