Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Love Story

Bluestocking's note: 
The story is now complete. Those who would like to read it together from start to end, can do so on this post. For those, who would like to go the the final post can click here

That the building was dilapidated was the nicest thing that anyone could say about it. The plaster, the outer shell had all peeled off in the century since its construction. The bare bones were beginning to show. The red bricks in the walls were all that kept the elements at bay for the residents within. The roots of various trees hanging from its sides clutched at the fragile walls with the desperation of a drowning man.

Yet, the boy, barely eighteen, and newly arrived in the big city could see the glory which must have once been. He was here to work. And to dream. One day, he would build beautiful buildings like this dilapidated one and never let them fall into ruins. Meanwhile, he worked as a labourer, repairing the busy road on which the building stood.

His days were long, full of bone crushing labour and sweaty, aching muscles. But the night was his, when he made his grand plans. He slept inside a makeshift tent on the road itself, along with several other day labourers who had nowhere else to sleep.

His tent was pitched on the footpath opposite the dilapidated building. And before going to sleep every night, he spent two minutes just gazing at the building, holding a silent conversation or may be a prayer. When he finally went off to sleep, he would vow to find some way to study and then rescue this ill treated damsel in distress.

An year passed. The boy grew older but the road remained unfinished and the building still standing. To the boy, it was a miracle. A reaffirmation of his faith. That she – he now thought of the building as his sweetheart – was waiting for him. Like one of those princesses locked away in a tower. And now one of the trees lodged in her walls had sprouted flowers of a very common pink. Not particularly bright, given the dust that swirled in the city air. But he knew in his heart that the building was blooming for him, baring her beauty just for him.

And soon, he would be able to claim her.

Then one day, when he was on a lunch break, he saw commotion outside the building. He rushed to find out what the matter was. There was some sort of notice posted on the rotten main door of the building and all the residents seemed to be clustered around it. They sounded angry, indignant.

He tapped an elderly man closest to him. “What is the fuss all about?”

“This building”, replied the man, ”is to be demolished. We have been given a month’s notice to evacuate.” The man’s eyes were fixed somewhere far in the distance. He added with soft bitterness, “A new office building will be constructed here. For people smarter than us.”

The boy felt his heart break.

A month! What was he to do? How could he save her? How? How?

He ran back to his supervisor. The supervisor was a busy but kindly man, who listened to what the boy had to say with an indulgent smile. And then he patted him on the head and gently asked him to get back to work.

The rest of the day, the boy worked and worked but his mind was awhirl. He couldn’t let this happen. This was not right. Throughout the day, he saw the building’s residents move from outrage to indignation and finally to a quiet resignation. He didn’t understand that. The building was their home. How could they not fight for her? He saw a few families move out that very evening. They had no ties to her beyond the material. But he was young enough to believe that his own soul was interred there. Quite like the king in the stories whose life lived inside some exotic parrot.

He was bewildered but determined. He couldn’t let her die. Because then a part of him would die too, though he did not realize that in those terms.

Over the next week, the boy tried speaking to many people – the important man who was the architect for the mall, the contractor who would oversee the demolition, the building’s remaining residents, his own supervisor again and even the babus in the municipal corporation. He was told by someone that only the corporation could help and stop this brutality. Some of these people heard him out. Few shooed him away. A couple of threatened him to mind his own business. But no one helped him. No one understood when he tried to explain to them in words that he did not have about how beautiful she was. That she was precious and needed to be revered, not demolished.

By now, the building was almost desolate, with nearly all residents having moved out. All those who had lived here had merely rented her. And the invisible one who had owned her had sold her.

The boy alternated between despair and grim determination. Days just kept sneaking past – thieves of Time. Workers had started arriving and pitching temporary lodging there. The destruction was merely days away.

One day, almost two weeks later, the supervisor summoned him.

The boy had been brooding, growing desperate and angry. He was on that delicate precipice which hardens one into a bitter cynic. He wasn’t a cynic. Just yet.

When the boy reached the supervisor’s dirty, red plastic desk positioned under a tree to provide a modicum of respite from the brutal sun, he found a woman sitting next to the older man. She looked to be about his mother’s age. That made her old, though she was not actually more than forty. She was dressed in an inexpensive but pretty cotton sari. But it was her hair that caught his attention. It was – weird. Tied in a tight plait, it was completely black at the top, close to her scalp then gradually faded and finally blinding white at the tips. It was as if the colours had tried to flow from the roots to the tip but got tired of the effort and slowly leached out of the strands. The boy could see that happening in continuous waves.

She was talking in quiet and harsh tones to the supervisor. She kept on pushing her red wired spectacles up the bridge of her perspiring nose. The boy was suddenly afraid of her. But the fear was not unpleasant.

The supervisor looked up. “Ah. There you are.”

The boy said nothing. Just looked at him. And then away.

“This is my wife”, the supervisor waved a hand in the general direction of the woman. “She is a History teacher. In my locality’s government school.”

The woman was silently glaring at the boy. He shuffled his feet, raised his eyes to her face and then quickly cast his eyes down. It had been a hotter than usual day and he had been sweating like a pig. 

But there was a chill in his belly.

“What is your name?” she asked. Teacher to new student. Except he was not.

“Nandu”, he whispered to himself, the realized that she hadn’t heard him. “Nandu.” Louder this time. Almost a shout.

“Have you ever been to school? How old are you, anyway?”

He looked askance at the supervisor. The man turned away his head and disowned the boy.

He was now finally alone. On his own. Except that the woman was fiercely appraising him, as she waited for his answer in stillness.

“Cat got your tongue, boy?” Her tone was acerbic. A brisk lash. “Well, then. I will do the talking. Finish your work here. You get off at six, right? Come see me at my school at seven in the evening.” She reeled off the address. It was not very far. “I have work for you.”

He mumbled a response.

“What?” she demanded.

“I won’t. Don’t need your work”, he repeated himself, in an unintentionally falsetto voice, like he had reverted to being a five year old child.

“Shut up”, she said mildly, almost gently this time. “See that he is there”, she ordered her husband and creaked away from the desk, in the direction of the school.


The boy found her at quarter to six, in a musty room of the ugly, solid building that was the government school.

She was at the desk, with a pile of notebooks and an even bigger one on the table. A pen – one of those that had two different coloured tips at two ends, red and blue – dangled between her fingers. She was humming to herself.

It was dark without and the single light bulb far above her head was lit. But the light had to travel such a long distance that it gave up midway. So, she practically sat in a pool of semi darkness, with yellow light hovering over her, like some distant sun.

He knocked timidly.

“You are early”, she said, without moving her head. “Come in and sit.” Her voice was brisk but not entirely unkind.

The boy walked into the room and stood in front of her.

“You are blocking my light. Move. Go and sit.”

The boy’s face broke into a half-smile as he looked up at the light high above her.

Gathering his courage, he mumbled, “I am here.”

“So I can see. Give me a few minutes of peace. Go, sit. Now.”

Wearily, he shuffled to the nearest chair and sat down, with his eyes firmly fixed on the ground.

He was here purely out of curiosity. And out of a driving need for respite from his own torturous helplessness.

“Why do you want to save that building?”

Her blunt question caught him by surprise. His helplessness returned with a rush that was almost violent. He jerked a little but did not look up. His lips compressed into a thin line. His jaws clenched with the effort it took to not weep like the child he had left behind.

She waited patiently. For one whole minute. “Fine. I’ll leave then.” She gathered her load of notebooks, hefted them in one hand and with the other, slung a battered handbag on her shoulder. She had almost reached the door, when his own inadvertent voice pierced his angry stupor.

“She calls me.” He still did not look up.

“Who calls you?” He looked up now to find her next to him, kneeling on the ground.

“The building.”

“The building?”

“She…” he had no words that could explain. Not any longer. “She just does. And I can’t save her!”

The boy and the woman looked at each other. They were probably trying to say something. Silently. Or may be not. May be they were just struck dumb.

Finally the woman spoke. “Come. Let’s go home.”

The next day, the woman was back at the site. This time, there was a man with her. To the boy’s young eyes, the man was old but younger than the woman. He was lean and somehow seemed very crisp, despite his limp, too big clothes. There was a sharpness about his eyes that undid his entire pretense of being shabby.

The woman caught the boy’s eyes and  beckoned him. The pair had been standing at the entrance of the building, with the now worn notice flapping tiredly in the heat.

When the boy reached the building, the pair simply turned and walked into the building. The boy took it as an invitation to enter as well. He had worshipped, adored her for so long but never had the right to look inside her. And here he was, at last, walking into her.

But it was not a pretty sight inside. The boy had been prepared for that. Cobwebs hanging from dark corners, cracked stairs, tangle of ugly, dusty, exposed electrical wires, the stale smell of neglect. He tried hard to paint her as should be. She could be glorious. Must have been once. He had to believe that or his resolve would begin to waver. And then what would he be left with?

Ahead of him, the man and woman had climbed the stairs to the first floor. The cubbyholes in which entire families had once lived, were now empty. They walked into one of them, unchallenged, though a few workers squatting in one corner of the floor, followed them with watchful eyes.

The boy had now caught up with the older pair, who were examining somewhere close to the window in the far wall. The boy took note of the room. An entire and possibly large family must have lived here. That did not surprise him. That is how his own family lived back in the village.

One wall was almost entire black from smoke. Another had a patch of lighter, cleaner, electric blue oil paint as compared to the rest of the peeling, dirty wall. Clearly, some kind of furniture had occupied that space. But frankly, it was all hideous. Where was the beauty, he knew, his sweetheart possessed? It had to be here. Somewhere. Anywhere.

The boy began to feel a little frantic, desperate and claustrophobic.

The man called him to the far wall, he had been inspecting with the woman.

When the boy reached them, the man pointed at something close to the perfunctory, boarded window.
“You see this here,” the man said. “It was once a beautiful, latticed window. See these criss-crossing lines. These must have taken a great amount of skill once. Some fool broke the delicacy and put up this monstrosity in its place.” With these words, the man spun on his heels and left the room.

The boy stood there, entranced. With wondrous reverence, he traced the fragile lines of the lattice. Then he spread out his palm. The filtered sunlight created shadowed lines over the lines etched into his hand.

The woman called his name. She was waiting for him. “Let’s go. My work today is done.”

For the next few days, the boy did not hear from the supervisor’s wife. On the fifth day after his short venture inside the building, the woman returned with the same man. But this time, an elderly man accompanied them. He looked familiar to the boy. When the woman called the boy to her side, he recognized the elderly man. He was one of the officials – the one with a bigger desk – who had shooed him away from the municipal corporation.

The two men were talking animatedly.

“This can’t be possibly true. Again”, the official was saying.

“It is a fact. Something that I can prove”, the man replied. “You have to stop the destruction of a heritage site. It was….”

The boy’s heart went into an overdrive. He missed out the rest of the conversation. By the time, he realized that. The official was ready to leave.

“I cannot do anything.” The elderly official was irate. “The transaction is completely legal. The government cannot do anything unless you can prove what you are saying is true. You are making quite a habit of this, I must say. I suggest you approach the courts once again. Like the last time you made similar claims.” With these parting words, the official left.

“And we will do exactly that. Just like last time”, the man shot back.

The boy looked hopefully at the faces of the older pair, who were now completely ignoring him, so engrossed were they in their quiet discussion. But the suspense was too great for the boy. He finally interjected. “But what does this mean? Will she live?”

The man looked the boy in the eye. “I think she will have a reprieve. At the very least. And then who knows? Now, get back to work.”

When the boy left, happy, assured and hopeful, the man winked at the woman and gave her a cheeky grin.

The woman looked merely satisfied.

The building did get a reprieve. In fact, the reprieve was longer than the time boy actually spent in the city finally. It still stands, equally dilapidated, still beautiful in some shy, dank, unexpected corners.
I was first told about it, when I was a child. My grandmother had once told me about the love a boy had for an old, decrepit building. And then one day, she had taken me for a visit.

She still waits for him”, she had said. “That is why she does not collapse on herself.”

“Why doesn’t he return?” I had asked with the solemn curiosity of a five year old.

My grandmother did not answer. Not that time. Not ever. She simply sighed, with an unreadable expression on her face. An expression that I deciphered many, many years later.

It was the expression of sorrow’s acceptance, a content resignation and an infinitesimal twinge of regret. For love stories that remain incomplete.

The end.

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