Letter to a Friend

You had no business just dying on us

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Dearest Jui,

I realize, of course, that now that you are free to know and see so many things, you will probably not be checking your Facebook page (and is there a computer in the afterlife?), but my concept of death is that once you cross that point, you just KNOW things. But I’m still gonna go ahead and say some stuff that’s all bottled up inside because I really need to let it out.

First off, you shocked everyone. My first reaction was that that you had no business just dying on us like that because it was too soon. Because you had so much left to do: turn 20 and then 21 and … well you get the point, get that boyfriend, recruit more people to AISEC, get your degree … Because you had your whole life ahead of you. Because I just assumed you would get better and be here to giggle on forever. Because. Just because.
But I knew before I got the final call.

I still can’t believe I didn’t meet you during your ordeal. I don’t even know how to feel about it: whether I should feel bad that I couldn’t be there to show you my love and support, or relieved that I only have happy memories of you and didn’t see you suffer.
But I know you did. And I’m glad you’re no longer in pain. I just wish there was a way for that to be true and for you to be with us.

But I’m not going to bind you here. You have a lot to do now as well … like always.

You know that it is human nature to move on. Time is a good healer. Some things do leave scars though. And perhaps a few years down the line, we will get used to this. But you must know that we will still always love you.

I still remember one of your birthday parties when we were in primary school and how we were all fighting for a seat on that swing you had then in your balcony. And how you were giggling ALL the time. Seriously! ALL. THE. TIME. And how we would share a joke and giggle (see!) and only you would get caught for your explosive laughter. And how we would count the seconds of tuition torture left until freedom. And ‘Fuzzy Duck!’ And … the memories just keep coming. And only happy ones.

Know always that we will miss you more than it is possible to convey through words. Who will share the only vegetarian dish with me at the table now? And fight with Anupama like you’re an old married couple? And constantly tell Miti to chill? And call up Kruttika and insist on everyone meeting? And cheer Pooja on with undying enthusiasm? And click one million photos? And … so many things, Jui, so many things. Our group hug will never be complete without you. (That’s why I’m sure you’ll be with us in spirit at least, whenever we meet.)

I only hope you are happy and at peace now. And that you’ve met your dad.

Love you always.
Until we meet again (because we WILL. You WILL have to be reborn someday, you know. And when one of us has an uncontrollably giggly kid, we’ll know it’s you.),

Take care
And keep smiling as always.

Lament of the Indian Resident Doctor

While the media paints a sorry picture of the innocent patient denied elective services during a resident strike, the voice of the protesting medical resident goes unheard.

Most of us went through a “When I go grow up, I’m going to be a doctor” phase during childhood. Mine began at age 7, and I never outgrew it. It seemed so magical, how my doctor could listen to things that were going wrong, piece together important bits of information to explain why it was happening, and better yet, offer a solution to make everything better. I was amazed that those hands that felt my pulse had once touched every part of a human body, memorizing the locations of all the different organs that make us function on a minute-to-minute basis. Those eyes that looked at the back of my throat had spent hours upon hours reading gigantic texts with miniscule fonts, learning to recognize disease from incidental anomalies. Those ears that listened to my heartbeat had trained themselves to distinguish not just normal from abnormal, but also between a hundred different types of abnormal sounds, while listening through layers of my skin, flesh and bones.

So, it was with great pride that I bought my first stethoscope upon being accepted into one of the foremost medical schools in the country. I was going to learn to do all of that, and so much more. At the end of five-and-a-half years, I would to be armed with the knowledge and skills to diagnose and manage an array of medical problems ailing the people around me. I had worked harder than I could have imagined possible to get into this competitive field, and I was going to endure, with the ultimate aim to earn not just a decent living, but also immense professional satisfaction from service of the sick. My life was made!

It wasn’t long before the Indian medical education and healthcare system began tearing these illusions to shreds. Medical students were a burden to teach, and, for the most part, were expected to fend for themselves. Interns were lowly beings at the bottom of the hospital food chain, whose purpose, far from honing their professional skills, was to perform scut work and assist in transportation of patients, biological samples and lab reports inter-departmentally across the 44-acre hospital campus. It’s not like they were going to be awarded a general practitioner’s license after this year of supposed multidisciplinary professional training. The few interns who managed to take (and ace) another series of even more competitive entrance examinations graduated to the position of residents, who were simply manpower to get through the sheer volume of patients that entered and exited the doors of our hospitals every day. And after 3 more years of underpaid sleep deprivation, they were suddenly licensed to independently practise medicine in a specialized field, unless they chose to take upon the next daunting task of sub-specialization.

Disillusioned, we began branching out. Some, like me, chose to undertake the pursuit of graduate medical education internationally. Others turned towards entirely different careers altogether: business, administration or the arts. Many, however, persevered through all these discouragements for the long haul. Today, it is these very determined souls who are suffering at the hands of the general population and fighting for their rights without any support from the government or judiciary whatsoever.

In the short span of a few weeks, multiple resident doctors have been physically assaulted for a variety of reasons ranging from unavailability of a subspecialist overnight to poor patient outcomes. Resident doctors working unending hours caring for scores of patients have been deemed heartless, lazy or negligent, and beaten, threatened with rape or murder, and in one case, even blinded for trying to prioritize cases and manage several sick patients at once in pitiful working conditions. When they decided to stand up for themselves and demand a safer work environment, the government responded with false assurances of security, the judiciary with threats of termination and the general population with accusations on the collective character of the entire profession. While the media paints a sorry picture of the innocent patient denied elective services during a resident strike, the voice of the protesting medical resident goes unheard. Although I am not at Ground Zero in this situation, I feel obliged to summarize the rationale behind the remonstrations of my colleagues back home, in response to the highly-publicized opinion depicting the modern Indian physician as a corrupt, greedy, lazy youngster with neither the knowledge nor the skills to assume responsibility of the care of another human life.

  1. The ideal doctor exists to serve: no. Most of us do have altruistic beliefs and do really hope to serve the community with our hard-earned expertise, but just like an engineer’s prime interest lies in creating innovative designs, our first love is biological science. It is our privilege to contribute to society in such a direct manner with our proficiency, but if all we wanted to do in life was serve, we would have chosen social work. We do, however, love to serve within our capacities. Are you aware that several young residents currently on strike have organized a blood donation camp amongst themselves to help stock up on this precious commodity for patients in need?
  2. The modern doctor is incompetent: preparing for medical entrance examinations in India required us to study 11 different textbooks of plant and animal Biology, in addition to 2 each of mechanical and electromagnetic Physics, as well as organic and inorganic Chemistry. We took an average of 10 different examinations and competed with greater than 300,000 aspirants across the state for a few more than 6,000 government medical college positions for undergraduate medicine. We then spent the next five-and-a-half years trying to learn everything we possibly could about the human body – both normal and abnormal – as well as how to prevent progression, halt, reverse or even completely eliminate disease processes or causative agents. This cycle was repeated each and every time we decided to pursue further specialization in a field of interest.
  3. The modern doctor is lazy: most of us were 22 or 23 years old while interning at the hospitals attached to our medical colleges. We worked 36-hour shifts, caring for more than 100 outpatients and 50 inpatients on our busiest days. We survived these rigorous hours on bites of unskilfully prepared junk food stuffed into our mouths between drawing blood from one patient and suturing up another patient’s gashes. I once knew a resident doctor who started working in the outpatient department on Monday morning, spent all night with us interns admitting and managing patients in the Emergency Room and then coordinating pre-operative care for elective surgery patients all of Tuesday. As interns, we got to leave for home by Tuesday afternoon, but when we returned on Wednesday morning, the resident still hadn’t had the time to change out of the same clothes, and was preparing to scrub into the OR for a string of elective procedures for the rest of the day. Another one of my supervising residents had to apply for a weeklong vacation 2 months in advance to visit her family for Diwali. Her home was a 20-minute train ride away from the hospital and she hadn’t seen her parents for 4 months. A company with such rigorous vacation policies would find it hard to find employees to fill its positions.
  4. The modern doctor is greedy: in all honesty, if that were true, we would not be doctors. As interns in one of the largest metropolitan cities in India, my colleagues and I earned Rs 5,825 per month (paying the government Rs 175 as “professional tax”). A second-year Pediatric Surgery resident I worked with earned Rs 26,000 a month for being on-call 24/7 (he was the only resident in the program). The average rent in the area of the city our hospital is located in is Rs 36,000. Go figure. True, when he graduates, his earning potential drastically increases – but only if he manages to secure a position at a wealthy, privately owned and operated hospital in a major city. He will probably by in his late 30s at best by this time. So yes, all of us do firmly believe that after sacrificing our entire youth to work towards attempting to allow you to enjoy yours, we do deserve compensation for our efforts. You would not accuse a telecom company of cheating for charging a service fee, so why can you not extend that comprehension to the person who is working to help you hold on to your health?
  5. The modern doctor is negligent: a resident doctor in an Indian government hospital is facing the horrendous doctor-patient ratio of somewhere north of 1:1600. Setting aside the deplorable working conditions and sleep deprivation, they must also deal with patients seeking care at end-stages of lethal conditions and expecting medical miracles without fail. One of my own colleagues from medical school suffered a serious head injury at the hands of several relatives of a pediatric patient who died of dengue after presenting to the hospital in shock. Never mind that he was brought in critical condition, yet initially stabilized, receiving ICU level care on a general ward due to lack of ICU bed spaces. His ultimate clinical deterioration and demise were blamed on medical negligence, and physical assault on 3 young residents by an angry mob was deemed fit punishment. Arrests were made but bail was granted within 2 days, despite attacking a medical officer on duty being a non-bailable offence in India. And still, this case is quoted in newspapers all over the world, focusing on the bereaved family and how they feel no remorse for their actions because their son is dead. Could you legally and morally justify assaulting a politician because his policies did not agree with your own political sentiments?

Look where this blame-the-physician mentality has left us. A budding orthopaedic surgeon has lost his vision in one eye. Do you think anyone would trust him to operate on their loved one? His surgical career is finished. All because he directed a family to seek medical care at another facility equipped with subspecialty services their patient required. Young doctors under training are being threatened with expulsion if they do not return to work, and with bodily harm if they do.

In this hostile atmosphere, what choice do physicians have other than to protest? Would an entrepreneur feel safe if an angry mob of investors could burst through his doors at any minute and pummel him half to death because his venture did not do quite as well they had hoped? Why are physicians held up to a different standard than everybody else? Yes, we deal with human lives, and yes, this is a huge responsibility, but medicine is, after all, just another profession. We are not miracle-workers and we certainly never asked to be viewed as Gods.

Believe us when we say that we do not take our scientific and social responsibilities lightly. Every undiagnosed case keeps us up at night. Every bad outcome takes a toll on our own mental health, no matter whether we could have made any difference with more interventions. We only ask that you consider our side of the story. Recognize that we too are trying to balance personal and professional lives while earning a decent living in exchange for our scientific expertise. We truly do love serving you, but if you could only reflect some of our compassion back to us, we would not need any added security. We are human too, and if we can live by the tenet of “Do no harm,” why shouldn’t you?

Love at First Sight

I guess you could say it was love at first sight. Even though I didn’t see her entire face. Just her eyes – two kohl-lined jewels of perfection … two sparkling gemstones perhaps a shade somewhere between the richness of caramel and the elegance of rosewood, that drifted past all they saw with an impossible combination of innocence and sensuality.

They wandered constantly, with unreal grace, revealing a million dreams and concealing a million emotions … two flawless orbs of infinite depth and bottomless mystery, sometimes – momentarily – betraying the agony of shattered dreams and unspoken words with a glaze of glistening teardrops from heaven.

So entranced was I by those mesmerising eyes that I never got past them, and before I knew it, she was gone: her Goddess-like elusiveness replaced by the blackness of the insides of my eyelids … terminating my only encounter with the girl of my dreams.

Think Twice

What if it were you?

Recently, a new attempt at creating an internet meme has been introduced. It involves a poorly-angled picture of an unfortunately obese girl or unassumingly simple boy smiling at the camera, usually with either unflattering make-up or outdated clothes, topped by a caption that reads something to the tune of “Hi! I’m looking for a handsome/beautiful guy/girl; please tag a friend who would be interested!” If you proceed to scroll through the comments that follow, you will read through countless “Hahaha never!”s, “HARD PASS!”s and “Dude, I’d rather die alone!”s from people who were tagged. The obvious aim of this meme is to ridicule the person in the photograph for having the audacity to hope for love and companionship, because somehow, this is funny. I am not at all ashamed to say that I don’t get it.

Each picture that ends up like this was probably taken at a happy time in his/her life, and they were quite likely reasonably pleased with the way they look in it, because they shared it on a social media platform. Then some jerk decided to take advantage of their trust, and used it to make fun of them for not conforming to societal standards of ideal beauty. He slapped on a caption that makes the person in the picture sound desperate and naïve, and uploaded it on a public platform for other sick people like him to mock. And suddenly, the whole world is privy to this private photograph that was intended to be shared only amongst friends.

Now people the overweight girl or simple boy have never even met are passing judgmental comments about her unsightly arms or his unfashionable clothes. For all we know, these could be their deepest insecurities that have now been brutally exposed to everyone on the internet, all in the name of “humor.” That girl you just laughed at for her weight might have been battling obesity all her life, and perhaps took this picture to celebrate losing 10 pounds after several weeks of hard work at the gym. That boy whose plain sunglasses you made fun of might have taken this picture to commemorate being able to afford treating himself to a new pair with his first salary. And yet, someone managed to turn a positive change in their lives into a negative experience, only because they trusted their Facebook friends to either share their joy or continue scrolling in silence.

While I am certain that none of these photographs were meant to go along with romantic propositions to random strangers on the internet, even if they were looking for love, why is that such a preposterous idea? Aren’t we all? Maybe they were just putting their best foot forward. But somebody thought that the idea of a person who is anything less than perfect hoping to meet someone who appreciates them for who they are is so utterly absurd that they just had to turn it into an internet joke to share with other disgusting creatures like themselves. And now, memories of someone’s hard-earned confidence serve as painful reminders of their inadequacies.

You might think that writing a page-long essay on an internet meme is an overreaction, but I am not advocating for extreme measures like banning it from the WWW.  I am merely using this as an example to highlight how some people are so uncertain about themselves that they feel the need to put others down to boost their own confidence. And the rest of us are guilty of condoning this maltreatment by neglecting to stand up for the victims of such cyber-bullying. What if that person were your friend or sibling? What if it were you?

Every picture tells a story, and none of us know theirs, so who are we to judge?

The Photograph

A Tale of Childhood Innocence

“Wow!” Rehaan exclaimed. “Can I touch it?”

Anahita laughed. “Of course!”

His hands trembling with excitement, he slowly extended his fingertips towards the object Anahita held in her hands.  His eyes lit up the moment they felt the smooth plastic exterior of this amazing thing that had produced the image that he held in his other hand.

“What did you say it’s called?”

“A camera.”

“And this thing is?” He held up the article in his left hand.

“A photograph.”

“Wow!” He repeated.

Anahita smiled and patted his cheek.  “Would you like me to click one of you?”

Rehaan looked overjoyed. “Would you?”

“Of course!”

“Aakash! Anwar! Hanif! Ishaan! Khaled! Harish! Farhaan!” Rehaan yelled, running off to gather his friends.

Anahita got to her feet and watched as Rehaan animatedly explained to his friends what was about to happen. She couldn’t help grinning as she saw their expressions turn from curious to amazed, and she had to take a few steps backwards when they rushed towards her, all wanting to touch this astonishing black box that could somehow capture lifelike images of them.

A few minutes, several innocent questions and one heated argument over photograph location later, a decision was arrived at and the eight boys eagerly beckoned Anahita towards the end of the lane. She followed immediately, enjoying their thrilled banter as they half-walked, half-ran towards the bridge across the valley.

Anahita’s heart skipped a beat when she saw them clamber onto the wall that separated the road from the drop between the mountains before she reminded herself that they must have done this a thousand times before. She selected her frame and focused the camera as the children lined up along the wall. Looking through the lens, she watched them space out and practice smiling and couldn’t suppress her own amusement herself. She marvelled at their innocence regarding an article as universal as a camera back in the city, and at the same time, felt enormously guilty for complaining about now seemingly inconsequential things like missing her usual train while these children lived in dingy shanties and played with toys made of sticks and stones, and yet found such unadulterated joy in something as simple as having their picture taken.

“Hurry up!” Rehaan’s friends urged him impatiently. The poor boy was the tiniest amongst the lot and clearly incapable of scaling the height of the wall himself. As Farhaan bent down to lift the little kid, Anahita clicked on instinct. Before she could glance at the camera screen, she heard them beg for another picture. She spent the next five minutes indulging their newfound vanity before they were satisfied and wanted to inspect every photograph she’d taken.

Anahita spent the journey to her hotel lost in thought. Once in her room, she transferred and printed every picture she’d clicked.

The rest of the weekend photography seminar was a blur of colour and clicking. Anahita thought it focused too much on frames, lighting and the like and too little on the feel of the photograph. By the end of the seminar, she’d decided that their car breaking down near the little village was the best thing that had happened all weekend. Much to her co-passengers’ annoyance, Anahita insisted on stopping there again on the way back home.

“I won’t be long, I promise.” She quickly nipped out of the car to find the little boy whose thrilled face was etched in her memory. It took her only a couple of minutes to locate the group of eight boys running around in their dusty field of a playground. Aakash spotted her first and shouted in delight. Soon, she was surrounded by the entire bunch asking multiple questions at the same time.

When she finally managed to quiet them down, she said, “I’ve got something for you guys before I go.” Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the envelope containing the photographs. As she distributed them amongst the gleeful group, she found herself at the receiving end of several warm hugs.

“But what about you?” Hanif asked worriedly. “Don’t you want one?”

Anahita laughed. “I have all of them right here.” She patted her camera case. “But I have kept my favourite, just in case.” She showed them the first picture she’d clicked.

“Why is this one your favourite?” Harish asked naively.

Anahita shrugged. “It just is.”

***

At the end of her internship, Anahita was named the best intern and given the honour of having any one of her photographs printed inside the magazine she’d spent the past five months working for. She instantly submitted the first of the series of pictures she’d clicked of the eight village boys: the one with Farhaan helping Rehaan up the wall.

“Are you sure?” her boss asked, “You can take some time to make your pick.”

“I’m sure. This one is my favourite.”

“Why?”

Anahita smiled as she remembered Harish. “It just is.”

The Other Side

There is no guilt in finding your way back home.

“Mazarine …” She whispered to her reflection in the mirror. The deep blue eyes that gazed back seemed to justify the choice of name. Instinctively, her fingers jumped to her navel to touch the brilliant blue gemstone she’d been named after. Tomorrow, it would be 9 years since she’d been found … 9 years since she’d become who she now was … and it still felt wrong.

“There’s nothing you can do about it now.” She said sternly to her reflection as she pulled on the pristine white gown. “It’s been 9 years. You remember nothing. And after tonight, everything is going to change. Get over it.”

There was a knock, followed by the sound of the door opening.

Mazarine quickly wiped her eyes dry and turned to face her adoptive parents. ‘See how much they love you?’ she thought to herself as she hugged them. ‘So what if they’re not your real family? They’re as good as!’

“Look at you!” The woman Mazarine had come to call her mother fixed a fresh bluebell in her long brown hair and gazed lovingly at her. “So beautiful.” She planted a light kiss on Mazarine’s forehead.

“It is time.” Her father said, his eyes brimming with tears. Gently, he lowered the veil to cover her face and stepped back to admire her.

Ever so slowly, they took Mazarine’s arms and led her out of their home to the front garden. Through the lace veil, Mazarine saw people stand and heard them sigh faintly as they walked down the aisle. And right in front of her, at the altar, she saw him— the boy she was expected to spend the rest of her life with— William— tall, blonde, handsome and smiling pleasantly … but not right.

A tear made its way down her cheek. She couldn’t do it. She had to get away. She felt extremely guilty even thinking about it, but marrying a boy she knew nothing about and felt nothing for was not something she could go through with.

The music stopped. Mazarine turned to face William. She looked directly into his eyes. They, like hers, were deep blue. Wrong. They should have been gray. She didn’t know why. But she knew they should have been. For a second, they stood face-to-face, she trying to explain herself through silent conversation.

Mazarine blinked. The moment was gone. She saw William’s smile falter as she gathered up the folds of her gown and turned toward the garden gate. “I’m sorry.” She whispered to him with one last sideways glance, shaking off her veil.

And then she ran.

 ***

 To the edge to the village … across the bridge over the stream … straight through the dark forest … Mazarine let her intuition guide her. Listening to her intellect and going to the city would have been the smarter choice— but also the more obvious choice— and Mazarine prided herself in being unpredictable. And she couldn’t risk being found again.

Not that she’d been mistreated for the 9 years she could remember. On the contrary, she’d been given more love and care than she thought she ever deserved, considering how she’d just abandoned the people who had graciously taken her in without asking any questions.

But for everyday of those 9 years, she’d only willed herself to fit in and it was through sheer gratitude that she had stayed on. Thinking back, she came to the conclusion that it would have been far kinder of her to have left immediately.

And now that monumental decisions of her life were being taken for her without her consent, she knew that the moment had arrived. It was, to her, a sign from the Universe not to continue staying where she didn’t belong. She was sorry to have done it on that day, in front of so many people, but it couldn’t be helped.

“It’s done.” Mazarine told herself firmly, “There’s no going back now.”

 ***

 The moment the trees began to thin out, Mazarine heard it. It was a strange sound, yet somehow intimately familiar. Her heart began to pound. She knew in a trice she was closer home than she’d ever been in the past 9 years. She paused for an instant, listening to the regular, rhythmic, somewhat reassuring crashing. She loved it.

Then, with renewed vigour, she sprinted straight ahead toward the other side. And in a matter of minutes, she found herself making her way down gigantic rocks toward the seashore. A chill ran down her spine. In the moonlight, the sands looked like quicksilver and the rippling water, ghostly.

The sight evoked such ecstasy in her being that she began to sing. It wasn’t a song she remembered having heard, but the lyrics and tune seemed to flow effortlessly, and her voice sounded joyful, ethereal and more beautiful than she had ever dreamed possible. So she sang.

“You came.”

The song ended abruptly as Mazarine started. She spun around to face the person who had whispered into her ear. And found herself stunned into silence. Never had she dared to dream that she would meet someone who would really take her breath away at first glance. But when she looked into his eyes— and she noticed they were a wonderful, dark gray— there was something so tender in his expression as he smiled at her that she couldn’t help but hyperventilate.

He lifted his hand to brush her hair out of her face. She gasped at his touch. It was so familiar! But who was he?

“I knew you’d come back.” He whispered as he stroked her cheek softly, “They called me a fool. But I still believed … in you … in us.”

“Who are you?” Mazarine asked finally.

His face fell.

Mazarine instantly felt guilty.

A second later though, he sighed. “You don’t remember. I thought maybe … and you don’t remember who you are?”

Mazarine shook her head.

He looked distraught. Then he took a deep breath and held out his hand. “Let me show you.”

Mazarine didn’t hesitate to take his hand. Another gasp escaped her. She felt electricity. Too astounded to speak, she let him lead her down to the beach. He selected a spot, where they sat with the waves approaching to lick their toes every few minutes.

“Close your eyes.” He said to her quietly, taking her hand again. “It will come to you.”

Mazarine did as he asked. Her other senses immediately seemed stronger. The sea seemed to whispering to her. She could smell him too … it was an aroma unlike any she remembered having inhaled recently and it made her giddy with joy. She loved the taste of salt in the air … and the feeling of the water caressing her feet …

“Take your time. I’m right here waiting … Corelle.”

 ***

 A village. Beautiful, but strange. There was definitely something different about it. The light somehow moved constantly, and the whole place seemed to shimmer. There were no trees. Instead, there were tall plants she could only describe as creepers waving synchronously with the light. Interspersed between this unusual vegetation, were several huge and colourful structures. What they were, she couldn’t tell. She only knew she loved them.

She looked down at the ground to find the path that led up to the nearest one, and was surprised to find there wasn’t one— in fact, there were no paths at all— the ground consisted of sand and sparkling stones of different sizes and all colours for as far as she could see.

Suddenly, she heard singing. The voices she heard were so beautiful, they gave her goosebumps. She whirled around, trying to locate the source of such extraordinary music. It seemed to be coming from the nearest of those colourful structures. It took her a moment to realise that they were all dwellings— each of a different colour, shape and size, with roughly cut doors and windows, through each of which emanated a surreal glow.

“Corelle?” She felt herself turn toward the voice that called her name.

 And then she remembered.

 ***

 “Neifion?” Her eyes flew open as her memory returned in a flash. She turned to find him nodding vigorously, his face aglow with pure delight.

“Corelle.” He said simply, evidently unable to stop smiling.

Corelle took a deep breath as she let it sink in. No wonder she’d never fit in. No wonder she’d wanted to leave the moment she’d woken up. No wonder she’d never been allowed to cross the bridge to the forest …

With a start, she remembered the cottage she’d just run away from … and it all came back to her like it had been yesterday: how she’d swum too far out and been washed ashore … how her ‘father’ had found her on the rocks while fishing … how he’d taken her home to her ‘mother,’ who proclaimed she was God’s answer to their prayers for a daughter … how they’d nursed her back to health and offered her all the love, care and comforts they possibly could …

And then she remembered how she was never allowed across the bridge into the ‘dark and dangerous woods’ … how she never liked to work in the garden … how she felt trapped even with more freedom than most other people she knew … how she was too ‘strange’ for the other girls her age … how boys would crave for her beauty and mystique but none of them was ever quite right for her … how she was practically auctioned off to the family that asked for the least dowry … how she ran away at last …

“I can’t believe you waited for 9 years.” Corelle said eventually, her eyes brimming with tears.

“I knew you’d come back.” Neifion repeated patiently.

“But … why didn’t you come looking for me?”

“Because I was not taken.” He said simply.

Corelle frowned. “As in?”

“I wasn’t taken … I can’t enter the world beyond the rocks.”

Corelle gaped.

“Don’t you remember? ‘It is only—”

“Dorothea’s Doctrine.” Corelle nodded.

“‘—those who are transported beyond the confines of our world who can ever mingle with the Humans. In addition, these unfortunates suffer loss of their memories of the Deep until it is time for their return. It is one of the Universe’s ways of guarding the secret of our existence from the prying eyes and greedy hearts of the Humans.’

“They’re not all bad, you know.” Corelle said at once. She proceeded to detail everything she’d experienced since she’d become a part of the Randall family. She found herself going through several emotions as she spoke … gratitude, joy, anger, sorrow …

When she finished, she felt a strange longing for the people who had given her 9 years of their lives. She gazed into the now lightening sky sadly.

“I know what you’re thinking, Corelle.” Neifion said understandingly, caressing her trembling hands. “But you did the right thing by coming back. They may have done everything for you, but you don’t belong there. You belong back home … with me.”

“But … I feel so …”

“There is no guilt in finding your way back home.”

He held her tenderly as she sobbed into his chest. Then with one gentle movement, he lifted her face toward his and kissed her.

“Come back home with me, Corelle. It is where you belong.”

Corelle wiped her face dry and looked up at him. “Thank you, Neifion.”

“What for?”

“For waiting … for believing … for always.”

Neifion smiled. “I love you, Corelle.”

“And I love you, Neifion.”

Together, they stood. With one last glance at the world she was leaving behind, Corelle tightened her grip on Neifion’s fingers and let him lead her into the receding waves, still barely believing she was on her way back.

A minute later, she felt herself transform. She looked down at herself and laughed. It felt so natural to be in her true form once again. Her tail glimmered turquoise and reflected tiny rainbow coloured flecks of sunlight off them into the surrounding water. Her tail fin, in contrast, filtered off some of the light and seemed to glow aquamarine.

She looked at Neifion. His lean torso topped a ruby red tail as he led her further down toward their home. She had never seen anything so perfect.

When the coralliform houses lit by their jellyfish lamps began to wink into sight, Neifion turned to Corelle with an expression of pure elation. He took her hands in his and drew her close. His eyes shining with happiness, he whispered, “This is it, Corelle. We’re here. Welcome home.”

Thoughts

A piece written after the horrifying consequences of the Delhi gang rape 4 years ago

I have never been proud of being Indian. I have never considered it an achievement— I made no contribution to being born, and I entered the world in a country where the likelihood of my existence was statistically higher than most other places, given the population size and birth rate of our people. My only accomplishment was being conceived, and I had nothing to do with it.

As a child, when I was introduced to the word ‘patriotism,’ I was overawed. What a noble emotion it seemed to be— one that drove people to the extent of pledging to lay down their lives for their motherland! And as school introduced us to Indian history, I fully expected some figurative mental door to open and feelings of nationalism to come gushing from within. Nothing happened. I continued to be impressed by the dedication and determination of the defence forces and everyone else who took it upon themselves to ensure that India progressed beyond the superpowers of the world to the very top of political, economic and social hierarchies … but I never understood it. I never felt that love for the soil of our country that patriotic songs talked about.

Slowly, I began to understand why. When I was younger, I was only struck by the legendary Indian lack of civic sense. The incessant spitting and littering disgusted me. I found it absurd that people could rave about how beautifully clean USA is while simultaneously chucking plastic and ejecting entire mouthfuls of paan-stained spit from their mouths. At first I thought it was plain stupidity, but then I came to realise that it was, in fact, unwillingness to change and an uncontrollable urge to complain.

As I got older, I was introduced, via books and television, to more shameful aspects of our society— corruption, several forms of violence ranging from vandalism to gruesome murders to massacres. And all I could do was wonder how people could find it in themselves do such things.

And then, when I was 9, came the real shocker. My mother had educated me well about the ‘danger areas’ of my body. Nobody was allowed to touch me over my chest or anywhere below my navel. Furthermore, no boy was allowed to show me the parts that made him anatomically different from me and all my other girlfriends. No boy could even talk about these things until ‘a certain age’ that for all practical purposes was several years into the future. And so when I was touched by a man at an age when I was pretty much flat as a board, I knew that something bad had happened. That was when I learnt the word ‘molestation,’ though, being only a child, I didn’t understand the full extent of terrible things it encompassed.

5 years later, just after sex education began making its appearance in our Biology textbooks, I heard of ‘rape.’ And I was appalled. As time passed and I was exposed to more knowledge of reproductive biology and sexual crime, the terror became almost constant. And, like any other Indian girl, I was taught to dress a certain way when out without parental supervision, to come home at a certain hour and never to let a male person inside the empty house unless he was my father.

Soon, it became clear that none of these precautions was enough. Rape happened to women in burqas. Rapists attacked in broad daylight. Worst of all, fathers raped their own daughters. It seemed that the only thing I could do to guarantee that I would never experience the horror was to die.

Forward to the present day: a girl who was raped by no less than 7 men in a moving vehicle and thrown out naked onto the streets of our capital city to die— alone, injured, naked, traumatised, violated— has succumbed to the brutality that had been inflicted on her, after 12 long days of suffering. And I, like every other sane person in this country, feel a terrible, aching loss.

Though it was a horrifying story to even read about, I’m not sure why this particular story has affected all of us so intensely. There have been so many incidents— the first to come to my mind being the girl who was raped by a policeman at Marine Drive in Mumbai. And there are so many more we don’t even know about. Besides, we hear of so many other ghastly tales from other countries that we assure ourselves we are, overall, better off.

Maybe it’s the brutality of the crime. Maybe it’s the detailed news coverage. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve had enough. We have seen more crime than I think it was possible, for me at least, to even imagine. Assault. Molestation. Extortion. Rape. Murder. Terrorism. But the most disgraceful of them all remains indifference.

Whatever we call it— moving on, picking up the pieces, ‘the Mumbai Spirit’ (I find this one the most shameful) — we are merely fooling ourselves. Something happens. We protest. We demand. We wait. Nothing happens. We ‘move on.’

And whether we can admit it or not, we are ALL guilty of this most terrible of crimes. Sure, it is sad that courts still uphold archaic laws while failing to implement the more important ones … that politicians get security enough to keep a small community safe while criminals run rampant amongst the masses … that so many important figures still hold sexist beliefs about women’s status in society while failing to blame the minds of men for creating the discrimination … that communal, casteist and regionalist views are freely perpetuated while citizens are arrested for using their right to freedom of speech to voice their opinions … that civilized citizens are arrested for frivolity while people are killed in the apparent safety of their own homes … that young lovers are harassed for the tiniest form of expression of their love while reports of sexual harassment or assault are lost in translation … that laws dictate victims of crimes to live to remember the atrocities they went through while perpetrators must die without actual punishment …

But are we any better? Do we raise our voices against injustice? Yes. Do we sustain our protests until our demands are met? No. And do we then complain about the government? Yes.

We are liars. We lie about caring. We lie about wanting to make a difference. We lie about working towards progress. If we lived up to our promises, things would be different. Mindsets would change. Thinking would progress. Discrimination would regress. Criminals would fear. People would be safe. Justice would be served.

I sincerely hope I am proved wrong, but I do not believe we are capable of sustaining this uprising. Not just because this incident will soon fade from our memories, but because we fail to realise that the girl whose sacrifice has sparked this anger was not Amaanat, Damini or Nirbhaya but a young girl with her own name, face and identity, studying towards building the life of her dreams that is now just a could-have-been … because we fail to see the thousands of faceless victims that this girl represents, whose cries for help have snuffed out either by the criminals themselves or by the laws of our nation … because we fail to understand that crime happens by us, to us, amongst us and is a constant threat to the safety of our own families.

I have never been proud of being Indian. Today, I understand why.