Kamal waltzed to the tune in his mind as Praveena entered the kitchen. He swayed this way making coffee and toast. He turned to get the jar of honey, when he noticed Praveena standing on the doorway, watching him dance, with a quiet smile on her face.
“You hungry?” he asked concerned, “It’ll take just a minute,” he added, wiping his hands on a towel.
“Pa,” Praveena began her heart heavy, “I want to tell you something.” Kamal eyed her curiously, hands on his hips. And then, all of a sudden, the toaster popped.
“Let’s talk about it over breakfast,” he said gathering the toast onto a plate while Praveena took the coffee pot. They sat at the dining table, facing each other. Praveena began again, “Pa,” she cleared her throat, and then told him everything—from Niveda’s addiction, and their efforts to get help, to her suicide. Her voice broke every now and then, but she managed to tell the tale without crying. Kamal mushed on his toast, listening without interrupting. He gave a lot of reactions, all at the appropriate times, but did nothing to distract Praveena. He let her speak. From her well–rehearsed narrative he realized she had gone over the details more than once.
Praveena finished and took a sip of her black, sugarless coffee. She waited to hear her father’s response. A few minutes of silence later he said, “eat.”
Praveena ate. He said nothing more until after breakfast. Even after they had finished, and the dishes were done, Kamal still hadn’t said a work. Praveena could bear it no longer, “Why aren’t you saying anything, Pa?” When he looked at her questioningly, she tried again, “about — ”
“I know what you meant, Praveena” he cut her off gently. “Now, go and sleep for a while.”
Praveena was stunned. She had just told her father her closest friend had committed suicide next to her bed, and here he stood, telling her to go and have a nap! She couldn’t believe her ears. Seeing the confusion on her face, Kamal said. “You know what? I think your mother’s ghost has possessed me.” Praveena raised her eyebrows. “Go and sleep, I can see you haven’t had that in a while.” He gestured her to go upstairs.
Praveena couldn’t conceal her surprise. She smiled at Kamal, even though she didn’t say a word, her smile was so full of love that Kamal understood how much she appreciated him. She went upstairs to her room and sat cross legged on her bed. She tried calling Ms Marrie, but the result was the same as always: Subscriber beyond network reach.
She looked around her room, all her things remained in the same place, except it was cleaner than she had ever kept it. She lay back, looking up at the ceiling fan, and as the memories engulfed her, she drifted away into a deep sleep.
Ten days later, Praveena returned to college, happy she had gotten what she wanted off the holiday, though it didn’t make her less miserable. With the start of college came back the assignments — harder than ever before — and the stares, the pointing, and the never ending whispering.
“They are the drug addict’s friends.”
“You think they do drugs as well?”
“Why didn’t the principal chase them from the college?”
Ten days had been enough for the matter to sink in; for them to speak with their parents and come back with emotions stronger than before.
“Oh, these drug addicts!” a girl whispered to herself as she walked away from Praveena and Anil. Praveena recognized the girl; she and her friends had gotten dead drunk, and been making a racket in the hostel the other day.
The comments followed them throughout college. From the class rooms to the bathrooms, every where people pointed them out. Every one spoke of them, even most of the teachers. Given their way, Anil and Praveena would’ve been expelled. They were irritated with the principal for not making the decision. All those teachers enjoyed fantasising, “if I had been the principal, blah blah blah…” Praveena ignored them, she knew — only too well — that they were barking dogs. Useless in action.
“Third year is the toughest year,” Anil complained to Praveena in a low voice. They were in class, trying to keep the conversation low and alive at the same time.
“That’s what we say every year,” Praveena whispered back, looking at the notes on the white board. For others’ eyes, it would have seemed like she was reading, but Anil knew better; Praveena was far from concentrating. And so was he.
They had got their results of the previous year’s final exams. Both Praveena and Anil had scraped a pass in all subjects with no arrears. They had heard and seen their seniors bragging about their arrears as if it were an achievement and then worrying about it during exams. Anil and Praveena had already promised themselves not to fall into that pit, and were glad they wouldn’t have to deal with it. Their celebration was punctured however, when their lecturer assigned them individual projects about psychological studies in various fields.
Praveena got Psychological Studies in Education’ and Anil got ‘Psychological Studies in Corporates’. They got busy.
Praveena realised her life moving on when one day, she looked around her room and saw there was only one cot in the centre of the room. There was no indication that there had been another person sharing the room. Praveena sighed and got into bed. She lay awake, looking at the ceiling fan. ‘life’s become too predictable,’ she mused as she turned over and fell asleep.
She knew what to expect when she awoke the next day: More assignments, submitting projects, distribution of marks, and more about studies on humans. Not just for the following day; that’s all she had to look forward to for another entire year.
Praveena wasn’t disappointed. The final year at college was full of busy assignments and revision exams. Teachers all pushed them hard, encouraging students to do the same. “A degree is a priceless asset.” They said. “Study hard now and you’ll be rewarded later.”
Impromptu pep talks popped up everywhere, even in the corridors, discouraging students to think about anything other than studies. Anil and Praveena studied. Everyday, they felt Niveda’s loss, but they also felt her presence. It was as if Niveda was there, with them — invisible — but sitting along with them while they prepared for the exams that — according to their teachers — ‘would change their lives.’