Syed and Gayatri didn’t mean to fall in love. But love happens when you least expect it. It creeps up suddenly. When someone needs attention, care, conversation, laughter and maybe even intimacy. Love doesn’t look at logic, or at backgrounds and least of all, religion.
Gayatri was from a very conservative South Indian family that went to a temple every Saturday. Syed bought goats for his family every Eid. That said it all. Their paths would never have crossed if it hadn’t been for that fateful day. That day when he walked into the coffee shop. Gayatri wondered if destiny chose our loved ones for us. Did we have any role to play at all?
She looked at her watch. Syed was late. They met every Thursday at five pm to catch up. Their conversation lasted for hours. Sometimes at the cafe, sometimes in his car, sometimes in places that she could never tell her friends about. They would never understand. And yet Syed made her happy.
Suddenly her phone beeped. He had sent a message. “On my way. Have something important to tell you.”
Gayatri stared at it and realised she had knots in her stomach. Thoughts flooded her mind. What did he want to tell her? And the various possibilities made her a nervous wreck.
“Is he going to propose? Or maybe he is too tired of this relationship and wants to break up? Or is it about the girl that his family is considering for him?’
As Gayatri pondered over the zillion of prospects, Syed arrived flashing his dazzling smile immediately melting all her tension. It was this innocent smile which made Gayatri fell for him. She was still curious but the sight of Syed calmed her down. He always does. However today behind his smile his eyes showed signs of worry.. Even in the cool climate of January in Ahmedabad tiny drops of sweat clouded his forehead.
The coffee Gayatri had ordered has turned cold ages ago, so Syed went ahead to order more coffee. Gayatri remembered the day about a year back, images crystal clear. In this very coffee shop they had met. She has sipped her coffee in this small cozy coffee shop a number of times before but that day changed it all. One look at him and it seemed her fate was sealed. In India we are taught from the childhood to choose our partner from same caste forget about being in different religion. Marrying a Muslim is treated as the highest form of treason to all the upbringing and the biggest disgrace to the judgmental family like hers. But being with Syed is all she can think about now and she is ready to fight all odds to make it happen.
Syed have placed their coffee order and have narrated the entire cricket match in which India won yesterday but still have not spoken a word about that “important” thing. Gayatri waited patiently. She could feel the underlying tension in him. At last he blurted out, “Gayatri I had been avoiding the topic till now but you must know I will be going away for a few days. Hussain chacha has a job for me near Dahod. He says if I complete this successfully, he will be handing over his Ahmedabad unit under me. You understand na Gayatri, a comfortable job, financial security. Then we can be surer about our future. More over you know dear how much I am indebted to him. After Abba’s sudden demise he has helped us a lot. I cannot say no to him.”
Gayatri became stiff. She did not know how to react. Somehow his words were deceiving himself. It was as if Syed was convincing himself rather than her to go to that place. She asked softly “For how many days you will be away?”Syed’s face became dark immediately, “I do not know, Husain chacha could not confirm. It may take a week or a few months.”
“And what kind of job would that be?” Gayatri asked impatiently.
“Something for his business he said”, Syed replied.
Months away from Syed. Even the thought baffled Gayatri but she decided to put her brave face forward. “But you will be calling me every day, right?”
Syed nodded,” I will try dear but chacha said I have to hand over this mobile. He will give a new one. So till I get a new one….”
This mobile was also given to Syed by Husain chacha. Husain was not his own uncle. But a certain friend of the deceased father of Syed. They did not know what kind of business he was actually in but that fetched him a lot of money for sure. And he seemed to have a certain soft corner for Syed.
Gayatri was still unsure about what to say. Yes Syed needed a good job now. His mechanic’s job was not paying him well. Her family has started looking for suitable groom and it won’t be long enough before they decide on one. But this job was not ringing the right bells in her mind. Her intuition was telling her to hold him back, tell him not to take up the job. But logic said otherwise. At last she braved up a bright smile and said, “Whatever be it go ahead and give your best shot. I know you will do well. And once you are the manager of Ahmedabad unit we can talk with our families about our wedding”. Syed’s face lit up almost immediately and the worry that clouded his face blew away.
Somewhere destiny smirked.
Within a few days Syed left for his job. Before leaving he made sure that he spends the maximum time with Gayatri. But soon the day for his departure came. On the day his train was scheduled, Gayatri woke up early to give him a call and wish him luck. But his phone was already switched off.
Weeks passed but Syed never called nor his phone was reachable. For the first week Gayatri consoled herself that may be he was busy and could not get a new number. After two weeks she was restless. It cannot be that Syed do not talk to her for 2 whole weeks. He must be in some kind of danger. At last on the third week Gayatri could not resist herself any longer and decided to visit his home. He must have contacted them. Or at least Husain chacha may have contacted them.
It was end of February. The breeze was warm; spring has unlocked the flowers to paint the laughing soils. Only in the heart of Gayatri a wild storm was blowing. Her best friend, who knew about them, like an old sage, told earlier today, “I knew this was bound to happen, you should have never trusted that clan. Find out may be he is on his honeymoon with his first wife.” Tears welled up her eyes as Gayatri thought about those spiteful words. No one would understand them. In her heart she always knew Syed can never do a thing like that. But she is going to find out why he is avoiding her.
She did not know the exact address where Syed lived. Syed never brought her home. She only knew the locality. As she tried to find her ways through the street, Gayatri realized the stark differences between her home and his. The area was filthy. Roads were dirty. Houses were broken. It made her heart cry that Syed has grown in such discomfort. After much toiling Gayatri at last found her desired address.
Syed’s mother was cooking in verandah outside the house. Hesitated at first, slowly Gayatri gained courage and spoke, “Namaste aunty, I am Gayatri , Syed’s friend.”
Syed’s mother looked up a little startled and measured her carefully. Even others in the road were also looking at her suspiciously. Girls like her do not visit these areas much.
Then she said solemnly, “But beta, Syed is not at home.”
“I know aunty. But do you have any news of him. I am trying to contact him for three weeks. But his phone is switched off.” Gayatri said.
“No beta , even we are also trying to locate him.”Syed’s mother spoke. Gayatri noticed her lips were trembling while answering. “He said he was going with his Husain chacha but I do not have his number also.”
Gayatri returned from his home empty handed. Syed’s mother offered her tea which she politely refused and hastily returned trying to control the tears of her eyes.
It was the day after she had visited Syed’s house, Gayatri was watching TV in her drawing room. Her mind was still wondering what could have happened to Syed, when suddenly a news caught her fancy.
A train has caught fire in Godhra. It was carrying some Hindu pilgrimages coming back from city of Ayodha after a religious ceremony at the disputed Babri Masjid site. About fifty of them were burned beyond recognition. It was suspected that a mob of about 1000 people have attacked the train and set alight the coaches carrying mostly the Hindu pilgrims. Gayatri watched through aghast as the reporter continued to describe the barbaric incident. Gayatri’s mother gasped in disgust at the news. “Who on earth can be so inhuman.” “Must be those Muslims, who else,” his father scoffed. An unknown dread ran through her spine as Gayatri quickly locked herself in her bedroom.
That night Gayatri could not sleep well. In her dreams she could see those burnt faces. One of them slowly turned into Syed’s face and Gayatri woke up with a jolt. Her throat was dry, she was soaked with sweat. Suddenly there was a soft but determined knock on her window pane. At first Gayatri thought she was just imagining the sound when again someone knocked. Looking outside Gayatri saw a human shadow casted over her window. Then there was a third knock on. This time a little bit louder. After much hesitation Gayatri pulled up the courage to open the window, half of her heart already knew who was waiting.
But who was this guy standing in front of her? In a period of three weeks Syed seemed to have turned 20 years older. His eyes were drained of its color and the smile on his face, vanished. It seemed for a while that Gayatri was meeting some stranger, an altogether different person..
Slowly Gayatri pulled him inside the room, careful about not waking up her parents. It seemed he has not eaten for days. So Gayatri fixed some dinner from the fridge. But Syed did not touch them.
“What happened dear?” Gaytri asked softly
As if her voice woke him up from a deep slumber, Syed started sobbing uncontrollably. Gayatri waited patiently for Syed to calm down. It broke her heart to see her beloved like this. After a while Syed calmed down and began to speak which seemed like eternity.
“Believe me Gayatri, I never signed up for this deliberately. I never knew what they were up to. I swear on our love, I only thought a good job will get us a beautiful future. I only thought….”and his voice was drowned in his sobs
Gayatri took his face in her hand trying to comfort him. Her heart already knew what was coming forth. Syed continued, “For days they taught us about jihad, our love for Allah and Quran. It was not all that bad you know. But yesterday they told us we have to go on a protest march a huge protest march….in Godhra”
Gayatri felt breathless. Her whole world seemed a big farce. Syed, her life, was one of those murderers.
Syed could see the disbelief in her eyes. It broke him down further. “I did not do it. Believe me I never knew they are going to ablaze a train. I tried to stop them when they set the first coach alight. Some of my friends tried to help me. But we were too few in numbers. Then I fled. I was terrified. I ran as much as I could but before that I saw. I saw them burning alive. I heard them shrieking in plight and what did I do I ran away helplessly.”
Syed stopped after speaking at one breath. He seemed much calmer now, his green eyes shining like the sea after a storm. These words were burning inside him and it was a relief to put them down to someone, someone he loves.
Gayatri still sat speechless unaware of what to say, haplessly waiting for the verdict.
Slowly Syed gathered himself up and prepared to leave. As he was leaving he said, “You know I have to leave. After all this I do not deserve you. But you had the right to know the truth and so I had come. Just promise me one thing that whenever you will remember me you will retain the happier Syed, the real Syed. You will forget about this coward accomplice to a brutal murder. Dark days will follow my love but do not turn off your light.”
“And one more thing, I know I have no right to ask you, but try to take care of my mother.”
With those words Syed faded into the impending darkness outside the window never to look back again leaving behind a broken soul alone forever.
Syed was right. Darker days followed. People forgot their humanity in the coming days. Deaths, loss, loot became the order of the days. But Gayatri indeed did not turn off her lights. Post riot she started working for a NGO trying to set up home for the victims and helping in their rehabilitation. Till date she has expanded her work to various places of Gujarat. Presently her day starts with the new school set up in the place where once Syed grew up. His mother is one of her most trusted aide there. And her night ends with dreams of Syed in her eyes and a prayer for him in her mind, wherever he is.
********THE END ********