Yes, sleep is relaxing. But sometimes, it is much more than that. In days of stress, sleep becomes your drug and you literally get addicted to it. It takes you to a world of silence where your big huge troubles and you yourself are non-existent. But sooner or later the ecstasy does end and you wake up, vulnerable and desperate for one more dose, and then all the problems come crashing down on your mind like fierce waves from a broken dam. In that Tsunami, any relaxation that you gained from sleep is wiped out like a tiny wooden home.
Either I did not have any dreams that day or I do not remember them; I’m not sure. But like out of the nowhere-land my eyes opened into the reality – into my bedroom. Wishing that I could sleep more, lot more, I sat up in my bed as if I had woken up from a coma and tried recalling when I had gone to sleep. The sunlight and shadows of window grills that spread all over the room signaled it was late evening. I turned my head to look around the room, hearing noises in the kitchen. I assumed it was Megha cooking something. At her end of bed our daughter Antara slept peacefully in her cradle, wrapped in layers of blankets and joy, unaware of the noises of the crooked world. I looked at her, jealous of the peace that she held in herself. As I observed every rise and fall of her chest with every breath, that jealousy began changing itself, changing into a very friendly and positive feeling; but before I could be any happier, memories of the previous day occurred back to my mind like red-eyed wolves sieging their prey in the dark.
I pulled the blanket away with a frown and went to the bathroom to splash water on my face.
It did not help much. My head had started bustling with multiple voices: of people and of my own, telling me what I was expected to do, what my duties were, how I was failing them, how it was going to create more problems soon. Each voice blabbered loudly and carelessly, stressing me more and more with every word of it. I sat down on bed again, holding my head and trying desperately to listen to the guiding voice for prospective solutions.
But that one voice was nowhere in there. My inner voice was deadly silent. I guess that is what stress is, or that is what incubates it. You know you are stressed when your inner voice has disappeared. You have to get help from someone at such times.
Megha smiled through the hissing sounds and steam as I entered the kitchen. I smiled back and sat down at the dining table, trying to not to show my worries on the face.
“Hey, I had made some tea for you, but your oversleeping cooled it.” She said, pointing out to a cup on the table.
I stretched my hand, caught hold of the cup and poured it in my mouth.
“We have a micro-wave Saaket!” She said, looking at me in disbelief, “at least heat it up a little!”
“It’s okay.” I said in a low voice and leaned my head on my hands to sleep on the dining table.
“Saaket, are you okay?” I heard her through my closed eyes, “You’ve been sleeping a lot lately.”
“Umm.” I said, refusing to lift up my head.
I felt her warm hand on my arm. “Saaket, is everything alright?” She asked, checking for a fever.
“Yaaa!!” I almost shouted and lifted my head. The voices in my head were more than enough for me. I could really use some of her silence right now. “It’s… work…” I tried to cover up my raised voice, but Antara woke up with a loud wail. Megha gave out a sigh to stretch her patience and went in to nurse Antara.
I leaned back on the table.
“Why don’t you go around for a walk?” She said as she came out holding Antara in her arms, “some exercise helps to raise spirits.”
Fed up with her jibber-jabber, I lifted up my head and stared hard at her. She stood with her back towards me, busy attending a wailing Antara in her arms and hissing spices on her stove. Frustrated, I stormed out of the kitchen, pulled a pair of jeans up my legs and began to walk away from all the freaking noises.
“Saaket!” Megha called out loudly before I could close the door. With a wailing baby on her left arm and a list in her right hand, she was hurrying towards me, “Can you please bring these groceries while coming?”
I rammed the door hard before I’d hear her voice again and ran down the stairs into the street.
It was already dark. Lost in thoughts, I was sitting alone on the bench in the municipality garden. My frustration was gone with time like the fading noises of children playing in the garden after sunset. Time is the best medicine sometimes, I thought to myself and stood up to go home.
The memories that a few hours before appeared like hungry hounds were now more bearable.
“It’s all your fault! I’ve been telling you the same things over and over again for months now, Saaket. The ratings are going down like never before!”
“I know, I know! I’m trying my best to revive the show and create some excitement with whatever I have! But you have to understand, KK. No-one can drag a script after its end.”
“People have been doing it for years and there are many who can do that again for me. If you cannot take the ratings up, tell me so, I’ll hire someone else.”
“We both know why you hired me and not them in the first place. They can never take the serial where I have taken it.”
“Then where is your magic now? I’ve put my fortune in this Saaket, and you have to do something or I’ll have to cut your salary now.”
“… Why don’t we end this serial and introduce a new one in its place? I can guarantee you very good…”
“For a serial to be successful in India, the most important thing we need is a good connection between the cast and the audience. This cast has a fantastic connection with the audience! If we introduce a new serial, we’ll have to re-establish the whole thing again! Do you realise how much investment will be risked while doing that?”
“Well, I say why don’t we take that risk? Maybe it’ll give better returns too!”
“Okay, Saaket, you know what? It’ll pay the most of all if you leave the job of decision making to me and pay some attention to your own job. If you want, make some decisions regarding your style of direction, regarding your team-mates or something that you understand. But don’t you teach KK how to make his decisions.”
Krishnakumar, or KK as he preferred anybody to call him, was once again trying to convince me that I was failing. I knew that. But I also knew that he was failing as well, that the Indian Television channels, and me as well, needed more of practicality in content and less of Drama. But how could KK understand it after all? Because he thought he was the know-it-all. In a frank opinion of many people who knew him, all he understood was the tinkling of currency. I knew far less of that language than him, and that was where we both were stuck. Unable to understand each other.
To avoid thinking about all that again, I turned my attention to the street around me. I had walked that street for years; but today as I gazed at it, a little more carefully than every other day, memories of college days crept up from the back of my mind. They came like how college mates greet you at a reunion: arrive all together, calling your name loudly, and giving you a hard tight hug first of all.
I remembered how we four amigos used to walk to high school and college every morning, joking and laughing all the way through. Me, Shantanu, Lance, and Kanhaiya; we had once been the walking-and-talking department of theatre and drama of our college. I always liked directing, Kanhaiya was a fabulous actor, and Lance magically managed to write down a great story that would then rule almost all the drama competitions for that year. Shantanu did nothing, but we would have never made it to the competitions without him paying for all our vada-pavs, chais and other petty expenses. Also, not to forget his valuable tips as a keen audience at every rehearsal. He had the eye and ear to appreciate art.
We had planned to start careers in the same field after our pointless degree courses but for obvious reasons, things did not go as planned. Fate had a different plan for each one of us. In the end, fighting alone against all odds, be it earlier with parents for a different career choice or now with the producer and wife, I was the only one of us four who had ended up in the entertainment industry; making what was probably the worst choice of all.
Swinging between the sweet-n-bitter memories, I stood for a signal in front of me to turn red so I could cross the road, when a white Audi SUV came to a halt next to me. As the window pane of its passenger seat lowered, I saw its driver – half-bald and dressed in formals – staring at me with a smile of recognition. I smiled back and looked away, trying to grip back the memories. But the man in the car would not look away and my link to the memories was broken as well.
“Hey, Saaket! How are you doing man?” He called, still smiling.
It startled me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you. Do I know you?” I asked him.
“Yes, you do! In fact, you know me very well.” He said with a broadening smile.
I tried hard to recall, but could not guess who he was. Not many people I knew drove in an Audi, and those who did would not stop by to have a chat with me at a signal crossing. My face must have been as blank as his car.
“It’s okay, I’ve changed a lot, I know.” He laughed and extended his hand towards me for a handshake, “Sorry to puzzle you like this, I’m Shantanu Malhotra.”.
I was dumbstruck! Shantanu Malhotra had been so fit and handsome, and was supposed to be busy in Canada running his multi-millionaire father’s business! What had brought him here? What had changed him so much in all these years?
I could not hold back a smile as all the features of his face, one by one matched with those of the Shantanu I had known, and after a moment or two I pulled myself out of the surprise; laughing, cursing and shaking hands with Shantanu amidst honking traffic.
“Get in the car.” He said, and I hopped in.
“Where have you been man? When did you come back? Why didn’t you come meet me at home?” I fired questions as Shantanu shifted gears.
“Yeah, I know, lots of questions and I’m gonna answer all of them. But first, let’s go to some nice place and get something to eat or drink.” He said, “If you are not busy, of course.”
“No, no, not at all.” I said and relaxed in my seat; looking at Shantanu, still in a bit of shock. “But, really, what happened to you man?”
“I know.” He smiled, turning the wheel.
I remembered the Shantanu from our college days. With curly hair, fit and tall structure, and a car of his own, every second girl of any nearby college had her heart secretly craving him and every other guy had his head secretly cursing him. His aggressive, careless nature and rich father were all that was required to enjoy college life heartily. And to tell you the truth, nobody enjoyed their college days as much as Shantanu did.
Everyone passed to the last year, of course except Shantanu. I, Lance and Kanhaiya had been constantly telling him to study but he would never listen, so it was obvious. Since he had a family business that would get him by even if he did nothing in life, nobody expected him to study actually. But it had never occurred in our wildest dreams that he will fly a million miles away, without giving us any idea about it or leaving a single contact behind.
And then he had appeared before me, suddenly out of nowhere, after almost 6 years!
“So, where are we going now?” He broke the silence.
“I don’t know, you are the driver, it’s your treat, you decide!” I said.
He laughed heartily, “You are still the same old guy, isn’t it? Still looking for every chance to get free treats from me!”
I too joined him in laughter, “Saale, your treats for last 6 years are pending with me. The earlier you start repaying, the better.”
He laughed a short laugh, then descending into silence and I immediately regretted having said that. But what was said was said now. Also, it was true.
He turned the car towards our engineering college. I knew exactly where he was planning to go. In a few minutes we were at Chaudhary’s hotel: where we had probably spent more time than at our college.
The hotel had changed as much as our lives. The plastic tables and chairs were replaced by the good-looking, sturdy, metallic ones. Chowdhary himself was replaced by his son, and the hotel, expanded into an adjacent shop now had a separate a/c compartment with bar.
During our college time, we would enter in a group of at least four, shouting and laughing. Old guy Choudhary would then smile like he had missed us all day, and often join us in our jokes and talks. But today, it was just me and Shantanu. We entered quietly and sat down at a table, looking at all the changes. While Shantanu looked at the renewed Hotel, I still had reasons to doubt if I was really sitting with Shantanu.
He had grown fairer, clearly an effect of spending days in air conditioned offices. His curly, long hair was gone and what remained was a short hair, receding rapidly. The attitude that he once wore had changed as drastically as his clothing style, and a round belly was beginning to try to break free from the clutches of a tight belt. But the most noticeable thing of all: he wore peace. He now wore maturity and stability, unlike in college days when he would be running constantly, from one thing to another as if searching for something, but never finding it.
Maybe that was why I was not angry at him even though he had left like that. Perhaps he had made the best choice of us all. I was happy for him.
Shantanu ordered Scotch for himself. I ordered a cold drink and a Gobi Manchurian.
The waiter went away and we sat in silence, again.
“So what have you been doing these days?” Shantanu ignited back our conversation.
“Nothing much. Just directing a TV serial.” I said.
“Wow! That’s great yaar! Nice to hear at least you three guys made it into the film industry.” He said in excitement.
“Not three of us,” I said calmly and his excitement faded away, “Only me.”
He fell silent, as if building up courage to ask, “What about Lance and Kanhaiya then?”
The waiter came and settled a peg and a soft drink before Shantanu.
“I heard Lance is in Bangalore and Kanhaiya is in Delhi.” I said.
“Don’t tell me they got themselves an engineering job like everybody else!” Shantanu exclaimed.
“Well, at least they have got a good job!”
“What do you mean?” Shantanu poured the drink for himself.
“The work here in industry is pointless, really. I’m sure they are doing better than me.”
Shantanu stared at his glass as he swiftly but very carefully poured the drink to the full, without spilling out a single drop. I stared at the bubbles fuzzing up in his drink.
“You are mistaken,” he said and raised the glass, “Cheers!”
I clinked it with my bottle of thumbs up, “cheers.”
He took a sip from his drink and set it down to continue, “You cannot imagine the jealousy I feel when I see someone like you, working in the field of their interest.”
“And you, my friend, cannot imagine the jealousy I feel when I see someone like you, riding in an Audi of their own!” I laughed, and he joined me.
“No, seriously, had I lived my life a bit differently in my college days, I would have been working with you probably.”
“I have no different story to tell. You think life is good on my side, but believe me – there are a lot of headaches, or rather tumours, here.” I said, gesturing wildly with my hands.
“Yeah, there are headaches on my side too,” he said and lifted his glass, “but it’s just that those on your side are totally worth it.”
I did not know how to counter that argument.
He put the glass to his mouth and gulped the drink, not stopping before the ringing of his phone disturbed him. I suddenly remembered I had forgotten mine home.
He rejected the call and set the phone down on the table.
I thought about how I would inform Megha that I would be coming home late. She would be so worried, especially because how I had left.
“Er… Are you married?” I asked hesitantly.
“I didn’t have time for my best friends, you think I’ll have time for marriage? Hah! What about you?”
“I’m married, my daughter will turn two years old soon.”
“It’s good to hear man, I’m happy for you.” He smiled, and put his drink to his lips.
I could not do anything but smile back.
He sighed, “Anyways, it feels so good to meet you. You know, it has almost been a year since I have had someone to talk to, about something other than business. It feels really nice to meet you again.”
As I smiled back at him, he met my eyes and then turned around to signal the waiter for another peg.
The waiter brought to the table another peg and Shantanu stared at it, wandering in an alley of thoughts. I looked around, trying to search for a topic that would keep the talk up for more than a few sentences and amidst all these thoughts, his next sentence shook me up.
“I’m sorry,” He said in a low voice.
“What? Why?” I was baffled.
“For leaving like that, without giving you guys any idea about it.”
I did not know what to say. Sure I was partly angry at him, but whatever he had done was for his own good! For a moment I considered asking him why he left like that, but I did not want to regret another question.
He continued, “The morning after the results came out, after we celebrated your success at final exams, I found my father at home. He had heard that I had failed, and was furious with me. I was sure that I would get a lecture from him, but he did not yell a word at me. Unlike any other day when I would be forced to change my schedule to have food with him, that day he waited for me to have our breakfast together. None of us spoke a word all through the breakfast and he left soon after.
“All my credit cards were blocked, and he would not take my calls. What he had left me behind though was a letter that I cared to open only after half a week. He was leaving me alone with our bungalow, a ticket to Canada, and a job appointment letter in our company there.
“Shocked, I landed in Canada with my passport and a bag of clothes. The days that followed were aimed at setting things right with him, convincing him like any other time and return back to India. But he would not meet me and I had no money to come back. So to win his faith, I started working at a small job he had chosen for me. I saw hardly glimpses of him from his busy schedule now. I knew that he would get convinced eventually and then let me go like every other time, but I almost never heard from him since then. And the next time I got to see him was only at his funeral.”
I was shocked and dumbstruck to hear the developments.
Shantanu continued speaking with tremendous guilt, “I had given him a heart attack. He probably knew it way before it happened. He had made all necessary arrangements. Even after all that I had done, he had handed his whole empire to me without any rules or restrictions. I had two options before me: be a spoiled brat and loose everything my father had earned for me, or leave my past behind and make myself into a son that any father would be proud to have.”
“I’m so sorry to hear it man. Actually I’m the one who should apologize. After you left, I thought you didn’t need us anymore. It seemed like you had found the happiness in money that we could never give you. I felt jealous and angry and that is why nobody ever tried to contact you.”
He sat in front of me, drunk and sad, refusing to look up. His glass, full of the drink that he had ordered, laid untouched on the table.
“Money can hire people for you, but not relationships.” He spoke, “and nothing teaches you that better than a divorce.”
“But you said you are not married?” I asked.
He smiled gloomily. “I was, before she left me. You know how it is with us businessmen, like how Lance had written in one of his scripts. They give all the money but none of their time.”
“That should not have happened.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Now, I have a flourishing business but no family to spend its profits on, no friends to go on a vacation with. All I have is a hope, that everything will be fine.”
Shantanu paid the bill and we stood up to go. “It’s all still like the old days you know,” Shantanu smiled with drunk eyes, struggling to walk straight, “I’m the drunk guy, and you’ll have to take the trouble to drop me home.”
“Yes! It is indeed!” I smiled.
We drove towards his old family mansion in silence; on roads and in car alike.
“Hey, Shantanu,” I said, staring into the road, “I’m sorry if I said anything wrong today.”
Shantanu didn’t reply. I looked at him, he was sleeping peacefully in his seat, like how Antara would in her cradle.
As I approached his home, an elderly servant opened the gate. Carrying Shantanu on our shoulders, me and the servant made way to Shantanu’s room. As he pulled out Shantanu’s boots, my eyes caught hold of a photo frame besides Shantanu’s table; featuring of four college boys.
“Sir, would you like to stay over tonight?”
“No, thank you. I have a wife waiting for me at home.” I smiled back.
“I’ll find you a rickshaw then.”
As I sat in the rikshaw, the man held my arm, “Come back soon, Sir. Shantanu Sir needs some company.”
As the rickshaw ran towards my home, I ran a hand through my hair. They were not as long as they were in my years of youth, but I was glad they were still there. The cold, late night breeze was making them dance and shine in the streetlights. Grateful for how the day had turned out to be, I got to thinking about it all.
Very often, life turns out to be totally different than what we plan it to be. The dreams remain locked behind the bars of reality. But that does not mean the life is pointless. The struggle of dreams for their materialization continues. Even behind those bars, the dreams do survive. No matter what happens, we hold on to the little bit of happiness remaining in our lives, and we live on. When we think we do not have happiness, we look at those with pains much greater than ours, and we find the courage to live on! Life is not always about winning. When things go wrong, life is about surviving; until we win. Everyone makes mistakes. But our mistakes don’t define us. What defines us is how we choose to deal with them.
Megha opened the door, sleepy faced, and turned around to go to the kitchen. I stood at the door, waiting for her to turn around and call me inside.
“Aren’t you coming in?” She asked as I expected.
“Aren’t you sleeping?” I asked her back, “I had the key.”
“Antara is keeping me up.” She answered like any other day, started setting up the food and turned the questions back on me, “Where were you?”
“I was busy meeting a co-founder for my new film production company.”