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By Praveen Prabhakar

May 16, 2009, an unusual cold breeze at this time of the year, what is it with the morning, what with the numbness? The routine bus ride to my workplace seemed unrealistic, the real journey headed to the unknown corners of my mind, in search of nostalgic visualizations, rekindling those forgotten feelings. I could fly without wings. I could breathe in those feelings. I was alive. I looked far beyond, as if to read those huge billboards placed across the distant narrow lanes of this busy city, but I only caught her glimpses, in doses, with side-effects of her hallucinating omnipresence. Her reminiscent obsessive smile from the past was not a strange coincidence. This morning when I boarded the bus, the driver passed on her framed credentials. While I looked at it with curiosity, he blabbered, accentuating her carelessness, losing it in the bus. I have been in this Tech park for the past five months now, but not once did I sense her presence. She probably boarded the same corporate bus, which I did in the evening, yet why did I not recognize her. As the bus struggled to breeze past the traffic, I looked around quite often, across the streets, always aiming at a farther point, but I would eventually succumb to an eager comeback, to fixate my sight on her ID card. Though she wasn’t smiling in this photographic impression, the face that did rounds in my mind scattered her smiles across my visual horizon. Mili, it’s magical!

It was the summer of 1998, when I first met Mili. It was her first day at school in a new city. She was becoming part of a bunch of thirteen-year-old boys and girls excited about a fresh academic year. Even before the classes commenced, the spotlight was always on her, the boys would only talk about the new girl. Everyone was impressed, some totally flattered. I wasn’t a loner either, I was lost in her charm too, but shyness sealed my mouth. With a self-belief that I always messed up with my expressions, silence seemed safe most often. I had this fear that I would turn into a laughing stock if I dared an expression. It was just me and my mind. While every boy tried his luck to talk to her, she refrained from all attention with a serious look on her face. When she was seen smiling, whispers were heard every nook-and-corner of the class. I would murmur too, just to my mind.

It was one of the group activities that I got a chance to sit with Mili. Her fluency in language had already stunned the group, when it was time to take turns and tell opinion, I was the only one with nothing to say. Was it the fear, was it the shyness, I had no clue. When she sensed I couldn’t speak, she intervened and told me to take notes. I was relieved and with an expressionless inner excitement, I reached for the pen. Not in my wildest dreams, did I imagine that the hidden excitement would accidentally roll down the pen to the floor. It did hit the floor, but it found shelter right beneath her skirt. With neat folds leveled on her navy-blue fabric, my occasional sheepish glances interrupted my thoughts to ask for the pen. I knew my introversion had won the battle and I was surely going to mess up. Just another moment and I ended up telling my friend who was sitting next to me, for help. He immediately pounced, making a mockery of it.

“Mili, he is talking about your skirt, no wonder, he dropped the pen right there.”

I was left red-faced, I couldn’t see her eye-to-eye. I was suddenly getting all the wrong attention. I fumbled with words, I stammered, the grim look on her face overshadowed every instinct of mine to tell her my side. It was too late. She banged that pen right on the table, a virtual slap is how I remember. I eventually ended up carrying that embarrassment for the rest of that academic year.

A year later, much to my relief, the whole class was split, she and I were in different classes from thereon. I did like her, but I could never make eye contact. It all changed when I met her after a long time while ascending that memorable staircase across the library. She smiled for the first time. I have always blamed my instinctual response, but this time it did well, I ended up uttering hello, she complimented it with a wider smile. And suddenly that one year of embarrassment vanished in the aura of her smile. I stepped on to the upcoming stairs with much more enthusiasm and excitement. It didn’t end there, just when I was at the top, she called out for me. I looked at her with utmost eagerness.

“Do you still talk about my skirt?”

Only expression I could manage was a sheepish smile, but this time it wasn’t embossed on my red-face, but a face that sensed her acceptance of some kind. It was in 2002, when we started to meet regularly during our Computer classes. Though we would talk more about academics, she would occasionally pull my leg with the skirt episode. I would try explaining the events, but she would never let me finish. Just before our final exams, I was all set to propose to her. But, it was not to be.

It was in March 2002 when we last met. We just had a normal conversation after our classes and she left home, never to come back again. When I enquired with her friends, they stated that her dad managed an official transfer to their hometown, and the whole family moved. It took me a while to get accustomed to her absence. I wouldn’t study, I would just spend time thinking about our conversations. When it was getting worse, she came over, my Mili, finally, in the form of a sweet smelling letter:

I am sorry for not telling you. I know you would be sad. But I can never say goodbye to you. I know you are not studying, please focus on your exams. Someday I will meet you, until then I will write to you quite often. And hope you are talking about my skirt. You better, because I have started to like you. Yours Mili

I have read this letter a million times. I always thought we would never let go. She did manage to send me a few more letters, and I responded to a few. But as time passed, it faded in intensity.

When I traced back, I couldn’t believe we never got back. We never put in any efforts, I guess the career wave took us in different directions, changing our lives forever. In six years, I have changed a lot, I have put on weight, and I am no longer the lean guy. She will never recognize me with my thick moustache and a trimmed beard. I was now a Programmer, and she, I looked down yet again from a farthest unknown point to her ID, she was a Copywriter with her charm intact on her face. I moved my fingers on her printed name as if to cuddle the “Mili” I once knew. The waves did drift us apart, but maybe we were destined to meet at the same beach.

When the bus reached the Tech Park, I held the card close and headed along looking for her. There were two branches of her office on either end of the Park, this meant a real tiresome stroll back-and-forth. Though the day was hectic with critical projects, I took way too many breaks. I am used to scanning my code, but scanning so many faces in all possible corners of the Tech Park without losing focus was not just me. I did have the most logical step, to just walk to one of the offices, and meet her in the name of handing over the ID card. But for some reason, I was reluctant. What if they don’t let me meet her? Though it was illogical, the only thought that prevailed was meeting her by chance. But with no signs, I was upset, yet the gut feeling deep within drove my expectations towards the envisioned evening bus ride back home. And I knew she would make it today.

It was 6:30 PM, when employees across offices gathered around the bus station. I was well ahead of time. When the bus engine chugged with mild jerks, I could sense failure. I could find no familiar faces in the vicinity. I stepped into the bus, to join another dozen of employees. There was no need to scan those faces. I looked past the window hoping to spot her. Just when the bus started to move, I heard the driver speaking to someone who just sneaked in.

“Madam, I found your ID card, I have handed it over to an employee.”

She breezed past the driver with no response. I raised myself to what I heard. I was really close to what I had toiled for the whole day, this was it, the very moment I would meet Mili. When I looked at her closely, she had a cloth wrapped around her face. She was in a loosely hanging attire from head to toe, the only thing she exposed was her eyes. I recalled, I had seen her before, I had sat next to her, and it was my Mili all the while. But didn’t she recognize me, not even once? Probably she never did. I never did too. Mili gazed at the metallic flooring of the bus as if nothing around her existed. She placed her bag in a seat diagonal to where I was seated. I was amazed with her transformation. Not once did I hear her talk to anyone on the bus. I waited for a while, and then swayed around in the speeding bus, and finally found myself sitting right next to her, hoping to pull a big surprise. Maybe tell her about trying a corporate skirt, tell her about our letters. The moment I looked at her, she was in a state of shock. A chaotic privacy invasion, her eyes seemed to pound as if she might panic any moment. She took a deep breath and shrugged away.

“Hello, aren’t you Mili?”

She nodded in agreement.

“Here is your ID card.”

Mili instantly grabbed her card and turned towards the window.

“Mili, don’t you recognize me?”

“I don’t.”

She immediately changed seats.

I felt terrible, not once did she look, not even a glance. Knowing her, I thought she would be curious. Maybe she had drifted far beyond. I kept yelling in my mind, Mili, it’s me. I still talk about your skirt. But those words seemed futile, even if I had uttered it for real. As the bus neared my stop, I kept looking at Mili, but she was blank.

That night I couldn’t sleep, it was depressing. I read the sweet smelling letter repeatedly, sometimes in desperation, to bring those moments back to life. It was early morning when I finally dozed off, I was in school with Mili, in the staircase.

I had just managed to pull a prank on Mili. She was angry. I was trying hard to make her smile. When none of my tricks worked, I planted a firm kiss on her cheek. She was surprised at my expressive intuition. My senses were already drugged in her invasive perfume, just when I wanted more of it, she hugged me tight. I started to caress her hair. I was craving for another kiss, but she pushed me hard against the wall. There was this pen that was mounted horizontally on the wall with no respect for gravity. It found its way in, piercing my head. I was bleeding, but there was no pain. There was no Mili either. I was alone in that dark staircase and it was freezing cold.

It was 9:25 AM. For the next ten minutes, I gazed at the ceiling trying to comprehend my bizarre dream. The dream was with no pain, but there was this unknown agony of reality that pricked my soul. I looked at the mirror. Is six years too long a time to forget someone? I spiraled into depth of my reflection, searching for myself, looking for expressions, familiar to Mili. I gulped in vehemence of a strange emotion. I couldn’t accept that I was just a mere stranger. Maybe I have this evening for myself, I could try one more time. I will get it right this time. If I don’t, I would just let go, maybe it was destined to end this way.

I was quick to dress up, I rolled over the sweet smelling letter in the tiny little pocket of my jeans. As the day progressed, I was just working out all combinations. Thoughts with overwhelming emotions did drain my brain, but at the end of it, I was sure that once she would recognize me, I would have to just read out the letter, and we can laugh out loud, just like old times. Maybe I would finally propose to her. I realized if it wasn’t for love, I wouldn’t have reached this far with my thoughts. I really love her.

I was finally in the bus, she was there too. I had already ensured a seat right behind her. My initial plan was to occupy the seat beside her and then attempt a sensible conversation, which would probably begin with my name. But, I couldn’t move, there was this unknown fear that troubled my composed emotions. Too many thoughts to ponder derailed my senses to act. I contemplated in silence at something beyond the reach of my brain far across the window. Blame it on my lack of sleep, for the next 15 minutes, I slept like a log. When I woke up, I realized the bus got past my stop, and Mili was all set at the doorstep waiting for her turn to get down. I looked around, I was blank. I went with my instincts, I got down from the bus at her stop. In all hurry, unaware, the sweet smelling letter that was rolled in, slithered out of my pocket. A distant wind carried it far across the dimly lit streets. It was 7:20 PM, I was walking at a brisk pace, right behind Mili. I could see an intersection ahead, where she would preferably take a left. I thought that was my spot. I would just call her out from behind and tell my name. I was right with her direction, but now she wasn’t walking with the same speed. She turned left in a jiffy, I was left behind. I quickly moved ahead, I could see the branches of a tree lightly swinging to the evening breeze. When it was my time to turn left, something struck my abdomen, real hard, not once, but thrice. It was a sudden thrust, I could see blood oozing out in liberation. I felt the tear in pieces. With excruciating pain, I fell on my knees, I couldn’t believe what I saw. She was right there looking at me. There was no cloth wrapped on her face, it was my Mili, the one with the grim look. I was going down. My fingers were soaked in blood. I was with her, yet again, I couldn’t see her eye-to-eye. I fumbled with words, I stammered. I now looked for the letter, I struggled with my subtle movements, but in vain, it wasn’t there or I wasn’t able to reach it. I knew, this was it. Something within me cried in silence, Mili, I love you, I still talk about your skirt. I slowly closed my eyes. I saw a distant star and it faded with Mili.

When I woke up, it was freezing cold, I had no control over my body. I was just swaying around my body looking for her. Mili wasn’t around. I could hear someone talking at a distance.

“So, doctor, cause of death?”

“Three deeply penetrated wounds over the abdomen, damaging liver and aorta, perforation of small intestine, leading to massive haemorrhage, and hypotensive shock. He was probably stabbed by a double-edged knife.”

“Any other details about the victim?”

“No. But, the girl is a rape victim. Since her brutal rape last year, she was diagnosed with extremes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When in danger, it’s natural for such subjects to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to defend against the danger or to avoid it. Maybe he meant some danger to the girl, maybe not, we can’t be sure.

“Did you talk to the girl, does she know the victim?”

“I did talk to her, she has never seen him before.”

By Praveen Prabhakar

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