Ch1 : 'Goodbye'
I was sitting in the A/C chair car coach of the intercity express. Beside me was a huge man who was snoring all his way to la-la land. My head was down and my eyes stared into the blur. My cheeks rested in my palms; I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. “Will I ever come back?” I asked myself. My mind went blank.
“Curd rice, lemon rice, cutlet, vada...” the waiter went on in loop. “Tina, what will you have for lunch?” Pa called out to me. I looked at him and just stared, not knowing what to say. I didn’t know if I was hungry.
“Should I get you some curd rice? I know you like curd rice, don’t you?” Pa knew I was shaken by the sudden change that was taking place in our lives. Melancholy enveloped my face. He came up to me and said, “This is part of life, Tina, and nobody wanted this more than you did, right?”
“I didn’t know my wish would be granted so suddenly. I don’t want this change right now,” I said, as I broke my silence for the first time in the train; tears cascading down my cheeks.
“It’s alright, my little one! We all must learn to move on. Be thankful for all that you’ve had; your friends, your school, your teachers, your home... and all the beautiful memories attached to them! It’s not easy, I know, but you can always come back to visit the place and your loved ones whenever you want.” Saying this, Pa smiled at me. This was exactly what I wanted to hear. “Really? Promise, pa? You will let me come back, no?” Some excitement clearly returning to my voice.
The not-so-good curd rice now started to taste delicious. The very prospect of visiting Salem again in future made me feel happy. Pa’s assurance was comforting.
“I maybe leaving the city for good right now, but I shall return someday really soon.”
Hi, I am Tina, and this is my story. :)
Ch2 : The Last Chance
It was 3 in the afternoon. We had a Chennai-Delhi flight to catch at 6 pm. The train was running late by half an hour. Ma and Pa were worried. Would we be able to reach the airport on time?
I was tired of sitting in one place for so long. I asked my brother to exchange seats with me. Gripped by nostalgia, my tears hadn’t run dry. My head was rested against the windowpane and my eyelids slowly began to close while gazing at the sprinting scene outside.
Every morning, I used to get ready by 7.20 to catch my school bus exactly 15 minutes later. That morning too, I was ready - my bags were packed, except this time it wasn’t my school bag.
“I’m going to the bus stop, pa.” My voice echoed in the empty lobby of the house.
“Okay, but come back soon. We’ll have to leave by 8.” Pa replied.
I ran towards the bus stop as if it were a race for my life. I was there in no time. My hands on my waist, I stood there and looked left and right. Nandini and Arun weren’t at the stop. I grew anxious and gave a hurried glance at my wristwatch. The crisp morning sun was staring at me and my heart started to beat loud – dhak, dhak, dhak, dhak– and as the beatings picked its tempo, I felt droplets gliding down my cheek.
It was 7.30 am.
“Holy cow. Did I miss the bus? Did the bus come early? Did I miss the one last chance to say goodbye? Noooo…!”
Still anxious, I looked in all directions when the pawn shop, which was nearby caught my attention. I ran towards it. “Yes, paati(Tamil word for an elderly lady/grandmother) would know,” I muttered to myself.
Completely out of breath now, “Paati, bus?” I asked. “No, not yet. The other two kids have gone to the next bus stop,” pat came the reply in Tamil.
The next bus stop wasn’t too far away, but it seemed like miles as I pushed myself to reach there just in time. Fifty meters to go and the bus appeared at the turn, near the water tank. I screamed, “Anna, wait, wait...,” as I waved my hand. Thankfully, the conductor took notice of me. “Seekron vaango(come soon).” He shouted in Tamil. I ran like a gazelle, putting in all my energy.
Phew, I was finally there. Completely exhausted, I entered the bus and asked the driver to wait for two minutes. I looked around and my eyes knew exactly where to stop. The seat wasn’t empty; I smiled and waved, only to realize soon that it wasn’t occupied by him. But that was where he generally sat. I looked around. Where was he? Agrrr… I looked like a fool now.
With hardly any time to react, I bid goodbye to all my friends who were present there. Thanked the driver and the conductor for their services and stepped down the bus.
Each step back home was difficult. My feet felt heavy, as if gravity was working hard to keep them grounded to the road. Emotions were grasping for a chokehold… my face buried in sadness – and in sweat.
Perhaps this was how it all had to end.
Suddenly I felt somebody’s hand on my shoulder. “Tina, we’ve reached Chennai. The train is pulling into the station.”
I looked at Ma and thought to myself: Maybe I shall never get to see him again…Maybe…
Ch3: Racing Against Time
“Hurry! I don’t think we’ll reach the airport on time.” Ma said.
“We just might. You never know.” Pa was hopeful.
“Do you need a coolie, anna?” A tall lean guy in red shirt and folded white lungi, appeared out of nowhere.
“Yes, please, we’d require two of you.” Pa gave a glance at the coolie while arranging the entire luggage to one side. With just four suitcases and two bags, no one could guess we were shifting to another city for good.
When the other coolie came, ma asked him: “Anna, where can we get a wheelchair from? My…” Even before ma could finish her sentence, Sameer interrupted. “Ma, I am not a handicap. It is just an ankle fracture, for God’s sake.” He was visibly irritated.
“I’ll be with him, don’t worry.” I quickly added. “Oh yes, Tina. You two should start walking towards the taxi stand; it is just near the main exit.” Pa directed us.
It was 4:05 pm by the time we reached the taxi stand, maneuvering through the chaotic crowd. The airport was an hour or so from the railway station. We still stood a chance, however bleak, to reach the airport before the check in counter closed at 5:15 sharp.
Scores of taxi drivers pounced on us, bombarding us with the same question: “Where do you want to go?”
“Anna, we need to go to the airport. We have a flight to catch at 6 pm.” Pa informed.
“Please follow me. I’ll get you there in time. It’s difficult but don’t worry.” One brave taxi driver took up the challenge when no one else was ready to.
The meter was down and we were off. The scene was tense as we all sat with our arms folded, except the driver, who, of course, was driving with utmost concentration.
Silence had enveloped the taxi cabin. I looked towards pa who was sitting in the front. His face emitted no expression. I then turned towards ma who was sitting on my left. With her hands clasped, she sat there, anxious. I turned right, and Sameer was in his own world, all chill, listening to music on his iPod. What contrasting expressions! Amused, I thought to myself and giggled.
“I don’t think we’d reach,” ma exclaimed while glancing at her watch.
“Don’t worry, madam. I’ll make sure you reach the airport just in time. Trust me.” The driver assured us.
Just when he said this, the traffic came to a standstill. The traffic lights had gone off, blinding everyone on the road.
Me: “Oh… ooo…”
Sameer: “This is getting better!”
Me: “Pa, now what? Doesn’t look like this jam will clear anytime soon.”
Pa: “Don’t worry, it will.”
Me: “But what if it doesn’t?”
Pa: “Let’s hope for the best.”
He looked back and smiled.
Silence seeped in and everyone went back to their “tensed” expressions, hoping for a miracle. As for the driver, his eyes were all focused on the road. With one hand on the gear and the other firmly holding the steering wheel, he waited for that one opportunity to release the clutch and push that damn accelerator so hard that no one could ever stop him.
Would we make it?
Ch4 : Fly High
Steering to the left and right; dodging a car here, another there; and overtaking vehicles to the left and right whenever there was some space to squeeze through – the driver was doing all he could to keep his promise. Meanwhile, our situation was like the balls in a pinball machine – getting tossed around from one side of the car to the other side, heads banging on heads and windows – all to the tunes of the taxi driver. Trust me, it literally felt like we were in a movie!
It was 5 pm already. We either reach the airport in the next 15 minutes or witness the plane fly away. The taxi driver was in no mood to give up. We were soon approaching a signal; it was the last hurdle before we reached our destination. If we couldn’t cross it in the next four seconds, we were sure of missing the flight. That one signal was going to decide our fate.
It was now down to three seconds, as we stared into the orange light as if threatening it not to turn red. The driver pushed the accelerator to its maximum. Two seconds to go, and…one! Yesssss… we made it! Nothing could have stopped us from reaching the airport now.
The brakes screeched as we reached the airport just five minutes before the check–in counter was to close. Pa was ready with currency notes in his hand.
“Thank you so much, anna,” pa said while handing over two currency notes to the taxi driver. Ma also thanked him.
His hands folded, “I am happy that I could make you reach in time.” Pulling out the change from his pocket, he said, “Sir...”
“Please keep it,” pa smiled while arranging the luggage on the trolley.
“Thank you, sir,” feeling humbled, the driver said.
“Hurry now. Tina, please help Sameer, and give me your bag, I’ll carry it,” ma said.
“Na, it is not that heavy, I’ll manage,” I said.
While we were all rushing towards the entry gate, the taxi driver from behind us came running with a trolley. “Anna please sit on this, I’ll take you till the entry gate,” he said. Knowing that we had no time to spare, Sameer obliged and sat. The check-in counter wasn’t far from the entry gate. We all thanked the taxi driver and hurried inside.
Pa was sprinting with the trolley. “Please wait, please wait…,” he almost screamed, as the airline staff was just about to close the counter with the stanchion.
“Sorry sir, the counter’s closed. You are late by a minute,” informed the airline staff; a well-groomed young lad in his late twenties, dressed in a crisp white shirt, complimented by a smart navy-blue tie, and black trousers.
“I am sure we could be given a grace,” pa requested.
“Our train got delayed by half an hour and it was a ride coming here. It is just a matter of one minute. Had we been very late, I wouldn’t have requested. Please see if you could do something about it please.” We could hear ma explaining the airline staff our plight from a distance, as we slowly walked towards the counter.
“Let me see what I could do for you, ma’am.” The airline staff quickly spoke to someone and got back to us in no time.
“Okay sir, you may check-in.” He passed a smiled. Oh! He was cute, very.
Good Lord! What a suspense thriller the day turned out to be. We were completely exhausted. All the sorrow that had engulfed us, vanished suddenly. All we felt at that moment was a huge sigh of relief.
At 5:55 pm, we were seated inside the aircraft. As we were instructed to switch off our mobile phones before takeoff, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I pulled it out. My heart skipped a beat. ‘Aman calling...’ flashed on my mobile screen. Very reluctantly I received the call.
Aman: “Come back, woman.”
Ch5 : Salem
“Ma’am, please turn off your mobile phone. The flight is about to takeoff. Thank you,” the airhostess very politely requested me.
“Aman, I’ll call you once I reach,” I said and hung up. My heart was beating loud.
It was a two-and-a-half-hour-long flight from Chennai to Delhi. Ma was quite tired, so she chose to take a nap. Pa was reading a magazine and Sameer was in his own sweet world. And what was I doing, you ask? Well, I just sat there reminiscing my years in Salem, my birthplace.
Salem is a district in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, just four hours from the city of Bangalore. It is quite well-known for its mangoes and the Salem Steel Plant. Surrounded by hills and nature, the city thrives on its simplistic beauty. And as far as the people are concerned, I must say they are very warm and humble. I never felt alien being a so-called “North Indian” born and brought up there, except on one occasion. Let’s keep that for some other day.
I’m quite fortunate, you know, that I grew up in a culturally diverse environment. My school, GCMHSS, I have a lot to thank for. Situated away from the hustle-bustle of the city, the school was a unique establishment. During the monsoons, this place would become heaven. Picture being welcomed by the majestic mountains, occasionally covered by mist, every morning.
It was June 20th, 2007.
School had reopened for the class 11 students. The board exam results were out and our batch had passed with flying colors. We deserved an extended holiday and that’s exactly what we got. The school was already operational for the other classes when we joined. We were now super seniors. Oh, how awesome that felt!
Entering high school gives one a different high altogether! All of a sudden, you feel all grown up. And with all the perks that come along with it, our heydays had finally come. Our classes were now on the ground floor; we studied the subjects of our choice and, yeah, juniors now saw us in a different light. They started to follow us and look up to us! Huge responsibility.
Me: “Hey, hey, hey! Welcome back ladies. How are you guys feeling?”
Meena: “Great! This actually feels great!”
Krithika: “Ya, man! Can’t believe we are finally super seniors.”
The three of us were standing right next to the stage, waiting for the school to assemble for the morning prayer.
Meena: “So, we finally get to stand there, in the extreme corner, during the assembly!”
Krithika: “Ya… Now we shall know what the view is like from there.”
Tina: “Where is everyone else? Arun, Sharan, TK?”
Meena: “They must be hanging around somewhere in the campus. Haven’t seen them.”
Me: “They must be loitering in the corridors somewhere I am sure… (Looking around) Oh, there they are!”
Sharan and TK were giggling and hi5-ing each other. Must be on some silly joke as usual. But wait, there was someone else with them, too. But who? I couldn’t clearly see, thanks to the little kids jumping around.
Krithika: “Oye, who is that guy with Sharan and TK? Looks like a new student. Is he in your class? I am sure he is not in mine.”
Meena and I had opted for commerce while Krithika had taken up pure science.
Meena: “I don’t think he is in ours, too. I didn’t see him during the registration. He looks decent enough though.”
I looked at him and wondered who he was. Well, going by his looks, he looked very much a “Hindiwala.” Well, that’s how some of our “South Indian” friends addressed us who came from the north. But I knew almost everyone in the city. How did I not recognize this face, how?
Meena: “Chal na… Let’s go… We’ll ask TK about him later.”
Me: “Ya, fine. As if I care.” I lied.
I always had journalistic instincts in me. I was curious and detail oriented and I always knew everything or rather wanted to know everything.
“Who was he?”
Ch7 : The Task
“Wonder why corres has called us. But whatever it is, I’m happy that I don’t have to attend that boring Math class.” The new guy went on and on, leaving me startled. “Dude, does he even know me? Going on and on like we were chuddy buddies or something,” I thought to myself.
“Oops sorry, I am Aman and you are Tina!” He turned around and smiled.
“Ya right, Aman. Thanks for the introduction,” I replied.
He seemed quite excited. This was evident from his walk. “Who on earth gets excited on being summoned by the corres for God knows what?” I wondered. Strange guy.
“Which batch are…” And before I could finish, pat came the reply.
“12th, Commerce. Such a sad batch man mine is. What do I tell you?”
“I know. But I love my batch!” I teased him.
“Ya, ya I know, with Sharan and TK. Fun guys, lucky you,” he said.
“Ya, right,” I replied.
We soon reached the office. Corres was waiting for us and so was the princi.
“Good morning, ma’am” we both wished them. “May we come in?” We asked.
“Good morning, both of you. Come, come. Come inside.” Corres said
“So, Aman, how is it going?” Princi had a huge smile on her face. Looked like he was already her favorite.
“Good, ma’am.” Aman replied with a big smile on his face.
“I’m sure you guys have introduced yourself to each other,” Corres asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” We both said in unison.
“Now, the reason why I called you both was that I want you two to host the most crucial part of our annual inter-school fest. I’m sure you are aware about the fest.” Corres asked, and we nodded in affirmation. And with this, I finally took a sigh of relief.
Scripts were handed over to us for practice. “We have a lot of faith in the both of you,” Corres told us and asked us to leave.
As we were walking back towards the senior block to rehearse, I said: “People hardly change school in 12th grade.”
“Ya, but I had to. I am basically from Bangalore. My mother knows the kind of brat I am and she knew the princi, so she sent me to Salem. Such a sad city this is.” Aman went on. “If you simply talk to a girl, people start staring at you as if you are committing some sort of a crime.” Looking at me and walking backwards, he continued: “What? ya! It is true only... Chuck...You tell me, since when are you in this city?”
“Oye, oye,watch out.” I cautioned him.
“I am okay, I am okay.” Aman almost fell. Regaining balance, “So you were saying,” he asked.
“Since my birth.” I said.
“Nooo. You are kidding me, right?” Aman said in disbelief.
“I am serious and I love my city in spite of its flaws. It may not be a metro city, but it is peaceful.”
“Ya, right and everyone knows everyone here, so we can’t even roam around without being noticed. Where are you basically from?” Aman was very talkative. The princi had very rightly warned me.
“Delhi.” I replied.
“What, man? Somebody as cool as you should be in Delhi right now. What are you even doing here? Girls here don’t even talk to guys. Is this even a co-ed school?” Aman wasn’t really impressed by the scene in Salem.
“Well, no comments.” I said and we sat next to the stage to rehearse.
“What are you two doing here?” We heard an angry male voice from behind me. “Tina, why are you out of your class? What work do you have with a 12th standard fellow? This is not acceptable in the school premises.” He yelled.
Aman and I looked back. My jaw dropped and my pupils dilated in fear. “Oh oo…!”
Ch 8 : Protocol Dilemma
“Sir we are practicing for the fest. Corres has asked us to.” Aman quickly informed.
“Did I ask you?” An angry, tall and stout man in his 50s pointing his finger at Aman, said.
“Sir, actually Aman is right. We were asked by correspondent ma’am to rehearse our scripts for the fest.” I politely yet hesitantly replied.
“Why ma you girls do like this? Does it look nice, you both sit like this and that too without any teacher overlooking your rehearsals?” Sendil sir, giving a piece of his regressive mindset.
“What do you mean, sir?” Aman quickly reacted. He was visibly agitated at sir’s comments.
“Don’t back answer. How dare you, man?” Sir was furious. Aman controlled his temper and so did I.
“Tina and Aman, are you people just talking or even rehearsing your parts?” Nandini ma’am, who was passing by the corridor, enquired. She was our angel in disguise!
Sir quickly turned back and asked, “Ma’am, you are with them, supervising?”
Not wanting to drag things further, Nandini ma’am replied in the affirmation. Sendil sir gave us both a tough look and left, murmuring something to himself.
“See, this is what I was talking about. Disgusting.” Aman expressed his anguish.
“Chuck let’s just finish this and head to our classes.” I tried to divert our attention back to the job in hand.
Aman and I met for half an hour every day to practice and better our already good coordination. Both corres and princi were happy with us.
DAY 1: THE FEST
Our opening act went off really well. Both of us were appreciated for our sync and coordination. But the final test was to come on day 2: The awards ceremony. The major challenge was to collect names of all the winners (of nearly 40 competitions) before the ceremony commenced. It was scheduled for 4 pm sharp, and there was not much gap between the last set of competitions and the ceremony itself.
“Aman, Aman, Aman, Listen…” I ran towards him with a file in my hand. Aman was concentrating on his file with a pen in his mouth.
“Did you get the final list of the winners yet?” I asked.
“Not yet. Karthik will bring it. Until then let’s just tally the other winners on both our files.” He said.
Five minutes to go for the award ceremony, and there was no trace of Karthik, and we were yet to receive names of six winners from two competitions. Also, we had to get ready, wear our blazers and take our positions on either side of the stage.
Aman ran to his side of the stage while trying to wear his blazer with a file in his hand. My blazer, I was told, was with Shwetha who was supposed to be waiting for me near the stage. “Mahakam…?” I ran towards the staff room, which was right next door. Thank God, Nandini ma’am was there. “What happened?” She asked.
“My blazer... Shweta isn’t there.” I exclaimed. I couldn’t have gone on stage without it. I would be screwed.
The stage was set and the dignitaries had taken their seats.
“You go take your position and be ready. I’ll bring one for you, don’t worry.” Nandini ma’am tried to calm me down.
Three minutes to go.
Aman was looking for me at the opposite end as I ran to take my position.
Two minutes and princi made an eye contact with Aman, directing him to start. My heart was beating so loud that I could barely hear anything else. Where was Nandini ma’am? I looked left and right. I grew anxious and started to sweat. Aman took to the stage. “Oh God! This is it.” I started to tremble. The opening lines were mine.
“Should I just break the protocol?”