Friday, 5 January 2018

Rings of Fire

      On a sunny afternoon, Suma was busy discussing something with her lawyer. As the lawyer spoke, her eye brows furrowed and the deep lines on the forehead of her dark face clearly depicted her worry. Her beautiful eyes wanted to burst out in tears, as if she had been holding so much for days. She looked up, turned her lips into her mouth and after a long breath, closed her eyes. In the midst of this she received a call.
      “Aashi’s had an accident”, frantically announced a voice on the other side of the phone, “and the doctors said she needs to get her leg amputated! She’s admitted in Apollo now. Where’s the coach?”
      “What happened…?”, said Suma hardly able to gather words to put forth her question. She got up from her seat trying to keep her calm and said, “I’ll be right there”
      Aashi had always been more than a sister to Suma. “Just a week more… Aashi was in the best of her form… God…”, Suma said to herself as she rushed out of the lawyer’s office. She tightly interlocked her fingers, her lips were uttering a prayer and she couldn’t stop her heart rate from racing up.
      Outside the hospital, a companion, was seemingly waiting for Suma. As soon as Suma reached, the girl hugged Suma and began to cry.
      “Suma, this shouldn’t have happened…”, said the girl.
       As Suma was about to speak, she was interrupted. The place was flooded with news reporters.         
      “Ma’am don’t you think this is a huge loss for the country?”, asked a reporter.
      “How did this happen?”, asked another.
      “Suma, first the allegations on you… and now this! What do you have to say”, another question fired up from behind.
       Suma just folded her hands and said, “Please excuse me. I’m not in the position to answer any of your questions now”. Saying this she hurriedly went into the hospital.
      After waiting for a while in a tensed silence Suma asked, “Tina, how did all this happen?”
      “She was driving and met with a severe accident… The doctors say her right leg is so badly crushed that they have to amputate it!”, said the companion, Tina, with tears flowing down her cheeks.
       Suma looked down at the floor, sighed and then looked up at Tina. “She’ll be fine. Stay Strong”, she said trying to keep all her calm.
       Sitting on the couch of the hospital’s lobby she stared without a blink at an arbitrary point lost in deep thought. Her attention then turned to the television screen in front of her couch.
      “Aashi Ahlawat shall no more be able to be a part of the Olympic squad”, blared a news reporter on a channel. Suma changed the channel.
      “Young Aashi loses her leg, with that India’s hope to win a medal this Olympics has been shattered”, reported another news channel.
      “India’s bad luck! No participants for women’s badminton in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics”, roared another reporter.
       Exasperated with all of this Suma switched the TV off. First, the headlines had talked just of Suma and now Aashi. “I hope Aashi has the strength to bear this. What a hard time it’s been!”, Suma thought.
       Suma felt it was better for her to go back home, where her mother would be waiting for her. Perhaps it was Suma’s only way to temporarily escape the chaos of the abominable mess that had been surrounding her life for quite some time.
       As she went downstairs she saw a bald, frail man on a wheelchair. She was reminded of her dear father whom she had lost to cancer, when she was fifteen. She stood there for a while and remembered her father’s exact words, on his last days, “You are a champion… Suma! Remember there is no substitute to hard work.” With his weak hands he had drawn the five interlocking rings on the walls of her home and had said, “Olympics. I see you there. When I am gone this will remind you of that aim…”. Suma scampered out as if to get rid of her thoughts.
       Suma wrapped her face in a scarf and took a cab to go back to her apartment. She took her seat in the cab and looked at her phone. It was July the 1st. ‘How good had the beginning of the year been’, she thought to herself. She looked at the phone again, and found a screenshot of a news article she had saved about five months ago. “Suma Vyasa and Aashi Ahlawat to represent India in badminton at the Tokyo Olympics: A moment of pride”, it read. Suma remembered how excited both Aashi and Suma had been after the announcement. She found herself smiling looking at the screenshot. Sitting by the window, as her head rested on the forehand of her folded arm, she was lost in memories.
     
       It was seven years ago, in the National badminton academy in Hyderabad, that Suma met Aashi, after they had both been selected for the South Asian Junior Championship. Aashi had taken the initiative to utter the first word to Suma. Suma discovered a great companion in Aashi. Eventually they became the best of friends. The Asian games, the Commonwealth games, the Uber cup they had both done the country proud. It was in January that year that the Badminton Federation of India announced that Suma and Aashi would represent India in the Tokyo Olympics that year.
     
       “No Suma don’t go back to those memories”, she said to herself as her mind was about to recall what happened after that. And then it was the sound of the car’s horn of that interrupted the flow of memories in Suma’s mind. “We’ve reached, madam”, said the cab driver. She gave a lackadaisical response and walked in plodding steps towards her flat. As she rang the bell of her house, her mother opened the door for her.
      After a half-hearted dinner, Suma sunk into a chair in the corner of the hall and began to weep. It was as if the fracture point of her mind had arrived. On seeing this, her mother rushed towards her. “Chinna...Everything will be okay.”, she said trying to comfort an inconsolable Suma. Her mother’s eyes became teary too.
        “Amma, what wrong have I done? There’s no hope now”.
        Her mother sat on the floor and looked up at Suma, “Suma, remember what your Appa taught you. Stay strong Chinna”.
       Suma came down to the floor and lay on her mother’s lap, the one place in the entire world she found solace in. She cuddled her mother close. As her mother affectionately ran her fingers on her
hair Suma felt as if she was miles away from all her troubles. That’s what a mother’s touch does, drags you away from all worries. Suma closed her eyes and fell asleep.


“Suma Vyasa- Gold!”, announces a voice in a weird foreign tone. “It is the first time in history that India bags a gold in Badminton”, the same voice announces. Giving a customary bite to her gold medal she poses for a photo with two other blurred faces. She looks up to the sky and shows the medal to her father. Suddenly someone from the crowd comes up to her and snatches away her medal. She shouts, she screams. Alas! No one hears.       


       She awoke in a cold sweat, in a frantic panic trying to determine whether what she saw was a dream. After a long sigh, she looked at her mother who was asleep and tears were half dry on her mother’s face. She smiled at her mother and hugged her tight. Her mother then awoke and asked Suma to go to the room and sleep. Suma nodded and got up.
      She looked at the five interlocked rings her father had drawn on the wall. That day she missed her father way too much and hoped he was there too. Suma began thinking about him.
       Suma’s father was a small scale trader, who had mostly been debt-ridden. When Suma was eight it was her father who spotted her talent. Whatever he earned from his meagre income was spent on Suma’s game. From the moment she won the singles title in Vijaywada, in the National School games at the tender age of 9, her father decided to move to Hyderabad which was the nearest city to their town, so that she could be trained at the academy. He mortgaged their property to the bear the expenses. She was shattered when she got to know her father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, her father was a strong man, who taught his daughter to be strong in life. One thing he kept telling her was, “Stay Strong!”. After he passed away the academy provided her a scholarship for her exemplary performance. It was perhaps a year later, that Suma discovered that her mother had been cleaning utensils in other people’s houses to earn money to make their ends
meet. Suma was shocked to know this and immediately went to the academy and requested the trustees to provide her a minimum stipend to be able to live in the city. They agreed and Suma made sure her mother did not have clean other people’s utensils anymore.
 
       As the dark night enveloped the never-ending sky and stars faintly shimmered on that dark blanket, Suma stood in her balcony, her cheeks glistening with tears. Her eyes caught a star in the distance that glimmered way more than the others of its kind. She believed that it was her father, watching her. Wiping her tears off, she said, “You believe me right, Appa? I haven’t wronged, ever. I’m sorry. I let you down and our dream is shattered now. I stayed as strong as I could Appa. But…your daughter is no more a champion”. She began pondering about the recent academy days.
      

       Two months ago, when the entire Olympic contingent was going through its paces for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, the academy was abuzz with talks that Suma might be the proud flag bearer for India. For Suma years of struggle were about to show their golden result. Confident as Suma was in her ability, she also never slackened her practice. Aashi and Suma were in the best of their forms. Both of them perfectly geared up. They constantly discussed their techniques, as always. It was the first time in many years that India was sure of winning a minimum of two medals in badminton that Summer Olympics; one of them had to be gold for sure. Everything alright, until she received that mail…
       Standing in her balcony those days flashed before her eyes in order, yet again. She did not want to think beyond this, all over again, about what the mail had said, but sometimes like sand slips away from a closed fist, so do memories flow out from the mind, without control. No matter what you do, you can't stop them from incessantly flowing out. Suma sat down on the floor of the balcony,
her hands held her legs tightly to her chest. She put her head down, between her knees and then there was just flashback.
       It was one of those mundane evenings when Suma and Aashi were done with their practice sessions that Suma felt her forehand and calf muscles cramping. She also had bad spouts of vomiting later that evening. She ignored it and arrived for practice the next morning. That morning blood and urine samples of athletes were collected. They were informed that it was a formality. Practice sessions went on with rigour for another week. One evening when
Suma returned home after an enervating practice session, her mother informed her that the coach had called. She said he had asked Suma to immediately check her mail. Suma scurried straight to her room. She logged into her mail and a faint queasiness engulfed her. What she saw was simply appalling, a forwarded mail from her coach originally sent by the Indian Olympic Association.
        It read, “The IOA regrets to inform you that Suma Vyasa has been subjected to a life ban in badminton or any sport whatsoever, issued by the WADA for the illegal use of a Performance Enhancing Drug. She is thus stands disqualified from the Tokyo:2020 Olympics. The IOA however gives her a time of one week to prove her innocence”.
       She stared at the email message on her computer, her mind racing so fast that the words blurred together and no longer made any sense. Just three lines, but enough to make her life--the life she’d worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build--begin to crumble around her.
       Sitting in the balcony, Suma lifted her head up and stared at the sky, yet again. “Suma… you haven’t slept Chinna”, came Suma’s mother’s voice from inside. Suma stood up and went inside to her bedroom. Her mother came and sat beside her.
       “Amma… The lawyers say there is no way for me to prove my innocence. They have found the drug in my blood sample. I lost. I failed Appa and you. You trust me, don’t you?”, said Suma who couldn’t look into the eyes of her mother, as if a burdensome guilt did not allow her eyelids to rise.
         “Suma… See here. Look into my eyes.I trust you. He’s up there, looking at all of us. He knows who’s right and who’s not. Forget all this. You have done all that you could. I know what you have been through in these two months. The way you’ve handled yourself Chinna… Appa would have been proud seeing how strong his daughter has been. You never failed us and you never will. It is a test for you. You see everything will be fine soon”, her mother said and embraced her warmly.
       In the past one month or so myriad efforts were made by Suma to prove her innocence. Appealing to the National Anti Doping Agency, requesting support from the Badminton
Association of India , swaying from one lawyer to another and what not. Nothing worked in her favour. In spite of all this, Suma did not stop training. She often told Aashi, “Training comes first”. Once Aashi told Suma, "Suma I feel so bad for you. Don't you ask God, why you?". Suma smiled and said, "I don't know if God is up there, looking at all this. But I do know, when out of the many greats, I won the Commonwealth Games, I didn't ask anybody, 'Why me?'. I haven't wronged, that's all I know.".
       Suma went on to add, “Aashi what if I can't participate, you have the chance. You'll do the nation proud. Don’t worry if I am not along. You must win”. But now everything was over for Aashi too, after that horrendous accident.
      For Suma time in the forward direction seemed to dawdle, it was as if all that she was left with, were memories. A burdensome week passed and it was finally time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Aashi was still admitted in the hospital. In spite of a numberless attempts that Suma made to prove her innocence, nothing worked in her favour. It was as if the entire universe was making an effort to put her down, to break her strength. Sadly that very universe didn't know who it was dealing with. A soul, hard to beat.
       Days passed. There in Tokyo, the Olympics started in full rigour. Neither Suma nor Aashi could participate. Suma was in the hospital sitting in the lobby yet again. She had come to meet Aashi whowas asleep. This time on the television, was being telecast an event in which Suma was supposed to reign supreme. Suma switched off the TV and again as before began staring at an arbitrary point until a nurse’s voice came from behind, "Ma'am, Aashi is awake and she is adamant on meeting you".
       Suma rushed to Aashi's room."S....Suma... I... ahh...so...sorry.", whispered Aashi in a voice that was hardly heard.
     "What? Aashi you need rest.", said Suma.
"Suma... I have something to say. I can't live with this anymore", said Aashi trying to gather all her voice and strength. Aashi finally gathered her voice and spoke. As Aashi's words reached Suma's ears, every expression on Suma's face fell off. She stood there, still.

THE PARIS OLYMPICS (Four Years Later):
“Suma Vyasa- Gold!”, announces a voice in a weird foreign tone. “It is the first time in history that India bags a gold in Badminton”, the same voice announces. Giving a customary bite to her gold medal she poses for a photo with two other people. She looks up to the sky and shows the medal to her father. Suddenly someone on a wheelchair shouts, "Gold! You are Gold!". Suma is living her dream now.
       This ends up being quite surreal for Suma, particularly when the crowd does not stop cheering. She is so overwhelmed, that she chokes up as she sees the medal she's wearing now. Suma kisses the five rings on her medal and reminisces the five rings her father drew on their wall. Suma’s runs up to her mother, who's in the audience and kisses her cheek.
       Suma then goes straight to Aashi, who is on a wheelchair, sitting in the first row and gives her a hug. Aashi's face is beaming with joy. "Suma you deserved this long back", says Aashi looking up at Suma who can't stop smiling.
     As Suma and Aashi are moving out of the badminton complex, a reporter comes up to Aashi with a microphone in hand and bluntly says, "Aashi, four years ago, after your accident, you called up a press conference and made a huge confession about you having mixed the drugs in Suma's food. Your jealousy costed India a medal! You were spared on Suma's request. What do you have to say today?"
    "Let's leave Aashi", says Suma who seems infuriated by the reporter's question.
     "Wait, Suma...Let me take this", says Aashi holding back her wheelchair.
     "I can vouch, that there is no happier person in the world than me, today", says Aashi. "Not a single moment, in these four years, have I been able to live free from that guilt of having deprived a wonderful soul like Suma, of what she deserved long ago. And I got what I deserve for what I did and that's why I'm on this wheelchair today". Aashi cannot hold her tears back.
        Suma snatches the microphone from the reporter's hand and says, "What Aashi did for me is something a person needs a heart to do. It was her confession that made me prove my innocence. I am thankful for such a friend. So please stop making her feel guilty every single time. I hope you get that!". Suma gives Aashi a tight hug and puts the medal in Aashi's neck. "This one's for you, Aashi", Suma announces.
       "You are pure gold", says Aashi wiping her tears off. The paparazzi begin clicking photos of Suma and Aashi. India's flag furls high in the air. The five interlocked rings in front seem to be proud, that they are not just rings, but rings of fire. 




Thursday, 15 June 2017

Serendipity

How often do we get out of our pretentious worlds, to all intents and purposes enjoy what we pretend to be enjoying?  Scarcely ever.

“Have a nice flight”, said the air hostess, handing over our boarding passes to us, with a smile that seemed plastered to her face, evidently under obligation to her job and nothing more. I smiled back so vaguely that after a moment I found myself wondering whether my minuscule smile even qualified as one. This in turn made me think of how difficult it has become these days to witness a genuine smile. A smile like that of my grandma back home, who greets everyone she meets with an ingenuous smile, simply devoid of artificiality. I wished I could smile naturally like that.

I walked ahead with my parents and brother towards our boarding gate. At about every ten metres people were busy clicking shots of themselves from a high angle, exaggerating the size of the eyes and giving the impression of a slender pointed chin, or simply put, “Selfies”, a fancy locution not many had a hint about until a few years back. Well, it’s a term that is so clich├ęd now that this whole description sounds funny (not funnier than the selfie itself however).

It would be after years that we’d be travelling to Himachal together. Seated in the lobby we were all busy with our own devices. My brother was busy playing FIFA on his iPad. My parents were busy on their individual phones. I, as usual, was pointlessly scrolling down Facebook. My thumb had been accustomed to opening the Facebook app on my phone, even subconsciously. There was a little boy, perhaps five years old, sitting next to me. He was looking at the picture of a tree in a magazine. With a pinch gesture he tried to zoom in the picture in the page. After a failed attempt he grabbed his Mom’s phone, clicked a picture of the page and then began to zoom in.  

In the flight, I occupied the aisle. There was a young girl sitting next to me. With an expression that somebody from my grandma’s generation might compare to a fish taking water into its mouth to breathe, she clicked a selfie. After a lot of trial and error she singled out a filter and posted her picture on Instagram after which she updated her Facebook status. (Point to be noted: you are not travelling if you don’t update your Facebook status!). I put on my eye mask and went to sleep.

After collecting our luggage from the Delhi airport we started moving outside, to where a pre-booked cab would be waiting for us. On the travelator was a boy of about 15, who was live on Facebook to telecast this amazing event of walking on a travelator! Suddenly he tripped over his own bag but managed to get up and walk away. (I’m sure that must have hurt).

The next morning on our way to Dharamshala from Delhi by road, we stopped for breakfast at Sukhdev, a restaurant that is renowned for its parathas. In spite of it being huge and spacious the restaurant was swarming with people. We had to wait for a while to get a table for four. One gentleman, clicked a photo of his paratha and posted it on all possible social networking sites with captions like “Enjoying the paratha at Sukhdev”. I wonder if he actually had time to relish the taste of it amidst the hectic task of counting the likes for his posts and replying to comments. (I know I shouldn’t have peeked in, but what else can one to do while waiting for a table). After a delectable breakfast and an elaborate photo session, we resumed our journey.

I couldn’t be sure if I was dreaming of the sight I beheld after I awoke in the car, a few hours later. “Wow. Look at those mountains”, I exclaimed to my brother who was already adoring the scenery, long before I did. After a while I asked my brother to pose for a selfie in the car. In awe of the sight I kept clicking photos all along, wondering which ones I could post. “‘En route Dharamshala’, should be a good caption for my post”, I thought to myself. I was lost neither in the beauty of the place nor in the wonderful company of my family, but in my phone’s photo editor.

Our stay was arranged amidst the woods in a place that was about ten kilometres away from the small town of Dharamshala.  The very reason we had chosen the place was that unlike other places this wouldn’t be thronging with people. Reaching the site we discovered that all mobile networks were scanty. To add to it, that evening my phone fell in water. I had to disassemble all its parts and leave it to dry.

The next morning all of us awoke at about four thirty, as planned the previous night. It was perhaps the first time in many years that I awoke so early. My phone did not work still, my dad’s phone was completely drained of charge and so was my mom’s phone. Helplessly we had to leave all our phones in our rooms. With our small backpacks on, we set out to tread and explore the woods.

In no time we were amidst the tall trees. The phantom silence was stunning. There was no movement initially except the breaking of twigs beneath our feet. I could feel the purity in the air. The different scents that drifted across the woods were a treat to my olfactory receptors. From the gaps between lofty trees a faint light of the rising sun revealed the various hues of brown in the woods. Mingled with the soil, grass and twigs beneath, rocks added their greys to the ground. And then to break the silence, at first light was a tremendous outburst of chirping birds.

After the quietude was interrupted by the birds, we began to speak too. I rediscovered that my dad is well equipped with humour and precision comic timing. With his endless supply of wonderful stories and our own additions to it, the four of us were thoroughly entertained as we walked along. My mom unravelled her poetic side, amid which I too tried my hand at some impromptu poetry, though mine sounded more like a nursery rhyme than a poem! “How far can you throw this stone?”, my brother asked picking up a pebble from the ground. And we began challenging each other on who could throw pebbles farther.  The sounds of our laughter and pebbles hitting the tree stems resonated across the woods. Could I ever have captured this whole feeling on my phone? Never, but surely I could etch it to memory, which I effortlessly did.

As we walked further my eyes travelled to the edge of the woods, which now seemed to be a silhouette against a backdrop of the mighty snow-capped Himalayas.  The woods ended and we could now clearly see the sun peeking out of the majestic, white mountains, touching the pristine sky. We walked further down along a meadow, to reach a stream of clear gushing water on the banks of which sat rocks, beautifully carved by nature. I let my fingers run over the chilly flowing water. And there was a broad smile on my face, a genuine one this time. I did not have to wonder if my smile qualified as one, unlike I had wondered at the airport. We were a million worlds away from the concrete jungles and high-tech lifestyles. I was thankful that none of us carried our phones along. There was nothing that could shackle us against being at one with our own selves.

In a world where selfies have become more important than being our own selves, where our Facebook statuses have become more relevant than the state of our minds, where we are so indulged in Snapchat that we forget to chat with people around us, where we have time to Tweet but no time to listen to the twitter of birds, where our true smiles are miles away from us, can we ever experience true contentment? It would only do us good to sometimes lift up our heads from our glaring smartphone screens and feel the world around us. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Not just another day

Living in the rural hinterlands of the country could seem dull to many, especially if they’ve lived in urbanized places. No matter how lacklustre such places might seem each of them has a concealed beauty, to observe which, one needs to keep preconceived notions aside and fathom the inexplicable richness of the place. Be it the vistas of sylvan charm, the sights of people toiling hard with a smile on their faces or the simplicity with which people lead their lives, it’s all emotionally rewarding.

Our college being located in the remotest of areas is totally disconnected from urban life, so much so that even finding a small restaurant nearby is rather dubious. In such a scenario, where our temptation to eat delectable food overpowers our concern for hygiene, we scrounge up dhaabas in and around our campus.

When I joined the college, I found it irking that the place was so isolated from the city, in spite of it being supposedly located in ‘Kolkata’ (which it’s miles away from!). My friends often asked me to come along to the local tiny eateries that they had been commonly going to. For long I was adamant. The thought itself of eating in such dhaabas made me feel queasy. I decided to stick to the bland dishes of the canteen. After abiding by my resolution for about a semester my taste buds decided to concede defeat and deaden. I couldn’t let that happen! I surrendered too. I decided to be a little less stringent towards my taste buds and try eating in one of those dhaabas, though the sceptic in me constantly shouted “No!” One evening my friends said they’d be going out to eat and as customary they asked me if I would be coming along, expecting the same old answer. To their surprise I gave a nod.

It was a pleasant spring evening. We boarded the half-empty bus that would drop us somewhere five kilometres away from the college and then we would have to walk about a kilometre to reach the dhaaba. I hurried to grab a window seat. The blue coloured threadbare seats of the bus were slightly dusty and the conductor kept yelling, for some reason, at irregular intervals of time. The sun was peeking into the horizon, conferring the soft spring twilight. After about a kilometre the roads seemed to lead into the woods and it was a different sight altogether. The bus wobbled on the narrow pebbled path. After a while the farms across the not so well laid asphalt were visible in the faint light of dusk. I was lost in the sheer beauty and was also wondering why I had failed to perceive this for so long.

We got down where the bus was supposed to drop us and walked for a while. I reckon it started getting cloudy. As we continued walking through a dimly lit lane the faint insistent honks of vehicles grew louder. We reached what seemed to be the only settlement around. Crossing the relatively busy road, we reached the tiny eating place, the dhaaba. A well-built, dark man in the corner, supposedly the cook, was tossing and flattening the chapatti roll in the air showcasing his expertise in the field of cooking. We decided to sit on the grubby plastic chairs kept outside, as the tiny hall inside seemed to have a claustrophobic setting. I ordered what the others did, giving the sceptic in me some rest. I waited and looked around.

The cook passionately started making what we had ordered. A few women in sarees chuckled talking to each other as they passed by. The air was infused with a mixture of aromas, of incense sticks burning somewhere around and the strong smell of the food being cooked. Adjacent to the dhaaba was a small shop where the shopkeeper was seemingly waiting for customers. Just opposite was a sweet shop, where an old man was seen stirring milk in a huge container placed over a clay hearth, lit by firewood. Local buses and trucks passed by. In about fifteen minutes our order was ready. It was as if my taste buds came to life, instantly gratified by the first bite! It was by far the most delicious meal that I’d had during my stay there. We relished the scrumptious food.

Contented by the meal, we roamed around a bit. Then we started walking at a leisurely pace, towards the place where we’d find the bus that would take us back to the campus. On reaching the place we found no bus there. We waited for about thirty minutes. There was no sign of any vehicle around. It was dark and suddenly there was a crash of thunder that broke the silence. Without any transport the only choice was to walk all the way back to the campus! Disappointed, we started walking with leaden steps.

After a while, we saw something moving away from us. It was a cycle cart, with a frail man riding it. The cycle carts (not even the cycle rickshaws), are one of the most prevalent modes of local transportation here, even now. We ran towards it as fast as we could and yelled “Stop!” at the top of our voices. After all, it was the only thing that could save us from doing all the walking. It stopped. The frail, hollow-cheeked man looked stunned. He was wearing a loose, ragged shirt. His wrinkled face was drenched with sweat, even in the pleasant weather. He was perhaps returning home after a day’s hard work. One of us asked him if he could drop us to the hostel. He wiped off the sweat on his face, looked up at us and smiled. He asked us to sit.

We made ourselves comfortable on the wooden plank of the cart. We passed through a few old buildings, probably the only concrete buildings nearby, as the frail man laboriously rode the cart. The ride seemed beautiful. There was nothing like it I had ever travelled on. After a while it was dark as we entered the woods. At times the moon was just visible through the dark clouds and the gaps of the trees. We could almost smell the petrichor. The other light was that of the fireflies, visible at different instants. It was truly enchanting. I felt deeply connected to nature. After a while a white streak of lightning gave us a glimpse of the paddy fields. And then after sometime, there was light coming from a small array of little houses. The man looked exhausted as he continued to ride along the uneven path. Seeing him put in so much of effort we felt pity and also guilty at the same time. We asked him to stop and said that our hostel wasn’t far and that we would walk now. His reply will remain etched in my memory. He said in his language, “This is my work, it’s my worship. I won’t leave you mid-way.” He insisted that he’d drop us to our campus and continued to ride. Reaching the gate we asked him to stop. One of us asked him how much we had to pay him. He said we could pay him as we liked. We gave him the money not sure if it was sufficient for the amount of effort he had put in. He took the money with moist eyes and had a broad smile on his face, a smile that reflected his contentment and a sense of achievement. He joined his hands and thanked us. He turned around with his cycle cart and after a while disappeared in the dark. We walked towards our hostel as a light drizzle of rain fell, gradually picking up speed. 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Off to the Realm of the Mountains


‘Good morning Dr Edwin. See what I’ve got for you’, said Sam as he opened the door to enter the faintly lit, drab room, ‘it’s your favourite burger from Curley’s’. The room had beige walls adorned with masterpieces. Thick curtains almost completely shielded the room from the light of the outside world. Dr Edwin Williamson stood in one corner wearing a casual off white shirt, a black pant that barely reached his ankles, held up by suspenders and leather shoes. His grey hair was uncombed, his beard almost reached his chest and his glasses were perched rather precariously on his nose. He was busy cleaning a dusty easel. Over the dusty easel, was a dusty cloth covering a canvas. As Dr Williamson slowly removed the piece of cloth, the dim light revealed a painting so beautiful that perhaps the adjective ‘beautiful’ would simply seem too little even to the best of artists. It was as if the artist had relocated the scenery forever onto the canvas and into his artistic universe. Dr Williamson stood gazing the painting with teary eyes, unaware that Sam had entered.
Sam rushed towards the window and drew the curtains open. The drab room was suddenly flooded with morning light. Dr Williamson felt a sense of discomfort due to the sudden glare and shut his eyes. ‘Who is it?’, he shouted.
    ‘It’s me, doctor!’, replied Sam as he ran towards Dr Williamson.
     ‘Sam…When did you come? ’, he said hardly able to open his eyes. ‘Why did you open the curtains?’.
    ‘Let there be light!’, said Sam smiling, in a saintly tone .
     ‘Oh… This is what I once read out to Kevin, from the third verse of the Book of Genesis and since then he often kept using it casually. One morning he bumped into my room and opened all the curtains, just like you did, Sam. ’, said Dr Williamson as he looked towards Sam in adoration, his glasses still on his nose.
    ‘Yeah. I know…’, said Sam as he looked down to the floor.
    ‘For a moment I felt it’s him, but…’, said Dr Williamson, starting to sob as he sat down on the chair. Sam tried hard not to be weak, but tears rolled down his face too. Sam placed his hand on Dr Edwin’s shoulder and said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…’.
    ‘Sam, do you remember this painting of Kevin? ’, said Dr Edwin wiping his tears off and pointing towards the painting kept on the easel.
    ‘How can I forget this? Kevin repeatedly told me that he had never seen a place so serene. A day before we were leaving for Boston he rushed out of the house and observed every detail of the place; the mighty  mountains, the clear gushing river waters, the trees  and the beautiful sky and etched it to his memory. Before we left he said just one thing, “This is paradise Sam. Paradise indeed! I can live here forever.” After we returned he was so enthusiastic about putting it down to his canvas that he didn’t sleep for two nights and finished off the painting. Even a photograph couldn’t have captured it better. That trip… It was the best time of my life!’, said Sam slightly smiling, looking at the painting. ‘Kevin repeatedly told me, that he wanted to live there forever, away from the hustle of Boston, amidst the mountains. He wanted to open an art academy there. He often said he would take you along too. I always found myself chucking to this statement of his, unaware that he really meant it.’, said Sam as Dr Williamson kept looking at the painting.
    ‘Done with your packing, aren’t you?’, said Sam trying to divert Dr Williamson’s attention.
    ‘Um… yes… Oh I mean …No! There is …one whole week remaining.  Why so early?’, said Dr Williamson trying hard to come out of the thought in which he was lost.
    ‘We don’t want to miss anything, do we?’, said Sam.
    ‘I will start packing today’, said Dr Williamson, hardly bothered to actually start packing.
    ‘Umm… I don’t know how to put this but…okay… So there’s another thing I wanted to tell you Dr. Edwin; everybody here I know of, wants you to get back to your clinic. They want the good old Dr Edwin back. At least for the people who need you, you must get out of this and move ahead. You are known to be the most trusted doctor around and… well, the most patient with his patients! You are perhaps the most renowned physician of Boston and what do you call it? The best Pulma…poolmo…’, said Sam looking at Dr Williamson, with a tinge of hope that Dr Edwin would agree.
    ‘It’s called “Pulmonologist” ’, said Dr Williamson, in an expressionless tone.
    ‘Yeah! That’s what I meant’, said Sam laughing.
    ‘No Sam… I’m sorry but that’s never going to happen. What am I a doctor for when I wasn’t here when my son needed me the most? This guilt will always continue to haunt me. I’ve earned a lot in my life but what for? It’s all a waste. Kevin would never forgive me’, said Dr Williamson in a shaky voice.
    ‘Why do you think so?  It wasn’t your fault. I know you were not here in Boston at that time, but you never knew what was going to happen. And stop blaming yourself. I could well assume it was my fault, but the truth is, we need to move on’, said Sam sounding firm.
    ‘Sam... My decision is irrevocable. Don’t waste your time over this’, said Dr Williamson turning away from Sam and pretending to look at the paintings on the wall. Sam left the room without a further word.
      
    In the evening Sam arrived home toting a canvas case and a carry bag. ‘Hi Mom!’, said Sam as he placed the items on the sideboard, and fell flat on the couch.
    ‘How was your day Sam?’, enquired his Mom who was sitting on the other settee, going through a seemingly important file. 
    ‘Nothing new about today. I went to Dr Edwin’s place and then stopped by the Jim Slate Stationer to get a few canvases and a new pack of colours’, said Sam looking exhausted.
    ‘That’s good, son. You’ll be taking them along, won’t you?’ said his Mom as she closed the file and looked towards Sam. 
    ‘Of course Mom’, said Sam casually. 
    ‘What have you been painting lately?’, she asked.
    ‘Well, I’ve been experimenting on some unique techniques of portrait making, as in getting the hyper realistic effect, to perfection. It's difficult to get Kevin's style. Anyway, Prof. McCarthy would’ve been proud seeing it, I’m sure’, said Sam as he stretched his arms and yawned and his Mom smilingly nodded her head in agreement. 
    'How’s Dr Williamson now?’, she asked.  
    ‘Oh…That incident has left him distraught and deeply upset. After all he’s lost his only son! And you know he doesn’t have anybody else’, said Sam sounding regretful. ‘It’s difficult for him to recover. I hope this trip would prove helpful ’.

     There were just two weeks left for Sam’s eighteenth birthday. Sam, who had always been excited about his birthday till the previous year, didn’t even seem to think about it now.

                                                           ***********
    It was about eight years ago that Samarth Chauhan (a name that was scarcely ever used) aka Sam and his parents shifted to Boston from India. His parents had been working in Delhi before they shifted to Boston. Sam hated living in Delhi, so he never did live there. Before shifting to Boston, Sam had been living with his grandparents in his native, in the beautiful hill-station of Dalhousie, in Himachal. As a kid, he never liked going to Delhi, even for a week, leaving his grandparents and of course the mountains and the pine laid landscape around his house, which he loved the most. Back then, Sam could never have imagined leaving the dreamy valleys, the snow-capped mountains and the beautiful river near his house. The tiny Sam would often hold his grandpa’s finger and set out on a walk with him on the hilly roads with pines on each side. His uncle would take him to Khajjiar on weekends and each time Sam’s fascination for the place only grew. He would go out at four every evening with a bunch of friends and cousins and they would play all sorts of self-invented games, run along the pleasing green meadows and in the evening Sam would have the delectable food that his grandma made with so much of love, especially for him and his cousins. Life was incredible for him. When Sam was ten, Sam’s dad was offered a lucrative job in Boston. Sam’s parents were determined to take him along too, but he was reluctant to leave his place. It was a tough task for Sam’s parents to convince him to move to Boston along with them, so they sought help from Sam’s grandparents, convincing whom was not a very tough task. Though Sam’s grandparents never wanted Samarth to leave Dalhousie and their son and daughter-in-law to leave India, they also never wanted to hinder their progress. After they were convinced, they tried convincing Sam. It was a tough task to change his mind, but after a lot of effort Sam did agree to move to Boston. So, off they went to a land, little known to Sam.

     Initially the ten year old Sam found Boston very weird. He always wanted to run away to Dalhousie, to his grandparents, his friends and his cousins, but he never could. He missed the soothing realm of the Himalayas the most. Eventually, Sam accepted the fact that he wasn’t going to go back and got used to staying alone at home most of the time, as his parents were too occupied with their work at office or with social gatherings to spend time with him. It was during such free times that his acquaintance with art developed. As a few months passed, the staggeringly beautiful world of colours totally engrossed him. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston organized a Summer Art Programme for school kids, every summer. It was in his first summer programme that Sam met the similarly aged, Kevin Williamson; both eleven at that time. It was Kevin who had spotted a lonely Sam in the corner most desk, painting something.  Kevin had taken the initiative to utter the first word to Sam. There hadn’t been anything common between the two, except for two things; one, coincidentally their birthdays had been the same, reason enough for two kids to become good friends on the first go and two, they shared a similar interest in art. Sam always talked about Khajjiar and Dalhousie to Kevin and Kevin never failed to be intrigued by the vivid description of the valleys that Sam had been giving him. Kevin too had a lot of things to talk about. They never ran out of things to talk of, there never was that awkward moment of silence between them. They became good friends within a span of one month. Sam joined the same school as Kevin, The East Boston School. Sam discovered a great companion in Kevin and likewise did Kevin. Eventually they became the best of companions.

    Kevin’s dad, Dr Edwin Williamson was a renowned physician in Boston. Seeing Kevin’s inclination towards art, on Kevin’s twelfth  birthday (which also happened to be Sam’s twelfth birthday),  Dr. Williamson introduced both Kevin and Sam to his good friend, Prof. Chris McCarthy, Emeritus professor of Fine Arts at the Massachusetts college of Art and Design.  Prof. McCarthy post his retirement had been teaching a few students at his own residence in St Alphonsus Street, to keep himself engaged. He didn’t have a family. Prof. McCarthy was a very cheerful and amicable person. Both Kevin and Sam loved going to his place every evening after school. It was Prof. McCarthy who chiselled their skills to make them fine artists . A life devoid of art became inconceivable for both.  Kevin was a slightly better artist, but Sam was no less. By the age of fifteen they were making paintings so mesmerising that no professional artist could say they had a flaw. They gained a lot of appreciation for their paintings that they displayed in various exhibitions all across Boston. They perhaps needed no further training, but they did not want to leave Prof McCarthy. All they needed was more experience. Prof McCarthy was the hero of the two young lads. They continued going to Prof McCarthy’s place with the same enthusiasm. Prof McCarthy had perhaps never gotten such wonderful students and always took immense pride in them.

                                                           ***********

    As the moonlight glimmered on the little lawn of the house, Sam stood by the window in deep thought. It was a strange feeling, a feeling that Sam himself couldn’t comprehend. At times he was feverishly excited and at times a faint queasiness was taking over him. He was to visit his native home, Dalhousie, back in Himachal in a week’s time, along with Dr Williamson.  Sam languidly moved to his cupboard, opened it and stood there looking at the photos pasted; photos of Kevin and him. On one side were the photos of their vacation to Dalhousie and Khajjiar. Sam gently ran his fingers over the photos and said, ‘I miss you, bro. I really do!’. He closed the cupboard and briskly moved to his bed. As Sam lay on his bed and closed his eyes, a series of events flashed back in his mind. 
                                                          ***********
    A year ago, one evening after the Math lecture Kevin told Sam, ‘Sam, I’m bored. I need a break from the monotony of life! Why not go on a tour this summer, on our seventeenth birthday?  Not to a usual place, it must be offbeat. We’ll go all by ourselves. It’ll be amazing Sam!’.
    ‘Are you kidding me, Kevin?’, said Sam laughing.
    ‘No! Why do you think I am? Think of some place.’ said Kevin, his eyes clearly reflecting his passionate urge to take a much needed break from his mundane daily life.
    ‘Umm… Okay. Let me think’, said Sam. After a minute’s contemplation he exclaimed, ‘Dalhousie!! And we could stay in Khajjiar too. That would just be perfect. You’ll love it, I bet.’
    ‘Are you sure?’, asked Kevin, sounding doubtful .
    ‘Trust me Kevin’, said Sam smiling, his voice reflecting his fondness for the place. Sam had already told Kevin so much about the place by then that Kevin agreed.
     ‘Done! I really need to know what’s so great about the place that you always keep talking about it.’

    Then off they went for a trip that Sam would treasure for a lifetime. After reaching Dalhousie, Kevin was amazed at the first sight of the place. The next day Sam asked his uncle to take them to Khajjiar. On reaching Khajjiar, Kevin was awe-struck. He had never seen a place so enchanting, so pristine. The deodar trees, the lush green meadows, the dense pine trees encircling it and the panorama of the Dauladhar Mountains were all so mesmerising that Kevin fell in love with the place instantly. The ambience was so soothing that Kevin never felt like going back to hubbub of city life. He loved the simple life in Khajjiar. Sam too was elated to be back to his place, though only for a month. Sam took Kevin to each place he knew of. Sam’s grandfather, in spite of being older and slightly weaker than before, took them for a walk around their house. In their stay at Dalhousie they went river rafting, trekking in the Sach Pass and did loads of other exciting things. Three of Sam’s cousins, who lived in Dalhousie accompanied them. They also went off to Manali for a week.  ‘Paradise’, was the word Kevin kept repeating, through out. He felt so closely connected to nature. One month passed in the blink of an eye and it was time for Sam and Kevin to leave for Boston. Kevin had never felt so emotionally attached to a place before. ‘I could spend all my life here, Sam’, he said as they boarded the bus to leave. It was a splendid vacation; beautifully spent.
                                                             
                                                           ***********

    One year and everything had changed for Sam. This summer was entirely different; life had taken a nasty turn. As Sam lay on his bed, unable to sleep, a flurry of flashbacks disturbed his mind. He turned around in discomfort and said to himself, ‘No Sam! Just sleep. Sleep!  ’. He did not want to think beyond this, about what had happened in the winter the next year after their trip, but sometimes you have no control over your thoughts and your mind just lets memories flow in, even if they are bad ones. Sam started brooding over something he never wanted to give space to, in his memory. He did not want to think of the dreadful night, but his mind returned incessantly to it.

                                                           ***********
 It was mid-January, about three months ago, the peak of winter in Boston and temperatures were as low as minus eight degree celcius. All the streets were covered with layers of snow. Sam had not met Kevin for the past one week as he had been away to New York. Dr Edwin Williamson was away for the past twelve days as he had gone to London for an important work. As soon as Sam returned to Boston he tried calling Kevin a number of times, but Kevin did not receive any of his calls. In the evening when Sam sat down to switch on his TV, the news flashed in, that a "potentially historic" blizzard that could dump about 25 to 30 inches of snow on a large part of the US Northeast, was underway. It had begun to show its effects. Road travel was made a criminal offence. More than 6000 flights were cancelled. A state of emergency was declared in Boston and around. Soon the power went off. It had already been snowing before, but it began to snow very heavily and fierce, cold winds blew. Sam tried calling Kevin again but he still did not pick up the call. Soon the mobile network disappeared too. Sam was concerned. He rushed to Tremont Street, to Kevin’s house, a walking distance from where Sam lived, in Francis Street, well aware that it was very risky to step out. Sam found it terribly hard to walk in the thick layer of snow. The cold, piercing winds made it even worse. As he reached Kevin’s house, the intensity of winds and the snow fall only grew and trees began to fall. Sam was scared; it was probably the worst blizzard he had ever seen. He knocked hard, but nobody opened the door. He then saw that the door was not locked and rushed in. It was dark. Using the flashlight Sam went upstairs to Kevin’s room, it was darker. Sam flashed the light and saw Kevin lying in one corner, covered with three thick blankets. He hastened towards Kevin. Kevin was shivering beneath the layers of blankets.
    ‘Kevin… What happened?’, said Sam looking worried, as the sound of loud winds made his voice unclear.
    ‘S…Sam…T…T…Take care of Dha…Dha…… Dad…Th…Tha..Take himm… to the... mou..mountains...’, whispered Kevin in a voice that was hardly heard and continued to shudder.      
    ‘What are you saying Kevin? Goodness! Your body’s heated up like a furnace. What happened and why did you not tell anyone that you are unwell? Kevin...’, said Sam as he touched Kevin’s hand. Kevin did not say a word and simply closed his eyes; his skin had become clammy and pale, his lips had turned blue, he looked fatigued. He probably wasn’t listening to anything that Sam had been asking him. Sam’s apprehension grew with every passing second, and the winds only grew fiercer. All roads were blocked, trees continued to fall, there was no power and his phone had no network. There was no way to tell all of this to Dr Edwin Williamson, who was in London. Sam rubbed Kevin’s hands and kept telling him, ‘You’ll be fine! Absolutely fine…’
    Kevin was breathing with difficulty and Sam began to panic. Getting to the hospital was downright impossible. He wished Dr Edwin was there. He sat beside Kevin all the while and kept rubbing his hand. After half an hour Kevin stopped shivering and began to grow unconscious. Sam was trembling with fear.
    ‘Kev…Kevinn…’, said Sam as his voice quavered, clearly reflecting his apprehension. Kevin did not respond. The winds did not show any mercy, neither did the snow.  Kevin was then breathing heavily.
    There at the Heathrow Airport in London, Dr Williamson learnt that all flights to the North US were cancelled, including the ones to Boston, due to a devastating blizzard causing the airports to shut down and paralysing travel. 
    After three hours, the severe snowstorm did show some mercy. It seemed almost impossible to even step out. Everything around was covered in white, the streets were covered in almost thirty inches of snow.  ‘Impossible to reach the hospital…’, said Sam to himself as he couldn’t stop crying. In the adjacent building lived an old nurse. It was difficult to even reach there. Sam grabbed the snow shovel and began clearing the snow to reach the house next door. It was a gruelling task, but Sam didn't bother to think of anything else. He reached the building and knocked hard on nurse's door. He begged her to come along, tears still rolling down his cheeks. Sensing Sam’s deep concern she agreed. 
    As they reached Kevin’s home and the nurse examined Kevin, she exclaimed ‘He’s critical! I think, it’s a case of severe pneumonia! He’s totally running out of oxygen. There’s nothing we can do now. We need to call a doctor or rush him to a hospital immediately, else we'll lose him. But it's impossible to even move out now.’. 
     Sam sank into a chair in a corner and began to sob hard. ‘I don’t know what to do!’, he said covering his face. Sam had never in his life felt so helpless, before.  Kevin’s pulse rate began to fall rapidly as he struggled to breathe. The nurse tried whatever she could, but in vain. After twenty minutes of futile effort, she let out a long sigh of despair and said, ‘We were very late. Your friend has departed, my boy, to the heavenly abode…’
                                                         ***********
     On his bed Sam turned around again and tried hard to sleep, not letting his memories take over him any further. Sam tried hard to forget the nightmarish thoughts of that black night, but it kept disturbing him. He had a sleepless night.

    A plodding week passed and it was time for Sam and Dr Williamson to leave for their trip. Sam knew this was the last ray of hope to get back Dr Edwin to his normal self.  After all, Kevin had given him a responsibility and this was the best way Sam could think of, to alleviate his own guilty conscience. Off they went from Boston to New Delhi. As they reached Delhi, Dr Williamson didn’t seem to be pleased at the first sight of the place and wondered what was so great about the place. He was least bothered to give any opinion. After a few hours of rest at New Delhi, they took an overnight bus to Dalhousie. As they arrived at Dalhousie, Sam’s cousins were there waiting for them. Dr Williamson could not help being fascinated by the place, but said nothing.

    After a short drive they finally arrived at Sam’s home. Dr Williamson was awe-struck by the enchanting beauty of the place surrounded by majestic mountains. Dr Williamson felt he was familiar to the place; it was exactly what Kevin had painted on his canvas, the one that had been kept on the dusty easel! Sam’s grandparents waited outside the house anxiously to welcome their beloved grandson home. Dr Williamson received a warm welcome too. He was beginning to smile for the first time, unknowingly.

    Sam noticed a short, young boy, with shiny eyes and a bright face, wearing an old, partially torn and partially patched shirt, constantly looking at him; nearly twelve years old. He was the servant’s son. Sam smiled at him, he smiled back. Five days passed by and Dr Williamson did not speak much. He sat in the balcony all day long, lost in the beauty of the mountains and the river. In the evening Sam took out his canvas and placed it on an easel, in the courtyard and thought of painting something. He was then called over by his grandma to eat, he left the canvas there. Dr Williamson was beginning to love the place and could easily associate to whatever Kevin had told him. The next day, was Sam’s eighteenth birthday, also Kevin’s. The previous year too, Sam had been in Dalhousie for his birthday, but everything had been different then and it would never be the same again. Sam’s grandparents wished him, gave him a warm hug and loads of blessings. Sam was reluctant to celebrate his birthday, but he felt it was imperative to take Dr Williamson to the place Kevin admired the most. It was also a way for Sam to reminisce and perhaps relive the moments he had spent with his best friend, in Khajjiar. Sam managed to convince Dr Williamson to come along to Khajjiar. After the 25 kilometre drive they reached the place. As they approached the place Dr Williamson’s expression was beginning to change. On reaching Khajjiar Dr Williamson had just one thing to say, like Kevin, ‘Paradise’. It was spontaneous. They spent a nice day in Khajjiar, both of them badly missing the person they loved the most, Kevin. ‘Prof McCarthy would have loved to be here, wouldn’t he?', said Sam looking at Dr Williamson. ‘Yeah. I don’t know where Chris has gone. He never told me anything before leaving Boston. He would have been more than happy to see this place, indeed.’, said Dr Williamson thinking about his good old friend.

    After a relatively better morning Sam and Dr Williamson returned to Dalhousie. Sam noticed something unusual. The canvas that he had brought to the courtyard the previous day was covered with an old piece of cloth. He thought one of their servants would have covered it. Sam moved towards the canvas and as he was about to remove the piece of cloth, he suddenly heard the maid of his house crying. 
     She came running towards Sam, ‘Samarth Baba, please help Raju, my son. He’s been shivering all day long and coughing unusually’, she said in the local language. 
     It was the boy whom Sam had seen on the first day of his arrival, the one with the shiny eyes. Sam was tensed, as memories of that dark night flashed back, yet again. He was scared. Sam rushed towards the servant room and saw the boy shivering. ‘No! I won’t let it happen again’, said Sam. He immediately rushed towards Dr Williamson and told him to help the boy. 
     Dr Williamson did not agree, initially. ‘Do you want somebody else to lose their Kevin! Please help the poor boy! Nobody here in Dalhousie is a better person than you, to handle this’, said Sam finding it hard to find the right words to convince Dr Williamson. Hearing this Dr Williamson immediately got up and rushed towards the servant room. He was also bound by the almost forgotten oath. He examined the boy and said, ‘It’s a lung infection. We need to treat him immediately!’, said Dr Williamson, in a tone that resembled the good old Dr Williamson. 
    ‘What do we do, then?’, asked Sam worried, but also surprised to see Dr Williamson back to his normal self.
    'We need to take him to the hospital now to examine him further’, said Dr Williamson as he continued to examine the boy. Sam’s uncle drove them to the Dalhousie Military Hospital. The doctors had a word with Dr Williamson. They examined the boy and sought Dr William’s expertise. Dr Williamson guided them, being an expert pulmonologist. After half an hour Dr Williamson came out. For the first time in these months, there was a satisfied look on his face. ‘The boy is out of danger. They need to take care of him though’. Sam smiled seeing the good old Dr Williamson return.

    It was nine at night, when Sam and Dr Williamson returned to Sam’s house. They sat in the courtyard facing the easel on which the canvas was kept. 
    ‘Tell me what I should paint Dr Edwin?’, said Sam as he looked at the canvas that was still covered with the old piece of cloth. ‘Whatever you like, son. May be the mountains, the scenery… ’, said Dr Williamson, his tone clearly reflecting his contentment after long. Sam smiled and moved towards the easel. As he slowly removed the old piece of cloth, on the canvas could be seen a painting. 
     Sam was dumbfounded at the sight that met his eyes. He simply could not believe his eyes. Everything seemed to be still and his heart began to throb hard. As Dr Williamson looked up, he was taken aback, too. 
    ‘Sam….’, said Dr Williamson looking confounded. He stood up, went near the painting and touched it just to be sure that what he was seeing was not an illusion. ‘You were with me the entire day Sam. When did you make this?’, said Dr Williamson as he kept looking at the painting in adoration. 
   ‘I did not!’, said Sam not taking his eyes off the painting, not even blinking. 
   ‘Goodness… I just don’t believe this’, said Dr Williamson. It was a beautiful portrait of KEVIN, smiling! The painting seemed so real that it was as if Kevin would speak out any moment. It was as if Kevin himself painted it; simply perfect. ‘This is the best birthday present for me. I feel like Kevin is indeed here today, smiling at me. But how…’

    Both Sam and Dr Williamson could not sleep that night. A flurry of thoughts and possibilities rushed through Sam’s mind. ‘I don’t understand. How’s this possible?’, said Sam to himself. ‘Is Kevin there somewhere near us?  Ah! Don’t be stupid Sam! Then who could it be? Such a fine piece of art and even more surprising the portrait of Kevin!’, said Sam as he kept talking to himself.

    The next morning the thought did not leave both Sam and Dr Williamson. They went to the hospital to see the servant’s son. On their way Sam saw an old man, looking very familiar. ‘Prof McCarthy!', exclaimed Sam. 
    ‘What? Chris, here! Don’t be silly Sam! Come on...’, said Dr Williamson as he continued to walk.
    ‘I’m sure it’s him!’, said Sam as he ran towards the old man. ‘Good gracious! I don’t believe it. Prof McCarthy! Where have you been? You left Boston without a word!’, said Sam as this was the second consecutive surprise for him since the last night. 
    ‘Sam… How have you been, my son?’, said Prof McCarthy as his blue eyes looked into Sam’s with deep affection. ‘I’m sorry. I left Boston without informing you. I was devastated after Kevin was gone. He was more than a son to me. You and he were my only family. I was shattered at the news. I didn't want to live there anymore. Kevin had talked so much about this place that I decided to come here and…’, said Prof McCarthy before he was interrupted by Dr Williamson. ‘Chris! It’s indeed you! What are you doing here? And you did not bother to inform any of us’. 
     ‘Edwin! I know it was wrong of me to leave without a word. Your son and his paintings had talked so much about this place that I was dragged to this place… and moreover it seemed impossible for me to live anymore in Boston’. 
    ‘What have you been doing here Chris?’, asked Dr Williamson. ‘Well lately I’ve been training a few immensely talented young kids. There are wonderful artists in here. There’s a poor kid, who doesn’t speak and I prefer to call him ‘Li’l champ’. He is a gem, much like our Kevin. Unfortunately ‘Li’l champ’ is unwell and I came to the hospital to find out if he’s fine’, said Prof McCarthy. 
    ‘Come along then. We are going to the hospital too’, said Dr Williamson smiling, pleasantly surprised to meet Prof McCarthy. They went in to the hospital, Dr Williamson and Prof McCarthy simultaneously asked the receptionist in a similar accent, ‘Raju?’. They looked at each other. 
    ‘Is it Raju whom you’ve come to see, Prof McCarthy?’, asked Sam. ‘Ah yes!’, Prof McCarthy replied. 
    ‘Is he the student you were talking about?’, asked Sam. ‘Yeah’, replied Prof McCarthy. They were all happy to see that the boy was recovering well. Dr Williamson had a small chat with the doctors. Sam asked Prof McCarthy to come along to his house. He readily agreed.

     On reaching their house, Sam was reminded of the painting. ‘Prof McCarthy, I have something to show you. Come along. I was shocked to see it last night’, said Sam and took Prof McCarthy to the courtyard. 
    ‘Ahh… Kevin… Amazing! This is... more like Kevin's own style. Have you painted this, my boy?’, said Prof McCarthy as he kept looking at the painting with teary eyes. 
    ‘No! I haven’t. I have had a sleepless night thinking about it’, said Sam looking at the professor who kept smiling looking at the portrait.
    ‘Thank you Samarth Baba. You saved my son’, came the maid's voice from behind. ‘Raju was unwell the day before your birthday and I told him not to go to the courtyard as it was getting colder. He did not listen. He saw that white coloured board and rushed towards it. He started painting something over it. Later when I came back to call him to sleep I saw he had made this. I was scared that you would scold him so I covered it with a cloth. Excuse him for the mistake.’

   Sam was shocked to learn that the boy with the shiny-eyes had done this, but was unable to understand two things; one, the painting was done in the typical Kevin style and two, how had the boy made such a perfect potrait of Kevin?. ‘It’s marvellous. You should be proud’, said Sam smilingly to the maid.
    He said this to Prof McCarthy. ‘I told you he’s a gem, the Li’l champ’, said Prof McCarthy with a wide smile that reflected his pride for the ‘Li’l champ’. As Dr Williamson learned of it he couldn’t help but admire the boy and his masterpiece.
    ‘How did he make Kevin’s portrait? Has he ever seen Kevin?’, enquired Dr Williamson. No one knew the answer. 
    'The Li'l champ cannot speak. So we can never find out.', said Prof McCarthy. They could only guess. Perhaps he had seen Kevin the previous year. Perhaps he had seen Kevin’s photograph with Prof McCarthy. It was all 'perhaps'. They weren’t certain, but the perfection of the portrait and the manner in which it was done, was not letting them believe in any of the possibilities they had been discussing. It was a mystery that remained solved only on the basis of assumptions, none of them seeming very valid. 
    As a couple of days passed by, the love for the shiny-eyed boy grew, in the eyes of both Dr Williamson and Sam. 
    ‘Sam, you were correct. As a doctor it’s my duty to serve the needful’, started Dr Williamson as he, Prof McCarthy and Sam sat in the courtyard loving the pleasant weather.
    ‘Thank you for making me realise that. I should move ahead, if not for myself, for the many Kevins who need me. The little boy has won my heart. It’s difficult for me to go back to Boston, for I will not have peace of mind there. Memories would keep haunting me. I wish to stay here and be of use to anybody who needs me. I need your help to get me the practising license. You may go back after that.’
    ‘Are you sure about your decision, Dr Edwin?’, asked Sam calmly.
    ‘Oh yes… Very much’, said Dr Williamson confidently. 
    ‘Okay then. We’ll have to complete a few formalities. I choose to be here too. There's something I've been thinking about for quite sometime. Now that Prof McCarthy's here too, it seems possible. It was Kevin's dream to start an art-academy. And now, it's my dream too, for many like the shiny-eyed boy. We’ll call it “The Kevin Academy of Fine Arts”...  ’.Prof McCarthy smiled and nodded his head. The realm of the majestic mountains had given them all much more than what they had expected; a new perspective, a new beginning.  

    A pleasant evening passed by as Sam, Dr Williamson and Prof McCarthy chatted for long, over a cup of coffee, in the courtyard, in the corner of which the beautiful portrait of Kevin seemed to smile at them. The sun slowly disappeared behind the picturesque mountains with the promise of a wonderful morning.
                         
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