The Boyfriend Project

Rashmi toyed with the controller of the game which Rohit was completely immersed in and expected her to be too. They were at the mall and playing the latest game on the large screen. He had about half her attention as he went on explaining about the intricacies of the game and how he would be designing an even better one soon. She now knew what to buy him for his birthday. And then another month before she broke up with him, once he was settled in his new job. She would tell him about how she wanted to marry the rich young boy lined up for her by her parents and really could not give up the lifestyle she was used to. He would expect that from the rich daddy’s girl everyone thought she was. She understood him well enough by now to know that he would soon put her behind as his conquest from college, get married to the prettiest and meekest girl his parents could find him and get on with his life. What no one would know was the only reason she had been going out with him so long was that she had felt sorry for him that first month in college.

He was a merit cum means student and having trouble fitting in with the crowd. He was certainly the target for the maximum ragging. She had seen him sitting under the tree when walking back to the hostel that long ago day. The abject misery on his face as he sat there alone gave her pause. The other fresher students including herself were already forming their groups and past the brunt of the ragging, but there he was, all alone, looking about ready to give up. Some instinct told her that if no one reached out to him, he would quit soon. She hoped to be able to help him, but did not know how yet. He would be her next mission. She had already made up her mind as she walked on with her hostel mates.

The only daughter of the well-known industrialist in the area, she was the super-rich kid at college. She wondered if she could just drop a few hints to him, but decided against it. Coming from an old money family, she had good instincts on summing up people’s characters for employment. Her instincts told her subtle measures would not work for this young man. He just did not understand the rules of their society yet. He came from very poor and conservative family, maybe even the first one in his village to go to a prestigious college like this one.

Her father had already been grooming her to take over the businesses. College was her place to enjoy herself. Then she was expected to come back and get married to the guy they chose for her.  There was already a list of people she could possibly marry. All family friends and any of them well suited to help her expand and also manage the business. They were all a close knit group of evenly matched numbers of girls and boys who had been to the same schools and clubs all their lives. But they all wanted to have some fun before they settled down. Some of them were already keen on starting up their own ventures. Some wanted to find love on their own if they were lucky enough. She was the one who had always scored good marks and also cleared the entrance to get here. She would do her duty too, but this was her chance to try something different. A chance to meet people outside her usual circle of friends.

The course work was not going to be tough. With her studies and the time that her father had made her spend at the factories, she was used to longer hours than would be needed here for her to keep up. Of course, there would be those who would do better than her, but she wasn’t interested in being topper or anything. She was here to relax, learn more about how the other half lived, make a few friends and generally have a good time without doing anything too far out and that is what she would do. In the month that she had been here, she had already realized that there wasn’t going to be any love at first sight for sure. She was already getting bored of the part awe, part calculating looks and the  ‘oh you are not spoilt at all’ compliments. Then Rohit popped into her RADAR. He was definitely outside of her usual circle.

A new challenge – that is what it started out as. She wondered if she could hint any of the other boys to help him, but she wasn’t sure whom to pick. The idea had formed slowly, she dismissed it at first, then brought it out later to revise and finally decided that it was the best thing to do. She would be the key to his fitting in. Once, he had fit in with the rest of the crowd, she would let him off easy and move on. A whisper in her room mate’s ear that night and soon enough, Rohit and Rashmi were an item.

As she fiddled with the game controller, she shuddered to think of her own naiveté. It had been a difficult learning experience indeed and she really looked forward to when she could finally end this farce. Her limited experience of boys from her circle surely had not prepared her for the fragile ego and truly pathetic social skills of the nerd supreme. After a year of that, she knew she would have to stick out the entire college duration with him. She had even broken out in a sweat one night wondering if she would have to marry him after all. But then imagining either of them trying to fit in with each other’s world was so ridiculous that at least that guilt did not last. She did the best to keep things as light as possible between them and he seemed to accept that as a norm from someone with her background. So, they could both basically get on with their studies. Also, going steady with him meant the rest of the boring flock left her alone. He had topped the class and secured a good job at an MNC and she was toying with the idea of going abroad for further studies, maybe even MBA. And slowly, but surely she had been acting out to make sure that the break up was becoming inevitable.

It would have been better if he had broken up with her. But that would be too much to expect from his nature. He could be quite the passive aggressive bully at times, but he would never really be bold and decisive. She would have to end it herself. Well every good deed comes with its own punishment and this one had run its course. With a mental shake and a lazy physical stretch, she rose from the low sofa, “You are such a bore Rohit, always with your stupid games. I am famished, I need a full 5 star meal. I will pay of course.” she emphasized as he winced. With a practiced toss of her hair, she moved forward, leaving him to follow, or not.

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The Crooked Tree

Planted by nature’s course on the side of the hill, the winds buffeted her all the time. She bent to survive. The earth shook and land mass slid over and below her. She bent to hold on. The waves lapped ferociously at the bank below until the bank fell away sharply. She bent again to adjust. She was the only tree left on that cliff face, so big crowds of monkeys often sat on her. She bent to hold stronger to the earth, to be able to take the weight. Birds built nest on the outermost tips of her branches. She bent the other branches to shield their chicks from the harsh rains. Tiny rodents sheltered beneath her. She bent her roots around their burrows. She was the crooked tree.

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The Journey

PUSHKAR,INDIA – NOVEMBER 12: Unidentified hijras – holy people,so called “third gender” dressed as woman at Pushkar camel fair on November 12, 2013 in Pushkar,India.Terms third gender and third sex describe individuals who are categorized as neither man nor woman

Asha was used to travelling alone – being alone in fact. Polio had left her crippled for life from before she could remember. Supportive family members had meant that she had completed her MBA from a reputed institute. A couple of years enjoying her fast paced life and then the trouble started. Dealing with her disability and myriad health issues along with managing her studies had kept her busy. She had a good group of friends, but none towards whom she had romantic inclinations. Then, her family began the process of hunting a groom. Asha shuddered to think of those days even now. Luckily she had not ‘settled’ and found the courage to assert her independence. Those days of introspection had also given her a new found sympathy towards those who could not do so and she had decided to do something to help them. Initially, she started volunteering with an NGO over weekends, but soon it became her life. A significantly smaller pay check did not deter her from dedicating herself full time to the cause.

The job often involved trying to reach out to villagers in remote parts of the state and in spite of her disability, Asha never shirked from the travels. She was over thirty now and felt that both her empathy for people’s pain and her experience in such situations helped to reach out to those most in need of help. Today, she was on the train journey back from one such trip. Second class compartment in a passenger train. Unfortunately she seemed to be the only female on this coach. It did not bother her much. Had happened before. She checked out the immediate fellow passengers as she flipped through a paperback. A group of young factory workers coming back from their native villages. Strong young men, some still probably in their teens. They looked at her with curiosity, but did not disturb her as she had her best don’t mess with me look on. A few hours into the journey, she felt more comfortable and slowly relaxed. One of the braves gathered up the courage to ask where ‘Didi’ was coming from. She decided to be frank and told them a bit about her job. They had as many questions as kids and seemed genuinely impressed that someone like her would do this kind of work. The fact that she was interested in their lives and could understand some of their issues, made them warm up to her even more.

Hours passed and the general comradery that grows when a bunch of people are stuck together in long train journey find themselves to be a friendly lot. She was now the pampered Didi of the young men who would probably have drowned her in snacks and tea every time a vendor came by or the train stopped at a station if she had not laughingly protested. They were not going to be her fellow passengers for the entire duration though. Their stop would come up early in the evening and they enquired with concern about her well-being for the rest of the trip. She assured them that she would just sleep through the night and get off at dawn. One of the enterprising youth went ahead and checked with the TTC and came back to assure her that the next lot of people who would join her included a lady, so she had nothing to worry about. Touched by their concern, Asha went as far as to share her work number and details with them and took their names and mobile numbers down carefully.

At the stop just before theirs, as they were getting ready to alight, a stranger came into their midst. A Hijra (eunuch) boarded the train and sat down on a side berth which was temporarily empty. The group of young men seemed to accept her without any issues and ribbed her about taking up a seat. She responded with sassiness that a lady deserved a few minutes to catch her breath. Not that ‘Rani’ as she called herself could afford to sit for long, she announced. She would have to work hard to beg her due in this train, full as it was bound to be of cheapskates. They all laughed and handed her small amounts as they could afford. Asha though was a little flustered by the gaudily dressed and made up person. She hadn’t met many transgender persons in her life time and they always made her nervous. She wasn’t sure why, and was a little ashamed of herself for feeling this way. Today the easy way the young men accepted Rani impressed her. She handed out a small note from her purse which was accepted with a mock salute. Rani knew of the discomfort her presence caused.

At the next station the young men departed and so did Rani. Her co-passengers arrived. This time though, Asha picked up some negative vibes and decided not to interact with them. She buried her face in her reading. This group, female included, were brash and passed vulgar comments to each other. She decided ignoring them was for the best. She knew that the train was full with little chance of finding a safer seat even if the TTC did come by. The group started a game of cards and brought out some drinks as the day drew to a close. Asha requested that she be allowed to retire as she was not feeling well. They gave her more strange looks, but moved to the other births to continue their game across the passage as they had the side births also. Asha pretended to be asleep, even though the stench and their talking would give her no chance of rest.

As the evening progressed, things seemed to be getting out of hand. The group was now making pointed remarks about her which left her very worried indeed. She desperately hoped that they were all talk, but given the way their female companion spoke, she was feeling less and less sure as the time went by. She wondered if anyone in the coach would come to her rescue if she needed it or would they just pretend to be asleep. Suddenly a rough shove at her feet made her scramble up. Rani stood there with another companion. “There is no place in this train for a couple of ladies to rest”, she announced in her typical style. “Didn’t I see you resting earlier in the afternoon?!” “Let us sit here now – small female like you should not be taking up so much space”, she demanded. Asha adjusted her prosthetic braces as she sat up and made room for the two. With her head resting on the window bars, she decided faking sleep was her best option. The two transgender ladies then proceeded to exchange taunts and finally join the group in their game.  The players become quieter as the two new players proved their skill and small amounts of money started changing hands.

Drinking was amped up too and in a couple of hours, it brought about the desired effect and snoring took the place of talk. The two also fell asleep and Asha dozed a bit too as the tension left her feeling tired as it faded. She was up and ready to alight a while before her stop early next morning. She gently laid a hand on Rani’s shoulder and emptied all the money in her purse into her lap as Rani groggily rubbed at her eyes. “I have someone picking me up”, she whispered at Rani’s arched eyebrow. With no further ceremony Rani bunched up the notes and stuffed them into her blouse. A trademark mock salute and she closed her eyes again.

That night, Asha who had always felt proud of her achievements and her charitable works learnt a new meaning of kindness from one who is often treated the worst by society.

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A spot of relief

“What do you mean, you cannot take any more leaves? My sister is visiting from the US for only one week during Navaratri and who will take her around? You know well enough that I am not be able to run around town visiting relatives and shops all day long as I am fasting. Am I supposed to leave her to the mercy of the driver?! ” Preeti’s mother in law’s tone rises. “You did not have any problem taking leaves when you wished to visit your parents last month!” Preeti drops her head in mute surrender, readying herself for a long tirade as she remembers rushing to her maternal home when her father was hospitalized after a severe heart attack 3 months back.

A lazy drawl interrupts, “Wonderful though your intentions are Didi, I have no intention of spending all that much time with your beloved daughter in law. My plan is to leave with Preeti as she starts for office. I will tell her what all I intend to do that day and she can instruct the driver accordingly before we drop her off. We will pick her up from office in the evening and come back together.” She completely ignores the heartfelt look of gratitude thrown her way by the young daughter in law.

 

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