「 Three Months Later 」
The water filled around me, slowly rising from my feet to my chest and then to my shoulders, gradually even rising over my lips and touching my nose. I kept trying to jump as much as I could, trying to defeat the water level but the pressure kept pushing me down.
I was suffocating, trying to grab something or to get some air. Anything would do. I was desperate for oxygen, to live, to see the sun rise the next day.
It was all tiring. I should have listened to my mother. I should have stayed out of the waters. I shouldn't have tried finding a fucking fish in the sea when I knew well that Dad would have opened an entire aquarium on one request of mine.
And now the water was taking me inside. It was consuming me slowly, making me beg for air, torturing ever cell of my body perhaps the way I deserved to die. The more I tried rising to the surface, the more the currents pulled me inside.
Maybe I should stop fighting altogether. Maybe I should give up. Maybe I was meant to die young.
Only if I could see my Mom one more time and tell her how much I love her, and that she should be happy and I'd never want her to be sad after me. Only if I could tell Dad that he was the best father in this world and thank him for everything he did for me.
Only if-- my thoughts were cutting out.
"Manik!" I heard a familiar voice. I tried keeping my eyes open, but the lack of oxygen was getting to me.
I felt cotton hands wrapping around my waste, pulling my small body closer. "Manik!" The same voice again. Mom?
What was she doing here?
Wasn't I in the middle of the ocean? Wasn't I dying?
"Hold tight, son," she said, "Dad's bringing help. He'll save you. You'll be okay."
Her arms held me tighter, but I stopped struggling. I could feel the water in my mouth and my nostrils and everywhere, giving up in my mother's arms.
I didn't know how she got there or how she found me. Perhaps, a mother's love, as they say.
I just remember the deafening sound of water in my ears and hurting body for days as darkness surrounded me physically.
When I woke up next, it was on a hospital bed, three days later. Dad was next to me, trying not to cry, but the moment his eyes met mine, he burst out crying.
Mum was gone.
She died saving me.
Dad could only evacuate me-- alive. Well, he evacuated Mom too, but her dead body, one day after I was found.
My world shifted that day. My mom used to often speak to me about fairies and fairy tales, skies and rainbows, clouds and rains, the darkness and the stars, and everything in between it. She was magical, her very presence. She was a dreamer, an achiever, a fairytale believer, mystified by the shadows of the night, and slightly over enchanted by the stars that adorn them.
She loved them so much, that that's what she became. A star.
That's what I believed in, which is why whenever I felt that the shadows of my past were haunting me again, I sat in front of the sea waves under the night sky, feeling her presence. She lost herself in a wild ocean that day, and it still hurts me to think how she would've died. She would struggled to remain alive like I was doing, trying and trying until she gave up, water entering into every cell and vein of her body as her body sunk, and she would have left the world, hoping Dad would find and save me atleast.
But she struggled to be alive. She struggled and she struggled until she couldn't do it anymore and giving up was the only option left.
That's when I realised the real meaning of Stars. Stars and not celebrities or famous people or anyone that the society idolised. A star is any person who accepts the darkness within them and chooses to shine despite the pain and chooses to live, trusts that one reason to live despite a hundred reasons to die that life might throw at them.
Nandini was my star.
After my mother, the only person I could ever actually call a star was her.
She was my star. But I was oblivious to something.
I was oblivious to the fact that Stars burn too. And when they do, they burn slowly, painfully, consuming everything around them; even the smallest matter in vacuum is eaten away by them, and all of a sudden, just like that, they're gone. They're gone leaving behind no trace of them, just nothingness, like that star never existed in the first place.
And then all that is left behind is darkness.
My eyes flickered a little uneasily across the dark room. It was small and dimly lit, with a small table in the middle and a bulb right over it. I sat on the chair across that table, trying not to fidget whilst keeping my patience intact.
I was here for a reason, I reminded myself.
"I'm sorry to make you wait, Manik," I heard a sharp voice behind me. I didn't turn back, just waited for him to come ahead, and sit across the table. I nodded when our eyes met, dismissing his apology.
"What are the updates?" I asked. I was absolutely pissed, and although I tried hiding it, the frustration was heard in my voice.
He sighed, "We are where we are."
The anger coursed up my veins again. My first thought is violence, a sudden thought that flickers through my mind-- to get up and smack his head on the table. But to mercilessly beat up a private section officer wasn't really the best solution after being arrested by the police twice.
"It's three fucking months. You're a detective, Smaran," I rendered, "Do something; find her."
He seemed annoyed as well, "Yes, Mr. Malhotra. That is exactly what we're trying to do since the past three months. And, you're not being any help as well. I could find her only if you allow me to."
"I have given you permission to do everything. Every-fucking-thing. But after all this time, you still give me nothing. How the fuck is that my fault?" I retorted.
"Oh, really?" Smaran rolled his eyes, "Let's go down the memory lane, Manik. It's three months since Nandini Murthy left. It's three months since Mukti vanished. We have no records on Abhimanyu anywhere. It's two months since Fab5, your friends, disbanded. Aliya is in Paris, Navya returned to her parents, Aryamman has no clue, and Cabir is tight lipped. You have no other connections. Where do we go? Everywhere we go is a dead end."
I closed my eyes, trying to talk calmly, "Thank you for reminding me the events of the past three months. Your point being...?"
"Mr. Sass Malhotra, my point being, you can't expect me to find Mukti unless I have all of you back to Mumbai." He snorted. "You realise this-- y'all are what-- Eighteen? Nineteen? Look at yourselves! You are going to heir a fucking company in London next month, were almost about to have a family. Two of your friends are engaged. One is missing. Two are not talking to you. One has left, and two are most probably dead. What the fuck are you doing with your lives? Y'all are teenagers!" he replied hysterically.
"I know that," I retorted. "I know we are teenagers but not everyone has an easy life. For everyone, being a teenager does not mean having friends and enjoying life. Some of us don't get to make choices, you see? We have to live with the choices that are made for us. I never wanted this life; but guess what? I have to live with it."
He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. "Okay, let's get back to the case. We have to find Mukti. Mukti's missing," He reminded himself.
"And you are unable to find her since the last three months," I added, taunting.
"I would have," he replied with sweet sarcasm, "Only if you and your mind blowing friends would have cooperated."
I ignored his accusation. "Do we have any suspects?" I ask.
"Two," he repeated like every time, "First, Harshad Malik: the guy who almost harassed Nandini in the club, got arrested, then got out under medical bail because you decided to beat him up and then, came out and caused you know what."
I inhaled a sharp breath. Caused I-know-what.
"We finally have his real name: Harshad Saxena. Directly related to your best friend, Aliya Saxena. However, she has had no contact with him since the past ten years."
I nodded, asking him to go ahead. "Since Fab5 has a major fall out, Aliya is in Paris. Mukti vanished nights before Aliya left, so she has no connection. However, your friend, Cabir Dhawan and his fiancé were in Mangalore with your ex Nandini Murthy. Navya left after that, and Nandini, as we all know, left to god-knows-where. Cabir, even after having details of what happened that night, refuses to say anything despite being arrested thrice, except that for all he knows, Nandini flew to London. Abhimanyu was last recorded in a highway accident, after which he disappeared too. So you know whom does this all come back to?" He questioned.
I stay quiet.
"Nandini Murthy," he goes ahead nonetheless. "Last seen in: London. Changed numbers, changed contacts, changed everything... disappeared. You know who usually does that? Criminals."
"Shut up," I grit instantly. "You have no idea whom you are even talking about. Nandini could never."
"That's exactly what you said when Nandini disappeared that night, Manik. Nandini could never," He mimicked me, "Did she come back though? Did she even make mere contact?"
"What are you trying to point out?" I ask quietly.
"That if not Harshad Saxena/Malik, the only suspect left is Nandini Murthy. She is responsible-- directly or indirectly for Mukti's vanishing," He said.
"And deep down, even you know that. You know that Nandini's sudden leaving the country is related to Mukti suddenly going missing. You know it, Manik. You're just not ready to face the truth yet. You're trying to protect her since the past three months and that is exactly what you are doing now. But she's gone! She's gone and she's not coming back." He shouted.
His voice resonated twice in my ears even after he was long quiet.
"So now, you give me permission to contact London for Nandini," he demanded, a little quietly this time.
I took a deep breath, making a decision I knew I would regret later.
"Close the case," I ordered.
"You heard me," I said as casually as it could have ever been spoken, "Close the case."
"You don't want to do this," he replied, "Mukti is your best friend. And you can't just leave her missing in the dark, just because the suspect is the girl you love, Nandini Murthy. You're choosing your love over your friendship, Manik. And love for whom? A girl who has long left you behind in the shadows of her past."
"Nandini would never do this, and I know that," I repeated, "So if you can keep Nandini out and find Mukti, go ahead, orelse, shut the fucking case and let me go to London like I wanted to."
"But--" he protested.
"You're working under me. Don't fucking forget that," I snarl, cutting him off.
He takes in a breath to eat away his anger before meekly adding an, "Okay, sir."
"And listen....," I say, "I need Harshad Saxena or Malik or whoever he is. You can burn bridges, or raise a hell, I don't give a damn. I need him behind those bars. He will pay for everything he did."
"I'll make sure of that he'll die a cruel death," Smaran immediately retorted.
My lips turned into a half smirk. "No," I denied, "He doesn't have to die. He has to live. Death is too small a punishment for everything he has done in our lives. He was to live a merciless life wherein even death would feel like a gift. Torture him slowly and painfully until he himself takes his life. I will make his days count."
He nods, "As you wish, sir." I gave a curt nod, before walking out.
I walk out of that stupid one room place to be greeted by lightning and heavy rains, fast wind. My guard moved toward me with an umbrella but I stop him with nothing but a sharp look in my eye.
I ditched my car as I took a step down, breathing in the air full of the scent of wet mud that I loved as a kid. The rain drops fell upon my face and the clothes dearly hugging my body, drenching me completely as I stood there calmly with closed eyes inspite of the thunderstorm breaking around me.
As I walked on the isolated roads, wherever it took me, I followed a path, and yet felt directionless.
There was something inside me, that I knew, nothing was the same anymore. People often say that a lot, but deep down, they always hope that things would get fine and everything would fall back. But I had no hope left inside me.
And to be fair, what do I even hope for?
Do I hope that all the people I have lost to death would suddenly come back to life, and back to me?
Do I hope that my best friend since five years, Mukti Vardhan, who was now missing, would suddenly show up on my door one step?
Do I hope that the friends confided in all my life would suddenly see why it was important for me to leave music and forgive me?
Or do I hope that the girl I fell in love with would see how I have spent every minute after she left trying to protect her from this case, trying to keep the promise I gave her, trying to let her go, no matter how much it was breaking me?
My phone vibrated in the pocket of my overcoat, and I instantly dragged it out. Mom.
No matter how much I wanted to ignore the world and let the storm consume me today, no matter how much I wanted to forget every memory I have once known, and focus on the pain residing in my heart, I picked the call up. "Hello?"
"Manik?" My mom almost breathed in relief, "Where are you? The private jet is standing on Terminus 4 for you, people expected you to be check in by now. There's a thunderstorm raging outside. You're not home, you're not at the airport. Where are you?"
My mother's voice faded slowly and the phone went dead after glitching a few times. Storms make connections weak.
Where was I? I was right in the middle of the storm, letting it rage around me, as if challenging the wind and the rains that no matter how carelessly they blew, they were still better than the fire raging in my heart, the fire enough to consume this thunderstorm and a hundred million more, the anger and the helplessness that I have been suffering from since the past three months had just escaped, killing every bit of hope and positivity in me.
It had unleashed the monster I had kept safe in the cages of my heart.
I looked at my reflection in one of the deep puddles shining under the white street light. I stared at my messy hair and unslept eyes and the stubble that had slowly grown into a beard. Appearance wise, I didn't think I found a lot of changes. But inside, I knew I had changed.
I knew I had changed when I didn't feel emotions anymore. I knew I had changed when I had no hope left inside me, when everything good and positive inside me was long gone, and all that was left was made from its ashes. And it was petty how I was afraid of what I had become, because I knew, this time, my heart will have no mercy.
I was no longer built on the foundations of seeing good in everyone and everything. I felt like I was made to destroy. I was made a monster. I was made everything I never wanted to be.
And guess who did that?
Expected me to say Nandini Murthy, didn't you?
That's the thing you see. She didn't really do anything. She just left. And it isn't her fault that my life came tumbling down after, right? It isn't her fault that she didn't love me back enough to stay with me for a while, right? It isn't her fault that she chose her freedom from me, right?
It's my fault. I couldn't fight enough to keep her with me a little longer; I couldn't hold my life together when I most wanted to; I couldn't save and protect the people I love. It's my fault that I became so dependent on her presence in my life that I lost a part of myself when I lost her.
And the good part, mostly. She took away my heart with her wherever she went, to whomever she went.
She left me abandoned, half destroyed. Perhaps, I would have argued that I deserve better. But do I?
I am a monster after all. That's all what is left of my heart, it is just a dark mass inside me, void of emotions, just an abyss of nothingness-- no love, no hate, nothing.
Days flipped into weeks, weeks into months. And months, gradually turned into years. Time doesn't stop for broken hearts or loveless lives. It goes on. The Earth still spins, life changes, people change. Times change.
Nandini Murthy was that star crossed love of my life that I would treasure forever.
No, I was not in love with her anymore. It was all about the times we spent, the memories we made, that laughs we shared and the heart I gave her. It was all a mistake. But not a mistake I regret.
Perhaps, if she walks into my life again today, she'll see there is no space left in it for her anymore. And she can't really blame me, for walking away was her choice. Trying to stop her was mine. Still not stopping was hers. Not waiting was mine.
Even today, years later, I still acknowledge her as a star-- my star.
But like every star one day does, my star burnt down too, taking away all the love and good inside me, and vanished like she never existed in my life in the first place.
And it's not really difficult to guess what's left inside me after that, is it?