The Gift is a short story about love and loss

The Gift

January 29, 2022

Night  of the Storm

I have known Raktim for the past ten months and he was never like this. He never spoke about the past or the future as he preferred living in the present and took life the way it is. In the past ten months, he has never spoken a thing about his past - about his relationships and heartbreaks or shared anything that needs to be forgotten for the better. But today...

As he continued, after a point, my mind stopped listening to him. Though he was speaking looking straight into my eyes, a voice began to hustle and bustle inside my head. It was trying to make me remember someone from the past.

The 27 springs of my life have been normal and everything was clear for me. I never doubted a thing I did. But today, all of a sudden, things look changed, things look chaotic, and doubt has crept in.

Just two weeks and I am married to you. What was the necessity of the question, Raktim? 'Past lives in the past' is what you have always told me. Why did you break your own rule and speak about Jennifer today? It's 2006! What happened seven years back cannot be undone now? The tragedies of the past cannot be reversed!

"Asha, have you loved someone in past?" is a simple question that Raktim asked. And why not, Raktim has every right to know about my past. But it was he who decided to not bring anything from the past into our present. And...and I don't know what should I answer- a yes or a no? Generally, it should have been a direct no, but I am unable to do so now with ease. This is not just a question for me anymore.

I feel suffocated, and I don't know why? I am gasping for breath Raktim...please, please stop this!

And you asked for the second time if I love someone now, I wanted to shout and say, 'I love you Raktim', but I could not. Something is choking me from inside and I am unable to utter a word. All I can feel is strange, and rippling feeling from inside and this is making me uneasy, I can’t explain the level of uneasiness...I simply can't! But, why am I feeling this uneasiness?

You are not wrong, Raktim. But I am not able to take things softly. Please, can you stop!

"Asha... Hey, where did you go? Are you here, with me? Or lost in your world? So, you did love someone right?" Raktim poked me again as he pulled my legs (which he always does) and this brought me back to reality. I was lost in my thoughts and almost forgot that I was on a date with the man with whom I am getting married on the 28th of this month.

"Nothing like that...I was just..umm..well, say, you were saying something," I replied holding myself back and smiling feebly. He, however, did not notice my discomfort. I could barely listen to his words or the surrounding chaos. Even then I held myself back and kept listening to Raktim attentively...

“I loved Jennifer a lot. We dreamt of a beautiful life together. But destiny had something else in store for us. I lost her in that dreadful Gaisal Train accident in 1999. Her death wrecked me to the bottom of the ocean. It took me years to come to terms and realise that she was gone forever. Frankly speaking, this marriage thing... it didn't even cross my mind until your match reached my home, and I saw your photograph, wearing that muga mekhela sador with the kopou phool nicely done on your bun. For the first time in many years, my heart skipped a beat, and I realised I also have a soul that yearns for love. The soul, which I thought was long dead, you brought it back to life. I love you, Asha. Jennifer is just a good memory. I wanted to say this because I felt you deserve to know it. I wanted to express my love," Raktim kissed my palms and kept looking straight into my eyes. His eyes spoke only love, the ocean of love he has for me.

At that moment I wanted to hug him tightly, and I wanted to kiss his lips passionately and express my love too, but...something stopped me. The voice inside my mind was playing games and it was louder than all the surrounding noise. It kept telling me that I was lying to myself, and also to Raktim, and to kiss him will be cheating on someone...someone whom I thought I have forgotten, but have not!

That someone is Chiranjeev...Chiranjeev Kaushik Dutta Baruah of Tezpur whose face I have not seen in years. As the voice inside my mind shouted the name several times, the restlessness inside me escalated, and I wanted to run somewhere and hide in some dark corner where even I can't see my face.

Some Months Back

Raktim, I mean Raktim Baruah, is the son of eminent Assamese author, Sahitya Akademi Award winner Dr Keshavananda Baruah. Raktim is a single child and teaches Chemistry at B Barooah College. Though I also work in the same college in the Assamese department, Raktim and I have never crossed paths before our official match-making introduction in  March this year. He is soft-spoken, a fitness freak, and has a tremendous sense of humour. After two-three months of meeting, we decided to go ahead and informed our families that we have agreed to their proposal.

I don't agree with the saying- marriages are made in heaven­. But in my case, I will admit that our marriage was the result of a perfect board game played by the love angels above. Or else, who would have imagined that Maa will bump into her school friend after almost after 28 years years and some casual discussions will lead up to this marriage?

It was Abha ba's wedding night when the angels wrote the prelude of this unlikely love story...

I was sitting near the bride and my younger sister was attending the guests. Maa and Pita were also busy overseeing some chores. Abha ba is the daughter of Pita's best friend and our neighbour for 32 years- Saikia Khura.

"Sumitra, is that you?” someone tapped on Maa's left shoulder from behind and asked.

Maa looked back and shouted in excitement, "Taru...Hey Taru...what a surprise, and that too after so many years!

Maa and Taru maahi hugged and kept on looking at each other in total amusement. The excitement on their faces was a moment, I wish, I could have photographed and framed forever... It is beyond explanation. Both looked like teenagers going out to a fair, all alone, for the first time. They were meeting after almost 28 years and they lived all these years in three minutes.

"So, what are you doing at Abha's wedding?" Maa asked Taru Mahi.

"Saikia da is my colleague, and I have come here with the office staff. And, how are you here?" Maahi asked Maa.

"Saikia da is my husband's best friend and we are also neighbours for three decades. He is like my elder brother, and Abha's wedding is a family affair," Maa replied.

"You see that girl in the green mekhela chador near Abha, she is my elder daughter Jumi, I mean Jigyasha. The girl directing the coffee makers is my younger daughter,   Moyitri. And my husband...he must be some..where....there he is, at the entrance," Maa roughly introduced us to Maahi. My pet name is Jumi and my sister's name is Munu.

"Jigyasha, oh yes, I remember. The last time we met on the streets of Fancy Bazar, she was a 6-month-old baby. Now, look at her. She has grown up to be a gorgeous lady. What is she doing? " Maahi asked Maa, constantly staring at me.

"She has submitted her PhD last month and is also working in B Barooah College. She teaches in the Assamese department," Maa replied.

"That's very nice... So, Sumi, will you keep treating yourself in others' marriages or you will also treat us with one? I mean, do you have any plans for Jigyasha's marriage?"

"Yes, yes. We do. We are looking around for a prospective groom. Now, since our friendship has rekindled, it will also be your responsibility to find her a good match."

"You spoke my heart Sumi. I don't have to go far as the perfect match for Jigyasha is right in my family. We are also looking for a match for my nephew Bubu, I mean Raktim, my elder brother's son. Why not turn our friendship into a strong relationship?"

And thus Raktim's and my love story's prelude was scripted in the most unlikely way, in the most non-happening situation. Taru Mahi was not lesser than an angel who brought immense respite to my parents. The topic of my marriage was giving them all the stress in life and after pita's retirement last year, the search for 'the perfect groom' intensified. Taru Mahi's words provided them with much-needed relief.

Maa and pita then met Raktim's parents one day and discussed our possible match and when the elders found it good to go ahead, on March 10, 2006, Raktim, along with his parents, Taru Mahi and Dipen moha (Taru Mahi's husband) visited our house so that the prospective groom can meet his prospective bride.

We were left alone for some time so that we could know each other. We spoke for around 15-20 minutes. It was a good conversation, but it wasn't enough to know each other well. We requested our parents if we could decide about our marriage after some months as we wanted to know each other a little more. It was Raktim who suggested this to his parents first. And when our parents agreed, we kept meeting for the next two months and when we were sure of everything, towards the end of June we informed our families about our surety. The two happy families met and fixed December 28 as our wedding date.

Raktim gave me a name- Asha. I love the name and the way he calls me. I love him.

Back To Night Of The Storm

I love him...yes, until today I was sure that I love Raktim from the bottom of my heart. But that one question and the voice inside and Chiranjeev! I feel suffocated again. I can't breathe.

"Raktim, I am not feeling well. Will you drop me home, right now, please?”

“Why, what happened?”

"Nothing serious... Maybe some wedding anxiety. Not feeling well. Please drop me home."

Raktim did as I asked him to do.

Sorry Raktim, it’s not your fault. I have to rush home and get some answers. Answers to some questions that I thought were long buried.

After reaching home, I gave Raktim a cold hug. I kissed his forehead and looked into his eyes. His smile made me more uncomfortable. Hiding my emotions, I opened the door of the car and rushed home. I heard the engine start behind me. He called me twice, but I didn’t answer him. I switched off the mobile and took a shower.

All of a sudden, without previous warning, I felt a flow of warmth on my cheeks. Even it was a cold December night, and I was standing under the shower with no clothes on, I did not feel the coldness of the water the way I felt the warmth of my tears. And all of a sudden, I found myself crying profusely.

After coming out of the bathroom and changing to my nightwear, I looked at the fountain pen lying silently on my study table. A pen that I have been using for the past 16 years. As I kept looking at the pen, I felt as if the pen was staring at me as well and was trying to tell me something. Today, I don't feel it is the same pen that I have been using since 1990.

16 Years Ago

The school has reopened after the winter holidays and the new session had just begun. We were excited to meet our old schoolmates. While some common faces were missing, they were replaced by some new faces and among these new faces was Chiranjeev. He was sitting next to Pulak and Bipin- my cousin.

"Jumi, come here. Meet our new friend Chiranjeev."

"Hi Jumi"

"My name is Jigyasha, not Jumi. Jumi is for friends and families. You are not my friend yet." Though my reply to Chiranjeev was rude, he, however, burst into laughter and the entire class joined him. After a few seconds, I joined them as well.

Soon, Chiranjeev became a core member of our group and we became good friends. He was a bright student, who was not just good in studies but also in sports. He was extremely energetic and motivated us whenever we felt disappointed. Though we were only 11-year-old then, it seemed Chiranjeev was much older than us. He wasn't like us. He was mature and gradually, I became very fond of him.

I liked him more because he helped me clear my doubts in Mathematics- a subject that I am scared of even today. Six months passed in a jiffy. After our half-yearly examination, the summer vacations began. As kids, this month-long break was special for us. It was that time of the year when visiting grandparents was a ritual. I loved visiting my grandparents and never miss any opportunity.

The summer of 1990 wasn't different. The holidays began and ended at my grandparents' place. After a break of 33 days, it was time for school again. Though I was touch sad as the holidays ended, I was, however, excited as well to meet my friends- especially him!

The classes after the summer break resumed. Everyone came, Pulak, Bipin, Monika, Jutika...everyone, except him! The first week after the vacation passed and he was nowhere to be seen. After 10 days, as we were trying to solve some mathematical equations in the first period of the day, I heard a familiar voice.

"May I come in Miss?"

I looked in the direction of the voice. It was him!

"Yes, Chiranjeev, come in. Why are you late? And why were you absent for so many days," Chandana miss, our mathematics teacher, asked him almost as if she was interrogating him.

"Sorry miss. I missed the bus today so I am late. I won't be absent again."

During the lunch break, I went to him. He was not looking his general way. He seemed to be reserved and the charm and spark in his eyes were also missing.

"What happened, why do you look depressed?"

"I lost my father last month in an accident." Saying this he started weeping. Seeing him cry, everyone in the class surrounded him and tried to console him in their ways. After some seconds he gathered his composure and thanked everyone.

I felt sad by seeing him cry. For me, he has always been the one guy who knows to laugh and make others laugh. I came back to my seat and finished my lunch. Several thoughts crossed my mind, none of which I remember now.

"Jumi," he came to me and patting my shoulder sat on the bench in front of me. I looked up.

"Jumi, today is my last day in school. I won't be in Guwahati anymore. I have transferred my name to a school in Tezpur. After my father's death, my mother has decided to shift back to Tezpur. We have a family business there, which needs to be overseen by my mother. I will miss you all."

I was numbed and continued to stare at him without the blink of an eye.

"Jumi, I don't know if we will meet again in life or not, but I will never forget you or anyone from the school. I have brought a parting gift for all. Here, have this," and he handed me the fountain pen. I was still in shock and was staring blankly at him.

"Jumi, if you ever happen to visit Tezpur, do visit me. Ask anyone about my father- Kaushik Dutta Barua- you will be guided to our residence."

I don't remember how the day ended.

16 Years Later

I don't even remember Chiranjeev's face, no matter how hard I try to recall. Some memories have remained and that's it. But why did Raktim's question make me remember Chiranjeev today? What made the fountain pen special today? I am possessive about the pen. I don't let anyone use it. I always keep it with me. I have cleared all my examinations using this pen. Did I do all these because this is a special gift from a special person? Or is it because I loved him, or maybe I still love him and all these years I was unaware of it?

If I was in love with Chiranjeev, then why did I agree to marry Raktim?

Maybe because I found Raktim similar to Chiranjeev? Yes, they are similar in many ways. The eyes, the smile, the maturity, the calmness... So much is similar between the two! And did I realise this today or did Raktim trigger my suppressed love and I am marrying him thinking to be someone else?

Am I cheating myself? Am I looking for something else and trying to find it in someone else? What if Chiranjeev still loves me.

There are so many unanswered questions. Where will I get these answers? Who will answer these questions?

After a tussle between my mind and heart, I decided to visit Tezpur and find the answers on my own. Chiranjeev will have to answer. I know, we were young 16 years ago, but some feelings are beyond the barriers of age. Maybe things would have been different had he stayed back.

The Tezpur Diary

Making the silliest of excuses and convincing my parents and Raktim with great difficulty, I am here in Tezpur today. Today is December 16 and on December 28 I will marry Raktim. My only fear is, how will I react if Chiranjeev says he loves me too?

I know, I have created this mess out of nowhere and unnecessarily.

After settling down in a comfortable hotel near the Tezpur bus terminal, I was trying to recall Chiranjeev's address. All I remember is his name, his father's name, and the place where he lives- Kolibari.

I hope the rickshaw will take me to the destination. Oh god! Please help me.

After having my lunch, I decided to visit Chiranjeev. I looked at the watch. The time was 2:47 pm. Good time to go.

"Rickshaw...rickshaw."

"Yes baideu, where do you want to go."

" I don't know the exact address. It is somewhere in Kolibari. How far is it from here?"

"Sure baideu. It is not that far from here. Come, I will take you there."

I go onto the rickshaw. My rickshaw-puller is in his late 40s. He is a jovial person who loves Bhupen Hazarika's songs. He is continuously whistling Bhupen da's popular songs.

"You love Bhupen da's songs?"

"Yes baideu, his songs give me the motivation and energy to keep the life struggle on."

"Hmm...but why are you only whistling? I mean, I have never found someone who whistles his songs the way you do."

"Baideu, the whistle was the only musical instrument I could afford when I was young. The camaraderie that began then, continues even today. Baideu, people in Tezpur call me Suhuri because of this," Madan da, my rickshaw-puller, informed me. He blushed when he said he is called suhuri.

"Baideu, to whose house will you go in Kolibari?"

The question brought me back to my helpless reality again. I felt like turning back as I had no answer.

"Do you know the residence of Kaushik Dutta Baruah? He was a famous person from Tezpur, who expired in a road accident many years ago. He has son named Chiranjeev. He lives with his mother. I don't know the exact location, only their names. Chiranjeev and I studied together several years ago. And since I am in Tezpur,  I decided to give him a surprise visit."

"Yes baideu, who in Tezpur don't know Maina da, I mean Chiranjeev da and his family. Being such an affluent family, they are extremely humble."

"But baideu, I feel sorry for the family."

"Why, what happened?"

"Baideu, God has been extremely cruel to the family. 15-16 years ago, Maina da's father died in an accident and 11 days ago Maina da also expired in an accident. He has an infant daughter who is hardly 8-month-old."

What? Chiranjeev is dead! Oh god, that can't be true. How can he leave without answering my questions? And, do I need to know the answers now? He is gone. He was married and has a daughter. Love? He never loved me. Had he ever, he would have not married someone. I should have not come here in the first place. Darn! The voice spoiled everything. My life was smooth. But see, what a mess I have created?

"Baideu, here we are at Maina da's residence. I will wait here. You may not find a rickshaw while going back," Madan da's words brought me back to reality. Before I could decide to turn back, I reached the place where I should not be now.

I don't need to go in.

Reluctantly, I got down from the rickshaw and entered Chiranjeev's house. Under a white pandal is seated so many unknown faces.

Everyone is staring at me.

I know, I am looking like a fool. I am looking around for someone who will never show up and welcome me. I need to turn back right now!

There, at a distance, I can see Chiranjeev's framed photo. There is some distance between me and the photograph. I am trying hard to focus on the photo and see him!

"Yes, who are you looking for? Are you Kasturi's friend?"

I looked back and saw a lady with some stuff in her hand's inquiring about my identity.

"I am... Jumi...Jumi Saharia. I have come from Guwahati. I used to study with Chiranjeev. I...", but before I could complete the lady spoke again.

"Guwahati...But I have never seen you before. I am Chiranjeev's mother," the lady said introducing herself.

"Borma, I have never met Chiranjeev after he left the school. After passing out of high school, I completed my further studies from outside Assam so I could never visit Tezpur nor meet him. I was here for a conference and since I had time on hand, so thought of meeting him. But..."

"It's fate majoni. What can we do? Seems, Maina and you must have shared a good bonding during those 6-7 months of friendship in Guwahati. Else, you would have not been here on his adyashraddha today. This is good fate," Chiranjeev's mother smiled as she ran her hand over my head as if she was blessing me. She then called someone and gave the stuff she had in her hand.

Moving a step closer to Chiranjeev's portrait, I did see him after so many years. He was truly beautiful. Nothing changed. Even the portrait oozed positivity and an unmatched charm.

"Majoni," Chiranjeev's mother called me again.

"Come, go with Ramen to Kasturi's room. Since you are Maina's only friend present today, she will love to meet you."

Do I need to do all these? Do I need to see Kasturi? I thought Chiranjeev loved me. Huh! I am a fool. I was fooled by that silly voice. Darn!

"Bou, this is Jumi ba, Maina da's school friend," Ramen introduced me to Chiranjeev's wife Kasturi who is extremely pretty.

"Baideu, you sit here, I will come in a while," Ramen said and left.

"Hi, please come in. Have a seat," Kasturi said while pointing towards a chair.

"Sorry, the baby was crying so did not get much time to clear the mess of the room," she said again collecting some clothes from the bed and placing it on the cloth rack nearby.

Kasturi is calm even in such a tough situation. There is a thin smile on her lips. I  do not know if this is forced or natural. She is composed, much like Chiranjeev was. She is extremely beautiful.

"I...I am sorry for your loss. Umm...I don't have any words to console you. I can't understand the pain you are going through. All I can say is, be strong."

Kasturi looked at me. Smiled, and said, "I understand everyone's concern. From the day he met with the accident, I have been told this 100 times. While he was fighting for his life for 15 days, I was hoping he would come back strong. I know, I have to keep myself strong. If not for me, but my daughter.

Kasturi's daughter was sleeping on the bed. She was beautiful.

As I was lost in admiration of the little one, Kasturi spoke again.

"Chiranjeev never told me about you. Some of his friends from Guwahati even attended our wedding reception. Pulak, Bipin, Monika...he was in touch with them."

This came as another shocker.

Bipin! Being my cousin, he never said anything about Chiranjeev all these years? So, Chiranjeev was in touch with others except me.

"After Chiranjeev left Guwahati, we lost contact.  Pita was transferred to another city and in those days neither we had Orkut or mobile phones. Others remained in Guwahati. Pulak completed his graduation from Darrang College. Maybe that's how they were in touch," I lied again.

The first lie was my name. But, how does it matter if I am Jigyasha, Asha, Jennifer or Jumi? The one for whom the name would have mattered is gone. And I never mattered to him. Had I mattered, I would have known about him.

The second lie was to Chiranjeev's mother regarding my visit to Tezpur. Anything hardly matters now.

"What do you do?" I asked Kasturi, trying to divert the topic so that I don't have to lie again.

"I work at the Government Girls' Higher Secondary School here in Tezpur. I teach Mathematics. What do you do?"

"I am a professor at B Barooah College in the Assamese department."

Chiranjeev loved mathematics and so he loved a girl who loves mathematics. Huh! Why would he love me anyway? I was so wrong to come here. The voice was wrong. Raktim did not deserve the coldness he received the other night.

"Majoni," Chiranjeev's mother called me as she entered the room with a platter of kumol saoul, doi, and some sweets. This brought me back to reality.

"Please have this light snack. I thought you may refuse to have anything but since it is addyashraddha, and you are his only friend present, you can't refuse it," Chiranjeev's mother said as she handed me the plate. Though I did not want to eat anything and felt like running, I did not refuse.

She caressed her sleeping granddaughter and left the room. Reluctantly I finished the food on the plate. Ramen then brought two cups of tea for Kasturi and me.

As we finished the tea, Kasturi said more as to how she met Chiranjeev, fell in love, and got married. After spending almost an hour, I decided to leave.

"Kasturi, it’s getting late. My rickshaw is waiting outside. I think I should leave now. I also need to visit a colleague who lives near Mahabairav Mandir."

"Thank you for coming, and it was nice knowing and meeting you," Kasturi said while taking her child on her lap who has just woken and is cooing playfully.

Going near her, I looked into her eyes. She looked back at me and smiled when I playfully touched her cheeks.

"She is gorgeous. What's her name?" I asked Kasturi.

"Jigyasha, a name Chiranjeev loved the most," Kasturi replied with a bright smile in her eyes.

I was numb again. Shocked! Stunned!

It was difficult for me to hold back my tears. I pushed myself out of the house with all my strength and sat on the rickshaw without turning back even for a split moment.

Two warm trails flowed down my cheeks and kissed my trembling lips as I closed my eyes.

"Rickshaw, let's leave."

Chiranjeev, thank you. May you be at peace wherever you are! I gave Jigyasha the fountain pen- a gift she deserves more than I do. Kasturi was reluctant to take it, but I forced it on her hand the same way you gave it to me.

Raktim, I love you. Aah! I can breathe freely now.

Goodbye forever,... Chiranjeev!

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