The sky was a dense black, the moon trying in vain to lighten it up. The clouds scurried across its face as if afraid of a scolding. And the smoke from my cigarette blinded my senses. However hard I tried, something never let me heal. All those days spent being the perfect person, not even a speck of grey.
And now, I was jet black. On the inside. Something I didn’t know how to heal.
The smoke seared through my lungs, making its presence felt as I went through my fourth cigarette. My body felt as if on fire. I leant back into my bike. As the cigarette wasted away the phone rang. It was Sam, short for P. Swaminathan. I swiped my thumb.
“Where the hell are you man! I blink my eyes and you disappear. Not been there, have you?”
I let out a sigh. It wasn’t Sam. It was an angry and impatient Sam.
“On my way”, I muttered and cut the phone, not waiting for the reply. The cigarette butt slowly crushed beneath my shoe as I took in another breath, feeling the cool breeze on my skin. I closed my eyes for a moment, letting the other senses take over. It felt almost peaceful. Almost. As I revved up the bike, my eyes turned misty. And as I kept on promising myself every single night in the last seventeen years, I promised myself yet again, even though I knew it would be broken within twenty-four hours.
“I won’t be back. Ever.”
I released the clutch and sped up. The sudden changed intake my lungs felt overwhelmed me for a second. Fresh air disagreed with me, it seemed. I sealed the helmet as the bike reached the 80s. Everything turned a shade grey, chasing something behind me. A sudden memory took me up as my hands froze for a second. I shook away that memory as my eyes sighted another biker standing next to a 250cc beast, with a somewhat grim stance.
I mentally braced myself for the outpouring I was going to receive. As I alighted from the bike, the thunder rumbled menacingly.
“There’s a storm building up.” I casually remarked, walking towards the biker.
A storm. Not unlike the one in my eyes.
As I walked up, the biker removed his helmet and a rugged face came into view. Sam shook his shoulder length hair and ran his hand through them, exasperated.
“What the hell Ajay! A hundred thousand times I have asked you to stay away from that place and all you can do is to do exactly the opposite!”
I sighed and closed my eyes. The same old tirade.
“No it’s not the same one,” Sam glared at me. I raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Of course I know what you think. That I keep ranting away for nothing. That what I say is worthless. But it isnot. You get that?”
“Calm down man. I won’t go there again, alright? C’mon, let’s go.” Not waiting for a reply I turned around and mounted my bike. Anger and regret seethed inside me. Never could I forget what had happened.
But how could I forget my own life?
Everyone has a childhood. I had one too. Born to a middle class family, I grew up in a family which never ever grew economically. Gifts were a rarity, if any at all. My father held his shoulders square as he went through the daily grinding of life as a station master. As he often used to say, life was like the railways. You have the general coaches, but you also have the A.C coaches. All that you require is a ticket.
A ticket. One day, a ticket appeared. A lottery ticket.
I was brought back to the present by the blaring horn of a truck. I motioned to the driver and sped up, still thinking. Every single day I went through the recap of my life, not because it gave me emotions, but because it made me realise that life was so much better without emotions.
Half an hour and a pitcher of beer down, Sam and I looked at each other as he gave me ‘that’ look. Yeah, ‘that’ look. I looked right back at him.
“You know what!”
“No, tell me.” I looked into the pitcher, my mind hazy.
“You have never ever told me why you go back to the abandoned railway quarters every damn night! C’mon man, spill out!”
“Can’t you just leave…”
“I DON’T want to, okay?! All I see is my best mate drowning himself in thoughts and I don’t even know why! So, I really don’t wanna spell it out. What? How? When?” He glared at me.
He glared at me as I looked back up at him. I was studying for exams and my dad came home around 1 a.m. from his office, totally drunk. The lottery had helped him set up a business which was flying by now, but he wanted more. He ALWAYS wanted more.
‘It is my exams dad… .’ I tried to speak, but what use is it to speak to a person who does not even remember it?
‘C’mon Ajay, join me for a drink. You do not need exams..’
‘I want to…’
‘To hell with them! Come here!’
I walked up to him and glared right back at him. They were lost in a distance, the strength subdued behind alcohol.
Somewhere in that ticket, I had lost my dad…
“STOP thinking Ajay, just spill it out man!” Sam was totally out of his senses now. I would have to drag him home now.
“Get up Sam, we are going home. It’s a big day tomorrow anyways.” I motioned to the bartender that I would pay tomorrow as I dragged Sam towards my bike. His bike would have to sleep alone tonight. I loaded him behind me as I sped up my bike.
A drunken man. An adamant teenager. A sleepy, protective mother. And a loaded revolver.
And all I had tried to do was to protect my mother. But dad had already pulled the trigger, and as mother fell to the ground, blood raged through my eyes as I turned the revolver on him. My dad. My ideal. My idol. But this person in his body was not him. Ever since that lottery, I had lost my dad to money. And alcohol.
The revolver emptied one more bullet.
I dumped him at his home, and was barely awake as I drifted onto my own bed.
And the dreams refused to come.
The shrill alarm pierced my senses as I woke up with a start. I had a splitting headache which refused to quieten down. I switched off the alarm as it struck me.
Today was the day!
A momentary smile was replaced by a grimaced as my facial muscles groaned. They were not accustomed to a smile on my face. But the day was such, I couldn’t help but smile.
Ever since that fateful night, when I had jumped into a general coach and travelled to another place, I had never smiled. As he had fell to the ground, for a split second through the rage I had seen his eyes. My dad’s eyes. But that was gone. He was gone.
I let the torrent burst through. Seventeen years. Seventeen long years, and this was the first time I had cried. All those years fending for myself, protecting myself from myself. The rage, the anger, the regret. Living alone with myself, building my steps one by one, escaping the world I had known. Marked as a ‘twin-murderer’, I could not show my face to anyone I knew. Another identity, new friends, and dropping back to the ‘general coach’ from the ‘A.C coach’, as my dad would have said.
As my tears subdued, I called up Sam.
“Where are you idiot? The inauguration is in half an hour and you did not even wake me up?”
“Shut up. Open the door.”
“Wh-what?” I stood up, went to the balcony and looked down. The tears reappeared.
“I said, Open the door. Did you not qualify your English exams?” The idiot was looking up at me with a smile on his face.
“As a matter of fact, NO.” I opened the door and gazed at him. What would I have been without this guy?
It had been Sam, young Sam, who spotted me crying in an alley. His family took me as theirs, even though I felt like an alien, the way a north Indian usually feels when below the Narmada River. For the fact, without this guy, I would not have been what I am today.
“No need of a thanks buddy. Get ready, we leave in five.”
“Damn it man! You can read my brainwaves!”
Ten minutes later, we were speeding towards the venue. I was in flashback. And tears.
Ever since that night, I had started my life from the bottom rung again. From the ‘general’ coach. But never did I want to see a ‘ticket to A.C’. I wanted to earn it.
No. Not the money. I hated the money, and the things it came up with.
My past had made me hate the concept of a shortcut. Shortcuts never lead you where you wanted to be. They were just a recipe for trouble.
To be honest, after that night, the regret alone made me cut my wrist a few times. It often made me wish to hang myself, or drown myself.
But whenever I made my mind to do so, I remembered one thing my dad used to say, before he lost himself in the modern concepts of happiness and success. He used to say that Ajay, life is never fair for anyone. We all go through hardships and every kind of problem imaginable. But real success does not come to those who never fall. It comes to those who bear everything, and yet, get back to their knees as soon as they can. And yes, the most blessed person is the one who, once he is back on his feet, helps others get back on theirs too.
“Hey thinker. We have reached. Get your tie straight. You still don’t know how to knot a tie?!”
I mock punched Sam in his face as I straightened my tie and got out of the car to a whole lot of smiling faces looking right back at me. And smiled back.
I had made money, I had all the comforts. But what I had always lacked was in blessings since childhood. And today, hopefully, I was gonna get some of it back.
I looked at the red ribbon, and the signboard above, which read ’Siddhartha Rehabilitation Centre.’ For alcoholics and those who felt lost, it would provide them with a meaning again.
Siddhartha. ‘Complete.’ My Dad’s name.
As I cut the ribbon, tears escaped my eyes. Even though his name was Siddhartha, today I felt complete. All that pain and regret, stabbing my chest all through the past seventeen years, released my chest as I breathed a slow breath of contentment after a long, long time. As if that cut ribbon took away with it all that had gripped my soul ever since that fateful night.
All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am…..