The following story may or may not be autobiographical. More about the male character who inspired the persona.
Pakhi was exhausted. She had a long, tiring, athletic day at school and she had never been more welcome to its closure. People were milling out of class when she returned, dusty and fatigued, to pick up her belongings and leave. Her hair was messy. Her clothes were caked with evidence of an afternoon spent playing matches in the fields. Her collar was unbuttoned, the school tie flailed around in disarray and her sleeves were rolled up to expose tanned arms. The ostentatious sports watch on her wrist beeped, cutting through the ambient echoes of the last few students leaving the classroom. Pakhi was waiting, in an empty classroom, anticipating the inevitable.
Despite her exhaustion, Pakhi grabbed her backpack, swept all the miscellaneous contents of her desk into it and ran to the school gate. Perhaps the heavy bag impeded her progress, but Pakhi did not want to return to claim it later. In any case, her haste ensured that she as at the crossing a few minutes earlier than expected. This was the moment she had been waiting for. The dust and pollution of the road swirled past her as the signal turned red and the dense traffic cumulatively screeched to a halt. Fellow pedestrians began to lead an exodus at the crossing, but Pakhi was not one of them.
Pakhi had not yet mastered the bravado it took to jay walk the busy road, especially with a backpack of that order of magnitude. The traffic would pause only for ten minutes, so she should have crossed. But she didn’t. Ten minutes of her life were worth it. Pakhi willed herself to wait. She could cross at the next red light if she wanted to, but she was not going to sacrifice the ten most important minutes of her life.
Bus no. 8472 was a very special bus. Unlike the other rusty, out-dated buses which squelched up fuel remnants and an obnoxiously nauseating quantity of smoke, it was one of the newer models that the city’s administration planned to implement. It traveled a fairly long and well-chalked out route designed to maximize commuter connectivity. However, all of these attributes did not impress Pakhi. She was vested in this particular vehicle for an entirely different reason altogether.
When the 8472 halted at the red-light, within minutes of its scheduled time, Pakhi’s eyes searched amongst it’s numerous passengers along the windows of the right side of the bus. The person she was searching for had thus far, always been a fan of scenery, sitting along one or the other window seats, depending on the availability. Sure enough, two rows from the back, he was there. He was leaning against the glass window pane, neck studiously inclined over a book, earphones comfortably nestled in his ear.
Ten minutes seemed too short as the bus soon whisked him away to his destination. But not before Pakhi’s hungry and observant eyes had absorbed his fleeting image. Those ten minutes would be enough.
“I wonder what kind of music you listen to,” wondered Pakhi, remembering the undulating wire that connected to his ear.
“Nothing extraordinary. Just the usual heavy metal, punk rock or whatever,” he replied. He was right next to her, hands in mud-smeared pockets, shuffling around in the dust in his muddy school shoes. There was something disarmingly attractive about the way he seemed awkward. “What about you?”
“Actually, I prefer anything that doesn’t sound like noise. But occasionally, I listen to metal too.”
“Not all the time, no.”
“You’re one of the first girls’ I’ve met who would say that. I didn’t think you were one of those types.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” smiled Pakhi, trying not to stare too obviously into his eyes.
A loud honk from the incoming traffic made Pakhi realize that she was stranded in the middle of the main road. She scurried across, trying to evade as many vehicles as she could, without causing a major traffic disruption. Somehow, crossing over the huge, busy road, which seemed wider than usual, Pakhi told herself that she was crossing some large gulf of humanity.
Across the road and into the lane, all was quiet. Tucked away from common sight, and mostly obscured from view from the heavy traffic that passed by it’s entrance. Now, she contemplated the lonely stretch towards home. The alley was lined with houses and on a weekday afternoon, a very profound silence settled over it. Almost foreboding. Pakhi’s exhaustion returned gradually.
But at least she had seen him, and he had spoken to her. That’s what mattered, didn’t it?
“Rough afternoon?” he asked. He was back again, right beside her, a bit taller than her. Pakhi noted his dust-caked hair wave slightly under effect of the slight breeze that rushed past the lane. He was athletic, she knew. There could be no other explanation for how much dirt he accumulated on his uniform. Pakhi wanted to reach out and dust off his spiky hair, and she wondered how she might approach that without frightening him off.
Instead she found the smooth, polished door of home before her outstretched fingers.
She felt that she had forgotten to answer something. “Uhm, sort of,” she said, a little flustered at how rapidly she had traversed the distance. “You look like you’ve been through no less.”
“Hmm. I guess you know how it is,” he shrugged casually, meandering around. Pakhi couldn’t resist flashing him a smile.
Only the ebony staircase rails and the smooth marble floor reflected them back at her. Pakhi pushed up her glasses on her nose, not yet accustomed to the rude interruptions of reality. She needed to focus on what she was actually doing. She smiled again, but it wasn’t the same bright flash. It was more of a soft, melancholy half-smile. She wondered what the world outside her perceived her as: the tall, awkward girl who perpetually talked to herself.
“How was your day?” asked Pakhi, putting up the keys and sinking into the couch with a bottle of cold water. Currently the only occupant of the house, the silence reminded her of the busy mornings she left behind, and of the work she had pending.
“Pretty ordinary, “he said. “I mean, we had and classes as usual, a couple of games here and there. Some of our teachers are stressed out because we have tests next week and they haven’t yet finished the course material.” He got up from the couch, beside Pakhi and followed her around as she popped a plate of her lunch into the microwave. Pakhi’s attention was momentarily occupied by the fact that the difference between the quantity of lunch that had been prepared and the quantity that had been left behind clearly indicated that she was home alone for the entire afternoon. He was sitting next to her and continuing the conversation.
“Hey,” remembered Pakhi, from some depth of hospitality, “You want something to eat?”
“Nope. I grabbed a bite before I left school.”
Pakhi settled with her plate, listened to his stories, narrated her own, and laughed with the spirit of animated conversation. He could be so witty and charming at times.
Suddenly, the telephone rang. It pierced the echoes of Pakhi’s solitary laughter. All of a sudden, the world showed to Pakhi that she was being amused by an empty chair against a blank white wall. Reluctant, lost and feeling suddenly alone, she picked up the phone.
“Yes mom? I’m fine. Just finishing lunch.”
“You don’t sound fine. Is everything okay?”
“Just tired mom. I’ve got a lot of work as well. I’ll catch up with you later?”
“I’ll be coming home late, sweetheart.”
“That’s alright. I have my work to keep me occupied. I’ll manage. Love you too. Bye.” He was lounging on the couch, content and lazy, when she terminated the call.
“My mom checks up on me frequently,” she said, supplying an explanation for why she left her meal mid-way. Or had she interrupted one of his stories? “She gets worried when I’m isolated and what not. I mean, I’ve learned to deal with living alone…”
“But you aren’t really alone, are you?”
He had inched closer to Pakhi leaning against the wall. She could feel his breath and see his neck under his open collar and loose tie. She wondered what it would be like to kiss him.
“Not when you’re around,” said Pakhi, being the perpetual tease and twisting free.
He smiled a mischievously. It was a smile that stayed with her and followed her. He knew she was playing and he was welcome to join in.
Whether minutes or hours passed, Pakhi was unsure. But she resolved to settle down to her messy desk. She cleared up some space by haphazardly stacking up a few giant volumes on her table. They towered over her intimidatingly, a paper monster of problem sets and pending reading. Armed with a pencil, and a hope of some resolve, she opened her textbook, ready to annotate, when a soft chuckle interrupted her. He was still leaning against the wall, holding her gaze with those eyes that deluded her.
“Yeah, okay. So you’re a genius and you’ve aced all your tests. But I’m not. So go away and let me study,” said Pakhi testily.
He leaned forward, “Ever wondered that I could help you with that?”
Pakhi suppressed a chuckle. How was it going to be possible for her to focus when he was around her all the time? Once again, Pakhi was caught unaware by his eyes. She shrugged herself and shook her head. Why couldn’t she accept he was not real? But whenever her eyes drifted off the printed lines, he would appear to her. More so, his comforting presence did not let her feel so alone.
Pakhi decided to put some music on to help her focus better. She accidentally locked the volume controls to max and spent a few minutes scrambling around uneasily, trying to get them back to audible range before the neighbors put in a strong word about it.
“So you listen to this?!” he yelled indignantly over the deafening sounds. Pakhi hurriedly wrestled around with it until it was below lethal levels.
“How can you call this rubbish music and metal noise? Metal has meaning, it has depth!”
It struck Pakhi rather suddenly that he was being judgmental and more so, juvenile. She felt a bit sensitive to his criticism.
“Oh shut up and go away!”
And Pakhi was left behind in an empty room, in an empty house with the muted lyrics of home and hope and all the belongings of her room as the silent spectators of Pakhi’s delusions.
When the doorbell rang, Pakhi’s father had arrived. As he bustled around the house, made himself something to eat and drink and asked about Pakhi’s day, she realized how truly alone she felt. Stop daydreaming, Pakhi! Focus on reality she complained for the umpteenth time. After the formalities of filial conversation, Pakhi’s father curled back on the couch with a novel and left Pakhi to her studies. For a while, Pakhi wondered what she should talk to her Dad about, if at all she could. But then, he seemed tired after a long day, so he probably needed the quiet. At about 9 pm, father and daughter had a quiet dinner, interspersed with a few minutes of the TV. Her mother rushed in an hour late, too tired for anything else besides the soft, undemanding comforts of home and family.
Pakhi stayed up late in the night, sensing his presence, feeling his glance, but she refrained from conversation. Her music player had already begun to churn out melancholy, sentimental songs. Pakhi could see disgust all over his face as the vocalist’s soft, gentle crooning caressed her headphones. Pakhi took her headphones off and shut it. The familiar silence crept back.
“You know, I should stop talking to you. I mean, I know I’m weird enough as, but if people start catching me talking to myself, my future’s in an asylum.”
“You worry too much. You talk too much. Maybe you should just let it happen.”
“This,” he said, hands gesturing vaguely as he sat at the edge of her bed.
“But its not real!”
His expression hardened, “Who said so?”
“I mean, you’re just a figment of my imagination. You’re my best friend, my confidante, my constant companion. But in the real world, the world where I go to school, try to live a normal life, worry about tests, I don’t know you! I barely get to see you for ten minutes at some crossing when the 8472 comes by! The worst is that all this happens inside my head and I can’t do anything about it!”
“It’s real enough to you, isn’t it?” He asked. He sounded hurt.
“I’m not saying I don’t enjoy having you by my side..”
“You like me, don’t you?” he said, cutting her mid-sentence. Pakhi’s confused response wasn’t helped by his eyes at all.
“I do, but…”
“I’m here with you now, right?” He had moved closer.
“Isn’t that what really matters?” His eyes. Uh-oh.
Pakhi finally resisted the onslaught. “But you’re not real!” She threw a pillow at him in frustration. It landed with a soft thud through the air. The silence, the misery, the complete futility of reality had returned. Now he’s upset. Now I’m alone.
He’s never going to know of my existence in the real world. We’ve spoken for twenty minutes in a span of nearly two years. He doesn’t know who I am, and even if he does, I could never find the courage to actually approach him. He probably knows me as that awkward girl who has a crush on him. The rumors were already circulating in school.
Pakhi cried herself to sleep and sank into the oblivion of twisted dreams. Even in that realm, he wove in and out of her sight, of her hope, of her existence.
Pakhi woke up and took a long, critical look at herself in the mirror. She looked tired. She felt barely rested. The first word that ran through her head was his name. She felt depressed.
“Sweetheart! You’re getting late for school!” cried her mother across the hallway. She came really late and she’s up before me. I can’t imagine how tired she must be feeling, wondered Pakhi.
“She’s right, you know,” said the dreaded, familiar voice.
“So, you’re back after last night?” asked Pakhi, feeling disturbed.
“You called my name…” He shrugged casually, as if that was explanation enough.
“Go away. I still don’t want to talk to you.”
“Whatever. Suit yourself.”
Pakhi finished wearing a clean school uniform and then tried to follow up with breakfast. Dad was awake and at home, so Pakhi hoped that they could have a lively entertaining breakfast? Maybe it would help her take her mind off someone? Besides the regular “Good Morning!” and her mother’s constant nagging to eat some more, nothing happened. Pakhi’s mother was tied up in managing breakfast and a frequently beeping laptop. Pakhi’s father hid himself behind the newspapers, emerging only occasionally to ask for a fresh mug of coffee.
“So much for conversation,” he said, whispering right in her ear. Pakhi shrugged involuntarily. She glared at him to make him disappear.
“Why are you staring at the window, Pakhi?” asked her mother. Oh if only she knew.
“Nothing, Mom,” said Pakhi, momentarily pacifying her.
“Well then, hurry up or you’ll be late!”
After several hasty farewells, Pakhi rushed for school.
Parents, commuters, cars and the ordinary pedestrians swarmed the streets. Pakhi was swamped with the sights and sounds of life. Even then, she felt a lack of companionship. As she jostled through people, dodged cars and succeeded in crossing the road, Pakhi felt the real world catch up with her, but she could not, she would not be able to let go of these helpless feelings.
Unfortunately, as she approached her classroom, meeting more tangible, real people, her myriad desolate philosophical thoughts submerged into the background, threatening to return once she was alone again. She obviously couldn’t be seen as a pathetic, love-sick, more so lonely freak. So she plastered on a cheery smile and told herself that she was strong enough. She had to be strong enough. At least till the end of the work day.
It annoyed Pakhi to no end, that even when she was busy, even when she was with her friends, she could still sense his presence. During recess, during her free classes, she knew he was watching her. Or more so, she hoped that he would have been watching her.
Pakhi walked past a gossiping group of classmates to retrieve a book. She couldn’t help but eavesdrop. They were talking about him! Unable to resist hearing whatever little information about him she could pick up from the real world, she tried to find an innocent reason for lurking around. Soon enough, she didn’t need to find an excuse to justify her unwarranted presence. Their conversation casually touched upon her, and her apparent crush on him.
She was stunned. They know! They all know! Despite her attempts to downplay it, they all knew! They laughed at the paltry amusement and moved on to other topics of interest. But it seemed more than merely trivial to Pakhi. She cringed at the mention of his name and at the memory of his watching, expressionless, silent face.
At the end of another day, it was time for Pakhi to redeem her cherished ten minutes. Pakhi soon found herself back at the crossing, waiting for the 8472. He was talking to her to make her feel less alone. He was trying to be audible over the din of the traffic.
“So all your friends know. Does that make it real enough?”
On its regular schedule, the 8472 rolled in and halted to a stop right before her. Her eyes customarily located him at the second-last row. He doesn’t even bother to look at me, she wondered and was ready to give up.
The impossible happened. It was almost as if the universe wanted to gift her only to be able to prove her convictions wrong. He looked up from his book, looked out of the window at the world outside and in one momentous millisecond, his real, physical eyes scanned through Pakhi’s expectant face. Before he knew it, that face had gone.
“No,” she said, wondering if she was talking to herself or to him. “It’s never going to be real enough.” Pakhi waited for the next signal, musing whether her dreams were akin to the dust that was rapidly coating her socks and shoes. In any case, she had a long, lonely walk back to an empty home. Was she ready to embrace that complete silence of solitude? Such was life. Or was it?
“Come on. You know you want to tell me how your day went,” he said.
Pakhi couldn’t resist. “So today….” she began, on the same cycle. Again.