Monday, October 29, 2012

Kolkata Chronicles

I always refer to Kolkata as my 'new city'. I can speak Bengali and have come to Kolkata before, but every city has a flavor which rubs off on you only if you spend a lot of time there. Yo don't become a  Delhiite if your parents are from Delhi but you live in Goa. You don't become a Mumbaikar just because you're Marathi. A city is not merely a language, history or part of a family history. In fact its more than just a place. Its a culture which drips right down to the narrowest alleys, the most crowded buses, the poshest localities, the local hangout spot, the music, the dialect and the tastes and sensibilities of the people who live there. In my previouus visits to Kolkata, most of which were for a few days only, I didn't venture out much. So even though I can speak Kolkata's language, Kolkata never spoke to me.

But now I'm here. Yo would think my entire family was educated in Kolkata but that's not the case. My father graduated from BESU, Shibpur which is in West Bengal but not exactly in the heart of its capital. My mother spent most of her life in Guwahati (Assam) and graduated from Cotton College. My sister studied at Delhi University. I, the only person in my family to never have lived in Kolkata, am the first person to attend college in Kolkata.

Now that I'm here, I'm slowly discovering various facets of the city and that doesn't mean clicking pictures of Victoria Memorial or any of that tourist-y stuff. I'm witnessing, learning and imbibing things which  come to you only if you live in a city. At the end of last year (just before I turned eighteen in Janary 2012), I did the 'Growing Up' series which was about my experiences with maturation. This time around, I've decided to do the 'Kolkata Chronicles'. Its a series about my experiences here, both good and bad. Hopefully, you will enjoy the series just as much I'm sure I'll enjoy describing Kolkata to you. Keep checking this blog for the first part of 'Kolkata Chronicles'. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Unexplained Disappearances- First 15 pages


1

I am not even out of bed and I already know this is going to be the worst day of the year..

For one, its the first day of college. That means meeting new people. That meant being polite and smiling. I’ve never taken to those activities.

Second, its August 28th. Its been a year since my brother went missing.

Third, its my goddamned birthday.

I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, boggled by how one day can mean so much. I wish I could go back to sleep and let the day slide. I can’t. Eventually, my dad will come to my room and wake me up, and I don’t want that. Ever since my brother…. Well, he’s been a little paranoid for the past year and if he sees me sleeping past seven- that never happens- he’ll start with his usual questionnaire. Are you okay? Do you feel sick? Sould I get a thermometer? I appreciate his concern, but the whole routine is getting a bit repetitive now.

I let out a final sigh and jump out of bed. My feet land right in the middle of the books I left on the floor last night. I love reading and writing, but that can take a toll on the state of tidiness of my room. Everywhere I looked, there was some book or the other, or maybe a notebook with my story ideas scribbled on them. The wall is painted yellow and is bare except for a chart showing the periodic table and a flow chart on communication systems. I know what people think when they look at my room- NERD.

Its almost seven. My first class is at ten. The campus is several miles away from my house and if I want to make it in time, I must hurry. I quickly shower and dress. I emerge out of my room and see thhat thhe door to m parents’ room is ajar. I peep in. My mother is sleeping half-open mouthed. Earlier, she used to be the first one to wake up every morning. She’d pack m lunch and then head to the City College Library where shhe was head librarian. Things have changed now. These days, she doesn’t wake up before noon. She’s on antidepressants and tranquilizers and she misses my brother more than anybody.

I hear water running in the common bathroom. My dad. He must be taking a shower. He had promised to take me on the first day, but I know he’s going to take me everyday for at least a semester. I quickly head for the kitchhen but stop mid-way in the corridor.

My brother’s room.

So neat. So tidy. Drawers firmly shut. Closet looking new. Table-lamp switched off. It all looks so unlike what it used to look like when he was around. If there is one thing we shared, it was messiness. A sharp pain pierces through my gut as m gaze falls on a picture of him stuck on the wall just above hhis table. I marvel at his chiseled face, the unusual, classical appearance. We don’t look alike, but we are still related and I can feel his absence as I stand here.

Ignoring the pain, I march to the kitchen and fix myself a jam sandwich. This has been my breakfast for the last year. Sometimes its also my lunch and dinner. My mother doesn’t cook everyday anymore. On days when she’s feeling down, bread and jam become my staple diet. I swallow hard, fighting the monotony of the sweet, fruity taste.

“Ready?” my father says.

I turn, a piece of bread hanging out of my mouth. “Yeah. Let me just get my bag”.

My father eyes the clock hanging high above the kitchen counter. “We’re late already”.

But I have already picked up my bag and am almost out the door. I kind of fast. I do everything fast. My father joins me. He looks a bit like me, with big, dark eyes and a substantial nose. His wrinkles are prominent now. He’s aged since Kartik went missing. At the last moment, he checks his wallet and I put on my shoes. Then we head out together.

We don’t talk on out way to the station. We don’t even talk once we’re on the train. Mumbai trains are always crowded. Its early but the train is filled with humans struggling to maintain balance in the rhythmic sway of the train. Only the lucky get to sit. All conversations are dulled by the monotonous chugging of the engine.  The odor of sweat from every body mixes together and nullifies itself such that it seems part of the train. It hurts me to watch my frail father sandwiched between two large men, his hands gripping the handlebars overhead and his spectacles lopsided on his nose. I wish he’d let me go out alone. I wish he wouldn’t take all this trouble.


My college is a short walk from CST, the station we stop at. I deliberately walk slow so my father would keep up with me. I know the way, but I let him say, “This way” at every turn.

When we’re at the gate, my father begins. “Do you have everything?” my father asks.

“Books, notebooks, water bottle, lunch box, ID…” I rummage through my bag, making sure I had everything I could possibly need.

“Cell phone?” my father says with a maniacal urgency.

“I have that in here”, I say, running my hand over my jeans pocket.

“Do you have an umbrella?”

“Why do I need that for?”

“Look at how sunny it is! You’ll need an umbrella to walk around campus”.

I’m not going to parade around campus with an umbrella in my hand, I think. But all I say is, “I’ll remember to bring one tomorrow”.

That appears to satisfy him. He wishes me good luck and gives me a hug I couldn’t bring myself to return. All gestures of affection have ceased from my side since about a year ago. After Kartik’s disappearance, my family has gone down so steep a downward spiral that I now feel rather distant from it. Its just that my parents seem like leftover versions of themselves now, and I can barely recognize them.

I turn, but my father keeps a hand on my shoulder. “Listen”.

“Huh?” I notice his face has changed. He’s biting his lip and looking down. He opens his mouth to say something. “Hap-”

My chest tightens. Here it comes. The obligatory ‘Happy Birthday’. I almost want to snort and say, “Like that’s what this day marks”. But I keep my mouth shut and brace myself, ready to take the pain of being wished on the date my brother went missing.

He doesn’t go through with it. His face relaxes and he says, “Nothing. Never mind. You be on your way now”.

I nod. The day would always be the anniversary of Kartik’s disappearance. It would never be my birthday again.

As I walk away from the gates, I keep stealing backward glances at my dad. He doen’t move an inch until I was safely inside the building. Who’s looking out for whom? I think but quickly shove the thought away.

I pick up a map from the office before I head off for class. Still, the hallways confuse me. My first class is for electronics, but I can’t find the room.

“Are you lost?” somebody asks.

I look up from the map in my hand. Standing before me is a boy I find myself instantly attracted to in a rather silly, teenaged-girl way. He isn’t particularly beautiful. Its just that he is rather….striking. His shaggy dark hair partly cover his forehead and brush his right eye. His eyebrows are thick and well-defined. He was so tall that I, who stood a good 5’6”, only came up to his broad shoulder.

“I’m not lost”, I answered defensively. “I just…I just…” I gave up. “I just can’t find my class”.

“What class do you have up first?”

“Electronics”, I replied. “It’s supposed to be right here on the third floor.”

“I’ll take you there”, he offered.

“No, it’s okay. I wouldn’t want you to go out of your way.” I am being polite, but I have developed a tendency to be overly suspicious of people. Whenever somebody acts overly helpful, I try my best to evade that person. What if somebody kidnaps me or something, like that witch from Hansel and Gretel who lures kids with a house of candy and then eats them up.

“Hey, look. I’m just trying to be helpful”, he says, putting up his arms in mock surrender.

That almost makes me smile. I have to admit, getting attention from him is kind of flattering. “Umm, okay”.

He seems to have a fairly good idea of where all the rooms were. I follow him, but still kept stealing occasional glances at my map. The tall pillars and high ceilings in the corridors remind me I am not in high school anymore. This is a bigger world. The classes will be different, the people will be new. I silently congratulate myself for getting into MNIT, which is the best engineering college in my state.

He leads me to my class and then says, “It’s my first class too”.

“What’s your course?”

“B.Tech in Electronics and Communication”.

That basically means I can look forward to four years of sharing most of my classes with him.

“I have my friends sitting right over there”, he says, pointing at the back of the class where some kids are already seated. “We’re all from the same school. It’s okay if you want to join us”.

The class is like a movie theatre, with every row of benches placed higher than the one before. Even in the last row, I’ll be able to hear the lecture. But I am more of a front-bencher by nature. “No thank you. I’ll take the front row”.

“Sure?”

I nod.

“Can I atleast know your name?”

“Aria. Aria Suri”.

“I’m Riyan”. He hold out his hand and I shake it. His grip is comfortingly firm. He rubs his chin and then says, “You know, you look kind of familiar. Have we met before?”

What a cliché, I think. I have a feeling that this boy has taken a sudden, inexplicable interest in me and the cautious part of me warns me to stay away from him. “No, I’m hundred per cent sure we’ve never met before”.

“Hmmm. Well, I guess I’ll see you after class”.

I give him a non-committal shrug and head off to find myself a seat. Students pile in and Riyan effortlessly blend in with his group. For the next ten minutes, I use my peripheral vision to take quick looks at his group. 

It was the group that appeared most engaged in conversation. The cool group, I thought. Thhe one I’ll never fit in.

The teacher enters. It is a man in his thirties. I can never call him handsome. He is tall, lanky and dressed in a white shirt and black trousers. Is hhair looks as if its plastered to hhis hair. Had his moustache been just a bit more square, it would have looked like Hitler’s.

“Oh my God, he’s so tacky”, I hear a girl say in a nasal voice, sneering at thhe teachher.

I don’t care what the teacher looks like. As long as he can teach.

He starts with basic concepts of doping, transistors and other things I already knw about. I still take notes, secretly wondering when we’d begin with the real stuff. He isn’t a bad teacher, I had to admit.

When my class ends, I realize I need to go to the bathroom. Without being noticed, I slide past my classmates and out the door.

Absently, I start walking toward the corner that has a door with ‘LADIES’ marked on it. There are light murmurs in the corridors coming from the classrooms, but still, there is one sound that stands out.

I sense light footsteps behind me, their rhythm matching mine. My intuition tells me someone is walking right behind me, not trying to overtake me. My leisurely pace doesn’t make him or her impatient. It is as if….I am being followed.

I turn around without thinking. But there is nobody there. I curse myself for letting my imagination fly. I quicken my pace and as soon as I put my hand on the doorknob, I hear someone behind me. This time I am sure. And I get scared. My mind doesn’t let me react; it just causes me to freeze.

The next thing I know is my head has been shoved into the door, hitting it with a loud bang which sends a shock down my spine. I reflexively shut my eyes. A strong set of hands pull my hair and then push me forward. I catch a glimpse of something sparkly, maybe a watchh something hanging off my attacker’s wrist. I land on the floor, my right arm breaking my fall. The pain makes me scream and struggle on the floor. 

I get disoriented; I can’t raise myself back up. I just lie there, shocked, hurt, frightened.

Someone pushed me. Someone, who can’t possibly know me, tried to hurt me.


2

“I told you. I was going to the bathroom and I fell”, I say for the millionth time.

“Did anybody push you?” my mother asks. She’s been asking the same question in different words for the past thirty minutes.

“No. Why would…”

“Did you feel someone behind you?”

I feel like this is the Spanish Inquisition, sans the intense physical torture.

My father just scrutinizes. His face is frozen in an expression of negative thought. His heavy eyebrows are so close together, they form a thick line. His glasses hide the look in his eyes.

The right part of my forehead is badly bruised and my arm has required a lot of pain cream. I reach for the tube beside my bed and squeeze out some more cream.

“Are you sure?” my mother, wagging her thin finger in front of my face.

“Yes!”

“Okay”, she says, backing off but not fully convinced. She is quiet for a few seconds, as if giving me one last chance to tell the truth. People say I look like her when I am in a bad mood. I note her passive frown, a thin line of her mouth that makes it impossible to tell what she is thinking. “Drink some water and go to bed. Don’t go tomorrow”.

“Don’t go? I can’t stop going to college because I fell”.

“If your hand troubles you, you’ll have nobody to help. Stay home. Take some rest and go again on Monday”, she says firmly. I don’t have the will or energy to fight. She switches off the light. Together, they leave the room and half shut the door behind them. I stay sitting up. Lying down hurts my arm too much. The doctor has said the pain would go by tomorrow. It seems doubtful.

I wish I were living in a hostel where paranoid parents can’t dictate when and where you could or couldn’t go.

“And Aria?” my mother says, suddenly appearing at the doorframe.

“What?” My annoyance is poorly disguised.

“Don’t stay up too late and don’t try to get up too early tomorrow morning. Did you set the alarm on your phone?”

“No”. I quickly tucked my phone under my pillow. She didn’t notice in the dark.

“Call me if you need anything”, she says and leaves again, this time closing the door completely. It becomes pitch dark. My eyes takes a minute to adjust.

The biggest thing is that I was being dishonest with myself. My mother is right. Someone has pushed me. I am damn sure of that. But I can’t tell anyone as it would drive my parents crazy. My mother used to be the kind of woman who didn’t fuss when one of her children fell down or got hit by a cricket ball. But it is a different story now. For a year, she has been one of the most paranoid women I knew. She has taken me to school every day and brought me home. She watches from upstairs when I go for a walk around the building. It came as a huge surprise when she didn’t insist on coming with me on my first day of college. She probably just thinks I’ll disappear too. One day, I just won’t show up, just leave and never come back. Then she’ll have two rooms to preserve like shrines.

But its not just that. I have a very bad feeling about the incident. Perhaps something like ‘feminine’ intuition really does exist and its telling me that someone tried attack me. On serious purpose. Someone wants to hurt me.

Or maybe I am just playing with these ideas. Maybe, like my mother, I fear for myself too. I don’t want anything bad to happen to me. Its true that my brother’s disappearance has made me extra cautious. I believe if I am harmed, this family, everything it stands for, our names, everything will just crumble and become insignificant.

My elbow throbs as I lower myself to my pillow. I hope nothing like this will happen again. With that hope, I finally force myself to sleep.
*
College is better than home.

After mostly sleeping and nursing my arm over the weekend, I decide to go to college on Monday. Out of the two hells I spend most of my time in, college is the more bearable one because nobody knows me here. Nobody’s overly worried about me to the extent of it being paranoia. Nobody treats me as a special case.

Nobody except Riyan.

I decide to have my lunch under a tree in the canteen just to have some peace. I open a book called ‘Shiver’ and begin reading.  I like the cool shade of the branches above and the quietude, but Riyan finds me there and takes a seat on the grass. “Hi, again”.

“Hi”. My response is unenthusiastic to say the least.

“So…” he says when I didn’t make an effort to start a conversation. “Where do you live?”

“Vashi”, I answered. “It’s about an hour away by train.” I think his question is cliched, but its harmless and easy to answer.

“Really? Must be tiring to commute everyday”.

“It  is, but I’ll get used to it”.

What follows was fifteen minutes of small talk. I can feel the other girls around the canteen eyeing me. Having lunch with the pretty boy is the perfect recipe to start rumors.

Riyan bends forward and picks up my book. “So you like to read?”

“A lot”, I say, taking the book back and placing it on my lap. I open it to the page I was at, eager to return to the story.

“Favorite book?”

“Hard to pick, actually. I have a favorite story, though”. I feel myself opening up to him and instinctively hold my tongue.

“Which one?”

I sigh. There’s no escaping this conversation. “Hansel and Gretel.”

His eyebrows rise in confusion. “Why?” he says, as if its impossible for anyone to love Hansel and Gretel.

“My brother used to tell me that story. I don’t know. Its just something about the girl saving the boy from the evil witch and the two of them destroying the witch together. Its jjust better than all the prince-meets-princess, they-fall-in-love nonsense”.

“Your brother”, he repeats. My throat dries up. Of all the words I just spoke, he picked this one out- brother. “Older, right?”

I look down and nod.

He doesn’t say anything for a minute or two, but I can feel his eyes on me. His gaze is not admiring, its searching for something. Finally he says, “You know, I still think I’ve seen you before.”

I have had enough. I’ve never met anybody called Riyan in my life. So how could he ever have seen me before. I rise to my feet and say, “I have to get back top class.” My book falls down from my lap and I mutter a curse under my breath.

“Class isn’t till fifteen minutes from now?” he points out. He picks up my book and hands it to me. His forehead is creased and he’s eyeing me in confusion.

“Yeah, but I have to go to the library and…” I am already walking away from him and he doesn’t say anything when I turn on my heels and scuttle towards the building.
*

A week and a half  has passed with Riyan grabbing every chance to talk to me. Whenever his friends try to call him over to their table during lunch, he says he is busy. He’s been walking me to class, has started sitting away from his friends and closer to me, asks me questions on the simplest of concepts and even takes my notes. Its as if we have developed a one-sided friendship of some sort. I, being generally a nice person, never ignore him.

Today, he takes a place right next to me. I turn to him and say, “Won’t your friends miss you?”

“No, it’s okay”, he says with a smile.

“Look”, I say in the nicest tone possible. “I’m sure you’re a nice person, but if you keep giving me this…attention, people will talk.”

“What are they going to talk about?” he asks innocently.

I sigh. “I just think that-” I want to tell him I wasn’t a very social person. That I have lost my ability to make friends since my brother went missing. That I am so used to being quiet and reserved now, it feels odd to indulge in simple, youthful friendships. But before I can say anything, he cuts me off and says, “I figured out why you looked so familiar to me”.

He rummages through his backpack and took out a small pile of equal sized sheets. They’re slightly yellow and neatly stacked in a folder. He takes out a sheet and places it on my table with the blank side facing upwards. The moment he turns over the first page, my hand reflexively flies to snatch it off the table. The words on the page are words I have memorized, but they still unsettle me.

MEDICAL STUDENT GOES MISSING, POLICE LAUCHES STATEWIDE SEARCH
by special NM City correspondent
14th April, 20xx

On Monday, Kartik Suri, a twenty-three-year old medical student at KCM Hospital was reported missing by his family. In what can be called one of the most puzzling disappearance in the past year, Kartik left for his daily classes at 7:00 a.m. Witnesses have confirmed that he was seen boarding his usual train from Vashi station at 7:30 a.m. However, CCTV camera footage suggests he never got off at his designated stop. The police have ruled out the possibility of a mishap as cameras are installed at regular intervals of his route and none of them show any footage of an accident.

When Kartik didn’t return home on Monday evening like he was expected to, his father Raghav Suri first called all of Kartik’s friends and acquaintances, and when that yielded no positive results, he didn’t wait before launching a report with the Missing Persons Bureau of the Mumbai Police Department.

“You don’t just get on a train and not get off of it”, said Raghav Suri. He refused any comment on the ‘accident’ theory and just said, “I’m completely certain my son is alive. I can feel it”. Kartik’s mother, Naina Suri, was unavailable for comment as she was hospitalized late Monday night following a bout of vomiting, disorientation and fainting. Doctors say her condition was caused by the news of her son not returning home.

Kartik’s family also includes his sixteen-year-old sister, Aria Suri. At present, Aria is with taking care of her mother. She says the hospital staff has been very helpful and she hopes to see her brother soon.
Evreyday, hundreds of people go missing in the city of Mumbai. A large percentage of them are reported as being patients of psychiatric conditions and drug addictions. Family abductions are also common. There are some who run away to escape domestic violence, assault and so on. In case of kidnappings, a ransom call is expected within forty-eight hours. The police are finding it difficult to classify Kartik’s case in any of the abovementioned categories which makes this case so complicated.

As I continue to look down, doing my best to control the tears that are welling up in my eyes, I feel a sharp bite in my stomach. A promising surgeon goes missing and all he gets this is all he gets- one article in a weekly publication that made most of its money by reporting disturbing serial killings and gross molestations and Bollywood gossip, a grainy picture on a poster pasted at stations and bus stops, periodic flashings of the same grainy photo on Doordarshan channel which nobody really watched anymore. That’s it.

“That’s you, isn’t it?” says Riyan, tapping at a file photo of our family that had appeared along with the article.

“So you just saw my face in the papers and remembered my face for a year?” I suspiciously question. I slide a few inches across the bench, distancing myself from him.

“It’s not that simple”, he says, mistaking the cutting edge in my voice for interest. “My own dad went missing seven years ago. Look at the next paper in the profile”.

I pick up the page and read the headline- ‘BUSINESSMAN MYSTERIOUSLY DISAPPEARS’. I quickly go over the article. Apparently, Riyan’s father, Ibrahim Majumdar, who was part owner of a small but fairly successful company called RK Tyres, had boarded on a plane from London and never gotten off. The eerie similarity to Kartik’s disappearance is hard to miss.

“If only my dad knew how hard my mother works to get by without him, he’d come back”, says Riyan with childish certainty. His voice is level, almost too level. “He was an excellent father. He’d never leave us, regardless of what my relatives keep saying”.

I have some questions in my mind, but I can’t quite put them to words. Riyan has pulled out a drawer full of repressed emotions, and now I feel incapable of getting through a day of classes. I look up. Is the fan really whirring that fast or is it just my head spinning? Bile rise up in my throat. Without saying anything to Riyan, I cover my mouth with my hand, hastily pick up my things and run out of class and into the bathroom. Once I am done vomiting in the sink, I sink to the floor, as depressed as I had been on 29th April last year.
I had looked forward to moving on to a new phase of life where Kartik’s absence wouldn’t constantly haunt me, but Riyan has destroyed all my hopes.


3
Somewhere in the early hours of dawn, I have the same dream again.

I am in a forest. Its dark,but I can’t be sure because of the thick canopy of trees overhead. Veins hug the barks and the plants on the ground rise up to my calves. The night is still There is a ghostly silence occasionally punctuated by the hoot of an owl or the gurgle of a distant spring.

Initially, I am alone. I feel as if I’m gliding, not walking at all, but still there is the rustle of my footsteps on the dead fallen leaves scattered on the muddy ground. I revel in the solitude. But then I see my parents. They’re circling the tallest tree in the vicinity, one which has a bark as thick as a small house. They are searching for something, yelling, their faces were worried. I stop, unable to walk forward. Then, some inexplicable force draws me backwards. The more I try to fight it, the more I kept walking backwards. But my parents don’t look at me. They just keep going in round circles, shouting….someones’s name, maybe?

Finally, I bring myself to a stop with a jerk.

“Kartik!” That’s my mother’s voice. They’re looking for him, I think. They can’t find him.

I look down, there is a something small and brownish resting lightly on  a broad leaf. A bread crumb.

The crumb means something because I turn on my heels. And there he is. Kartik. He looks just like he did when he went missing- more handsome than I an beautiful, fair-skinned with smooth hair and rimless glasses. Before I can utter a word, he puts his hand on my mouth in a way that frightened me. His hold is tight and I can’t move my face. He then puts his finger on his lips and smiles maliciously. When he let go of me, I turn around to find my parents. They were still circling the tree, looking for Kartik.

“He’s here!” I say to them, but they can’t hear me. And when I face Kartik again, he has vanished.

My eyes fly open.

Its still early. The sky outside my window is a lovely grayish blue. I take three mouthfuls of light, cool air and jump off the bed, ready to start the day. But the moment my feet touch the floor, my mind gets cluttered by the same thoughts that have bothered me throughout yesterday.

It takes about thirty minutes of pacing to get my thoughts straight.

I think about how Riyan talked about his father. They must have had a really strong relationship. I certainly detected a hint of unshakable faith in his voice when he said that his father would never leave him. In short, he still loves his father.
With me and Kartik, its a bit different.

I played a lot with Kartik as a child. He even used to be been rather proud of me because I was an exceptionally cute kid with chubby cheeks and three ponytails rising like fountains from my head. He taught me the alphabet, got me books to read and even dropped me to my nursery class in the school we both went to. But once I turned ten, we pretty much went our separate ways. He had a select group of friends he spent a good deal of time with. He became some kind of super-intelligent freak and the whole family was sure that he was on his way to becoming the country’s greatest surgeon. He got himself into a rather prestigious medical college. My parents went from being his parents to his fans. At some point, we just lost each other, and I became sort of the back-up kid.

And then I started discovering how he wasn’t as perfect as he seemed…

I shake the dark thought out of my head. The truth is that no matter what my personal opinion of Kartik is, I still love him because, well, hes my brother. We have a shared childhood, the same blood. He is a big part of my life. Nothing will ever change that.

Besides, I can see what his absence did to my parents. They  are broken, and it hurts me to watch them desperately seek closure every single day.

Ughh… I hate Riyan. I hate him for making me think these thoughts. I hate him for paying special attention to me only because his dad had gone missing like my brother. I stare at my bathroom’s mirror and wondered if I had actually let myself believe for a second that Riyan was taking genuine interest in me. I shrug away the thought. I am an average-looking girl. My hair is thick and wavy, but my braid hardly ever lets that show. My eyes are big and framed by long eyelashes, but the dark circles I have earned by staying up late studying in the last six months of school are hard for anybody to miss. My height, weight, skin color- its all pretty average. Nothing to make a good-looking guy help me on my first day of college.

I splash water on my face and take time to get ready for college. I remember to pack an umbrella and a pair of sunglasses, even though I am pretty sure I won’t need them. At seven, my dad knocks on my door and the two of us set out to repeat our morning routine on the train.

Today will be the day I’ll finally tell Riyan to stay away from me. God! Will I have to do it inside the class? 
That would be horrible.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to go that far.

He meets up with me in the hallway right before my our chemistry class. He looks worried. The minute he is within earshot, he says, “Are you okay? You looked kind of sick when you ran off yesterday”.

“Yes, I’m fine. Can I just talk to you for a second?”

He shrugs. I lightly hold him by his arm and take him to the edge of the hallway. “Look”, I start. “I’m certain you and your family have had to deal with a tough seven years. I understand because my life hasn’t been so great either. But if you think that our pain is going to be some binding force for the two of us, I’m sorry.” I realize how harsh I sound, let out a deep breath and continue in the softest tone imaginable. “I’m doing my best to be the best kid my parents could have, and a big part of that involves doing my best to just not think of my brother all the time. So please, I can’t have you taking interest in me just because your dad and my brother have something in common”.

A look of genuine hurt registers on his face, but he quickly hides it with a stony mask. He doesn’t say anything before disappearing into the classroom. I stay still for a while, telling myself that what I have done was unfortunately very necessary. I am already dealing with so much; dealing with a boy’s hurt feelings on my conscience will be no big deal.
*
Its been a week since I last talked to Riyan.

I am walking down the stairs, going to the computer room. I am running a bit late. As I turn to walk down the next flight of stairs, I see someone in a green T-shirt writhing on the landing. On careful inspection, I discover its Riyan. He’s on the floor, struggling to get up. His hand clutches his left side and he’s trying to get hold of the railing. Its weird to see someone who looks strong and tall in such a sorry state.

“What happened?” I ask before I can stop myself.

He looks up. When he sees me, he relaxes a little, as if I am a safe person to deal with. “Somebody pushed me. Somebody held me by my neck, pushed me against the wall hit me really hard and then rammed my heads into the railings.”

“Someone did that to you? What are you, like, 6’3” or something?”

He nods in comprehension. “I know. That’s why I don’t have any broken bones and my nose is still intact”.

“Who did this?”

“I didn’t see.” With a lot of effort, he stands up. He still has his hand on his ribs. He is out of breath. He looked right at me, “And that’s how you hurt yourself, didn’t you? Somebody attacked you”.

I freeze. I had forgotten about that day. I had written it off as an unexplained incident which was probably being magnified by my imagination. I hadn’t really seen the attacker, there was no reason to conclude that there was one.

“You….” I have no answer to his question. But the fact was that he knows something that I didn’t know, something he probably needs me to know, something I ought to know.

But now is not the time. I have way too many questions in my mind to seek answers right away. Without saying anything, I walk away, secretly hoping the last three weeks had just been a bad dream.