This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.
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It was late in the night. Aditi was sitting on the porch of our house. There was no power. It was almost nine in the night, and she had not finished her assignments yet. She had to hurry up to get to her college the next day. She looked around. Her house was the third in row of the neatly aligned layout of houses. There was a narrow lane which separated their houses from the opposite ones. In the dark, she could only see the silhouette of all the houses. Morning would bring the colors into light, yellow, blue and pink. Her house, though was painted plain white. Her mother had preferred to keep it simple.
She could hear the frogs croaking in the backyard. Aditi lived with her parents on the outskirts of the city. The location was secluded and hills and wild greenery surrounded the site where they lived.
She studied engineering in Hyderabad, and her college was around 18 Kilometers away from their home. They were a lower middle-class family, she had to resort to public transport to reach her college. She had to change three buses and hence had to leave home quite early.
She sighed and got the emergency light from inside the house. As she was studying, she heard a small noise from the garden. She quietly lifted her head and looked around. It was pitch dark and Aditi did not want to venture out to do anything stupid. She got back to work again. Suddenly, there was something pulling her dress. “Chintu”, Aditi exclaimed, “Not again”. Chintu was her pet dog. He was a stray pup, whom Aditi had picked up not very long ago.
One day, when Aditi was coming back from college, munching biscuits and walking home from the bus stop. Suddenly, something blocked her way. A little pup was looking at her expectedly for food. Aditi, out of pity, dropped a couple of biscuits, and walked away home. But the next day, the pup was waiting at the bus stop for her. This continued for more than a week. Aditi took a fond liking for the pup and one day took him home. Aditi’s mom did not approve of this, and she had admonished both Aditi and the pup. They already had a white big stray dog which would come every day in the night to finish off the left overs. So, Aditi started buying some food and feeding the pup. She fondly named him “Chintu”. Chintu was a very naughty, playful little dog, with beautiful expressive eyes. He was brown in color with black spots. He was not thin, but not plump either. But above all, he was a joy to be with. Aditi would forget all her hectic schedule when she was playing with him. As the months rolled by, Aditi and Chintu got very attached to each other.
Aditi came from a very conservative family. Her mother was a strict disciplinarian and very orthodox. Her father was a government worker and a man of few words. She herself was a very studious girl. She made sure all her work was done on time. She was the only daughter, and craved for the company of friends. College was far off, and hence it was hard to socialize with friends outside the campus. Distance was a killer. The friends in the surrounding neighborhood were nice to her and she would also go to their houses in the evenings when she had the leisure time.
Anju was her friend who has been with her since school days. They were three sisters and a very bubbly lot. Theirs was a very busy household and they had some or the other event happening all the time. Their parents were also very friendly couple.
One-day Aditi barged into their house uninvited.
“Oh Anju, what a mess!”, Aditi complained looking at Anju who had flour rubbed on her face, hands and legs.
“What do you expect, I am trying to mix the flour”, Anju retorted back.
“What are you making?”, asked Aditi, adjusting the strands of long hair falling on her forehead.
“We are trying to bake a cake. Archita has a doll birthday party. She has invited all her friends. Mom said we could make a cake for her. So, I and Anita are trying to bake one”, said Anju.
Anju was the oldest of them all and Aditi’s friend. They had gone to school together. Later in college, they had to part ways as Aditi got into Engineering and Anju made her way into Arts. Her sister Anita was two years younger to her doing the higher education. Archita was the youngest of all, and they had a gap of thirteen years between them. She was their baby sister.
“I would love to be a part of the party. Tell me, can I do something?”, asked Aditi.
“No, we are almost done. The party is only for the kids you see. We are more like baby sitters here”, said Anju, in a motherly tone.
Anita came up with the decorations from behind.
“Hey Aditi. What’s up?”, said Anita, “We have planned this big birthday party for our sister. It’s been a busy day today.”
Then both of them hurried up with the preparations. Aditi realized that she was actually interfering into their private party. She said a polite bye to them and walked away from there.
She did not want to go back home now. Daddy will be watching the news and mom will be busy cooking dinner. She was in mood help her mom in the kitchen. So, she strolled past her house to a couple of houses ahead and barged into the second house. An old Aunty lived there alone. Aunty was much older to her mom and her mother looked up to her for everything. She made her living by knitting sweaters and selling them. Everyday evening, she would sit on the porch of her house and start knitting the wool. She would make different sweaters for all ages. She had even made sweaters for Aditi’s childhood dolls, which are now sitting in the showcase for display.
“Hello Aunty”, Aditi went next to Aunty and sat on her side. Aunty was heavily built. She was seventy years old widow, and had several health issues. She had a benevolent face and a very cheerful disposition. There was a certain liveliness in her character, which is what attracted Aditi towards her. Aunty never complained about her problems. Instead, she always took up life as a challenge.
“Hello, no college work today?”, Aunty asked.
“I am taking a break”, Aditi replied.
“Why are you not with your friends?”, Aunty probed.
“Anju is busy with her sister’s birthday party. Padma is nowhere to be seen”, Aditi answered.
Padma was another friend of Aditi. She was slightly older, but mingled well with her.
“That’s a nice peach kurti you are wearing”, Aunty complimented, “Suits your colour”.
Aditi smiled. She was a pleasant looking girl, short and moderately built, and had a wheatish complexion. Her most striking features were her eyes and her smile. She was a very easy-going girl with appeasing. Being just out of teenage, she was yet to form her opinion on the world. She had her own ideas and notions, but she usually kept it to herself. She liked listening to what other people had to say and debate.
“Do you want to learn some knits?”, Aunty offered.
“Alright. Teach me how to do it”, Aditi replied eagerly.
Aunty started the knitting sessions with Aditi. Whenever Aditi had free time, she would barge into Aunty’s place and learn. She made some mittens for her dolls.
One day Aditi was playing badminton with her next-door friends, when suddenly Padma called from behind. “Hey, what’s up?”, Padma said, “Want to go for shopping”?
“When?”, Aditi asked.
“May be tomorrow, I will meet you at the city bus stop”, Padma suggested. The city bus stop is the place where everyone had to go to switch the buses if they are availing public transport.
“All right then. Be on time. I will be near the juice center”, replied Aditi. Aditi did not have a mobile yet. Her mother had strictly said a no to mobile till she completes her engineering. Everyone had a mobile these days, Aditi felt a little handicapped without it. But she did not seriously mind.
The next day it was a huge rush at the bus stop. Aditi finished her college at 3:30, took a crowded bus and managed to reach the city bus stop by 4:30. She immediately rushed towards the juice center.
Padma was waiting for her there.
“You are late. Come let’s go. Else it will be dark by the time we get home”, said Padma ushering Aditi out of the heavy traffic. They bought some Kurtis. As they were returning, Padma said “I got a job in Bangalore. I am leaving in a month’s time”.
“What?”, Aditi was obviously taken aback. She never thought Padma will leave her home. Aditi had known her for few years now. And despite a five-year gap between them, they were very good friends.
She had shared all her problems with Padma. Though Anju was of the same age, Aditi never confided too much with her. Padma was someone who has always been there for her. And now, she is leaving.
“Come on, I’ll write to you regularly. You know that. And you can also come and visit me once in a while”, said Padma encouragingly.
Aditi knew better. The promises of mails and letters will last only for a short while. Later everyone gets absorbed in their own world. But she chose not to reply.
The finals were nearing soon. A month passed in a jiffy. Aditi was busy preparing for her exams. After that, she had to go for a paper presentation to Coimbatore. Finally, the D-day arrived, when Padma had to leave to Bangalore. Everyone went to drop her off at the railway station. Padma, her brothers, her parents, Aditi, Anju and few of their other friends. Padma was very cheerful, eager to start a new life. She was excited and scared at the same time. All of them were happy for her.
As the train started moving, Aditi shouted “Bye”. Her voice choked when she bid goodbye to her best friend. “Life will never be the same again”, Aditi thought.
She came back home that night and did not want to stay alone. She ran to Aunty. Aunty saw that Aditi was sad. “I will cook something nice for you”, she said getting up and walking towards the kitchen. She made some hot pakoras and switched on the TV. Both of them ate the snack together watching the music channel.
Chintu sniffed the pakoras from outside and came near the doorway. Aditi sighed and gave some to him.
He ate them happily.
“It’s life Aditi. Once you finish Engineering, even you will fly off. May be abroad for your further studies. We all will be left alone without you. People leave, depending on where their choices take them. We have to learn to move on”, consoled Aunty.
Aditi understood what Aunty was trying to say but she just could not get over that void, which she felt when Padma left. She said bye to Aunty, picked Chintu up and walked away.
A week passed by. Padma had called after she reached Bangalore. As of now, she was staying in a lodge and trying to find some accommodation as a Paying Guest.
Exams were nearing and Aditi got busy in the preparation. Anju dropped in one day.
“We are going on a two-month vacation to Pune”, she was super excited.
“Really? fun trip?”, asked Aditi.
“My cousin just got married and they have just set up their house in Pune. She wants all of us to visit”, said Anju.
“Wow!! That’s great. Who all are going?”, Aditi was very eager.
“All of us sisters. It’s going to be so much fun !!”, Anju was day-dreaming.
Aditi was happy for Anju but she felt a pang of jealousy inside. Their family had not made any plans so far. She will be alone without Anju and Padma. This vacation is going to be so boring without them.
“Awesome Anju. I am so happy for you”, Aditi smiled, hiding her sadness.
But Anju in her own dream world, making her plans for Pune.
As soon as Anju left, Aditi turned back to see Chintu wagging his tail.
“Hey Chintu, what’s up?”. She picked up Chintu. She put him on the porch, got her books outside and started studying through the night. He was watching her and did not disturb her at all. A couple of hours passed by and he dozed off to sleep. Aditi looked up, gave a smile and went back into her room to catch some sleep.
Next morning, she was heading to the college. She was surprised to see Aunty with a pooja platter.
Aunty, what are you doing here so early in the morning”, exclaimed Aditi.
“To pray that you do well in the exams”, Aunty said with a smile on her face. She put the Kumkum on Aditi’s forehead and blessed her.
“I am sure you will do well”, Aunty said forcing a sweet into Aditi’s mouth.
“Thank you so much Aunty”, said Aditi. She was very gratified with the gesture.
“Now run ahead Aditi. Otherwise you will miss the bus”, said mom coming from behind.
“Mamma, where is my green kurti?” Aditi asked her mother in a raised tone. She was getting irritated. She had to take the train next day to Coimbatore. She and her friend were chosen to present their project in one of the best engineering colleges in Coimbatore.
“Don’t shout Aditi. You are giving me a headache”, retorted mom.
Aditi did not respond back. Aditi’s exams were merely done last week. It had been quite taxing and according to her mom, Aditi was looking pale. So, Aditi’s mom was not in favor of sending Aditi anywhere, that too alone. But Aditi was adamant that she had to go. If the project was endorsed by another college, the professors will be generous with their recommendations to her for further studies or job, whichever she takes up after the final year.
They finally finished packing. She sent out an email to Padma about her trip to Coimbatore. They had not spoken much because of her exams. Padma was also busy settling down. But they did not miss each other as much as they thought they would. Both of them got busy in their own lives. Anju had already left to Pune last week. They also had not met much ever since her exams had started.
Aditi went to Aunty to say a bye.
“Can you get some Coimbatore chips for me”, Aunty asked sheepishly. “I love those banana chips. Here, take this money”. She shove a 500 Rs note into Aditi’s hand.
Aditi moved back. “No Aunty, I cannot take the money from you”, Aditi said.
“One day, when you will earn, you can give me a treat. As of now, get me some banana chips and get yourself something with the remaining money”, said Aunty very fondly.
She came back home to see Chintu at his usual spot on the porch. She cuddled him and said “Chintu, I am going to be off for three days. I am going far away. Don’t be naughty and don’t trouble mamma. You will wait for me, won’t you? “. Chintu looked up to her with big eyes and wagged his tail.
Aditi did not know if Chintu understood but she went on aimlessly, “Will you miss me? Who will give you food the next three days? Go to Aunty or pester mamma. She might take pity and give you something to eat. What will happen when I take up a job? Like how Padma went? Maybe I will take you along with me. Where will you stay if I go to office?”. She was ranting meaninglessly.
After playing with him for a while, she went off to sleep.
Aditi left the next day early morning. She had booked a taxi to the railway station. Her mom had given her lot of instructions the previous night. She is supposed to call her very frequently. Her father was more chilled out and gave her a warm hug. As Aditi was about to get into the taxi, Chintu came running towards her. She picked him up, patted him and put him on the ground. She could see Aunty standing in front of the house to bid good bye. Aditi got into the taxi and headed off to meet her college friend at the railway station.
They got into the train well in time. Both the friends were thrilled. Lalita was a very good friend of Aditi and had a great sense of humor. In no time, they were busy cracking their jokes. Later in the night, they had their dinner and slept off very early. The train reached Coimbatore early morning. Both Aditi and Lalita took a taxi and reached the college campus.
The students greeted them and directed them towards the guest house. The girls freshened up and reached the college. They were appalled at the grandeur. It looked a different world to Aditi. Meeting new people, understanding their aspirations, and plans they held for their future. Their presentation went off very well and they won the first prize for their project. They boarded the train back home, the next day evening. They were so tired that they mostly slept through the return journey.
After the train reached the station, the girls parted to book their taxis to reach home. As soon as she got down from the taxi, she heard the next-door neighbor saying in a very tensed tone “Thank God, Chintu has been waiting for you”.
Aditi gave a smile and looked around. She saw mom hurrying out of the house. “Aditi, drop your bags here and run to the backyard”. Aditi did not understand what was happening. She obeyed her mother and ran to the back of the house. There, she saw Chintu lying down under the lemon tree, his eyes were half closed. He looked very weak and there was saliva oozing out of his mouth.
“What happened?”, Aditi shrieked in panic.” Did he not eat food all the three days?”.
“He was bitten by some insect a day after you left. The reaction was disastrous. He has not moved from there the past three days. He is not eating anything. He’s just lying there, half conscious. He is not responding to any of us”, mom said very anxiously.
Mom, Dad or any of the neighborhood people did not know a vet nearby. They had not made a big deal of his sickness. They thought that he will be alright once Aditi was back.
“Okay”, Aditi said, “let me freshen up quickly and take him to the doctor”.
She turned back when she heard him calling her. A soft woof. Aditi instinctively moved towards him and patted his head. He looked up at her, and wagged her tail.
“Don’t worry, little puppy. You will just be fine”, consoled Aditi.
He wagged his tail again and closed his eyes. Aditi patted him on his head and went in to take bath.
She quickly changed her clothes and came back and saw Chintu at the same spot, motionless.
She went up to him, to pat him again. He did not move. She nudged him. Not a single movement. She nudged again, this time a little harder. The darling lay there motionless.
“MOM”, Aditi yelled at the top of her voice.
Her mom came running from the kitchen. She was shocked to see what lay before her. She went near him and then spoke out the words which Aditi was dreading.
“He is gone Aditi. Looks like he was waiting for you”.
Aditi could not believe what happened. She just sat there, still. Not a word came out of her mouth, not a tear rolled from her eyes. She sat there silent, looking at the trees behind her house. Her mom called out to her twice and she panicked when Aditi did not respond. She ran to fetch Aunty.
Aunty came running to Aditi. She saw Chintu and let out a gasp. She held Aditi tightly in her arms to console her. Slowing more people from the locality started coming. They were all shocked by the sudden turn of events. Chintu was the adorable pup of the whole complex.
“Looks like he was waiting for her”, Padma’s dad said, “He let out his final breath after seeing Aditi”.
That did it for Aditi. She started wailing loudly. Aunty and her mom held her tight as Aditi uncontrollably wept, for what seemed hours.
It was evening by the time she could gather her senses. The body was taken and buried in an empty space near the complex. Everyone had left, other than Aunty, who had not moved from Aditi’s side.
Mom coaxed some dinner into Aditi and at some point, of time, she drifted off to sleep.
The next few days, Aditi was in a state of delusion. She had no idea what was happening around her.
Aunty kept coming by and tried to initiate some conversation or another, but nothing worked.
After a fortnight, one day, Aditi went to Aunty’s place. Aunty made her signature pakoras and switched on the TV.
Aditi suddenly asked Aunty, “Why Aunty? Why? Is this what life is all about? So harsh that your loved one is just snatched away from you? “.
Aunty replied, “Yes dear, life is indeed very harsh. We all, at one point of time, lose loved ones one way or another. Nothing is in our hands. All we can do is to treasure the moments we spend together in the present. No one knows what the future has in store”.
Aditi continued,” When Padma left, I felt a sense of void, I was lost. I did not even realize when Anju drifted away from me. But all the time, I had you and Chintu with me. I had him. He was there, to make me smile, every time, I was down. Every time I was tired, just playing with him used to make my day. And even after he was bitten, he waited for me till I came back. He wanted to see me one last time before he passed on”. Aditi was now weeping hard.
Aunty put her arm around her. “Aditi, we can never predict how life takes its turn. Your heart is broken that Chintu has left you. One day soon, you are going to get your wings, you will pack off your bags and leave for your higher studies or job. That day, sweetheart, my heart will be broken. The same way as is yours today. Nothing is in our hands. All we can do is to treasure the moments we live today. Cherish the friendships we make. We often do not understand whom we are more attached to till we lose them some day. You cried the day Padma left you. You were jealous when Anju left for her vacation. But all the time, you were never alone. You had Chintu with you. My children left for their jobs. One of them is married and has her own family now. But I am never alone because I have you with me. One day, when you leave, I will be equally heartbroken. But I am prepared for that day. That’s how life goes on”, Aunty tried to console her in every way possible.
Aditi kept listening to her and slept off in her arms. Next morning, she woke up and went back to her house.
Days passed by, life was never the same. But then the final year of college started and Aditi was back on the rock and roll ride of college study. She would make it a point to visit Aunty every day evening for at least half an hour. They would chit chat on small things. That was her leisure time in her otherwise hectic day.
Days turned into months and the year quickly passed by. The day Aunty had predicted came near.
Aditi got a job in Bangalore and she had to move out of her house. Her mother was in great panic but she knew that was best for Aditi. Aditi was quite eager and excited. She was to take the train to Bangalore the next day. She will first stay in a lodge and then search for a Paying Guest accommodation just like Padma had done. Padma’s office was far away from where Aditi was planning to put up. But never mind, she will meet her soon.
The day before she left, she went to say good bye to Aunty. Needless to say, Aunty was very gloomy. Her eyes were all puffed up. Aditi hugged her and said, “Cheer up Aunty, I will be here almost every month. We will catch up. Also, now I can treat you with my own money”. Aunty did not say a word. She just smiled.
She then went to say bye to Anju. Anju was in her own world as usual, she had decided to get married as soon as she finished her college. “Mom said she has three daughters, so I have to get married soon”, Anju made a face. But there was no repentance or sadness in her tone. She was quite gleeful about her future.” Good for you”, Aditi smiled pressing her hands.
“Keep calling. Okay? And don’t you dare miss my wedding”, Anju said with a beaming face. Aditi hugged Anju and then bid farewell to their entire family. She then left home.
Mom was quite tensed. She had meticulously packed so many things for Aditi, right from her clothes to kitchen utensils to readymade snacks. Aditi could understand her mom’s emotions. But she did not have much of a choice.
Next day, Aunty came up with her Pooja platter, blessed Aditi as she had done before for all her journeys and exams. Aditi smiled and said a good bye to her. She got into the car and zoomed away into a new world.
Once in Bangalore, everything about Aditi changed. She struggled initially, but slowly set up her base. She was in touch with her parents regularly. She went home for the first three months, once a month just for the weekend. It became a normal routine, getting pampered by mom, chit chats with Aunty and some fun times with Anju.
Then Aditi had to go abroad for six months. That was the next milestone for the family. She packed her bags and left, like a wind. New life, new experiences, new people. Aditi’s life changed for good.
One day, when she was at work, she got a call. It was from mom. “Yes mom, what’s up”, Aditi asked.
“Aditi, don’t panic. But….”.
“What mom? “, Aditi was worried now.
“Aunty got a heart attack and passed away”, came her mom’s voice.
Aditi dropped the phone down. All of a sudden, she felt lonely in the vast world. The moments flashed by. She was shell shocked, stumped, for the second time in her life. She was alone, inconsolable, the same way she was when Chintu had passed away. Only that this time, there was no one to comfort her. She cried that day, on top of her lungs. She felt helpless, fragile. She could not take the fact that the two people who were dearest to her were snatched away from her. She was not sure if she will get attached to anyone again, so close.
She had to gather all her strength as days went by to get her life back to routine.
Days turned to months, months turned to years. Aditi made many friends. But, she was always lonely at heart. She had this inhibition inside her, which stopped her from getting too close to someone again. Her parents had shifted to the city after Aditi left so that they can be close to the rest of the family.
Time passed by, Aditi got married and had kids of her own. Aditi found her love back again with her family.
One day, as she was preparing dinner for some guests, her husband asked “So, this Anju, she is your friend from school times? One of the best I guess”.
Aditi smiled. “No”, she replied, “I have had only two best friends all my life. And no one can ever take their place”.
“Who are they? Where are they? Are they working? In India or abroad”, her husband bombarded her with questions.
“No, they are both long gone”, Aditi answered with a sad tone.
“What? So young? What happened? Who are they?”, her husband insisted.
“A pup and an old lady”, Aditi sighed.
“WHAT?”, her husband was really surprised.
“It’s a long story. I will tell you in the night. We need to prepare dinner for Anju and her family”, Aditi closed the topic. She knew it will take long to explain, cannot be done in a hurry. He, of all people, will understand. Friendship need not be conventional. It can happen between two different individuals, irrespective of age, between a Seventy-year-old lady and a twenty-year-old girl. An attachment with an animal could be so strong, that once gone, it is irreplaceable. Aditi was never fond of any other dog ever again. To this day, Chintu flashes in her mind.
Aunty’s words keep echoing “Cherish the present. We never know what the future holds for us”.
Aditi sighed and took out the plates to be arranged for dinner. Time to greet Anju.