Sleep eludes me for a long time. All the while, I stare at the walls of the room. My sisters have not left a single patch of wall bare. All of them are painted over, or have paintings stuck on them. Mickey, Goofy, Donald and a dozen other cartoon characters smile down at me. All of them are my middle sister’s creation.
The eldest always did breathtaking landscapes. There is my river, just as I witnessed it today, painted over the wall just opposite me. Soaked in an orange sunset. Wait! Is that me sitting at its bank? I think it is. How weird that I never noticed it before.
My eyes wander to the only painting that I ever did. I cannot even call it a painting. I was never good with this art, but I did try. This one, unlike the others, has no colors. I used coal to make it. It is a girl, about 12, standing away from a group of friends. When I look at it now, the picture seems not quite complete. The girl’s eyes are hauntingly empty and there is a look of contempt on her face. Her hair is disheveled and flying across her face. There is something about this picture that disturbs me. I have asked Papa to whitewash and remove it several times, but he just does not listen, saying it is part of my childhood memories.
Strangely, the only memory I have of my childhood is drifting away from my friends as soon as I reached the fifth standard. I, somehow, could never fit in, and always found myself sitting alone on the last bench. ‘A last bencher,’ that is what I was and my classmates called me that, hoping it would sting. As if it ever mattered.
It was then that I started visiting and talking to the river. To my surprise, I found this as natural as breathing. At times, I fancied myself into believing that the river replied back.
The grades kept falling and my friendship with the river kept growing. I can actually think of whole days that I spent by its side.
But then, I also remember my determination to get out of this sleepy little town. I remember how hard I pushed in my 12th standard to get decent grades. I remember my triumphant smile the day I got admission for a Mass Communication course at Mumbai University. Yes. Ironic isn’t it? A loner, an introvert, joining communication studies. But I had always wanted to write. That is what I enjoyed doing. And that is how I found myself in a chaotic city, among skyscrapers, the constant buzzing of the locals and endless stories. Where newspaper vendors and milkmen woke up to do their rounds even before the people working in night shifts had closed their eyelids. No other words can describe Mumbai better than the famous cliché, (although professors insisted we avoid them at all times) ‘The City That Never Sleeps’. There I was – a single wave lost in the sea of hurried, restless people, trying to fight my way back to my room, my shore, everyday. The city that gave me a lot, including him.
The harsh sun pouring in through the window hurts my eyes. What time is it? I squint at the wall clock. It is 10 am. Quite late according to the town’s standard. I try to summon my dream. I can just recollect it was about him again, though nothing else surfaces. “Sanchit,” I murmur. The day starts with frustration yet again. I dread the day already. I suddenly recall it is Tuesday today, which means another hour with Dr. Kapoor. I still don’t get it. Why do I have to see him every Tuesday? Yes, there might have been a time when I needed his help, but I think I have been behaving pretty decent lately. And since when did such a small town have its own shrink? Ma does not like me calling him that, so I only do in my thoughts. I mean, shrinks are for big cities and big, complicated minds and big, complex problems, not for small towns with smaller households and simpler mind-sets.
Dr Kapoor, as I call him, or Asmit, as he wants me to call him, is, according to me, rather young for his profession. Just out of med school, maybe. Whenever I get ready to go to the doctor, Ma eyes me with a smile on her face. She amuses me. She does not know that I just go through with this unpleasant exercise every week only to keep her satisfied - to make her believe that she is doing her job well.
But, in reality, those hours are excruciating for me. All Asmit does is try and talk about Sanchit. And all I do is dodge the topic. Sanchit remains deep within my existence. No one else is supposed to dwell upon where he lived. No one else is supposed to know what I did to him. Week after week, Asmit tries, and week after week, I change the topic and see him taking the lead in our heart-to-heart .Today will not be any different.
At noon, I find myself sitting outside Asmit’s office, waiting for him to call my name. He has converted one of the rooms in his apartment into his office. My eyes wander to his picture again, taken outside his college maybe. He is togged up in a black robe, a crooked smile brightening up his face from left to right. This smile, just this smile, keeps me coming back to him. Exactly like Sanchit’s. Each and every bend of his face is committed to my memory. I close my eyes and I see the slight dimple on his left cheek, which he used deliberately to impress girls. The unkempt hair, which was his greatest pain. I always told him his hair was like Harry Potter’s. Since he did not like Harry Potter, all I got in reply was a murderous stare. Aah! I remember the gold in his eyes as he laughed. And even though I try to shut it out, I remember the cold, empty eyes when I saw them last.
“So how are we doing today?”
I see the doctor has come out to greet me. He is flashing his lopsided grin again. Real charming! Hah!
I realize I was just gaping at the doctor. Feeling stupid, I get up, a fake smile adorning my lips.
“I am very well, thank you. How about you?”
Uggh!! What happened to that real cheeky response that I thought of in my head? He smiles. Maybe at my formal tone, but I always feel he reads my mind.
“I am doing well too. Why don’t we step into my office?”
I roll my eyes. Here we go again! After some basic formalities, he starts getting into his act. I can sense where he is heading today- my childhood friends.
“So tell me more about your friends Mitali and Priyanka? These are the only two friends who ever met your parents, am I right?”
So he has been talking to my parents. I don’t like it. I notice I have clenched my fists. But a smile crosses my face when I realize that today also my guess was right. He did want to discuss my childhood friends. Maybe even I should try and become a psychiatrist. Maybe, just his. I understand him so well after all the sessions.
“What about them? I don’t even know where they are. As my parents would have told you, we stopped being friends long back.”
It does not take a psychiatrist to catch the icicles in my voice. His tone becomes less professional and friendlier.
“Yes indeed! They told me. But they also told me that you never brought a friend to your place ever again. Why didn’t you take Sanchit with you? He was your best buddy, right?”
“He is.” I hope he does not catch the panic in my voice.
“Yes I am sorry. So why didn’t you?”
“He did not want to. And I never forced him. And I never asked him why he did not want to so don’t ask me about him again.”
He stares at me deeply, X-raying me again.
I try so hard but the memories engulf me again. The first month of college in Mumbai had crawled away with much difficulty. Fitting in was still an issue. And then, one day, Sanchit happened. I had noticed him before, sitting alone like me. So one day, I gathered the courage, walked up to him and asked if I could sit next to him. I recall some of my classmates giving us queer looks. I was uncomfortable in the start, but eventually we got used to it. Over the next few years, we became inseparable. He was everything that I needed him to be- a guide, a sibling, a parent, a lover and above all, a friend. A very close friend. He became my river in the city. But this river grew so much that one day it drowned me.
And as it is, the hour with Asmit is over. Aah! Another week of peace. While we are parting, he takes my hand in his and squeezes it, looks into my eyes and says, “Shruti! You can fight it. I know you can.” I shrug as if I do not understand him. He knows about my depression too. Great!