Chapter Forty One: Freedom

Graduation day. It would be the first and last of its kind in her life, Praveena waking up early on Saturday morning. She lay on the cozy bed stretching. Her phone rang, and she let out a wide yawn before answering it.

“Hey,” Anil’s voice rang out enthusiastically. Praveena looked at the huge wall clock that hung above the full-size mirror. It was five minutes past seven o’clock.

“Hi,” she yawning again. “It’s only seven!” she complained.

“Get up, you lazy bones!” he laughed. “It’s the official independence day!” he said gleefully.

“So?” Praveena asked mockingly. She sat up cracking her knuckles balancing her phone between her shoulder and ear.

“Please get ready soon,” Anil pleaded. “I’m bored” he added.

She sighed. “Alright,” she glumly got off the inviting bed. “Give me fifteen minutes, I’ll meet you outside.” She yawned.

“Ok,” Anil replied happily and disconnected the call.

Praveena stood in the centre of the room, as she had done countless times before, and suddenly felt an impulse to call out to Niveda. She thought of those instances when she had called out to wake a sleeping Niveda. She looked at the empty bed next to her, and pictured the image embossed in her mind; Niveda’s lifeless body lying face down.

She sighed. The temptation to weep was overwhelming. Instead, she turned towards the bathroom, she had to learn to put those things in the past.

This time, Anil was determined to take Praveena to a restaurant she had never been to. They walked to a small hotel about five minutes away.

It was a small shack with a thatched roof and filled with the appetizing smell of hot chic peas gravy.

“Hmm,” Praveena sniffed the scent like a child sniffing her mother’s special recipe. “It smells good.” She appreciated.

Anil beamed and they ate heartily.

By mid morning, they were back at the college, walking around the large grounds. Praveena hardly said anything and even though Anil tried multiple times to initiate a conversation, he couldn’t. The most she replied to any of his false starters was with a single “Yeah.”

Disheartened after a few minutes, he stopped speaking and began to savour the rustling of the leaves that broke the silence between them.

Praveena’s thoughts had drifted to her father. He had called her in the morning to say he would arrive in Bangalore late in the afternoon, a couple of hours before the convocation ceremony. He had spoken to her normally — just as he used to, before he put his foot down at Praveena’s plan. He had sounded neither apologetic nor annoyed, but Praveena could sense a certain disconnectedness she couldn’t decipher. She hadn’t told Anil about her father’s reaction yet, but planned to tell him that night after the graduation ceremony.

Praveena sat in the second row with her father, Anil, and his mother. It was the first time Praveena had met the old, lean, and bespectacled Anil’s mother. She had worn a printed light blue sari and looked stiff as if she had just retired from the military and hadn’t adopted civilian life yet. She had shook Praveena’s hand curtly with a severe expression on her face. From where she had stood introducing herself to his mother, Praveena saw Anil and her father, a short distance away exchanging a similar interaction.

She smiled to herself as she thought of Anil’s horrified expression. As the principal got on to the stage, Praveena adopted a more solemn expression. She didn’t want him thinking that she had made a laughing matter of this graduation. ‘He wouldn’t be wrong though.’ Praveena shut her inner voice down.

The principal, wearing a yellow robe too large for him, began his address. Every time he lifted his hands in a welcoming gesture, his robe would dangle off his arms making it tough for Praveena to stifle her laughter. She stole a look at Anil who had a laughing battle on his own. She quickly turned back to face the stage.

The principal spoke of leadership and the importance of higher studies. He went a step further to mention of the role of marriage in everyone’s life. He said he was glad to hear a lot of the students had gotten engaged. “Marriage,” he said loftily “teaches you values of life that even college doesn’t.” Praveena’s mind had already drifted. She saw the principal’s face contorted in concentration as he made a brave attempt to deliver his memorized speech without a hitch.

Kamal listened intently, and next to him, Praveena could see Anil with his face resting on his hand. She smiled to herself as she thought back to their boring days in college, when he had slept in class in the same position without anyone noticing. She was surprised that even after such a long time, he managed to pull it off without being detected — not even by his military-grade mother.

The principal spoke for about another twenty minutes. Praveena watched him speak without listening. When all of a sudden, everyone around her applauded, she sleepily realized the principal had succeeded — he had narrated without forgetting his speech.

Her father turned to face her admiringly, “That was a wonderful speech!” Praveena smiled but said nothing. In her three years of college life, she had heard countless speeches like that one. She had been inspired too the first time, but as it continued, she noticed he was more interested in saying something rather than what he said.

A lecturer had grabbed the microphone now. He congratulated the students for making it ‘this far’ in life and wished them all the best for the future. Once that was done, he called the names of the graduating students in alphabetical order. One by one, Praveena saw as her batch mates went over to the principal – who wore a fixed smile – and collected their certifications. She glared in disbelief as they all smiled and posed for cameras flashing from all sides.

Anil went before her and she saw him step up to the principal awkwardly. He grew nervous at gatherings, she knew. She glanced at Anil’s mother when he collected his certification, and was surprised to see her wiping tears away, fumbling frantically with the camera aimed at her son.

When her turn came, Praveena felt a sudden rush of sadness. She had always imagined her graduation with Anil and Niveda standing beside her. She collected her certificate with a sinking heart. ‘Niveda should have been here.’ Her inner voice said in a low voice. For some odd reason, Praveena’s heart felt lighter as she imagined Niveda’s warm hand pressing over hers, comforting her. Everything would come to pass.


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