Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Love Letter

“Even if someone wishes to forget this day, he will never be able to”, I said to myself as I glanced through the various pages of the newspaper which were covered with advertisements of the oncoming Valentine’s Day. Special gifts, offers, discounts and related news made the task easier for people who either had run out of ideas or time to mark the day. Love articles and some news write-ups of a few cultural groups protesting against the day of love filled the remaining space. Though the newspaper resembled an advertiser’s paradise, it helped by giving a break from the ‘Sauna Belt’ and ‘Height Plus’ advertisements that featured on other days. Also love stories made for a far better read than articles on murder, theft and this country going nowhere. 

Husbands would be happier if reminders of their anniversaries could also be flashed in the newspapers. Not necessarily to celebrate the love that existed between them and their spouses (if there was any left) but more importantly to avoid the All India Radio-type sermons and uncalled for expense on gifts which had to be bought as damage control in case they forgot, I wondered. 

Personally speaking, I hated Valentine’s Day. Not because of any other reason but because to celebrate it you had to be in a relationship and have the prerequisite – a Valentine. I was single and wasn’t in one. And because I wasn’t, the heartburn was more. I would love to be in one but thanks to my work schedule I hardly had time for myself, having time for another was way out of the question. I was happy being single but not on Valentine’s Day. Seeing so many couples around sharing warm moments together, the heart, as irritating it can get, cites a need for someone. The heartache then transcends into something way bigger that’s easier felt than explained. Hence, all these years I locked myself up in a room with no access to the internet, TV, radio, newspapers or any other modes of communication so the day just passed by without my heart knowing about it.

My thoughts were broken when I saw my train chug into the station, that too when there were still two minutes for the train to arrive as per the display. Caught off guard and not having much time left, I folded the newspaper and rolled it up. To keep it safe, I held it between my thumb and index finger as I reached for the door beating a few hundred passengers who expressed greater interest in catching the same already crowded local as me. Irrespective of  the capacity, ‘find a place and fill it’ has always been the mantra in India. We never shy of it and live by example. We can proudly claim that we can fill any mode of transport to at least three times its capacity with ease. On some days, we beat our own record. In addition to carrying people way beyond capacity, the local trains in Bombay have this special state-of-the-art system for picking up and alighting passengers. The beauty of this system is it works best during peak hours. All you need to do is position yourself near the door. The rest is taken care of, all thanks to the system made up of the ever-in-a-hurry people who will do anything to get in or off the train.

As I made another successful entry into the train and continued a dream run so as to say I chose to head to the seats on my right instead of the left. Activating my mental radar, I began the search for a seat to sit. But along with the seats I observed my fellow passengers as well. 

Man is a complex animal. No matter how much you study him, it’s never enough. In fact, he will continue to throw surprises. The more you study him the more amazed you shall be. As a pastime, I’ve always enjoyed observing people - the way they think, behave, act, and talk. Animals learn a lot merely by observing. That’s so correct in the case of humans too.

A trio of college boys were around who seemed more interested in their virtual mobile world than the real one they lived in. They kept passing around a BlackBerry phone each taking a turn at chatting with someone over BBM. “Ask her what her name is” one of them said. The other nodded in confirmation and started punching the keys on the device. After hitting ‘Send’ the three of them waited anxiously for a reply. The cheer that broke out and hi-fi’s exchanged was a sign that a reply had been received. “Hemal Solanki” “Does that mean she’s a Gujrati?” one of them asked. “Na, Marwari” the other answered. “Hmm”, the three of them thought.

This is something we always do. After finding out the name and the community a person comes from, we draw a mental personality sketch of the person – his/her looks, likes, dislikes, nature, perception, vegetarian, non-vegetarian, etc. Even if we may be entirely wrong, we never refrain from doing it. Doing this helps us take things forward or not at all.

“What are you waiting for? Ask her which college, stream, year, phone number” his friends coaxed. “Also ask her what she’s doing on Valentine’s Day. She can join us if she likes” the third friend said with a wink, listening to which the other two started laughing. “Yes why not? Should I also ask her “Would you marry me?” The laughter changed into a roar so much so that even I broke into a smile. 

There’s something special about college life. Probably because it’s the only phase where we aren’t serious about the most important things and we choose not to be serious about life. Love too is not spared. Unfortunately the maturity that love asks for and responsibilities it brings along is only understood when it’s too late and you’re heart broken. Till then all is perfect in that cocoon world.

The question and answer session on the Blackberry continued till the trio got off at their station. With them gone, I shifted my attention to the others. A few people were catching up on the world through newspapers and magazines while a few were trying to relieve themselves of the day’s stress by either playing some games on their phones and tablets or listening to some music. Some, taking advantage of the pillars meant for support, decided to catch a wink. The pro’s at this act slept without any support and provided entertainment for the onlookers by their near miss-falls while they dozed off to glory. There were a few who just sat to themselves or spoke to their fellow passengers or over their phones. Rest seemed more interested in what others did than themselves and stared at the people and what they did around them. Probably they too followed the same principle as me but took it to another level of staring and not observing. Everything seemed mundane, until something caught my attention and never let it waver. 

The letter was carefully folded and slid into the shirt pocket. The moment the letter went in, a tear drop came rolling out. It’s said that crying silently requires great strength; after all it’s a trait of the strong. That too crying in public, that too in a relatively crowded compartment of a Bombay local where most people don’t have any other work to do than staring at each other is something. 

Very easy to miss the obvious, a young man was sitting right opposite me next to the window while I sat on the space left after three passengers took their share each. He was looking outside the window as if hoping that the wind blowing in his face would dry away his tears but they just kept rolling down. The tears with nothing to stop them rolled along and fell on his shirt and began wetting it. If the tears didn’t stop or weren’t stopped soon the shirt would be uncomfortable to wear. Time and again he kept removing the letter out of his shirt pocket, read it and put it back in again. It was as if he wasn’t done with it. There was something that made him read it again and then put the letter away. What could be so appealing and disturbing at the same time? Nothing seemed to be wrong with my co-passenger. Somewhere in his early-thirties, dressed as though working for a corporate that ran late into the night, he seemed perfectly sane. It was just that he was not living in the present but lost in thought. His eyes spoke it all. The tears bore witness.

Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to unearth the reason that caused my fellow passenger to weep. The detective in me took up the case and started analysing the man and the situation. My first clue was the letter. My challenge was to get hold of it to read its contents. It was a plain simple letter and not a medical report. If it had been the latter, the reason would have been obvious. He or someone dear was going through a serious illness. The news of a limited time to live or requirement of large amount of money for an operation or a cure could be the reason. But that was not the case. It was a plain simple handwritten letter with its contents unknown but disturbing. What did the letter contain? What could be so bad around Valentine’s Day when everyone is interested in the exchange of cards, gifts and chocolates? A time when love is in the air? Was his wife or fiancĂ© leaving him? Was his proposal rejected? What could it be?

As the destinations of everyone travelling in a train are different, my time to solve the case was unknown but was quickly running out. The letter was the only thing that could solve this mystery for me. Asking the man directly what was troubling him was not a good idea looking at the state he was in. I knew that if I didn’t solve the mystery, I wouldn’t be at rest for the next few days and probably be in the same state as the man. I couldn’t let that happen to me. The pain of Valentine’s Day was more than enough to bear. Any more would lead to near death. 

How should I read the letter? If I stand would I get a glimpse? I ruled that option out. I tried straining my eyes to read the letter from the back but the low lighting and pendulum-type movement of the train made that impossible. The writing too had hardly an imprint on the back of the page. But what I could make of it, it contained only a few lines. “A crisp and clear rejection?” I thought to myself. “What have we come to?” With only the stars above to help me, I looked up to the skies for some divine intervention. Though all I could see was the ceiling fan and not the stars I hoped for a miracle. Luckily for me, the passenger seated right next to him got up. This was my moment, my only chance. Without a moment’s delay I sprang into action and got off my feet and made a dash for the just vacated seat.

After occupying it, I took a deep breath. “Just in the nick of time” I thought as I watched the dismayed faces of other passengers as they failed to occupy the seat. In spite of my heroics, my fellow passenger was oblivious to my shift in position.. Now in the direction of the wind, I could feel the chill. Valentine’s Day was indeed going to be very cosy this year I thought as the warmth of love would be really felt by those in love. To me it would be just another day. Hopefully next year I would have someone. Without losing a moment I took position. Time was ticking by and my station was fast approaching. This one was going down to the wire. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the letter to come out again, that too before I got off. If it didn’t, it would be a case of ‘So close yet so far’. What made matters worse was the thought that what if he got off before me? That would signal the end even before the beginning. What was in that letter? What was disturbing him? What could make a grown up man cry? Who had left him? What had he done? What had someone done to him? The questions in my mind kept multiplying. I was getting impatient. Anxiety was taking its toll. I needed to have the answer now or I would never have it. Come on, just once more. “Please!!!!” was the prayer on my lips. 

To my good luck, the letter came out again. Without wasting a moment and leaving nothing to chance, I made most of my position. Moving myself closer, I slightly bent over to be able to read its contents. The letter was slowly unfolded and the mystery that held me captive for so long finally unravelled itself.

Dear Papa,
Thank you for being my very dear friend and my support. Every night before going to sleep I pray that God takes special care of you. You are the best Papa in the world. I love you very much. Would you be my Valentine?
Your loving daughter,

The words of the letter left me spell bound and hit me hard like a bolt from the blue. Was I living a dream or was it reality? Was I living at all? After reading the letter I too was lost in thought. I have always known Valentine’s Day to be a day of love. In fact I hated its existence, just for not having someone to love. But this letter changed all that. This girl did not have anyone to be called a Valentine. She was probably too young to understand life. But she definitely understood love. And she understood it very well.

In one day, I had seen three perceptions of love. A love where you needed to be in love as in my case, a love filled with casualness as in the case of the college students, and a very mature love as in the case of the little girl. I, all my life perceived love as something you needed another to share with. But I was wrong. Love needn’t be that. I had forgotten that love had so many dimensions and forms. To celebrate Valentine’s Day you needn’t be in love. You can celebrate it with your family, friends, God and also with yourself. Love is all about being happy and contented with yourself and surroundings. If there is no love, there is no acceptance of positives and negatives, there’s no space for understanding and care. If there is no love there is nothing. Where there’s love there's everything.

The tears of the man now made complete sense. No one had left him, neither had he left anyone. No one had done anything against him and neither did he. Yes, he was hale and hearty too. He had not lost anything, but had gained the most precious gift in this entire world – Love, a gift that no offer could claim, no money could buy, no discount could apply and no tips and tricks could help. He had received love from the most unexpected quarter - a person whom the he loved the most. When your child asks for more love in return of her sweet love all you can express is in tears. 

As I got off my seat and made a move towards the exit I looked at that man. He was still lost in the letter. The difference was now I knew what was bothering him. In fact, nothing was. He was just too thankful to God for his child and the abundant love he had received. The man would surely be the best Valentine his daughter could ever have. 

In the last half an hour of my travel, my life like the train had gone from one point to another. The journey had transformed me and taught me to see things bigger and better.

This Valentine’s Day was indeed going to be special, going to be warm and memorable - both for my fellow passenger and for me. He had received love from the one who loved him and he loved the most, while I received enlightenment. And then I too shed a tear.

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